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  • EEVblog #168 – How To Set Up An Electronics Lab

    Posted on April 30th, 2011 EEVblog 64 comments

    How to set up your own decent electronics lab, what you need, and how much it’ll cost you. Electronics test equipment, soldering, surface mount, hand tools, and parts.
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    54 responses to “EEVblog #168 – How To Set Up An Electronics Lab” RSS icon

    • First!

      You forgot LCR meter.

    • Dave: I’ve got variations of most of the stuff you talked about, having picked up my tools over the 8 years I’ve been involved with the hobby. Its amazing how everyone sorta ‘aligns’ their toolkits in the same general direction.
      My additions to your list:
      -third hand/helping hand/PCB holder with magnification
      -power drill (the Dremel is great; I have an XPR400, but its a bit under powered in certain situations)
      -bench vices/clamps

    • Pretty good summary. Amazingly, you didn’t identify anything significant that I didn’t already have, either on my bench or on my wishlist.

      As for test leads and adapters, you can never have too many. I find that, in addition to all the ones you showed, having a bunch of “micrograbbers” is useful, usually terminating in banana plugs.

      I’ve bought a couple of cheap universal power adapters that come with a dozen or so different common DC power connectors (some of the tips are commonly used for audio, as well). I clipped off the wires, soldering on stackable banana plugs, so I now I have a huge variety of banana plug to “whatever” connectors.

      I second the recommendation for some support for soldering. A small hobby vise and a little weighted “third hand” with alligator clips, maybe with a magnifier, is very nice for holding things while soldering.

      A good summary. Amazing to see all the things gathered together, and I’d forgotten how much I’d spent on all of them over the years.

    • If you use dust of can air crap, and you turn it over to use it as a cryo spray. Be sure to get some that doesn’t have that nasty bittering agent in it. When that stuff gets on your hands its hard to wash off, And if you go to eat some ham slices and you use your fingers it will ruin your appetite =)

      Damn those hooligan kids huffing shit!!!!

      • I’ve recently educated senior analog engineers about using dust-off upside down as freeze spray—all of them have >10 years’ experience. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one using this =) Also a handy tool when teaching people how refrigeration works.

        I recently bought a couple Aoyue digital soldering stations for $65 each. They were pretty decent, but they both died. Won’t buy that brand again.

        Also bought a super-cheap bench multimeter ($100) instead of a super-nice handheld multimeter ($100). My bench meter is inaccurate, crappy, and takes too much bench space. Unless it’s a good brand, I won’t do that again.

        All your suggestions are really good. Time to buy more stuff.

    • I’m gradually acquiring stuff as I need it but really have no room. If I did have room, I could get more seriously into this and wouldn’t be getting things just “as and when”.

      I have to agree, for most purposes thin solder is better. I have some, but also some of the thicker kind which I am gradually using up where it is suitable.

    • Is it just me or did it look like you were about to take a bite out of that analog scope at 4:08? LOL…

      +1 on the helping hands alligator clip things too.

      While I agree with ‘the other Karl’ that the clips aren’t always great, they make all the difference when I’m trying to solder wire to a DB-9 connector or similar.

      If you’re worried about them damaging your boards, you can adding something like paper between the clips and the board, but then you lose your grip.

      A lot of the ones I’ve seen use heat shrink on the clips to reduce the spikiness of them – maybe add another layer or two.

    • rackandboneman

      Some random 2 cent coins thrown in:

      …parallelling random bench power supplies might be dangerous advice.

      …only having thin solder on hand tends to get expensive, on THT and chassis work 0.5mm seems to be get shorter at far more than twice the rate compared to 1mm.

      …the digital scope seems to be the biggest-ticket item on the list, and probably often unnecessary when you have a good analog* combined with something PC based (LA and/or DSO).

      …some of the best analog scopes are two plus feet deep – yep, bench layout challenge.

      …generators and frequency counters are good DIY instruments.

