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It happens to everyone from time to time where you start fighting the soldering iron as you make stained glass instead of the iron doing all of the hard work for you. When this happens it's possible that your soldering iron tip just needs a good cleaning.
When to Clean Stained Glass Soldering Irons
This is actually a very easy thing to determine when you know what you're looking for.
To have a soldering iron that works the way it's intended, it needs to be clean. In other words, the soldering iron tip must be shiny.
Start by plugging it in and waiting for it to heat up. Once it's hot, if the soldering iron tip isn't shiny, you can try cleaning the iron with instructions below.
Sponges For The Soldering Iron
For the wet sponge, be sure to use one that is intended for use with a soldering iron. Not all sponges are created equal and you don't want to use one with plastic in it or it will melt and make one terrible mess and potentially ruin the tip on your iron. Instead, go with one like this.
The Timing Of Wiping Your Iron While Making Stained Glass
Just because you have a wet sponge doesn't mean that you should be wiping the iron tip all of the time. In fact, the timing of wiping your iron is important.
Metals oxidize when exposed to air and hot metal can oxidize quicker if not tended properly. This can lead to a hard blackish-brown crusty type of build up that won't wipe off. This build up interferes with the heat transfer from the iron tip to the solder and will greatly impact your work.
Have you ever heard the term "tinning your iron tip?" By coating the iron tip with a few drops of solder, the solder forms a barrier between the tips metal and the air around it, helping to preserve the tip.
So, when you put your iron down in its' stand for a few minutes while you move the pieces around to reposition them, don't wipe the iron first!
Instead, leave whatever solder is on it alone and put it in the stand. Once you're ready to start soldering again, pick up the iron and wipe the tip before you start. This way, you aren't leaving the metal tip bare for any length of time.
Perhaps you tried wiping your iron tip on a sponge and find that it still isn't nice and shiny. The next step is to try flux.
Using your chemical brush, quickly wipe flux across both sides of the tip. This will help ensure that solder flows across the whole surface and will normally correct any issues you're experiencing with dull looking areas on the surface of the tip.
Use Sal Ammoniac
After trying both the sponge and flux to clean the tip of your soldering iron, sal ammoniac would be the next step if the others didn't work.
Sal ammoniac for cleaning your stained glass soldering iron tip comes in a solid block form similar to that of a bar of soap. It is hazardous so please read all safety tips included in or on the packaging. My practice is that I ALWAYS wear nitrile gloves when handling it and NEVER breathe the fumes that come off of it. (You can use a fume trap if you need help with ventilation.)
To use it, simply rub the hot iron tip across the surface in a bit of a scrubbing motion. It should work fairly quickly but sometimes the buildup is a bit stubborn to come off. Once the whole tip is clean and shiny, immediately add solder to it and it will flow smoothly around the whole tip.
Soldering Iron Tip Still Not Clean?
It may be time for a replacement tip.
Soldering iron tips are designed to be changed and quite easy to replace. Replacements are commonly found at many stained glass supply stores. Be sure to buy the one that is specifically made for your iron though since each brand tends to be different sizes and shapes. For example Weller iron tips will not be the same size or interchangeable with Hakko iron tips.
As a side note, please don't use a file, metal grinder or emery cloth to sand or scrape the iron tips clean. This will only damage the plating on the iron tip and ruin it. Try the 3 cleaning methods mentioned above and failing those, just get a replacement iron tip.
Having a stained glass soldering iron in good condition and keeping it that way will make a huge difference in your enjoyment and success at soldering well.
One last piece of advice is to always tin the iron tip before turning it off or unplugging it.
Need Help Perfecting Your Soldering?
If you want clear and simple instructions on how to break down each step, and all of the fundamentals of how to make your solder look great no matter your technique or current skill level, you need the course, Soldering 101. It's an online course to help you tackle everything you need to know about soldering copper foil. Learn more and watch the course trailer.