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Teaching a six (well, almost seven) year old to solder

Pete Brown - 29 November 2012

As a geek, there are a number of milestones or rites of passage for children:

  • First drawing of any vehicle with more than three guns
  • First original LEGO model
  • First time you figure out how to turn on the Xbox and get into a game without help
  • First time you solder something
  • First program written
  • First cosplay at a geek convention
  • First computer you build from parts
  • First date with someone who tolerates nerds or even out-nerds you

There are many, many more, especially depending upon the class of nerd/geek. Anyway, you get the picture. :)

My son sees me solder things all the time, and has always been interested. However, a soldering iron is something that, like your first pocketknife, requires a level of respect and self-preservation when using.

Tonight, I felt he was ready for it, so we worked on his first soldering project.  The kit chosen is the Parallax S2 Robot Badge. This is a nice little "learn to solder" kit which gives you something interesting at the end: a model robot with a button that you press to make an RGB LED cycle through colors.

There are lots of other "learn to solder" kits, but most of them are more like practicing your writing by repeating scores of the same letter on a page until your hand cramps up; at the end, what you have to show for it is hardly inspiring and not even remotely interesting.

This kit has a grand total of nine solder joints, including some challenges:

  • LEDs are easy to burn out if you heat them up too long
  • The large metal battery holder is a giant heat sink, so it takes a totally different soldering style.
  • All the joints are small with relatively small solder pads (except on the opposite sides .. the large pads on on the wrong side, oddly)

But, what you get out of it at the end is this:

image image

And more importantly, this:

image image image

Note that I did only one solder joint myself. Ben did the rest, including clipping the leads, all under my close supervision. The only thing he needed me to do was push the wheels on because they're a pretty tight fit (note that they don't rotate).

Before building this, I showed him how to solder using a resistor and a broken PCB I had. I did one side, he did the other. That was the only prep other than discussing the safe use of the iron (never take your eye off the tip, always place it in the holder when done, never get distracted, never drop it or put it down on the table, etc.)

All in all, a very worthwhile experiment that he showed surprising aptitude at.

If you're looking for a good kit to use to learn to solder, this kit, plus a fine tip iron and fine solder, is a really good choice and a very fine geek bonding moment.

posted by Pete Brown on Thursday, November 29, 2012
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3 comments for “Teaching a six (well, almost seven) year old to solder”

  1. Petesays:
    One remark given feedback from twitter etc. What makes something like this difficult is almost always poor equipment. If you have one of those irons that has a big tip and plugs right into the wall, you'll fail. If you're using solder that's thicker than kite string, you're setting yourself up for failure. It's like anything else in life where you need a certain level of equipment (which isn't expensive) before the task is reasonable.

    You need a soldering iron with a temperature control so you can set it (in my case) to 640-670F. Then you need the thinnest solder you can find. With the fat stuff, you'll apply WAY too much solder to the joints.

    If possible, use Kester solder. The stuff at Radio Shack will make a huge mess of your board.

    Hope this helps someone.

  2. Peter Wonesays:
    I find I like a gas iron with the heat up fairly high and a conical tip. Slide it up the track to push on the component lead, a pause of a little less than a second and a dab with the solder. Sometimes I tap the other side of the junction to flow more solder around.

    The key here is that heat takes time to flow. With the iron very hot I can (briefly) get the leads and pad very hot without cooking the component, which gives excellent wetting. I daresay it's not a technique for novices. I have a friend who uses a two iron variation on this to sweat SMT devices on.

    Much more interesting than my soldering prowess is the new FPGA Netduino shield. Paired with the new Netduino Plus 2, it means realtime control systems are now within reach of the hobbyist. I noticed you haven't posted anything about it so I thought I better bring it to your attention. :)

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