LED Strip Lighting Soldering Lessons Learned
When it comes to soldering I have very little experience. Over the past few years I've picked up a tip or two listening to friends with experience, but I've done very little hands-on soldering. Now that I have a decent soldering iron (Hakko) I've been trying to tackle projects I've wanted to do for a little while. One of those projects was to put LED strip lighting around the back of our television. Here's what I learned trying to solder together LED strip lighting to light up the back of our television.
There are several places that sell LED strip lighting, and several different kinds. You can buy simple LED strip lighting from places like IKEA, or slightly more advanced LED lighting from surplus stores. I picked some up off Amazon (note: they took almost 3 months to arrive, although the company calls themselves Uplights Canada I think they're shipped from the U.S.) for a bit less than the cost in our local surplus store. When the lights arrived I noticed that they come in a set of two and each spool has a lot longer length than the surplus store. As it turns out I didn't need the extra length for the television, but it was nice to have for practice soldering. As you can see I brought out a lot of tools for the project, but I only ended up using the wire stripper, soldering iron, solder, electrical tape, and utility knife. I briefly used the helping hands, but found that it was simpler just to tin the second side of the wire as I was about to solder it down.
Some LED lighting systems only have a couple of solder points. The RoLighting LED strips I bought have four soldering points on each strip 12v (black ground), Green, Red, Blue. Four soldering points is a bit more tricky, there's less space to dab some solder and you have more to solder. Regardless, the process for either system is basically the same:
- Clean your soldering iron
- "Tin" the iron (put a bit of solder on the tip)
- "Tin" each LED contact point on the strip lighting
- "Tin" the wire you're going to use to solder the LED strips together
- Heat each end of the wire until it melts into the tinned contact point on the LED strip
Sounds simple, right? Maybe if you've soldered a lot, but I found that even with planning I needed to change things up quite a bit.
Before beginning this project I'd already cut down the LED strip lighting so I had two LED strips running along the bottom left and right on the back of our television. The LED strips are quite bright and I could have probably settled for just the strips at the bottom, but then it wouldn't have been a very good learning experience, and the more LEDs the brighter the illumination. To get a sense of where the LEDs should go I cut strips and taped them to the back of the television using (red) electrical tape. Our television isn't even when it comes to plastic on the back. The right hand side of the back of the television left only 1 place I could connect the LED strip vertically because of a "design" indent that had no practical purpose (no HDMI or any other type of connection). This indent meant that I had to cut the bottom LED strip a little shorter.
Cutting LED lighting is laid out in each strip lighting manual (a four fold piece of paper). There are particular points on each LED lighting strip where you can cut. You cut in the middle of what also happens to be the soldering points. I used a sharp set of scissors that came with our kitchen knife block.
At this point the soldering points are still covered by the clear rubbery coating. I peeled it back with my utility knife and taped the rubbery part back (I didn't cut it off) to the table using electrical tape. This exposed the contact points and one of the LEDs. At the end of the job I removed the tape and placed the rubbery substance back over the LEDs and solder points, then secured it with electrical tape.
I tried soldering one side of LEDs instead of doing everything at once. I started by removing the bottom left strip (the sticky back did stick when I reattached the LEDs, but I might use some double sided tape in the future) and laying it out on the table along with the strip that was to go vertical. I had pre-cut my BGRB (Black, Green, Red, Blue) wire, but I made the mistake of cutting the wires all the same length. This would have worked if I was just extending the LED strip lights, but because they were going on a right angle from the other LEDs what I really needed to do was cut the inside wire (Blue) then cut each subsequent wire a little bit longer.
Next I tinned the contact points of each strip. Having not done this before I thought it involved: tinning the iron, touching the contact point on the LED strip, adding a bit more solder to that point. It turned out that all I really needed to do was tin the iron and let that tin attach itself to the contact point as it heated the point. I thought this was the case as I was doing the job, it seemed like the tinned iron was transfering the solder to the LED contact point, but I wasn't sure until I talked with someone about the whole job after it was done. Sure enough, tin the iron, touch the contact point and it should tin, no extra solder should be needed. (Thanks Aaron).
Several weeks before I practiced soldering some stripped CAT5e wire to a spare piece of strip lighting I cut. It didn't go so well because the stripped CAT5e wire tended to fray. I also wasn't using proper wire strippers to strip the wire. For this job I ended up buying separate colour strands of 20 AWG wire from the aforementioned surplus store. The strands didn't fray and tinned quite nicely. With the wire tinned, and the contact points tinned soldering the wire to the point was much simpler. It wasn't a snap, because I was still guessing as to whether I had enough or too much solder on the points. A couple of times I used the utility knife to block the solder flow as I tried re-tinning the solder points on the LED strips.
When doing jobs like this my hand tends to shake. I'm not a big coffee drinker, but I've always had a bit of a nervous twitch, and it came out a lot while I was doing this project. I found it particularly difficult to keep the solder from flowing on to the other contact point because I didn't quite know what I was doing. Knowing that you just tin your iron and dab that tin on to the solder point will save lots of time. I guess it's just finding the right amount of tin to put on the iron to balance how much goes on each point.
I had grand plans to also put some heat shrink around the wire, but as I was placing the wire it felt a bit stiff. I suppose if I was doing this job again in the future I might cut a small bit of heat shrink, but I found that when I mounted the wire the black electrical tape I used to secure the wire was sufficient.
Even though the job took me much longer than it should have (about 2 hours between measuring, taping, practicing, messing things up), the end result was pretty spectacular!