Introduction: Getting Started

About: My name is Randy and I am a Community Manager in these here parts. In a previous life I had founded and run the Instructables Design Studio (RIP) @ Autodesk's Pier 9 Technology Center. I'm also the author of t…

Working with lights and making things glow is easy enough that you don't need any knowledge of electricity to get started, but complex enough that you can get an advanced degree in it. Our approach is going to be very hands-on and practical, but we will cover some technical theory from time-to-time (particularly working with LEDs).

Step 1: Arduino Control

While you don't need to know Arduino at all to take this class, throughout this class I will briefly provide optional steps for advanced students. These will cover controlling various types of lights using an Arduino microcontroller.

These directions assume a basic understanding of Arduino and are meant for people who already have experience using one. This information is just there for people who would like to try to go further.

These steps are labeled "advanced", and you should feel free to skim or skip over them if you have no idea what I am talking about.

If you would like to learn how to use Arduino, you can check out Becky Stern's Arduino Class.

Step 2: Tools and Materials

This class does not require too many supplies, and we will cover the required materials in each lesson. However, there are some basics you should have on hand before starting this class. Bear with me as we go over them. Some of them will be new to you, but most you will likely have.

Here is a list of the general tools and materials you will need for this class. We will go over this in more depth below.

(x1) Breadboard
(x1) Wire cutters
(x1) Diagonal cutters
(x1) Heat gun
(x1) Shrink tube
(x1) Jumper cables
(x1) Battery holders
(x1) 22AWG stranded wire
(x1) Power drill
(x1) Drill bits
(x1) Screwdrivers
(x1) Mini screwdriver set
(x1) Scissors
(x1) Razor blade
(x1) Multipurpose tool
(x1) Ruler
(x1) Permanent marker
(x1) Soldering iron kit
(x1) Helping Hands
(x1) Desk light (optional)
(x1) Exhaust fan

Step 3:

When you need to quickly and temporarily prototype a circuit, you will be using a breadboard. While you might not need one to complete the class, throughout the class I will be showing examples of circuits built on breadboards. Thus, I am explaining how they work.

Breadboards are meant to make quick non-permanent connections between electronic components. They are covered in tiny socket holes which are connected in rows. The board itself is broken into four sections. There are two inner sections full of short horizontal rows, and two outer sections with longer vertical rows.

The inner sections are typically used for connecting components, and the outer sections are typically used as power bus lines. In other words, you can connect a battery to one of the outer lines and then power components on the inner section by connecting a wire to this section.

In the above graphic you can visually get a sense of how the rows on breadboards are electrically connected. The two inner sections have short horizontal rows repeated down the board. The two outer sections each have two long vertical rows. These are marked in red and blue and are meant to signify a row for power (red) and a row for ground (blue). Not all breadboards are marked with lines like this, but they are all laid out the same way.

To use a breadboard to prototype circuits, you simply insert components or wire into the appropriate sockets to connect them together.

On account of their ease of use for circuit building, it is good to have one on hand.

Step 4:

As mentioned, working with electronics requires its own unique set of tools. Here are a few more you will want to add to your tool box if you do not already have them.

You will want both a wire cutter and a pair of mini diagonal cutting pliers or "snippers." The wire cutter is used for cutting and stripping insulation off of wires. The snippers are used for trimming away excess wire leads after you solder. When you are doing this for a while and start to get the hang of it, you can use snippers for everything (in place of the wire strippers).

Another indispensable set of tools include a heat gun and shrink tube. These are used for insulating soldered wire connections and small components. You might be thinking that electrical tape can do the same thing and is much cheaper. Just - NO! Get that horrible thought out of your head. Electrical tape is dumb and unreliable. If you want your circuits to break in mysterious ways, use electrical tape. If you want to make working circuits, then you should purchase shrink tube in a variety of colors and sizes. Shrink tube is exponentially more reliable and aesthetically pleasing. In terms of a heat gun, they all basically work the same. Just get something that makes you look cool. For instance, this black and green Kawasaki one is fairly rad.

Jumper cables (or test leads) are used for connecting wires together without soldering and are important for prototyping. They have insulated alligator clips on both ends which allow you to easily grab onto most electrical contacts. It is important to have these lying about to easily test things before making more permanent connections. Get a set of about a dozen-or-so to start.

Battery holders are used to power your projects. Typically, when one is required it is specified in the list of materials. However, in some of the lessons we use them for testing and experimenting. That said, it is recommended that you pick up a few extra 3 X AA and 4 X AA battery holders.

