by Carrie Sundra
Do you want to try out surface mount soldering, but aren't sure what supplies to get? Or are you just curious about what others use? We've amassed two lists - one is a list of the most budget-friendly supplies we've found that don't suck, and the other is a list of the brands and supplies we like best and use regularly. Let's fire up those irons!

Note: none of these are sponsored or affiliate links, we don't profit from our recommendations.

Budget-Friendly Supplies That Don't Suck

We get it. Sometimes you want to try something out but don't want to shell out massive amounts of money to just learn that you don't like something. Here's a list of supplies that hopefully won't break the bank, that we don't mind using ourselves. We also talk about why we like them, or what we look for. This is also the bare minimum, it is definitely nice to have some nicer tools, but is not required for starting out.

Soldering Iron:
60W or more is best for fast and good heat transfer through a small tip. Both of these kits include a small stand with brass tip cleaner and a variety of tips. They may include solder as well, of unknown type (could include Pb). Brass "wool" tip cleaner is better than a wet sponge because it does not cool your tip and you don't get mineral build-up from water. The holster-style holders that come with these kits are more ergonomic than the fold-up stands when it comes to setting your iron down and picking it back up one-handed, though you WILL need to tape or weight these down so that they don't tip over.

Soldering Iron Tips:
This can be a matter of personal preference, we like pointy (but not too pointy) tips. We really love bent tips because there are more choices for positioning the iron and reaching around other components, and it's easier to use the side of the tip (which is hotter than the very tip itself). Runner up is tiny 1mm wide screwdriver tips - these transfer a lot of heat while still allowing you to touch small pads. Very pointy tips will work, but if they're a little bit oxidized or if your iron is lower wattage or if the circuit board doesn't have thermal reliefs, they can make soldering more difficult at times. Both kits above include a variety of suitable tips.

While leaded (Pb) solder is easier to learn with, we use lead-free solder which is more environmentally friendly and not as poisonous if ingested. We like thinner diameter solder for SMT soldering, like this 0.3mm wire. Up to 0.8mm (0.031") will work, but over that and it becomes difficult to only get the amount you need on a pad. The best kind of flux core for learning SMT soldering is water-soluble (more on that below), but it can be difficult to find it under 0.031" and it gets expensive. The below solder is pretty decent. If you have rosin RMA core, that's a little better than no-clean.

Flux Pen:
While flux can be optional for through-hole soldering, surface mount soldering usually requires it for good joints. We find pens to be the easiest to use, it's easy to add just a small amount. Liquid droppers are fine too, but tend to add a lot of flux which then smokes more. Most no-clean fluxes aren't very heat tolerant or aggressive, and the working time is very small. For learning SMT soldering, it's helpful to have more aggressive flux that is more forgiving. Rosin RMA (Rosin Mildly Activated) works decently, but water-soluble flux is the best. Flux formulated for lead-free will be best, with a higher vaporization temperature.

Fine Tipped Curved Tweezers:
​Needed for holding components. The curved tip is our preferred, it's a little more ergonomic and allows you to reach over and around components. Straight will work if that's what you got, but they do need fine tips that meet (aren't askew or "well-loved").

Solder Wick / Desoldering Braid with Flux:
I know, it's called both, it's weird. This is a braid of small copper wires that allows you to fix bridges or too much solder easily. Can be optional, but we use it regularly. Beware of solder wick without flux - you'll need flux for the solder to flow well off your board and up the wick. Also remember to wind the wick back into the holder when you're finished - exposed wick will lose its flux and become less functional. Thin size from #1 to #3 is recommended, we usually use #1 or #2. Quality does vary greatly between brands, we like the Techspray ones linked in the next section best. You can pick up this assortment but note that you might need to add more flux to the braid first for it to wick well.

Good Lighting:
This is essential, you'll need a nice, bright work area to be able to see well. A myriad of things work well, bright diffuse sunlight is always best. Small and close fluorescent lighting is actually very good becaused it tends to be multi-directional and diffuse and it doesn't create as many reflections on solder joints or shadows around components. LED lighting works too, but diffuse is better to minimize reflections. Bright reflections tend to be very contrasty and can make it difficult to distinguish a good solder joint from a bad one. If you need more light, we like the ring lights linked below.

May be optional for young-uns or those with good eyesight, but most people find it essential. The minimum is to use a pair of magnifying glasses (or a magnifier you can see through with both eyes open), though ring lights are better, and we prefer stereo microscopes. Microscopes with video output are not as good because you lose depth perception which can make soldering quite difficult.

Eye Protection:
It's a good idea to wear glasses or safety glasses when you solder. If a bit of solder gets flicked into your eye, it can actually badly burn your eye because it's hot molten metal. Magnification devices can be good protection too.

Anytime you solder, the flux inside the solder and any you add to the board will vaporize and smoke. It's best to work in a well-ventilated area, and most people who solder a lot develop a pattern of holding their breath while soldering to avoid inhaling too many fumes. They are mildly acidic and may irritate some people or cause headaches.

90% or higher Isopropyl Alcohol:
This is for cleaning your circuit board. Clean boards are happy boards. 70% is not recommended because it leaves a residue. Definitely don't use stinky residue-leaving denatured alcohol. If you're using water-soluble flux, you can skip this and just wash your (unpowered NO BATTERY HAVING) board off with warm water. Available at most drug or home improvement stores.

Cotton Swabs or Paper Towels:
Use with the above for cleaning. Swabs with wood stems are best because they allow you to scrub the flux off a little more and get into corners, but a typical paper stem swab will work. So will paper towels. Available at most drug or home improvement stores.

