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Setting up an Electronics Workbench

So you’re just getting into electronics as a hobby, and you want to know what you need to start. Obviously, you’ll need tools and equipment; but which ones? And how much will it cost? It turns out that you can have a very nice set-up for about $250. Here is a list of what you’ll need to start a first-class electronics bench:

First, you need a well-lit area to set up your workbench. You need a flat surface to work on, one close to an electrical outlet. Ideally, you would have a dedicated area so you could leave a project as-is and then come back to it later and pick up where you left off. But if that’s not possible, something like a kitchen table will do. In that case, you’ll have to pack the project up and store it until you can get back to it. Also, to prevent damage, you’ll need to cover a kitchen table with something while you use it to work.

Second, you need a basic set of tools. Trying to work without the right tools is usually an exercise in frustration. What follows is a list of must-have tools. Here’s the list:

Multimeter

A good Multimeter is an absolute must-have. Prices range from under $10 to over $500, but the one here is a good choice:

Digital Multimeter 3 1/2 Digit

Express Part #: 01DMMY64, Price: $33.95
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In addition to volts, amps, and ohms, it also measures temperature, capacitance, and frequency. And it will test diodes and transistors. It comes with test leads.

Hand Tools

From long experience, I’ve learned that it’s best to buy good-quality hand-tools: those made by companies like Xcelite and Crescent. They will serve you forever. But if cost is a major factor, you can find lower-cost alternatives in the Electronix Express catalog.

Here is a minimal set of tools. Over time, you will want to add additional tools.

Xcelite Flush Cutter Model 170M

Express Part #: 0602MS01, Price: $6.00
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Xcelite Long Nose Pliers Model L4

Express Part #: 0602L4, Price: $16.10
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Wire-stripper, Cutter, Crimping tool for 16-26 AWG Wire

Express Part #: 0602HT1042, Price: $5.50
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Small Philip-head Screwdriver with Clip

Express Part #: 0601P12S, Price: $3.60
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Small Straight-blade Screwdriver with Clip

Express Part #: 0601R181, Price: $1.90
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Philip-head #2 4-inch Screwdriver

Express Part #: 0601SDDP44, Price: $3.20
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Straight-blade 4-inch Screwdriver

Express Part #: 060121424, Price: $4.75
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Specialty Tools

While not absolutely necessary, they save a ton of time and aggravation:

A lead bending gauge allows you to easily bend the leads of resistors and diodes to the correct length for insertion into a solderless bread-board or a pc board. It’s a lot easier and quicker than trying to ‘eye-ball’ it with a pair of pliers.

It’s practically impossible to insert a DIP IC chip into a socket or pc board if the pins are not straight and aligned. Even on brand-new chips out of the bag the leads are splayed out slightly and won’t go in the holes. This tool saves you a lot of grief.

Getting a DIP chip out of a socket can be harder than putting it in. Prying it out with a screwdriver usually ends up mangling the leads. This tool makes it easy.

Bread Boarding & Wire

A solderless breadboard allows you to quickly build, modify, and test circuits. Then all the parts can be removed and the same breadboard used for another circuit. The powered breadboard shown here includes built in power supplies: a fixed +5V supply, 1 amp supply and two adjustable supplies: 0 to +15V and 0 to -15V at 0.5 amp each. It’s less expensive than buying separate supplies.

Hook-Up Wire Kit, 24G Solid Wire

Express Part #: 27WK24SLD25 Price: $14.50
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Six rolls, each 25 feet of wire, in a handy dispenser box. Make jumpers wires for use on your powered breadboard.

Soldering Equipment

As an electronics hobbyist (or professional) you’re going to spend a lot of time soldering. So you want the right set of tools and supplies, and the most important tool is the soldering iron. While you can get an economy iron for less than $5, a temperature-controlled iron is well worth the cost; especially when you start using surface-mount devices.

