What's in an electronics hobbyist's toolbox?

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In summary: A voltmeter, for measuring voltages outside the range of...A few (higher-power) soldering irons.A few pairs of precision diagonal cutters.A small hammer.A small screwdriver.Wire strippers.A small screwdriver with a Phillips head.A small screwdriver with a flat head.A small hacksaw.A small filesaw.A small chisel.A small wire brush.A small wire saw.A small razor blade.An awl.A small needle-nose pliers.A small pair of wire cutters.An adjustable-temperature soldering station.A pair of fine-point
  • #1


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I've occasionally been asked by some of the students I've mentored or TA'd over the years, "What's in your toolbox? What do you recommend for someone who's just starting off to put in their toolbox?" I thought it might be fun / helpful to list some of your contents / essentials!

In my (electronics) toolbox (and piled on top/around it), I have:
  • multimeter (Meterman 37XR, purchased after a few lower-quality multimeters gave up)
  • bits of wire made into various probing bits for the above
  • nice multi-bit screwdriver (Megalok)
  • multi-bit mini-screwdriver set (think jeweller's tools)
  • allen key set on a handle (so you don't lose any)
  • several pairs of needle nose pliers (regular to really, really narrow)
  • several pairs of side cutters (in various stages of being chewed up)
  • Greenlee inductive probe
  • needle- and blunt-tipped tweezers
  • spring-loaded mini grabber thingamajig
  • fancy self-adjusting wire strippers (I had an employee discount)
  • breadboard + a small roll of 22 gauge solid-core wire
  • adjustable-temperature Weller soldering station, fine (lead) solder, and braid
  • hot glue gun
  • hot air gun
  • small box-cutter
  • pair of handy-hands

Plus some assorted components / odds-and-ends I haven't file away into the appropriate storage case.
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  • #2
In addition to my toolbox, I also carry a Leatherman Wave on my belt all the time. So many times it's saved me a trip back to my toolbox when working on something in the lab or elsewhere.
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  • #3
Besides the excellent above list, I still (surprise!) have my 50-year-old Simpson (model 260) multimeter. I have an old 1 KVA Variac mounted in a box. I also have a good collection of npns, n-channel fets, Hall effect sensors, LM324's, 741's etc. No digital stuff though.
Bob S
  • #4
A bundle of crocodile clips

A variable voltage power supply is a big plus. I still use one I built in high school which has four independent outputs controlled by LM317, LM337 (negative voltage). I can't count how many times I had to use all outputs at once.

DC load. It seems useless when you don't have it. I pulled a bunch of dale 1% tolerance power resistors from a junk 3 phase motor driver. I didn't know what to do with these, so just put them in a box, with switches, and with a current monitor. It turned out to be very handy, and many times, I use it in parallel with a multimeter.
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  • #5
Crimpers for spade lugs etc.
Crimpers for RJ connectors.
Wire ties
Shrink tubing
30ga wire wrap wire for repairing some circuit traces
soldering iron with solder (low and high temp)
solder sucker
wire nuts
misc. machine screws
  • #6
I have some LEDs , Diodes , Transistors , capacitors and resistors . But don't have solar panel.
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  • #7
Pretty good stuff already listed. I would add

Calipers and metal edged ruler
Tweezers with magnifier attached on hinge
"Dental" picks to use for scraping off epoxy, lifting leads
Banana jack to BNC and BNC to clip lead adapters
  • #8
I have almost the same "kit" as MATLAB. I would add a couple of pairs of ratcheting heomostats. They are excellent heat-sinks to protect delicate components during soldering/de-soldering. I restore old tube amps from time to time, and sometimes the solder joints in tag-board eyelets require a lot of heat, so heat-sinking is important. Also an ancient cardboard chart of component value color codes. Also, a representative set of tested-good vacuum tubes, and plug-in SS rectifiers that I made by gutting burnt tubes and soldering diodes to the appropriate pins inside the bases. And jumpers! After discharging the caps in the amps power-supply (before sticking any fingers in there), clip a really brightly colored jumper (so you'll remember to remove it before an on-bench power-up) to an appropriate place and the other end to the chassis, to keep the caps from re-growing some charge. Can of paste flux - maybe not necessary when building new circuits, but a real help when working on old circuitry. A small piece of soft leather to protect the fingers from heat. Tubes get pretty hot, and I'm sometimes impatient. Shorting plug or alligator clip. Got no pedal with an old Fender amp? Short the Vibrato jack to see if the vibrato works. Speaker motor with no cone or frame. Want to probe the amp with an O-scope to see what it's doing? Need a nice quiet load that's not purely resistive. There's more, but that's the stuff I need.
  • #9
Magnifying glasses - sigh...
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  • #10
spring-loaded mini grabber thingamajig

Cracked me up.