      …nowadays, one of the more important items on the bench is any old PC, usually one has a spare around anyway – if not using your normal laptop.

      …there are cheap tweezer sets around that well and truly suck because they completely lack torsion stiffness.

      …same goes for clip lead kits, there are some that are one ohm clip to clip and get intermittent on top of that quickly.

      …Lindstrom dikes tend to be worth it, and eg the 7191 can be gotten far below a 100 quid – would recommend using them when you need precision, not for general purpose work though (that is carbon steel, not stainless, will break if overloaded and will rust if left on a wet soldering sponge).

      …Tin snips are the most underrated tool for electronics workshop. They cut FR4 too.

      …big bad heat guns are very handy to mass disassemble old boards to reclaim components.

    • Bit scary how all that stuff accumulates over the years. I have pretty much all that stuff and more, including the fire extinguisher! Trying to braze two bits of metal together in a student apartment is a very bad idea ¬_¬…

      There are two things I’d like to add to the list though:

      1) A toolbox that’s 80% bigger than what you need. I recommend a decent sized mechanics chest that sits under the bench. The drawers let you quickly access tools and keeps things organised.

      2) A computer because there’s nothing like have the world wide web in one hand and your broken circuit in the other =D

    • I think one of the best things I ever bought for my lab was my Panavise.

    • Wow. Dave goes on faster than a hamster on coffee yet manages to pull off nearly half an hour worth of education. Talking about accelerated absorption. :D

    • Hi!

      Very good! LCR meter is a must have sometimes. And also a laptop or two and internet connection for datasheets.

      For a logic analyzer, I highly recommend this usb one:
      http://cgi.ebay.com/CY7C68013A-USB-Logic-Analyzer-Core-Board-Source-Code-/170576843172?pt=BI_Electrical_Equipment_Tools&hash=item27b72c11a4

      With this you can use the saleae logic analyzing software. You can import dll files from the newer version to analyze SPI, I2C and so on buses. Really handy! And also you need probes for that also.

      I’m actually lacking the hot air station and the digital scope from my own lab.

      Cheers!

      -Kodon

    • Every board I’ve built uses a 8 way shrouded rectangular connector. The pin connections are always identical, this allows me to use the exact same cable on every board which supplies +5V, +12V, GND, GND, TX, RX, TEST IN, TEST OUT. Not all are used on every design, but using a standard makes things a lot easier and lot less likely of blowing stuff up with the wrong lead.

    • … or just visitor your local hackerspace and use the gear there.

      Sure it’s nice to have your own lab, but the hackerspace will have all the gear Dave mentioned and a whole heap more, so you will be able to do some projects and figure out what gear you really need for your home lab, if any.

      • Brian J Hoskins

        My local hackerspace is 66 miles away, which is a 2hour 40minute round-trip. And there’s a toll bridge on the way, so that’s another £6 to add to the fuel bill.

        Hackerspaces are great for people who really do live local to one, but not really viable for people like me. Dave hit on this point in the last AmpHour too.

        Even if your hackerspace is a 2 minute trip down the road, sometimes you might just want to build something up quickly without having to visit someone else’s lab and… well… yeah I just don’t think it’s ideal.
        Hackerspaces are good for a lot of things, but as a total substitute for your own home lab? I don’t reckon so.

    • Brian J Hoskins

      The soldering station with tip-fixed temperatures are mainly geared towards production environments where you want to fix the soldering temperature for a specific job on a specific product. I agree with Dave – you definitely don’t want one of these for your home lab. Get a station that has adjustable temperature on the base.

      Regarding strip-board single core wire, a handy little tip for neatly built boards is to snip some wire off the reel, strip both ends, and then fit one of the ends into the jaws of a vice and squeeze it very tight. It’s better if the vice-end of the wire is stripped long enough so that the single core runs the entire length of the vice jaw. Then hold the other end with a set of long-nose pliers, twist it around the jaws of the pliers so you get a good grip, and then pull hard. The wire will stretch out nice and straight. Now you will find you can slip the insulation right off the wire.
      With all this done, you can measure out a required length of wire with the stripped insulation, cut the insulation to the correct size and then feed some nice straight single-core back through it.

