Your workbench, your lab is where you'll make it happen. Setting up the best one you can is essential. Pictured above is The Thomas Edison Menlo Park Shop, 1st floor. (Image via historic archives)
If you plan on being serious about your endeavours in electronics, your tools should reflect your resolve. The key to setting up an electronics workbench is to start from the essentials and build out from there. What you choose will depend on how much you're willing to spend, but if you stand on the experience of the engineers and makers who came before you and keep a clear sense of what you're looking for, the process should be fairly easy.
Listed below are common tools and equipment that can be found on or around any electronics workbench. Many of these products can be sourced from element14's Exclusive Brands, which offer a wide variety of workbench products suitable for makers, educators and professional engineers at a much lower cost. Check out our new Lab Supplies Page Lab Supplies Page Lab Supplies Page to view the full collection.
● First a little talk about the workbench you plan to use. Think ahead. Yes, you can get away with a tiny little workspace. But, why limit your efforts from the beginning? I recommend getting some sort of desk about 5 to 6 feet wide and at least 2 feet deep. (In metric 1.8m x 0.6m). Being able to spread out projects isn’t an occasional nicety, but an inevitable necessity for everything.
For the bench itself, a simple tabletop can work. You can always add a backstop and more shelving above it over time. However, an out of the box solution is a good option too. Why add a project to work on before you start working on projects. Your local big-box hardware store will have plenty of workbenches you can choose from.
● Power strip Power strip Power strip – While you’re at it with just your main working surface, an essential piece of equipment you’ll need on top of your desk is a power strip of some sort. The more outlets the better. Personally, I have filled up 6x outlets once running an early stage of a project. It’s a critical must-have.
Electro-static Discharge (ESD) Protection
● ESD floor mat floor mat floor mat & bench top mat bench top mat bench top mat – Let’s prepare your work area a little more. A great deal of integrated circuits and semiconductor devices are extremely static sensitive. Protect your parts with antistatic mats on top of your workbench and on the ground in front of it. Mats like these are high resistance paths to ground so static charge can safely leak away from you and the parts without damaging them. Don’t forget to connect the grounding wires from the mats to a screw on an outlet cover to provide a ground path.
If you can also get an antistatic surface for your table, it’s an added benefit. Not only that, it protects the table from the inevitable soldering iron burns, epoxy puddles and other such scares of the trade.
Instrumentation, the major tools of the trade
● Multimeter Multimeter Multimeter – A Multimeter is the bare minimum of instrumentation you can get away with. This is the cornerstone of your kit, it is your six gun, your tri-corder and it is absolutely essential for troubleshooting. A multimeter will allow you to measure voltage and resistance, check for continuity and measure current. You can also use it to identify the leads on some semiconductor devices. Without a multimeter, you will never really be able to tell what is going on in your project. You don’t necessary need a $200 unit, you can get a lot of good work done with a $10 meter. So save yourself a lot of pain and make sure this is the first item you get for your workbench.
● Adjustable Bench Top Power-Supply Adjustable Bench Top Power-Supply Adjustable Bench Top Power-Supply – A bench top power-supply will supply voltage to your projects. It isn’t completely essential, but it is going to make experimentation a whole lot easier. The ability to adjust voltage on-the-fly is very convenient, and it sure beats fumbling around with batteries and wall-type power supplies to meet your power supply needs.
● Function, Signal, GeneratorFunction, Signal, Generator Function, Signal, Generator – Function generators produce electrical waveforms in the amplitude, frequency and shape you choose. To start with, this is not an essential piece of kit. In a lot of situations, you can build an oscillator or program a microcontroller to supply a waveform. However, as with the power supply, being able to simply tap a button or twist a dial to change wave saves a lot of time. There is also the matter of precision. The signal generator is going to be a lot more precise and consistent than the 555 timer based oscillator you built to too supply the electronic heartbeat for your creation.
