[FIRST IMPRESSION] Pine64's Pinecil Open Source Soldering Iron

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
5,657
tldr; There is a very good chance you want one of these even if you already have a soldering iron or station that you like. For some it will replace that equipment for others it will supplement it. You can buy it on Amazon, or direct from Pine64. Intrigued? Read on.

Open Source Soldering Irons

Many of you will be familiar with the TS-80 and TS-100 open source soldering irons. For those who are not, the TS irons are OS projects that use an STM-32 MCU as the controller for a soldering iron that uses a low voltage DC power supply. Originally there was a barrel jack for power and a micro-USB for data but the later versions, while keeping the barrel jack, switched to USB C for data and USB PD power, this is a great improvement.

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Miniware TS100, ~$80 on Amazon

Early models also used the Hakko T12 tips which was an excellent idea, but made the iron very long. The current tips are specific to the TS-100 family irons. They are built along the lines to the T12 but the OAL is much shorter making handling the iron easier.

I have always been interested in the TS-x irons. They are clearly a very good idea. YouTuber Andreas Spiess has even gone to the TS irons as his full time soldering tools, even on the bench, and I accept his recommendations as very solid. (by the way, if you don't know Andreas' YouTube channel, and you are into IoT, MCUs, LoRa, and related things, you need to take a look)

A Fortuitous Discovery: Pinecil
What has always stopped me is the price. The irons are generally very nicely made with high quality aluminum housings and nice finishes, so the price is actually quite reasonable. If it was the only iron I was using I would call it a downright bargain. But it will never replace my Hakko FX-951 on the bench. My interest was in a portable iron, and since I have several solutions for that already, the $80-$120 was too much for me.

But, I was on Amazon and related searches popped up the Pine64 Pinecil. It looked like the other TS irons, except for the $35.99 price tag. Needless to say I was intrigued but skeptical. It was considerably cheaper than the other TS irons and that raised red flags, but the reviews were excellent. The more I looked into it the more I was impressed.

Note: I am late to the party on the Pinecil, it's not new. But I am sure there are plenty of people like me who have seen the TS irons and not looked too hard that will also be surprised and delighted, and then there are those not just late to the party, they haven't even received an invitation! Consider yourself invited.

The Pinecil is a project of Pine64, a organization focused on ARM and RISC-V open source hardware projects, and yes, the Pinecil packs RISC-V silicon, specifically the 32-bit RV32IMAC RISC-V “Bumblebee Core” running at 108 MHz, with 128k of flash and 32k of RAM. In a soldering iron.

Pine64 is very heavily community oriented and all the projects are designed based on community interaction. The iron runs OS firmware called IronOS which supports many hardware variations. It is the officially supported (though not the only) firmware for the Pinecil. Pine64 provides a very nice tool to flash the firmware to the iron. It is a crossplatform (Windows, MacOS, Linux) graphical application that has a painless workflow. You are not restricted to this method, though. You can use the "manual" method common to other irons.

Because of the nature of the project, you can even buy a breakout of the GPIO and peripherals that plugs into the USB C for development of your own RISC-V projects!

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Pinecil is a complete redesign of the TS irons done with community input. Being OS, you can make one yourself if you want (everything is available included a BoM of the key parts with datasheets, and 3D models of the case). But at 35 bucks, you don't have to!

So why is it so cheap? There seem to be two reasons. One is that the case isn't machined aluminum, it's molded plastic, but not cheap feeling, and it only comes with one tip and nothing else. In the dictionary next to the "Bare Bones" entry is a picture of the Pinecil Box. The other reason is Pine64. Most of the money they make goes right back into FOSS hardware development. I don't think anyone is trying to get rich.

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What you see is what you get. Note the CE and FCC certifications, very nice.
So for some folks, who don't happen to have a USB C cable and a capable supply, the final price is somewhat more. Though the PS is needed for any of them, many come with "accessories" including a cable, and occasionally a somewhat pathetic wall wart. One of the keys to this whole thing is the USB C PD capability, it makes powering this so easy.

