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Setting up a Home Electronics Workshop – Tools

PileOfTools In this article I suggest some tools that you should start with for your home electronics workshop. If you hurry you might still make get these items in time to put under Xmas tree for a budding hobbyist as well. There are some great workshop starter kit packages available at the Maker Shed and at Adafruit to consider but you can also build your workshop up slowly piece by piece. I buy a lot of my workshop supplies from MPJA and recently noticed a good deal on a DMM which triggered me to consider what people should get for a home workshop and how buying the separate pieces from MPJA might compare to the kits offered elsewhere.

Make a comment with your suggestions. We hope to make “Setting up a Home Electronics Workshop” a regular article feature here at uCHobby and welcome your suggestions.

In the first picture you see the set of tools I consider key to my workshop. While I do have many other tools I keep these constantly within reach. From upper right to lower left..

  • DVM
    This is a low cost DMM, nothing special. A basic workshop meter should measure voltage DC/AC, current, and resistance. It should also have a continuity tester with sound and a diode checker. More advanced but very useful features are a transistor checker, capacitance and/or inductance, and frequency. This meter has all the basics and a transistor checker. 

    A similar DMM is available for $6 at MPJA with a current special. The meter pictured above cost me about $10 from MPJA and works fine.

  • Wire Cutters – under the meter – Two, one with black grips and a larger one with red.
    These are often referred to as wire cutters, flush cutters, side cutters, or dikes. One of the most important tools in the electronics workshop. I have two sizes you can see a second pair with red handles just under the black handles of the smaller pair. Its important to have two pair of wire cutters. The second one here is larger and tougher, used to cut insulated wire and large component leads on parts such as power diodes and transistors. The key is that you keep the smaller pair only for cutting small component leads so it stays sharp. Only use it for the delicate work where a small sharp cutter is required. There are many types but the basic dike lets you cut leads close to the PCB you are working on.4in Mini Diag Cutter from MPJA for about $2
    6in Diagonal Cutter from MPJA for about $5
  • Long-nose Pliers - Almost hidden by the screwdriver and soldering iron.
    Long-nose pliers are very useful for bending component leads and holding onto things while you solder them. They work much better then your fingers for plugging wires in and out of solderless breadboards as well. I like my long-nose pliers with long handles and bent noses…XL Bent Nose Pliers from MPJA for about $3
  • Hobby Knife – black handled just above the red wire cutters
    Hobby Knifes are like strong scalpels and are very dangerous. Used to cut almost anything a pair of wire cutters does not work for. They are often called Xacto knifes. Just like making a paper copy is often called Xeroxing. Like Cooper vrs the Chinese tolls, you would get an Xacto knife if you needed a professional quality knife.Keep your hobby knife covered and out of your tool drawer. It is very easy to get seriously cut by this tool. If its laying in your tool drawer and you reach in hunting a tool…

    16 Piece Hobby Knife Set from MPJA for about $3 (not the one pictured above)

 

  • Screwdriver set – Craftsman with Red handle
    Ok someone is going to say “Hello captain obvious” on this one. But I include it so you might consider getting a multi-purpose one. The one shown here is high quality from Sears. It has a large set of tips with every size you might need including those nasty security screws we find on electronics gadgets we want to scrounge from. 

    Craftsman Magnetic Screwdriver with bit set from Sears for about $20 (not the one pictured above)
    22 Piece Mini Driver Bit Set at MPJA for about $3

  • Soldering Iron – (Weller WES51 tip only shown here)
    What electronics workshop would be complete without a soldering iron. I like to use soldering stations with a stand and wet sponge. There are lots of base less soldering irons that could be recommenced here but I have no experience with them. I have a very nice Weller WES51 which cost about $100. I think its well worth the cost but a hobbyist could get buy with the $15 setup I reviewed previously here.Mini Solder Station at MPJA for about $15
  • Also Pictured – Solder and a breadboard power supply
    Solder is a consumable so really should not be in the picture. The breadboard power supply shown might be a tool or maybe a piece of equipment. Its there as a shameless plug for something I find handy and that I sell myself via Curious Inventor and the Maker Shed.

 

Upgrades
There are a lot more tools to look at getting. Once you have the basics listed above you can add the following items to your workshop.

  • Lighted Magnifier
    Electronics parts are small these days, they have very small print which is difficult to read with the unaided eye. Maybe the young hobbyist don’t have this problem but I do. One of my most used tools is a lighted magnifier I picked up in a check out line somewhere. While I do see some possible substitute at  MPJA here, I don’t see one that looks as handy. Let us know with a comment If you know of a good lighted magnifier to consider. 

    3 Inch Round Lighted Hi-Power Magnifier at Frys for about $7
    4 LED Lighted Magnifier at MPJA for about $4

  • Bench Light
    You need plenty of light to work with especially with the small electronics parts we find today. Shop around for this, you should not need to pay more then about $12 for one that uses a standard incandescent bulb. Or maybe you can build up your own desk light using LEDs. Either way I recommend that you get more then one and place them where they will brightly illuminate your working areas. I also use mine to heat up my small electronics office in the winter.Gooseneck Table Lamp at Frys for about $7
  • Dial Caliper
    Make accurate measurements of width, depth, diameter to 0.001 inches. Models are available with digital readouts and there are English and metric versions. I have both a dial and a digital readout version. The digital is very nice as it switches from fractional inches, to English and metric with the press of a button. Very nice for when I’m making a part footprint for Kicad PCB work.6 Inch Dial Caliper at MPJA for about $13

 

  • Bench Power Strip
    I have a long wall mounted power strip with your basic three prong power points along its length. I recommend that you mount this on the wall above the work surface. It should be convenient for you to plug in equipment but not easy for stray wires to get into the plug. I have seen the results of a stray wire swinging over the work surface to a set of front mounted plugs while a technician was working on a project. Its not a pretty sight. Please keep the 110 AC up and away from your work surface. 

