From fixing wires to installing new water lines, soldering is a handy skill to have. It’s an easy process to learn, and the tools and materials you’ll need are readily available and relatively inexpensive. Whether you’re working with copper pipe or copper wire, buy a little extra and solder up a few practice joints before undertaking the actual project.
Soldering copper pipes is a simple skill to learn, and can certainly come in handy for a number of remodeling and plumbing repair tasks. The keys to good soldering, as with just about every other construction project, are good preparation, proper materials, and the right tools.
First of all, the pipe needs to be cut square. Copper pipe and tubing can be cut with a hacksaw, but best results are obtained with a tubing cutter specifically designed for this use. After measuring the pipe to length, slip the tubing cutter over the pipe and tighten the handle until the cutting wheel contacts the pipe. Rotate the cutter around the pipe, slowly turning the handle to increase cutting pressure until the pipe is cut completely through.
Next, you need to clean both the pipe end and the inside of the fitting. Proper cleaning is essential to remove dirt and oxides from the metal, and improper cleaning will often result in a weak or failed joint. There are several tools available for this task, including wire fitting brushes, abrasive sandpaper strips, and abrasive pads. Any of them will work, so the choice is really what feels best to you.
After the cleaning is complete, applying flux is the next step. Flux is necessary to dissolve and remove any remaining traces of oxide from the metal after cleaning, and it also prevents further oxidation during the soldering process and promotes smooth flow of the solder into the joint. Flux comes in a paste form, and is applied to the end of the pipe and the inside of the fitting using a small brush. Use caution when applying the flux, since it contains chemicals that can be harmful if you get it in your eyes, mouth, or open cuts. Read and follow all label instructions carefully!
Now you can assemble the joint, which is done by slipping the pipe into the fitting until it bottoms out completely. Support the pipe so that the joint stays completely seated during the soldering process. Complete the soldering as soon as possible after the joints have been cleaned and fluxed, to prevent the flux from drying out and becoming ineffective.
Soldering of this type is most commonly done using a small hand-held propane torch. Holding the torch a couple of inches away from the metal, apply the flame to the pipe about an inch away from the joint to begin heating the pipe and allowing the heat to be conducted to the fitting. Move the torch toward the fitting until the flame is directly over the joint between the pipe and the fitting. How long you need to hold the flame there is dependant on the size of the pipe and fitting being used – you’ll get a pretty good feel for this after soldering up a few joints.
Move the torch slightly away from the fitting and touch the solder to the joint. If you have cleaned, fluxed and heated the joint properly, the solder will be sucked very quickly into the joint by way of capillary action. If the solder does not flow right away, remove the solder, continue heating, and then try the solder again.
Finally, allow the joint to cool down a little and then wipe it with a damp cloth. This removes any excess flux residue and helps prevent future oxidation.
The process for soldering copper wires is essentially the same, but the tools and materials are a little different. You will again be using flux and solder, but of a different size and type then what you used with the pipe, and a soldering iron is used in place of the propane torch to apply the heat. Most soldering irons are electric, but a growing number are available in cordless models that operate off of replaceable or rechargeable batteries. A particularly nice cordless soldering iron that is both safe and convenient is the Cold Heat Cordless Soldering Tool – you can check it out at www.coldheat.com.
After you have stripped the insulation off the ends of the wires, lightly twist the exposed wires together to make up the connection. Using a soldering iron instead of a torch, apply the tip of the iron directly to the wires until they are heated sufficiently to melt the solder. Remove the soldering iron, and touch the end of the solder to the joint. If you have properly heated the joint, the solder will flow instantly – do not use the soldering iron to melt the solder.
All of the tools and materials you need for soldering are available at home centers, plumbing and electric retailers, hobby and electronic shops, and many other retailers. Remember to read and follow all the instructions carefully, and don’t ignore the safety warnings!
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