Solder on the Go with Jana Marie Hemsing's Otter-Iron PRO: The Travel Iron We've Been Looking For!
Leaving the bulky base station behind, the Otter-Iron PRO is a more elegant tool for a civilized age.
Otters are curious creatures.
An interesting fact about the otter is that they are deft users of tools, and are often seen using rocks to crack open shellfish and other goodies.
A lesser known fact about the otter is that they often carry a specific rock, their favorite rock, around with them. This is their rock — it's the rock they know is going to get the job done!
I guess there's a parallel there to be drawn between makers and otters.
Like them, we have our favorite tools that get the job done. The age old adage of "only a poor workman blames his tools" isn't wrong, but boy-oh-boy do the right tools make all the difference!
Tools get the job done, so it's only fair that we might be a bit picky about using the right ones!
Perhaps the one of the most significant bits of tooling in the maker arsenal is the venerable soldering iron. Dutifully tasked with heating up the solder wire that the flows into the plated through holes and wrapped wire connections that form our projects, it's a tool very much worth investing in.
Too many hours have been wasted by all of us, tracking down some phantom bug that eventually traces back to a dry joint — you know the one, it looked solid enough at the time!
So, with that in mind, it makes a lot of sense to invest in the workhorse of any electronics bench. It's worth spending a little extra to get a powerful, well built iron that can handle some of the heavier workloads it might see.
It's not just the iron we invest in, but also the powerful base station that goes with it — the power supply that takes care of regulating the flow of power to the heater element within the iron handle. These are beefy, solid units on which we can rely upon.
While many of us will have a Weller, ERSA or Metcal on our bench, an investment that we would rightly defend with our lives, our mobile workbenches, toolcases or "bags of bits" often doesn't have the luxury of space to afford such a powerful, chunky control unit.
Luckily for us, Jana Marie Hemsing has a solution for that. He's bought us an iron with all the power and performance of one driven by a base station, but managed to do away with the bulk and the footprint we'd normally associate with one.
How? With our new friend USB-C PD, and some very fine engineering work!
The Otter Iron PRO
We first covered Hemsing's adventures into the world of portable soldering irons back at the start of the year, when we took a look at his first offering: the Otter-Iron.
Back in that article, we discussed some of the alternative irons in that "all-in-one" form factor, with all the electronics crammed into the iron handle, and a socket to accept the heated elements that are commonly used in similar style products.
The thing is, like rocks, a lot of us have a favorite iron hand-peice. The TS100 case is hard, and fairly large, owing to the integrated electronics. Many users find it uncomfortable, compared to the irons that they would use at their bench.
Many engineers have a strong preference for the JBC irons, which offer a well balanced weight, and are comfortable to use. (Ed note; Apparently. I'll never give up my ERSA iConfor anything!)
With that in mind, Hemsing came back to his Otter-Iron design, and came up with a way to make the electronics compatible with any handle - go back to basics, implementing the base station, but with the modern circuitry crammed into the Otter-Iron. The result? The Otter-Iron PRO!
While it should come as no shock to us, having seen this circuitry laid out to fit inside the TS100 handle, it's absolutely remarkable seeing the size of this circuit.
Everything is there, from the USB-C connector / STUSB4500 combo that can deliver the full amount of power needed by the JBC hand-piece, to the OLED display for feedback, to the iron connector, mounted at 90 degrees to the main board.
It's an entire base station, crammed into 30mm x 45mm x 25mm!
I love the fact the design mounts the iron connector on a daughter board. This means that there is the potential to very easily adapt this project to your own favorite r̶o̶c̶k̶ iron, without having to layout your own version of the controller. A very clever on Hemsing's part, that will surely see this project being picked up by a great many makers!
And already thinking ahead towards enhancing the portability of this powerful, pint-sized PID controller, there's a r2 in the works, outlined in the soothing tones of FreeCAD below.
This looks like a very smart direction to take the Otter-Iron project in, resulting in an portable, elegant iron controller that can get solder flowing like it's stay-at-home cousins!
For the real technical details, I'd suggest checking out the original Otter-Iron article, before clicking on through to Hemsing's GitHub, for all the sources!
Oh, and be sure to keep up to date with the latest developments by following @_Jana_Marie on Twitter!