How Did I Live Without A Microscope?

Get yourself a decent stereo inspection microscope, preferably optical. Something that can magnify from maybe 4x to 40x is fine, anything outside this range is icing on the cake. Some people claim they’re fine with a minimum of 10x, but if you go there, you’re going to need a reducing lens eventually. Either way, get one, and you’ll thank me.

How do I know this? I finally caved in and bought one about two years ago now, and while it’s not something I use daily, it’s something that I use at least once a month and for which there is simply no substitute.

This is Hackaday, so a lot of you will be thinking “inspection scope = fine-pitch soldering” and you’re not wrong. With clearance of 10 cm or more, and a slab of sacrificial optical glass (“neutral density filter”) to protect the optics from tarry flux fumes, a stereo scope at 4x makes even the fiddliest solder joints possible. Good lighting, and sharp tweezers are also a must, of course. That’s what got me in the door.

But that’s the half of it, or less. When my scope was new to me — it hasn’t been “new” since the late 1980s — we spent a whole rainy Sunday afternoon microscoping whatever would fit under the lens. Grains of salt, blades of grass, all manner of bugs living and otherwise, shells, skin, textiles. Everything is cooler under the microscope.

The event that triggered this article wasn’t my son’s school project this week to photograph dandelion seeds. Nope, today my wife found a bug in the basement; to the microscope! And with a very quick and unfortunately very positive identification, we now know that we have to strain all of our flour for bread beetles and pitch whichever bags they came in with. Hooray!

The inspection scope was intended for the soldering bench, but has found general use as an irreplaceable household tool. While I admittedly also intended to use it to lure my son into science, the real fight over scope time has been with my wife. And that’s why you want an optical scope instead of one that’s tethered to a monitor — as a general-purpose tool, portability is paramount. No menu diving, no power source, and anyone can just grab it and go.

Convinced? Ready to pull out your wallet? Microscopes are like cars. You can spend as much as you’d like on one, the cheapest will cause you nothing but pain and suffering, and the difference between the mid-range and high-end is full of diminishing returns. Buying used, especially if you can kick the metaphorical tires, can be a great bargain, and a high-end used scope will hold its value a lot better than a new budget model. Just around $200 is a sweet spot new and $300-$400 will get you the top of the line from yesteryear if you shop around. That’s not cheap, but if you’re the microscope type, it’s easily worth it. Trust me.

48 thoughts on “How Did I Live Without A Microscope?

  1. I don’t really have much use for a microscope, personally. The only uses for one would be for inspecting solder-joints and electronics, but I am getting by quite well with my phone’s camera and an app that lets me zoom in and out. Granted, it’s not much of use when soldering, but I can at least inspect the outcome directly afterwards.

    1. once youve used a good microscope you wonder how you got by with out it.

      If you have access to surplus medical equipment – slit lamps have a reasonable stereo microscope that can be liberatred from the rest of the device and work quiet well. you just need to make a stand for it

  2. Why stereo? Depth perception. A video microscope or monocular optical scope has no depth perception. Totally different experience. With a video microscope when you move your head the image doesn’t move. I never quite get used to that. I prefer optical. Typical zoom microscopes have anywhere from 4:1 to 10:1 zoom depending on brand and model. Note that the working distance may be short on some models. Actual magnification depends on eyepieces and objective. The good ones allow a negative reduction lens which increases working distance. You can get close to a foot on some models. I have around 9 inches on most of mine. Easy to get hands and tweezers and soldering iron underneath. Bausch & Lomb (Leica) is the old standard. Nikon, Olympus, Wild, Zeiss. All excellent. You can get a lot of different bases and support arms. Yes, you can get some moderate cost used ones. A good new one with a base and light can get expensive. Can also find trinocular versions which allow eyepieces and a camera.

    With a cheap video microscope you usually have little working distance. If you can’t afford stereo make sure you get something with adequate working distance. Some can zoom without changing the focal distance. Some must be repositioned closer when you zoom in. And, you may need a monitor or a computer which I find inconvenient. An optical microscope is ready to use whenever you need it.

  3. You can get tiny microscopes on eBay for about $2, and I have several of these: one on my office desk in front of the computer (as I type this), one in the lab, one I take with me to the weekly hackerspace meetup, and one in the truck along with my sample kit. (Yes, a sample kit in the truck – you never know when you’ll come across something interesting.)

    While not a stereo inspection microscope, these have been invaluable over the course of several years. The ability to read a tiny chip on a circuit board, or inspect for cracks and fractures, closely inspect a trace – I use one of these about once a week.

    Search eBay for: Handheld Mini Pocket Microscope Loupe Loop Jeweler Magnifier

    You can get regular loupes on eBay, but these are generally junk – the sides are opaque, not letting in any light.

    My high-quality loupe (from a previous job) has transparent sides and a reticle with various rulers – with the reticle you can measure the size of things (such as widths of traces) to a couple of thou. For casual measurement, they’re pretty good. Search for “loupe reticle scale” on eBay.

    Here’s an example measurement of laser spot size:

  4. When you hit a certain age, reading glasses or bifocals become a fact of daily life, and a 4″ magnifying glass is always on my desk. Most recently, i got on sale some “watchmaker” magnifying glasses with lenses for from 10x to 25x which have proven useful. A stereo microscope would be awesome, but there are less expensive options as well.

    (I gave my childhood Tasco mono microscope to a neighbour’s kid. He’s grown up now… I wonder if I could ask for it back…)

    1. I had an old student stereo dissecting scope for ages but objects had to be fairly small to fit. Then Oroscopic’s binocular glasses like dentists use but I need new lenses as my eyes change. About 12 years ago I finally bought a nice big scope on an arm I saw on eBay and it has an LED illumination ring. I use it 5 or 10 times a day.

      The optics are not fantastic and the minimum magnification is too high, I have to refocus when the zoom is moved. And if I use the camera tube the left stereo lens is cut out by a mirror, which makes it impossible to be as precise when making video. But there is nothing like it for reading part numbers on chips or the like. And for fine soldering and inspection. Various adaptations to give my hands somewhere to rest while using tweezers makes me pretty good at 0604 and 0402 parts placement.

      This one.

      1. If you have to refocus when zooming, your oculars are set incorrectly. The manual describes an algorithm for setting this up. It goes something like „zoom all the way in, focus, adjust right eye, zoom all the way out, adjust left eye, rinse, repeat“. Can‘t remember the details.

    2. “Reading glasses” are totally underrated for soldering. Get some that are really way too strong (+4?) and they’re like a pair of magnifying lenses strapped to your eyes. The downside is that you have to get close to things to focus. But for $4 from the drugstore, you can afford to experiment around. I also have a pair of +2s that sees frequent use.

      I also have a pair of Chinese dentists glasses that I picked up for $30. They’re essentially two little 3.5x telescopes: they magnify at a very pleasant working distance. My complaint is that they have a _tiny_ field of view, which sucks when you have to move around. (Telescopes.) I imagine more expensive ones use more glass and have better FOV.

      I also have an old jeweler’s loupe that my grandfather gave me as a kid. Again, you have to get right up next to the object, but it also makes a great macro lens for a camera.

      None of these is an inspection microscope. And that’s kinda my point.

    1. I have found a stereo microscope to be extremely helpful for this exact purpose. A few years ago I accidentally installed a tiny (too small to see with naked eye, but enough to become really sore) metal sliver in my finger. It hurt all weekend, but when I went into work Monday morning I was able to address it in a matter of minutes holding my hand under the microscope in the electronics lab.

    2. Here’s a tip for those small stubborn splinters that the microscope & tools just can’t get: put a bit of peroxide on it as the gassing & liquid will sometimes be enough to dislodge & carry the splinter out. Verify via the microscope.

    3. @Corry, I can confirm this. I bought my stereo scope for electronics reasons, but half of its use over the last 10 years has been to aid in the removal of cactus needles.

