Lost arts (electronic soldering for me)

My beloved pinball machine; Pinbot, broke. The scoring displays are made from 80s style gas plasma, soldered to a circuit board, not LEDs. I looked online and found that I could upgrade it to LEDs, but I like that my Pinbot (the greatest of all pinball games,) is old school and original.

So, I looked long and hard and I found that I could get a new plasma scoring display. The problem is, that I would have to remove the old one from the circuit board and solder a new one on.

I called several local arcades to see if I could bring it in and pay a technician to do it…

but none know how.

All the old electronic stores, where they actually fixed things are gone, replaced by Circuit City and Best Buy. I brought my circuit board and display to both, but the kids employed there looked at me like I was nuts. I looked in the phone book and was able to find a couple of electronic stores that weren’t chains, but they didn’t fix things that involved working on circuit boards either.

Nothing at a computer store that was an authorized repair place for HP, and Apple.

There is nobody left who can solder a circuit board. We live in a world where everything is made to be broken and thrown out. “Repair men” don’t repair anything. They just replace modular components.

This depressed me far beyond what it should have. I didn’t want a modular solution. I didn’t want to upgrade. I didn’t want to remove five perfectly fine displays, circuit boards, various cables and a motherboard and replace them all with a modular LED just because one display outgassed to the point of failure. I wanted it fixed.

I’d replaced light bulbs and plungers and actuators, and made various little repairs to my machine. It was in service for more than 20 years before I got it, sitting in bars and arcades and what have you, being played and played hard. Over those years all kinds of things had broken, and when I open up the machine I can see the legacy of those repairs in solder drips and new parts mixed with old.

This was a machine that was designed to be repaired. It has all these access points. The playfield opens up for access. It even has a power socket inside it, so that one can plug in tools.

I would not sully my beautiful machine with an upgrade. I’d been playing Pinbot since the mid- 80s. I played it every time I saw it all over the country. Maybe I’d even played on this very machine before I owned it.

All those machines had plasma scoring displays.

I would fix it myself.

Back in grade school I had been interested in electronics and had soldered a circuit board on a computer we built. I kinda knew how to do this. The difference is that had been thirty years ago, and a board from a kit designed for a kid to learn how to solder on. This was a heavy duty piece of bar machinery, designed to be worked on by a competent tradesman.

Their are thirty two tiny little connectors a few milimeters apart. Each of these needed to be desoldered. Then the old display needed to be removed, the new one installed and each of those connectors needed to be soldered in place. It is absolutely imperative that at no time any solder go where it shouldn’t go and cross those connections. That would “hack” the board and blow it (and possibly many other components the moment power was restored.

It requires skill, patience, and pinpoint accuracy.

It also requires the right equipment.

I went to Radio Shack in search of a soldering station. They didn’t have any. It’s a special order item. Oh, they have soldering irons the kind you might use to install a car stereo, but not a precision instrument with a fine tip and temperature control that you need to solder a circuit board.

I was disgusted. Wasn’t this what Radio Shack existed for?

I went online and ordered a soldering station, and a desoldering tool. When they arrived, again I felt sad about the difficulty in acquiring these tools of a lost, nearly obsolete art. It pissed me off, that it was just sloth and excess wealth that had taken our society in such a direction that such things were no longer valued.

Today, if one tiny piece of something breaks we often throw it out. If it can be repaired, it’s usually one of these modular repairs. For example, to upgrade my machine to an LED would cost $250, and would entail the disposal and replacement of five different displays, six different circuit boards, and maybe a dozen dedicated cables all of which were working fine. All this to replace one worn out display. The display itself cost $30.

I suspected that the $250 repair would mean that I was putting in parts that while more modern, were vastly inferior to what I was taking out. There was no possibility of replacing a component of the LED display. The whole $250 assembly came as one piece.

What a waste.

So, it was out of an ethic of sorts that I spent $100 on soldering equipment.

I practiced on a broken toy of my kids. My four year old daughter was fascinated by all this arcane stuff I was working with.

I practiced desoldering. Using heating element one heats up the solder until it melts. In the other hand you hold the desoldering tool. This looks like a pen. You press a long plunger down against a spring. You hold the tip over the melted solder and press the trigger. The plunger shoots upward creating a vacuum which sucks up the solder into the tip. It instantly solidifies and inside the desoldering tool are all these little pieces of solder, frozen in flight, rattling around.

Then I practiced soldering. I made little cubes out of paper clips, smaller and smaller with more precise joints. At my daughter’s behest, we made little men out of the paper clips.

Finally, I took the old circuit board cut off the old component carefully with an xacto knife and then attacked the board with clamps to my little hobby clamp and magnifying glass. Painstakingly through the magnifying glass I desoldered each delicate connection and cleaned the board.

Now I was ready to attach the new display glass, bending and soldering the 32 delicate filaments into place. I took the glass out of the box and once again removed the bubble wrap, where I’d stored it after examining it upon arrival.

