I thought I would share a list and pictures of what I feel my most essential tools are for my micro-electronics hobby. Some of them I built myself, others are off-the-shelf tools that I could not do without.
Step 1: Reclaimed PC Case
As a former PC technician, I've accumulated a lot of PCs over a 30 year time span. Most of them found their way to "Recycling Day" sponsored by the county. I'm not a fan of sending our junk to rot in a Chinese creek bed, but what c choice is there. When I can, I try to use the junk for other things.
One example is my basic work area. It consists of the shell of a desktop PC and a modified power supply that supplies current with three voltages: 3.3 v, 5 v, and 12 v and -12 v. You can see them in the picture above. The black, green, red and yellow terminal posts provide an easy-to-use voltage supply. My main use is to supply power for my ATTiny85 temperature sensor in the upper right corner. That senses whether I have my soldering iron plugged in or not. It blinks while the iron is hot. Another use is to power the fan I use to clear away solder fumes when I am working. The shell also has a light on inside top that adds illumination to my work area.
The second picture shows the soldering iron in a homemade soldering iron holder that I made from a coat hanger. It is out of the way and keeps the house from being burned to the ground. I always put it back there or into another holder that I have on my desk top.
There is also a Volt-Ohm-Ammeter holder at the back of the case as shown in the third picture.
Step 2: Homemade Third Hand, a Vise and a Commercial Third-hand Soldering Tool
I bought the commercial third-hand soldering tool because I saw that everyone else had one. It's not the handiest tool and tends to become loose and go left when I want it to stay still. I modified it a little by flattening out the balls that allow for ease of movement. That did not help much. Nonetheless, it is essential, because certain operations require both alligator clips at the same time. Also, it has an LED light and two magnifying areas on the lens. At the back is a spring that can hold a hot soldering iron when I need it. Not the best quality, but useful.
To the right of that, I have a clamp-on vise that is versatile, but a pain to manipulate when I am in a hurry. ("Hurry" is not a word you should ever, ever use in a workshop. "Hurry" is a very bad idea.) The vise provides extra strength in holding things when that is needed and is far better than the flimsy alligator clips on the soldering tool.
The third hand that I like best is one that I made myself. I made one for some kids that I'm working with and decided that I needed one as well. It is clamped to the table with a small hand clamp and the clip is very strong and stable. The disadvantage is that it can only hold things horizontally. Some day I'll make a vertical component, but meanwhile I just clamp the item in a hemostat and then clamp the hemostat to the paper clip. That setup handles the vertical part.
Step 3: Floor and Table-top Protection
Most of what I do in my work area involves heat. Hot heat as from a soldering iron. I just have a card table to work on and a carpeted floor beneath. Hot heat and card tables and carpets do not play well together.
This is where my discarded PC parts come in. I re-purposed the "doors" or panels from two PCs and stationed them on the working corner of the card table and another one under the working corner leg. This has prevented a lot of house fires and a lot of angry discussions with my wife as to why am I not more careful.
The picture on the left shows the vise area as well as the metal panel that provides protection to the card table. The picture on the right shows the metal panel under the table leg on the floor. You'll see a piece of plywood as well. I have gone through way too many plastic floor protectors, so I bought a 4' x 4' 1/2" plywood panel and use it in its natural state for my desk and for the work area. Not pretty but effective.
Step 4: Tools - Basic Hand Tools
These are tools you would expect to find in any household tool kit. They consist of, quite simply:
- a couple of hemostats for when I do major surgery and have to clamp off a spurting artery or hold something for soldering
- long nose pliers
- regular full-size pliers
- wire stripper
- small flashlight (for finding tiny parts that I drop here and there several times a day)
- tiny jeweler's screwdriver for tiny screws and for various things that need poking with a sharp object
- wire cutter
The three pictures on the right show a magnetic 4" parts dish. This is very handy when you are taking something apart and don't want the parts to fly all over the room if you swipe them with your elbow. I have several of these dishes and use a couple of them to catch various screws and nails, etc that I don't want to put away yet. Very handy.
Step 5: Electric Tools
One of the handiest electric gadgets in any person's life is an electric screwdriver. I've gone through several of these in my lifetime, and this is the latest iteration that I bought at Harbor Freight. I use it all the time. Notice that I also have a set of drill bits that fit the hex receptacle. It's not all that powerful, but it often suffices. For the heavy-duty drilling I have a drill press in the garage. Not shown here.
The second picture shows an indispensable tool used mainly for heating heat-shrink tubing. You can use a normal soldering iron to shrink the tubing, but this is so very much better. It was a good investment. BTW, you can also use it to remove labels from bottles. Be careful, but it will usually melt the glue and let you peel off the label with ease.
The sharp readers will notice that the words are inside out on the heat gun. That is because I wanted it to point the same direction as my electric screwdriver and was too lazy tot take another picture.
No, I've never used the heat gun for a quick hot dog. My wife would not appreciate the idea.
Step 6: Electronic Tools
I have a boatload of Arduino Uno, Nano and Pro-mini micro-controllers for various purposes. I have made ATTiny85 programmers from all the flavors. I like the Nano best, because it is small and self-contained for programming. The Pro-mini requires a programmer to do the programming.
The second picture shows solderless breadboards. You can never have enough of those. I like the mid-size one the best, not because of size, but because of the channels it provides for hot and ground connections on both sides--the red and blue lines.
The third picture shows an antique power supply I bought some forty years ago when I was trying to learn some basic electronics. It has proven very handy for all kinds of things. It has variable + and - voltages, a square wave generator and 15 and 30 volts AC.
Finally, it is hopeless to do much with electronics unless you have a Volt-Ohm-Milliammeter. I use it for a lot of things, especially to find out if my batteries are really dead or not and to check for cold solder joints and to check for shorts. Note that I have two sets of leads for the VOM. One has alligator clips and one has needle points. It's nice to have both available.
The Jar Picture. These contain various colors and lengths of hookup leads. You can never have enough of those on hand.
I could use an oscilloscope, but those are beyond my price range, and the homemade ones are beyond my skill level. An oscilloscope would be very nice.
Step 7: Safety Equipment
I wear glasses and feel fairly safe with them in doing micro-electronics. In the garage where I use power tools, however, I am sure to wear safety glasses whenever I use my drill stand, grinder, table saw, or other equipment of the sort. You only get one pair of eyes and the electronics aren't good enough to hope you can discard your eyes.
Until lately, I've been exposing myself to solder fumes albeit while holding my breath. I finally built the fan assembly from a very powerful 12 volt 0.55 amp CPU cooling fan. It makes quite a breeze and blows the fumes into the hallway--maybe not the best direction, but at least I'm not breathing the fumes directly. Also, I use lead-free solder, but that is little comfort when the solder paste gives off volumes of smoke.
Well, that's it for tools. I'd probably have to write a book, if I listed all the parts and materials that I've accumulated in my 72 years of life.
Best wishes to all. Happy tinkering!