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Widget Of The Week

Weller X-8250A Soldering Gun, 1953

Even those who regularly use soldering irons for work, DIY or in pursuit of a hobby would probably agree that they’re not particularly exciting, but this one really does deserve a special mention. It’s a fairly early Weller model, a classic ‘gun’ type design and tools like this have played a vital role in the development, manufacture and repair of countless electronic and electrical devices for more than half a century, and continue to do so to this day. As a matter of interest Weller’s company history claims that the circuit boards in the very first Apple computer, built in 1984 by Steve’s Jobs and Wozniak, was hand soldered using Weller tools.

 

Soldering guns differs from regular stick or wand type soldering irons in two very particular ways. Firstly they only heat up – to around 200 degrees centigrade -- when you pull the trigger, and for that to be useful it has to happen very quickly, typically in just 3 to 5 seconds. Secondly, they tend to be a lot more powerful than conventional irons, with heat outputs of 100 watts or more (this one is rated at 250 watts). Basically this means that they can solder large things that would quickly cool the tips of an ordinary iron, with wattages of between 15 and 25 watts. This has become less of an issue in the past few decades; nowadays most electronic devices are built using printed circuit boards populated with tiny heat sensitive components; big brutes like this can do more harm than good in confined spaces, but just occasionally there is a need to solder a thick cable or sizeable chunk of metal and only a soldering gun like this, with some serious grunt, will do.

 

Weller soldering guns, named after their inventor, Carl E Weller, from Easton Pennsylvania, began working on the design in his basement in the early 1940s and was granted a patent in 1946. A prototype of his first production gun, the Speedy Model B, is considered important enough to be on display at the Smithsonian Institute. Apart from the fact that the handle is made of wood it looks remarkably similar to this one, made in around 1953, and most of today’s models.

 

Like all the best inventions it’s really simple. The majority of modern soldering irons have a small mains-powered heating element in close contact with the pointed metal ‘tip’. The bent wire tip on Weller guns is the heating element and it heats up almost instantly when a high current, but very low voltage, is passed through it from a chunky ‘step down’ mains transformer. Because most soldering irons may be left on for hours on end the tips and elements can burn out quite quickly. It is wasteful of energy and when they fail they’re rarely worth repairing and have to be thrown away. The tip on Weller guns do eventually wear out or corrode (they’re made of a copper alloy) but replacements are cheap and they’re held in place by two nuts so it only takes a couple of minutes to fit a new one. As an added bonus since they only heat up when needed power consumption is comparatively low. Some models have a dual-action trigger with two heat settings, which makes them even more economical and most Weller guns have a built-in spotlight – this model has two – that illuminates the area around the tip. This is a genuinely useful feature when working in dark and inaccessible spaces, which according to Sod’s Law is where most solder related problems will occur…

 

There are a couple of downsides, though, and the most obvious one is that soldering guns are a bit too big and fierce for use on delicate electronic equipment. The transformer is also quite heavy – this model weighs in at 1.5kg -- so they can be tiring to use for long periods. They are also significantly more expensive to buy than common or garden soldering irons, but you’re paying for the power and one is usually all you will ever need. My first Weller gun lasted for more than 25 years before an unfortunate incident involving gravity and a hard concrete floor. This one is over 50 years old, and providing it stays out of harm’s way there’s every reason to suppose that it will still be going strong in another 50 years. 

 

This Weller X-8250A was a recent find at a Surrey cart boot sale and I wasn’t about to quibble over the 50 pence asking price. The stallholder reckoned that it came from a house clearance and hadn’t been used for a very long time, confirmed by the fact that it was still fitted with an ancient round pin plug. It looked pretty grubby but the Bakelite case appeared to be in very good condition and the tip looked as though it had been little used. Mains powered devices are always a gamble at car boots, and potentially dangerous, so before I connected it up it was given a complete strip down, clean up and electrical check. The Bakelite case and tip holders polished up really well, thanks to some Brasso and a lot of elbow grease. The transformer, switch and cable all tested okay and with a new mains plug fitted it was time to power it up. It worked perfectly, reaching working temperature in just 2 or 3 seconds and since there were no smells, sparks or shocks it should prove to be a perfectly useable and useful tool.

 

What Happened To It?

Weller brand Soldering guns, and a very wide range of specialised tools and devices used in electronics manufacturing are still being produced but the once family-owned company has been a part of the Apex Tool Group since the 1970s. However, the design of the soldering guns has changed comparatively little over the years; plastic has replaced Bakelite making the cases more resilient and improvements in other areas have made them lighter and more efficient but in almost every important respect they're little different from Carl Weller's original design..

 

The X-8250A was originally sold as part of a kit, housed in a tough metal case with accessories that included a reel of solder a small spanner and a set of interchangeable tips for soldering, cutting and melting. Vintage models have become quite collectible, especially in the US, and very early designs and prototypes can fetch quite impressive prices. Complete and well looked after outfits dating from the 50s or 60s regularly sell for between £30 and £50 on ebay US. Well-used 8200 series guns – like this one -- are quite common though, a fair number were sold in the in the UK and the going price for a clean one is around £25.00. I can’t pretend that collecting vintage soldering irons is ever going to become a popular pastime, or a good investment, but if you’re any sort of DIY dabbler or handyperson a Weller gun in good working order is always going to earn its keep and the day will come when it's the only tool for the job. 


GIZMO GUIDE

First seen             1953

Original Price      $14.95

Value Today        £10 (0516)

Features              Trigger switch, 250 watts, 5-second heat up, twin ‘spotlights’, multi-purpose interchangeable tips

Power req.                       240VAC

Dimensions:                     270 x 165 x 55mm

Weight:                            1.5kg

Made (assembled) in:       USA

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):     5


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