      Get a stereo scope and you will wonder how you lived without it, especially if you are middle-aged.

  5. Every day I dont buy a stereo microscope, I feel incomplete. +1 for splinter removal. sometimes I find splinters I didnt know I had and I see a rusty little spit under my skin.
    For electronics its perfect. Im buying this weekend for sure. I dont wanna wait till monday at work

  6. Yeah, you definitely want stereo! That’s why we recently started a new project: Stereo Ninja! It’s a digital stereo microscope, and as it’s DIY, it does not need to be expensive. Especially if you already own a 3D capable monitor. It’s still work in progress, but it already looks very promising. Great stereoscopic view and a nice working distance. Check it out at

  7. I have a surgical microscope with a native magnification up to 60x and a removable reducing lens that decreases magnification to 20X maximum and extends working distance to 12″. The images it produces are razor sharp from edge to edge at any zoom setting. I got it without a stand so I put it on an old drill press stand which allows me to move the specimen table up and down to accommodate different sized objects. I designed and printed adapters to mount my cell phone and camera.

    It’s great for looking at small stuff, small details of large stuff, removing splinters, soldering surface mount parts, etc.

    Ikea NÄVLINGE spot lamps are great for use with stereo scopes, though the light is a little “warm”. Textural details that ring lights render invisible, can be enhanced by aiming a spot light at the object being viewed.

    1. I have a Zeiss OPMI1 and it is great. it has a final objective that is replacable for different working lengths, the one i have is 200mm which is darned near perfect for soldering stuff. This one I have came off an old LASIK machine.

      We have cheaper stereoscopes at work and they just are not nearly as nice to use. They actually kind of suck.

    1. I am the prototype guy for my company. I have been using that scope in (assuming you are using the 10x) for 5 years to build hundreds of boards with SOT323, 0603, and very fine pitch chips.

      With stereo and that much room to work I use the hot air pencil on leadless and bottom padded chips better that our SMT line. It also means I can find the small flaws in relatively large items. Even putting stranded wires into a board is much neater and reliable because you can see where the solder is wicking.

      Stereo means I could find several clear glass splinters in my hand that I couldn’t find any other way.

  8. you’ve almost sold me on the upgrade! but i’m still gonna get by with the $30 webcam-grade digital microscope that someone gave me for christmas a couple years ago. it really is quite amazing how useful a little bit of magnification can be, even in a device that you can’t really use in real time.

    1. I wonder how hard it would be to arrange two of those cheap digital scopes as a stereo pair with either LCD shutter glasses or a lenticular screen to display the 3D view. Hmmm. I feel another project coming on…

  9. Sometimes the curse of -6D myopia is a blessing. Without my glasses I’m a walking stereo microscope. With them, I’m a walking spectroscope (thanks to the dispersion in high index glass).

    A magnifier headband (with glasses) is useful to keep my nose out of the hot solder though.

    1. Me too. That’s funny about doing spectra of street lamps etc. by looking out the corner. The eyepiece lens from an old camcorder makes a good to great inspection lens.

  10. I use a real analog Zeis Stereo-Microscope 2x-8x, cheaply got from a garage sale, attached on a flexible Lamp-Mount for soldering, solder-inspection etc.

    I dont like USB-Cams, there´s alway a smooth delay and you need additional Computer Hardware and the optics are always mostly bad crap.

  11. Having experience with fine soldering I’d always swear by the digital, not optical, sort. Looking up and across at a big screen is much mroe pleasant than hunching up to an eye-piece. I’d also recommend one which just gives a plain HDMI or VGA output directly, not a USB one which requires a computer to interface between it and a screen, that way you can just connect it to a monitor and turn on without having to fiddle with software.

  12. Elliot, as the bread beetle invasion of summer 2005 taught us, don’t just assume the origin from the critter’s name. After clearing my apartment of anything edible (which for that particularly nasty critter included, but was not limited to: coffee filters, sealed pastry and meds. they seem to be able to chew through plastic packaging with ease.) only finally shutting the air vents in the bath rooms proved to be successful. either way, throw away anything that contains any amount of starch, or put it in a freezer for a prolonged period.

    1. Yup! That’s where we’re at. All the flour is now in glass or in the trash. Pasta has been in plastic storage containers, and seems OK.

      But point taken. They’ll probably eat whatever starch they can find when the good stuff is no longer available…

  13. I have three scopes. Zeiss OPMI 1, a Nikon Optiphot 66, and an old Hitachi S-450 SEM. The Zeiss is by far the most useful, followed by the Nikon. The Nikon has both episcopic and diascopic illumination with EPI DIC which is pretty neat.

  14. A caution re SHARED use of classical microscopes may be in order here. During my e-teaching career such Newtonian classics were extensively used for circuit inspection etc. In spite of alerts & wiping tissues etc bouts of painful infectious conjunctavitus regularly occurred. As video types arrived I bought a basic one for less demanding class work, & it additionally allowed group image sharing/saving as well as easing eye infections.

  15. I bought an entry level Amscope for about $100 off their website. It has 20x and 40x and doesn’t have much space under the scope to place an object before it hits the mount. I love it for micro soldering, so much that I don’t feel as comfortable soldering through hole components without such magnification. I use the 20x for soldering, and sometimes the 40x for splinters.

    Watching Louis Rossman on YouTube do board repair under the microscope made me take the leap and get one.

  16. I will share a discovery that came from my own use of a microscope to identify a mystery bug:

    Bugs are 10000% easier to identify when seen from the BACK, instead of the front. Every photo or other reference anything is a view from the back. So don’t abduct the bug by touching its back with some tape, all you’ll be able to inspect is its tummy and legs, but you (or any bug expert you consult) really wants to see the back.

    1. This guy was tangled up in some fuzz. The other advantage of stereo is that I could actually grab in there with tweezers and gently flip it over. Actually surprised myself that I could manipulate a tiny little (live, moving) bug so well.

      All that gentle treatment only to give it a burial at sea (ahem) shortly after.

  17. One thing that I find useful about a good stereo microscope is looking inside small openings, especially connectors. I don’t know of any other way to see a damaged or corroded pin deep in a slot or a pin sized opening. I have two microscopes and I recommend getting one with a variable zoom if you can afford it. Replace hot halogen or florescent lights with a bright LED ring light and if it focuses too close or too far away, adjust it with a cheap 2X or 0.5X adapter lens.

  18. I have a B & L stereo zoom 4 microscope – I have use it now for about 10/15 years on a watch lathe but it is used for a lot of other jobs as well. Removing splinters, inspecting cutters, sharpening small drills (sub 1mm) oh and turning and repivoting on the lathe!
    I paid £200 for mine but it was well worth the purchase, it was used most days but now only infrequently – 1/2 week, but well worth the bench space.
    Try to get one with a adjustable long arm stand and sort out some sort of led lighting for inspection use, a blue tinge does help with acuity.
    The only problem I have had with the B & L is setting it up to stay in focus across the full zoom range of 4 to 30 times magnification. It is still not perfect but you would have to be hyper critical to worry about it.
    Overall zoom range and focal distance can be changed by using various dioptre lenses. Magnification and zooming on this model is by prisms.
    For those in the uk Brunell Microscopes are worth talking to.


  19. I love my lenses that attach to my eyeglasses. 2 lenses and if you use them together you have to get really close to see and it makes stuff huge looking and easy to solder. Don’t recommend using both to solder or might burn your nose lol. Both for inspecting after soldering with one of the 2 others depending on how close pads are. Can just swing them out of was when not needed.

  20. Hacking a microscope could be interesting for Hackaday people?
    This site is in Italian language but picture are universal:
    The biggest one IMHO:
    Some stereo models (scroll the PDF):
    How to align an objective with a hammer (page 12):
    Technical culture:
    More thecnical articles:
    Something more than splinters:

  21. “How did I live without a “…
    cell phone
    microwave oven
    air conditioner
    driver’s license (and automobile)
    Internet connection
    soldering iron

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