One of the absolute most common questions I get in email and comments is “what tools do I need to get started?” Recently I answered this question in regards to wood working tools. Since I do a lot more than just wood working, I figured I’d try to answer the same question concerning other skill sets. So, today… electronics.
- I’m NOT an electrical engineer. I’m a hobbyist at best.
- I’m not sponsored by any tool manufacturers, these are just brands that I’ve had experience with.
- The products linked below are Amazon affiliate links. Purchasing through those links gives me a small commission. (thank you 🙂
As with wood working (or anything else) what you get started with is largely based on how much you want to spend. I’m going to assume that you have a little extra cash to put into this and move along. Note that none of these tools are that expensive compared to table saws and dust collectors.
A few basics that may be obvious
These are items that help along the way and may just be things that you forget to pick up on your first trip to the store. Especially in the case of these small items, brands don’t matter. Think of these as things that you WILL lose, break, replace.. They’re kind of like a box of screws in my mind.. consumable.
There are different types of wire solid and stranded. Stranded is more flexible but sometimes a little more of a pain to strip and solder. The bigger thing to consider is different gauges (often seen as AWG, American Wire Gauge). The smaller the number, the thicker the wire. For a lot of projects, 24-18AWG is all you need, but as you put more current through the wire, you’ll need a thicker conductor. For example, the wire used in a 15AMP home electrical plug is at least 14AWG, if not 12AWG. If you’re working with low voltage 22AWG is probably all you need. Be sure to buy a few different colors too. This makes tracing down connections a bit easier.
You may also want to get a pack of jumper wires. There are pre-made short wires with male and/or female connectors on them for quick connection and prototyping.v
Resistors, capacitors, LEDs, etc.
These are some of the most common components that you’ll use in electronics projects and something you want to have handy. They come in all different sizes and types, so getting an assortment is a good idea. Resistors slow the flow of current while capacitors hold then discharge current. LEDs come in many different sizes and colors.
Electrical tape is handy for all sorts of stuff, but especially as an insulator around exposed wires. Keep it handy.
This is an almost necessary tool for making electronics projects but selecting one can be really confusing. The price range is huge and the options don’t make a lot of sense if you have no experience. From experience, I know that a cheap iron around 30watts will work but not last forever. It also may not provide enough heat in all situations. It’s limited to on/off too, so you have no control over the temperature. As you’re getting started, this isn’t a big deal. As you begin to do more precise and specific work, you’ll want a potentially hotter iron that heats quicker and has variable temperature. I upgraded to this one and(after I got over the price) absolutely love it.
Small terminals often need to be loosened/tightened and have tiny screw heads. To not mangle them, you’ll need some precision screw drivers. I got this set for under $10 and it has a ton of swappable bits. This was a great purchase and I recommend it!
Wire strippers / cutters
You can definitely get all in one cutters like these, but I’ve found that I actually enjoy having a few tools that are specific. I currently have a heavy duty set of strippers for removing the insulators on the wires, some flush cutters for snipping wires in a very specific spot and needle nose pliers for tight spots and curling the ends of wires.
As you get into adding wire connectors, you may want to get a crimping tool as well. It helps compress the fitting around the wire securely.
These come in all different sizes but the principle is the same. It’s a board for quickly connection wires and components without having to permanently solder them. They all do the same thing, so buy them cheaply (or don’t) and buy a few. A lot of them can also lock together for creating larger work areas.
After your project is prototyped, you may be ready to make it more permanent and a simple way to do that is to solder it together on a piece of perf board. Personally, I buy a pack that has a few different sizes so I have options for different types of projects. The material can also be scored with a knife and snapped apart. Doing that lets you only use as much board as you really need for a project (and save the rest for next time).
Some bonus items
Everything listed so far is a pretty basic component. All of them are useful and good to have on hand regardless of what you’re making. Here are a few other things that you’ll probably want, if you start making more electronics projects.
Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, etc.
There is a huge variety of microcontrollers and small computers available that will make it faster and easier to make projects as well as give you some pretty expanded capabilities (without having to build everything from scratch). The Arduino UNO is the most common but there are many, many flavors of similar boards with different form factors and features. There are too many to cover here, but there are plenty of resources to help you find a specific board to meet a specific need. When you step up to an actual small computer, like the Raspberry pi, the price goes up a little but the functionality goes up a LOT. A Pi is a full work computer with HD video, network connectivity and much more for around $35 (or cheaper if you go with the Pi Zero).
Heat shrink sleeves
These are very handy when you start soldering up a project. A kit like this contains more than you’ll need to cover any exposed wire connections. Using the heat of a lighter or heat gun causes the plastic sleeve to shrink around the wire.
Third hand helpers & fume extractors
Sometimes it can be hard to hold your components together as well as the solder, and the iron. A third hand can be really helpful. You also should work in an area with a light air flow to move the soldering fumes away from you. You can buy specific filters for this as well. I actually made a project a while back that combines both of these together and I love it!