      Result: VERY neat, straight wired strip boards.

      For anyone who experiences perfectionist tendancies, this is a top-tip for you.

      PS: If you have your wire held in a wall-mounted wire rack you can skip the vice section and just stretch the wire before you cut it off the reel.

      Brian

    • Overkill. I mean it is an okay long list and he did say, not a crap lab… But here is my list:

      - 1 good multimeter ~75 (Having the ability to measure voltage and current without having to disconnect things is just a convenience)
      - 2 floating DC supplies (not kit ones get linear DC supplies off eBay or similar old HP ones are cheap) ~ 100
      - A digital bench scope (either a used DSO from a main brand or a new Rigol or similar) ~ 300
      - Soldering station (Aoyue 968 or similar) ~ 170
      - Solder/Solder paste/Flux pen ~ 80-100

      This is all you need. You can power and assemble/rework nearly any board and look at DC signals and signals in time domain.

      If you can’t afford all of this, you can get a less expensive soldering iron only station for 50 dollars, if you are doing digital only you can hold off on the scope and one of the power supplies…

    • Blu-tack!!

      Surgical tape

      I tend to disagree about the tip controlled

      irons,–I find that a Weller WTCP series iron

      does most of my work,though you really need

      both!

      Apart from that,a masterly coverage!

      VK6ZGO

    • Hello!!

      good review as usual!!!

      I’m curious about your high voltage power supply can you write a review of it??

      I’m into tube amp diy and I’m searching for a 600V Max variable power supply for tube amplifier testing

    • Hi Dave,

      Remember how you said that the pocket meter is great to have, even though it doesn’t have an ammeter, simply because it’s small and always fits in a handy tool box?

      Well, I say that those soldering irons that plug straight into the wall without a stand are perfect for the backpack electronics repair type. I have a trusty 60 W Weller iron with a blade tip, and even though it has a preset temperature I can always make a perfect solder joint. Perhaps that’s party due to decades of experience pass down multiple generations, but I’m sure it’s also because Weller makes quality tools.

      I interviewed Weller about temperature control, thinking that I might upgrade. But the truth is that temperature controlled irons still vary in temperature. It all depends upon the wattage, the size of the part you’re working on, and the speed of repetition of your work. The Weller expert told me that most of their clients have workstations on an assembly line where the task is fairly repetitious and runs like clockwork. It’s only those situations where the iron can really maintain a steady temperature anyway. As soon as you get into an unpredictable situation like troubleshooting, the iron temperature is going to droop when you hit a large ground plane, and it’s going to overshoot when you pause to think about what to do next.

      Anyway, I’d like to recommend that a simple iron without a stand can be a great portable tool, provided that you go with a quality brand and a quality tip.

      • Of course, horses for courses, as always. If you need a portable kit then you’ll have different requirements to a lab setup.
        Yes, soldering irons have a thermal recovery aspect to them.

    • Someone mentioned the Saleae logic, an 8-channel logic analyzer with a 24 MHz maximum and trouble keeping the data rate flowing to the computer. It’s a beautiful thing at $150, but it has its limitations.

      Another option to consider for a Logic Analyzer is the Gadget Factory “Openbench Logic Sniffer,” a 32-channel LA with a 200 MHz and on-board storage. There are no problems with the data flow to the host because any USB slowdowns don’t result in lost data. The caveat is that you cannot grab more samples than will fit in the on-board SRAM. Thankfully, this baby is only $50, so it’s easy to have one in addition to any fancier LA you might have on the bench.

    • Dave,

      I’m curious about your sorting of resistors. Where do non-standard resistors get stored? Do you have 100 bins for all the possible precision resistances?

