Basic Tools & Equipment in Electronics
By John Papiewski
Whether you're a professional electronics technician or a hobbyist who enjoys making your own gadgets, you need a basic set of tools to build and test circuits. Some are general items you may already have, such as screwdrivers and pliers; others, such as multimeters and breadboards, are unique to electronics. You can find many of these items at any electronics retailer for $20 or less.
To build permanent, reliable circuits, you need to solder connections between wires and components. A soldering iron is a pencil-shaped tool which uses a heating element to bring the tip to between 500 and 650 F, hot enough to melt electrical solder. Soldering irons range in price from about $10 to over $200; basic models works well for occasional use. Higher-priced examples have convenient built-in stands and temperature regulation. Desoldering tools, such as pumps and copper braid wicks, allow you to clean up poor solder joints and remove solder during repairs. A desoldering pump is a simple hand tool which draws solder away with a quick vacuum action.
A multimeter is an electronic tester which measures voltage, current, resistance and other aspects of electricity and circuits. Most are pocket-sized, run on batteries and have digital displays. A multimeter has a knob, which selects the measurement function, and a pair of test leads for connecting the device to a circuit. Although you can spend hundreds of dollars on a full-featured, professional multimeter, most are well under $100, and a basic, no-frills model can even be purchased for approximately $10.
Small hand tools such as long-nose pliers and screwdrivers come in handy for electronics projects. Pliers bend and crimp wires, hold hot parts during soldering and help you set delicate components into place. Screw and nut drivers are essential for fastening circuit boards to project boxes and disassembling equipment for repairs. Wire strippers remove insulation from wires and cut them to different lengths.
A breadboard is a flat plastic base with a matrix of holes. When you insert wires or component leads in holes that share the same column, they are connected; otherwise, they remain electrically separate. Using a breadboard, you can build prototype versions of sophisticated electronic circuits simply by plugging wires, transistors, resistors, capacitors and other devices into the holes. Because the connections are not permanent, you can easily remove the components when you're done with the circuit and build another; breadboards are fully reusable.
Although most beginning hobbyists do not need an oscilloscope, it is handy for learning electronics and troubleshooting circuits. An oscilloscope displays time-varying signals such as voltage waveform patterns on a screen, helping you visualize circuit functions. Technicians and engineers who work with electronics professionally use oscilloscopes on a daily basis. Basic models run about $300; sophisticated units cost up to several thousands of dollars.
A power supply provides a precise and stable source of direct current to power electronic circuits. It converts 120-V AC electricity from a standard outlet into a DC voltage you can set with a front panel control. As with oscilloscopes, few beginners have DC power supplies on their workbench; moderately advanced hobbyists who frequently work on electronic projects find them valuable, and they are indispensable for professionals.
Chicago native John Papiewski has a physics degree and has been writing since 1991. He has contributed to "Foresight Update," a nanotechnology newsletter from the Foresight Institute. He also contributed to the book, "Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance."