Everything for Electronics
Posted in: Developing Perspectives (May 2010)

Starting Out

By Bryan Bergeron

If you’re just starting your adventure in electronics, keep it simple and affordable. You don’t need a room full of test gear or a $1,000 parts library to get going. I’d start with teardowns. Take apart and analyze whatever you can get your hands on — from kitchen appliances to discarded computers. You really shouldn’t try building something before you’ve studied how electrical and electronic devices are put together. Stick with low voltage devices. There’s no need to get knocked to the floor while disassembling an old TV set that hasn’t been fully discharged. Establishing a good work environment and work habits is essential — especially when you start dealing with live components and devices. Your work area should be well lit, adequately ventilated, and immune to flying pieces of wire and the spray of molten solder. A Formica countertop or kitchen table will do; just protect the surface from dings, scratches, and the heat from your soldering iron. You can move up to a butcher-block workbench with a vise or third-hand tool later.

As far as work habits go, definitely get in the habit of wearing safety glasses. It’s amazing how far a resistor lead can travel once it’s clipped from a circuit board. Or, how far solder can splash. Protect your vision. You should also develop the habit of washing your hands. Even if you use leadless solder, components and circuit boards invariably carry traces of heavy metals and other noxious substances that you shouldn’t ingest. From a safety perspective, use the tools most appropriate for the job. Assuming your tool kit includes the basics – a soldering iron, needlenose pliers, crescent wrench, diagonal cutters, and a few screwdrivers – this means using the crescent wrench to remove a nut. If you use the needlenose pliers, they’ll likely slip and either pinch your hand or impale your foot. Not a good outcome for you or your tools.

As you gain experience, you’ll want to increase your arsenal of tools to include tweezers, a hex driver set, drill, and illuminated magnifying glass. A lightweight, desktop vise will enable you to work with small devices and rework circuit boards. Your interests will dictate the types of tools you’ll eventually need. For example, if you’re into appliances, you’ll want tough tools made for heavy gauge work. Conversely, if you’re working with surface-mount components, you’ll appreciate delicate, finely crafted tools. Learn the operating range of your tools – most cutters and pliers are rated for wire type and gauge. The only instrument you really need on your workbench is a digital multimeter. You’ll find the resistance function useful for tracing circuits, verifying component values, and the voltage function indispensible for verifying that high voltage capacitors are discharged. You may be dreaming of an oscilloscope, but you really don’t need one until you start designing and debugging complex digital circuits. In the meantime, you can keep an eye out for bargains on eBay and local flea markets for deals on used but functional equipment. As you progress to designing and building your own circuits, you can gradually add the tools and instruments that suit your particular interests and budget. The most important prescription for success is to find a mentor — preferably someone who has worked professionally in the field of electronics. The ideal mentor will be able to teach you diagnostic and construction techniques while keeping you motivated when you hit the inevitable speed bumps. Who knows, your mentor might even steer you into a career in electronics engineering. NV