Lead-free Hand Soldering – Ending the Nightmares

Lead-free Hand Soldering – Ending the Nightmares
Lead-free Hand Soldering –
Ending the Nightmares
Most issues during the transition seem to be with Hand Soldering
Written By: Peter Bioca
As companies transition over to lead-free assembly a certain amount of hand soldering will always be
there. An article from Tech Search International last year did say that in Asia where lead-free is highly
used, hand soldering was more of a problem than lead-free SMT or wave soldering.
Kester has been getting numerous calls in reference to hand soldering with lead-free in recent months. In
fact most problem calls and requests for training through Kester University are related to lead-free hand
soldering and rework. In many cases the assemblers are using materials from various solder suppliers
with similar issues occurring in all cases. Often the problems are more than material issues.
Switching to lead-free on Monday morning when Friday operators were soldering with leaded solder is not
recommended. Although this seems easily understood some assemblers have attempted this, with line
stoppages occurring only a few hours into lead-free hand soldering. Operator complaints, loss of reliability
and poor joint quality were experienced. This could be a production engineer's nightmare but it need not
be this way if the basic concepts of hand soldering are revisited, some experience gained prior to the
transition and adequate training of operators is performed before and after the switchover.
Here are some questions often asked by assemblers in reference to hand soldering with lead-free
solders. These are in fact also some of the issues addressed during the lead-free hand soldering on-site
audit done through Kester University.
Which alloys and fluxes are compatible with lead-free hand soldering?
The limiting factor with lead-free solders is probably its availability in wire form; some alloys are not easily
drawn into wire, as is the case with tin-bismuth solders.
At this time the most popular alloys used to make wire are tin-silver-copper and tin- copper based solders.
This compliments the industry well at this time where 68% of SMT assemblers and 50% of wave
assemblers have chosen tin-silver-copper (SAC) solders. In wave soldering 20% have chosen tin-copper
(SnCu) based solders due to the cost of lead-free solder bar. Wire solders for hand-assembly are
therefore readily available in these two alloys.
The main differences between SAC and SnCu solders are the melting points; the melting temperatures
are approximately 217ºC and 227ºC respectively. From a soldering performance perspective, SAC wets
more readily than SnCu based solders, so flow with SAC solders, everything else being equivalent, will be
Both SAC and SnCu solders are available in no-clean, water washable and rosin based flux formulas. Noclean accounts for over 85% of the total wire usage while water washable is less than 15% and rosin
based fewer than 5%. These numbers apply to North America. In other parts of the world no-clean is
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What are the key variables in choosing a good lead-free solder wire?
By far the flux content in the wire will be a critical factor in determining wetting behavior. Lead-free solders
such as SAC, SnCu and the higher temperature option tin-antimony SnSb wet a little slower than 63/37
when compared using similar conditions in wetting balance tests.
Lead-free solder wires should contain at least 2% flux by weight. Leaded solders are available with lower
flux percentages as low as 1% wt/wt; this low flux volume will not work well with lead-free.
Typical flux distribution in a solder wire, the density of the flux is close to 1 g/cc;
therefore the volume is more obvious in the cross-section. Multiple cores are used
at times but the percent is usually 2 or 3 % for lead-free. Less flux results in more
difficulties during soldering.
If wetting is still too sluggish 3% flux in the wire may be tried but this will give higher residues, not always
cosmetically appealing in no-clean applications. The addition of flux using a squeeze bottle is normally not
acceptable due to over application issues. This is not acceptable for no-clean applications.
Another important point is to ensure the flux is designed for lead-free applications and therefore it should
be able to withstand higher soldering tip temperatures without charring, spattering and decomposition.
Some fluxes may smoke more when using hotter tip temperatures.
When choosing a solder wire make sure to observe the flux IPC classification. Many no- cleans meet the
ROL0 classification meaning they are rosin based, low activity and halide free. These are the most
reliable and meet the SIR and corrosiveness tests in the IPC specification. With lead-free there is a
tendency to use higher activity to compensate for the reduced wetting; this is not always a good idea.
Water washable fluxes will be more active classed often as ORH1 and do better with lead-free soldering.
