1. Tinning your tips
The reason soldering iron tips deteriorate is because they oxidize rapidly, and tinning (covering the tip with a thin layer of solder) prevents that from happening. Tinning should be done when you first use a new tip, whenever you start a job, at the completion of a job and regularly during a job, say every three connections.
Begin by cleaning the tip, then coat with just enough solder to make the tip shiny. This should become a habit and is the most important thing you can do to keep your tips performing optimally.
2. Use high-quality solder
Don’t save money by buying cheap solder. Poor quality solder will contain impurities that prevent your tip transferring heat as it should and may build up over time. So, use well-known brands and choose the optimum solder for your project.
60/40 tin to lead has been a standard, but sometimes silver solder is a better choice and lead-free solders are also becoming popular, though this needs much higher tip temperatures.
3. Use the correct temperature
60/40 solder typically melts at about 460F, and lead-free even higher at around 700F. While it’s tempting to ramp up the temperature, using a temperature much higher than you need will shorten the tip’s life.
You should also be aware that all soldering irons cool for a short period when you make a joint, so don’t increase the temperature in order to continue soldering through that dip in temperature.
If this is a significant problem, you may need to consider upgrading your iron, as some are more guilty of this than others, but increasing the temperature again will cause the tip to deteriorate more quickly. You could also consider purchasing an iron with a temperature sensor to help you maintain the right temperature.
It’s also a good idea to reduce the temperature of your iron if it will be a few minutes before you actually solder again, as, again, this will cause the tip to deteriorate more quickly.
4. Keep your tips clean
It’s important to always clean your tips thoroughly. Not only will this produce the best results when you actually solder, but it will help your tips last longer.
It’s best to remove grease before you begin soldering with a rag dampened with denatured alcohol.
Then use a ball of brass or stainless steel wool to leave your tips shiny and free from oxidised material as you solder. Damp sponges are traditional, but the constant temperature changes produced by their use are not healthy for the tips. When you use metal wool instead, you won’t alter the temperature of the tip by cleaning it, which will help them last longer.
Don’t forget to tin your tip every time you clean it!
5.Use of flux
Flux (a substance that removes oxidization) can help the soldering process by removing the oxidation on the parts being soldered and help the solder to flow. Some solder has flux at its core, but it is also available in paste and liquid form.
Never forget that flux is corrosive by nature, so thoroughly clean your tip when using it and avoid dipping your tips directly into flux. It’s also a good idea to keep in mind that while flux is helpful, it shouldn’t be used constantly or preventatively like cleaning and tinning, so only use it to treat oxidization or within your solder.
6. Reactivate your tips
It is possible to reactivate a tip, should it become oxidized and appear dark. You can buy reactivation paste that contains fine abrasives and additives that break down the products of activation. Simply place the tip in the paste and move it around until it appears shiny once more then tin it, as is hopefully your habit by now! You can also remove the oxidation with steel wool or very fine abrasive paper.
7. Store your tips with care
Store your soldering iron tips carefully and don’t allow them to just rattle around in a drawer or tool box with other metal tools. When you change tips (and it is important to use the best one for each particular type of soldering), make sure you do so carefully and secure them well. Also, only use high-quality tips that fit your particular soldering iron.
If you follow this guide your soldering iron tips will last a surprisingly long time, give great service, and allow you to solder faster and more efficiently.