Electronics Tools Gift Guide

For this year’s Electronics Tools Gift Guide, we asked one of our new project contributors, Steve Hobley, to tell us about some of the more patina’d tools on his workbench. Here’s what he had to say. These aren’t the sexiest tools available, they’re the most honest. Bench-tested. Maker-to-maker. Feel free to share in the comments what your favorite electronics tools are, and even some of the newer, swankier tools you might have your eye on. – Gareth

Stahl Soldering Station – in the Maker Shed – $19.99
Every maker needs a good soldering iron, not the big ugly one your dad had in the garage, but a nice clean, narrow tipped, temperature-controlled beauty. The stand and cleaner pad are important, too. If you’re on a budget, the Stahl soldering station is definitely worth a look. It comes with a range of tip shapes, just like its more expensive counterparts, and it can run the iron from 150C all the way up to 450C. The different tips give you what you need to solder surface mount, all the way up to light gauge copper and brass.The only thing missing is a “ready” light, but after doing some checking with a Thermocouple, I can say that it takes 10 minutes to heat up from cold, and about five minutes once warmed up to change temperatures. This is the second year running that this solder station has made it onto the MAKE list, but it’s such a useful bit of kit, it’ll probably be here next year, too. And it’s only $20!

DSO Nano Oscilloscope – In the Maker Shed – $109.99
OK, next to a soldering iron, quite possibly the single most useful piece of gear that any maker/hacker can own is an oscilloscope. Go get one. Right now! To be able to see voltage changes occurring in circuits while the device is running is the absolute best way to learn electronics. These things used to cost an absolute fortune, but now prices have dropped down to levels where mere mortals like us can own them. What I really like about this one is not just the fact that it fits in your pocket, but that the it’s “open hardware,” so you can download the source code and make up your own functions. Truly awesome.

MAKE Circuit Breaker – in the Maker Shed – $36
MacGuyver wouldn’t leave home without it, and neither should you. After 20 years of stripping wires using my teeth, I’ve got to admit that tools like this do a much better job. (And so does my dentist). Small enough to attach to a keychain, this tiny Leatherman tool is dead easy to take with you everywhere. In addition, you get scissors, screwdrivers, knife blade, and file, but surprisingly, not “one-of-those-things-for-getting-stones-out-of-horses-hooves” [This is an old UK joke – the standard Swiss Army Knife always had that “mystery blade,” so people began referring to it as such]

Joby GorillaPod Magnetic in the Maker Shed – $24.99
If you’re anything like me, you use YouTube. A lot. Not only to post public videos, but to keep a lot of unlisted/private stuff – project-documenting work, and the life and times of my 3-year-old daughter, Sarah Jane. The absolute worst thing you can ever do is upload wobbly movies/ It might have worked for Jason Bourne, but for the rest of us, shaky videos are unprofessional, and make things really difficult to see. One of the downsides of newer HD video cameras is that they seem to crank the “shake factor” up to “11.”

I own about two or three of the GorillaPod flexible stands — my favorite is the magnetic one. Not only can you wrap it around things, it can stick to metal too. I’ve been able to adhere my camera to the CNC mill head while cutting/ I’ve also found them really useful for holding LED lights when a scene is too dark (the larger ones can also hold strobes for still images). Best of all, the magnetic stand is small enough to fit in your pocket when you’re done. [Photograph from http://joby.com/gorillapod/magnetic/]

Rosin Flux Pen – various stores – $5-6
As far as geeky stocking stuffers go, you can’t go wrong with here. Flux pens are perhaps the greatest invention for getting solder to stick to tricky bits of metal (like brass and aluminum). You just paint on a bit of flux, get it nice and hot, and let the solder flow. Easy-peasy.

Tip Tinner and Cleaner – various stores – $5-$9
Little known fact: a new soldering iron tip is actually rather poor at soldering. It needs to be “broken in” before it will work really well. Quickest way to do this is to dunk it in a pot of “tip tinner.” This cleans the surface of the iron and gets everything flowing. Finally: Solder. You can never have enough, and it’s constantly dropping on the floor and rolling away (at least for me anyway). Get some fine solder, and some super-fine solder for surface-mount work.

