What Does An Electronics Tinkerer’s Workbench Need?

Ever been in a situation where you’re not sure where to begin building your own electronics workbench or improve your existing one? [Jeff Glass] writes in with a blog post as detailed as it is beautifully long, chronicling each and every part of his own home lab in order to give us some ideas on how to get one started.

Despite [Jeff] using his own workbench tools accrued over 10 years of working in the field as prime example, his guide takes into account that you don’t need the latest and most expensive in order to get working. Affordable examples of the tools presented are suggested, along with plenty of links to follow and what to look for in each one of them. He even goes on and aside to note the lack of affordable versions of bench-top multimeters, seeing how the portable counterparts are so cheap and plentiful in contrast.

However, contrary to [Jeff]’s claims, we would argue that there are things you could do without, such as the oscilloscope. And you could use a regular soldering iron instead of a soldering station if you are in a pinch. It just depends on the type of work you’re looking to do, and simpler tools can work just fine, that’s what they’re there for after all. That’s not to say his advice is all bad though, just that every job has different requirements, and he notes just that in the final notes as something to keep in mind when building your own lab.

Lastly, we appreciate having a section dedicated to shop safety and the inclusion of soldering fume extractors in the recommendations. We’ve talked about the importance of fire safety when working with these tools at home before, and how soldering is not the only thing that can produce toxic fumes in your shop. With no shortage of great tips on how to build your own fume extractors, we hope everybody’s out there hacking safely.

40 thoughts on “What Does An Electronics Tinkerer’s Workbench Need?

        1. A <5 years old cellphone held up by something also works in a pinch. It's not fantastic but any port in a storm.

          It's surprising how much you can do with dollar store supplies in a pinch when you couldn't bring your tools. Could be worth an article just on that topic.

          Fun times.

    1. I’ve got a video microscope (a must have), a DVM, an oscilloscope, a function generator/counter, 300W power supply and a lot of small tools. I would love to have a spectrum analyzer, but too expensive. As old as it seems, my favorite spectrum analyzer is the old but venerable HP 8566B. I can play that like a piano and would give my eye-teeth to have one!

  1. I would argue that a soldering station and a basic oscilloscope ARE a must. So his advice is spot-on. Otherwise it’s just a workbench, not an electronics workbench. These items can be had at minimal cost from Ebay, Craigslist, and many other sources.

    1. I agree. A good soldering station is a *lot* more pleasant to use than a cheap non-temp-controlled iron, it removes a lot of frustration. When I’m working and don’t have an oscilloscope, I feel like I’m working blind. You can do a lot with a DVM, but it’s too limited n some situations. Neither of these have to be very expensive these days.

      1. Back when oscilloscopes were out of the price range of a lot of field technicians, experimenters, etc. we used logic probes. They’re a great middle ground between a DVM and a scope and they cost less than a DVM. The key thing is they can tell you if a line is toggling or steady.

    2. I strongly agree that an oscilloscope is a must have. There are so many times where trying to use a multimeter to debug a problem will leave you scratching your head for hours if not indefinitely while a scope will help solve the problem in minutes.

      1. And yet there are a couple of comments below that claim otherwise. People who ARE doing just fine without one, or have been for years. A scope is NOT a must have for EVERY electronics tinkerer. I believe you when you say that YOU need it for the kind of tinkering YOU do, but there’s a lot of diversity in electronics and its needs.

    3. I like having an oscilloscope. I really enjoy when it comes together and I actually get a useful waveform on the screen. I’m still pretty novice about all these things so being able to see how (i.e.) an oscillator changes is really informative for me. But I am actually pretty disappointed in the oscilloscope as a tool. It’s less than 1MOhm so if you’re doing anything at all delicate then it changes your circuit too much to be usable. It also objects if I hook the two channels’ ground up to different reference points (???). Triggering is always a dance, though there does always seem to be a way to get what I want if I keep at it. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where it is useful, but then you wind up trying it and it isn’t actually that great an experience. You fight the tool as much as your own circuit.

      An oscilloscope is no substitute for creativity and perseverance, but creativity and perseverance *can* substitute for the oscilloscope. So I can understand why some people wouldn’t bother at all, depending on what they’re working on and how experienced they are.

      1. This is an articulate description of my feelings. Am I glad I have an oscilloscope? Certainly. But NOT having one didn’t stop me for years, and it remains a bit of a niche tool for what I do. I DO wish I had bought a decent solder station a lot sooner though. It’s SO much nicer than dealing with the alternatives.

  2. I have a Hakko 926 that I bought heavily used on eBay, a USB iron from some CN/HK seller on the same site (it’s surprisingly good*), as quartet of digital multimeters, a cheap (and since discontinued, at least at my local store) Walmart continuity tester, and — nominally — a Tektronix 422 o-scope that was a gift from a friend that I’ve since lost touch with (Ray, if you’re still out there and you see this — drop me a line, will you? I’d love to hear from you again! You know who you are… ;) ). The o-scope I’ve essentially never used, because although I have the original manual, I don’t have a lot of the other equipment that the manual assumes anyone serious about electronics *would* have… which, I assume, was a lot easier to get ahold of in its time, than it is now. (The 422 came out in 1966… there’s not a single IC in it, because it’s a child of that short-ish awkward era when everything was discrete semiconductors because tubes were starting to be a bit old hat but WTF’s an integrated circuit?)

    My multimeter “collection” — a Radio Shack autoranging job, gift from a dude on a computer enthusiast forum I’m no longer a part of because most of the place became a pile of jerks trying to out-jerk each other; a yellow Sparkfun job from shortly before the stupid lawsuit from Fluke that shouldn’t have happened because Fluke was stupidly greedy; a no-name $10 yellow box of shame that I got from an Ace Hardware near my dad’s place simply because I wanted to see how awful it was inside (incredibly so — it claims that it’s fused, when it’s not, and it doesn’t even have a piezo, which is seriously “you dirty rat” levels of irredeemably cheap); and, a Fluke 8000A that I got mostly on a lark, used from eBay (of course) basically just to have.

    I also have a Radio Shack analog job with (I think) bad probe wires, but that’s going to a pal of mine for Christmas. Also, the Sparkfun job has a weird flaw that I’m not sure how to explain (and neither were they, when I contacted them) — the innards appear completely fine, but the tone out of the piezo has spontaneously lowered its frequency for no apparent reason. It sounds like a bored sheep instead of a sharp beep! (Well, OK, a bored *electronic* sheep… hey, wait… paging Phillip K Dick…)


    * Whatever you do with these, NEVER EVER EVER use them with anything other than a battery-derived power source. A 6v lantern battery and alligator clips will work (no really I’ve done it — even the awful awful “Heavy Duty” lantern batts will drive it) if you can’t get a proper power bank. If you DO use a power bank, make sure it’s one rated for a 2-amp output on a single connector (there are ones that are “2a power banks” with a pair of 1a ports — ugh, no please! — and others that have a 1a port *and* a 2a port — on those, always use the 2a port) because these pull about an amp and a half. (1.6a to be precise.) The reason for all this, is that these irons are not isolated — if you drive them with a mains-powered charger, because of how those fundamentally function, you will get an AC signal at mains frequency and about half mains potential at the tip of your iron, with sufficient current capability to light a friggin LED (one of the YT videos about those things demonstrates this!) — which means that dang near any semiconductor anything that you touch with one of these, dies painfully and quickly… unless, again, power bank or battery.

    1. Agreed! Before the last time I moved, I had ww/cw LED tape in aluminum channels underneath the front lip of all my shelves, on dimmers by color. Really helped with seeing what bins and parts were there. I sadly haven’t gotten around to re-installing them in the new shop yet.

    1. This is indeed very true.
      The tools one needs is practically only dependent on what one will work with.

      Now if one desires to have an electronics workshop where one can work on a slew of different things and don’t know what things, and not need to wait around for a tool to arrive, then one can start talking about a basic set of tools.

      Like if one runs an electronics repair shop.

      But here I would honestly say that a large assortment of screw driver bits is more important then even a multimeter. Since it is hard to fix and work on stuff if one can’t first take it apart, and some devices use frankly arcane screws at times…

      Having a basic multimeter (can be a hand held one, works fine too) is a nice thing to have, since they are usually very versatile.

      A cheap component tester, LCR meter, transistor tester, etc, is a useful tool for quickly identifying if a component “works” and what it is. (One of those cheap all in one LCR and transistor testers on Ebay/Amazon/alibaba etc, works just fine. They aren’t accurate though, but ball park figures is good enough the majority of the time.)

      A soldering iron of any kind is nice to have, but I much more prefer a soldering station. (I am using some hacked together one that uses T12 tips from Hakko, works wonderfully and is fairly cheap.)

      Things like logic analyzers, oscilloscopes, RF spectrum analyzers, signal generators, microscopes, etc, etc is though more dependent on what one will work with.

      Even a fume extractor can just be a 120mm fan from your local PC, for smaller jobs if you are in a room with at least some ventilation. It all depends on how often one solders. I myself don’t bother with fume extractors if I am fixing up a joint or two. Simply taking note to not breathe during the soldering, and also blowing the fumes away is sufficient. Now, if one solders for a larger amount of time, this isn’t a practical way to go at things. Not to mention that some types of soldering flux is less healthy then others. (Not that any flux fumes are “healthy”.)

  3. Ok, after doing this for a whole lotta years, I’ll state that the soldering station is really a ‘need to have’, not a ‘nice to have’. It doesn’t need to be your first purchase, nor even in the first few, but its up there, if only from a safety perspective. A soldering station needn’t be much more than a soldering iron with a built in stand, but the stand is pretty key. It was probably a couple of years before I bought my Weller WTCPN, but I’ll add that it is still going strong, 40 years later. No dial temperature control or readout or whatever, just an isolated soldering iron with the transformer in the base and a place for the sponge. It’s only in the last three years that I finally relented and upgraded to a Metcal, which is omg, one of the best expendetures on my workbench in years.

    Ironically, I used a scope for a long time on the bench when doing computer repair, but once I moved into RF, I hardly ever power it up. But it made a good substitute for a voltmeter for a while when my first DVM (Sinclair) went back for repair & calibration. At this point, if you are willing to look at used, a decent 2 or 4 channel scope will cost less than a new Fluke handheld DVM. Typical prices I’ve seen are in the sub $40 range.

    But the question of the benchtop DVM in the article is interesting. Again, if you are willing to go used, there are some fantastic old ones on the market that will last the rest of your natural lifetime. An HP 3456 6.5 digit DVM will set you back less than $100 with shipping if you wait for the right deal, add another $50-100 for the 7th digit and another $3k4 for the 8th found in the 3458A, still in production. Sure, there are lots of other choices in a benchtop for well under $100.

    One thing that often gets overlooked is the handtools. the simple, easy to find some quality stuff like xcelite screwdrivers, side cutters, and pliers. I got a really nice kit when I started as a Field Engineer in 1982 that I still use almost every day and have duplicated several times for several locations.

    Kudos to Jeff for recognizing de-soldering braid and the solder sucker too!

    Organization is really key as Jeff mentions. You can buy the organizers that Harbor Freight sells in bulk (2 dozen per box iirc) in a couple of places. When buying organizers, either buy something you know will not change size/shape, or buy _lots_ more than you need to have them all fit on the shelves the same way. Or build shelving units to fit.

    As @robert_Spanjhaard said, everyone needs a slightly different set of tools, but the baseline of soldering station, multimeter, scope, and basic set of hand tools will take you a very very long way.

