Low-cost PCB soldering and inspection station

I'm going to be celebrating the 38th anniversary of my 21st birthday next month (coincidentally, it will also be the 29th anniversary of my 30th birthday). The reason I mention this is that my eyes are not what they used to be. When I'm soldering a circuit board these days, it's only the countless years of practice and self-denial that allow me to achieve anything like the results I'm aiming for.

Actually, the soldering part really isn’t the problem. I can get the solder and the tip of the iron together in the right place at the right time, and — based on the thickness of the wires and what I'm soldering to (e.g., a single pad vs. a honking big ground track) — I know just how long to leave things when I see the solder start to flow. The trick is spotting those little gotchas that can happen to the best of us.

Thus, I was really interested when I ran across a low-cost soldering and inspection station called POLUS on Amazon. The base of the station is mirror-smooth stainless steel. This is accompanied by four holders whose super-powerful magnets allow them to be located anywhere on the base. These little scamps can be adjusted to any board thickness from 0.1 to 5.0 mm, and the fact that they can be placed anywhere on the base means that they can accommodate any board shape from square to rectangle to triangle to circle to… well, anything from 2 to 400mm in size, really.

But the thing that really helps me is the fact that this station comes with a flexible stand that also clamps magnetically to the base. This stand holds a USB microscope featuring a two-megapixel CMOS sensor with a 10 to 500x optical zoom that supports 1600 x 1200 resolution images and videos. Below we see the setup on my kitchen table when I was soldering stackable headers onto an Arduino Nano:


Click Here to see a larger image (Source: Max Maxfield / Embedded.com)

Next we see a closer view of the station showing a single magnetic holder supporting the Arduino Nano:


Click Here to see a larger image (Source: Max Maxfield / Embedded.com)

I know that we can use the USB camera to capture images and videos, but the documentation left something to be desired here, so the image below is actually a screenshot showing the image as it appeared on my display:


Click Here to see a larger image (Source: Max Maxfield / Embedded.com)

In fact, this ties in neatly to my recent column: Basic documentation — is it too much to ask for? I can’t remember how I got there — possibly a piece of paper that came with the station — but I ended up on the creators' website from whence I downloaded a 4-Page Quick Start and an 11-Page User's Manual. On the one hand, these got me up and running; on the other hand, they were not as useful as one might have hoped, as in evidenced by the fact that I still haven't managed to successfully capture any images (excluding my screenshot kluge).

But we digress… The thing to focus on here is the quality of my solder joints (thank you, thank you, I'll be playing here all week). The ragged crack between the two headers towards the bottom right of the above image is explained by the fact that I was obliged to use portions of two headers. To be honest, this is barely visible in the real world (or maybe that's just another reflection of my deteriorating eyesight). I was horrified when I saw how gruesome it looks in this image, but I just took another look at the board and it really doesn’t look too bad.

The image below shows an early incarnation of the bottom side of the board that will be used to control our Caveman Diorama. This is going to boast six Arduino Nanos along with a Simblee that will be used to control everything via Bluetooth from my iPad (see Controlling IoT devices with mobile platforms — Creating hierarchical menus ).


Click Here to see a larger image (Source: Max Maxfield / Embedded.com)

And, last but not least, the image below is another screenshot from the USB microscope showing a close-up of the solder joints on the bottom of this board:


Click Here to see a larger image (Source: Max Maxfield / Embedded.com)

In addition to using the magnetic stand to hold the USB microscope and then sliding the board underneath it, you can also leave the board where it is and maneuver the microscope by hand.

I'm a firm believer that every time you let a problem slip past you and you fail to detect it until the next downstream breakpoint, it will cost you 10X more (in terms of time, money, or any other metric you care to mention) to identify the little scamp and fix it. Thus, the bottom line is that, at $97 (plus another $5 shipping and handling), I think this little beauty is going to prove to be worth its weight in gold to me.

If you don’t want the microscope, but you are interested in the base and magnetic holders, these folks also offer a smaller soldering station. Alternatively, if you aren't bothered by the magnetic holders, but you are tempted by a microscope, I just saw this 1 to 600X magnification USB microscope, which appears to be a bargain at only $35.90 (with free shipping) on Amazon Prime, but I don’t have one so I can't say how good it is.

What say you? Have you noticed any deterioration in your soldering senses? If so, are there any tools and techniques you would recommend to the rest of us?

11 thoughts on “Low-cost PCB soldering and inspection station

  1. “This is something that causes one to say “Oh Shiny!” and have it be the literal truth.nnThis does look like a very nice setup. Much less expensive and looks like its easier to use than the setup I have. At that price I'm tempted.nnI managed to find

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  2. “The weird thing is that I have the PDF docs on my system, but I can't recall where I got them from.nnActually, I just realize that they came in a compressed ZIP file along with the application itself — but I can't recall where I got that ZIP file from.

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  3. “Nice find, Max!nWe've been using Android tablets adjacent to our assembly stations to display BOM's, etc. Think there's any chance that there might be an Android app that supports the camera? That would be sweet!!”

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  4. “Hi RicknThere is a listing for it on ebay atnnhttp://www.ebay.com/itm/Universal-PCB-Holder-with-Integrated-High-Definition-Microscope-Any-PCB-Shape-/171989820086?hash=item280b6462b6:g:EnoAAOSwf-VWU6yBnnThey have responded to questions there.n”

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  5. “How is the focal length on the microscope? Do you feel that the microscope is sufficiently out of the way to use an iron or a fat hot air gun while still having a useful image to check in real time? That has been an issue with some of the USB microscopes

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  6. “I think the microscope is sufficiently out of the way for anything I do with an iron or hot air gun — on the Amazon page/description they say “Very high temperature of workpiece (PCB) – 660F (350C)”.nnRe the image — the one on the screen reflects w

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