NTE Desoldering Tool– various online stores – $20-$30

Three words for you: Harvesting. Old. Electronics. I do it all the time, from old TVs to hi-fi amps, to kettles [Are you sure about the last one? – Ed] The best bang for your buck is to take some old broken hardware and strip all of its lovely silicon-electrolytic goodness. To do this, you’re going to need something to precisely melt the solder and yank it away from the wires. You *can* spend a fortune on a dedicated de-soldering station, but I find that this squeezy-bulb approach is just as good. After a bit of practice, you’ll find you can operate it one-handed and harvest all of the gems from a circuit board in minutes. You also get a lovely “I’m recycling!” feeling while using it – at no extra charge. [Photograph from http://shoppedmachine.blogspot.com]

Harbor Freight Heat Gun – $19
Now, if you really want to strip a circuit board in seconds, this is the ultimate tool to use. I’ve personally been using this inexpensive Harbor Freight model, so that’s the one I’m recommending here. Just put the circuit board upside down over a bucket and heat the back of through-hole components and watch them drop right off. Perfect for removing surface mount, too. Just like the solder remover above, there are super-expensive versions of this tool, but this one gives you the best bang for the buck. [Photograph from http://www.harborfreight.com]

Boxer Bit Assortment – available from Fry’s – $16.99
Don’t you hate it when you can’t open things up and have a look inside? [“That’s right, Apple, we’re looking at you…”] That’s where this toolkit comes in handy. Just about every possible type of “driver” head you could wish for, including “tri-wings” [Take that! Nintendo], Hex drivers, star drivers, hex-star drivers, weird twisty cross heads — I’ve never come across anything I couldn’t get the screws out of. [Photograph from http://findnsave.star-telegram.com]

Fume extractor kit – in the Maker Shed – $35
Let’s be honest, no one wants to die a horrible and painful death, and neither should you. Soldering is fun and cool and all, but the fumes are not fun – you should do everything you can not to inhale them. Over in the Maker Shed, they have a neat kit for a tiny solder fume filter/extractor fan, built in a mint tin, that you can attach to your vise or just put by your solder iron station to pull all that smoky nastiness away from you. For my main workbench, I’ve taken to using a small HEPA filter that pulls all the fumes within a 2′ sq away from me.

Mini Vice – available online – $32
Quick, count how many hands you have. It’s never enough is it? One of the greatest inventions ever for every makers cursed with only two hands is the PanaVise bench vise. This widget will hold your circuit boards in any orientation – perfect for component removal and addition. I’ve had mine for years, and I seriously wouldn’t want to do anything electronic without one. There’s a suction, clamp, or magnetic base option, but I’ve found that the weight of the base alone is more than enough to keep things steady. Couple it with a pair of helping hands and you really do have everything you need to keep circuits, components, wires exactly where you want them to be. With one hand left to drink your tea. [Editor’s Note: Maker Shed does not carry the 209 model reviewed here, but it does carry the classic 201, now with the new speed handle, developed through a discussion here on MAKE and winner of a 2010 Makey Award!]


PIC32 Ethernet Starter Kit – available from Microchip direct – $55
Multimedia Expander – $150
Are you ready to take your embedded applications to a new level? Let’s face it, there are only so many blinking LEDs or PWM controllers you can build before you’re ready for something a little bit cooler and more sophisticated. PICs have been around for a while, and sometimes people tend to pass them over for trendier microcontrollers. However, Microchip has really outdone themselves with a development environment that includes an LED touchscreen, joystick, temperature sensor, accelerometer, 24bit stereo audio, wifi AND hard-line Ethernet. Then, they coupled that with the PIC32 development environment – running at a whopping 80 MHz with 512K Flash, 128K RAM. (Phew) See all of Microchip’s dev tools currently on sale here.

Yes it’s a computer, but unlike certain computers I could mention, it doesn’t take 20 minutes to start up.


[Photograph from http://www.microchip.com]

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This week, I have been mostly working on...

I've been tinkering around with bits of technology since I was five years old. I used to take the telephone apart at home, just to see how it worked.

After a couple of years I could even put it back together again - and sometimes it would continue to work.

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