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).
I found the screwdriver set that I was mentioning. It is called the autoloader. It can be purchase from Amazon as a set (no I did not get the pink set). It looks like they have an upgraded version. Here is their website.
I hear you there on the budget. I am thinking about makning my own custom body for the Pilot Hi-tec refills. I have access to some sintered tungsten that I could add to the front of the body that would make it a real nice device. I would love to make it similar in shape to my mechanical pencil as I really like that shape as it fits well in my hand.
I like your idea, let me know if you end up doing anything with it. The integrated breadboard that I have is really great, but it weights over 10lbs (it has a nice steel case). I have seen a few updated boards of this style, but they are in the $500 range. I see no reason they should be this costly. I imagine that one could make a board like this for under $100 and have the same functionality.
The reason that I do like this breadboard that I have is that it has lots of things like switches, speakers, pots, and a few simple diagnostic and signal generation tools. It also has a variable power supply. It is simple, but it has worked well.
I personally use the guts from an old Cat4 cable. It is cheap and plentiful, and the internal wire is color coded. I also have a small set of flexible, premade jumpers. My boards never look quite as neat as Max's, but I usually am not leaving it on the breadboard for long.
My wife and I have a similar agreement. Her expensive habit is clothes, and mine is tools and stuff for my modeling projects. It tends to balance out well.
As to bits that I do not have, most of those come from trying to get into an Apple product. I hate it when groups use custom fasteners to try and prevent people from getting into the device for repairs, or to see what is going on.
I do a fair bit of repair work and fixing things for people. I would not be without various sets of screwdrivers, especially those with a driver and tons of bits - flat, philips, posidriv, hex (allen key) torx and security torx (with the hole in the middle). tri-wing, etc. And no matter how many you have, you'll always come across something for which you don't have a driver, to give you an excuse to add to your collection....
I have an ongoing argument with my wife as to whether a man can ever have too many screwddrivers. Fortunately she is the same with earrings, so I can always keep her quiet if she starts on at me about it :-)
@Max....@Aeroengineer:It looks very interesting, also very well laid out with the jumper wires.
Love your work Max, I'll second that. My breadboards usually look like rats nests and it sometimes gets very difficult to trace wires. I got with some breadboards I bought, an assortment of preformed jumpers in various lengths and since I ahve started using those my projects look a little bit more like yours.
I'm with you Duane. I usually have 2 or 3 projects on the go and so need a few breadboards. I recently got a bunch of breadboards in various sizes for a song off a local electronics store which stopped doing small hobbyist parts.
I'm working on something at the moment which will have each breadboard mounted on a small case inside which there will be regulators for +/-5 and +/-12V. I'll plug them into a power supply with +/-8 and +/-16V unregulated outlets, using 8-way DIN plugs which I also have a lot of. I have tons of 150mA polyfuses I got off some old boards and will use them as current limiters. I have enough pins on the DIN plugs to maybe send some other voltages and have higher voltage or current supplies too.
I like also building into my breadboards things like LEDs, switches (debounced if necessary) speakers etc (I do very varied projects). I might make one housing with more tools on it like Adam's - a small DMM and probably my Xminilab - a small MSO + Signal Gen from Gabotronics which I won - see more here
They have some VERY tasty goodies for projects like this - you could make a small self-contained development environment as long as you're not doing anything tooo fast. On that one, I am thinking about making the breadboards plug-in, again so I can work on a few things at a time without dismantling one to do something else.
All I need is some time to get all this done. Work has a nasty habit of interfering with the interesting stuff...
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.