There is a wide variety of soldering stations, from simple and affordable to expensive and complex professional tools.
In this article, I will tell you all about them so that you can make an informed decision and choose the one that best suits your needs and budget.
What is a Soldering Station?
A soldering station is similar to a standard soldering iron and serves the same purpose: melting solder to create strong electrical and mechanical bonds between electronic and electric parts. The main difference between a soldering station and a standard soldering iron is that it has a base or control unit that generates heat and transmits it to one or more devices.
The soldering stations allow users to adjust and regulate the soldering temperature, which is great for high-precision jobs or extended sessions where temperature control is crucial. Another typical feature of soldering stations is that they bring accessories to hold the soldering iron, tip cleaners, and others.
Soldering stations’ control units go from simple conventional coiled power transformers to top-notch transistorized circuits controlled by microcontrollers to offer additional features like tip temperature monitoring, constant control on temperature, and more.
Main Features of a Soldering Station
Before going further, I would like to introduce you to some of the features and characteristics of soldering stations and how they help to achieve great joints.
- Temperature Control: This is the most important feature of a soldering station. It allows setting the temperature depending on the solder, components, and even the PCB being soldered. It’s very practical for simple and high-precision jobs.
- Thermal Stability and Monitoring: Most soldering stations have temperature sensors, allowing the tip’s temperature to be monitored almost in real-time and regulate temperature accordingly. When the soldering iron’s tip comes in contact with solder, it loses heat; this feature quickly detects any temperature fluctuations and adjusts it, helping to prevent cold joints and other defects.
- ESD (Electrostatic Discharge) Protection: Some components are very sensitive and can get easily damaged by electrostatic discharge. ESD-safe stations are designed so that the soldering iron is free from electrostatic discharge. This is particularly important when working with SMDs, integrated circuits, and other sensitive components.
Types of Control Units
- Analog: These units are less complex than their digital counterparts; the heating element works until the desired temperature is reached and turns off. Then, when the temperature lowers to a certain point, the heating elements turn back on. The process is controlled by simple circuitry and a relay that switches the heating element on and off. They aren’t as fast as digital controllers, so the iron’s tip tends to overheat. However, their simplicity makes them cheaper than the digital ones.
- Digital: These control units usually use a PID (Proportional Integral Derivative) controller that allows them to regulate the tip’s temperature almost in real time. A microprocessor is in charge of sensing the heat on the soldering iron’s tip and probes the temperature in intervals of just a few milliseconds. The microprocessor compares the tip and the set temperature and promptly regulates the heating element’s voltage to correct any discrepancy. Digital control units allow more precise soldering and are usually more expensive than their analog counterparts.
Most Common Types of Soldering Stations
Now that you have read about the main characteristics of soldering stations, I would like to introduce you to some models available in the market, their features and prices.
1. Entry-Level Soldering Stations
You can find these tools for less than $50. They consist of a controller unit or base with a power switch and a temperature selector, a soldering iron or pen that connects to it, and accessories like a holder and a tip cleaner. They usually have between 60 and 80 Watts, allowing them to reach temperatures of between 200°C (392°F) to 480°C (896°F).
The soldering stations in this price range have simple circuitry, and they only allow you to roughly set the desired soldering temperature, and provide non or poor thermal stabilization. Depending on the model, the temperature is set by turning a dial-type knob or up and down buttons and a simple LCD screen that displays the selected temperature.
2.Mid-Level Soldering Stations
These devices range from $100 to $300. They are all digital and, from $150 and above, all bring tip temperature real-time monitoring, ESD protection, and other features that allow to easily and safely solder delicate components such as SMDs (Superficial Mounting Devices).
These stations usually have complex circuitry with PID controllers and many features, such as multifunctional LCDs, auto power off, password protection, and more. Thanks to their complex electronics, some of these units produce high wattage (up to 100W) to work with solder with high melting points without damaging the workpieces.
3. Advanced Soldering Stations
These stations are similar to the mid-level soldering stations and are in the $250 and up price range. They usually have 2-ports, meaning their control units can handle two soldering irons simultaneously at different temperatures. This is practical when working with circuits and components that require using several tips, and it saves you a lot of time since you don’t have to change them constantly.
Another example where these stations come in handy is if you need to do desoldering and soldering tasks in one session; you can set up one tool for desoldering, such as a hot air desoldering gun, and the other for solder.
Some of these stations even bring hot air solders as reworking stations do, enabling you to work with complex and delicate components. These stations are a dream come true for professional users and advanced hobbyists, solving all their soldering needs in one tool.
Soldering Station vs. Soldering Iron
The soldering stations described in this article belong to the “contact soldering” type, which means that they work like regular soldering irons. These devices transmit heat to the solder and the workpieces by direct contact.
Soldering stations are more versatile and accurate than soldering irons and provide temperature adjustment and other features thanks to their control units. Besides, high-quality soldering stations have little or no temperature variations, providing stronger joints and preventing cold joints.