      My preference for sorting resistors is by the multiplier. I have bins for 10, 100, 1k, 10k, 100k, and 1M. I might also have a few stray 1 to 9 Ω or > 10M resistors.

      What I find handy with my sorting is that if I happen to be missing the exact resistance that I need, the bin that I pull already has values very close to what I need. As long as every resistor in the bin is within an order of magnitude of the others, I can usually get close enough without searching through multiple bins.

      I guess I don’t have as many through hole resistors as you, Dave, because mine all fit into 6 to 8 bins. I tend to buy the exact value that I need, regardless of whether it’s a common standard or something esoteric. Then, the leftovers get tossed into a bin with other resistors that are close in value.

      • At home I just have E12 and make up other values with series/parallel.
        SMD resistors have another big bin unsorted.
        But yes, in other work labs I have setup literally 96 bins for the E96 range, or E48, or E24.
        I have also sorted as you suggest, with a range, but I don’t find that as convenient.
        YMMV.

    • Urb Anwriter

      Darn! I was sure I had to get that Agilent U1251A, and the Instek 100 MHz DSO… boy am I a loser…

      A great video, hopefully one that (along with positive feedback from viewers) will encourage people to mess with electronics – the price is just not that high – and letting out the magic smoke is lots of fun.

      Now, back to welding the new lab-bench.

    • An alternative to a dremel tool is a micro air die grinder from a place like harbor freight.
      They do require air, but the big advantage is that they are more controllable because they are not overpowered like a Dremel.
      If a Dremel snags on something, it gets away from you and can wreak all sorts of havoc. The micro air grinder just slows down or stops.

      • @DB, I agree. Dremel might consider making a variable “constant power” version. You could make one with AC rated X2 caps in a box with a rotary switch or toggle switches, to add or subtract capacitors in series with incoming hot or neutral AC. (to newbee’s; capacitors in series limit the current)

        This will give the same auto-slow down during higher friction or snagging situations as the voltage across the cap(s) will raise until the tool is cleared of the excessive load.

        Same theory as a capacitive power supply.
        See AN954…
        ww1.microchip.com/downloads/en/AppNotes/00954A.pdf

    • After doing a few projects involving Zigbees, and some SPI/shift register devices (driving lots of LEDs remotely), I’d say that anyone doing a lot of microcontroller work these days absolutely needs both a Bus Pirate, and some kind of reasonable logic analyzer. I have the openbench logic sniffer and love it. The Saelae and other usb-dependent LAs are OK but you can run into trouble fast with timing glitches or issues due to usb traffic.

      To use one tool to go from a serial port sniffer, to SPI master testing a chain of shift registers, to reprograming some AVR micros in a single afternoon, it’s just magic. (the bus pirate)

    • Wow Dave, I’m impressed you fit this much information in 27 minutes. Great post!

    • joethestampede

      Thank you so much for this how to. I’m only just starting out and not able to afford this set up right now but I know what to work towards.

    • Along with the other types of tape, I’d say maybe check out kapton tape, it can get quite hot without melting.

    • Thanks for posting this, very informative for me, an amateur hobbyist.

    • Hi Dave,

      Thanks for the informative video. Good for those newer folks like me. I will have to assemble a lab like that after I graduate from my 2 year electronics program.

    • The Panavise is a good idea–get the ones with the wide rubber-covered jaws, not the card rails or the normal-looking vise.

      A pair of really nasty aircraft shears for cutting Cu-clad board.

      I disagree about perf board and white protoboards. Personally I’m about 5 times faster doing dead-bug. I only use perf board when I need to use IC sockets. When I have to use perf board, I use Vector 8007, which has a ground plane on one side and a pad per pin on the other. It’s a lot easier to wire the pads together (or just glob on a solder bridge) than to use that crappy stripboard stuff, and the ground plane makes everything a lot more stable and predictable. Not as good as dead bug, of course, but pretty good for perf board. And those white proto things are a disaster.

