Oregon State University must be a pretty good place to go to school if you want to hack on robots. Their robotics club, which looks active and impressive, has a multi-part video series on how to solder surface mount components that is worth watching. [Anthony] is the team lead for their Mars Rover team and he does the job with some pretty standard-looking tools.
The soldering station in use is a sub-$100 Aoyue with both a regular iron and hot air. There’s also a cheap USB microscope that looks like it has a screen, but is covered in blue tape to hold it to an optical microscope. So no exotic tools that you’d need a university affiliation to match.
We agree with [Anthony’s] order of parts. He does components that only have bottom pads first. Then he does the remaining difficult multi-lead components followed by the passives. However, for learning, it would probably be best to get used to soldering some easy components first.
He uses hot air to do the components with bottom-only pads. This is a great way to do it, although we’ve sometimes used nearby pads to inject heat under a part when we didn’t have hot air handy or were too lazy to use it. [Anthony’s] method is to tin the pads and then remove most of it with solder wick. He uses some extra solder to the wick to prime it, although we often use flux for the same reason. He uses the hot air gun but not solder paste, so you don’t have to worry about storing paste to use these techniques.
Doing these parts first makes it easier to control the hot air flow since you don’t have to worry about dislodging other nearby parts you haven’t placed yet. He doesn’t use hot air for the other components that have exposed leads.
Even if you’ve done a lot of SMD soldering, you can always pick up new tips and tricks. There’s lots of flux, of course, and careful alignment before you secure the component down. We know the feeling of leaving a bad solder joint long enough to go secure the other pads and then cleaning it up at the end.
We figure [Anthony] might do well at our annual SMD Challenge although we admit using our tools is what makes it a challenge. Of course, the big trick isn’t always building something new with surface mount components. It is repairing them.