Something was wrong. All the filaments were bent and the glass was cracked.

I stared at it in shock. It had been perfect when it arrived. I’d replaced it perfectly in it’s wrap and box. How did this break?

I turned the part over and over in my hands wondering, and I couldn’t help but notice that my daughter who had been so animated and interested had suddenly gone quiet.

“Can you fix it?” she asked.

“No. This is broken. Did you break it?”

“Yes.” There were tears in her eyes now. She was on the verge of going into a crying meltdown. It was pretty easy to figure out. She had been very interested in the ongoing project, the soldering of boxes out of paperclips, and little men, and the eventual repair of the pinball machine. She had wanted to look at the new part, and had taken it out of the box on her own, and dropped it.

“Don’t worry honey. Daddy breaks things, too. We’ll order a new piece and try again.”

“Ok,” she said.

I wasn’t really upset, either. Once I’d fixed the part, all the soldering stuff would go into a box and it would probably be years, if ever, that I used it again. The skill I’d acquired would fade and the fun my daughter and I had had would be over.

This way the adventure would go on for a little longer.

I’d been thinking about this lost art, since. It’s a shame that we don’t build things well or carefully enough to be fixed, that this skill is worthless for the most part.

It offends me that things aren’t built to last, that we replace whole expensive assemblies, or entire appliances just because some little tiny part goes bad. We don’t fix things. We don’t build things with enough value to warrant fixing them. We just replace.

Electronic soldering. That’s the lost art, I revived in my house these last two weeks.

What lost arts do you know? Are they worth reviving? Keeping alive?

Soldering is totally fun! (By the way, my Radio Shack has tons of suitable equipment.) I learned how on simple projects, and then my boyfriend with his video production company now uses me as his go-to repairman. That’s totally different from the simple stuff I learned on! It’s very doable, though, and there’s loads of online tutorials.

I suggest you check out Make magazine. It’s full of tons of projects like that! Their blog is a lot of fun, too, if you want to see what creative people are making these days.

Excuse me, I have an expensive-ass microphone they’re expecting me to somehow fix tonight. :slight_smile:

ETA - go back to RadioShack and get your daughter (and you) a SnapCircuits set. You learn a LOT about electronics, and it’s really cool and fun! I don’t even have a kid and I bought mine shamelessly.

Radio shack has stuff online. My local store didn’t bother with anything.

Ever since I saw this video of an amateur radio operator who makes his own vacuum tubes, that’s been what I think of when I think of “lost arts”.

And yep, the link goes to Make Magazine. :smiley:

I know a lost art? really? I had no idea :eek:

I’m asking for a raise the next time I have to solder the pins on a multi-conductor encoder cable. :smiley:

ETA: that video is frickin’ cool!

It’s not so bad since it’s a one-time thing, but if you go into doing more soldering - you know that having a four-year old around when you’re working with lead is kind of a bad idea? Mainly you just have to keep her from touching it - solder fumes don’t contain lead, although the flux is some nasty stuff. Pb-free solder has nasty fumes as well.

I’ve got a soldering station of my own and had fun taking stuff apart and figuring out the circuits. Though a lot of new stuff just isn’t so interesting - multilayer PCBs and custom ICs (especially when they’re potted) are boring compared to a board laid out with tape and full of discretes.

Recently my brother gave me a power supply that wasn’t working for him and it’s just a few transistors and other parts. The reference is actually the LED “on” indicator. Not the greatest design, but it has a certain charm.

On the plus side, it’s a lot easier these days to have your own custom circuit boards made. You can get 4-layer boards for less than $200.

ok. Not such a lost art. Cool.

Soldering station! PFFFFT! luxury.
Desoldering gun!? Ha!

You don’t need those.

A 30W 20 buck soldering iron will do, for desoldering I shall introduce you to the holly solder wick. It’s a ribbon of copper wires that you press against the solder joint with your soldering iron tip, when the solder melts it suck it out like magic. It’s fantastic.

There are a few other things you should do. First and foremost care for your soldering iron tip, keep it tinned at all times, always sweep it on a wet sponge (natural sponge or cotton sponge) every time you use it. Get solder flux paste (or liquid), use a tooth pick to put a little amount on the parts to be soldered, it makes soldering so much better and reliable.
When you solder things to a board try to remove any gunk on it, if there’s filth in between pads it may wick the solder and make a bridge between them. If everthing is nice and tidy the molten solder’s surface tension will keep it within the pad you’re working on. It shouldn’t spread elsewhere as long as you don’t use too much.
Really, that surface tension thingy is a gift from the gods. I soldered this chip (5 by 5mm) in all of 5 minutes with a 10 buck soldering iron using a tip that dwarfs the chip. I just smeared a little solder paste (another handy thing but you don’t want to keep it around kids, think of lead makeup :eek:) along the pins without caring about any bridges, I heated it up with the iron tip and voila, just like in Terminator the blobs rolled their way to the right places. Sweet.

