As the holidays approach this year, money is tighter than ever for everyone. When thinking about gifts to give, consider the gift of DIY electronics and kits, not only could a loved one learn a new skill, but it could start them on a journey to a wonderful lifetime hobby, possibly a career! Helping someone learn electronics is more than just giving a circuit board and a bunch of parts, you’re giving the gift of time, hours of new experiences exploring the wonders of engineering and science. In the end, they’ll also have something to show and share!
So let’s get started. I’ve put together my 20 favorite (mostly) under $20 electronic kits and resources, some are from the Maker Shed, some are from other places (SparkFun, Adafruit, Instructables, TechShop, Solarbotics, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, Parallax). Many of them are open source hardware projects, so if $20 is still too much, you might be able to put these together on your own and print out the instructions for free too! Our gift guides are meant to inspire your suggestions, so if you know of a great $20 or under electronics kit, post it in the comments!
MintyBoost USB Charger Kit v2.0 A small & simple (but very powerful and very MAKE-like) USB charger for your iPod (or other mp3 player), camera, cell phone, and any other gadget you can plug into a USB port to charge. If you’re looking to get started with electronics, this is it, and it’s extremely useful – I use one with my iPhone and never leave home without it! Be sure to check the documentation page with a list of all the known supported devices.
Maker’s Notebook. From the creators of MAKE comes the Maker’s Notebook. Put your own ideas, diagrams, calculations & notes down in these 150 pages of engineering graph paper. Also included 20 bonus pages of reference material, from useful stuff like electronics symbols, resistor codes, weights and measures, basic conversions and more.
Bare Bones Kit Rev. E (Arduino-compatible). Want to get started with Arduino for $20? Here’s how – Despite the Bare-Bones name, the BBB is a full-featured Arduino-compatible microcontroller that includes the vast majority of the functionality of the Arduino Duemilanove, at 2/3 the size. The latest revision even includes some analog noise-reduction features not found on other official Arduino boards and include the new Atmega 328P chip.
The TTL-232R USB to Serial (TTL level) converter cable. If you go with an Arduino clone, you’ll need a cable to program it since it doesn’t have USB built in. For $20, you can pick up a FTDI cable from many online electronic hobbyist stores.
Parallax (Futaba) Continuous Rotation Servo. A nice accessory for the Arduino, your maker can learn how to control a motor, the start of many a robotics projects. This one can turn a full 360 in either direction continually!
Drawdio Kit! Drawdio is an electronic pencil that lets you make music while you draw! It’s a great project for beginners: an easy kit with instant gratification! Essentially, it’s a very simple musical synthesizer that uses the conductive properties of pencil graphite to create different sounds. The result is a fun toy that lets you draw musical instruments on any piece of paper.
Deluxe Breadboard Jumper Wires. Once you go breadboard jumper wires, you’ll never go back. They just pop into the breadboard and you’re good to go. The set includes 75 flexible jumper wires that can be used over and over again. Each stranded jumper wire has a molded barrel and a 3/8″ (approx 1cm) stripped end.
Transparent Single-Panel Breadboard. “Suspicious that jamming your screwdriver into a pin-hole might of messed it up? Inspect it with ease! Like most other breadboards. But clear!” Very cool, great for beginners. There’s even at how-to on lighting it up!
Adjustable breadboard power supply. This is a very low dropout adjustable power supply. A good power supply is essential to electronic projects. While there are many existing designs for adjustable power supplies, this one features improvements that make it more useful for hobby designs. But as always, shop around — there are a few of these on most DIY electronics sites, they’re all a little different, and have different prices.
Blinkybug Kit. A good one for the younglings, these simple, little electro-mechanical insects respond to movement, wind, and vibrations by blinking their LED eyes. Great fun for all ages, and addicting too.
MiniPOV — An Inexpensive Persistence of Vision. Make a message appear out of thin air! The “persistence of vision” display is a classic DIY project with a computer chip that flashes LED lights super fast, as you swing the gadget through the air — making them appear like hundreds of lights displaying a message. Pictured above, a MiniPOV in a jacket, when you wave your hand it spells TAXI!
ATmegaXX8 Target Board. For the more advanced maker in your life. The ATmegaXX8 Target Boards are low cost and convenient target/breakout boards for Atmel AVR microcontrollers. Fits ATmega48, ATmega88, ATmega168, and ATmega328 microcontrollers. ATmegaXX8 Target Boards are available as single boards, or in a five-pack.
Maker Shed gift certificate. Can’t decide what to get your favorite maker? Give them a gift certificate good for anything from the Maker Shed with the amount you choose. And best of all, you can choose to email it to them and avoid those long postal deliveries. A great last minute present that could spark a lifetime of making!
Price: You choose ($20 is a good amount, though!)
Metro-Gnome. The Metro-Gnome is a basic digital metronome used to keep time during music practice. This is a basic kit that goes together in 15-20 minutes for people learning to solder, and 5-10 minutes for those with a bit of experience.
Soldering iron. This one is a bit tricky to do for under $20 but it’s possible ($22 for sure). Try and find a 30W 110V soldering iron, that’s a good one to get started with. Ideally it would be an adjustable 30W 110V soldering iron so you can control the temperature a little better. Google or Bing around, good luck!
Price: $20 or less with some searching, eBayin’
Basic wire strippers, flush diagonal cutters, solder spool. Besides a soldering iron, you should pick up these three items (under $20 total) and you’re loved one is pretty much set to build the kits I’ve previously outlined. It doesn’t matter where you get these from, you tend to get what you pay for with tools – so spend what you can, support the companies you like.
Price: $20 total
Instructables “pro” membership. Support one of the top DIY communities on the planet: Instructables! A pro membership gives you extra features, a better experience on the site, and best of all, you’re supporting the sharing of information, so give the gift of sharing!
Price: $2.95 / month
Single-Day Visit to TechShop. This is a great way for individuals, or guests of current TechShop members, to work on short projects. Includes all member perks except guests and machine reservations. Ok, so I broke the rule, it’s $25, not $20 – close! And worth it. Check the site and the locations. If you can fork over the $25 see if TechShop will give you a discount, tell’em MAKE sent you!
And that’s all folks, post your (mostly) $20 and under suggestions in the comments!
In the Maker Shed:
Want more? Stop by the Maker Shed. We’ve got all sorts of great holiday gift ideas, Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, science kits, smart stuff for kids, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, box sets, books, robots, kits from Japan and more.
Holiday Shipping Deadlines in December:
04 (Fri) – Deadline for microscope shipping
11 (Fri) – postal shipping deadline
14 (Mon) – ground shipping deadline
18 (Fri) – FedEx 3-day shipping deadline
21 (Mon) – FedEx 2-day shipping deadline
22 (Tue) – FedEx overnight shipping deadline
*Customers experiences on orders with these ship methods placed after these dates may vary, the dates listed are what we call “safe dates”
USPS (Any Method):
Due to the high volume of mail that the postal service deals with around the holidays, order by Dec. 10th, however, many packages are lost or delayed in transit and we do not replace or refund any orders lost using this ship method, we strongly encourage you to not use this method in December.