How-To: Make a surface mount soldering iron

Modding today's hardware often means moving or removing tiny surface mount components, and using a standard soldering iron feels about as effective as using a hammer to kill a fly. If buying an expensive reflow workstations seems like overkill to overclock your laptop, check out today's How-To where we'll build a simple reflow tool for under $20. Don't know what we're talking about? Well, you might want to click on anyway, it's an impressive feat nonetheless that might want to get you installing particular chips on particular game consoles (or not).

For today's How-To:

You'll need:

  • Radio-Shack de-soldering Iron ($10)

  • Small fish tank air pump ($7)

  • Six to eight feet of vinyl fish tank air hose ($1)

  • De-soldering braid or steel wool

  • Zip ties

Modify the de-soldering iron

The tip of the iron needs a little bit of work to efficiently heat the air flow. We lightly pinched the tip of the tip with our vice. Crushing the tip seemed to help direct the airflow, but we're not calling it necessary. Let us know what works best for you.

The next trick is to add some heat exchanging material to the tip of the iron. Cut off a length of de-soldering braid or get a small bunch of steel wool. The braid is copper, so it should conduct heat more efficiently.

Roll up the braid/wool and lightly stuff it into the tip of the iron. Don't push so hard that you restrict the air flow to much. The material will slow down the air flow slightly, and help radiate the heat of the iron into the air. Gently re-install the tip, it's made of soft metal.

Get airflow to the iron

Since we don't have any heat resistant tubing, we used the suction bulb as a bulky, but simple heat insulator. Drill a hole in the end of the bulb with a 5/32 inch drill bit or something similar. The hole needs to be round for a good seal.

Insert the tube

Cutting the end of the vinyl tubing at a 45 degree angle will help a bit. Wet the end of the tube lightly and push the end into the hole you drilled in the bulb. Attach the other end of the tube to the outlet on the air pump. To clean things up, secure the airhose to the iron and along the power line with the zip ties. Later we replaced the zip tie on the handle with some stylish red electrical tape.

Hot stuff

To use the gun effectively, allow the iron a sufficient warm up time without turning on the air pump. Once it's toasty, plug in the air pump and it'll be ready to go. In order to get a feel for the way the heat transfer works, we tried out our gun on a few workbench materials.

Heat shrink tubing

The tubing shrinks instantly with none of the burn marks we gotten with more primative methods.

Hot glue

If you've ever used a soldering iron to slice through some stubborn hot glue, you'll love this trick.
Hot glue is great, but sometimes it gets in the way. The heated air liquifies the hot glue without burning it.

Surface mount:

But what about actually soldering surface mount components? Our solder paste is on order, so we had to test it on a pre-assembled board. It easily melts the solder joints on this chip.


Working with surface mount hardware has been a recurring challenge for us. We hate to admit it, but we may have actually resorted to crushing certain SMD resistors to enable some features in our hardware. Aside from the mad scientist look of our new tool, we can't wait to offer to mod someone's console with, um, parts from the fish tank. And that, friends, is reason enough to go through with this How-To.

Yes, they built one before over at gideontech. Ours won't melt the hose; Nope, we didn't read yours first.
[Thanks GideonX]

To really give credit for the earliest one we could dig up, check out this one from 2001. [Via]

If you don't like buying stuff from RadioShack, they rolled their own after sacrificing the microwave for science. [Via]