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Electronic circuit and design tools, and test equipment

Electronics does not have to be an expensive hobby depending upon how complex circuits are created and how "professional" the circuit is to be created. At the cheap end it could be a basic electronic circuit created using wirewrap, at the other extreme an individual printed circuit board could be created using photo-developing and etching, testing using a dedicated oscilloscope.

Circuit build tools

Breadboard

Breadboard for prototyping electronic circuits Solderless breadboards provide a way of creating a circuit without having to use solder or damage the components. They are particularly useful for trying out a part of a circuit before committing to solder or specialist PCB manufacture. They are rarely used for a final design due to their size and lack of permenant fixing for the components. They can cost between about £2 and £12, but multiple boards can be connected together for more complicated circuits.

Soldering iron

A soldering iron is used to make a permanent electrical connection between components and leads / wires. They are available as a basic fixed temperature soldering iron costing only a few pounds, to temperature controlled soldering stations costing £70 or more.

Soldering irons are avaialable at different power ratings. The higher the power rating the better the soldering iron is at maintaining the correct temperature and how quickly it heats up. It does not neccessarily mean that it will have a different operating temperature which is normally around 400°C (this temperature is required for lead-free solder which has a much higher melting temperature than older lead based solder). Temperature controlled soldering irons are available and can be useful for soldering delicate components, but they are expensive and are not neccessary for most users. Whatever temperature is used care should be taken to reduce the amount of time that the iron is in contact with sensitive components or a shunt be used to dissipate the heat.

It can also be useful to choose a soldering iron with interchangable tips.

A soldering iron stand and sponge is also very useful to avoid burning your work surface. These are often included with the soldering iron, or are available for only a few pounds.

Helping hands

It can be very difficult to hold a component in place and solder it at the same time. A helping hands tool can be a great help in holding the board and/or component in place when soldering.
Helping hands used when soldering electronic circuits

Desoldering tool / solder sucker

When soldering circuits at some point you are going to need to remove a component. This may be due to inserting a circuit in the wrong place / wrong way around, it could be due to a failed component or it may be that you change the design. If you are unluckly you may even do all three on the same project!

A desoldering tool provides an instantaneous suction which will remove molten solder from the circuit board and component lead. These are available as a mechanical only device or with a built in heating element to melt the solder and suck the solder up in one tool.

Heat shunt

Whilst soldering sensitive components it is possible to overheat and damage active components such as transistors. To avoid this soldering of active components is best left until after non-active components is complete and to keep the soldering time down as short as possible. A heat shunt can be used to further protect the component. It is placed on the lead between the component and the soldering point and will absorb some of the heat preventing it damaging the component.

Heat shunts are normally used for devices with long leads only. An alternative technique for integrated circuits (ICs) is to use an IC mounting socket instead of soldering direct to the IC.

Printed circuit board etching equipment

Printed circuit board etching can be useful for creating more complex and more professional looking circuits. This does however involve a significant investment to purchase all the equipment. The basic entry level is about £150 for a UV exposure unit and a few pounds for a plastic developing and etching tray, but more professsional UV exposure units and temperature controlled etching equipment can cost hundreds of pounds. A modern alternative to UV exposure is Press-n-Peel film, but I have not used that myself so I don't know how well it works.

Another alternative is to send your design off to be created into a board proffessionally. This can be very expensive compared to the cost of buying the raw boards, but the saving in the one-time costs can make this worthwhile, especially when you consider the hassle involved in creating your own printed circuit board.

Test tools

Multimeter

A multimeter is very useful for measuring voltages and resistance within a circuit.
Multimeter electrical / electronic measurement tool

Oscilloscope / logic analyser

Oscilloscopes and logic analysers are useful for visualising voltage changes within a circuit to see if a circuit is behaving correctly. Unfortunately these are very expensive and are normally too expensive for most hobby electronic enthusiasts. There is an alternative which is to use the Arduino, your PC and a little bit of circuitry to provide a basic working oscilloscope / logic analyser. This is something I will be looking into soon to add to my own electronic test tools.

Tools for mounting within cases

Standard metal working tools can be used for most metal or plastic cases. There are some specialist tools that can useful in certain instances.

Rotary Tool

A rotary tool can be particularly useful for work on PCBs and stripboard. These are available in a kit with a number of different cutting / filing bits.

Nibbler

When using a metal case where possible it is usually easier to mount circular components to the case as these can easily be drilled or cut using a drill saw. Sometimes it is neccessary to square or rectangular components which is where the nibbler comes in by nibbling away at the metal. It will normally be neccessary to do quite a bit of filing after cutting the case, but this is often easier than drilling or trying to use a hacksaw blade.

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