Whether total beginner or seasoned pro, there’s one thing that all electronics enthusiasts need to do their work: the right tools! Here are some of my favorites for the circuit tinkerers on your gift list.
Extech EX330 multimeter, Extech, $55
A multimeter is one of the basic tools that you’ll depend on, so it makes sense to put a little money into a good one. The Extech EX330 is the winner of Dave Jones’s extensive multimeter shootout, and it’s a great little meter. I picked one up when my formerly trusty benchtop meter died, and I haven’t looked back.
Multimeter Kit, Maker Shed, $20
Rather than buying a commercial multimeter, another fun option is to build your own. Though not quite as fancy as the above Extech, this kit is capable of making basic voltage, current, and resistance measurements, plus you get the satisfaction of knowing you built it yourself!
Banana to IC hook cables, Sparkfun, $5
One of my personal pet peeves with multimeters is the large probe cables that they usually come with. Sure, they’re great for measuring the odd resistor or checking the voltage of a large component, but if you’ve ever tried to monitor a voltage (or worse, measure the current that your device draws while it’s running), you’ll find it nearly impossible to hold the cables for very long. My solution is to banish those probes immediately, in favor of cables with gripper ends that can be clipped onto components or wires directly. That way, you can make changes to your circuit and see their effects instantly.
Rigol DS1052E Oscilloscope, Amazon, $400
Not too long ago, Digital Storage Oscilloscopes were expensive enough that they were relegated to research labs. Great ones are still pretty pricey, however decent ones, such as this Rigol scope, are now priced within the range of any serious hobbyist. I purchased one last year, and have used it to develop every electronics project that I’ve worked on since. As a bonus, it turns out that it’s pretty easy to convert this to the more pricey 100 MHz model, by applying a simple software change. If this scope is a bit more than you need, check out the pocket-sized DSO Nano by Seeed Studios below.
DSO Nano v2, Maker Shed, $110
If you don’t need a full-sized bench scope, the DSO Nano is a great little oscilloscope. About the size of a smartphone, it’s actually small enough to be a stocking stuffer, but packs enough power to do simple troubleshooting. It’s also great to take on the road. I borrowed one to use during a hackerspace tour this summer, and it came in handy multiple times when trying to diagnose problems with a project.
ZD-99 Mini Solder Station, MPJA, $15
Perfect for the electronics beginner, or for stocking up a new hackerspace, this affordable soldering station is just powerful enough to get the job done. Way better than a standalone pencil iron, it comes complete with variable temperature adjustment, a stand to set the iron in, and sponge for cleaning the tip.
Hakko 936 soldering iron, Tequipment.net, $79
Like many tools, having a decent soldering iron makes a world of difference when attempting to actually use it. I’ve had one of these Hakko units for the past five years, often carrying it with me on my travels (including many trips to Maker Faires), and it has held up wonderfully. I especially appreciate its powerful heater, which allows it both to warm up quickly and to deliver heat consistently, and it means that I can reliably solder at a lower temperature than I could with a less powerful iron.
Used Metcal Soldering Iron, eBay, $varies (~$100)
With the ability to deliver lots of heat instantly and on command, Metcal irons are some of the most respected out there. The only problem is, new ones cost way more than they’re really worth to even most advanced hobbyists. Luckily, they are pretty easy to find for an affordable price used. If my trusty Hakko ever falls apart, I’ll definitely spring for one of these.
Make: Electronics Deluxe Kit, Maker Shed, $110
Just starting from scratch? This kit from the Maker Shed has everything a beginner needs to get started with electronics, from a soldering iron to a multimeter, with some extra goodies such as hook up wire included as well! This would be a perfect way to equip a new workbench without much fuss, so you can concentrate on building projects.
Resistor value pack, Jameco, $11
While not technically a tool, having a set of various kinds of resistors is as essential part of any serious electronics hobbyist’s toolset. I resisted picking one up for a long time, instead digging through a drawer of used components every time i needed a part. This definitely helped me learn the resistor color codes, however it was always a pain when I needed a specific value that I didn’t have. The set from Jameco comes in a couple of small bags, perfect for slipping into the toolbox for when they’re needed most. You could also splurge and get a set that comes in a specialized container, however I’d rather save my shelf space for more “inspirational” junk.
Flush cutters, pliers, and wire cutters, anywhere, $5-7 each
These three tools are especially useful when it comes to cutting and forming wire for electronics projects. I’ve used both cheap and expensive versions, and find that they all work fine as long as you take care of them and stick to using them to cut softer metals. I’ve had my current set for long enough that I don’t actually remember where I picked them up, however you can find them at almost any electronics shop or online store.
This review is sponsored by element14
WIHA 7-Pc. ESD-Safe Precision Slotted & Phillips Screwdriver Set, WIHA, $39.40
I have to admit to not owning a decent set of one of the most basic but crucial instruments in one’s toolbox: screwdrivers. Accustomed to cheapo tools that bend and break off when faced with a tightly fastened screw, I fully appreciate the solid performance of this set from WIHA. I would have appreciated a re-usable plastic case rather than the disposable blister pack that they came in, but the drivers themselves are top notch. The range of sizes included in this is well thought out, and it had all of the tools that I needed to take apart (and subsequently reassemble) both a rusty old hot plate (I got it running!) and a multimeter that needed a new battery. As an additional bonus, this set is ESD safe, which will come in handy when working with delicate electronic devices.
This Holiday Gift Guide was sponsored by element14. The editorial decisions about what to include where MAKE’s and MAKE is solely responsible for its contents. We also chose the tool in the “sponsored review” section.