For any beginners out there, here's a list of tools and equipment I have found to be important when building a personal prototyping laboratory, along with some of the mistakes I've made along the way.
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).
Adam - re: "...just barely melting the solder. I then add another 10°C after I reach that point. This way I keep the temp as low as possible."
Sometimes hotter is better. The challenge with keeping the iron temp low is that as soon as you touch the iron to the part, heat spreads into the PC board, cooling the iron. That can lead to a longer dwell time on the component and/or a cold solder joint - especially with parts that have more thermal mass.
A hotter iron will allow you to get on and off the lead much quicker. Even though there's more heat, the shorter dwell time means that less will end up inside the part.
The downside to a hotter iron is the potential for thermal shock. Some parts simply don't allow hand soldering for this reason. The localized thermal shock to the part would be greater than going through a reflow oven. And, you do have to be quick with the iron and solder.
Ah, yes, good writing instruments. Because I do a lot of sketching, both of designs and general doodles, I love to have good writing instruments. I have a few that I think that are really important. The first is this of Pilot Hi-tec C pens. For a stick pen, they are a bit pricy per pen, but they offer a gel pen that does not bleed (so far that I have seen) when you stop or slow down during writing or sketching. They come in sizes as small as .025mm. I am not sure how big they go as I only have the smallest size. I love these pens. They are my favorite by far. I have tried many others, but these take the cake. The smaller sizes may not be for some as you can easily damage the point if you mash them hard.
For pencils, this one is my favorite. It is the Platinum Pro-use II. It has a good heft to it, and despite its looks is actually very comfortable to hold. I get the .3mm led version. This one is my second favorite. It is the Pilot S20. I usually carry it with me when I need to be dressed up and have a good pencil.
Lastly, everyone needs a good Sharpe. When I did aircraft restoration, these things were almost like gold. You did not leave them lying around or they would get reclaimed by others. Finline Sharpies were good for marking out sheet metal, and the normal Sharpie was great for transferring holes.
We use hex-head screws to hold almost everything together (basically, no Philips, Torx or flat), and sometimes there isn't a lot of clearance, so a good set of ball-end hex wrenches is essential. I do the software & electrical, but it's cool having a machine shop in the back.
Another item to put on your list: a good quality lighted magnifier.
To get a bit off topic, of course you should have quality writing instruments for your lab, such as the innovative Uni Kuru Toga mechanical pencil -- the aluminum Roulette model is exceptional. And for pens....
BTW, Fry's sometimes blows out their test equipment when the new models come in; I bought my scope there for 50% off.
And eBay is pretty good, if you're patient. I've picked up a lot of my servo drives, motion controllers, variable frequency drives, and such from there.
re: "Modifying an airplane so that it replaced a piston engine with a turbine engine, and then clipping 12' off the 35' wingspan. Then rebuilding it after a bug clogged the fuel system and it made an off airport landing"
I'd like to hear more about this story. It may not be electronics, but it's got "engineer" all over it.
What to get first? It does depend on what you are doing: analog, digital, RF...
As a youngster, I started out with a cheap card table. Kept my tools in a shoe box. I started with miscellaneous screwdrivers, pliers, cutter...and a cheap Radio Shack soldering iron. When I finally got a temperature controlled iron, it was wonderful. When I finally got a Metcal, it was heavenly. Ebay is great :)
My first "instrument" was an analog VOM from Radio Shack (OK, I started in the early 70's...). I got a better one later.
I'm an analog/RF guy. I suggest DMM, then scope, then logic analyzer. But I think lots more people start with digital stuff first these days, so for that, DMM/logic analyzer/scope is better (unless your scope is REALLY good and decodes serial data streams! :)