Soldering is all about accuracy, and that’s what using a solder paste stencil provides. In the past, through-hole components were the norm in electronics design. Manual soldering using soldering irons and flux in hand was very common as attaching leads to printed circuit boards (PCBs) was very easy.
Surface-mount technology (SMT) (despite being developed in the 1960s) wasn’t used much before the 1980s. The rise of computers triggered an era of miniaturization in the electronics assembly industry. As demand for smaller devices and components started increasing, so did the demand for smaller electronic printed circuit assemblies.
As a result, through-hole components were pushed aside for smaller surface-mount devices, which were faster to manufacture. However, with Surface Mount Devices (SMDs), manual soldering is impossible. Nowadays, manufacturing firms use complex pieces of machinery to assemble their SMDs. However, the most important piece of machinery that enables faster assemblies of SMD components is solder paste stencils.
What are Solder Paste Stencils?
A solder paste stencilis essentially a thin brass or stainless-steel sheet with circuit patterns cut into it. These patterns match the patterns on SMDs that need to be mounted on PCBs. These stencils (often referred to as SMT stencils) are designed to simplify the process of applying solder paste on surface mount components in PCB assembly processes.
Solder paste stenciling involves the quick application of solder paste on the bare pads of PCBs via the stencil’s pre-cut holes. Since the SMD’s hole patterns match the stencil’s hole patterns, it becomes very easy to repeat solder paste deposition processes. The solder paste deposition process is over in three steps –
Place the SMT stencil accurately (the circuit hole patterns must match) on the board.
Apply the solder paste uniformly.
Once the assembly is passed through the reflow oven, the stencil can be removed and reused for the next solder paste deposition process.
The PCBs receive accurate amounts of solder paste, only in the places where it’s required.
Solder Paste Management
Stencils are used to manage solder paste. Solder paste, commonly known as ‘gray-colored goo’ amongst soldering professionals, helps surface mount components stay bonded with PCBs during assembly processes. It’s responsible for connecting different pads on the PCB and all pins on electronic components.
Buying and Using Soldering Stencils
Before you buy a soldering stencil, you’ll need to purchase solder paste. Make sure your solder paste comes in easy-to-use jars. Or else, applying globs of solder paste on stencils would be very difficult. While buying solder paste stencils, you’ll have two material options -
Metal Stencils: Stainless steel stencils with high nickel content are the best and the most-used stencils in assembly processes worldwide. It’s easy to design stainless-steel stencils with fine aperture walls that make it easy to release the paste. Plus, stainless-steel stencils are known for being super-fat and dimensionally stable, making them perfect for consistent printing.
Polyimide Stencils: For people who are soldering just as hobbyists, laser-cut Polyimide stencils are great buys.
Solder paste is literally the glue holding together every electronics manufacturing project in the world. Without it, attaching SMDs on bare PCBs would be impossible, and without SMT stencils, soldering professionals wouldn’t be able to manage their solder paste accurately. So, a master of stencils is vital for every aspiring soldering professional.