When I first started to become involved with electronics, I realized that it would be important to invest in a set of tools that would help me build my projects. However, I had lots of questions about which tools to purchase and -- since I was on a limited budget -- which pieces of equipment should I acquire first.
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So, for any beginners out there, the following is my list in order of what I have found to be important along with some of the mistakes I've made along the way:
A location: I would recommend first finding a place where you can put all your tools in a somewhat organized fashion. For quite some time, I made the mistake of trying to have things here and there around the house. I found that I would frequently misplace things and -- instead of spending time working on a project -- I would spend time looking for the tool that I needed. The location in your house does not need to be big, but should be a dedicated space.
A desk or a workbench: This is a fantastic addition. It does not need to be fancy -- it's a place to leave your projects in between your working sessions. I started out with a small card table that was approximately $30 from Walmart. I later upgraded to this workbench from Harbor Freight. (Actually, there are few Harbor Freight items that I would recommend, but this is one of them.) It has four integrated drawers and a hardwood top. I got it on sale for $106 delivered to my door, and it has proved to be a great upgrade.
A computer: How would you perform tasks like programming and PCB layout without a computer? This item is a must. It does not need to be dedicated to electronics design, but you can pick up a cheap laptop or desktop for around $300.
A breadboard: I personally have a very nice integrated breadboard that I was able to pick up for a very reasonable price (approximately $35) from eBay. This is the predecessor to the Global Specialties PB505. As you can tell, I got it for quite the discount. All I needed to do was repair a damaged potentiometer to get my eBay special working.
A soldering iron: I am not talking about one of those $10 Radio Shack "fire starters," but a real, temperature-controlled soldering iron. There are a lot of options out there (including this open-source device), but I would recommend saving up your pennies and getting a combination hot air rework station as well as soldering iron. I purchased the Aoyue 968, which has since been upgraded to the 968 A+. It was about $160 at the time. In fact, I have used the hot air rework station for reflowing my boards more than I have used the soldering iron side. This truly has been a workhorse in my lab.
Logic Analyzer: Diagnostic tools are a must. Before the oscilloscope, I would purchase a logic analyzer. I purchased the open source Open Bench Logic Sniffer for $50 and it has served me well. This tool has been great to be able to see if I am actually communicating what I want over my serial communication lines.
Oscilloscope: Once you have acquired all of the tools noted above, it really is well worth getting an oscilloscope. An oscilloscope is great for looking at issues that are harder to diagnose. It can help you identify issues with a serial communications signal, DAC outputs, and many other areas. The biggest problem is that there are so many choices -- where does one start?
Do you go for analog or digital? Will a $200, 10MHz USB scope do what you want it to do? For a starter oscilloscope, I would say that you can get what you need for 50 to $200. I was able to get an analog, 4-channel, 300MHz, Tek 2465 with two probes for $200. I had to do some eBay shopping to find it, but it has proved to be a very good scope for the money. Right now, I am looking to add a digital scope to my tool kit. For that one, I am looking at the Rigol DS2000 series. The nice thing about this series is that they have a gradient weighted display that makes the screen display the signals in a very similar manner as an analog scope. But they run 800 to $1600, so I am going to have to save up for this item.
Power Supply: All of the above and no power supply? Until now, I've been able to get by with simple "wall warts" and breadboard power supplies that had fixed voltages. I finally was given a dedicated, bench-top power supply by a friend. This power supply is an old analog, dual-output supply that can regulate both voltage and current. This may not be a necessity for many folks, but if the price is right it will make for a very nice addition to your laboratory.
So far, I have spent about $700 on my home electronics workshop. This cost excluded the cost of the computer as I already had one around that I use. Do I think that my workshop is complete? Can you ever have enough tools? Of course not! I do have a few things that are yet on my watch list. As I indicated, I am looking to purchase a DSO (digital sampling/storage oscilloscope), but I would also like to have an arbitrary waveform generator, a small reflow oven, and perhaps even a small pick-and-place machine.
One tool that I am very tempted to get is the new Red Pitaya that is on Kickstarter right now. My only hesitation is that it is only a 125Msp/sec (mega-samples per second) per channel device -- ideally I would like to have a 1Gsp/sec device. The nice thing though, despite the lower sampling rate, is that it has a 14-bit sample depth vs. the standard 8-bit sample depth on most DSO scopes.