And actually, if you buy direct from Pine64, they've got you covered. It's four bucks for a 1.5m silicone USB C cable. The silicone part is perfect for a cable that has to hang around a soldering iron. And, they've got a nice little mini stand that is perfectly sized for travel and the iron that will set you back two bucks. They offer the iron kit itself for $25.99. The only hitch is shipping. The "courier" shipping is $24.99 to my location and the slower method is $11.00, but if you buy the bundle you get a better deal overall than you can on Amazon for the price of waiting.

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1.5m Cable intended for this use, $3.99 Mini stand, $1.99

Using It
That's fine, I hear you say, but is it any good? To that I say, yes. It is a really great little iron that you could actually use full time if you wanted to. The IronOS firmware has a great feature set, including:

  • PID style iron temperature control
  • Automatic sleep with selectable sensitivity
  • Motion wake support
  • All settings exposed in the intuitive menu
  • (Pinecil) Supports all 3 power modes (PD, QC, DC In).
  • Improved readability Fonts, supporting multiple languages
  • Use hardware features to improve reliability
  • Can disable movement detection if desired
  • Boost mode lets you temporarily change the temperature when soldering (i.e. raise the temperature for short periods)
  • (TS100/Pinecil) Battery charge level indicator if power source set to a lipo cell count
  • (TS80/TS80P/Pinecil) Power bank operating voltage is displayed
  • Automatic LCD rotation based on the orientation

Thanks to the OS nature of the Pinecil, constant community driven improvements are being made.

The learning curve on the menu is not too steep and I mostly got everything without documentation, which on first pass is a good thing since it doesn't come with any. Like most OS projects, though, there are a ton of resources on the web if you need them, including, of course, the IronOS Github repo where there is documentation and the source which is the ultimate documentation if you have the time and inclination to read it.

The Pinecil will do the USB C PD negotiation, the menu includes the option to tell it what to ask for. The best performance will of course be with ethe 20V PD maximum but lower voltages work fine, they just take a lot longer to heat up. The iron is rated at 12-24V 3A though the MCU and electronics will operate even at 5V.

The provided barrel jack accepts the same range. This means you can use your own non-USB PS or a battery pack of arbitrary design. The USB C option is so clean and simple, though, that it is hard to imagine too many scenarios where you would want to do that, except if there is already power available for some reason. For example, I will probably work up an adapter to allow it to operate with my 18V Bosch tool batteries since I have so many and there might be a reason to use them at the same time.

On power up the OLED display shows the tip temperature, ambient if you haven't been using it, or if it is hot, optionally blinking to show it is cooling down. There are only two buttons, + and -. on either side of the display.

On the full 20V, the iron will heat to temperature from cold in about 12 seconds. After that, it can reheat from the default 150°C standby (sleep) temperature much faster. This sleep temperature and related things are settable in the menu.

The Pinecil's motion sensor is used to sleep and wake the iron. A configurable timeout, in seconds, tells the iron how long it should be motionless before sleeping. Motion wakes it up. Sensitivity is configurable. This is not only a great power saver it is a tip saver as well. The preheated iron is also much faster to soldering temperature, obviously.

Pressing the + button after power on puts it n solder mode. The tip will heat up to the set temperature, and the sleep timer starts. The display has two modes: simple or detailed. In detailed mode (the best of course, always. Information is power) it shows tip temperature, set point, current power consumption, sleep timer countdown, and voltage.

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The OLED display is small but readable
The included conical tip is not my favorite, but other shapes are available from many sources for $10-$15. The tip is retained with the small philips screw in the case at the base of the element. It doesn't require vigorous tightening, only a snugging down to keep the tip from wobbling. There is a grounding screw near the power jack if ESD is a concern.

I've only just started with this iron but I can say based on my initial use and the reviews, and how it came to be, I can definitely recommend it as an entry into the OS soldering iron world, as well as a very functional and flexible portable iron.
 

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Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
5,657
USD 37.98 including shipping = GBP 28.93. That seems a lot better, but then I might have to pay import tax + customs processing charge. Whether or not I get caught by that seems to be a bit random.
Well, if you can justify the expense and you are interested in the iron(s), I can recommend this as a cheap entry and the only compromise is the plastic vs. aluminum case. It’s been very nice.
 
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