“How do I maintain my soldering iron? I see so many different methods online that I find it confusing.”
There at least two reasons for regular cleaning of the solder bit.
The first is to avoid the build-up of carbon and other contaminants which impedes the transfer of heat from the soldering bit to the solder and surfaces to be joined.
Many soldering stations come with a sponge which, when wet, is used to quickly swipe the iron's tip clean. A small amount of fresh solder is usually then applied to the clean tip in a process called tinning.
The second is to maintain the soldering bit in good condition.
The copper that forms the heat-conducting bulk of the soldering iron's tip will dissolve into the molten solder, slowly eroding the tip if it is not properly cleaned. As a result of this, most soldering iron tips are plated to resist wearing down under use. To avoid damaging the plating, abrasives such as sand paper or wire brushes should not be used to clean them. Tips without this plating or where the plating has been broken-through may need to be periodically sanded or filed to keep them smooth.
To avoid using abrasives, cleaning with sal ammoniac is recommended. This comes in a block. You rub the hot soldering iron bit on the surface. As the surface becomes hot, it begins the cleaning process, noted by the smoke rising from the block. When the block under the bit becomes clear, the bit will be clean and can be tinned as above. If this is done at the end of each session of soldering, the bit will last longer and will be ready for soldering immediately when you next need to use it.
Turn off the Iron
The most important element in the deterioration of soldering iron bits is long idle times. This is where you leave the iron on, and not in use, for a long time.
Have everything ready when you start soldering, so the iron will be used continuously, and will not sit there building up heat, while you get ready to use it again. An idle iron will keep heating to its maximum capacity and, without anything to transfer the heat to, it will start burning off the tinning after a short while. If you will not be using the iron for a while turn it off until you are ready again.
If a bit has not been properly tinned, solder will not wet to it. Without solder on the bit heat transfer from the bit to the work surface may become extremely difficult and time consuming, or even impossible.
You will understand that proper wiping and continuous wetting is important and a lot easier than continually having to clean and re-tin the bit, especially at the risk of damage to the plated surface because of accidentally scratching, or over abrading it.
When you notice that an iron is not performing as well as it did when it was new you will find that poor thermal transfer from the element to the work is usually the cause. Improper care and maintenance and the lack of a periodic cleaning of the bit can cause a layer of oxides to form, which will inhibit the transfer of heat through the bit.
These factors are reasons why keeping a film of solder on the bit (tinning) is important in maintaining the long life of the soldering bit.
Cleaning the whole Bit.
Each soldering bit has a shank which fits into a heating collar of one kind or another. The bit should be removed at periodic intervals and the build-up of oxides should be cleaned from the shank. The oxides inhibit the transfer of heat from the elements to the soldering bit. This cleaning work, of course should be done when the iron is cool. You can use fine abrasives on the shank to remove the oxides. You can also make a tube of fine sand paper to clean the inside of the heating collar. This should not be done on ceramic heated soldering irons such as the Hakko.
Another element in the maintenance of soldering irons is to have an iron of high enough wattage to readily melt the solder and be able to reheat fast enough to maintain the necessary melting temperature. An iron with enough power will reduce the strain on the heating element of the iron and the strain on the user while waiting for the iron to catch up.
For example, an 80-watt iron is sufficient to solder with, but it will continue to get hotter, as it has no temperature control until it becomes too hot for stained glass soldering, often causing breaks in the glass. An iron of this type is often used with a rheostat in order to prevent overheating while it is idling. However, this reduces the power to the iron and so increases the time needed to recover sufficient heat to continue soldering. Also, a rheostat only slows the heat up, it does not limit it, so eventually the iron will still become too hot if left to idle.
Most temperature-controlled irons seem to be produced in 100 watts or higher. These irons attempt to maintain a constant temperature. Their ability to do so depends on the wattage and the amount of heat drained from the bit during soldering. The temperature-controlled irons are normally supplied with a 700°F bit (identified by the number 7 stamped on the internal end of the bit) and is sufficient to melt solder without long recovery times. You can obtain bits of different temperature ratings, commonly 800°F and 600°F. The 800°F bit is particularly useful when doing a lot of copper foil soldering, because it recovers to a higher temperature, allowing much more continuous soldering action.
You can also get several sizes of tips for different detail of work. Upon first sight a fine tip would be useful for fine copper foil work.
But fine tips loose heat quickly, requiring the user to wait while the tip regains the required heat. A 6mm to 8mm wide bit is useful to maintain the heat during the running of a long bead. Of course, the bit is wider than the bead being run, but the solder has enough surface tension, while molten, to draw up into a bead the copper foil without spreading – unless too much solder is being applied. Really big bits of 12mm or larger are not practical – long initial heat up times, and too much area is covered, even though there is enough heat stored for really long solder beads.