Mike_In_Plano said:
Magnifying glasses - sigh...

I tried not to laugh... but I had to! *sympathy*

To add, banana posts & plugs. Always handy. Soldering paste. Junk from the 70's that still apparently works. (I inherited my dad's Electronics box from his days at Algonquin) http://www.tme.eu/katalog_pics/7/7/b/77b34c2386bce2f4fe682040361831f4/d-hh2.jpg
  • #11
I'll add a few:
  • A 2nd multimeter, for simultaneous current and voltage measurements.
  • Mini clip-ons for multimeter probes.
  • Small resistors (eg. 0.01 or 0.001 Ω) for measuring currents outside the range of the meter.
  • Not a toolbox item per se, but some circuit design & analysis software for quickly testing ideas. (LTSpice in my case)
  • #12
Wetmelon said:
MATLABdude said:
  • spring-loaded mini grabber thingamajig

Cracked me up.

Okay, okay... Lenline calls it a pick-up tool:
http://www.e-sonic.com/aboutus/cat/I/illuminated%201.pdf [Broken]

Since you can find these in a magnetic form as well, I think you have to add in the word 'claw'. For instance, this mini claw pick-up tool (distinguishing it from the giant doggy-doo ones):
http://www.chi-mark.com/detail/226049/226049.html [Broken]
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  • #13
Since there have been tons of questions on this, I'm adding in the hobbyist microcontroller:
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  • #14
I don't keep a microprocessor, but I do keep some communications tools. The SPI/I2C box known as the Ardvaark has been great. Also, a couple of generic programmers and JTAG interfaces.
  • #15
Looks like Lattice has an attractive special offer on a CPLD Evaluation Board through the end of March 2010 (probably still not too bad after that):

http://www.latticesemi.com/corporate/newscenter/newsletters/newsmarch2010/ispmach4000zepicodevelopm.cfm?utm_source=EmailMarketing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=LatticeNews031210EN [Broken]

Find the Right Balance of Price, Power and Package Size

The low-cost ispMACH 4000ZE Pico Development Kit is a compact platform to help you evaluate and prototype the ispMACH 4000ZE.

The ispMACH 4000ZE Pico Development Kit is designed to help you evaluate the ispMACH 4000ZE technology, verify the data sheet specifications for your application, learn the device features and operation, and prototype your own design. The Kit is available for a special price of $36 until March 31, 2010.

The battery-powered ispMACH 4000ZE Pico Development Kit includes:

Pre-programmed Pico Power demonstration design
LC4256ZE-5MN144C CPLD, a 256-macrocell CPLD
Power Manager II ispPAC-POWR6AT6 device for power monitoring
7-segment LCD panel for visual feedback
Expansion header for I2C, JTAG, and I/O interfacing
PicoView for Windows, an I2C interface utility
Battery or USB power source
QuickSTART Guide
USB cable
For maximum ease-of-use and user experiments, the board is programmed via a standard USB cable connected to a PC. No additional power supply or programming hardware is required. Simply plug the board into your PC, and you’re up and running in minutes. Power consumption can then be accurately measured via an ammeter in-series with the ispMACH 4000ZE.

