A Humbling Experience

By Greg Harris

The idea of a New Year's resolution to learn how to solder was not mine, rather an idea given to me by my team. Despite having a long career with high technology companies, I have little practical experience with the products Jameco sells. If you add to that a general lack of aptitude for anything that requires a tool, it seemed obvious to the team that this resolution was an electronic component comedy just waiting to happen.

Greg's Tool Kit:
Tech Tips: Soldering for Beginners
Learn to Solder with Jameco
Community Forum: Soldering Tips

I sent out an email announcing my plan to shed my soldering virginity. I asked our customers for practical soldering tips and many of Jameco's loyal customers obliged with some very thoughtful beginner soldering tips.

The emails I remember most went like this:
  • "Try not to start a fire."
  • "Have a fire extinguisher handy."
  • "Everyone burns themselves, but most don't leave a permanent mark."
  • "Please don't burn down Jameco, we need you guys."
  • "Make sure to wear long pants because solder on bare legs hurts."
I guess I really wasn't sure what I was getting myself into, but – to use a poker term – I was pot committed. I couldn't admit I was having second thoughts, because I felt like I had hundreds of thousands of people out there waiting to see if I would follow through.

As the solder hour drew near, the buzz in the office became deafening. Seemingly everyone had a reason to visit the room where I would be learning how to solder. Presumably they were there for a good laugh at my expense.

Unlike most beginners, I was lucky enough to have an electronics expert with me. Jameco's Product Marketing Engineer Rob Cong was by my side teaching me everything I needed to know. Rob carefully reviewed all the components and taught me that the pretty colors on resistors actually mean something, that the polarity of capacitors is important and that the thing I called a "dial" was really a potentiometer. As we began to solder, Rob talked me through every step and carefully watched over me. He critiqued every solder joint and was the source of constant nagging to "tin your tip, tin your tip!"

I can't say I was a good student. My solder joints didn't look like happy little volcanoes and my blobs were either too big or too small. When I clipped off the excess wire, Rob was horrified that I failed to prevent the wire from flying across the room and potentially poking an eye out.

I did get a much better understanding for many of the electronics tools that we sell. From a fume extractor to a variable temperature soldering station to even a third hand, all the pieces started falling into place. At the same time, I concluded soldering was a hobby for young eyes or those who posses powerful reading glasses.

When it came time to plug in the 9 volt battery and test my work, I was both excited and nervous. Rob seemed very confident that I had completed the project. When it didn't work he seemed perplexed and I was devastated. Rob quickly determined that one component was soldered in backwards and was happy to teach me the art of desoldering, which was much harder for me. I couldn't quite figure out how to make the solder wick work and at one point I pleaded with someone to find me a solder sucker.

The second attempt also resulted in failure. I was starting to expect as much and began to convince myself that I was simply not capable of completing this project. I scanned the room looking for someone to tell me it was OK to quit. No one spoke up. I escaped to the men's room to regroup leaving the electrical problem for Rob to debug.

Upon my return, Rob found yet another teaching moment when he explained the concept of a jumper wire and its importance in completing the circuit. Satisfied that "we" had found the problem, I realized I was only a couple of snips and strips away from finishing the project. The third time was a charm. When the lights flashed and the siren wailed, I celebrated my soldering success.

Yes, I had a lot of help, but all the pushing and prodding by my team was worth it. I can now say that there's nothing like the thrill of seeing, hearing and feeling a circuit successfully connected. When I told my wife about my success (conveniently forgetting to mention the two failures and the remedial help I got along the way) and she said, "They didn't really let you near a soldering iron did they?" Yes they did. I did't burn anything – including myself – and I have the evidence to prove it.

During my lesson, we used these products:

Elenco Learn to Solder Practice Kit
Elenco Learn to Solder Practice Kit (without iron)
60W Mini-Type Digital Soldering Station
PanaVise Circuit Board Holder
1/32" Sharp Conical Replacement Soldering Tip
.05" Diameter 60/40 Solder
Tool Wire Stripper
120V Benchtop Smoke Absorber Fume Extractor
Extech Digital Multimeter

Here's some more great DIY electronics projects to get started on your own soldering adventures:

Circuit Skills #5 – Easy LED Color Organ Kit
Digital Multimeter Starter Kit
Electronic Decision Maker Kit
Love Tester Kit with 10 LEDs
Bulbdial LED Clock