Equipment

There is quit a bit of equipment required in order to successfully repair a laptop, some of it quite expensive. I’m located in Australia, which can make those items even more expensive. For example in the US you can buy a Hakko FX-951 soldering station for under $300, but in Australia, the same product is nearly $500. I guess the flip side is that the repaired laptops also sell for a little more out here than they would in the US.

Here is a breakdown of all of the important hardware and consumables I use for my Mac repairs, along with approximate costs and I why I use each particular product.

Soldering Iron

Hakko FX-951 soldering iron

Hakko FX-951

If I’m being totally honest, I don’t actually use a Hakko FX-951 soldering iron, I use a knock-off, generic brand FX-951.

Although not as good as the genuine product, it’s still a pretty good iron and was less than half the price of the genuine article. It’s also 100% compatible with the genuine Hakko tips.

The reason I use this particular model is that it allows easy swapping of tips, even when the iron is hot. It also has the heating element in the tips themselves, rather than having it in the handle. This means very fast heating, and far less heat loss. It also has a very wide range of tips available.

It’s not all good though, this model (including the genuine Hakko) has one of the most counterintuitive interfaces ever devised. Rather than just simple up/down temperature controls, you have to select the specific digit on the display to change it. It also has a ridiculous “key” (which is basically a slotted piece of plastic) which needs to be inserted to change the temperature. Why? Surely the person using the device knows what temperature they need, so why is a key required? Are people worried that someone’s going to sneak in and change the temperature when they’re not looking?

Whichever soldering iron you use, it should have plenty of heating power and a good range of fine tips available. Temperature readout is also a must.

Hot Air Rework Station

Quick 861DW Hot Air Rework Station

Quick 861DW
The Quick 861DW is considered a “budget” hot air station, but once again, buying one of these in Australia will set you back over $400. But that’s still pretty cheap when compared to some of the premium products, such as Hakko and Weller. A Hakko FR-803B will set you back over $1,200 in Oz.

In the early days, I used to get by with an el-cheapo hot air station. The main difference between the cheap ones is they have both the heating element and the fan in the handle. The expensive ones have the heating element in the handle and the fan in the base station. It allows them to blow a far more powerful jet of air. The better models also have more heating power.

This unit has intuitive controls, very powerful heat and air, a nice solid holder, and it includes a range of tips. I basically can’t find fault with it.

Microscope

AmScope SM-4NTP-144 stereo microscope

Amscope SM-4NTP-144, 7X – 45X stereo microscope

One of the most expensive items in the workshop, and also one of the most important. I worked for a while without a proper microscope, and it really limits your capabilities. When you’re trying to melt solder on one end of a 1.6mm resistor, without melting the solder on the other end, you’ll make a complete mess of it unless you have a quality microscope.

The microscope should be on a boom so that you have enough room to work under it. It’s also nice to have one with a spot for a camera so that you can record what you’re doing.

Ultrasonic Cleaner

Ultrasonic cleaner

If you don’t know what an ultrasonic cleaner is, I’d highly recommend reading up on what they are and how they work. Put simply, they use a process called “cavitation”, whereby ultrasounds are bounced around in a tub of water, which bombards the surface of anything you put inside with little tiny air bubbles. Combined with a mid detergent, it’s highly effective when cleaning items that have lots of little cavities or inaccessible areas.

Ultrasonic cleaners range in price from under a hundred dollars to many thousands of dollars. I bought mine on eBay for under $200, and it has a 10 litre tub. My recommendation would be to buy what you can afford. With a cheaper cleaner, items will probably take longer to clean, which has the potential to do damage over time.

Make sure the ultrasonic cleaner:

  • has a built-in heater
  • has a built-in timer
  • is big enough to hold your largest repair board

And don’t buy a little cheap one that’s designed for jewellery cleaning.

Ultrasonic Cleaning Fluid

Ultrasonic cleaning fluid

Ultrasonic cleaners need detergent, especially when trying to break down things like residual flux or spilled coffee. There are plenty of PCB-specific detergents out there, that are designed not to damage the boards or the solder, but they’ll help clean away all of the other gunk. You just dilute the detergent with some distilled water in the cleaner, and you’re ready to clean. Just replenish the liquid once it looks nasty.

I use a product called “Electro” from Kleentek which comes in 5L bottles of concentrate.

Solder

I don’t really recommend a specific brand of solder, but I do recommend buying quality. I like to work with leaded solder because I like working with the low melting point. I use a 37% lead, 63% tin, low residue 0.35mm diameter fluxed solder, which comes on a 100g roll. These can be a bit pricey, but you really do get what you pay for.

Flux

“If in doubt, add more flux.” That’s my mantra. Flux will help your solder flow nicely, which makes the job easier, and makes the finished product look nicer. I use a couple of different gel fluxes. The first is AmTech NC-559-V2-TF, and the other is Interflux IF 8300. I probably prefer the AmTech, but it’s a little hard to get here in Australia.

Whichever flux you use, you want to make sure it’s a no-clean gel flux that’s specifically designed for PCB work. I also like to use flux that comes in a syringe dispenser.

Solder paste

I haven’t observed a great deal of difference between solder pastes, but I use ChipQuick SMD291AX10 37% lead, 63% tin, no clean solder paste. It works very nicely.

Scalpels

Having a sharp blade is extremely important. Lots of people favour the X-Acto knives, but I have always preferred using surgical scalpels. I use Swann-Morton #10 blades, which fit onto a #3 handle. They have a sharp point, as well as a curved blade. The curve is incredibly useful for scraping. The handles and blades can both be purchased on eBay.

Keep in mind that these blades are designed specifically for cutting skin, so be bloody careful when using them. I managed to embed one in my elbow about 20 years ago, and I suspect I came very close to doing some serious nerve damage.

Solder wick

Solder wick (or braid) is woven copper with a coating of flux, and is specifically designed to draw in solder when heat is applied. It’s incredibly useful stuff for cleaning pads or removing stubborn bits of solder.  It comes in a variety of widths, but I prefer the 2.0mm stuff. For those in Australia, it can be purchased from the Jaycar chain of stores.