Learning to solder was a life-changing experience for me, but it can seem daunting. You aren’t just screwing and unscrewing parts — you are melting hot metal with a scorching tip. While that seems like something out of reach for most people, I am here to assure you that it’s never been easier to do, and that’s in part thanks to the Pinecil.
The Pinecil by Pine64 (makers of single-board computers and affordable Linux laptops) is an efficient, nimble soldering iron that runs on an open-source firmware called IronOS by Ralim. It has a bright little OLED screen, easy-to-understand controls, a 32-bit RISC-V SOC, and can be powered by either a DC adapter or a USB-C charger. Hell, you can even run it on a battery bank, and I definitely have done that multiple times. And to top it all off, the Pinecil costs roughly $25 (plus shipping, which shakes out to about $40, plus whatever other goodies you want to order). IronOS also runs on several similar inexpensive soldering irons, like these popular ones from MiniWare.
I first got into soldering the way many people these days do: through mechanical keyboards. If you dig deep enough into that hobby or similarly dorky pursuits like DIY audio, eventually you are going to hit a point where you have to solder.
My first iron was a secondhand Hakko soldering station I picked up from a maker space that was going out of business (it’s now available from Hakko and Amazon). Hakko makes great products; I still recommend their fume extractor and tip cleaning products, but for what I was doing, there were some definite growing pains. Soldering irons are traditionally big unwieldy devices attached to a station by a big cord. They get very hot, and if you are not careful, you absolutely can burn yourself. My fine motor skills are not the best, but over time, I improved, and now I’m pretty good at soldering.
I learned to love the Hakko in time. I got a huge spool of very good lead-free solder at the recommendation of a friend, some superwick, and a smoke absorber to clear the air (which you can also pick up on Amazon). I got into the rhythm of taking the station out, putting down a project mat, and setting everything up. I learned how to correctly maintain my iron, how to use flux, how to use sponges, and the importance of correctly tinning your tip. Over time, the entire process became a personal, meditative act. As my proficiency grew, the many keyboards and gadgets I had built and modified became regular tools in my life.
The first place I saw people raving about the Pinecil was in one of the countless keyboard Discords I had wandered into. By that time, I had grown accustomed to the tasteful yellow and blue Hakko, and it was a comfortable companion on my journey. But I saw people insist that not only was the Pinecil good, but it was also really good. So good, in fact, that it had become their go-to recommendation for most projects involving small circuit boards, which is most projects for a lot of people. I had to order one out of curiosity, and when it arrived, I, too, saw the light.
Here’s the thing: traditional soldering irons get very hot. And while the Pinecil also gets hot, the small form factor and lightweight tips drastically reduced the danger of being burned for me. What’s more, the Pinecil tips themselves are just designed in a much smarter way. Traditional soldering iron tips disassemble into multiple parts. Like a screwdriver with interchangeable ends, you can swap out different tips to fit the task, but with a traditional soldering iron, you need to wait for it to cool down, unscrew the sleeve holding the end in, and swap the end out. The Pinecil tips are just one whole piece of metal that plugs and unplugs sort of like a one-fourth inch stereo jack, cools down much faster, and is secured by a metal screw in the body of the device. As a result, the process of swapping out the tips is far less cumbersome.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Pinecil heats up really, really fast (I clocked it at seven seconds) and has an OLED and software that lets you dial in pinpoint accurate temperatures. This makes the entire process of storage, setup, and soldering a breeze and radically reduces the space needed to work. With a Pinecil, you could theoretically solder outside with a USB battery bank if that’s what you’re into (and just from a fumes perspective, there is something to that). To top it all off, the Pinecil has a fantastic sleep function, which did not seem terribly useful until I actually used it. Now? I can’t live without it.
Although I loved the process of unpacking my soldering station from its tiny plastic modular crate and setting it up like a tea ceremony, I had to admit that the Pinecil’s small profile and flexible power options opened up entirely new possibilities for where I could work with it. I was able to move from my kitchen table to my desk. For quick jobs, quickly fixing a solder point became a breeze.
Like the Flipper Zero and other beloved nerd tools, there’s even a community of 3D printable projects built expressly for the Pinecil. Got a 3D printer and want to make a portable case that doubles as a stand? There are multiple free models to download and print that let you get extremely granular with your tool.
The Pinecil is not the greatest for every single project. There are tasks where my old Hakko shines, like tinning the ends of thick wires. But for about 95 percent of my projects, I prefer the Pinecil, and my Hakko has now been respectfully retired to my local community space for communal use. I like it so much that I not only ordered more tips, I also swapped out the case for a cool, retro clear one.
There are few products out there that I will recommend without hesitation like I recommend the Pinecil. If you are the type of person that reads this blog, it’s almost a no-brainer. I firmly believe that everyone with the capability and interest in using a soldering iron should have access to one because it changes your relationship with tech in a fundamental way. Soldering can extend the life and function of tech in the way a sewing can with garments. Broken and discarded electronics can be given new life, and your hardware becomes yours in a way that it has not. Soldering opens up entirely new possibilities, from upgrading old secondhand speakers to building keyboards to improving the capabilities of a beloved but stock appliance.
Buy a Pinecil. I’m not kidding.
Now if Pine64 just made a good desoldering pump, I’d be all set. Desoldering sucks so much.
Update January 18th, 7:20PM ET: This post has been updated to include Amazon links to several products, including Hakko’s FX-888D Digital Soldering Station.