The board features a number of LEDs, LCDs, buttons and switches for general-purpose inputs and outputs. I/Os are accessible from a header landing. This can be valuable if you wish to measure the I/O response to different load conditions with different programmable I/O types.
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  • #16
This is a super deal as the mach is a good starting point for a VHDL beginner, and it appears that Lattice is licensing the compiler + tools for 1 year for free!
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  • #17
Aside from those already listed:

Electrical tape
bread board
Adjustable Wall-wart
An Exacto (with extra blades) - this comes in handle for cutting and exposing traces
A few small pieces of Vectorboard
  • #18
I would add to the list

-a good set of tweezers (fine point especially)
-architects lamp
-a GOOD multimeter (cheap chinese DMMs don't count, I recently got an Agilent u1242B and it changed my life)
  • #19
Bob S said:
Besides the excellent above list, I still (surprise!) have my 50-year-old Simpson (model 260) multimeter. I have an old 1 KVA Variac mounted in a box. I also have a good collection of npns, n-channel fets, Hall effect sensors, LM324's, 741's etc. No digital stuff though.
Bob S

Yes I am not the only one! The spimson meter is awsome and almost indestructable for most electronic readings. digital meters some time don't show the proper readings. that's why the simpson meter is the best choice
  • #20
Wow, I would consider a DSO an absolute MUST. Here is my partial list:

Bench MM
Hand-held MM's
Soldering/De-Soldering Station
STK-500 Avr Programmer
A bunch of Breadboards & Pre-Cut Color Coded Wires
Half a dozen 72 drawer "Organizers" for Parts
Parts, Lots and Lots of Parts :-)
Drill press & Carbide PCB drill bits
Ferric Chloride & Sodium Persulfate for etching
Photo resist coated PCB material
A PC with a pair of RS232 inputs and a Parallel Printer Port
A PC Power Supply (+3.3V, +/-5V, +/-12V)
Dozens of various sized Wall-Worts
Lighted Magnifying Glass

While I wouldn't want to do w/o any of my tools, I would consider a DSO the single most helpful tool I own. I cannot imagine troubleshooting a new design w/o one. Sadly, in recent years the second most helpful tool I own is my lighted magnifying glass, LOL!

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  • #21
I think that it is also important to have a lot of TTL chips, such as logic gates, FFs, etc ...
Too many people want to use microprocessor but do not know what a logic gate is :cry:
  • #22
Multimeter: I got PeakTech 2010DMM which can measure capacitances and inductances, which is extremely handy. Plus a cheap Chinese multimeter which I converted to use old mobile phone wall wart for power. I use former for testing/checking stuff and latter for persistent measurements.
Breadboards are good to have.

Speaking of parts... i recently ordered this, 10$ for 2500 resistors, 50 values 50 each:
and a bunch of other crap in bulk. Can't wait for it to ship (then I'll brag, err, give review). Anyone else got good component kits to recommend? I'd like to get a cheap capacitor kit up to few nF.
  • #23
Sort of a "depends" question. For starting out, you can do a lot just with a solderless breadboard, a multi-meter, and some through hole components. If you want to make something more complex you can actually use, then the list gets pretty big.

Most everything you would want has already been mentioned, but for me doing my own projects at home, I'm pretty well covered in the instrumentation department with a good DC power supply, a relatively inexpensive 20MHz scope, and a professional DMM. The one thing I've needed on occasion that I don't have on my workbench is a frequency generator. For the few times I've needed one, it's hard to justify the expense. I've managed to get by without it.

The #1 tool that I could absolutely not get by without is my magnifier. I use a 10x stereo microscope for PCB assembly because my sight is limited, but most people can get by well with a jeweler or watchmaker visor style magnifier. My soldering station would be next on the list. The one I use is purely a soldering station, Weller WESD51. I use de-soldering braid in lieu of a de-soldering station. The good soldering/de-soldering stations are pretty expensive.

As far as parts, I do as much as I can with µcontrollers. I just don't see the sense in using discrete components for any kind of logic anymore. Basic 8 bit MCUs are no more expensive than a higher value tantalum capacitor. I have a stock of thru-hole stuff for breadboarding which I do only on limited ocassion anymore. Most of my stock is SMD, hence the dependence on the magnifier and DIY PCBs (for basic stuff) or manufactured PCBs (for more complex stuff).
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  • #24
Hello all,
I was wondering if any of you could suggest some beginner equipment for ee major that eventually wants to design circuit boards. For example, would it be wise for me to start practice soldering? Thanks in advance.
  • #25
sandy.bridge said:
Hello all,
I was wondering if any of you could suggest some beginner equipment for ee major that eventually wants to design circuit boards. For example, would it be wise for me to start practice soldering? Thanks in advance.

