One gift that geeks undeniably love are tools. The tricky thing is finding ones that not only they don’t have, but also need. I can’t imagine anyone interested in electronics NOT owning a soldering iron, but almost all beginners start out with a really useless $8 radioshack iron. That thing usually has a very blunt tip, is uncomfortable, and is almost never the right temperature. It really is amazing anyone can learn how to solder on one of those. Last year I became the proud owner of a Weller WLC100, and I suggest you do the same.
I’m sure you are wondering what makes this is soldering iron better.
-It’s MUCH more comfortable in your hand
-It has a variable temperature dial so that you can gently heat components.
-It is much more stable on the desk, and it has an orange light on it that lights up whenever the unit is powered (and therefore much less likely to light your shop on fire!)
-And lastly, when you work with it you feel like you are using the proper tool for the job. We have all been in a situation where you are stripping wires with a kitchen knife, or cutting a hole in a box with a plastic fork. Sometimes you need to use the wrong tool for the job, but when you have the perfect tool for the job it really makes the process much more enjoyable.
This is a necessity if you are planning on learning how to do surface mount components, and it is strongly recommended for anyone who turns on a soldering iron more than a few times a year. Don’t believe me? Here’s a flickr forum from the MAKE group where they talk about the pros and cons of many irons.
Let’s just say that maybe someone was really good this year you are feeling like you might want to drop some bigger bucks on your station, then there is always this mamma-jamma: the Weller WES51.
I have never used this model, but i can only imagine that this is a nice step up from the WLC100. This is an iron for people who are really serious about their soldering. I believe it has a much more precise temperature control, and it also has an auto shut off safety feature. It seems to be the iron that Ladyada personally uses
Bottom line: soldering irons are important and often overlooked. Tinkering can be an awkward, painful, knuckle-busting hobby, and anything that makes it more comfortable makes it more rewarding.