The quality of your tools and the availablily of the right tool for the task at hand can make the difference between an enjoyable hobby and a frustrating waste of time. A few good tools are better than a toolbox full of junky tools. Spend a little extra on the first few tools on this list. Then if you must, fill in the rest with lower quality, lower priced items.
Diagonal Cutters Diagonal Cutters - Look for a pair that is pointed on the end (to get into tight spots), and is spring-loaded (opens automatically). Expect to pay 15 to 20 dollars for a pair of cutters that will cut through pretty much anything, and will last for many years. One handy additional feature is a "catcher" that prevents the loose end of the wire from shooting across the room when it is cut off.
Here is the type of diagonal cutter I like best:
Needle Nose Needle-Nose Pliers - I can't do anything without them. I like the relatively small sizes, like the 4 1/2" length. As with the diagonal cutters, expect to pay 15 to 20 dollars for a good pair. A cheaper pair of needle-nose pliers will soon bend, and make it hard to grip the leads of small components. My favorite needle nose pliers were made by Xcelite. You can download the Xcelite catalog from Cooper Tools. I'm a tool junkie, so I love looking at tool catalogs like these! Miniature Soldering Iron Soldering Iron - I spent the money for a high-quality light-weight iron, and have never regretted it. I also have a lower quality, high powered iron, for the big jobs. Your first iron should be in the 15 to 30 Watt range. Get an iron that has replaceable tips, preferably tips that are plated. Thermostatic control is a nice extra! Here's the type of soldering iron that I have been using for the last 20 years: Stand I recommend a big, copper-tipped iron as a supplement to the small iron. This one doesn't need to be fancy, so try to find a cheap junker that still works. Sometimes there are big joints or mechanical soldering jobs that are just too much for a little iron to handle!
If your soldering iron does not include one, buy or build an iron holder. You can accidentally leave the iron on overnight if it is in a safe holder. Never just lay the iron on the workbench, unless you'd like to burn yourself accidentally or start your house on fire!
Screw Drivers - Screwdrivers come in several sizes for a reason. Use the size that most closely fits the screw. Nothing is worse than an over-tightened screw with a wrecked head. Throw away the imported junk screwdrivers you inherited, and splurge on a small set of reasonable quality drivers. You'll need at least 6 types, including:
  • Phillips #2
  • Phillips #1
  • Phillips #0
  • Large Flat
  • Medium Flat
  • Small Flat
If you can afford them also get a Phillips #00 and a Very Small Flat.
A good source of screwdrivers is Sears. Ask Santa for a set. (Sears puts screwdriver sets on sale at Christmas and at Father's day).
Ever hear of sharpening a screw driver? Don't laugh too hard! Flat-blade screw drivers should be sharpened when ever they lose their shape. Unlike sharpening a knife, you are not trying for a cutting edge. Rather, you should shape the point so that end is flat all the way across, and the sides meet the end in sharp almost 90 degree angles. Use either a file or a bench grinder. In an emergency you can use a belt sander. Don't get the tool too hot while grinding; screwdrivers are usually heat tempered to give them hardness, overheating may cause them to lose their temper.
Files - If you are going to construct circuits of your own, you'll need a few basic files. A 1 inch flat and a small round (say 1/4 inch) are the bare minimum. Get a medium cut, rather than fine or coarse. Also consider a square file (about 1/4 inch) and a triangular file.
There are some nice modeler's file sets in plastic pouches. After you have the basic four files described above, add a set of these files for the delicate work. You'll find these small files useful for repair work on relay contacts, elongating holes that are not quite in the right place, etc. These modelers files come in two qualities (expect to pay $5.00 to $10.00 for a cheap set, and three times that for the high quality sets.
Nut Drivers - You'll notice that I haven't mentioned a large pliers. Pliers are for plumbers! I hate to work on equipment where the nuts were tightened with a pliers instead of with a set of nut drivers. Rounded corners on nuts are almost as bad as screws with wrecked heads. Nut drivers touch all 6 faces of the nut at the same time, so damaging the nut is nearly impossible. Plus, nut drivers are much smaller than pliers and can fit into tight spaces.
Xcellite and Vaco make several nice sets of nut drivers, including sets with a single handle and interchangeable drivers. If you don't want to buy a whole set, at least buy the two sizes that fit on the hex head fastener for DB type connectors (like your computer's serial and parallel port connectors). There are two sizes: the American size is 3/16" and the Japanese size is 5mm. Unfortunately they aren't close enough to use the same driver on both.
Allen Wrenches - Knobs are almost always fastened onto shafts with Allen screws. You will eventually want a set of Allen wrenches to put them on and take them off. Allen wrenches are hard to purchase one at a time, so buy a set. I have a nice set with 0.05", 1/16", 5/64", 3/32", 7/64", 1/8", 9/64", 5/32", 3/16", 7/32", 1/4", and 5/16". For electronics, I seldom use the larger sizes.
If price is no object, get a set of Allen wrenches with a "ball-end". This "ball-end" feature makes the wrench easier to use when you can't get exactly straight-on with the Allen screw.
Magnifying Glass - Sure you have good eye-sight, but electronics is getting smaller all the time. You will want a magnifying glass sooner or later, when you can't read the labeling on some rare and obscure I.C., or when you can't quite see if some solder joint is really good. A cheap glass is all you need, but I do recommend glass over plastic. If you are like me, the glass will eventually get solder splashed onto it. A plastic magnifier won't survive that.
T Handle Reamer Sometimes the hole isn't the right size, even though you just drilled it! Or sometimes you'd like a hole that is bigger than your largest drill bit. These are the times that a T-handle reamer is a good thing to have. Make sure that the small end of the reamer fits in the hole made by your largest drill bit, so that you can use them one after the other to make large holes.

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