How To Solder

Posted on by Richard Irons

Completed-Solder-Joint
I often find that, when talking to someone who wants to change their pickups, they’re so worried about the soldering aspect that they’re either completely put off, or they decide they’ll need to to pay a tech (or perhaps me) to install them. While of course I’m happy to help, and maybe collect a little beer money, it’s really not necessary. Yes, soldering can be an amazingly complicated and difficult skill, when we’re talking about tiny printed circuit boards and incredibly sensitive components. But inside a guitar, we have quite thick wires, which connect to nice big terminals – usually in the form of looped lugs. We have plenty of space. And most of the components we use are very difficult to damage – in most cases, the worst possible result of a mistake is that we need to unsolder something, clean it up, and do it again.

In this article I’ll take you through the various things you’ll need to know about soldering to work on your guitar. You’ll need to know how to protect your guitar, how to solder to lugs, how to de-solder wires, how to clean contacts,and how to solder to the back of a pot. But first, lets make sure we’ve got the right equipment.

Equipment

Soldering IronFirstly, you’ll need a soldering iron. It doesn’t need to be expensive, although if you’re doing a lot of soldering, you might like to get a temperature-controlled soldering iron. A 25W iron isn’t really powerful enough. I do all my soldering with a 40W iron, which is just right. A chisel tip or pencil tip are both fine – it’s more a matter of what works best for you. Start with a chisel tip if you’re not sure. A soldering stand is essential, as is a sponge for cleaning the tip.

Like a lot of things in guitar wiring, the type of solder you use attracts a reasonable amount of superstition regarding tone. Take it from me – you don’t need to worry. Just get something that is called “solder” and you will be fine. For guitar work, thin solder is better than a thicker type. We’re talking less than a millimetre in diameter, ideally.

Like a minor cast member in the movie Total Recall, soldering can make you wish you had three hands. You’ll probably do just fine with two, but if you do find you’re having trouble, I recommend getting a “helping hand” – basically a stand that has some moveable clips on it. You can use it to hold your work in the desired position, leaving your hands free for the task at hand.

Other equipment I like to have to hand: tweezers, needle-nosed pliers, a solder pump and some solder braid.

Protecting your guitar

When you’re working with solder, occasionally a small drop of hot solder will “escape”. If this lands on the finish of your guitar it will instantly make a hole. So, before you do any soldering, put rags or thick card all around the guitar and make sure they’re secure. If there’s a guitar you’re doing a lot of work on, or you’re going to be soldering in a lot of the same type of guitar, you could make a “soldering shield” for that guitar. This is a piece of thick card big enough to cover a decent area of the guitar, with a hole cut in it the same shape as the wiring cavity. It can come in very handy.

While we’re on the subject of protection, it’s also worth wearing safety goggles – at least until you’re confident you’re in control of your solder.

Soldering iron care

The tip of your soldering iron should always be clean and shiny before you use it to do any soldering. If it’s dull and dark, heat it up and wipe it on a wet sponge. If this still doesn’t help, you can melt some flux-core solder on to the tip and then wipe it, which will work, or you can clean it with flux, or a specialised soldering cleaner.

It’s important to note, though, that making the iron completely clean of all substances is what makes it go dull. The iron is oxidising, which is what makes it go dark. You need to keep a tiny bit of solder coating on the tip – this is known as “tinning” the tip.

When you turn your soldering iron off, it’s likely that it will go dull again as you let it cool. If you want to avoid this, you can continuously wipe it on your sponge until it is completely cool, which will stop the thin coat of rust from forming.

Transferring heat from your soldering iron

Once you have a clean and shiny tip, you are well-placed to start soldering. It’s important to note that the point of the soldering iron is to get your other components hot – not to melt solder itself. Depending on the shape of the tip you’re using, and the shape of the components you’re heating, you may have a little trouble. A useful tip is that you can apply a tiny drop of solder to the tip of the iron, which, when pressed against the component, will mold itself to the component’s shape and transfer heat much more quickly. However, you need to be aware that letting a blob of solder stay hot for a long time will oxidise the solder and ruin it. This follows on into everything you do – don’t apply heat for long periods of time. If after a few seconds you find you can’t get the job done, remove the heat and regroup.

Making a solder joint

OK, here we are at the part where we solder a wire to a contact. The most important thing to remember here is that solder isn’t glue. You shouldn’t use it to fill a gap between two pieces of metal, and you shouldn’t try to apply it to both surfaces and stick them together. You should think of it as being added security for an already-functional mechanical joint.

Before you bring the end of a wire to a component, you need to tin the end. Twist the strands together, apply the iron to the wire, and then when it’s hot enough, take a little solder to the wire as well. It will quickly soak into the strands of the wire. Apply as little solder as possible here – the aim is simply to hold the strands together and provide a surface that solder will readily flow to. For “pushback” cloth-covered wire and single-core bell wire, tinning is less important, but for multi-strand wire it’s crucial.

