As with many things with the craft of stained glass, tools are also a personal preference but in this article I will share with you my favourites and explain why I've chosen them.
For anyone that asks me for a recommendation of which soldering iron to buy, I will always suggest the Hakko FX601 or the Weller 100. But which soldering iron is best?
Weller 100 vs. Hakko FX601
Let's start with a bit about each of them before determining which one is best. After all, the point of this article is to share what I've learned about both of them for you to come to your own informed decision and not simply take my word on the subject.
When I first started stained glass, I used a Weller 100 exclusively.
This iron is a great workhorse that has interchangeable tips which moderate the temperature output used to melt the solder. The standard tip is great for most work but can be a bit cumbersome when working on really fine details as you would with items like jewelry. Smaller tips can be purchased separately for different purposes or as replacement tips when the original wears out.
I learned to solder exclusively with the Weller 100 and it was the only iron I used for about 9 years. It was a dependable workhorse that kept up with my fast-paced soldering. It would take a few minutes to warm up and get to full temperature, but it held that temperature very well.
I burnt through 3 tips in total during this time. Going through 1 tip every 3 years with extensive regular daily use, is really quite good. Mine kept performing fine, but I knew I needed to replace the tip when a hole developed in it.
It's funny to think back to my first experience with this iron. It was actually a student of mine that brought the tool with them to a lesson to have me help them figure out the temperature settings. I fell in love with it and ordered one for myself.
The Hakko FX601-02 soldering iron has a temperature controller right on the handle which allows you to set it and change it as needed. It ranges from 310 degrees to 540 degrees. While getting accustomed to using this iron, I found that it had trouble keeping up with my soldering speed on large projects. Since the concept of increasing the temperature on the iron was new to me, I often forgot and instinctively moved back to the Weller 100 for these projects. I now use the Hakko FX601 almost exclusively.
There are different sized tips available for this iron too. They range in size from 2.4 mm to 6.5 mm (1/4 inch). Pointy cone-shaped tips are available too but I wouldn't recommend these for stained glass soldering, they're simply too small (these would normally be used for soldering electronics.) I am considering getting some to try for decorative techniques but as of now haven't ordered any, yet.
The Hakko FX601 iron heats up incredibly quickly and is very lightweight to hold compared to other soldering irons.
So which is the BEST stained glass soldering iron?
For most hobbyists, I would highly recommend the Hakko FX601-02 if you're in the market for a new soldering iron. It is flexible due to the temperature controller and the small size tip. And, it is so light in comparison to other irons that hand fatigue won't set in anywhere near as quickly as it will with other irons.
If you solder large panels and are super experienced at laying down a perfect bead of solder in one pass, you may find the Weller 100 a more appropriate choice. The Weller 100 with the standard tip has more mass than the Hakko does. When moving very quickly around a project, the glass and foil act a heat sink and the Weller 100 can maintain it's temperature beautifully. It will keep up really nicely, where turning up the heat on the Hakko makes it more hot than is probably necessary, it doesn't prevent the quicker loss of heat due to it's smaller mass.
My personal choice is still the Hakko FX601 for me. I love to work on various types of projects rather than just large panels and so I'm usually soldering smaller areas at a time anyway. Your decision should reflect they type of pieces you tend to create.
Choosing Different Tips For Your Iron
Choosing the best tip for your iron will depend on what you're doing and what iron you have. Tips that fit a Hakko are not the same tips you would use in a Weller or Studio Pro iron.
Something else to note about the tip size, is that it does not determine the width of the bead of solder it produces on your panels or suncatcher. The width of your seams are determined by the width of the foil. Obviously, if you're using a very wide foil, a super tiny tip will take you longer to solder, but it does not control the final width of your seams. That is determined strictly by the width of the copper foil.
Having a 1/4 inch tip for your Hakko iron is handy. It is a nice size for the regular soldering of seams and edges. The 3/16 inch Hakko tip which comes on the iron is perfect for jewelry and decorative solder.
How To Determine The Temperature You Need
Based on everything you've read so far, you might be wondering why I haven't told you the perfect combination of iron, tip and temperature for you to achieve the perfect bead of solder. Well, despite what I've said so far about the irons and the tips, there are also many other factors that will affect the final result.
SOLDER - The different blends of solder usually require varying temperatures to make them "work" nicely. For example, 50/50 solder takes more heat to melt it than 60/40. As with lead-free varieties; you'll usually get a smoother finish with hotter temps.
INCLUSIONS - Embedding wire or other metals into seams will require more heat. There is more metal absorbing heat, so a higher temp is usually needed to make the solder flow.
HOW QUICKLY YOU WORK - If you can run a bead in one single pass, you'll likely need the iron set a little warmer than someone who works one small area at a time. By working in smaller areas, the heat gets concentrated and everything around it helps to hold heat. Whereas, when running a bead of solder in one pass, the iron needs to heat the cool foil the whole way across the piece. It needs a little more heat to keep the tip hot while it is constantly having it's heat absorbed by the cool foil.
ROOM TEMPERATURE - Whether your workroom is cool or hot is also a factor that can affect the way your iron works. Adjusting the temperature of your iron accordingly can help a lot.
Where to Start
To get started with the Hakko temperature controller, I would suggest setting it to 360 or 410. You can use the notes above to help guide you in what might be affecting your solder flow and whether a hotter or cooler temperature is needed.
Ultimately, you're going to learn to gauge if you need more or less heat by how the solder behaves. This skill will be honed to perfection the more you practice and observe the conditions and the results of what is happening at that time.
Need More Help?
From teaching hundreds of students in my own studio how to solder, I learned how to breakdown the soldering process and teach others what to look for in the behaviour of the solder as it's going down. By learning these skills, one can adjust their soldering in the moments they're actively soldering.
Learning to solder well will save a lot of frustration and that's why I created an online course all about soldering. It includes foundational techniques for soldering seams, edges, and many other helpful skills to make soldering your stained glass art more enjoyable. I personally love the soldering process and would be happy to help you find joy in it too. If you're interested in finding out more about it, check out the Soldering 101 Course.
What's Your Favourite Soldering Iron for Stained Glass?
Let me know in the comments below what soldering iron you like to work with and why. I'd love to know!