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).
I like that idea as well. I have taken to either making a breakout PCB for those types of circuits, or to build them up on a small donut board. I got 100 boards that are about that size that you mentioned for about $5 from Aliexpress.
On a side note, I hope to see your posts continued over here about prototyping with BGA. I was really enjoying those. I need to find out if OSHpark supports filled vias, and if because they are filled if I can get away with smaller anular rings. I really would like to use the Freescale KL02 in some of my projects.
That looks like a nice event. I have looked, and the closest I can find to an event like that is about 2 hours away for me. I do think, though, that I might look into getting my technicians license one of these days to be able to play with some different frequiencies for my RC stuff.
I find that rather than one big solderless breadboard, a lot of little breadboards are a necessity for me. The ones I get are 2.2" x 3.4" and snap together to make a larger board.
The one you've got looks incredibly handy, but what I tend to do is wire up a small section of a circuit on the solderless breadboard, like a sensor or two. I'll then use that with one of my existing PC boards. I typically have a half dozen either in use, or built up and set aside for later use, at any given time.
@Aeroengineer: 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.
I think most folks who want to get into this stuff already have a computer -- but it may be a good idea to have one that's dedicated to one's hobby projects. In this case, if one is looking for a really cost-effective option, I really recommend a visit to one's local technology recycling store -- or to a local Hamfest like the Huntsville Hamfest I attended a couple of weeks ago. So long as you can live with something that's not quite state-of-the-art, you can pick up a very reasonably powered notepad computer for around ~$50...
What impressed me was that they shipped the thing for ~$7. It was a 108lb box and it came in less than a week just before Christmas. That is about the best price I have paid for shipping on such a large item. I do feel bad for the FedEx guy that had to deliver it.
You know, I had not considered that because I already had these from doing the mechanical work and modeling that I do. I guess that I took that for granted. I have a really wonderful set of screwdrivers that my wife got me for my birthday. When I get home, I will look it up and see who makes it. They store all the bits in the handle, though not in the way that most do. This one is almost like a pump action loader. At first, I thought that it was a bit lacking, but then one day they were the only screwdrivers taht I had available, and I found out how useful they really were. Now it is my go to set. They come in a set of two. There is a larger one, and a smaller one. It comes in a nice case.
As to wire strippers, I usually just use an exacto blade that I have lying around. I know that there are better things around, it has just been hard to beat a $.10 blade. The ones that are slightly dull for regular work are the best as they still cut the plastic insulation fine, but are less prone to cut the fine wires.
MP, I am glad that you found it useful. It has taken me about 5 years to get to the point that I am at now, but I have enjoyed it, and I have found it to be very useful. Now I am working on developing projects with the ARM Cortex M series uC's. Funny now that I was so scared to jump into electronics so long ago.
I do like your idea, though so far, I have been blessed with 20/10 eyesight, so I can actually do deadbug soldering on a .5mm pin spacing part with unaided vision. I am sure that will go soon enough, so you suggestion is worth considering here in the near future.
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