Toolbox: Shop bookshelf (electronics and MCUs)

Toolbox: Shop bookshelf (electronics and MCUs)

In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, refurbish, etc.

When we were working on the Maker’s Notebook, and I put out a call to staff, contributors, and other makers about what such a notebook should contain, the response was instantaneous and precise. You could tell that folks had done a lot of thinking on the subject and had formed strong opinions on their ideal notebook. When I put out a similar call last week for favorite shop bookshelf titles, I got a similar swift and enthusiastic response. Since folks reading Make: Online work in a lot of different media, your mileage might vary as to which books enjoy pride of place on your bench. Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of recommendations we got were for electronics books, so I decided to divide the column into two parts. This week I cover electronics and microcontrollers, next week we’ll cover tools, mechanics, and misc.

We’d love to hear what your favorite shop shelf books are. What are your go-to reference sources? We want to grow this list and keep it someplace here online for handy reference.

Electronics Reference


Getting Started in Electronics
Forrest M Mims III
More people probably learned electronics from this hand-drawn little masterpiece than any other source. I hardly ever mention this book to a wirehead who came of age (er… electronically speaking) in the 80s or 90s and not have him/her give an “I’m not worthy” wave in Forrest Mims’ general direction. I’m such a visually-oriented person that, when someone says, for instance, “double-pole, double-throw switch,” I visualize the switch page in this book. I’d tried learning electronics from various Tab Books in the early 80s, but it was this one that finally keyed the lock for me.


Engineer’s Mini Notebook Vol. I: Timer, Op Amp, and Optoelectronic Circuits & Projects
Engineer’s Mini Notebook Vol. II: Science and Communication Circuits & Projects
Engineer’s Mini Notebook Vol. III: Electronic Sensor Circuits & Projects
Engineer’s Mini Notebook Vol. IV: Electronic Formulas, Symbols & Circuits
Forrest M Mims III
I have two of these volumes on my bench, III and IV, and I love them. Volume III has all sorts of low-tech tilt-switches, pressure gauges, heat and light sensors, etc. Really clever, useful design ideas and circuits. IV has electronics formula, mathematical constants, common codes and symbols, etc. All sorts of useful reference info.


The Art of Electronics
Paul Horowitz
This showed up on a bunch of people’s lists. After the Mims books, this one usually comes up in discussions as the go-to book for learning electronics. As the Scientific American review put it: “Full of clever circuits and sharp insights, but with a surprising minimum of mathematics… The depth is genuine, as is the richness of examples, data and apt tricks.”


Electronic Troubleshooting
Dan Tomal & Neal Widmer
This isn’t necessarily the best book on the subject, but it’s the one I have on my bench. I also have and use the Radio Shack Using Your Meter by Alvis J. Evans, which is equally clunky and not for novices. I’d love to hear recommendations for other electronics troubleshooting guides, especially for beginner-to-intermediate users.


Circuit Designer’s Companion
Tim Williams
Tom McCarty, of Dorkbot DC, recommended this one, saying it was really helpful in: “moving from circuits that generally work on the workbench to designs that reliably work in the field (and in high quantities)”


Practical Electronics for Inventors
Paul Scherz
Another book that comes up a lot among artists and other non-engineer types looking to use electronics in their work is Practical Electronics for Inventors. My Dorkbot DC co-overlord Alberto Gataacute;in recommended this title for the list.


CMOS Cookbook
Don Lancaster
Before there was MAKE, before there was a maker movement, before there was a huge worldwide community of hardware hackers, before easy and cheap on-demand publishing, before there was a lot of things we take for granted around here, there was Don Lancaster. It was through his work, and Mims’, that I got into hardware hacking. Don was using a double-sided printer and printing and binding his own books on electronics and cottage businesses back in the late 80s, early 90s. He was a huge inspiration to me. And this book is his bible. It hasn’t been updated since 1997, so it’s showing its age, but there’s still a lot of useful information in it about this class of ICs, ICs folks are still working with, like the 74* families. Elliot Williams, of Dorkbot DC, says: “It’s super-easy to get to the pin-out diagrams you need quickly, and in the other half of the book are well-designed examples.”

Handmade Electronic Music
Nicolas Collins
Douglas Repetto, founder of Dorkbot, recommended this one. Collin wrote a little review of it here on Make: Online last year: “Handmade Electronic Music takes a loose and playful approach to the subject of electronic sound. This book bypasses many complexities of electronic theory in favor of inexpensive experimentation and discovery akin to circuit bending with a high-art leaning. Great for getting your feet wet, though it will leave the newcomer with many unanswered questions.”


Physical Computing
Tom Igoe and Dan O’Sullivan
While I love our contributions to the physical computing/Arduino/OSH genre (see below), this book remains the go-to source for laying the groundwork on what physical computing is and why it matters. This books lays that foundation perfectly so that you can then move deeper into Ardunio and creating your own embedded systems via Getting Started with Arduino and Making Things Talk. Douglas Repetto, founder of Dorkbot (among others), recommended it.


