Giving Back to Elmers: the Soldering Platform Edition

We all have Elmers in this hobby through one medium or another. I’ve certainly been blessed with a number of them. I’ve tried to be an Elmer to a number of others, too. We get Elmering through other means besides in-person discussions, of course, as various social media platforms—especially Youtube—has exploded with how-to videos and such. Some Elmers are now charging for their premium educational services! But Elmering as an activity is rarely a monolithic endeavor as very few hams tend to “know it all,” although every reader can name a few on QRZ.com or eHam.net who seem to be legends in their own mind.

I’m talking here about one Elmer helping explain something about the hobby over a period of time where the learner becomes more competent in that subject matter within the scope of the hobby. It’s entirely likely that the learning ham can give back to specific Elmers on another aspect of the diverse hobby that is amateur radio. I’ve tried to do that in spots where it was clear that I could. Here is one recent example.

Thomas N5WDG is a local ham who is an RF network engineer at a three-letter cellular company. He holds the E.E. from Mississippi State University and an MBA from Millsaps College. We’ve been friends for almost a decade now, having many overlapping social network connections. He’s one of the go-to folks for repeaters in the Jackson MS area. I have learned a great deal from him about repeaters, installations, and RF testing in general. As I’ve been building my RF Lab, he’s been a constant source of information and advice. But when I recently built a small jig to simply hold two wires for my soldering platform, I thought I’d just build another for N5WDG, too. After texting him to blindly ask what he was using for a soldering position in his home workbench, he sent back a picture very familiar to most all hams who have ever attended a hamfest or visited Radio Shack back in the day.

Radio Shack soldering aid, commonly known as a “third hand”

He said it has served him well. I’m sure it has as it has me (cheap hamfest model with small magnifying glass) and thousands of other hams and makers over the decades. When I sent him a return text showing him a jig that I’d made and would give one to him soon, he make positive comments about the soldering platform in the background, something I built a few years ago. Hmm. Here’s a chance to give something back to one of my Elmers! And, there’s ice on the ground outside, I’m hold up at home, and I’ve got stuff in my junk-box.

Simple two-wire soldering jig using magnet bar base with two alligator clips through holes with the teeth covered by heat shrink

Steel Soldering Platform

So over a few days, I built a version of a steel soldering platform that uses magnets for everything attached on top with four metal feet on the bottom. Instant heat sink for even a 500 watt soldering iron or gun job! The one on my workbench is a 12″ x 12″ square of thin steel but I only had an 8″ x 12″ remnant in my junk-box. The picture below illustrates the various aids I included on Thomas’ soldering platform.

Soldering Platform built for N4WDG with all accessories stacked on the surface. Each use allows for a new arrangement of each aid.

All aids except the Aven circuit board holder have magnets on the bottom to put them where needed and removal entirely when desired.

Two of the two-wire jigs were included since we all lose one sooner or later, right? The medical clamps are mainly for temporary heat sinks. I’ve melted either insulation or plastic portions of switches so many times that I always attach one of these clamps near the solder joint so as to isolate the heat dispersal. Works better than I imagined!

There are four “helping hands” purchased from Quadhands.com (and on Amazon). I’ve homebrewed several aids like this but their price point is close enough to make it just worth going with theirs. They come in various lengths but these are the 12″ versions. In fact, I noticed when I bought these arms that Quadhands now actually makes a metal soldering platform with four of these helping hands for just over $50USD.

There is a knitting dowel on the upper left with a round magnet glued on the bottom. This is for winding toroids, except for the very small ones. Put the doughnut toroid on the top and let it find it’s own place on the pole. Wind your wire through by sliding the toroid up just enough to let the wire pass. I’ve not then had the wire move very much before I measure the toroid with an LC-meter or something. Then gently remove it for applying “Q dope” if you use that to hold the wire in place.

The small staging vice has four magnets glued on the bottom (using epoxy). I got these neat little (used) devices from Marlon P. Jones in Florida where I also bought various magnets used in the build. They are very useful to hold various parts like copper-clad board and other parts while soldering things to them.

There is a small rectangular magnet on the upper right (I’m right-handed) but it can be placed anywhere. It’s to hold down a round tin of soldering tip paste so that it doesn’t move around, a real nuisance when when you’re chasing it with a hot soldering iron!