48W Temperature Controlled Station with Tip

Express Part #: 0603ZD99, Price: $15.95
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It is essential to keep the tip of your iron clean while soldering. While a damp sponge is the traditional way to clean the tip, it’s not the best way. It’s messy, and does bad things to the tip. Much better is to use a brass wool cleaner.

To use your iron you will, of course, need solder. Safety Tip: standard solder is an alloy of lead and tin. Lead is toxic. When used properly solder is not dangerous, but remember to wash your hands well after handling solder. Also, never put solder in your mouth. You can get lead-free solder (Express Part #: 060710), but it costs more ($69).

Rosin Core Solder (.031 diameter) 1/2 lb. Spool

Express Part #: 060704, Price: $8.95
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Desoldering is as important as soldering. Two items that make desoldering much easier are a desolder pump (usually called a ‘solder-sucker’) and a roll of copper braid called ‘solder-wick’. Solder-wick acts as a sponge for liquid solder. A solder-sucker is essential for removing solder from holes in a printed circuit board.

Desoldering Wick, 5' spool

Express Part #: 060801, Price: $1.45
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Tools for working on circuit boards

When working on circuit boards, a good vise is a necessity. Hint: mount it to a block of wood (say, 6 inches square by 3/4 inch thick). Note the three mounting tabs on the base of the vise with holes for screws.

When you get around to using surface-mount devices (SMDs), two things you definitely will need are tweezers and a binocular magnifier. The magnifier allows you to see exactly where you are placing an SMD. The tweezers allow you to pick the SMDs up and position them on your pc board.

Fits on your head with an adjustable band. Flip them up when not in use and flip them down when you need them.

That’s it. The stuff listed above is pretty much all you need to design, build, and trouble-shoot all kinds of electronic circuits and equipment. If you’ve been keeping track, the total cost so far is $257. Not too bad; and remember it’s a one-time expense (except for wire and solder). But once you really get into it, you’ll feel the need for additional equipment.

Additional Test Equipment

Oscilloscope

Beyond a multimeter, the most useful piece of equipment you can have is a ‘scope’ or ‘o-scope’; that is, an oscilloscope. It allows you to look at the analog and digital signals that are running around inside a circuit. Once you’ve used one for a while, you can’t imagine working without one. At the high end, scopes can cost thousands of dollars. But for most work an inexpensive 2-channel scope is all you need.

Two-Channel 50 MHz Digital Oscilloscope

Express Part #: 01SDS1052, Price: $271.00
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Key technical specifications and features:

  • 50 MHz bandwidth
  • 500 MSA/s sampling rate
  • 7 inches color TFT-LCD display
  • 6 digits hardware frequency counter
  • Waveform record and play back function
  • Unique digital filter and data recorder function
  • Embedded 12 languages, online help, one key storing, one key printing
  • Interface: USB device, USB host, RS-232, PASS/FAIL
  • Support USB-TMC protocol and SCPI programming command control
  • 32K points memory depth

To use the scope, you’ll need two probes.

Function Generator

As with scopes, function generators come with a wide range of features and prices. But the one here is a good basic unit that will do most of the jobs you would need a function generator to do; and at a low cost.

3MHz Sweep Function Generator

Express Part #: 01FG30, Price: $135.00
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Features include:

  • Six waveform functions: sine, triangle, square, ramp, +pulse, - pulse.
  • 0.5Hz to 3MHz frequency range.
  • Linear or Log sweep. Sweep rate 10 msec to 5 sec.
  • Amplitude: 20Vpp open-circuit, 10Vpp into a 50 ohm load.
  • -20 dB attenuator

To use the function generator, you’ll need some leads.

Test Lead: BNC to Alligator Clips (3 feet)

Express Part #: 05SPAT2, Price: $3.25 each
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Final Thought

An oscilloscope (with probes) is the first item you’ll want to add to your basic workbench when you can. You can wait to add a function generator and other equipment. Now, roll up your sleeves, get a cup of coffee, and start building projects!