    1. I, too, have owned my Weller WTCPN for 40 years now and it will easily go another 40 years with simple care, one of the best electronics repair tools I have ever owned !! I just purchased another used one from a guy on Ebay for $35.00, like brand new, what a bargain !! My TC-201 pencil bought the farm, hence, the reason for the purchase, it owed me not a dime ! Mark, Amateur Radio Station WN3SIX

      1. problem with modern wellers is that they enjoy the smell of their own farts, so they have become prohibitively expensive.

        Their base offering is a firestarter wired to a lamp dimmer and its 60 bucks, meanwhile you can get a very good hakko china clone that is actually temperature controlled for 30, been using one of those for 20 years and still going strong.

    1. Almost the same age and even got a degree in Electronics but put my tinkering stuff away for the IT world a while back and recently found out there had been a leak in the basement that turned all my equipment into soup .R.I.P Tektronics scope vintage 1983 and my Simpson 260 analog meter (and my Commodore 64 for the heck of it) . I am heading to the MIT flea market in Cambridge, Ma when it opens from April-October and grab some test equipment and whatever nick nacks I can find.

  4. oh dear ,oh dear, not a mention of an AVO meter in any of those workshops, been in electronic servicing for 60 odd years
    and yes have DVM’s a plenty, but do without my sturdy AVO’S , no chance, Also same goes for my scopes , utterly blind without them, oh dear oh dear.

  5. Nice write-up. One thing. Eutectic solder – 63/37 means never a cold joint. The best. Kester #2331-ZX flux pen is water soluble pH neutral organic acid that does not affect PCBs.

  6. Hot air reflow station has been my latest purchase. I got a cheap combo unit off amazon. I should of purchased one a decade ago. It’s so much better for desolding. It makes installing surface mount components so much easier. I’ve built a few radio kits with lots of SMD using an iron and actually preferred it to doing through hole. But the hot air reflow makes it even easier. The small resistors and capacitors pop right into place when you melt the solder paste.

    For some stuff the scope is a must. But I haven’t used either of my scopes in years. A multi-meter is all I need for most quick diagnostics.

    Ham fest are great places to find deals on test equipment.

  7. It is very dependant on what you do, my top three would be –
    1) magnifying class/microscope and decent light.
    2) decent soldering iron
    3) logic analyser
    4) multi meter

    everything else would be a long way down. I haven’t turned on my oscilloscope in years..

    1. Author here – thanks! I definitely missed magnification in the write-up, a couple folks have caught that. Do you have a go-to logic analyser that you’d recommend for someone who doens’t have a specific scope, but is doing enough digital work that they think they’d need a logic analyzer?

    2. I was going to add – a cheapo logic analyzer is a must have on most e-benches. If you have an O-scope that does decoding, OK fine by that too. I might not use my O-scope 90% of the time but when I need it, I NEED IT. Same goes for even a cheap LA. Having said that I would not recommend a leftover analog scope. While BW is king, most of the time a 25 MHz BW will suffice IF the scope has memory (aka a DSO).

      I would add that an ESD mat, properly grounded, is also a must have. Sure you will likely get along for some time without proper ESD protection and then …

      For those times when you’re debugging an odd problem, I would offer up a true isolated power supply goes a ways to eliminate the common suspects. To that end I have one of those ubiquitous switchers that I run off a battery from my power tools.

      Lastly I would add one of those cheap Chinese LCR almost-anything “meters”. The ability to see if a cap is bad, or just ID a component is worth the $10.

    1. Yepp, I bought one a few months ago to debug a CANOpen motor controller connection, very useful and cheaper than the saleae ones. Except for I2C/SPI/UART, the protocol decoders are quite slow though (coded in python from sigrok I think).

  8. I don’t think there is a way to build a workbench that you will need in a few years. Electronix tinkering is some sort of creative hobby. Mine looks like a mess, but all I have there is a scope, soldering iron, heat gun, laptop (need to order components, craft PCBs and order their manufacture) and … well … mess of wires and components … :) 2 main tools: facedancer21 and goodFET. Does anyone have same setup? I doubt. :)

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