So, you’re looking for the best beginner soldering tools so you can get into the world of video game console modding and repair. If you’ve never soldered or worked with bare electronics before, it can be extremely intimidating. After all, you’re dealing with scorching hot irons, toxic chemicals, and fragile wires, chips, and PCBs. Take a deep breath. It’s not as hard or as dangerous as you think.
I’ve been repairing, restoring, and modding consoles for a couple of years now, and I started with only the vaguest knowledge of the inner workings of electronics and had never soldered before in my life. Getting the best tools (for your buck) for repairing and modding consoles is important, but it doesn’t really matter if you have no clue what you’re doing. Before you start buying up some of the beginner soldering equipment listed below, you need to do some research.
Video Game Console Soldiering | Where to start?
The best place to start if you want to get into video game repair and modding is research. Several YouTubers are absolute masters of the craft that you should watch. Voultar and GameTechUS are the two I recommend most highly. They both have a ton of experience, and their videos are in-depth and easy to watch. You can also find some excellent instructional articles on modding consoles for RGB and HDMI on RetroRGB.
Once you’ve watched and read up on soldering technique and repairing and modding consoles, you need to find an easy first project. You don’t want to go full throttle and make something like installing an UltraHDMI kit into an N64 your first project. Start by getting some soldering practice kits off eBay, then move onto something easy on a common, easy-to-replace console once you’ve got some confidence. Building and installing an RGB AMP in an SNES 1-CHIP or SNES Jr. is a good start, in my opinion.
DON’T get a little soldering under your belt and start working on any major projects on rare and valuable consoles. If you check eBay, you’ll see a ton of consoles (especially NEC Duo-Rs and RXs) that have been region-modded or modded for RGB that are absolutely wrecked inside by people who didn’t take the time to learn how to solder correctly and only care about making a quick buck. NEVER use hot glue, tape, or anything other than solder to make electrical connections to a PCB. Respect the history of the console you’re working on and take pride in your work. The most important thing when learning how to solder is to know your own limitations and not bite off more than you can chew.
I won’t get into soldering technique or theory any further here (though I may at some point in another article). Instead, I’ll go over the best soldering tools to gather for your first console repair and modding kit.
What do I need to start soldering?
The products below aren’t the “best” on the market. However, they are the best mixture of reliability, build-quality, and value. If you find yourself becoming passionate about soldering, then you may want to look into more expensive equipment. However, the items below should easily meet the needs of even experienced modders and repairmen. Many of these products are recommended by Voultar and are what I learned on and still use.
Best Beginner Soldering Station | KSGER T12
This soldering station is a Chinese special, but it’s surprisingly well built. Not only is it safe for you and your electrical wiring, but it also heats up extremely fast and retains the temperature you set it to accurately. You’re getting a ton of bang for your buck with the KSGER T12, and there’s absolutely no reason to buy a soldering station cheaper than this.
Especially when you’re first learning to solder, you want to be able to trust your heat settings. Those $15 soldering sticks you find on eBay and Amazon that plug straight into the wall are garbage that set you up for failure. The KSGER T12 is more complicated to set up than those cheap irons, but you’ll appreciate its versatility and dependability once you get the hang of it.
Best Beginner Solder Iron Tips | Hakko T12 Series Solder Iron Tips
Quality soldering iron tips are essential to learning how to work on electronics. These tips are what channel and transfer heat to what you’re working on, so having a bunch of pot metal tips is no good. These T12 series tips are compatible with the KSGER T12 station above and come in a variety of useful shapes and sizes.
When you first start soldering, you’ll want to stick with a Shape B, blunt nose tip. However, this set gives you the majority of the standard tip shapes, so as you gain experience, you’ll already have access to useful tips like the Shape K (which can make soldering multiple inline joints incredibly fast).
Best Beginner Solder | Kester Leaded Solder 32117 24-6040-0027 60/40
If you’re new to soldering, leaded solder probably throws up a big red flag. After all, lead is toxic and terrible, right? This might lead you to purchase lead-free solder. This is probably the worst mistake you can make while trying to learn to solder short of bare-handed gripping a heated soldering tip.
Lead-free solder takes more heat to make a good soldering joint. The flux core in lead-free solder, the stuff that makes the metal flow when heated, is an irritant. Also, a “good” lead-free solder joint is much harder to spot than one made with leaded solder. In other words, using lead-free solder as a beginner is setting yourself up for failure.
As long as you use a fume extractor and don’t stick your hands in your mouth when you’re soldering, leaded solder shouldn’t be any more harmful than using lead-free. This Kester Solder contains a mixture of 60% lead/tin and 40% flux and flows like butter when it’s heated up. This stuff makes absolutely gorgeous joints and doesn’t require a lot of extra no-clean or resin flux in most situations.
Best Beginner Desoldering Braid | MG Chemicals #3 No Clean Super Wick Desoldering Braid
If you need to get rid of small amounts of solder, you want to have some dependable desoldering braid on hand. This stuff is one of the trickier tools to use when you’re first starting out soldering, but having a quality product helps a lot.
