SMT Soldering – It’s Easier Than You Think

Front page of "SMT Soldering: It's Easier Than You Think"Soldering Is Easy was a great starter, and now here’s a sequel: SMT Soldering – It’s Easier Than You Think.  Greg Peek and Dave Roberts put together a great little comic book that teaches the art of soldering tiny SMT components. After reading it, you will be ready to tackle chip resistors, SOT-23’s, and SOIC’s with confidence.  (You might also like to take a look at Skywired’s own tutorial on soldering SMT ICs.)

The comic book is licensed CC-BY-SA (Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike), so everyone is free to pass it on.

(Via MightyOhm.)

KK7B R2 receiver: lifted pads, a scorched board, and it works anyway

I’m slowly making progress on my KK7B R2/T2 transceiver project. At my last report, I was waiting for replacement capacitors to arrive. They did, and I pulled out my ancient solder-removal iron, a Radio Shack unit from who knows how long ago.

Either my unsoldering skills are rusty or I was too impatient, or both. I managed to lift four pads, completely demolishing one. The other three were salvageable. I’d like the board to be perfect, but having it work is an acceptable substitute.

The new caps went in easily, with only a little fiddling to wire around the ruined pad. Better yet, the excessive bias current I saw before the replacement is gone! The board is supposed to be adjusted to 100 mA current. It used to start at 120 mA, with the bias adjustment set to its minimum, and drift its way up to more and more current from there (going as high as 200 mA before I’ve lost my nerve and switched it off). Now it starts at 84 mA and… drifts its way up from there to 130 mA and more.

OK, so one problem was solved. I can always increase current with the bias adjustment potentiometer.

After scratching my head a bit, I finally noticed one small sentence in KK7B’s articles on the R1 and R2. The audio output transistors need a heat sink, do they? Oops! I dug around a bit in my junk box but couldn’t find anything that would fit. The articles say the audio amp will drive a pair of headphones fine without the output transistors, so I decided to take them out.

I recently got a Sparkfun hot-air soldering station (a Sparkfun Free Day prize!) and thought I’d give it a shot. Sure, hot air is usually for surface-mount parts, but solder is solder, right?  Not being sure how to set the airflow and temperature settings, I set both on the high side, put some flux on the output transistors’ pads, and went for it. The result wasn’t pretty:

Oops... A scorched R2 PCB

Yes, I scorched the board. Oops. Between this and the lifted pads, I think I need to work on my unsoldering skills.

Since the transistors are 50 cent parts (TIP29/TIP30), I unsoldered them the easy way: I cut the leads, removed the leads from the board with my conventional iron, then cleaned out the holes with my solder sucker. I didn’t damage any pads this time!  (The picture above was taken after all of these steps.)

A little more soldering to hook up a BNC and some other goodies, and the board was alive!

R2 on the bench, surrounded by test equipment

That’s a Tek 191 signal generator as the VFO (variable frequency oscillator), with a frequency counter as the readout. That’s an MFJ QRP antenna tuner in the foreground.

I didn’t build a phasing network yet, so I drove only one VFO input. That causes the R2 to function like a conventional direct-conversion receiver,receiving both sidebands simultaneously. That said, it works. I was able to hear signals, though frankly many were quite hard to copy. I’m not sure what else might be wrong.

The frequency counter spits out a lot of digital noise. I learned to flip it on only to spot-check my frequency. It’s a lot quieter in standby mode.

Did I mention that IT WORKS?

Despite the success, I’ve been struck by a bit of paralysis in moving forward. There are so many choices to make for integrating the radio.

  • What kind of VFO should I use? Should I design my own or buy a kit?
  • Which modes should I include?
  • How much power output do I want?
  • What power amp should I use? Should I design my own or buy a kit?
  • Which case should all of this go in?
  • What microphone, and microphone connector, should I plan for?

Keep in mind that this is supposed to me my fast route to getting on the air, so I’m thinking kits for both the VFO and amp. Besides, with as busy as it has been at work lately, it is nice to sit back and just build something.

It’s not a pretty project any more, but it works! Hooray!

Building the AK5388 ADC breakout board

“Honey, the package you’ve been waiting for from Hong Kong is by your computer,” said my dear wife shortly after I got home from work on Friday. Even better, a few minutes later she suggested that I spend the evening in the basement, building up one of my new boards. I have a wonderful wife!

