Radio Shack really seems to be making an effort to reach out to electronics hobbyists. Five or ten years ago, I had all but given up on finding useful components or tools there, unless what I needed happened to be AA batteries or a new cell phone. Recently, though, Radio Shack has started to stock more parts and better tools, including some pretty decent soldering gear.
I’ve used Radio Shack’s portable butane soldering iron for a couple of years now; it’s very convenient and works well — but is large and massively overpowered for most of the work I do, even when throttled back to its barely-on minimal setting. My Weller temperature-controlled setup is much more suited to embedded design work — but is quite bulky, requires AC power, and is not designed for portability.
Finally, though, there seems to be a middle ground. Radio Shack’s cordless battery-powered soldering iron seems to work quite nicely for portable, cordless work on small electronics projects. (I recently used it to solder 90-degree headers onto a cool little 5Hz GPS unit from SparkFun.) For $20 (on sale for $15, apparently), it’s a steal.
Operation is pretty simple: move the switch to the ON position and hold down the momentary-contact switch. Despite the fact that the packaging says it takes a few minutes to warm up, it’s up to temperature very quickly: hot enough to melt .015″ 62/36/2 solder within about seven seconds, from a cold start. Ignore the directions on the packaging entirely, in fact, since it’s evident from some of the instructions (“Tin the tip by plugging in the iron and letting it heat fully…”) that at least some of the text was copied verbatim from another product. At least they didn’t get the description exactly wrong this time.
I have yet to see how long the batteries last in typical use, but since power is only applied while holding down the switch, there’s at least no need to worry about leaving it turned on. When powered on, a small white LED lights up the work piece a bit, too. This serves as both illumination as well as a nice “power on” indicator.
Here is a quick right-angle-connector soldering job I did with the iron, while away from my home lab. Considering that I wasn’t really taking my time or working with a magnifying glass etc, it did a nice job.
It won’t replace my Weller, but it is certainly well deserving of a place in my “go-bag” toolkit. If you do small-scale electronics work away from your workbench, I’d recommend picking one up.
(My only relationship to Radio Shack is as a customer; I like the direction they’re taking as far as support of electronics hobbyists, and feel they deserve the publicity.)