What should you get to start making with electronics? Maker.io recently published a good list. While I agree with much of it, I’d make some changes. So here, then, is my suggestions for setting up a starter lab, as well as ideas for upgrading later.
- Electronics needs power. A reasonably good bench power supply is pretty much manditory. You’ll definitely need 5v and probably 3.3v as well. 9v or 12v is useful for powering devices that have builtin regulation such as Arduinos that have a barrel jack for power (e.g the UNO). A clean, steady, reliable source of power in very important. Of course, you’ll need cables as appropriate. Dyode has a project to use a PC power supply as the basis of a bench supply (assuming you have a 3d printer).
- Breadboarding supplies. My suggestion is to get at the very least a couple full size breadboards, but better would be what Adafruit lists as a large breadboard. This gives you more space and an easy way to connect power. To wire things up you will need either some jumpers or hookup wire. If you buy loose breadboards, try to get them all the same so that you can connect them together. Most brands look the same, but not all are inter connectable.
- Actually, it’s a good idea to have plenty of wire on hand. To make use of the wire, you’ll need a wire stripper. Don’t use a knife to strip wire. You’ll damage the wire and/or cut yourself. A proper pair of wire strippers will take of the insulation without touching the wire inside.
- Now that you have wire, you need to be able to solder it. Trust me, you’ll be doing plenty of soldering. Be sure to get a proper electronics soldering iron. This is a good introductory choice. It has decent specs and a very nice price. I would suggest you get a more general purpose tip, though. Be sure to buy a proper iron holder if your iron doesn’t come with one.
- You need a way to keep your iron tip clean to ensure good heat transfer. There are people who like wet sponges, and people who like brass sponges. I use both. Get one or both and use it every time you take the iron off of its holder, and more often if you’re doing a lot of soldering at a time. Some tip cleaner/tinner is a good idea as well.
Never, NEVER, NEVER EVER, flick the iron to shake excess solder off. I would to that when I was but a wee lad starting out. The problem is that not all the solder comes off at the end out the outward flick… more comes off during the jerk back. After a couple tshirts that looked like I got hit with buckshot I figured it out and thanked my lucky stars it was just my tshirt that got hit with it.
- Naturally, you’ll need some solder. 22 gauge or slightly smaller is good. I wouldn’t go bigger than that for electronics work. Be sure to get one with a flux core that is marked “no clean”. Flux helps the solder flow and make good joints, and no clean means you don’t need to clean the flux off after you finish soldering. There’s solder that contains lead, and solder that doesn’t. Yeah, lead is bad news, but if you wash your hands after soldering, and refrain from snacking on it, you’ll be fine.
- Speaking of safety, some people advise safety glasses and a fume extractor. Personally, I’ve never bothered with either. But at the same time, neither is a bad idea, so use them if you like. Working in a ventilated area is always a good idea and I work with a window open next to my bench when the weather is agreeable. In my opinion you should know what you’re doing, what the consequences are, and make your own decisions.
- Once you’re able to add solder, you’ll find that sometimes you need to remove it. You’ll want two things for this: a solder sucker and some desoldering braid. Buying braid in a bulk pack is cheaper in the end, and trust me… you’ll use it.
- One or more pairs of needlenose pliers are a must have. These come in a variety of styles and sizes. A basic pair will suffice to get started.
- Diagonal cutters are a definite must have. They aren’t generally called wire cutters for nothing.
- A vise. Not a woodworking or mechanics vise, but one for holding circuitboards, and such. The Panavise Jr. is a good one to start with. This Circuit Board Holder is a bit cheaper and reasonable to start with. It’s what I started out with.
- I consider a decent digital multimeter to be an absolute necessity.
- Something that seems obvious, but that is important enough to warrant special mention is lighting. Make sure you have good lighting. A string LED positionable desk lamp is probably best.
Additional useful items
- Heat shrink tubing is great for bundling wires together, covering connections to prevent shorts, and all sorts of other things. It comes in various sizes and colours. Variety packs are very common.
- Zip Ties are incredibly handy to have in your drawer.
- Tweezers, for picking up and positioning small parts and holding wires in place while soldering.
- A third hand unit can be very useful for holding wires and small pieces that need to be soldered to. It’s not necessary, but can be handy. If you decide to get some, I advise the Panavise Third Hand add-on. If you do want to get this, or think you might before long, consider the Panavise Jr. mentioned in the vise section above as these work well together and if you upgrade to the Workcenter (below) the third hand add-on works with it as well. Stay away from the cheap third hand units like this. It might be Amazon’s Choice, but it’s a piece of crap. I had one, I used it a few times before it fell apart and I tossed it.
- Some antistatic precautions can be useful. Most maker electronics isn’t overly sensitive, but some things can be, and if you walk across carpet on the way to your bench you can build up damaging amounts of static. Cats are bad for this as well. A simple grounding bracelet is a cheap and easy precaution. Just make sure it’s attached to a ground.
- So you’ve breadboarded a circuit. Now you want to solder it up to make it more robust. For that you need a board to solder the components to. Using Breadboard PCBs makes it easy… you simply move things to the PCB and solder them on. To make things a little denser, or a different shape/size you can get prototyping boards in various shapes and sizes. I have a drawer full of such things so that I always have a board available to hack stuff onto.
Over time as you do more, and get better at it, you will likely wear out your cheaper starter gear, or get to the point where you want something better.
- Your soldering iron is probably the first thing you’ll upgrade. The Hakko FRX-888D is a great upgrade. Not cheap, but it’s high quality and works great for regular, extended use.
- The circuit board vise is another early upgrade. The higher end Panavise Multipurpose Workcenter is a beautiful thing to use.
- Tools like pliers, cutters, solder sucker, etc. There’s always a better quality version out there. The better ones stand up to more use and generally work better.
- Likewise, there are an overwhelming variety of meters available. You will likely want to upgrade at some point.
- An oscilloscope is something that will eventually become useful. There are scopes at all pricepoints. You can start out with something like a BitScope Micro, and move on later to something like a Rigol DS1054Z.
These aren’t hard & fast rules. They’re more like guidelines. Things that I found useful as I wandered through my time hacking and soldering and making in general. Having good equipment makes the work more enjoyable and less frustrating. Your tools shouldn’t get in the way.
That said, don’t worry about getting THE RIGHT TOOL to start off. Get something that will do the job. If you need (or want) to replace it later, you can do that.
I’ve put links to products at Adafruit and Amazon, bit there are plenty of places to get this stuff. I got most of my initial tools (some I still use) at Microcenter, Digikey, Mouser, etc. all carry these things. And Amazon has a wealth of equipment and supplies.
So get some tools. Get some parts. Start making. And have fun.