However ensure the residues are still completely removable in hot water; doing ionic contamination
testing is recommended. If ionic contaminants still remain after water washing, a clean process change
may be warranted such as increasing the cycle time, water temperature or a change of the cleaning
In comparative studies done with SAC and SnCu wetting balance tests indicate that using the same flux
types that SAC out-performs SnCu solders in the time required to reach maximum wetting. This applies
also to SnCu solders with dopants of nickel, cobalt or other additives.
In choosing an alloy it is important to determine the overall solderability of the parts to be assembled. If
the parts are older, more oxidized, manually handled SAC solder may be a better choice.
What are the main changes associated with lead-free hand assembly cosmetics?
Lead-free solders flow a little slower than 63/37 using the same activation levels for the fluxes. The
contact angles are slightly larger and feathering out of the solder is therefore less pronounced. The solder
joints tend to be less reflective than 63/37 solder. Some re- training is required prior to a full transition to
lead-free is done.
In some cases certain shrinkage effects as described in Section 5 of the IPC-STD-610D occur. The IPC610 classifies these as soldering anomalies and not necessarily defects.
World Headquarters: 800 West Thorndale Avenue, Itasca, Illinois, 60143 USA
Phone: (+1) 630 616-4000 ■ Email: [email protected] ■ Website: www.kester.com
As mentioned on page 5-22 of the above document, it is not a defect for Class 1, 2 and 3 if the tear
bottom is visible and the shrink hole does not contact the lead, land or barrel wall. See the photos below
for examples taken from the Kester laboratory.
What is the best soldering tip temperature for lead-free SAC and SnCu?
The temperature of the tip or contact temperature is very important to ease the lead-free hand soldering
operation. When using 63/37 solders temperatures as low as 650ºF have been used but with lead-free
700-800ºF is best. The higher temperature does compensate for the slower wetting exhibited with these
lead-free alloys.
Above 800ºF issues of board and component damage may arise; at lower temperatures cold solder joints
and flagging are the normal complaints.
<0.25 µm
1.0 µm
>1.0 µm
Higher temperatures and longer contacts with the parts to be soldered may also increase the intermetallic
bond layer. So avoiding prolonged contact and repeated rework is not recommended. The above diagram
shows what happens as the bond layer increases in thickness a higher risk of embrittlement occurs.
The risk of de-wetting also increases with higher temperatures.
How about the soldering tips with lead-free solders?
Lead-free tips are required however just as important is the choice of tip design. Lead-free is less
forgiving and the right tip for the job will go a long way in prevent defects.
Chose a tip with enough heat delivering capacity. Fine point tips cannot be used in all applications and in
some cases a tip such as a chisel type is best suited to deliver sufficient heat to the parts to be soldered.
World Headquarters: 800 West Thorndale Avenue, Itasca, Illinois, 60143 USA
Phone: (+1) 630 616-4000 ■ Email: [email protected] ■ Website: www.kester.com
See the diagram below for examples of correct tip selection criteria.
How about tip life with lead-free solders?
Tip life will be reduced with lead-free solders and it is important to choose tips really designed for leadfree soldering. Many tips are only tinned with lead-free solder and the iron plating is no different than
traditional soldering tips. High tin solders like to dissolve iron and this reduces tip life. Some assemblers
have reported important reductions in tip-life for example a manufacturer reported that with 63/37 the tips
lasted 3 months with lead-free the tip-life was only 3 weeks.
Not all soldering tips are equal when comparing dissolution rates so choosing tips carefully and asking for
more compatibility information is a good practice.
Lead-free tip failure after 3
Cross-section of typical solder tip, with leadfree the solder is lead-free
How can a good lead-free hand soldering process be had, which will ease the lead-free soldering
In a recent study, which appeared in the Lead-free Update by Tech Search International in December
2004, hand soldering was found to be more problematic to implement when compared to lead-free wave
soldering and SMT.
The reason could be that hand soldering is more operator dependent than reflow and wave soldering but
also the surface tension in lead-free solders is slightly higher. Wetting or spread is also a little slower
when compared to 63/37.
