Building your own radio equipment requires tools for soldering, and physical construction. Everyone has their own preferences, I’ll discuss what I’m currently using. I’ve collected quite the assortment of tools over the years, buying something new usually when the need for it arose with a new project. Some of my tools have been in my possession for over 40 years or more now, a testament to how good things used to be made back then.
Soldering tools have changed quite a bit in the last 40 years. Way before my time soldering irons were huge things, sometimes heated by a gas torch. The heavy iron tip had to hold heat in to allow moving the tool from the torch stand to the work. These things were used for soldering sheet metal, not electronics! Smaller, electric powered versions of these ancient tools made in sizes of as much as 100 watts down to maybe 30 watts were common. These early soldering irons took a long time to heat up, and were rather inefficient.
Then the soldering gun came along. Rather than using a nichrome element to heat up the tip of the iron, the soldering gun had a directly heated tip made of heavy gauge copper. It was heated by passing a low voltage, high amperage current though it, supplied by a step down transformer with a single turn secondary. I still have the Weller Jr. 100 watt soldering gun that my father bought for himself, and then gave to me when I was in my teens. Weller is still around today, and still makes similar soldering guns, but they’ve redesigned the clamps holding the tip to the gun. The new clamps are cheaper to make, but the old system using heavy nuts instead of small set screws worked better. Every time I find an old style Weller gun at a garage sale or ham flea market, I’ll buy it.
Soldering guns were fine for the point to point chassis wiring used on tube type equipment, but when printed circuit construction came along something less powerful was called for. Lower powered soldering irons, sometimes called soldering pencils, were developed. The latest generation having electronic temperature controls are referred to as soldering stations. For surface mount work a hot air gun is used to heat the solder paste that is first applied to the board. The hot air gun is required where a soldering iron cannot get to the small pads often underneath the parts. There are two types of hot air guns, one has the variable speed blower built into the hand held tool, the other has an external air supply connected to the tool via a flexible hose. Both kinds work equally well. Special soldering stations, often called ‘rework stations’ combine a hot air soldering tool and a soldering pencil with separate controls for each.
I have both a Weller WES51 soldering station, and a ZENY 862D hot air rework station. The latter is a Chinese made tool with a hot air gun (blower inside the handheld tool) and a soldering pencil. The unit came with various sized hot air nozzles and soldering iron tips. Both of these tools work reasonably well.
Also required are an assortment of hand tools to cut and bend wire leads, and to hold SMD parts while soldering. I have several different wire cutters, including a flush cutter to snip excess leads close to the circuit board. Various sizes of needle nose pliers, and tweezers, the latter for SMD work. I also have a special cutter for #30 gauge wire wrap wire. Wire wrapping was once a common method of wiring up a prototype circuit using special sockets with long square posts. A wire wrap gun tightly twisted the end of a wire lead around the socket post actually making a better connection that soldering. Parts in SMD, and dirt cheap printed circuit fabs in China have made wire wrapping go the way of the Dodo bird. Wire wrapping wire is still made, it’s an idea gauge for bodge connections on circuit boards, for patching design mistakes in prototypes.
If you make your own circuit boards for one off projects you’ll need a way to drill out the board for through hole parts. While they do sell drill bits made for this with standard 1/8″ shafts, I’ve found the kind usually available on Ebay from China to be quite fragile, often lasting for only a few holes. OTOH, you can buy a set of wire drill bits #61 – #80 that will work as well, and seem to hold up. Also Harbor Freight has a pack of miniature drills in sizes from 0.5mm to 3mm . The four smallest sizes in this set will cover most through hole parts, and the larger sizes will find use as well. At $4 it’s a bargain.
Drilling circuit boards with these tiny wire bits requires a drill press, and a high speed drill motor. A Dremel moto tool with an adjustable chuck (instead of the standard single diameter clamp), mounted in the Dremel drill press is the ideal tool for this work.
I’ve also used a “standard” workbench drill press set on its highest speed (about 3100 rpm). While not as fast as the Dremel (which can get to 10000 rpm!) it does work. Since the usual Jacob’s chuck supplied with these tools won’t clamp down on any bit less than 1/16″, I obtained a small pin vise with a 1/4″ handle, and sawed off the end of the handle. This is used to hold the desired drill bit (#61-#80) and is then chucked in the drill press. The drill press in question is the Harbor Freight 8″ Central Machinery model. It has a nice attached work light on a gooseneck mount. I’ve replaced the supplied bulb with a screw in LED lamp. It’s not a very powerful drill, but works well for this purpose, and for general drilling into aluminum or soft wood.
I also have Harbor Freight’s 29 piece Titanium drill set. They work well into soft wood and metal. As with any stuff from HF, wait till there is a good coupon sale before buying major tools. (Sign up on their website for coupons) I’ve seen the 8″ drill press for as low as $50, and the drill set for $10.