Most components in guitars have solder lugs – they’re little loops of metal that are incredibly handy, because they give you a “hook” you can use. Poke the wire through using your fingers, or tweezers if necessary, and bend it so that it holds steady. The wire should be firmly touching the contact, not hovering somewhere near it. Bring in the soldering iron and use it to heat both the wire and the lug. Once they are hot, you can feed a little solder into the joint – not on to the iron! You don’t need loads of solder – an ideal solder joint will be shiny and small, and you may even be able to still see the individual strands of wire through the solder. Once you have solder in there, remove the heat.

It’s important that nothing moves while the solder is liquid. If anything does move, you’ll see the joint go dull. This is a dry solder joint and it will cause you trouble, if not immediately, then soon. Re-do it now instead of having to strip the guitar down again in six months’ time!

De-soldering

If you’re switching pickups, rather than wiring a new guitar, then your first job with the iron is going to be removing the old wires. This is easier than soldering – all you really have to do is melt the solder that’s already there, and, while it’s still liquid, remove the wire. I like to do this by getting a grip on the wire I’m removing with some pliers first, and applying just a little tension. Like this, you can feel when the solder has melted and just pull the wire away.

Cleaning Contacts

Since you’re likely to be soldering to the contact from which you just removed a wire, it will help you to clean the contact if there’s a lot of solder left on it. For example, if you’re working on a volume pot, the three lugs have holes in them for you to loop the wire through – but these loops can easily get closed off with solder.

To clean up, you can either use solder braid or a pump. Solder braid is good for when you really need to get every last bit of solder off. You put the braid on the contact, apply heat to it with the iron, and then when the solder melts it soaks into the braid. More often, though, you’ll just need to get the bulk of the solder off, and this is more easily done with a solder pump. You “charge” the pump by pushing the plunger down until it clicks, melt the solder with the iron, and then put the nozzle of the pump against the melted solder and push the button on the pump. It creates a momentary vacuum that sucks the melted solder up into the pump.

Here’s a video demo showing how to de-solder a wire from a lug, and clean the lug ready for future use.

Soldering to a pot

The backs of pots are commonly used as grounding points for other components in the guitar. However, soldering to a pot can be difficult, as the large amount of thick metal is capable of absorbing a lot of heat without getting hot enough to melt solder. If you’re not careful, this can lead to heating the pot for such a long time that it overheats the pot’s internal resistive strip, and the pot stops working properly.

There are a few tricks to soldering to the back of a pot. Firstly, pots often have an oily coating when they’re new. This isn’t helping. Also, the smoothness of the pot can mean that solder has nothing to “grip” on to. You can solve both of these problems by giving the back of  the pot a thorough going-over with some fine grit sandpaper or a wire brush.

Once you’ve done this and you have a nice roughed-up surface, you can also tin the back of the pot. Apply some solder to the iron, and then bring this to the pot. It will quickly heat up the part of the pot it’s touching and flow on to the pot. When this happens, spread the solder around with the iron and you now have a tinned surface that will be easier to solder to.

When it’s time to actually solder a wire to the pot, it’s more difficult than soldering to a lug because the back of the pot won’t help you by holding the wire in place. If you can rig up some clips to hold the wire firmly then that’s what you should do. Then you can just heat the wire and the pot, feed some solder into the join as before, and you’re done.

If you can’t rig up clips to hold the wire in place, then you can use my method. You have to have everything ready beforehand as it needs to be done swiftly. Your right hand will be used for the soldering iron and your left for everything else. So, to your left, place your solder, your needle-nosed pliers and the wire. Bring the wire to the back of the pot, and hold it in place with the soldering iron. With your other hand, bring the solder in and make the join. Now quickly put the solder down and pick up the needle-nosed pliers. Use the pliers to hold the wire in place and remove the iron. The solder dries, and now you have your nice clean solder joint to the back of a pot.

I try to avoid soldering to the back of a pot whenever possible. Often, I will tin all the ground wires together, wrap them in heatshrink, and take a single wire from there to a pot. This means only a single solder join to the pot is necessary instead of several, which makes things much easier. You can also find solder lugs that you can sandwich between the pot and the guitar, and solder to those.

Learning to solder is an essential skill if you want to be able to repair your guitar on the go. There are times when your guitar might just cut out – but it’s actually only one loose wire. Being able to quickly reattach it instead of taking it to a tech will save you time and money – and you might even enjoy it. I certainly do.

Written on February 1, 2017, by Richard Irons

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  • Jake

    Thank you! I’ve played guitar for a long time now and always had to pay a guy to do the wire repairs. Getting myself a soldering tool today.

    • Do stick to the 40w suggestion — like a sharp knife, more watts actually makes everything safer and easier. Good luck.

  • Gayan

    Excellent tutorial! Will definitely save time and money in the future! Thanks SD!

  • Poindexter Fudgwickel

    I find it amusing that the loaded pickguard in the video tutorials is using Dragonfire pickups, not SDs.

    • Axe Maniac

      That’s an Seymour Duncan in the bridge position. Dragonfire and sales@partsonline.com almost got some free advertisement though.

      • Richard Irons

        Yeah, it’s a Full Shred pickup in the bridge, and you can’t see it but there’s a Cool Rails in the neck.

      • Brak

        well, it was enough to make me look ’em up.
        LOL

    • Duck Dunlap

      Obviously you missed the plainly visible impressed “Seymour Duncan” logo on the humbucker’s base plate?

