How to Solder: Through-Hole Soldering
What is Solder?
Before learning how to solder, it's always wise to learn a little bit about solder, its history, and the terminology that will be used while discussing it.
Solder, as a word, can be used in two different ways. Solder, the noun, refers to the alloy (a substance composed of two or more metals) that typically comes as a long, thin wire in spools or tubes. Solder, the verb, means to join together two pieces of metal in what is called a solder joint. So, we solder with solder!
Leaded vs. Lead-free Solder -- A Brief History
One of the most important things to be aware of when it comes to solder is that, traditionally, solder was composed of mostly lead (Pb), tin (Sn), and a few other trace metals. This solder is known as leaded solder. As it has come to be known, lead is harmful to humans and can lead to lead poisoning when exposed to large amounts. Unfortunately, lead is also a very useful metal, and it was chosen as the go-to metal for soldering because of its low melting point and ability to create great solder joints.
With the adverse effects of leaded soldering known, some key individuals and countries decided it was best to not use leaded solder anymore. In 2006, the European Union adopted the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS). This directive, stated simply, restricts the use of leaded solder (amongst other materials) in electronics and electrical equipment. With that, the use of lead-free solder became the norm in electronics manufacturing.
Lead-free solder is very similar to its leaded counterpart, except, as the name states, it contains no lead. Instead it is made up of mostly tin and other trace metals, such as silver and copper. This solder is usually marked with the RoHS symbol to let potential buyers know it conforms to the standard.
Choosing the Right Solder for the Job
When it comes to manufacturing electronics, it's best to use lead-free solder to ensure the safety of your products. However, when it comes to you and your electronics, the choice of solder is yours to make. Many people still prefer the use of leaded solder on account of its superb ability to act as a joining agent. Still, others prefer safety over functionality and opt for the lead-free. SparkFun sells both varieties to allow individuals to make that choice for themselves.
Lead-free solder is not without its downfalls. As mentioned, lead was chosen because it performs the best in a situation such as soldering. When you take away the lead, you also take away some of the properties of solder that make it ideal for what it was intended -- joining two pieces of metal. One such property is the melting point. Tin has a higher melting point than lead resulting in more heat needed to achieve flow. And, although tin gets the job done, it sometimes needs a little help. Many lead-free solder variants have what's called a flux core. For now, just know that flux is a chemical agent that aids in the flowing of lead-free solder. While it is possible to use lead-free solder without flux, it makes it much easier to achieve the same effects as with leaded solder. Also, because of the added cost in making lead-free solder, it can sometimes be more expensive than leaded solder.
Aside from choosing leaded or lead-free solder, there are a number of other factors to consider when picking out solder. First, there are tons of other solder compositions out there aside from lead and tin. Check out the Wikipedia solder page for an extensive list of the different types. Second, solder comes in a variety of gauges, or widths. When working with small components, it's often better to use a very thin piece of solder -- the larger then number, the smaller the gauge. For large components, thicker wire is recommended. Last, solder comes in other forms besides wire. When getting into surface-mount soldering, you'll see that solder paste is the form of choice. However, since this is a through-hole soldering tutorial, solder paste will not be discussed in detail.
SparkFun offers many sizes of spools of solder in both leaded and lead-free varieties. Whether you just need enough for one project or are stocking up for the coming winter, SparkFun has what you need. You can visit the Soldering category of the SparkFun catalog for more solder options as well.
Now that you know how to choose the best solder for the job, let's move on to tools and more terminology.