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