      A good dead-bug proto will work fine to above a gigahertz–I have a little dead-bug laser driver board that produces optical pulses with nice clean 190 ps edges.

      For small SMTs, the pad pattern converters like the Bellin ones help a lot. Schmartboards are good too, but a bit pricey.

      Some soldering tweezers are a big help.

      Good list generally, though.

      Cheers

      Phil Hobbs

      • > And those white proto things are a disaster.

        My entire prototype for my SPDIF general purpose filter using a CS8427 and a Freescale HC908QB8 on a Sparkfun IC board to give the QB8 0.1 inch feed through legs works on one of these prototype boards. They are not a disaster for me.

    • I would add, very important : two component epoxy glue.

      Essential for repairing (where two components does not hold in hot environments), and also for securing elkos.

    • I wouldn’t dismiss the pocket nanoScopes so quickly.

      Just like you suggest getting a few tiny wallet multimeters, I have a nanoScope that I can stick in my pocket (unlike my regular scope).

      Sure it is limited, but it doesn’t mean it’s rubbish.

      • It is rubbish compared to a proper scope, but I have always conceded they could be useful for niche applications were the portability is a main requirement.
        But I get FAR too many beginners asking me if the DSO nano is worthwhile to get over a proper bench scope or a 2nd hand analog scope, and the answer is almost certainly a big no, they are a toy and will likely be a waste of money.

    • Multitool and folding knife. Mine are very nice because I got them with not only electronics in mind but cheaper ones work fine. I have a leatherman charge, about 100 dollars (and a bunch of others) and a Spyderco Paramilitary, also about 100 dollars. My knife is one of the things I use the most in my electronics work, for cutting tape, stripping wire and fighting evil (just kidding)

    • If you’re going to do some repair I think an ESR meter is also quite worth having.

    • Bjorn from Sweden

      Hi Dave and all others. As my age tend to make things harder to see, specially if your trying to identify a component(IC, Transistor) that sitts on a cramped board or there is some othe situations where it can be a bit ‘Tricky’ to see all the components,
      even wors trying to make an possetive ID. Some are so dark on the surface ,it’s impossible to get any info from the component, som you try to angle to see better, but it only shows that there is some text.
      So i found a pretty handy tool on an Webshop.
      I’s persist of a Camera inside a casing with at one end the USB Cable sticks out, and the other end is equipt with a camera, and it has lightning at same end. The functions are moore like a MicroSkop, and you can zoom in and out wery simple(Just turn the ring at the front), the price was a bargin. Helps me see alot of things easier on a board then before. and you can take photos of the components you find and save them in an database.
      I shall make a stand for it so i wond have to hold the camera, make things more stable.
      if there is any interested? the Companys address is here:(http://www.conrad.se)
      Look for “DigitalMicroscopeCameras” they ewen have stands for them now…thats nice.
      Hope you find it interesting, and if this is an old-news story that some other wrote years ago, then just ignor it.

    • Great video Dave,

      My only comment is with the alligator clip sets. I have wasted hours banging my head against the wall from faulty / intermittent NEW alligator clips. They frequently have crap crimp connections that are unreliable. So when I buy a fresh bag the first thing I do is take them apart and SOLDER them!

    • There’s an excellent tool : a nail clipper ! I use the compound lever type.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compound_lever

      Perfect for cutting resistor tails, stripping wires, etc… and much much cheaper than a good pair of cutters of equivalent quality !…

      I recommend exploring the local supermarket’s sewing and parapharmacy departments (or the girlfriend’s makeup kit) for nice tools !

    • Great video! But there must be many who don’t have much physical space. My entire ‘lab’ has to fit on one standard sized ‘office desk’ with one cupboard the size of a single wardrobe to store literally everything (including reference books). The room is the size of a small single bedroom and has to function as an ‘office’ at the same time.

