The word solder comes from the Middle English word soudur, via Old French solduree and soulder, from the Latin solidare, meaning '‘to make solid’'. Solder can contain lead and or flux but in many applications solder is now lead free.
At a eutectic composition, the liquid solder solidifies as a eutectic, which consists of fine grains of nearly pure lead and nearly pure tin phases, but in no way is it an intermetallic, since there are no tin/lead intermetallics, as can be seen from a tin/lead equilibrium diagram.
In plumbing, a higher proportion of lead was used. This had the advantage of making the alloy solidify more slowly, so that it could be wiped over the joint to ensure watertightness. Although lead water pipes were displaced by copper when the significance of lead poisoning began to be fully appreciated, lead solder was still used until the 1980s because it was thought that the amount of lead that could leach into water from the solder was negligible. Since even small amounts of lead have been found detrimental to health, lead in plumbing solder was replaced by copper or antimony, with silver often added, and the proportion of tin was increased (see ''Lead-free solder.)
In silversmithing or jewelry making, special hard solders are used that will pass assay. They contain a high proportion of the metal being soldered and lead is not used in these alloys. These solders also come in a variety of hardnesses, known as 'enamelling', 'hard', 'medium' and 'easy'. Enamelling solder has a high melting point, close to that of the material itself, to prevent the joint desoldering during firing in the enamelling process. The remaining solder types are used in decreasing order of hardness during the process of making an item, to prevent a previously soldered seam or joint desoldering while soldering a new joint. Easy solder is also often used for repair work for the same reason. Flux or rouge is also used to prevent joints desoldering.
Silver solder is also used in manufacturing, when there is a need to join metal parts that cannot be welded. The alloys used for these purposes contain a high proportion of silver (up to 40%), and may also contain toxic cadmium.
Solder often comes pre-mixed with, or is used with, flux, a reducing agent designed to help remove impurities (specifically oxidised metals) from the points of contact to improve the electrical connection. For convenience, solder is often manufactured as a hollow tube and filled with flux. Most cold solder is soft enough to be rolled and packaged as a coil, making for a convenient and compact solder/flux package. The two principal types of flux are acid flux, used for metal mending, and rosin flux, used in electronics, where the corrosiveness of the vapours that arise when acid flux is heated could damage components. Due to concerns over atmospheric pollution and hazardous waste disposal, the electronics industry has been gradually shifting from rosin flux to water-soluble flux, which can be removed with deionised water and detergent, instead of hydrocarbon solvents.
On July 1 2006 the European Union Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) came into effect prohibiting the intentional addition of lead to most consumer electronics produced in the EU. No such legislation is in place in the United States or other countries, however manufacturers may receive tax benefits by reducing the use of lead-based solder. Lead-free solders in commercial use may contain tin, copper, silver, bismuth, indium, zinc, antimony, and traces of other metals. Most lead-free replacements for conventional Sn60/Pb40 and Sn63/Pb37 solder have melting points from 5–20 °C higher, though solders with much lower melting points are available. Drop-in replacements for silkscreen with solder paste soldering operations are available. Minor modification to the solder pots (e.g. titanium liners and/or impellers) used in wave-soldering operations may be desired to reduce maintenance costs associated with the increased tin-scavenging effects of high tin solders. The properties of lead-free solders are not as thoroughly known and may therefore be considered less reliable in select applications, e.g. Hi-rel aerospace and life-critical medical. "Tin whiskers" were a problem with early electronic solders which were coincidentally lead-free, and lead was initially added in part to eliminate them. These problems are negligible in modern alloys, however, except in hi-rel military, aerospace-satellite and life-critical medical applications.
Different elements serve different roles in the solder alloy: