Tools on the bench.

27 January 2023

Fairly serious hardware hackers and makers like to post lists of all the gear they use for whatever it is they do (mostly the big-name Youtubers and bloggers who do a lot of retrotech work and reverse engineering). That's all well and good, but I'm just a schmuck from Pittsburgh who likes to mess around with stuff. While cleaning up my office over the holidays I decided that maybe I should put one of those lists together because maybe it would help someone later. So, here is just about every tool that I have sitting on, under, around, or within arm's reach of my desk at home. Unless otherwise noted assume that all of the product links here are affiliate links. If you buy anything from them I might get a few cents eventually, but please don't feel obligated to do so.

For starters I have a Dremel kit (two actually, one's buried on my server rack) and multiple collections of bits. I don't recommend any particular or special kit or version because, when you get down to it, a Dremel is a Dremel. Get whatever works for you and buy sets of bits as you need them. I will say, however, that you should invest the money on a real Dremel and not a knockoff. You will notice the difference in quality and workmanship.

I keep pairs of manual and digital calipers on my desk for fine measurements. Most of the time I use them to measure hardware (screws, nuts, bolts, and what have you), with a solid sideline measuring things I'm trying to fix. The manual calipers I got at the hardware store for a couple of bucks. The digital calipers are much easier to work with, however, because you don't have to keep flipping back and forth to figure out if what it's telling you is less than an inch or more than an inch. Save yourself the skull sweat if you can. Oh, and keep a good stock of spare button cell batteries around just in case. My digital calipers tend to lose power after about six months.

Once I'm set up the first thing I reach for is a head mounted magnifying visor, because I am an old who now wears bifocals. It has multiple flip down lenses and an optional monocle magnifier, though I really only use the default lens. It works, but I have a few complaints about this particular model. For starters the headband doesn't like to stay set. It doesn't like to stay where I set it and loosens itself after a while. Additionally, the hinges on the sides need tightened once or twice per use because otherwise the visor will fall and squish your glasses against your nose. I've already had to get these glasses adjusted a few times as a result.

I keep a set of assorted hemostats in a zipper pouch in my doctor's bag. A lot of folks say they use them as heatsinks for soldering; I just use them as really skinny pliers. There's nothing particularly unique or interesting about them and you can probably source a set at the local hardware store for about the same cost. It's good that they're cheap because when the serrations on the jaws eventually wear away they aren't good for much. I also have a set of assorted pliers, which are also nothing special and easy to find locally.

One thing that I always wanted as a kid (no, I don't know why, I just always thought they were neat) and which I've found incredibly useful is a pin vise and assorted bits. Not only are they great for drilling tiny holes, especially pilot holes for full sized drill bits, but you can also use them for cleaning out recalcitrant through-hole solder holes and shaving away solder bridges. Also, most (if not all) of the bits can be used in a conventional drill. This isn't always the right tool for the job at hand, but when it is you can't do without it.

It's kind of awkward on my desk because I don't have a lot of room but a Panavise occupies a place within arm's reach at all times. They seem kind of hokey but it's paid for itself several times over easily. It's ideal for holding most circuit boards though oddly shaped ones pose a bit of a challenge. It also has a couple of upward-facing 1/4" screw holes around the edge for attaching other things (such as the ultimate lockpicking vise). I also keep an off-brand adjustable circuit board holder handy. It's not perfect, nor is it as well constructed as the Panavise but works pretty well with irregularly shaped PCBs, which the Panavise doesn't exactly excel at. I've also found it handy for holding project boxes in place when wiring things up inside them (though anything the size of a shoebox is just too big).

The one thing I have absolutely no regrets about buying is a Weller soldering station. It's easily worth its weight in gold. The killer feature here is that you can set the temperature manually and precisely, and see what the current temperature of the tip is. A slightly annoying thing is that it'll go into low power/temperature mode after a few minutes and you'll have to play with the temperature by a degree or two so it'll go back into normal power mode. There's probably something in the manual about changing this behavior but I forgot to do it. Also, don't forget replacement tips. When you need them most it's easy to not have any.

I also have a Pinecil soldering iron on my desk at all times. To be honest I don't use it much because the user interface is a little unintuitive. I'm not used to keeping documentation open to use a soldering iron. It's also a bit tricky when it comes to power, you can't just run it off of a USB port in your laptop or a spare cellphone charger. It seems to work well with a modern Macbook power supply, though. The nice thing about it is that when it's unplugged, you can store it in whatever pencil jar or other organizer you might have on your desk. Again, don't forget to get some replacement tips.

A Hakko soldering iron cleaner wound up being a piece of kit that works amazingly well at what it's meant for. It's for keeping your soldering iron tips clean and shiny so that they don't corrode as fast under normal use. You can buy refill balls of brass sponge online but check your local hardware store first, they should be in with the soldering and welding stuff if they have it. I always thought these were kind of pointless but then I tried one and it works way better than a wet sponge in a tray. They really do protect the soldering tip and extend its lifetime. Just don't tip it over because then the solder dust will go all over the place.

Multiple pairs of diagonal wire cutters. Enough said. They're for snipping wires, accept no substitutes. I suggest that you always buy multiple pairs because they're cheap, and when you use one up you can toss it and start using another rather than trying to sharpen it or get a little more use out of them. Again, they always seem like an obvious thing until you discover that you don't have one handy.

A digital multimeter, cheap these days at twice the price. Testing continuity of connections (both for when you want it and when you don't), (double) checking component values (especially if your eyesight isn't so good), measuring voltage to make sure that it's not too high or too low... I can't talk enough about this very common tool. I recommend getting a digital one instead of an analog one because it's way too easy to misread the scale on the meter or second guess yourself into vapor lock. Also, don't be shy about buying a set or two of different probes for it, because you can mix and match them for the task at hand. One common pairing I use is a probe with an alligator clip on the tip (for the ground) and a regular probe (for the voltage side). Having to manipulate one probe is much easier than jockeying two at a time. Again, your friendly local hardware store probably has a couple of good models in stock.

Decent rosin core solder is surprisingly hard to find since Radio Shack shut down. I've been using this one for a while and it doesn't seem too bad. I do have to use it with liquid flux because it never seems to flow quite how I want regardless of the temperature I have the iron set to. It's a point of personal preference but I like the kind in a syringe over the kind in a little dish or pot. It makes melted solder flow into connections more readily so that you don't have to use as much heat. Additionally, keep a spool or two of desoldering braid (not an affiliate link) in your toolbox for removing solder when necessary. It takes practice to learn how to use, and as with soldering a little extra flux makes life much easier. Once you get used to using it it you'll never go back to using a solder sucker (which is pretty much the only thing those "get started with electronics" kits have going for them). I recommend watching a couple of Youtube videos to learn the basics, but only practice (including mistakes) will help you build skill.

On the other side of the soldering coin, I keep a bottle or two of lab grade isopropyl alcohol sitting around. It's ideal for cleaning years of cruft (common when restoring retrotech) and excess flux off of circuit boards. You can put it in a spray bottle or a pump dispenser; I have both. Just don't get denatured isopropyl alcohol because whatever they mix into it just replaces or adds to the stuff you're trying to clean off. I would also suggest picking up a handful of cheap and disposable acid brushes. They're good for applying liquids or goop without worrying about how to clean them later because you can just toss them when you're done. They're also good for cleaning things up, just soak them in alcohol and start scrubbing. Cheap toothbrushes from the dollar store or dentist's office work almost as well. I say "almost" because even brand one ones right out of the wrapper sometimes leave a thin white film of something that smells suspiciously minty on circuit boards. I'm pretty sure it's not toothpaste but something they're dipped in at the factory to make them smell and taste better.