Lastly, very important. Wash your hands very well after soldering, chances are you have some lead residue on them. Even if the solder you used is lead free I bet the one on the vintage pinball machine is not.

I love building electronic widgets at home, it’s very satitsfying when you get your first microcontroller LED blinking. Soldering is specially fun, it really takes skill and art, but with a little practice it’s easy. This is a programming board I made at home, I actually drew the PCB with a marker to make the etch mask. And here’s a tiny little microcontroller thingy I made for my model airplanes, it was my first try for this board so some components came a little crooked, it looked more neat on the second try. :smiley:

Definitely not a lost art, least not if I can help it.

So maybe I’ve not needed it for a while, but my variable temp soldering station’s waiting for me in the garage, along with solder and (hopefully!) a solder sucker and maybe even some desoldering braid.

And it’s old-school LEAD solder! Heck, 20-30 years ago, when I had more time to mess with electronics, a mouth was a perfectly acceptable third hand to hold the solder. Now, lead-phobes run screaming when they hear of such things.

Your OP made me nostalgic. Thank you. I can’t solder electronics, but I can solder stained glass. You made me want my workshop back. :slight_smile:

I do not know how to solder myself, but there are plenty of people I know who do. Just ask around your local circuit board factory! Heck, my own mother knows how to solder and still has her soldering iron from when Allen-Bradley closed in Bozeman, MT.

A coworker brought in an old calculator of her dad’s once (It looked like one of the first electronic calculators from the 1970’s) to have some broken part soldered back on. Would have been easy enough to replace, and probably would have been if she hadn’t known how it could be fixed.

As far as Radio Shack goes–not all of them stock the same stuff. My daughter needed some small lightbulbs and other parts for her science fair project. The Radio Shack at the local mall stocked nothing like that, but they sent us to a different Radio Shack that did still stock all those little electronic parts.

Lead? Hope your job doesn’t need to be RoHS compliant!

Well, that was quick. I went from being smug to feeling inferior just like that.

Hey, feel free to stay smug–it’s obvious that you’re the best dad ever. Sure, kids break stuff, but it takes a true Zen master to appreciate their doing it.

Looks like you need to unforgive your daughter Scylla.

As it happens, I’m going to be doing some soldering myself sometime this week (just as soon as I can find a supply of wire). My project isn’t nearly as precise as yours, just connecting a bunch of LEDs to some battery packs for a Halloween costume, which is a good thing, since I’m convinced that to solder properly, you need two left hands. And two right hands, too.

Meanwhile, you’ve already pretty much committed to doing this yourself, it sounds like, but if you want to find someone capable of soldering and who would be willing to help out (possibly even for free, for a cool project like a pinball machine), you could try the physics or electrical engineering department of your local university. Most of the students will know about as much about DIY electronics as those folks at Best Buy, but there will be a few who know what they’re doing, and everyone in the department will know who they are.

Last time I dug my soldering gear out was last Christmas. I’d gotten new lights for my horns & had to customize them to work with my existing switch & battery pack.

And I still have that 5 lb roll of real pB solder. The only good kind. Even smells good. Smells like Technology!

And cancer.

<confession mode on>
I’m a Ham radio operator, and I solder. :eek:
<confession mode off>

I took electronics twenty-plus years ago in high school. We mostly did wiring, and learned how to read circuit diagrams, but we did a little soldering.

So when my DVD player went on the fritz two years ago, and a Google search revealed that it was a common problem with my particular model, easily fixed, I decided to bust out the soldering gear. A quick trip to Radio Shack for a replacement capacitor (preceded by an hour of phone calls to find a Radio Shack within an hour’s drive that carried the correct type of capacitor), followed by two hours of unscrewing, disassembling, desoldering and resoldering, and presto, I had a working DVD player again. Total cost, including a new roll of solder: eight bucks, and about four hours.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered, given the disposable/replaceable mindset on gear like this (what’s a new DVD player cost now, forty or fifty dollars?), but my machine is a region-free, format-free device, capable of playing any sort of disc from anywhere in the world. PAL, region six, VCD, doesn’t matter. It was manufactured and released accidentally, and was on the shelves for only a few weeks before the maker (a major imprint) realized what they’d done and issued a frantic recall notice. I got wind of it via videophile word-of-mouth and managed to pick one up a couple of days before the recall went out. So I had a vested interest in getting it working again.

I didn’t think it was all that big a deal, but when I’ve told various people about it, they looked at me like I’d managed to launch a solo mission to the moon, in a craft made of Dixie cups and twist ties, powered by grass clippings and Kool-Aid. I actually started to feel a little prideful, and was tempted to brag about my electronics prowess.

It’s therefore nice to have a thread like this, partly to remind me that I’m not Superman and it really wasn’t that big a deal after all (I swapped out a capacitor, for crying out loud), but mostly to remind me that I’m among fellow geeky tinkerers. :smiley:

Make magazine is good, but I prefer Nuts and Volts