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 Elliott Sound Products Beginners' Guide to Electronics - Tools 

Beginners' Guide to Electronics - Tools
(An Amateur's Guide to Making It Work)

© 2001 - Andrew Walmsley
(Edited by Rod Elliott - ESP)
Page Updated 21 Mar 2001

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Contents - Part 1

From the editor (Rod E) - I have inserted some of my own comments, which are identified by tacked onto the end.  Otherwise the article is almost untouched.  Many thanks Andy - A fine piece of work.

A Pursuit Indeed ...

Praise be to electronics.  There can be no finer and more honourable pursuit for the man with time on his hands and at least some money to burn.

In theory it is an inexpensive, safe and absorbing hobby with at least the potential for learning what all the pretty little coloured tubes and cans of various shapes and sizes in the back of the television are.  Beyond this, you can wow the men and woo the women with your worldly wise talk of linear power supplies, voltage and current amplifiers, pi filters, power transistors and heat sink efficiency.  Such talk will eventually guarantee at least one, and possibly more, of the following –

The gathering of broken electrical gear is a particular one to watch out for.  It has been suggested that the recent unexplained disappearance of a number of electronics enthusiasts may have been caused by dimensional instability in their workshops.  The theory is that the accumulation of such vast amounts of semi-deceased gear can force into existence a temporal doorway into a world with lead fumes for an atmosphere.  This theory has yet to be proved and may be a load of old cobblers.  However, it always pays to be wary.

1. It Helps to Have a Purpose

Adopting a (slightly) more serious note, the remainder of this article will address some of the issues that you will need to be aware of if you are coming into the field of electronics as an absolute beginner.  As with any activity there are some dangers, but the risk of suffering any form of harm can be reduced to practically zero by adopting a few simple working practices and taking a careful and methodical approach to the work in hand.

On the upside, the rewards to be had when you have learned enough to consider yourself a competent amateur are many and varied.  It's impossible to make an exhaustive list as everyone gets something different out of their hobby.  However, there are some general benefits and these include ...

In the next section, we abandon our traditionally light-hearted approach and discuss the very serious issue of electrical safety.  If you read nothing else at all in your life then this read this.

2.   Avoiding Evaporation Trauma

In the last section, I aimed to convince you of the fun that you can have being an amateur sparky.  If you find that you don't fancy it at all then I suggest that you quit now before you start buying loads of relatively expensive gear which will be of no use whatsoever to you.

Electronics is usually a lot of fun, and I try to reflect this in the light-hearted nature of these articles.  However, for this part of the series I'm afraid that I have to get very, very, very serious about something.

Yep, you've guessed it - electricity.

In very basic terms, electricity is the flow of electrons along a conductive material such as copper.  In order to use electricity in anger, this flow of electrons must be impeded by some sort of resistive or capacitive load.  This can be an electrical circuit of varying complexity, a coil such as found in an electric motor, or a filament such as found in a normal incandescent lightbulb.  I accept that this is verging on a gross over-simplification of the truth, but it will more than adequately serve our purpose at present.

One of the characteristics of this flow of electrons is that it will always follow the path of least resistance to the point of lowest potential.  Since the human body is around 98% water, and given that water suitable saturated with mineral salts (that's us!) is an excellent conductor of electricity, the potential for you to involuntarily and unexpectedly become the conductor of a great deal of electricity is considerable.  For the amateur electronics enthusiast, this risk is increased a hundredfold since your chosen hobby will inevitably bring you into potentially intimate contact with electricity on a regular basis.

It seems to be an article of faith amongst many that the lower the electrical voltage, the less potential danger exists when working close to it.  This is complete nonsense when you consider that the static electricity shock that you can get by touching the body of a car on a hot, dry day can be in the order of 30 - 50,000 volts.  Whilst such shocks can be irritating, it is extremely unlikely that you will be inconvenienced beyond this due to the very, very low electrical currents involved, and the instantaneous nature of the discharge from the car body to your own.  However, when working with direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC) sources at much lower voltages, the result of physical contact with a live wire can be almost instantaneous death.

Indeed, a current of 50mA (barely enough to make a low wattage lamp even glow) is sufficient to send your heart into a state called "ventricular fibrillation", where the heart muscles are all working out of synchronisation with each other.  Little or no blood is pumped, and you will die within about 3 minutes unless help is immediately at hand.

Sometimes (but less often), your heart will simply stop.  If this happens, it is possible that with external heart massage that it might re-start, and occasionally it might even re-start by itself - rare, but it can happen.

However, worry not.  As I have said, this risk can be reduced considerably with the application of a few simple working practices, a careful and methodical approach to the job, and a large helping of simple common sense.  The list below is intended to give some pointers to what the correct working standards should be.  What it is not is the de facto standard for electrical safety.  It is expected that you will use the recommendations below in conjunction with the absolutely basic principles such as not overloading plug points, not mixing electricity with water, and not leaving live bare wires dangling within reach of anybody.

If you are still in the dark after reading the list then I strongly suggest that you do not even consider proceeding with electronics as a hobby until you have located and attended an approved course on all aspects of electrical safety, and you are more than satisfied that your understanding of the subject is correct and thorough.  Many educational institutions such as colleges and universities run such courses during the evening.  They are generally quite cheap to enrol on, and usually run for one or two evenings a week for a period of five to six weeks.

* RCDs are also known as ELCBs (earth (ground) leakage circuit breakers) or GFIs (ground fault interrupters - US terminology)

This may seem to be an extensive list, but I am loathe to make an apology even if you feel that I may have overstressed the point.  Whilst I do find that the majority of people behave sensibly and apply common sense when working with electricity, I have seen some inexcusable examples of sheer stupidity in my time, and these have generally been as a result of people not thinking about what they are doing.  Mistakes with electricity are at the best costly, and at the worst fatal.