Soldering tip cleaner paste

The soldering jigs were made from a magnet bar from MPJ along with alligator clips from eBay and a metal screw. The magnet bar has a shallow steel U-shaped cover for the three Neodymium Rare Earth Magnet squares inside. This means that they stick lick heck to the steel platform! I matched a carbon steel drill to the hole in the magnet before using my drill press to drill through the steel on each end magnet. A Dremel tool with a cone shaped steel grinding bit was used to debur the hole on the steel case side and to enlarge it very slightly so that the fitting end of each alligator clip would slide snugly through the hole. I screwed in a Phillips-head metal screw from the magnet side into the alligator clip so that the screw would wedge the clip into the hole without allowing it to work it’s way out. Then, on to grinding off the screw’s head so that it would be flat on the steel platform surface. After doing that using the Dremel tool’s steel grinding bit, I put a bit of Gorilla tape over the magnet side and trimmed it with an Exacto knife so that the bottom of the steel case and magnets would not chip the paint on the steel platform.

Parts for the two-wire soldering jig before assembly

Here’s a word to the wise. I should have used a Dremel cutting bit to just but off the screw heads. That would have left just a minor grinding job to get the remaining screw tip flat with the magnet’s surface. But no! I had to grind them off. Remember that there are magnets? The shavings don’t just fall away but stick to the magnet. And if you absentmindedly just use your fingers to wipe the shards away, you get what’s in the picture below. Do not attempt to replicate this step, LOL! Use a cloth, work gloves or strong compressed air.

Steel shards embedded in my thumb from wiping them off the magnets.

Finally, the Aven circuit board holder has some competitors but it’s fairly inexpensive on Amazon, works superbly, and the rubber feet tend to have some suction to them which holds things in place for the most part. I could have substituted magnets for the rubber feet but decided not to do that here.

Setup and Build Steps

Here’s the setup and build process. I’ve seen a number of other homebrew builds over the past few years so not much of this is my own invention. Perhaps the exact organization of the aids but that’s not anything to jump up and down about. They just reflect what I’ve found I can use to “do stuff” involving a soldering iron or gun on my workbench.

The 1/8″ steel base is 8″ x 12″ in size. I buy most of my metal materials like this from an eBay vendor with the ID of quality_metals out of Chicago. Good price but can be slow to ship on occasion. I rub any oil off of it which many sellers spray on to reduce rust. I always use a Dremel tool to round the corners just a bit so they don’t injure someone (me) in use. I debur the edges too. Dremel has so many fittings that I use for building. The metal grinding tools come in many, many different sizes and grades, especially for use in jewelry making. Once this step is done. I put down a paint drop cloth (old bed sheet usually) to prevent over-spray. I like Rust-oleum’s Hammered Spray Paint (I buy this at Lowes), applying a light coat on the top, letting it dry completely, and then one on the bottom. Once both are dry, I use a common heat gun on the low setting to “bake” the paint on a bit before applying a second coat. Drying and another bake session completes the job. This coating I’ve found makes the solder drips cool almost instantly without adhering to the steel platform, wiping off much like dust after a job is completed.

At this point, I mark the four corners on the bottom for attaching round metal feet. I’ve been using those in the picture below, cutting off the metal spike (nail) that is used to attach these feet to wood chair legs. After removing the spike, I outline the remaining rubber side that will be glued to the steel platform base. Using a Dremel tool, I remove the Rust-Oleum paint where the rubber side of the metal foot will attach and apply epoxy mixed on the spot of the metal. Then, clamps are applied to keep the foot and base together for the expoxy to cure overnight. (It took longer because of the sub-freezing temps in the area.) Rough up both the rubber on the foot and the metal circle where the epoxy will be applied for a better seal.

Metal foot before removing the metal spike

I’ve detailed how I built the two-wire soldering jigs above. I went with commercial products for the helping hands (instead of the mechanical arms I used on my platform earlier) and the circuit board holder (Aven, as I did on my own platform). The knitting dowel was purchased at a local art store and the magnet was glued on it’s wooden base using Gorilla glue. The medical clamps were bought a a pack of 12 on eBay a few years ago. They are widely available. This set of soldering aids can be used mix-and-match depending on the project or task. I keep the helping hands on mine all the time but store the Aven holder until there’s a circuit board in the project. While I have other tools used in soldering, stored on a metal magnet bar underneath the shelves above my workbench, this set is what I’ve found to be useful. The magnets make this very versatile. I prefer them instead of mounting the helping hands using nuts-and-bolts.

Thomas N5WDG seemed thrilled to receive this surprise gift. I was pleased that he was. The circuit of Elmering was complete. And perhaps Elmering in amateur radio should be more like that. To really learn something well, it’s said to teach it. Learning from an Elmer should inspire a ham to return the favor when it’s appropriate. I am happy to give back to one of mine.

Frank Howell, K4FMH, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Mississippi, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

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