Pinecil mini portable soldering iron review – you need one of these in your gigbag
This revolutionary USB-chargable mini-iron is making waves in the computing world, but can it handle guitar jobs too? If it can, emergency wiring jobs might become a breeze overnight…
The Pinecil is an open-source soldering iron, which has most enthusiastically been adopted by the likes of the DIY mechanical keyboard and single-board computer crowds. So why are you reading about it on Guitar.com? Well, on paper it’s got the potential to be an absolutely essential piece of kit for everyone from touring techs to pedal tinkerers to pickup swappers.
So is it?
The Pinecil is a far cry from the more industrious soldering irons that normally populate guitar workshops. First off – it has a screen. More on that later. Second off, it’s not connected to a bulky power distributor unit or even a built-in power lead. There’s a DC jack, but you can also run it off a USB-C charger provided it can kick out (at the bare minimum) 12v/3A. With a more powerful charger, you’ll get better performance.
Given the prevalence of fast-charging smartphones and USB-charging laptops it’s more than likely you’ve got at least one brick capable of giving the Pinecil enough juice. And if you don’t, they’re not hard to find and not that expensive. We gave it a go with a MacBook charger, which presented us with no issues at all. But, you’ve got a lot of options: Even a hefty enough battery bank will do you.
Plugging in, the small LCD screen immediately lights up. It’s bright and easy to read, and although interacting with just two buttons (+ and -) is a little fiddly at first, it doesn’t take long to figure this out. Prompting the element to engage with a press of the + button, the display switches to the current temperature as it starts to climb. The target temperature can be adjusted with presses of the + and – buttons. Holding down the – button turns the element off and brings you back to the Pinecil’s ‘start’ state, from which you can access the settings menu to do things like change the temperature units.
Because this is an open-source project, the quote-unquote smart features aren’t locked behind the process of downloading an app or trying to get the bastard thing to sync over bluetooth. Instead, the unit is just, well, smart. For example, leave it lying down – ideally in your own stand or Pine’s own $2.99 portable one – and the Pinecil will drop to an idle temperature, increasing the life of the tip/element and reducing the risk of setting your desk on fire. Picking it up prompts it to heat back up to operating temperature, and it’s time to actually start soldering. So let’s do that, shall we?
Imagine, if you will, your worst nightmare. Your slightly loose output jack has decided that just after soundcheck is the right time to give up, and after one too many unwarranted rotations the wires snap from its lugs. Disaster. Gig’s ruined. But, let’s say you thought ahead enough to throw the Pinecil in your gig bag. You forgot a charger? Not to worry, somebody will have some sort of USB-C device, somewhere. Probably. You find a corner somewhere in the venue to get on fixing your guitar as your bandmates head off to find a kebab.
Setting the temperature to around 390 degrees, the Pinecil is more than capable of removing snapped output wires from an audio jack. The small thermal mass of the Pinecil’s tip, combined with the heat-sinking properties of something like an audio jack, means the solder that’s already there takes a bit longer to give way, and any new solder a bit longer to adhere to everything.
The same goes for full-size potentiometers: soldering onto the lugs, it’s not really an issue. But grounding a wire to the back of a pot does, again, take a little longer. To make jobs like this easier, ordering Pine’s set of bigger tips will give you more thermal mass to play with.
In any case, “a little bit longer” is better than “not at all,” when it comes to actually getting out there and playing. In our hypothetical scenario, the gig is saved: your wires are reconnected, and you’ve made a mental note to add some LocTite to your output jack when you get home.
Fiddlier jobs like guitar pedal PCBs are where the Pinecil’s accuracy and size really come into play. If you need the utmost precision, say you’re planning on modifying boards with surface-mount components, then you could order some of Pine’s extra-fine tips. But, like on the guitar wiring, we handle just fine with the included tip. We put it through its paces populating a few pedal PCBs, and never do we find ourselves accidentally melting something we shouldn’t, or having a hard time navigating around other components.
When it comes to off-board wiring, too, the Pinecil is a lot easier to use than a bigger iron – getting the tip into tight spaces is much easier, and you’re less likely to accidentally melt the insulation of other wires if you come in at the wrong angle.
Essentially, the Pinecil has a lot of things going for it. Not least the price – you can nab one for only $26 at time of writing. Packs of tips, and accessories like stands and replacement cases are all super affordable,too. Slight tangent: for just $6 you can get a clear case, which is great if you’re of the (correct) opinion that we should have never stopped making our electronics see-through.
You can grab a Pinecil, a stand and every tip Pine makes for under $100 – much less than, say, an entire Hakko soldering station. There are countless other interesting things about the Pinecil we haven’t touched on here, all to do with its open-source, homebrew nature. Most of these are far too in-depth for the average guitarists’ needs, though, unless you fancy reprogramming it from the ground up and flashing a custom firmware. If you don’t, well, ultimately, it gets hot and it melts solder. Stash one in your gigbag and you need never fear a duff connection shorting out a show again.