You'll need to be able to hold your board firmly in place so it doesn't move while soldering. Tape will work great, we like the blue painter's tape. It scorches when you accidentally touch it with an iron, but it doesn't melt into a gooey pile, and we also haven't set any on fire yet. Available at most drug or home improvement stores.

What We Prefer:

These are tools and supplies that we use every day. Alpenglow-approved!

Soldering Irons:

The cheery blue and yellow Hakko FX-888D may look like a toy, but it's a solid performer. It's a newer addition to our toolkit, but is smaller on the bench and not quite as expensive as our older Weller and Metcals, and it performs almost as well. It's 70W and our other irons are 90W. We still like it!

We definitely want to give a huge shout-out to our old and no longer available Metcal SP200 stations that we found for (no shit) $35 at a local thrift store. These were at least $350 new! They're solid performers until the power supply dies, and the temperature is actually controlled by the tip you put in it. Tips used to be more expensive than other more "standard" tips, but now you can get SSC-compatible Thermaltronics tips for $12 on amazon. You may be able to find these irons on eBay, but be prepared to pay at least $100 for them because people like me still love them. Good luck! If you're interested in a new Metcal, well, they got bought by OKI but the brand is still going. They're likely still going to cost a fair bit, but if they've kept up the brand quality, it'll be worth it. Note that I've only used older Metcals.

We also have an older Weller that keeps on rockin and is a favorite around the shop. It's a WD1000 which was a follow-on for the "Silver Series" which are also quite good irons. Now Wellers look hella fancy with snazzy LCDs, ours is probably most analogous to the WT1 95W (ours is 90W). Weller does have some irons at the $100 price point, but I'd probably just go for the Hakko at that point. Beware of Wellers less than $100 - they tend to be pretty low wattage and crappy.

Soldering Iron Tips:
Check out the previous list for our favorite styles of tips and why.

Everything we wrote above about solder type still holds true. We really like Kester solder, but it can usually only be found in 1 lb spools, and it's expensive. Lead-free and water-soluble in thin wire, especially if it contains silver (Ag, which makes for nice flowing) can be $100 per spool. Ouch! Here are $60-ish spools. You can always use cheaper no-clean lead-free solder and add a bunch of water-soluble flux with a pen.

Flux Pen:
As we said above, we like water-soluble flux best for SMT work, rosin RMA second, and our least favorite is no-clean. We like Kester fluxes and have these pens:

Fine Tipped Curved Tweezers:
​We like the ones with cushy grip best. These are great. Anyone who uses tweezers as pliers should be summarily executed.

Solder Wick / Desoldering Braid with Flux:
We really like the Techspray brand, it just works really well. The no-clean flux style is our typical go-to, it wicks better than other brands of no-clean braid we've tried.

Good Lighting:
This is essential, you'll need a nice, bright work area to be able to see well. A myriad of things work well, bright diffuse sunlight is always best. Small and close fluorescent lighting is actually very good becaused it tends to be multi-directional and diffuse and it doesn't create as many reflections on solder joints or shadows around components. LED lighting works too, but diffuse is better to minimize reflections. Bright reflections tend to be very contrasty and can make it difficult to distinguish a good solder joint from a bad one. If you need more light, we like the ring lights linked below.

As we mentioned above, we really like stereo zoom microscopes. That's an entire blog post in itself, but we have an AmScope and it's great. There are a lot of configurations, we like the dual-arm boom stand for easily pulling it in and out on our (deep) benches without having to readjust the focus. But we used an old Bausch & Lomb we got off of eBay for years, with a regular boom stand. 7x-45x with 10x eyepieces works great, adding a 0.5x Barlow lens to the bottom will halve your magnification but increase your working distance, which is really nice. All microscopes will need a ring light on them, fluorescents work really well and we actually prefer the light quality, but LEDs will get brighter. Trinocular setups allow you to add a camera, but that gets tricky with focus and available light. That'll be another blog post.

Eye Protection:
Nothing to add to our comments above. I wear glasses so I don't have favorite safety glasses, I just have fogging issues, and at that point, prefer full face shields.

Fume Extractors:
If you'd like something a little better than high ceilings and holding your breath, you can get a fume extractor. Some people always solder with them, some people find the additional fan noise more irksome than solder fumes. It also depends on the amount of soldering you're doing - if you're soldering for hours on end, and for many days, then you probably should invest in a fume extractor. The Kotto one works quite well, and the Hakko one is pretty cool because you can use it upright or lying down.

90% or higher Isopropyl Alcohol:
See our comments above, generally available at most drug stores or home convenience stores.

Wood Stem Cotton Swabs and Kimwipes:
Low-lint products are best. We love these supplies from McMaster-Carr, and Kimwipes are available many places. Except at the time of writing this, apparently.

Circuit Board Holders or Kapton Tape:
Tape is our preference for holding circuit boards under a microscope because it allows us to have the board flat on the bench and not need to raise the microscope up to an awkward height. Kapton tape is nice because it's heat-resistant, thin, is a good insulator, and sticks well. It's regularly used in electronics shops for a variety of purposes. Beware cheap polyimide "Kapton" tape from amazon - it doesn't stick worth shit. The 3M stuff really is best, though it's more expensive.
Circuit board holders can be useful with other types of magnification like glasses or ring lights. The magnetic style is even low enough to use under a microscope without too much adjustment. Otherwise, Panavises are versatile and handy for a variety of tasks. We do like our Hakko Omnivise, but it's weirdly expensive.