So many people starting out in electronics, especially beginning to dabble in the world of Arduino and similar boards, just don’t have the basic equipment to do the job properly. And not only that, they don’t even know what the basic equipment is.
So here’s a list of things you should have on your desk no matter if you have just got your first Arduino or if, like me, you are a seasoned veteran.
First off get a decent pair of wire cutters. Scissors just aren’t any good for cutting wire. Not only does the wire blunt the scissors, but the sheering action of the scissors bends the end of the wire making it hard to strip. Also those cheap (or even free) wire cutters you get in project kits (you know the ones, the ones with red handles that slice like scissors) are completely useless. Throw them away. Get a decent pair.
Myself I have a pair of Draper ones out of a pretty cheap combined tool-kit. They work well. Not perfect, but a darn sight better than others that I have experienced.
While we’re on the topic of wires, the second thing you should invest in is a pair of wire strippers. Again the free give-away wire cutters I mentioned before have “wire strippers” built in (a small notch). Again, they are useless. Proper wire strippers are a complex mechanical device which grip the wire and have a pair of blades that slice into the insulation and strip it away. Those are the kind you want. Mine came from Maplin, but they do tend to fall apart sometimes, so I have to keep those nuts tightened (but not too tight or it won’t work at all).
For years I didn’t bother with wire cutters. Believe it or not, but I used my teeth. Now I have a nice notch in my front teeth and I regret not using proper wire strippers sooner. So I can thoroughly recommend investing in a good pair of strippers.
Your soldering iron is probably the most important tool that any engineer is going to buy. Don’t be stingy in this area. Too many times I have seen people learning to solder using really cheap chunky high wattage soldering irons. All they ended up with was big blobs of solder and huge amounts of frustration. Invest in a proper soldering station; one with temperature control, a proper stand, moist sponge, interchangeable tips, etc. You’ll regret not doing it when you start wanting to solder components. Those cheap soldering irons that just plug direct into the mains are fine for soldering wires to spade terminals, but when it comes to microelectronic work they are more trouble than they are worth. Soldering stations don’t have to break the bank, and you can even get them combined with a reflow station, although I would be inclined to stay away from those. I have never been a fan of combining things together like that (it’s the same with this modern craze of combining printers with scanners. When your printer dies, as it inevitably will, you lose your scanner too) and soldering stations is no exception.
Probably the most important piece of test equipment that any engineer can have is the Digital Multi-Meter. Such a basic tool should be at the top of every engineer’s shopping list. Unless you’re doing specialist work you really don’t need to spend thousands of pounds on a top-of-the-range Fluke, any basic DMM will do the job. Budget for around £35 and you should get something reasonable. Myself I have Uni-T DMMs (or re-brands made by the same company). It is also often useful to have at least two DMMs to hand. There are times when you may want to measure both voltage and current, and that’s not possible with just one DMM.
For closer examination of electrical signals you really need an oscilloscope. Now this is something that can cost you a lot of money. Getting a good oscilloscope can cost hundreds of pounds. However all is not lost for those on a tight budget. With the advent of the digital storage oscilloscope (DSO) many people are upgrading from their old analogue cathode ray tube oscilloscopes. As result places like eBay are awash with cheap (but bulky) second hand oscilloscopes. Ideal for the beginner, though they can be a bit tricky to use right sometimes, and are not very good at dealing with digital signals and protocols.
For digital signals you really need a logic analyser. But aren’t those even more expensive than an oscilloscope? I hear you ask. As a stand-alone unit, yes they can be. You can even get combined DSO and logic analyser units if you spend enough money. Or you can spend £5 and get a little USB dongle for the computer. I went for years without a logic analyser, until I found the “USBee AX PRO” dongles (or clones of them) from China. Coupled with the open source Sigrok software you get a great logic analyser solution for less than a round of beers in the pub. The cheap clones lack any analogue functions, which is fine since you want them for logic work – you have your oscilloscope for analogue work. I instantly bought three of them as soon as I found out about them, and now use them all the time. There is even an Android version of Sigrok, although this seems to have problems with newer versions of Android (>= 5) at the moment.