Soldering is all about making connections between parts. Sometimes you don't want some connections to happen. kapton tape is both resistent to high temperatures(so when you solder it won't melt or catch fire) as well as an electrical insulator. It can be used for temporarily holding things in place but the intended practical use is to cover exposed metal bits to prevent shorts or protect solder joints. Heat shrink tubing is the other commonly used go-to material for electrical insulation. Among other things it's a plastic that insulates exposed wire splices in much the same way as the plastic jacketing on most wires. Slide a piece over one wire, splice and solder them together, slide the heat shrink back over the solder joint, and use a cigarette lighter to melt and shrink the plastic. You don't necessarily need to get long pieces or spools of tubing because you'll be doing a lot of cutting to fit anyway, an assorted box is fine.

You really can't live without a decent multi-bit screwdriver set if you have no other tools and don't really plan to tinker much. There are expensive ones and not so expensive ones, famous ones and not so famous ones. The one I have isn't expensive or well known but works just fine. Double ended cotton swabs aren't expensive or famous either, but with a little isopropyl alcohol they're great for cleaning stuff. I find them ideal for mopping flux out of tight spaces as well as cleaning my keyboards from time to time.

The set of tweezers I keep in my toolbag are also nothing special. They're great for moving tiny parts around and picking things up. Notably there is a pair of reverse grip tweezers in the kit (squeeze the handle and the jaws open instead of close), which are handy when you least expect it. That said tweezers are pretty much tweezers, so use the ones for the task that seem to work best for you. There's no shortage of them at hardware stores. Same goes for needle files, sometimes called rat tail files. They're helpful for carving up project boxes and smoothing out cut places. For that matter I also keep a fairly large set of security bits (not an affiliate link) kicking around. You never know when something you want to work on has nonstandard screws (like two pinholes instead of a regular Philips or slot head) so while you might not use them often, when you do they'll pay for themselves after one or two uses. Formerly a really niche and strange thing (when I was young, anyway) they're relatively cheap usually findable at larger hardware stores if you nose around a little.

I keep a USB microscope hanging around for really tiny work. It's remarkably straightforward to use, just plug it in and it shows up as a regular webcam. I use mine with both VLC and guvcview and it works just fine. The only thing is, everything is reversed on the screen, as if you're working in a mirror. I still haven't mastered the art of using it to work on things for this reason, so I mostly use it for examination and diagnosis of hardware problems, such as cold solder joints and bridges.

An underrated tool for the toolbag is an adjustable wire stripper, which does pretty much what it says on the tin. It strips the insulation from the ends of wires to expose the metal. There's not much you can really say here other than they take practice to learn how to use. Starting it it's easy to either stretch the insulation without removing it or cut through the wire (or stands thereof if it's not solid wire). They're a bit frustrating at first but well worth the pactice. Another underrated tool is a tiny hand-held metal ruler. My grandmother used to keep one in her sewing kit but she used it for just about everything. I keep one in the pencil cup on my desk for figuring out how to cut or drill project boxes next to a tungsten carbide scriber. It's basically a really hard, sharp tip in a mechanical pencil-like handle used for marking plastic, metal, circuit boards, and other things by scratching lines and making little nicks in the surface. The marks it leaves on relatively soft materials (plastic, aluminum, probably a few other things) are also ideal for guiding blades of various kinds across plastic.

So.. do you actually need all of this stuff to get started with electronics or retrotech or anything like that? The answer is... no. You don't. I have all of this equipment because I've collected it over the last five or ten years, one or two tools at a time for specific purposes. If I'm working on a project and I need a thing, I try to pick one up at a good price. I try not to buy things speculatively ("I might need this thing in the future.") because it seems like a waste of resources. Wherever possible I also try to get things that seem to lend themselves to improvisation. As Alton Brown once said, the only unitasker in the kitchen (and by extension, the workshop) should be the fire extinguisher. For example, that offbrand circuit board holder is also great for holding project boxes while stuff is being wired up. I've used really tiny drill bits to break solder bridges when the solder wouldn't melt easily. And kapton tape has as many uses as scotch tape does, it just does a neater job of it.

If you're interested in electronics and looking to get started, I hope you got some useful advice out of this article. Good luck, and happy hacking.