- May 26th, 2015
- Write comment
For quite a few years now I have wanted to build my my own effects pedals and swap out pickups in a few of my guitars. I have been gathering up several pedal kits, reading books on electronics, reading blogs, watching videos, and acquiring service manukau for pedals I want to try to modify. One thing stopped me from actually doing anything. Soldering.
The irony is that in my younger years I was quite handy with a soldering iron. I probably soldered something at least once a week for ten years or better. I have swapped out countless electronics in guitars from jacks to pickups. I tinned every speaker wire I ever used on any stereo system I ever hooked up. Despite all that experience, I was afraid to move forward and try assembling one of the pedal kits I had. Looking back I think it was all the components that frightened me. As a kid my dad taught me to solder on some old heathkits and we never got one to work. But we were able to successfully change out my 1/4″ jack on my bass, so I guess that's why my soldering never went past wires.
This past October I picked up a copy of Premier Guitar Magazine's “Pedal Issue” and there was an article on how to build your own stomp box. Complete with a step by step PDF and several links for finding the right parts. This lit the fire again. I really wanted to do this. I read the article a few times over, acquired all the parts needed and decided to start practicing how to solder. The first thing I did was assemble a signal tester that I got from Build Your Own Clone (BYOC). It kind of works, but I'm pretty sure I burned up the capacitor. Next, I made a guitar cable. It transmits sound, but it does it poorly. Now it was time to tackle the “confidence booster” kit from BYOC. I started by trying to solder a socket in place. I globed solder all over the board. It was time to stop.
I felt very defeated, but I was unwilling to give up. A coworker had suggested to me a local group called Makelab Charleston that is a collective space for its members to work on projects. He said that they have classes from time to time and was pretty sure someone there could help me solder. He was right. I googled the organization and found out I had just missed an intro to soldering class. I contacted the president of Makelab and asked about future classes. He said there would be some coming and to join the “Meet up” group to be notified of all classes they group would be having. So I did. And then I did the best thing I could have done. I stopped obsessing over the pedals and learning electronics and put it on the shelf.
I stepped away from all that and just focused on playing guitar, working on song ideas and just having fun. Next thing I knew I got an alert from meet up about an upcoming Soldering 101 class at make lab, $30 for non-members. So worth it. I showed up ready up ready to learn. I had my iPad with me for note taking and I was ready. It was a small group, but everyone there was super nice and very low key. The class started with a safety presentation and covered the basic tools. Next, there was a nice diagram on how to solder properly and what a good solder joint looked like. This is where the magic started to happen for me. Finally I could see where I was making a mistake. I was not placing my iron correctly. Next I learned my second problem. My soldering iron at home was not heating the way it should. The iron I used at the class was an old dual wattage Radio Shack iron that I was very familiar with. It worked exactly as I remember, right down to the handle getting super hot.
We opened up our project pacts and began populating the circuit board. All my reading and research paid off. As I looked at the board, it actually made sense. I recognized where components should go and was able to populate my board very quickly. Next up was the soldering. I immediately felt a difference in this iron from the one I have at home. Now was my chance to apply what we were just shown. The first lead I soldered did not cover well, so I adjusted the iron and was able to get better contact with the pad and lead and the solder jumped onto the board. I was surprised how easy this was going. I was sharing the soldering iron with the guy next to me, so it gave me a chance to take a break from soldering and take my time. It was nice to have a partner to bounce things off of. We helped each other through the process. To my surprise I was the first one with a completed project and that meant I got to test mine first. I kept thinking “please turn on, please turn on” the whole time I was putting the batteries in. I through the switch and viola! The lights turned on, the switches worked, and I was smiling ear to ear.
I left with a renewed confidence and re-kindled excitement to build a pedal. In a week I am going to visit a friend, and now I am super excited to to go looking for old broken pedals to try to fix and modify. Next stop is Radio Shack to get a new soldering iron and start building those kits!