● Oscilloscope Oscilloscope Oscilloscope – Oscilloscopes allow us a look into what a circuit is doing. They can “see” things that a multimeter cannot, like the shape, amplitude and frequency of a waveform. Nowadays, they typically can also grab screenshots of the action. You can spend 100 dollars on an O-scope or more than the cost of the family grocery getter. They are awesome to have, but you can operate for quite a while without one. Remember the rule-of-thumb for selecting oscilloscopes. The bandwidth should be 10 times larger than the frequency of the highest speed sine waves you expect to observe.
Soldering Tools & Supplies, putting components together is why we’re here together
● Soldering station Soldering station Soldering station – We are here to solder components to boards and wires. A soldering station is a soldering iron with a base housing some sort of temperature controls. You won’t need a 200 dollar station to get started. The 35 USD models you can find online are very serviceable. A soldering station is much better than the stand alone irons that just have a power cord running out the handle because you can control the temperature. This will (hopefully) prevent you from burning things or cooking IC’s to death.
● Hot air gun / Heat gun Hot air gun / Heat gun Hot air gun / Heat gun - Some, not all SMD components can be soldered with an iron and a very steady hand. For the rest of the SMD components, a hot air gun will be required.
● Solder wire Solder wire Solder wire – This is a staple of the craft. Be sure to have a few spools of various size solder wire on hand. Personally, I find the thinner wire to be the most useful.
● Solder wick Solder wick Solder wick – Inevitably, you are going to bridge some component leads on an IC. Even if you don’t, using solder wick will clean up your work and make it look professional.
● Solder paste Solder paste Solder paste – This is the heat-activated glue that is going to stick your surface mount components to your PCB’s
● Flux Flux Flux – Flux is used to clean a PCB’s leads and wires before you start soldering. It will remove oils and oxidation so you can get the best adhesion from your solder.
Experimenting Supplies, support is necessary
● Breadboards BreadboardsBreadboards – Invaluable project and experimentation accessories. Get yourself at least a three pack.
● 22gauge solid core wire kit 22gauge solid core wire kit 22gauge solid core wire kit – This is the perfect wire size for making breadboard jumper wires. Don’t make the mistake of buying stranded wire though. You will never get it into the breadboard.
● Heat shrink tubing kit Heat shrink tubing kitHeat shrink tubing kit – Heat shrink tubing is neater and cleaner than using electrical tape to dress your wire junctions.
● Through-hole Resistor kit Through-hole Resistor kit Through-hole Resistor kit – Resistors are an elementary component of electronics. You will be using them…. everywhere. Buy a kit of ¼ watt resistors and keep it close. You will be reaching for it often.
● Through-hole ceramic capacitor kit Through-hole ceramic capacitor kit Through-hole ceramic capacitor kit – If your microcontroller is acting flaky, slap some ceramic caps across the power supply pins and filter those transients. If you don’t get yourself a whole kit, then at least get a bag of 0.1uF caps as these are the most common size used for bypass capacitors.
● Through-hole electrolytic capacitor kitThrough-hole electrolytic capacitor kit Through-hole electrolytic capacitor kit – Electrolytic caps are used for everything from smoothing out voltage ripple to acting as a power reservoir for solenoids. You may not use them often but you will need to have them on hand.
● A selection of LED’s A selection of LED’s A selection of LED’s - A kit of through-hole LED’s will not only make your projects look cool but they can be extremely useful diagnostic tools as well. Wiring some LED’s to a couple pins on your microcontroller project can be programmed to give a wealth of information based on blink rate, intensity etc. etc.
Hand tools, you’ll always need these simple tools somewhere in reach
● Dial or digital Caliper Dial or digital Caliper Dial or digital Caliper – Calipers will allow you top to measure the dimension of things with a high degree of precision (usually to 1 thousandth of an inch). They come with either analog dials or digital readouts. Neither style is superior to the other. Get the type that you are most comfortable with.
● Bent needle nose pliers Bent needle nose pliers Bent needle nose pliers – The bent needle nose shape is maybe the best tool for gripping component leads and wire ends and inserting them into a breadboard. Use a pair of these will save you a lot of bent pins and wires.
● PliersPliersPliers – Pliers are essential for grabbing, pinching and smushing things.
● Vice grips – A single pair of 4 or 6-inch vice grips are great for when you need to pinch or grab something, and you want it to stay after you let go. You can also use them as crimpers.