In the next section, we make a thankful return to slightly more light-hearted matters and discuss how to assemble a decent toolkit without having to remortgage the kids.

3.   Tools, and Their Place in the World

It's always said that a bad workman always blames his tools.  A corollary of this is a good workman can only be as good as the tools he is using.  In this section, we'll look at the toolkit you will need to assemble in order to get started as an electronics hobbyist.

Firstly, a word on the buying of tools in general.

I'm sure everyone who is reading this has strolled around the odd Sunday market in the course of their lives and encountered the mythical 50,000-piece toolkit of dubious geographical origin that cost little more than a decent set of screwdrivers, and which seems to meet all your needs in one fell swoop without breaking the bank.  Whilst these kits may seem to be excellent value on the face of it, and the tools that they contain may look to be little different to their far more expensive counterparts stocked by well-established retailers, they are generally not up to the reasonably hard daily use to which you will put them in the pursuit of your hobby.

In the case of tools such as hammers, spanners, screwdrivers and drill bits, the very cheap ones are not only a waste of money as they won't last two minutes, they are downright dangerous.  Even when undertaking very light duties in the workshop, you'd be surprised at the stresses and strains on a tool as simple as the humble spanner or screwdriver.  In order to perform correctly under these conditions, good quality tools are well designed for the job in hand, and the metal from which they are made is correctly tempered and heat treated so that the tool will give many years of trouble free service before a replacement is required.  Cheaper tools are generally poorer quality copies of the better designs, and there is no guarantee that the metal has been correctly treated at all.  At the very least, such a tool may slip whilst in use and damage the workpiece.  At the worst the tool may bend, snap or even shatter whilst in use, causing personal injury.

As a general rule of thumb, when buying tools you should go to a well established retailer and only buy tools made by reputable manufacturers.  It is far better to spend some time saving up to buy the best tools you can afford, rather than to compromise on cheaper ones which will not last as long, and which may not be as satisfying to use.  This is particularly the case with tools that will be put to heavy use such as hammers, spanners, pliers, screwdrivers, cutters and strippers.

When it comes to power tools, what I have said about buying quality items is especially pertinent.  It is important that tools such as power drills, jigsaws, circular saws, routers and planers are of good quality, and this extends not only to the tool itself, but to any accessories or blades which are fitted to it.  Be especially wary of ultra-cheap power tools that seem to offer the world for little money.  They will not last long, they most certainly won't be up to the job in hand, and you may end up completely spoiling what you are working on for the want of something decent.

Before we start with our wish list, it's worthwhile mentioning that there are very, very few injuries suffered when a well designed tool of good quality is used correctly for its intended purpose.  The well known banged heads, scuffed elbows, skinned knuckles and puncture wounds that give us the walking wounded of the DIY wars are only caused when the right tool is used for the wrong job or a tool is forced beyond its designed limits.  Using the correct tool generally means that you'll get the job finished quicker, you won't injure yourself, and you won't break or spoil anything else whilst working.

4. 'Big' Tools - Nice to Have Vs. Have to Have

We've now exhausted the list of smaller tools that you'll need to make a start in electronics.  As you progress, you'll undoubtedly gather unto yourself a wide and varied selection of useful tools above and beyond what I've mentioned in this section, and you'll be amazed at just what you can buy.  For example, I recently saw a tool that you can fit to the end of your power drill that will make a four inch deep perfectly square cutout of any size in any material short of solid steel ! No more belting the hell out of a cold chisel just to fit a socket in the wall I fancy !

Before we move onto setting up a workshop, it's worthwhile briefly mentioning a number of tools which may not have an immediate application to electronics, but which are often worth their weight in gold when carrying out related work.  Please remember to always wear the correct protective equipment when using power tools.  At the very least, always have a pair of safety specs handy as a matter of course.

4. The Workshop

Okay, you're skint as a flint (i.e. completely broke!) but replete with tools, and you're itching to get going.  All that you need now is the workshop.

In this section, I'll provide some guidelines on how to establish a workshop, how to build a workbench, and how to store components and tools so that what you need is always to hand without too much searching and turning over of rocks.  I'll also make a brief mention of how to maintain your tools once they are installed and racked up in the workshop, and how to approach your work correctly once the workshop is in place and being used for its intended purpose.

The first challenge is to select the place in your house, garage, outbuilding, shed, shack or cave that will become your workshop.  I know that your choice will be limited by available buildings, space not dedicated to other uses, and the overall size of your house and outbuildings, so consider the following solely as guidelines.

And finally, go back and re-read section 2 on electrical safety.

You'll also find any number of useful test equipment projects on the ESP website, and it depends on just what you need to do as to whether you need some (or all) of them, or not.  Without test gear you can't really achieve very much, but what you need depends entirely on the kind of work you normally do.  .


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Copyright Notice. This article, including but not limited to all text and diagrams, is the intellectual property of Andrew Walmsley and Rod Elliott, and is Copyright © 2001.  Reproduction or re-publication by any means whatsoever, whether electronic, mechanical or electro-mechanical, is strictly prohibited under International Copyright laws.  The author (Andrew Walmsley) and editor (Rod Elliott) grant the reader the right to use this information for personal use only, and further allows that one (1) copy may be made for reference.  Commercial use is prohibited without express written authorisation from Andrew Walmsley and Rod Elliott.
Page created and copyright © 18 Mar 2001