      So for those of us who can’t afford the room for lots of kit, here’s some of what I find really handy

      A glass top to fit the desk (for protection) with workmats on top

      A computer with a single, very large hi-res screen (I have 32 inch 2560×1600) – not cheap, but very handy
      Software & USB-integrated kit include
      * a good USB-attached oscilloscope (mine will reach 150 Mhz, dual trace with spectrum analyser, frequency counter, data logging and multimeter functions (with a USB interface – not one of those that just uses the sound card!) This takes up zero desktop footprint as the interface unit hangs on a hook behind the desk leaving just the probes on the desk.
      * a cheap USB-attached microscope with stand for reading tiny component labels and checking circuit boards. Can also be used as a magnifier when soldering, with a big window on the monitor to look at rather than squinting through a magnifying glass.
      * a cheap circuit design and spice modelling program (can’t model nearly as much as the expensive professional software, but even basic modelling can save a lot of time. The online schematic drawing and interactive display showing IC pin numbers and the like is really convenient while building prototypes
      * a directory full of downloaded PDF datasheets for everything along with a selection of downloaded reference ‘books’
      When working, I usually have windows for all the above open, in addition to references from the internet.

      The scope software includes a function generator, but the sound card output is unsatisfactory and a USB output interface is expensive. Instead I’m making a small unit (should fit into a small diecast box) using a monolithic function generator chip. Much smaller than the desktop equipment featured in the video. Until now, I’ve just thrown together a few components on a breadboard to make simple waveforms when I needed them.

      A decent sized tray with raised edges on which to keep the ‘work in progress’ – allowing it to be moved out of the way when the desk needs to be used for something else

      I work with micro-power stuff, and find a simple floating PSU with a 15 mA current limit indispensable. Mine is a cheap, small, sealed 12V lead-acid battery with a simple regulator using a ‘smart zener’ to get 10V regulated – and a quad opamp configured as voltage followers from a potential divider. This gives me +/- 2.5 and 5V supplies, very low noise, adequately regulated, very cheap and current limited by the output capability of the op-amps. Such a low current means that it’s almost impossible to ‘blow’ anything due to accidents on sometimes dense breadboards. And if on occasion I want some ‘real’ current – the battery provides more than I could ever want! I am putting together a mains PSU (dual, floating with linear regulators) but it won’t replace the battery one!

      I don’t have physical space for cabinets full of component drawers – instead, I use stackable plastic ‘trays’ with component ‘divisions’. These are cheap and flexible, and take up half the space of component ‘drawer cabinets’. Some of them slot into carrying containers that will stack on each other on the floor so that they don’t take up shelf space but are easily accessible. For CMOS logic of which I’ve got quite a bit, I have a box of tubes.

      A PCB UV box that folds into a small case when not in use, and a small plastic stackable container to take bottles of etchant and whatever while keeping any accidental spillages contained. Again – the emphasis is on small ‘footprint’ when not in use.

      Some ‘polymorph’ thermo-plastic. Not cheap, but you don’t need a lot. It’s amazingly useful for fabricating odds and ends when putting stuff together – or for making non-standard stuff that can’t easily be bought cheaply ‘off the shelf’. When hot, can be molded like plasticine – at room temperature, is a hard plastic that can be drilled and used like any other plastic. Just don’t use it where it will get hot!

      A cheap hairdryer – is great for heatshrink, and for heating polymorph before moulding it. Also good for checking temperature stability of things.

      Two bright halogen lamps for getting really good lighting on the workpiece. This is seriously indispensable for me.

      Serious mechanical construction (non-trivial drilling, filing etc.) happens elsewhere – even in the garden sometimes – I don’t attempt that in my tiny ‘workshop’.

      Just a few thoughts for those of us for which space is the most important consideration!

      • Just ran into this blog. Thanks Dave, very useful tips.
        One thing – how come you recommend el-cheapo calipers? They can be very frustrating as the cheap multimeters.

    • Hi Dave,

      What are the details for the blue workmat you use on your bench?

      Thanks,
      Brooke

    • @ Dave

      Did I see you using Mantis objectives as hand held magnifiers?

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