Regular cleaning = easier soldering and longer tip life: The iron tip's ability to transfer heat is drastically reduced when it gets covered in oxides and burnt flux residues. Not only does heat not transfer as well through this debris, but the contaminants also prevent solder from wetting or sticking to the tip. Most heat transfer actually goes through a fluid solder "heat bridge" that lies between the iron tip and components, so an iron tip that repels solder will be very ineffective.
The longer oxides and charcoaled flux residues remain on the tip, the harder they become to remove, so it's a good idea to clean the tip every time you pick up the iron.
Wiping the iron on an edge of a hole cut into a sponge can help to remove oxides easier, and also allows waste to fall away. A dry cleaner can also be used. It consists of soft metal shavings that are coated with flux. You clean by thrusting the iron into the shaving a few times. By avoiding the thermal shock of touching a damp sponge, these cleaners help to increase tip life, and in our opinion, do
a better, faster job.
Usually touching the tip with rosin-cored solder will supply enough flux so that oxides can be removed with a damp sponge. If this isn't sufficient, you can purchase "tip tinners and cleaners" that are a mixture of solder paste and flux. The flux is oftentimes stronger (more activated) to help remove oxides.
Finally, when that doesn't work, special polishing bars to can be used to salvage extremely bad tips. Another last resort is to gently rub the oxides off with an emery cloth or soft steel brush. Cover the tip immediately with solder after cleaning to prevent further oxidation. Never file the tip to clean it or form a different shape. The tips are mostly copper with a protective iron plating, and once that plating is pierced, the tip will die quickly. Copper is used because it's an excellent heat conductor, but if exposed to solder, it will quickly dissolve into the solder.
Tin the tip: Add a small amount of solder back onto the tip. This helps to protect the newly cleaned and exposed tip, and also helps to transfer heat to components.