Surface mount soldering
Surface mount and micro soldering can be challenging, but there is quite a lot you can do without expensive equipment. In this page we show you the tools and techniques you need in order to get started.
Modern electronic gadgets of all sorts tend to make use of surface mount techniques, where components are soldered onto the surface of a circuit board, rather than "through-hole" construction in which leads pass through holes in the board and are soldered on the other side. Surface mount devices are generally smaller, often much smaller than their through-hole counterparts, making repair harder. Nevertheless, much is still possible, as described here.
- Take care with a soldering iron - it can give you a nasty burn.
- Avoid breathing fumes from flux or from any adjacent plastic which might get overheated.
For serious surface mount work a proper surface mount solder station is essential. This will include a fine tipped soldering iron, a hot air soldering tool, and ideally a pair of soldering tweezers, but it will cost a 3 figure sum. For the occasional 1-off job you may not be able to justify that, but nevertheless you can do a lot by supplementing the tools you probably already have by adding just a few more, at a cost of a few pounds only. The following is a minimum:
- Soldering iron with a 1mm (or finer) bit.
- Thin solder - 22SWG (which is 0.028in or 0.711mm) or preferably thinner.
- A solder flux pen.
- Solder wick.
- A magnifying glass and/or close working glasses.
- Fine tweezers.
All but the cheapest irons have interchangeable bits, and you can probably get a 1mm bit for the iron you already have. But it needs to be a small soldering iron which you can manipulate more like a pencil than a crowbar.
Whilst working, rest your wrist on the bench or other firm support to minimise hand shake, and hold the handle of the iron close to the element, manipulating it with finger movements rather than with your wrist or arm.
People may tell you that you don't need flux as solder has flux in it. In fact it only contains a minimum, and this is insufficient for surface mount work.
However good your eyesight you will still find a magnifying glass invaluable for inspection. The one that is usually included with a "helping hand" will do.
To get a really clear view of the tiniest components a 5x or 10x jeweller's eye loupe is well worth getting. With a little practice you can hold it in your eye socket, leaving both hands free.
The correct way to use any kind of magnifying glass is to hold it close to your eye, then position your head or the work so that it's in focus.
More information about Magnifiers and Inspection Aids can be found in a separate page.
Types of surface mount components
A Wikipedia article on Surface mount Technology gives much information about devices (including pictures of some of them) and the procedures used to work with them.
ICs come in a variety of packages, not all of which can be soldered or unsoldered without special tools or equipment.
SOIC (small outline integrated circuit) devices are easiest, having a pin spacing of 1.27mm (0.05 inches).
SSOP or TSSOP ([thin] shrink small outline package) devices generally have a pin spacing of 0.65mm (0.025 inches) and are challenging to solder by hand, but still possible with considerable care.
LCC (leadless chip carrier) devices have no leads or leads which fold under the device and can be soldered by allowing the solder to flow up from the pad onto the contact on the side of the device.
QFN (quad flat no-lead) and MLP (micro leadframe package) have pads on the underneath extending to the edges, and whilst it should be possible to solder these it would be hard to tell by inspection that all the pads were properly soldered.
BGA (ball grid array) devices have solder balls in a grid on their underside which are soldered onto pads underneath the device. All the main ICs in a smartphone are typically BGA devices. Special equipment is virtually essential to work with these.
The last 2 or 3 types can only be removed with a heat gun and it would be very difficult if not impossible to install a replacement with standard tools.
Surface mount hand-soldering
With normal soldering you can see and rework any bad joints relatively easily, but with surface mount it's important that as far as possible, all joints are good first time. This is why you can't get away without using flux.
Apply flux to both or all the pads, then lightly tin just one of them, using no more solder than necessary. In the case of an IC, choose a corner pad.
Now position the device correctly over the pads. Hold it in place by lightly pressing down on it with the tips of a pair of fine tweezers or precision screwdriver. Apply the soldering iron to the pad, touching the IC leg or the end of the 2-terminal device. Hold it there for a second or so until the solder melts, then apply a tiny bit more solder to the leg or the end of the device. The solder should flow over the leg, joining it to the pad. Continue to hold the device in position for a second or two after removing the iron, and until the solder solidifies.