You also want to pick up a red, green, and black spool of 22AWG stranded wire. Even though all wire essentially works the same regardless of color, these three colors comprise a generally agreed upon color-coding system for DC electronics.

Red indicates a power wire.

Black indicates a ground wire.

Green (or any color not red or black) indicates a signal wire.

It's best to use the proper color wire to be able to easily debug your work, and thus you should have all three on hand.

Step 5:

Go get a drill. This can be a cordless or corded drill. It does not matter. Cordless drills are more convenient in some ways, but corded drills are cheaper and just as (or sometimes more) effective. Either will do the job. We are only going to be drilling through wood, plastic parts and some soft metal like aluminum.

It is not important to get anything too fancy. Just about any drill will do for the purposes of this class. Albeit, it couldn't hurt to spend a little extra dough if you plan on continuing building things after this class. Nevertheless, the most important part is to find something aesthetically pleasing. It is always important to look good while making things.

Get a set of standard sized multipurpose drill bits. If this is your first time doing something like this, any old set will do. Don't spend a lot of money. You will likely destroy them and need to buy another set at some point anyhow. As you start to figure out what you are doing, then you can invest in the fancy expensive drill bits.

Even though you can technically screw things very tight with your power drill, sometimes you just want to screw things the old fashioned way. It's good to have a range of screwdrivers in your arsenal. While I am not going to dive too deep into this, I will say that you should get a set of mini screwdrivers. These will come in particularly handy when working with electronics.

You will also need a pair of scissors. You should already have one of these lying about, and learned how to use them if you ever attended Kindergarten. So... Moving on...

The other razor sharp tool you should have is a razor blade or craft knife. It is recommended you get something with a nice safe handle like a box cutter.

As a general rule, you should get at least one pair of general use snub nose pliers when working with wire and electrical outlets. Pictured here is a multipurpose tool centered around a pair of pliers. If you have the income at your disposal, you may as well invest in a nice multipurpose tool. The added functionality always comes in handy and it will make you seem more legit to have one of these in your arsenal. Again, I would like to reiterate the importance of looking like you really know what you are doing.

Aside from making great construction material, it is very helpful to have a few rulers around. As they say, 'measure twice - cut once.'

And, of course, if you are going to be employing rulers in your electronics activities, you have got to have some permanent markers to go along with them. We will be making a few cuts and drill marks, and your marker will get some use.

Step 6:

When working with LEDs and EL wire in particular, you will want a soldering iron and setup. As a beginner, you can get a 40W fixed temperature soldering iron. These are cheap and will get the job done while you are just getting started. By the time you decide you want to continue and go deeper into electronics, it will likely be time to upgrade to something more refined.

The two most popular methods for cleaning the tip of the soldering iron involves using a brass wire pad or a slightly damp sponge. Both work. However, deciding which works better is a highly contentious topic. Personally, I feel the the brass wire pad is more effective in quickly cleaning the tip. From what I can tell, advocates of the damp sponge feel it keeps the tip cleaner for longer.

Like wire, solder comes in spools and of different thicknesses. The solder I like working with is in the 0.02 - 0.04" range. It is important not to get solder that is too thick because you will have to heat up your parts for too long in order to melt enough solder onto it. It is also important to not get solder that is too thick or you will get too much solder all over the board, which aside from being messy can result in mistakes.

The other choice you need to make is to use solder with (pictured left) or without lead (pictured right). It is recommended that you use lead free solder. However, keep in mind, that just because it is lead free does not mean it is any better for you. Lead free solder has replaced the lead with other additives and actually produces more caustic fumes when melted. Lead free solder also melts at a higher temperature and is harder to work with. On account of this, you might at some point be tempted to work with lead solder. If you do, remember to always wash your hands after handling it!

Helping hands is basically a stand with two (or more) alligator clips attached. As the name implies, it is extremely helpful. These are sometimes called a "third hand," and as you can guess by that, this is basically used in those instances when a third (or fourth) hand would be handy. This is particularly useful for holding wires in place while soldering. Many come with a magnifying glass, which is great for inspecting solder pads and reading the tiny print on components.

Depending on your ambient lighting, and overall optical dexterity, you may want to consider getting a desk light. Solder connections are typically small. To see things well, it sometimes helps to have more light.

Last, but not least, you will want a fan or some other form of ventilation. I highly recommend one like the one pictured, with an activated charcoal filter. This will not only suck the air away from you, but filter out some of the particulates from continuing to circulate in the room.

Step 7: That's It!

Now is time to gather your supplies and prepare yourself to have fun!

The second lesson is nearly upon us.