    4 Foot Power Strip from Frys for about $30

 

Things I left out
There are plenty of useful tools I did not include in this basic getting started list. Let us know with a comment if you have any suggestions for tool, basic or otherwise. I know I left out the following that some will argue should be included.

  • Wire Strippers
    Wire strippers are very useful tools to have but you don’t have to use them. I have two kinds the basic hand tool like this one from MPHA for about $4 and an auto-stripper tool I don’t see at MPJA. I do not use either of these very often as I can easily strip wire with the wire cutters mentioned above. It takes some experience to strip wire with the cutters so that you do not cut or nick the strands but I am accustomed to this and tend to have the cutters in my hands so I don’t reach into the tool box for the strippers. You can learn to strip wire with the cutters, unless you are working with some very tough insulation, its very easy so I do not think wire strippers are an absolutely needed tool for the hobbyist.
  • Solder Sucker
    This is one of those tools I don’t tend to use often. I know that it’s in many of the basic kits and I do have one. I tend to use the solder sucking braid most of the time however.Compact Solder Sucker at MPJA for about $4
  • Benchtop Smoke Absorber
    I have been soldering for a long time and have never bothered worrying about the smoke but I am told its bad for you. I do have this uncontrolled twitch that might be attributed to solder smoke….  Benchtop Smoke Absorber at MPJA for about $30
  • Consumables
    Solder, solder sucking  braid, paper towels, Soldering iron tip cleaners, Flux, electronics parts etc…  These are not in this list because I don’t see them as tools but rather supplies a workshop needs. Please comment with any suggestions for items in the supply category. I can use the help for a follow up article. For now I have linked the previous list to items at MPJA in case you want to pick them up now.
  • Anything else?
    I’m sure I forgot something. Let us know with a comment.

 

Quality
Most if not all of these tools from MPJA are made in China and some likes the substituted “PC Board Flush Cutters” are a bit easy to consume. Most of the inexpensive tools I recommend here are used by me so I know they are of reasonable quality.  You can bet the quality but it will cost you considerably more to do so. In my experience COOPER makes some of the best tools. I have very few of the COOPER Xcelite made small hand tools and those are guarded possessions. To compare you might pay $15 for a good pair of Xcelite small long-nose pliers vrs $4 for the lessor Chinese versions from MPJA. The Xcelite will last a very long time and in comparison maybe less expensive in the long run. This is surly true for a professional electronics technician or engineer that does this for a living. I would not be happy with my heart surgeon if he used a lower cost version of a scalpel for example but for occasional use in home hobby these tools suffice. I recommend that you start with a set of the lower cost tools and as a treat, buy a high end version now and then. Keep the high end Xcelite tool more like a trophy for that special project that needs the best.

 

Hobby Electronic Workshops in a box
I almost forgot to include some existing workship tool sets you can get in one shot. Limor at adafruit industries has two kits to look at the most applicable is “Ladyada’s Electronics Toolbox.’ The maker shed has a good starter kit as well. The Maker Shed kit is more about the parts but its a great start as well.

 

Comment Please
I’m sure you have some tools, parts or other supply’s that should be considered for an electronics workshop. Don’t be shy, let us know with a comment. All comments have to be approved due to rampant comment spam. If your comment is not spam it should show up shortly.

Posted in Development Tools, Discovering, Electronics Links, Workshop Tips, Workshop Tools.

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7 Responses

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  1. Eric says

    Hah! I have that same aforementioned twitch!

    Mine is basically limited to my left eye, and my right trigger finger. Real weird.

  2. Igor Yermak says

    I’m interested in buying a variety pack of sorts with a bunch of different capicitators,resistors and leds.

    I don’t have any electronic parts besides the ones I manage to desolder.

  3. Jack says

    If you want to find the best deal, I recommend you google for something along the lines of “resistor kit”.

    One company that offers pretty good kits is Electronix Express. If you go to their Components page (http://www.elexp.com/cmp-indx.htm), select a component, and you’ll see a list of offerings for that component, including kits.

  4. Berni says

    A lab powersupply is also a nice thing to have.I ben wanting to make one for years but i never got to it. Also whats useful is those big boxes of small drawers or seperatable plastic boxes to keep components organized.

    The piece of equipment i want a lot is a oscilloscope, but they are big clunky and expensive.I set out to build a digital one my self.Im aiming for a 100Mhz sample rate and some extra functions like a logic analiser and a simple frequency generator.And stick it in a small,portable battery powered box.

  5. Phill says

    I got a few grab bags of components from jameco, and they seemed to be a good deal. They also have a full kits that give you a few of each part.

  6. aonomus says

    Jameco or Futurlec seem to have some good component assortments.

    Another thing not mentioned in the article is a ’3rd hand’. The standard cheap 3rd hand tools are just a pair of alligator clips that break fairly easily and end up scratching your PCB if you position it incorrectly.

    A much better tool is a dedicated PCB holder, for example the Panavise Jr (which I’ve been trying to track down a local source for ages and haven’t found one yet…).

    As for the solder fume extractor, anyone needing to do it on the cheap should check Instructables since its somewhat easy to do this without needing many parts.

  7. rapatap says

    A great place for tools at basement bargain prices is HarborFreight. Found a small vice, caliper, precision screwdriver, etc. – all for less than $10 each. They have coupons/discounts on different stuff all the time.