Tools, Tools, Tools: Electronics

If you’re tempted to build electronics projects similar to some of the ones I’ve described in this blog, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re going to need some tools. Not necessarily a lot of tools, but there are a few things you can’t do without and a few others that will just make your life as a builder a whole lot easier.

For building and modifying electronics, the main tools I use are listed below and where possible I’ve added links for buying them. Some, but not all, of these are affiliate links – however, good tools aren’t always available in affiliate-friendly places and the decent quality ones are worth having, as they are built to last and will often pay for themselves several times over in the long term. Buying cheap is tempting, but may be a false economy.

Soldering iron: there’s no avoiding it, you’re going to need a soldering iron, and getting a half-decent quality thermostatic or temperature controlled iron is going to stand you in good stead. I’ve always used Weller soldering irons for electronics, and currently use one that’s over 20 years old – so if you invest, it’s liable to last. One of the current Weller range is the WE 1010, which although not exactly cheap is a pretty capable machine. If my iron breaks, this is what I’m going to replace it with.

Cutters (or snips): a lot of the cutters/snips out there are too big, or don’t cut flush (the blades have a bevel on the back where they meet). For building electronics you really need a bit of precision, so to my mind small size and flush cutting are a must. I used to have Lindstrom box jointed cutters, but subsequently discovered this style of RS PRO ones and have been using them ever since. They are designed for cutting the small gauge wires and component legs you run across building electronics – they won’t cope with chewing through heavier weight wires and cables, so if you want to tackle those get a heftier pair that are designed for the job.

Pliers: like cutters, a lot of pliers are too big or coarse for serious electronics work, so once again fine is good. After starting out with cheap pliers I discovered Lindstrom box jointed ones when I started working as an electronics technician. I’ve got a few pairs that I’ve had forever – if you don’t misuse them they last a very long time. If you’re going to be building a lot of electronics projects it’s worth getting a flat nose pair as well as a fine long nose pair.

  • Flat nose (Lindstrom seem to have dropped the box jointed version in favour of a lap jointed ones, which is a shame)
  • Fine nose (still available as box jointed it seems)
  • If your budget won’t quite stretch to the Lindstrom pliers it’s probably worth looking at the likes of these flat nose and fine nose alternatives: not quite as fine tipped as the Lindstrom ones, but good enough until things start to get really fiddly!

Wire strippers: I’ve used various types down the years, but the ones that I’ve found most versatile are also one of the simplest, like these Knipex ones.

Solder sucker: otherwise known as a desoldering pump. Sooner or later (probably sooner), as well as adding solder to things you’re going to need to remove it. Solder suckers come in one basic design and they are all much of a muchness: this Draper version is a good example. Don’t be tempted to buy the very small ones – I bought one of these once but it didn’t have enough suction to be remotely useful.

Multimeter: probably the one piece of instrumentation that’s essential, as it can at least tell you where there’s voltage around your circuits. For electronics projects there’s no need to get the high-rated and certified type an electrician would use to test the wiring in your house (unless you plan to test the wiring in your house as well, of course). A lot of budget multimeters will measure DC and AC voltage, current, resistance and have a continuity tester. Some will also test diodes and measure capacitance and frequency. I use this Neoteck meter (also badged as WinApex) these days – it does all of the measurements listed above and is surprisingly good for the price. And it even has a probe for measuring temperature.

Bench power supply: depending on what you’re building a controllable power supply can make things a lot easier than messing around with batteries for testing prototypes. These days a 30 Volt 5 Amp model comes in not a lot more expensive than a decent pair of wire cutters, although I suspect the cutters will last longer. If being able to supply 5 Amps isn’t enough (it should be for most projects) there are also 10 Amp versions available for not a lot more cash.

Prototype board (otherwise known as breadboard): this is useful stuff for rapid builds to check that a circuit works and tweak it as necessary. Something like these ones are big enough for most projects, as when things get more complex it’s generally worth prototyping a section at a time and transferring the tested bits to vero board or pcb. I’ve seen projects online where a circuit on prototype board was built into a box and became the final version – this is not a great idea as components and wires are only held in place by spring contacts and can easily shake free over time. Used for what it’s intended for, however, it’s invaluable and saves a lot of time (and soldering).

Oscilloscope: a bit of a luxury item, and you can go a long way without one. However, when you’re working with circuits that involve oscillators or timers a ‘scope can be very useful. They’ve become a lot smaller (and cheaper) with advances in digital electronics and screen technology, no longer taking up about a cubic foot and looking like something out of a 1950’s sci-fi film. If you’ve never used one before there’s a pretty comprehensive introduction on Sparkfun which is worth a read. Reasonably priced consumer-end models like this one are likely to be fine for the hobby builder, but if you want to see what the pro’s use (and pay for the privilege) take a look at Tektronix – quality stuff with prices to match.

So that’s my basic list for electronics projects – not particularly long or daunting. Once you start trying to hack your successful electronic builds into some sort of enclosures there are a whole class of more mechanical tools that you’re likely to need. More on those in a future post.

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