Yes, definitely. Visit a Radio Shack or Frys Electronics or similar store (or shop online), and find an electronics kit or two that looks interesting. You will probably need to buy a basic/cheap soldering iron to assembly your first kits.

Building kits and then starting to put together your own projects is a very important step for practical EEs, IMO. :smile:
  • #26
Are there any kits you could recommend via online?
  • #27
sandy.bridge said:
Are there any kits you could recommend via online?

Maybe others have suggestions. Mainly I'd look for kits in the $20 range that require soldering (not snap-together thpe), and that involve something that is interesting to you. Like build a small AM radio receiver, or an alarm clock, etc.
  • #28
Alarm clock sounds fun for starters. Thanks :)
  • #29
If you can get 'hold of an old amplifier that is tube-driven (Supro, Fender Champ, etc) you will soon get a feel for what you need that is *not* already in your tool-kit. Decent soldering iron, solder-sucker (to clean out tag-board joints so you can replace parts), flux (solder paste), alligator clips, heat-sinks, jumper-wires (to keep large capacitors discharged), and many, many other things. I realize that in these days of mostly mass-produced solid-state stuff, some of these suggestions may seem archaic, but they are important to me. YMMV
  • #30
I don't think anyone mentioned a rubbing alcohol bottle dispenser (the kind with the long needle), and some hard brushes with bristles that won't break off. Good for cleaning off soldering work.
  • #31
Has anyone had experience with a DSO Nano V2? It's essentially a handheld oscilloscope that supports up to 1MHz.
  • #32
I just set up a minimal set up for a project at home like 3 months ago. To me, this is very important.

1) good pair of small needle nose pliers.
2) good pair of small wire cutter.
3) good multi gauge wire stripper.
4) good soldering iron like Weller station with selection of tips of different temperatures and size. Don't get anything less than $100.
5) an old scope like Tek 465 from surplus store.
6) a function generator of about $100 to $160 in surplus store.
7) a digital multi meter. I only paid about $50.
8) set of 22 gauge wires of different colors.
9) assortment of 1% metal firm resistors I ordered very cheap on ebay from Hong Kong.
10) assortment of ceramic disc cap I ordered on ebay from Hong Kong.
11) a box of double sided copper FR4 boards.
12) 50 pcs of 10uF tantalum cap.
13) small parts drawers for parts.
14) copper tape.

I am doing guitar electronics, so 9V battery is my only supply. But you might want to get a power supply in the surplus store. Get the parts drawers, if you get the assortment, it is important to have that. If you get parts from Hong Kong or China, you better measure the resistor values before putting it in. But they are cheap but I found error on one value.

Don't be cheap on the wire cutter, stripper and soldering iron.
  • #33
sandy.bridge said:
Has anyone had experience with a DSO Nano V2? It's essentially a handheld oscilloscope that supports up to 1MHz.

Forget handheld, you need at least a 200MHz two channel scope. You don't even need digital scope if you want to be cheap.
  • #35
sandy.bridge said:
Okay, what about a signal generator?

If you cannot find a used one in surplus store, you can check ebay or amazon. I just got a function generator used for $100, it is up to 3MHz sine, square, pulse, triangle etc. It even has TTL output.

Spend some effort to look for an electronics surplus store, you're going to have fun in it if you can find one. I am lucky living in the Silicon Valley, there are a few. They have all sort of cables, wires, connectors, all resistors, caps transistors...I can stay there for hours!

I just went on ebay for you, this is exactly what I have and I am happy with it. I tend to stay with Tektronics or other big brands like HP. There is a reason they are the industry standard at least for these kind of old analog scope. They almost never die. I had mine for like 20 years.


If mine konk out on me, I'll buy another one in a heart beat.

Also here's some of the function generator in the price range of $100 to $160


These might look very cheap, BUT I am born cheap!:rofl:

Just don't be cheap on the cutter, stripper and soldering iron. Get the Xcelite brand hand tools and at least...at least a Weller solder station. These are bread and butter. There are always newer scopes and generators coming out and the used ones get pushed into the used market.

Oh, I almost forgot, I don't know your age, but I have problem read small parts, I love to have a magnifying lamp. But as usual I born cheap, so instead I got the +3 reading glasses instead from the drug store!
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