  • Alex.

    Heat the spot with the chisel tip for about 5-7 seconds.. Then apply solder to stop then grab your handy dandy tool to hold it down till the joint dries make sure everythings handy you don’t wanna be reaching down the hall for a screwdriver.. Just have a little place.. After all you are only gonna do it one time.. If your satisfied.

  • Tfperalta

    great!!!! very very helpfull!

  • Yuktarth Nagar

    I hate dragonfire parts,I ordered a pair of 6in line vintage style crome tuners for my squier bullet 6 months back and haven’t received them till date ,I complained them and they banned me and they never replied too my emails 🙁

    • Frank Patterson

      _tntguitars is the distributer for Dragonfire parts (on Ebay, anyway), and I was banned after I _payed for the parts_ (a good citizen!); adjusting and saddle wrenches for a Parker guitar, but it looked like it was packaged like that, in the ad. I had all the tools already but thought it would be cool to have them packaged, NIB, y’know? When the stuff came in an ill-fitting zip-loc baggie, I gave them 5-stars, mentioned the “looked like packaging”-thing, and was banned ever since. Coincidentally sent them an email, recently, to see if they would lift the ban after all this time, at least 10 years. The reply went like, “Well, once you’re banned that’s it. And we’re doing so good it doesn’t matter whether we do ‘business’ with you or not. We never carried Parker, any way”. Well yes they did, they still have a giant bug up their ass and I’m no where near finished about telling people not to do business with those clowns, ever. Funny, but I can get everything I need to do my remods everywhere, but tntguitars. That’s tntguitars tntguitars Isn’t America the Greatest nation on Earth, being for free speech and all…….! Stay cool, Terrans.

      frank

  • Jeff Eshbaugh

    Great Post. I wish I had read it before I took apart my Gretsch Hollowbody. I succeeded but burnt a bit of insulation on the wires.

    • harrymallory

      Yeah, I dont have any problems soldering anything either, its t5he paying attention to what else the soldering iron is touching while Im soldiering thats killing me.

  • Steve Martin

    I have a question. I have a soldering station that has a digital temperature setting. I am using regular 60/40 rosin core solder (.050″ diameter). What temperature have you found is most effective for this type of work?

  • If I need to, I’ll hold the (small) spool of solder with my teeth and the wire with my left hand and iron with my right. Using some sort of clip or clamp is definitely better, though.

  • Frank Muellen

    My first and last soldering endeavor was with my electric guitar, and I’d have to agree it is significantly easier than many people might think.

    http://finnedtube.com/

  • Thom Dodak

    Also, it’s quite interesting, the person doing this took the easy way out…a Strat pickup setup is always easier cuz it’s very accessible….how about trying to show us those “helping hands” with a deep compartment install, like a Les Paul or similar…YES?

  • Pablo Gonnet

    Great post, very useful!!! I would also love a post on soldering different setups, like coil splitting pots, series-parallel switches, different types of pickup selectors and so on

  • Gerry Blue

    How to use a soldering iron, by Richard Irons, doesn’t get better than this 😉

  • ant Sor

    One advice you don’t give, of upmost importance, is DON’T DESPAIR. At first it will not work, but after a few try you will be pleased by your improvement. You can even practice on whatever small metal part you find
    And use “real” solder; i.e. 60%tin/40%lead. This stuff have a low fusion temperature and ‘wet’ readily the metal surfaces instead of making a blob.

  • John

    Thanks Richard, I feel much more confident now- gnna give it a go now. Cheers
    John

  • Ralph Sloan

    I am an Electronic Engineering Technician for 30yrs. I think this is an excellent tutorial for the beginner. however I would like to add a couple tricks I have learned through experience. first the type of solder is important you don’t want to use plumbers solder on anything electronic. you want a rosin core solder with at least a 60/40 tin lead ratio on high end signal components I prefer solder to also contain silver but it’s not that critical. I also like to clean my solder with steel wool before use, people don’t realize it but solder can oxide like the post on a car battery, also I usually use rosin flux to clean the lug,wire or pin connections that I’m soldering. just some experience I thought I should share.

  • Great info here. I’ll be blasting this article out to all my followers/readers

  • Bill Maynard

    I just wrap solder around the wire I am attaching to the pot that I have tinned and do it that way much easier and less hassle

  • Keiji Furuya

    more information about the stand with clips??

  • A quick tip for soldering multiple wires to the back of a pot; strip the wires back about 3/8’s of an inch, twist them together and solder them together. Then you can tin your pot, put the soldered group of wires on the tinned pot and push it down with your iron and when the solder on the group of wires melts and flows into the tinning on the pot you can use a screw driver to hold the wires in place and remove your iron. If you need to attach any other single wires to the back of the same pot you can tin it in another spot and solder the wire(s) to that other tinned area. If there’s enough room between the two tinned areas you can get away without disturbing one or the other area.

  • KCroz

    Thanks for the info in this article and the how to videos. I’ve only soldered a few things over the years, trying to figure it out as I went. This will help when I go to fix an old 335 style guitar again, it’s a shame putting it back together isn’t this easy.