Early Adventures in Electronics

Jam's picture

So, I have a confession to make.  I've never soldered anything in my life. I'm not sure exactly how I skipped this developmental step.  My parents were very supportive in my early quests to learn sciency things: I had a microscope, lego, access to simple woodworking tools... all that wonderful stuff... but no electronics kits. Probably because, as the comic suggests, I'm one of the clumsiest people on the planet. Maybe their house insurance didn't cover offspring idiocy.

Whatever the reason, I managed to go through all of my childhood and even several university electrical courses without ever soldering anything! (We always used breadboards)  These days I've got the itch to test my personal boundaries and try new things, so I marched down to the local electronics shop and bought an assortment of things, DETERMINED to try soldering something together. If my destiny is to fail spectacularly, so be it!

Let's back up for a moment. In case we have non-techies in the audience, soldering (pronounced "SAW-tering" in US English) is the process of joining a conductive material to electronic components so electrons can flow between them. (I believe it was lead at first but it's now a form of... tin?)

An electronic circuit can't work without a continuous path of metal. The solder acts as a bridge between components (like the battery, resistors, LEDs) and the circuitboard (which has paths of metal embedded into it).

Back to the story, I'd purchased the running microbug kit, pictured above. Any eight year old could probably put this together, so it seemed like a good place to start.

Here's my workstation.  The red handled thing is the soldering iron. The complete instructions are laid out there. To be as multi-lingual as possible, all of the steps are spelled out in crude pictograms. Some are easier to understand than others. Reminds me a bit of origami instructions! The metal tube-looking thing is a coil of solder that came with the iron. I'm sure I'll need more soon!

Here are the two types of resistors used in this circuit.  The little coloured lines are a code for resistance value (Ohms). According to the kit, brown-black-brown is 100 and red-red-brown is 220.  I wasn't really interested in verifying that, I just wanted to get to THE BURNING

Stick it in the appropriate slots and feed the wires through... flip the circuit board over...

... and there we go! My first ever solder. I really can't tell if these are good or not, they are probably terrible. I tried really hard to get the fabled "volcano shape" but I was also really worried about not having enough solder to make the connection. So I erred on the side of caution and put probably way more solder than I needed.

Repeat as directed

Once the resistors are down, the kit instructs you to solder down the fancier components... transistors, a switch, and these little doohickies that I learned later are light sensors! (in the kit they were just referred to as 'LDR'. NOW I KNOW)

LEDs. I learned that the SHORT leg is the cathode, and you need to make sure that goes in the BLACK side of the indicated hole. I'm sure I will screw that up someday. Mayber there's a mnemonic. Short-Cathode-Black. ShCaBl. The short black cat jumped in first... this is terrible nevermind.

Definitely the most exciting part of the kit for me were these little motors. Motors!! They're so adorable... Most of the motors I deal with are the size of an ottoman or larger (hundreds of horsepower), so it's exciting being able to hold one in the palm of my hand.

The instructions had a strange pictogram of what looked like a police baton pointing to the sides of the motor. I figured out that they wanted me to use a metal file to roughen up the sides so solder would stick to it. I just roughed it up with my snips since I didn't have a metal file, seemed to work ok. Getting them to stay at the weird angle (as pictured) was a challenge, I needed like six hands to do this!

Most of the components are down now, including the little motors. As you can see there are a variety of solders, probably ranging from terrible to oh-God-why in quality. By the end of it, the best technique for soldering seemed to be a sort of chopping of the solder wire a few mms away from the target. This seemed to reduce runaway solder. If you miss, the solder cools into a neat little sphere that you then have to chase around the board with the tip of your iron. Fun, in a way, but I can tell this is not ideal.

This was the hardest part for me, bending the connector wire to the lead and through the hole to the rest of the board. Very difficult to bend, I was certain I was going to break something.

... but I did it!

In the end, I put the batteries in this sucker and... well... it did something! But I screwed up in several places. First, the switch didn't work.  I think this is because the three connections were touching a little. It was an accident! I tried to slice them apart and clean it up a bit, but I guess it was a lost cause :(

Beyond that, only half of the circuit seems to be working... One motor and LED (on the same side) don't work, so when you turn it on the poor thing just vibrates awkwardly in circles. The light sensor worked, though, and I had fun shielding it with my hands and uncovering it.