It will now be secured by one end or one leg. Examine it very carefully to ensure the other end or all the other legs are correctly positioned. If an IC is very slightly mispositioned you can just push it, flexing the soldered leg, otherwise reapply the iron and gently reposition as necessary.
Now apply some more flux, and solder all the other legs, starting with one at the opposite corner. In each case, apply the iron for a second or so to heat the pad and the leg before applying the tiniest amount of solder. Too much solder will cause a bridge between two pads.
You can remove solder bridges between pins using solder wick. Apply some flux to the wick (it won't work without) and lay it across the bridged pads. Now press it down onto the pads with the soldering iron, and once the solder has melted, draw the wick and the iron together away from the pads with a wiping motion. You may need to repeat the process.
Hot air and infra-red soldering
An alternative method is to use solder paste with a hot air gun or an infra-red oven, but temperature control becomes an important factor. This Instructable shows how it can be done.
Solder paste is a mixture of powdered solder and flux and typically comes in a syringe. Unfortunately it has a limited shelf life and so is best kept refrigerated to maximise its life. With the syringe, you can lay a "worm" of paste over a row of adjacent pads and place the component on top. When it melts, surface tension draws the solder onto the pads and off the gaps in between.
Ideally you should use a hot air soldering tool, which delivers air at a controlled temperature. With sufficient care, you may be able to use a gas soldering iron with a hot air nozzle or some other hot air gun with a narrow nozzle but you will have to watch very carefully to ensure the solder paste has fully melted, whilst making sure you don't overheat anything. Practice on a scrap board is strongly advised. With a gas iron it would be very easy to grossly overheat the board or components being soldered.
It is possible to convert a grilling oven or a microwave oven with a grill into a soldering oven, but it is essentialto add a temperature sensor and control electronics in order to ramp up the temperature, hold it, then ramp it down, all in accordance with the recommendations of component manufacturers.
Removing surface mount components is harder than soldering them to the board in the first place since ideally you would have to heat multiple solder joints at the same time. Lifting a device before the solder has melted risks lifting the copper track from the board, and this may be hard to repair if it happens.
The professional method
The professional way is to use a heat gun with a small nozzle such as may come with a good surface mount solder station. If you don't have one of these you may be able to use a gas soldering iron with the heat gun attachment. But you need to take care not to apply too much heat to adjacent components as you have little control over the temperature.
For resistors, capacitors and any other small 2-terminal devices you can get a pair of solder-tweezers. With these you can melt the solder on both ends and lift the device off the board, all in one action.
Standard soldering iron
In the case of smaller resistors and capacitors your standard soldering iron bit may be wider than the device itself, in which case you can apply the iron to both ends simultaneously and flick it off its pads when the solder melts.
Alternatively, apply flux to your solder wick and lay it over the device. When you press the iron onto the wick it will not only spread the heat to both ends of the device but also suck up most of the solder. After a couple of seconds you should be able to "wipe" the device off its pads with the iron still pressed down on the wick and the device.
With ICs and connectors, if they are dead or easily replaced the best way is simply to cut off the legs with a craft knife, then remove the amputated feet individually or a few at a time with a soldering iron.
A simple method which works well with ICs even up to a high pin count, and equally well with high pin count connectors is to use an extra low meling point solder. This is usually an alloy containing bismuth and melting at less than 150°C.
First remove any excess solder with solder wick. Then apply a little desoldering alloy with the soldering iron, allowing it to flow over all the device pins on both (or all) sides of the device. This will mix with the original solder and remain molten long enough to pick off the device from the board.
If you don't have any desoldering alloy and none of the previous methods work or are available to you, firstly remove as much solder as possible with solder wick. Then gently apply lift alternately to each end of the device with the tip of a craft knife, whilst melting the solder on as many legs as possible at that end. Work very gently and patiently to avoid lifting tracks from the board.
Minor damage such as broken of lifted tracks can be repaired with care. First, scrape away the solder resist from a portion of the track to create a new solder pad. You will need a short length of fine copper wire such as a single strand from a piece of stranded flexible. It's usually easiest to take a strand which is too long and solder one end (don't forget the flux) before bending it to shape and soldering it to the other side of the break. Trim it only after soldering both ends.
- The iFixit Microsoldering 101 videos are highly recommended though they do assume access to specialist equipment.