Have I missed anything? I am always open to new tools for the workshop. Please let me know in the comments below (I'm sure my wife would appreciate it).
You can still get the 2mm lead holders at places like JetPens, and possibly at Staples (in the art / drafting section).
More expensive pens can be very nice, and well worth it if you love using them (e.g. a lot of Kickstarter pens are machined from solid metal, something you won't find at Walmart), but in order to keep my budget under control, I have a informal limit of $15 for pens, and most of the time try to keep well below that -- and I try to (mostly) avoid dangerous web sites like JetPens, Stationery Art, Wiha Tools, etc.
The short story is like this. I used to work for this restoration group when I was younger. I had the chance to start working there when I was 12 and worked with them even through college. I still do things with them from time to time.
During this time one of the members of the group decided that he wanted to make an aerobatic plane that was based off the dimensions of an earlier design by the same designer. Along the way, we were at Oshkosh airshow and there was a group that was exhibiting a very small turbine engine of the same horse power that was intended for the project. The advantage was that it was significantly lighter. The disadvantage was that it was much more fuel hungry.
At the time I was a senior in high school. My role in this project was in fabrication of the wings, help with fuselage assembly/fabrication, and to calculate the expected stall speed (I was within 2mph). The plane flew well. It went to a few airshows. On one flight during a refueling stop, some mud daubers made their nest in the fuel vents. This caused a fuel starvation problem shortly after takeoff, and caused an off airport landing on a highway. All was well except for the semi that decided to come around the corner. The pilot exited the road in an attempt to avoid the truck, but then hit a ditch that totaled the plane.
The wreckage was brought back to the shop, and in 60 days we had rebuilt it and got it ready for the next airshow.
That is the short story, there is much more. It was a very fun project. Here is a picture of the plane.
I am not saying that I have a particular interest in pricy pens for the sake of being pricy, but I do have an interest in fine writing instruments (pun intended). I really enjoy very fine tipped devices for making small detailed drawings. I once had a drafting pencil that had 2mm lead that you sharpened. It was 4H lead. My high school teacher told us that we had to copy everything he put on the board (not a good way to get a student interested in what you are doing). I took it on as a challenge to try and fit the entire two semesters of class notes on a single page of college ruled paper. I managed to fit 11 lines of my writing in a single line of the college ruled paper.
For 0.3mm & 0.5mm mechanical, it's Kuro Toga for me, since the rotating mechanism keeps them sharper. For 0.7mm, I have a Pentel Graphgear 1000 (from Stationery Art in Hong Kong -- better pricing than JetPens, but slower delivery).
I don't want to start on pen discussion here, so I'll just note that THE starting point for pens is the http://penaddict.com/ and add some quick notes:
-- If you're into pricey pens, don't forget Kickstarter
-- Yes, Hi-Tec-C's are nice, but I'm more of a Uniball guy. I find anything <0.38mm to be too scratchy for daily use, and prefer the Uni Signo DX over the HiTec-C. The best you'll find in normal stores is the Pentel G-Tec-C 5-pack.
-- The Pilot G2 Limited body is wonderful, especially since it will take all kinds of refills (Signo 207, many Schmidt rollerballs, Mont Blanc rollerballs if you chop the end, etc).
-- I just don't like felt or porous pens for writing. Other makes include the Uni PiN and Sakura Pigma Micron.
-- If you don't want to go broke, avoid fountain pens.
Enough on pens, I'll just note that I have 10 mugs full of pens within an arm's reach.
Adam - I have two. Unfortunately they aren't cheap. The standard screw mount bulb I have is an "Ecosmart" daylight (5000K) spectrum from Home Depot. It cost around $25.00. My other is a lamp with an integrated light bar that has about 20 LEDs. I think it was on the order of about $40.00 two years ago.
This is good information. So far most of my boards have been small, and cannot sink much power/heat. The last board I designed was to be able to sink 1W of power, and this one I reflowed and just had to do some quick touch ups with the soldering iron. Though I can see your point, if the temp is low, but you are on the joint for 20 seconds (hopefully not) vs a slightly higher temp and less than a second, then I would imagine that many parts would absorb less energy in the second case.