MG Chemicals #3 desoldering braid is pre-doped with no-clean, which means you don’t have to worry about it corroding anything you’re working on if you don’t clean it off. I hate having to use desoldering braid, but this stuff works pretty well and is quicker than grabbing a hand-pump or desoldering gun if you’ve only got a small bit of solder to remove.
Best Beginner No-Clean Flux | MG Chemicals 836LFNC Lead-Free No-Clean Flux
No clean flux is kind of like a soldering cheat. There are no disadvantages to using it. You just pour a bit on whatever you’re working on, and it makes solder flow like butter. If you find yourself getting a lot of dull, bad joints, chances are it’s because you needed more flux.
Unlike rosin paste flux, no-clean flux, as the name suggests, doesn’t have any harmful effects on electronics. So, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to clean it off when it dries. I still do because it does leave some nasty-looking residue, but it won’t destroy anything or conduct electricity. Just remember, there’s no real disadvantage to using a bit of no clean when soldering or desoldering joints, so grab a bunch of it and use it liberally.
Best Beginner Rosin Paste Flux | Sra Rosin Paste Flux #135
No clean is great, but it’s a pretty weak flux. If you’re finding that solder just won’t flow, or if you need something to pre-dope wires, you need rosin paste flux. I use rosin paste flux sparingly. It’s gummy, you have to clean anything it touches, and it’s hard to work with compared to no clean.
The best use for rosin flux is when you’ve pre-tinned some short leads, and you need something to ensure it’ll flow to whatever pad, through-hole, or whatever you’re trying to connect to. In these cases, nothing works better to get a good joint or tack than rosin flux. Sra Rosin Paste Flux is a quality product, and a little container of it should last you quite a while if you’re predominantly using no-clean.
Best Beginner Soldering Tip Cleaner | XOOL Soldering Tip Cleaning Wire and Holder
You’ve likely seen plenty of soldering stations with a little lame sponge that you’re supposed to clean your soldering tips with. Don’t even mess with those things. Instead, get yourself this XOOL holder/cleaner and throw whatever sponge and flimsy wire holder you have away.
A coiled brass cleaner is easy to use. You just stick your soldering tip in the brass wool and rotate it around. This scrapes all the excess solder off your iron and doesn’t decrease the temperature of your tip. It’s quicker, safer, and more efficient than using a sponge and water.
Best Beginner Desoldering Vacuum Gun | Aoyue 474A++ Digital Desoldering Station with Built-in Vacuum Pump
Some people swear by desoldering braid and hand pumps. However, when you’re working on repairing and modding video game consoles, you’re going to be removing a lot of through-hole components, and doing it the old-fashioned way takes an eternity. For example, just to take the PPC and CPU off an NES, to install the Hi-Def HDMI mod, for example, you have to desolder 80 through-hole connections.
Work smart, not hard, and grab something like the Aoyue 474A++ desoldering station. The desoldering gun works a bit like a soldering iron in reverse. You place it over a joint, let it melt the solder fully, then pull the trigger to vacuum it up. No dealing with finicky braid or trying to apply heat with one hand and vacuum solder with a hand pump in the other.
One thing to note if you pick one of these desoldering guns up is that it takes a bit of technique to use. Make sure you watch at least a few YouTube videos on how they work before you attempt to use one. These cheaper Chinese knockoff ones can be tough to get together right, too. Make especially sure that the solder chamber is fitted to where it can form a vacuum seal. Otherwise, you’ll melt the solder and pull the trigger, and it won’t suck up a bit of material.
Best Beginner Soldering Mat | IPARTS Expert Soldering Mat (17.8 x 11.8 inch)
A soldering mat keeps you from burning and gouging whatever surface you’re soldering on. This silicone mat from IPARTS Expert is inexpensive and works well. It even has some little compartments you can drop screws into while you’re working.
Even if you’re working on a surface you think can withstand the 300C or so you’ll be using to solder, just get a mat. It’s an inexpensive way to ensure you don’t destroy your work area.
Best Beginner Solder Fume Absorber/Extractor | Flexzion Solder Fume Extractor Smoke Absorber
So, flux and solder are poison. There’s no nice way to put it. They’re not super poisonous, at least if you don’t directly ingest them in quantity, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. This Flexzion Solder Fume Extractor will suck in all those hazardous fumes put off by soldering and trap them in a charcoal filter.
You should be using a fume extractor every single time you solder. Again, you’re not going to go all mad hatter if you accidentally inhale some solder smoke. However, it’s still not great for you. Especially if you plan to make soldering a regular hobby or profession, you’ll want to make sure you’re using safety gear like this extractor as exposure to heavy metals like lead can be cumulative, meaning it has a hard time making it out of your body.
Best Beginner Wire Cutters | Hakko Micro Soft Wire Cutter (3-pack)
You’re going to be cutting a ton of wire, among other things, so you need some snips that can do the job. These Hakko cutters are not only high-quality, but they’re also cheap.
Don’t grow too attached to your wire cutters. You’ll be cutting through wire, plastic, sheet metal, and all sorts of stuff when you’re working on console modding and repair. If they get knicked or don’t cut as well as they once did, just pitch them and pick up the next pair. With how durable these Hakkos are, a three-pack should easily last you for a few years, though.
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