I had just gotten back from a trip to Korea, conveniently, on the day of the Presidential Inauguration. I had been burying the politics of 2016 for some time, as the majority of facebook debates seemed to glide asymptotically toward a resolution. It was during this time of “switching off” that I thought that engaging in political discourse on facebook was the same as playing Global Thermo-Nuclear War in the 1983 movie “War Games”. In both scenarios, the words of the confused Artificial Intelligence seemed strangely wise: “The only winning move is not to play”.
I didn’t play, for a while at least, that is until I groggily attempted to reset my body clock after being 14 hours askew. Lying in a half awake, half asleep stupor, I tuned into the White House Press Secretary response to the Million-Woman March. Big Mistake. Instead of using up the precious space of this blog for political diatribes, I’ll just briefly mention that the falsehoods coming out of the Press Secretary had little direct impact on me, but did influence what I would be doing the rest of the afternoon: I was going to turn away from the noxious fuming of a politico, and dive head first into the noxious fumes of an electrician. I had put it off for sometime, but I was going to be somewhat productive over the afternoon by practicing soldering.
I’m almost to the teens of the experiments in my Make: Electronics book, but before I could make that leap into the angst-ridden adolescence of Electriciandom, I had to cut my teeth on basic soldering. The tools required were minimal.
- Make: Electronics (second edition)
- Helping Hand
- Soldering Iron (variable watt)
I lucked out for this skill builder, as there was a time when I was younger when the giant fighting robots of Battletech were all of the rage; naturally I stole my fathers soldering iron in an attempt to prevent a a repeat of the great gluing of the fingers of 1989. I didn’t quite know what I was doing when I was attempting to solder two tiny pieces of glorious fighting robot together, but it worked without burns (or glued fingers), and the knowledge of the tools stuck with me until today; or so I thought.
After I unpacked all of the tools, I laid them neatly out on the coffee table and began to work. I took two pieces of wire and stripped them down and carefully placed them in the helping hand so that the exposed wires formed an “X” shape. I then carefully placed the tip of the soldering iron against the joint of the wires. After a few seconds I brought the solder to the joint until a tiny liquid ball of metal coalesced around the intersection of wires. I blew gently on the joint until cooled, then picked it up and tested its strength.
I must have done something right, because I couldn’t break the joint. It was almost perfect; had I not melted some of the insulating rubber of the wires, I could have moved to the next task, happy and confident in my instant mastery of a new skill. But I did melt the rubber, which means that I have the potential for damaging components as I solder in tighter and more difficult spaces. I still needed work.
I repeated the process for the next 30 minutes, soldering and joining, joining and soldering, to the genuine excitement of my 6 year old and the mild irritation of my wife (I was interrupting a new season of Survivor that we had agreed to watch together). After a couple of repetitions,I’m not a pro, but I did learn a few things:
- Soldering is not difficult, and is acceptable to even the most ham-fisted of amateurs.
- I didn’t keel over and die from the chemical fumes.
- Soldering irons should be treated with respect around pets and children. I’m still trying to coax Jack to try it out, but understandably, he is put off by things that “burn”
- Don’t carry solder to the joint. I had marginal success when I melted the solder on the iron tip and “carried” it over to the joint. I had the best success when I melted the solder directly on the joint.
- There is a Goldilocks effect in soldering. Too much heat and I can damage everything around the joint, too little heat and the joint isn’t tough enough. Likewise, too much solder and I can cause a short in the completed circuit, too little and the connection may not be enough.
- Don’t let carbon build up on the iron. I noticed that toward the end of my Soldering endeavor, bits of black carbon built up on the tip, and it was taking longer to heat up the joints. The carbon was blocking the transfer of heat.
- Test the joint. If you did it correctly, the joint will be strong. If not, clean it up and start over again.
After I soldered my last joint, I briefly reflected on the day: I suspect I learned my lesson about tuning back into politics, in fact, as I type this, there is a seething, frothing debate that is raging through facebooks portion of cyberspace; but the avoidance of news networks has taught me that if I am going to subject myself to noxious fumes, it is better to be the one making them… with a soldering iron.