So, all in all a noble failure, I think. I learned a lot considering I had to get over my fear of burning myself horribly and I'd never soldered anything ever. I'm tempted to buy the same kit and try again, but I'll probably just buy a different kit.  I WILL MASTER THIS YET

Comments

courtarro's picture
courtarro
0

I first learned to solder in my last few weeks earning my EE degree, because it felt funny knowing I could graduate without such skills. I took a tutorial from a lab manager and we did a kit like this. One of the biggest tricks he taught us was to poke each component all the way through, then bend the leads outward (in the form of a V) so that the component holds itself steady. If it's moving while you apply solder, you'll get a "cold" joint that's brittle and could fail in the future ... you know, since you're going to be sending these kits into space.

There are some photos of the V trick on this tutorial I found online, about halfway down the page: http://www.aaroncake.net/electronics/solder.htm

Jam's picture
Jam
1

Nice tutorial!! Thanks :)

I probably could have looked one up before trying, but I'm a kinesthetic learner (I learn by failing :P)

I also kind of feel funny having graduated without learning this. I mean, I graduated Mech, granted, but... yeah.

drake7707's picture
drake7707
0

Stay motivated and keep trying :), by the time you have mastered it you'll be able to create a bug army to take over the world!

 

This inspires me to crank out my physics Serway book and give it another shot (after failing every physics course I ever had), I refuse to believe that someone can't do something, no matter how long it takes :) (sadly I lose my motivation really fast :p)

Jam's picture
Jam
0

Sometimes it's the angle! I couldn't figure out circuits for the life of me before someone taught me some water analogies.

vibe1535's picture
vibe1535
0

"Let's back up for a moment. In case we have non-techies in the audience, soldering (pronounced "SAW-tering" in US English) is the process of joining a conductive material to electronic components so electrons can flow between them."

That explaination was also good for me as a student of engineering without english as my native tounge. (I first read the post on my phone, so I could not look for a translation on the interwebs, but from what I quoted I realised the translation.)

Jam's picture
Jam
0

Cool, I'm glad :D

kriztov
0

Hey that's a pretty good start. Dont be shy about pulling the resistors all the way in though. One good trick is to bend the legs outward once inserted in the holes, that wedges the component in and stops it from sliding out.

kriztov
0

Of course that's before you solder, after all once soldered you're gonna trim off the legs.

Jam's picture
Jam
0

I was worried about breaking the resistors, there were no spares. Of course this was a timid first try, I'll probably get better as I learn how far they bend before they break >:D

ffejery
0

They're usually fairly resilient - and also one of the few things that are still "a dime a dozen" (except at RadioShack/The Source, where it's "$10 and your first-born for a half-dozen"). You might find something like this[0] handy, although I haven't personally tried them.

[0]: http://evilmadscience.com/partsmenu/68-bender

Fuseblower's picture
Fuseblower
0

Well, they're lumps of tinned copper. So they bend a long way, and round pretty tight bends, but they don't do it many times before metal fatigue (remember that?) sets in... and then you need a new one. Try not to bend them too close to the body - that's never good news, because it's about the weakest point.

Fuseblower's picture
Fuseblower
0

Oh, and one other thing about soldering - try wearing one of those head magnifiers whilst you do it. You get to see exactly what you are doing in more detail, and you get better control over the process. It's about the fastest way of improving your ability that there is!

Jam's picture
Jam
0

I did need to put on my glasses :(

 

Why do I always choose activities that are making me blind!!

Fuseblower's picture
Fuseblower
0

Hmm... probably for the same reason that people climb mountains, or jump out of perfectly serviceable aircraft.

In other words, because you can!

vibe1535's picture
vibe1535
0

About the tin used: as a coincidence we had a look at the phase diagram of lead/tin at lecture today. The lecturer mentioned that it was previously used in order to decide the properties of "soldering tin". However, due to lead being bad it has been replaced (with nickel if I recall correctly).

Also (a bit off topic), when I got home today I was overjoyed by finding "We are the engineers" Artist Ed #64 in the mailbox. Of course I have already read it from cover to cover. I was really glad to read the episode on pages 64 and 65 (baking the steel). What I should be doing at the moment is reading instructions for looking at such things in the microscope tomorrow.

Even more off topic: "Bananaphone" is now playing on repeat...