● PCB vice –A PCB vise or a small hobby vise will save you a lot of frustration when soldering parts to boards. It is maddening when you’re trying to solder something in place, and the soldering iron keeps pushing the board around.
● Fine Point Tweezers Fine Point Tweezers Fine Point Tweezers – A good pair of tweezers is invaluable for positioning surface mount components gripping other tiny things.
● Small Flashlight Small Flashlight Small Flashlight – Sometimes you just need a little bit of light. This is where a “small” flashlight is useful. You should probably refrain from buying that shiny 5000 lumen light that is in actuality has more in common with a particle beam cannon than a flashlight.
● Eye Loupe Eye Loupe Eye Loupe – A 5x or 7.5x eye loupe is useful for examining soldering jobs and reading the text on IC’s.
● Hobby Knife Hobby Knife Hobby Knife – The uses of a hobby knife are innumerable. You may not need to get a hobby knife kit with the variety pack of blade shapes. The venerable #2 blade shape will usually meet most if not all of your needs.
● Wire Cutter Wire Cutter Wire Cutter – A dedicated pair of wire cutters is going to beat the pants off of using scissors. Also, sometimes you just need that power of a wire cutter to “nip” something.
● Wire stripper Wire stripper Wire stripper – You can get the type with the different positions for each wire size or the type that you manually hold to the right size for stripping the wire. There are automatic strippers too, and while they are nice, they usually don’t work well with higher gauge wires so you may want to avoid this type if you’re going to be working with 20 gauge and up wire.
● Screwdriver set Screwdriver set Screwdriver set – A small set if screwdrivers turns out to be more useful than you can imagine in electronics development. Screw-down terminals, assembling enclosures, tuning potentiometers are among the many reasons to have a set.
Safety Equipment – you are the most important thing to protect
● Fire extinguisher – The need for a fire extinguisher is pretty obvious. We are working with hot metal and sometimes open flames. You may never use it but you need to have one at your workbench.
● Safety glasses Safety glasses Safety glasses – You have to protect your eyes. Even just snipping wire can be super hazardous. Wire cutters have a way of sending snipped pieces off at terrifying velocities. Safety glasses may also protect your eyes from chemicals. Which leads right into the next item on the list. You’ll be wearing these all the time, so find ones that are the most comfortable for you.
● Eye wash station or solution – The day may come when something nasty flies through the air and hits you in the eye. More than likely though, you’re going to accidently rub some chemical or substance into your eye. An eye wash station or at least a bottle of eye wash solution is essential to protect yourself.
● Latex/nitrile gloves Latex/nitrile gloves Latex/nitrile gloves – The smallest amount of chemicals or dust and damage your eyes and skin. Since we touch our faces more than we even realize, according to this study , we have to be aware of accidental transmission. Gloves will go a long way towards keeping your eyes, face and clothe free of chemicals and other unpleasant substances.
Cleaning Supplies, entropy will demand it
● Cotton swabs Cotton swabs Cotton swabs – You will need these to clean those hard to reach places. The typical cotton swabs from the drug store can be very “linty”. If you need to clean without leaving behind tiny pieces of the swab, look for the low lint types that usually have a wooden shaft.
● High purity Alcohol (99%) – Alcohol is a low residue, rapidly evaporating solvent that is great for cleaning electronics or removing adhesives. It is especially good for cleaning excess flux off of PCB’s. Get the high purity type (99% pure and up) because anything less is mixed with water to dilute it.
Nice to Haves
● Work Light Work Light Work Light – A work light on a gooseneck or jointed-arm type is nice to have for lighting up your work. The more light you can get in the work area, the better. Honestly, you can never have enough light. Is your desk NOT blinding to look at? You need more light.
● Reflow Oven Reflow Oven Reflow Oven – If you want to do surface mount soldering with the least amount of effort, you’re going to need a reflow oven. Apply solder paste to your boards, stick the components in place and place it in the oven. It will do all the work for you. Maybe get one if money is no object, but unless you’re doing a whole lot of surface mount soldering, you probably don’t need it.