In terms of price, high-quality soldering irons cost about the same as an entry-level soldering station; however, most of the cheapest soldering stations are not much more than a soldering iron with temperature regulator. More advanced soldering stations cost at least twice the price of a good soldering iron.
Ease of Use
I have both types of tools, and the time I save with my soldering station is huge, mostly when I need to solder complex circuits or install several components in one session. Stand-alone soldering irons keep heating, and even though their wattage limits the maximum temperature they can achieve, they sometimes overheat while working for extended times.
When this happens, they require unplugging and re-plugging to let them cool down, which is annoying. You don’t have this problem with soldering stations.
Even though newer soldering stations are pretty compact, I can’t imagine using them elsewhere than in a workbench. For automotive jobs, for example, when dealing with wiring, pluggable soldering irons are much more practical than soldering stations.
A cordless version offers even more portability since you have no electric cables to deal with, although the battery adds extra weight to the tool.
Storage and Maintenance
Soldering stations can replace multiple soldering irons. If you work with different types of solder, components, etc., you should have at least a couple of soldering irons of different wattages.
For example, for working with sensitive parts, a 30W is perfect but too delicate and without enough power to solder components like heatsinks, where you need at least a 45W tool. A soldering station allows you to solder both components with the same device; you just need to set the right temperature for the type of job you will do.
Accidental touches on hot irons can cause severe burns. The soldering stations have a stand where you can place your hot tool without causing damage and accidents.
Of course, you can get a stand for your regular soldering iron. But, trust me, unless you always work at the same work table, you will misplace the stand or eventually will get too lazy to carry the stand. Sooner or later, you will leave the hot iron on some soft material, causing it to melt.
Give utmost priority to safety when using a power tool. For more details, read our soldering safety guide here.
Pros and Cons of Soldering Station
- Temperature Control: This is the main advantage of soldering stations, making them excellent tools for many kinds of jobs.
- Accuracy: Setting the right temperature for the pieces you are soldering helps to achieve excellent and accurate results, especially when working with delicate components or doing complex jobs.
- Thermal Stability: Units equipped with real-time temperature adjustment and monitoring help to keep a consistent temperature, preventing component overheating or temperature fluctuations that can lead to cold joints and other soldering defects.
- ESD Protection: Most soldering stations have this important feature that protects parts from electrostatic discharges.
- Consistent Joints: Thermal stability and temperature control allow you to create consistent results. This is extremely important when attaching components to a PCB, for example. With the help of soldering stations and practice, all the joints of your circuit will look the same and have excellent and very similar electrical and mechanical properties. As a chain breaks by its weakest point, a circuit is as reliable as its poorest solder joint, and trust me, weak points can be troublesome when working in electronics.
- Ideal For Complex Circuitry And Components: Soldering stations are ideal for complex soldering tasks, like working with surface-mount components, microprocessors, and delicate parts sensitive to static and extended temperature exposure.
- Price: Soldering stations are usually more expensive than standard soldering irons. Their cost rises depending on the device’s complexity, quality, and characteristics.
- Portability: Soldering stations are less portable compared to pluggable soldering irons, which makes them impractical for use in some cases and conditions.
- Complexity: Soldering stations require certain skills, unlike standalone soldering irons. You have to deal with temperature settings, know or learn by practice which temperature works best for different tasks, etc.
- Bulky: Even when they are not that big, soldering irons need dedicated space in your workbench.
- Require Maintenance: Soldering stations may need more maintenance than stand-alone soldering irons since they are more complex and have more components. Besides, you should be aware of avoiding blocking their ventilation, cleaning them, and other tasks to prevent damage and failures.
Is a Soldering Station Worth Buying?
If you work with delicate components, PCBs (Printed Board Circuits), build electronic devices professionally or as a hobby, or repair electronic devices, you should have a good soldering station in your workbench.
When you work in electronics, a soldering station becomes an indispensable tool for many jobs, and even when sometimes you can manage with an excellent standard soldering iron, a stand, and a cleaner, you can achieve much more with a good soldering station.
If your job requires portability, I suggest you have a generous and clear workbench for delicate jobs and some high-quality pluggable soldering irons for portability.
Owning a soldering station is a great experience, and if you still don’t have one, I suggest you start with a high-quality mid-range soldering station. I wouldn’t spend on an analogic soldering station; I would rather have a great pluggable soldering iron.
Last but not least, if you plan to move to an expensive, advanced soldering station, ensure you really need one. Many people rush to buy the most expensive soldering station money can buy to realize that they don’t need something so fancy. If you are an electronics enthusiast and can afford it, go for an advanced soldering station, but know that you might not use it to its full potential.
David Castillo is an automotive industry expert specializing in vehicle electronics and stand-alone fuel management systems. He has over 20 years of experience and owns a car repair garage and tuning shop.
David still runs his shop but is now more focused on pre-purchase car inspections and writing for FinePowerTools.
Back to Contents
- What is a Soldering Station?
- Most Common Types of Soldering Stations
- Soldering Station vs. Soldering Iron
- Pros and Cons of Soldering Station
- Is a Soldering Station Worth Buying?