The AK5388 ADC breakout boards finally arrived!  I had a hard time waiting for them. First, Itead Studio didn’t ask me to correct the design until the day the finished boards were supposedly going to ship. (They did apologize for the delay — it sounded like there was a communications snafu between them and the fab.) Then I waited five more days for the board to be fabbed. Shipping from Hong Kong to Ohio took ten days. Looking around on the web, I’ve seen shipping times reported from seven to ten days, sometimes going up to as much as 20 days during the holiday season.

All eight boards look great. Other people who tried Itead reported some over-etching and silkscreen problems, but I don’t see any defects on mine. Since Itead now does 100% electrical testing, I have confidence that the boards will all work. I could spot the tiny dimple in each pad where the flying probes touched down, so it is clear that all eight boards were tested.

I went to the basement and heated up the soldering iron. The board went together easily. The 0.80 mm pitch of the AK5388 was downright easy to solder after the 0.50 mm  A3PN250 FPGA and other fine-pitch parts I’ve been using at work. Besides, I’ve learned some new soldering techniques lately that helped me solder the AK5388 quickly, but I’ll have to share those in another post. I did use a meter to check all of my AK5388 solder joints, though. There were a few bridges, but they cleaned up without a problem.

The pads for the big electrolytic capacitors are larger than necessary. I used PCB’s default EIA7343 footprint. The pads had plenty of room for the soldering iron, but they could have been smaller without sacrificing ease of assembly. (Did I use the wrong footprint once again? 0805 capacitors seem to be the only ones I get along with…)

Lately Digi-Key has been taking much stronger steps to control moisture uptake by the semiconductors they sell. Instead of just shipping some cut tape in an anti-static baggie, they now seal the chips in an airtight bag with a packet of dessicant and a humidity indicator. I opened the bag this one was in about 4 weeks ago. Not bad so far, considering it was in my not-very-dry basement that whole time. Moisture uptake is important for reflow soldering techniques, but as far as I can tell, it is less significant for hand-soldering.

Now I’m left asking myself what comes next. In my original plan, the next step was to couple the ADC to the FPGA, put a USB core on the FPGA, and build a sound card. Once that works, adding a local oscillator and a quadrature mixer will make everything I need for a PC-based software-defined-radio (SDR) receiver, and this long trek will finally result in a radio.

However, I hear that the bands are great these days, and I’m not sure I want to take the time to homebrew an SDR rig just to get on the air. Maybe I should spend some time on a faster route to a radio, then come back to the SDR. I’ll probably have more on that idea next week.

Until then, keep on tinkering, and as always, your comments are welcome!

Soldering is Easy comic book is now in 12 languages

Soldering Is Easy cover, English versionThe Soldering is Easy one-page comic has grown to an eight-page comic book, and it’s available in 12 languages! Mitch Altman, Andie Nordgren, and Jeff Keyzer created the original, and the translations were done by volunteer translators. It’s a great idea and well worth a read.

Here is every translation so far, all from Jeff’s MightyOhm blog:

Soldering is Easy (English)

ПАЯТЬ ПРОСТО (Russian)

Soldering is Easy (Simplified Chinese)

Solder É Fácil (Portuguese)

Menyolder Itu Gampang (Indonesian)

Soldar es Fácil! (Spanish)

… — .-.. -.. . .-. .. -. –. .. … . .- … -.– (Morse code)

Soldering is Easy (Japanese)

Οδηγός Για Εύκολη Συγκόλληση (Greek)

Löten ist einfach (German)

Souder c’est Facile (French)

Soldering is Easy – Traditional Chinese

Lutowanie Jest Proste (Soldering is Easy – Polish Translation)

Thanks, Mitch, Andie, Jeff, and translators for your great work!

Skywired’s new tutorial section

I’m happy to announce a new tutorials section here on Skywired!  A click on “Tutorials” on the menu bar above will take you to a list of Skywired’s how-tos and explanations.  The first tutorial is about how to solder fine-pitch parts, such as QFPs, TSSOPs, SOICs, and so forth. Over time, I plan to expand the range of tutorials to cover both practice and theory.

Building the ProASIC 3 nano FPGA board

After a busy week spent traveling for work and a morning digging out from a surprise snowstorm, I had a great weekend with my family.  It was Sunday night before I heated up the soldering iron and got down to business building the ProASIC 3 nano FPGA board.

I started with the toughest component, the FPGA.  Its central location and low height means that I will have an easier time accessing it before other components are mounted.  That is not likely to be a big problem for this board, with plenty of space around the chip, but I would still prefer not to have to work around the filter capacitors if I can avoid it.  On the other hand, its 100 pins and 0.5 mm pin pitch makes it far and away the most difficult soldering job on the PCB.

Continue reading Building the ProASIC 3 nano FPGA board