PurpleOak's picture
PurpleOak
0

Congrats on your adventures in Soldering! My university is going to have a soldering workshop soon and I'm planning on attending!

Also, this post finally got me to register after reading the comic for about two years!

Red's picture
Red
0

High on my list of things to do before I die is to learn to weld. I'm surrounded by welders at work, and I'm jealous.

But that's something that I will probably take lessons for. Due to my propensity for electircal fires, I don't want to teach myself how to use crazy amounts of current to melt metal.

I'm weird like that.

Pierre Lebeaupin's picture
Pierre Lebeaupin
0

Ah, my dear Jam, welcome to our fantastic world of electronics! (says the guy who graduated in electronics but only had programming jobs… though targeting embedded devices, and you'd much better come from electronics than from CS to program these)

Don't feel bad, even electronics engineers don't solder all that much either: prototypes are typically wire-wrapped (fun times); I did some soldering in junior high school (like all other students), and didn't do it again until my second year of electronics school! I own an iron only because I don't think one can call oneself an electronics engineer if one doesn't own one. Its major use so far has been to repair various light dimmers (the inductances of these buggers are pretty heavy and typically not very well fastened, and the solder that holds them tends to break as a result), though it has done the odd circuit repair from time to time.

"(I believe it was lead at first but it's now a form of... tin?)"

Solder used to be an alloy of tin and lead (60% tin/40% lead, on the roll I still own), but the lead is now gone after RoHS (seems it's not 100% tin now, though… according to the ones I see on RadioSpares, there's a tiny proportion of silver and copper, probably for easier melting).

I don't know if you've been told by the seller, the iron manual, or the kit, but an important thing when soldering is to make sure to heat both the component leg and the circuit path with the iron, before even putting the solder: otherwise, the solder will suddenly freeze when touching these metal bits, only making contact on a few points, while you want the solder to spread on them. Don't worry though, you'll get the hang of it with practice.

"LEDs. I learned that the SHORT leg is the cathode, and you need to make sure that goes in the BLACK side of the indicated hole."

Using the short leg to recognize the cathode is fine and all, but what do you do when both legs have been shortened to the same length? Can happen with a component you recycled from a previous project, for instance. A more reliable way to tell the cathode is the fact the cathode side of the LED has a flat depression. It's shown on the board, if you look closely.

"I needed like six hands to do this!"

Why, one normally uses one's feet to hold the circuit, while soldering with the iron held by the teeth… Just kidding; most people buy a stand to hold the circuit, though it has to be heavy enough itself to counter the weight (may be even more a problem in this case with the motors).

(yeah, commenting a full 4 days after the post… that'll teach me to come only when there's a new comic)

sweeks's picture
sweeks
0

Lead free solder is a mix of tin, silver and copper and it sucks big time

Nikky Holmes
0

My best advice is to use a multimeter to check the connections in your circuit for continuity. There will be a setting on most multimeters that looks like a little speaker. Put the multimeter probes accross what needs to be tested (say from one leg of your resistor to the line it should be connected to) and a buzzer should sound if they are connected. To check you have the right setting, just place the probes together to hear the buzzer. It is how we find most of our circuit issues. (They are also a good way of finding what voltages and currents are flowing through your components)

The trick I use to get nice soldered joints is to pull the components in snugly (but gently!) bending the legs a little to help them stay in place. I then heat up the leg of the component and the pad on the PCB a little before I briefly place the solder wire onto the joint to let it flow into place. To be honest, practice makes perfect!

And always wear a headband when soldering if you have those fringey bits which refuse to be tied back, I've burnt my hair a couple of times when soldering fiddly things for Team Projects at Uni.

sakuraruby's picture
sakuraruby
0

Bahaha

I'm not in engineering or any electronic thingy classes

 

But we're using soldering things...in art class

 

We're making bird models out of soda cans :D

 

They're gonna be awesome

harving's picture
harving
0

I learn to solder mmm maybe at five years old,  i was helping my dad, he was a TV repairman, or Electronic Technician, as his degree says, and have a lot of burning by an iron solder, or by melted droplets of tin (Estaño). But electronic's was not for me :D, nice to know about your soldering adventures.

Sudhir K's picture
Sudhir K
0

Oh man truly it seem awesome but I guess even I am not in electronics engineering too, I would love to join, I have even approached raylogic.in , I found it very interesting and it has a lot of talent.

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