To reduce operator issues and reduced wetting proper optimization of the soldering process is key. To
avoid issues use a flux content of 2-3% by weight in the solder wire, use a solder tip temperature of 700800ºF. Also Tin-Silver-Copper (SAC) solder will flow more readily than Tin-Copper (SnCu) solder.
The main issues encountered with lead-free hand soldering are cold solder joints, poor wetting, flagging
and de-wetting. These can be avoided.
World Headquarters: 800 West Thorndale Avenue, Itasca, Illinois, 60143 USA
Phone: (+1) 630 616-4000 ■ Email: [email protected] ■ Website: www.kester.com
A step-by step process transition would be as follows:
• Ensure the tips are designed for lead-free
• Ensure the temperature is set to 700-800ºF
• Ensure the flux content in the wire is a least 2% wt/wt
• Use lead-free tips with the longest life
• Use the correct tip for the job
• Ensure the parts are easily solderable with the chosen flux
• Avoid prolonged contact times
• Avoid needless reworking of the joint
• Avoid the use of additional liquid flux
Which defects or issues can appear and how can they be avoided?
The common issues reported with lead-free are:
• Grainy joints
• Cold solder joints
• De-wetting
• Flagging
• Poor wetting and wicking
• Flux charring and darkened residues
• Difficulty with the cleaning of residues
Grainy joints can be due to too high a tip temperature and the dissolution of the metals to be joined.
Cold solder joints can be due to several things such as too low a tip temperature, too weak a flux or
insufficient flux in the wire.
De-wetting can be caused by prolonged tip contact and the dissolution of the plated metals, exposing a
less solderable surface. Too high temperatures can also cause this.
Flagging can be caused with the use of too high soldering tip temperatures or the use of solder wires with
low volumes of flux. Flux activity may be low also and prolonged contact with the iron is de-activating it.
Flux charring with no-cleans and cleaning difficulties especially where water washable is used can be due
to soldering temperatures being too high or the flux is not properly designed for the higher temperatures
required for lead-free. Avoiding prolonged contact and using lower soldering temperatures can help with
this situation.
My soldering iron tips are charring, turning black and de-wetting when I use lead-free solder wire,
what can I do?
Not all fluxes are created equal and some are thermally incapable of sustaining the higher soldering
temperatures used with lead-free solder. A recent video clip from OK International demonstrates this well
when two solder wires are compared side by side and this is called the "black tip syndrome". Less
thermally stable resins turn the tip black and makes re-tinning more difficult also.
Once "black tip syndrome" occurs the reduction in heat transfer makes lead-free hand soldering difficult,
tip life is reduced, tip costs and operator frustration goes up and reliability goes down.
World Headquarters: 800 West Thorndale Avenue, Itasca, Illinois, 60143 USA
Phone: (+1) 630 616-4000 ■ Email: [email protected] ■ Website: www.kester.com
Proper flux selection, using lead-free tips and lead-free hand solder process training for operators will
offset these costs. The important points to help avoid these problems are listed below:
• Use lead-free solder wires with lead-free designed fluxes
• Avoid using too high temperatures
• If tip-thinner is used, wipe excess tinning material on a clean sponge
• Do not use pressure to compensate for lack of wetting
• Use the right tip geometry
• Use the correct wire diameters
• Segregate work areas for lead-free and leaded
• Identify lead-free irons and work stations
• Train all operators on the expectations
These are some of the questions asked by customers moving forward with lead-free assembly. A little
training goes a long way in avoiding costly issues with the hand soldering process.
Although the process is more operator dependent using the tech tips mentioned above can make hand
soldering less frustrating for the operators and engineers. Maintaining the same levels of reliability they
are accustomed to with leaded soldering is therefore very achievable with no nightmares of poor joints or
reduced production output.
For any questions, please contact:
Mike Kaminsky, Senior Field Support Engineer
Cell: 704-706-4026
[email protected]
World Headquarters: 800 West Thorndale Avenue, Itasca, Illinois, 60143 USA
Phone: (+1) 630 616-4000 ■ Email: [email protected] ■ Website: www.kester.com
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