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 must 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 bits shank can cause a layer of oxides, which will inhibit the transfer of heat through the bit. Always ensure plug style bits are properly seated into the elements before heating the iron. If a bit is not inserted fully into the element there may be a gap behind the bit. This gap can cause a hot spot within the element causing a premature failure of the soldering iron.
Courtesy of American Beauty Tools