Building a Home Electronics Lab: Everything You Need

Design the circuit. Figure out what parts you need. Order parts. Wait for parts to arrive. Figure out what tools you need. Order tools…

Alex Wulff
3 years ago

Design the circuit. Figure out what parts you need. Order parts. Wait for parts to arrive. Figure out what tools you need. Order tools. Wait for tools to arrive. Repeat. If this process seems familiar to you, then it might be time to start building up your very own stockpile of tools and parts!

All of my projects initially followed a similar cycle. After a while, I amassed quite a library of parts and tools that allow me to create tons of builds without needing to order a thing. Below are the tools, consumables, and electronic parts that I rely on most.

Tools

Good luck putting together a house without a hammer.

Soldering Iron

I can tell you right now: a soldering iron is one of the most essential pieces of equipment you’ll buy. As such, a cheap $10 one from eBay can oftentimes do more harm than good. I made the mistake of buying one of these as my first soldering iron — I burned a hole in my kitchen floor when the tip came out. I’ve also heard stories of some Chinese models starting fires. Don’t skimp out here.

Multimeter

Multimeters are an essential tool for every lab. Their plethora of functions allow you to debug and test any circuit imaginable. Getting one with a continuity testing feature is especially important!

Wire Strippers

Unlike the soldering iron, an inexpensive pair of wire strippers will more than likely work just fine. Anything with options in the 15–30 AWG range is fine for most electronics projects.

Helping Hands

These come in handy (sorry) for pretty much all projects. I often hold my soldering iron in one hand and my solder in the other, leaving no hands free to hold components in place. These will lend a hand (sorry again) in such scenarios.

Flush Clipping Pliers

When working with printed circuit boards or wires in general these are very useful. They allow you to cut off excess wire directly down to the fiberglass of the board and not have any stick up.

Solder Sucker

Make a mistake? A solder sucker can probably fix it! Simply heat up the solder, depress the plunger on this tool, push the button, and it will suck up the molten tin.

Optional: Hot Air Gun

You can oftentimes find soldering stations with hot air guns attached. These are nice if you’re going to be working with surface mount components, or you’re particularly inclined to using shrink wrap tubing.

Consumable Tools

Your hammer can’t build the house alone.

I consider all of the following “consumable tools,” because I use them in practically all of my projects. They’re more than just components.

Lead-Free Solder

For most scenarios, lead-free solder is the preferable choice. You get almost all the benefits of leaded solder without the lead poisoning. 0.5mm or 1.0mm solder is usually fine.

Solid-Core Wire

I once saw a twenty-minute-long YouTube video titled: “Wire: Solid Core or Stranded?” I can’t say that I spent twenty minutes of my life watching a video about wires, but I can say that I prefer solid core over stranded for my projects. It’s much easier to use with perf boards and with wiring electronic components together, in addition to being rigid enough to support itself and lighter components. It is also stronger at the solder joint and is just overall easier to deal with. I like to buy it in these spool boxes with lots of different colors.

Breadboard Jumper Wires

These things would make great magicians, because they just seem to disappear. For this reason I consider them consumable (no joke, they’re a reusable component but I have to order more at least once every few months). Such wires are used to connect components together on breadboards without the need for soldering.

Perf, Proto, and Bread Boards

Breadboards are an excellent resource for prototyping a circuit. Unless I’m absolutely sure that something will work, I generally try and breadboard it before soldering. Breadboards are great because they allow you to easily make adjustments to your circuit. Perfboards and protoboards are a little more permanent, as they require soldering. A protoboard is like a breadboard in that it has rows that are connected. Perfboards are just a matrix of holes that you can solder to with no connections between holes. Both have advantages, but more often than not I’ll end up using a protoboard over a perfboard. It takes up more space, but there’s less wiring and soldering involved.

Parts That Are Nice to Have Around but You Might Not Use in Every Project

A house with just a roof and walls ain’t much of a house.

Microcontrollers

I have a ton of these lying around, but most of them get eaten up by various projects before they have much of a chance to collect dust. For breadboarded projects, I turn to the Arduino Uno. It’s probably the most well supported of all the micronctrollers. For small things I like using the ATtiny85. For Bluetooth things my favorite microcontroller is the LightBlue Bean. I also like the Arduino Pro Mini for its low cost and large number of IO pins.

