Toolbox: Portable lighting

Furniture & Lighting
Toolbox: Portable lighting


A lot of what makes a successful DIY build is not in the gory details of build itself, it’s in everything that surrounds it: the working environment, the available tools, the preparation done beforehand, the patience and working methods of the builder, etc.

Soldering is a good example. Successful soldering is not so much about the soldering technique itself — most people can learn that pretty quickly. It’s about keeping the iron and components clean, keeping the iron hot, and spending the time to carefully set up each weld so that you get proper heat and solder transfer and flow.

One overlooked factor in the working environment is often adequate lighting. I was amazed, after years of haphazard lighting on my work bench (from nothing but ambient, overhead lighting, to a cheap incandescent clip on, to a floor lamp next to my desk), when I got a good swing-arm, bright florescent lamp. With this new light, and a magnifying glass on my third hand, I could actually see what I was soldering! I felt like a fool having gone so long basically working in the dark. When I got a magnifying light for my hobby desk, where I paint sci-fi 28mm miniatures, suddenly I could see levels of detail I couldn’t have dreamed of with a clip-on incandescent.

For portable lighting, I like lights that are very directable, lights that clip on, twist around (snake lights), or stand on their own. I like to be able to direct the beam exactly where I want it.


Years ago, my brother-in-law, an auto tools salesman, gave me a Stylus Reach Streamlight ($21) for Christmas. This is a flexible-head (7″ extension) pen light with a super-bright LED on the end. It has a pocket clip and a clip that the extension attaches to. You can also use it to attach the light to narrow objects (like PC case frames). I also use the clip like a stand and can direct the light where I want it, hands-free. This tool has lived in my zipper-case electronics tool kit ever since he gave it to me and I use it all the time.


This year, bro-in-law gave me a new toy, the AmPro T19701 6 LED Flashlight with Magnetic Pick-up Tool ($15). This thing is SO cool. It has six high-intensity LEDs in the lens and a 20″ telescoping rod with a magnetic retriever head on the tip. This rod comes out of the center of the lens. Like a magic trick, it’s a real crowd-pleaser. The magnetic head, which is flexible by the way, can pick up as much as three pounds. I have arthritis in my back, so it’s hard for me to reach behind computer stations and the like to retrieve lost objects. This super-bright light brings daylight to such areas and a means of grabbing what you find there (at least if it’s metal). Pictured above is the flexible,magnetic stand you can also get for the AmPro.


The NovaTac EDC 120T ($111) is a really impressive “tactical light.” It weighs next to nothing, fits in the palm of your hand, and will darn-near blind you with its up to 120 Lumens. It’s made of matte black aircraft aluminum and is virtually indestructible. You can submerge it up to 66 ft. It has three light settings (.3, 10, and 120 Lumens). It also has a “disorienting strobe” setting. It comes with a belt clip. I got one sent to me for review last fall. A few days later, I went to a late-fall cookout, clipped the light onto my belt, and was ready for anything darkness could throw at me. I didn’t end up using it at the party, and when I got home and went to unclip it from my belt, I discovered I somehow already had, inadvertently. The $100 flashlight was gone. My phone was clipped next to it and I must have yanked it off as I unclipped the phone. The light is so lightweight and unobtrusive, I never noticed it was missing. So, if you buy and carry one of these lights, keep an eye on it! If I’d actually paid $100 for it, I’d have been one unhappy camper.


Some friends gave me this snake light for Christmas (what’s the deal with gifting me with lights?). It’s awesome. It has a 2′ bendable shaft with a dome light on the end of it. The LED light has two settings, adjusted by the lid of the dome (all the way open, high beam, slighting closed, dimmer light). I’ve already used this in a number of situations around the house where I needed direct working light. And I snake it around the bars of my iron bed to use as a book light at night. Really handy. Unfortunately, there’s no information on the light itself and I threw away the packaging. I don’t know what it’s called or where to get it. If anyone knows anything, please post in the comments.

Update: Widget in Comments tells us that this is the Wink Adjustable Hands-Free Light ($20).


MAKE magazine’s Project Editor Paul Spinrad sent me info on this Bandi Light Pen ($9), a ballpoint pen with an LED in front to help you write in the dark. A friend got them in the UK and gave one to Paul. He swears by it. It says he hasn’t been able to find them in the states except in wholesale channels. Here’s a place in Australia that sells them. Here’s the manufacturer (in Korea).


16 thoughts on “Toolbox: Portable lighting

  1. Improbable says:

    Don’t forget about headlamps. I’ve got a great little Petzl with several brightness settings and a flip-up red filter for preserving night vision. The small ones weigh so little that you hardly notice them, but are still perfectly bright enough for short to mid range anytime you need your hands free, especially in awkward places like under a sink.

  2. brett says:

    Do I get anything special if I can ID the orange car in the first picture?

  3. widget says:

    The Snakelight is called Wink and probably came from Brookstone. I got 2 and use them on my bike helmet. Its really cool looking. :)

  4. Anonymous says:

    For lot’s of flashlight discussion and information, this is a great site:

  5. Steve says:

    Does anyone know of a Canadian vendor that sells those bendy metal tubes – otherwise known as goose necks…geese necks?

  6. Anonymous says:

    For goose neck, one thing you can look for is places that sell microphone stands. I know that Radio Shack has them – the Canadian equivalent probably does, too.

    Another alternative is to use rigid flexible coolant hoses – the kind used here:

  7. Richard Davies says:

    Wow lots of great information on a variety of lights there, that magnet headed torch looks very handy, especially for getting lost keys and such from under the car/sofa and the like.

  8. Richard Williams says:

    That magnetic torch is a brilliant idea.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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