Getting Started with Arduino
Massimo Banzi
I adore this little book and am so proud that it’s got our name on it. Like Arduino itself, which was originally developed for artists and other non-techie types, this book’s simplicity, clarity, and modest reach is right up my alley. Besides the Arduino 101-type instructional, this book serves as something of a manifesto to the open source/maker movement, with great ideas and pearls of wisdom like “opportunistic prototyping” (think: cut and paste of existing electronics devices). And any technology book that reproduces a page from the 80s punk rock zine Sniffin’ Glue goes top shelf in my shop!


Making Things Talk
Tom Igoe
This is a technology book with a net-connected monkey plushy on the cover! What’s not to love? This is a truly gorgeous book, from the design and the many clever and arty projects detailed in it, to the extraordinarily clear way that professor of physical computing and MAKE contributor Tom Igoe discusses all of the various technologies involved in getting objects onto networks so they can talk to each other. Besides the basics on all of the hardware, software, and protocols involved, there are also a whopping 26 projects included. And you’ll be happy to know the monkey plushie appears throughout.

[Thanks to Douglas Repetto, Marc de Vinck, Lorin Parker, Alberto Gataacute;in, Tom McCarty, Elliot Williams, Nate B, and all of the other folks at HacDC, Dorkbot, Dorkbot DC, and Maker Media who contributed book suggestions]


18 thoughts on “Toolbox: Shop bookshelf (electronics and MCUs)

  1. Marc de Vinck says:

    I forgot about “Getting Started in Electronics”. Wow, that brings back memories!

  2. Gav says:

    There’s another set of great books called ‘Talking Electronics’, which was done in Australia by a guy called Colin Mitchell.

    They are in a hand-drawn format on graph paper, and published with paper and binding similar to a comic book. Dick Smith (local electronics store) carried his books for about $5 each.

    I would highly recommend these. Electronic theory (digital and analog) is laid out very simply, and there were plenty of projects inside you could order as a kit. Everything from FM transmitters to alarm systems to making a digital computer from scratch.

  3. Jennifer Elaan says:

    Wow, “Getting Started in Electronics”. That takes me back. I guess I’m another of those who got started in the 80s with that one.

    I learned a lot from “Microelectronic Circuits” (by Adel Sedra and Kenneth Smith). It was one of my texts in university, but I actually bought it a few years earlier because it seemed like such an interesting book.

    I had a lot of fun with Hans Camenzind’s book “Designing Analog Chips”. Lots of good insight into analog electronics from the man who designed the 555. The best part is that the book is available for free download.

    A set of books that I find inspirational (which are not about electronics but more general making) are Dave Gingery’s infamous books on metalworking, “Build a metalworking shop from scrap”. I have yet to work up the nerve, but some people have built some very impressive things based on the series.

  4. Aud1073cH says:

    I wish I knew where my copy of “Getting Started in Electronics” is.

    Recently I went online and got “Electronic Music Projects vol. 1” by Forrest M. Mims, III (there is only a vol. 1) I believe I paid less than three dollars -still more than the original cover price of $1.25

    “Electronics Projects Ready-Reference” by John Markus is a handy compilation of schematics for all sorts of things,

    I found a copy of this at a yard sale, “Electronics One-Seven”, Harry Mileaf editor-in-chief is a collection of seven volumes in one book. published by Hayden Book Co., Inc.

  5. Jack says:

    I absolutely agree on your recommendation of “Practical Electronics for Inventors”, but readers should know that the second edition (2006), not pictured or mentioned in the article, has a lot of great new info not found in the original. This book does a good job of explaining things using various analogies to get the point across.

    Additionally, the book has some of the most awesome reference pages on things like capacitor markings, generic microcontroller circuits, data for standard transistors and other components, etc. It’s been a huge help, and is one of those rare books you’ll find yourself picking up again and again.

  6. steampunk_prof says:

    The Art of Electronics is good (I have both two copies of the first edition) but is mainly aimed at those doing higher education in engineering or sciences. There are lots of good circuits you can use yourself plus some examples of ones that don’t work :)

  7. The Oracle says:

    Based on a quick websearch it looks like those Forest Mims mini notebooks are reprints of the 1980’s radio shack books. It always annoyed me that the took the original single volume, divided it into 4, and charged more for each of the 4. I still have the original single volume edition.

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      Wait, in the Engineer’s Mini-Notebook series, each book is around 150-200 pages. Are you saying at one point RadioShack sold a 600-plus page book? If so, I never knew about it.

      You might be thinking of the original Mini-Notebooks they did in the late ’80s that were more like booklets (under 50 pages). This later series is much more substantial, square-bound books.

  8. The Oracle says:

    I was talking about the shortish booklets. There was a thicker letter-sized yellow covered one several years earlier with the complete content of the later series.

    Based on my quick serch for the radio shack books, it seemed like they were the Mims ones and the same names for the volumes, though I don’t remember them being by Mims originally, I’d also never heard of him at the time I used that notebook. (Which is why I posted actually, I was surprised to learn he’d been the one who did them — but maybe that was wrong).

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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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