Complex Digital Components

I consider complex digital devices to be anything that you interface with via bits and bytes or libraries. These are oftentimes more complicated than traditional electronic components.

My favorite screen to use is the generic 128X64 I2C OLED display — it is extremely simple to set up, and quite inexpensive.

My radio of choice is the NRF24L01+ module. It costs about $1 depending upon where you get it, and it has decent range.

Arduino Neopixels are awesome to use in light-up projects. They’re RGB and a whole string can be controlled with just one pin!

To measure distance you can’t go wrong with the HC-SR04 distance module. They also only cost around $1, so buy a few!

Simple Digital Components

Buttons are a must-have for any electronics workshop. They’re the go-to method of single state input for phones, game controllers, and so much more. I recommend buying generic 6mmx6mm and 12mmx12mm pushbuttons.

Slide switches are also a must-have. I use these in every project to turn on and off power to all the components. SPDT (3-pin) switches are good for most projects.

Transistors/MOSFETs are at the heart of any logic-capable device. A great variety to keep around is the PN2222 BJT. I most often use these as little electronic switches to turn on or off power to a component. For example, if you have a small motor, you can drive it with a transistor. Transistors are definitely not digital devices, but I can honestly say that I’ve never utilized a transistor in a complex project as anything other than a switch so I’m lumping it in with digital.

Analog(ish) Components

Potentiometers are a good device to keep in any kit. You can use them for fine control/input for a variety of projects. They’re cheap; I reccommend getting a bunch of different varities. Other variable resistance devices include force-sensing resistors and photoresistors. The former (in case you couldn’t guess) are used to measure force and the latter are used to detect the intensity of light.

Pick up any commercial electronic device. I can guarantee you that it contains some kind of resistor! You can buy a set of resistors that range from 1 ohm into the megaohm range for only a few dollars. It’s also nice to keep resistors of different power ratings around. Most common are 1/8W, 1/4W, and 1/2W resistors.

If you want to add some kind of audio feedback to your projects you can use a piezo buzzer. These can produce a large range of notes, and they’re super easy to use with any microcontroller. Just keep in mind that piezo buzzers aren’t speakers!

Motors are also a good thing to keep in your kit. I generally like to stock regular ol’ 12V hobby motors and tiny vibration motors. Keep in mind that you can’t drive these directly from the pin on your microcontroller — you’ll need some kind of driver circuit!

Power!

You’d probably want your house to have outlets.

AA/AAA Batteries and Accessories

Ahh yes, the ubiquitous AA battery. To use them with any project you’re oftentimes going to want AA batteries wired in series to increase the voltage. I reccomend picking up 2xAA, 3xAA, and 4xAA battery holders to power your projects. As a side benefit most of them come with on/off switches built in! AAA batteries are rated for the same voltage and roughly the same max current. Their small size means that they also have a diminished capacity. Similarly to AA batteries, you can pick up holders that wire them in series.

Coin Cell Batteries

The principal advantage of coin cell batteries is their tiny size. Many of them can deliver 3V, so for some microcontrollers only one coin cell is needed! Coin cells are really only useful for low-power applications, as they have a relatively small max current and capacity. My favorite variety is the CR2032.

LiPos!

LiPo, or lithium ion polymer, batteries are awesome because they can deliver a lot of current at around 4V while still being rechargeable. Compared to their alkaline counterparts they’re not as energy-dense and quite a bit more expensive.

Project Inspiration

If you can’t come up with any projects on your own, Hackster.io is an awesome resource for projects of all kinds. You can view some of my builds on the website, such as my business card with a screen or my prank vibrating cup. Don’t forget to post your own projects if you make something cool!

That’s all I’ve got! Comment below and let me know what you think. Also comment with your favorite tools and parts — I can add them to this post! To see more of my writing check out my page on Medium. Thanks!

Alex Wulff
I'm a 20-year-old maker from Upstate New York. I love Arduino, embedded systems, 3D printing, and iOS development. www.AlexWulff.com
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