Tools Of The Trade: Dirt Cheap Or Too Dirty?

We’ve recently seen a couple reviews of a particularly cheap oscilloscope that, among other things, doesn’t meet its advertised specs. Actually, it’s not even close. It claims to be a 100 MHz scope, and it’s got around 30 MHz of bandwidth instead. If you bought it for higher frequency work, you’d have every right to be angry. But it’s also cheap enough that, if you were on a very tight budget, and you knew its limitations beforehand, you might be tempted to buy it anyway. Or so goes one rationale.

In principle, I’m of the “buy cheap, buy twice” mindset. Some tools, especially ones that you’re liable to use a lot, make it worth your while to save up for the good stuff. (And for myself, I would absolutely put an oscilloscope in that category.) The chances that you’ll outgrow or outlive the cheaper tool and end up buying the better one eventually makes the money spent on the cheaper tool simply wasted.

But that’s not always the case either, and that’s where you have to know yourself. If you’re only going to use it a couple times, and it’s not super critical, maybe it’s fine to get the cheap stuff. Or if you know you’re going to break it in the process of learning anyway, maybe it’s a shame to put the gold-plated version into your noob hands. Or maybe you simply don’t know if an oscilloscope is for you. It’s possible!

And you can mix and match. I just recently bought tools for changing our car’s tires. It included a dirt-cheap pneumatic jack and an expensive torque wrench. My logic? The jack is relatively easy to make functional, and the specs are so wildly in excess of what I need that even if it’s all lies, it’ll probably suffice. The torque wrench, on the other hand, is a bit of a precision instrument, and it’s pretty important that the bolts are socked up tight enough. I don’t want the wheels rolling off as I drive down the road.

Point is, I can see both sides of the argument. And in the specific case of the ’scope, the cheapo one can also be battery powered, which gives it a bit of a niche functionality when probing live-ground circuits. Still, if you’re marginally ’scope-curious, I’d say save up your pennies for something at least mid-market. (Rigol? Used Agilent or Tek?)

But isn’t it cool that we have so many choices? Where do you buy cheap? Where won’t you?

Ultra Cheap PCB Wrenches Make Perfect Kit Accessory

Let’s make one thing abundantly clear. We do not, under any circumstances, recommend you replace your existing collection of wrenches with ones made out of PCBs. However, as creator [Ben Nyx] explains, they do make for an extremely cheap and lightweight temporary tool that would be perfect for distributing with DIY kits.

This clever open hardware project was spawned by [Ben]’s desire to pack an M3 wrench in with the kits for an ESP32-based kiln controller he’s developing. He was able to find dirt cheap screwdrivers from the usual import sites, but nobody seemed to stock a similarly affordable wrench. He experimented with 3D printing them, but in the end, found the plastic just wasn’t up to the task. Then he wondered how well a tiny wrench cut from a PCB would fare.

The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is pretty well. We wouldn’t advise you try to crank your lug nuts down with one, but for snugging up a couple nuts that hold down a control board, they work a treat. [Ben] came up with a panelized design in KiCad that allows 18 of the little wrenches to get packed into a 100 x 100 mm PCB suitable for production from popular online board houses. Manufactured from standard 1.6 mm FR4, they come out to approximately 10 cents a pop.

Since [Ben] has been kind enough to release his design under the MIT license, you’re free to spin up some of these wrenches either for your own kits or just to toss in the tool bag for emergencies. We’d love to see somebody adapt the design for additional sizes of nuts, or maybe figure out some way to nest them to sneak out a couple extra wrenches per board.

We’ve seen plenty of folks make cheap tools for themselves in the past, but projects that can produce cheap tools in mass quantities is uniquely exciting for a community like ours.

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Print A Sacrificial Magnet Square

Here’s your quick and dirty hack for the day. Sometimes you just need something that will work for what you’re trying to do, and you don’t want to go through the motions of doing what’s prescribed. When this happens, it’s a cheap, disposable tool that fits the bill. No, we’re not talking about Harbor Freight—we mean those need-driven tools you make yourself that get the job done without fuss. If you’re really lucky, you can use them a couple of times before they break.

This is one of those tools. [Jake’s Workshop] wanted to be able to quickly tack a corner weld without getting out the clamps, so he thought, why not print some magnet squares? [Jake] hollowed out the triangle to save filament, but this also gives it a nice advantage over store-bought magnet squares: instead of grasping and pulling it off,  you can hook your finger through it and then hang it on the pegboard for next time.

[Jake] got lucky with the pocket sizes and was able to press fit the magnets in place, but it would be worth it to add a drop of CA glue to help with strain. He seems to have forgotten to upload the files for his various styles, but a hollow triangle with chamfers and magnet pockets should be easy enough to replicate in OpenSCAD or  SolidWorks, which he used in the video below.

There’s something special about a cheap tool you make yourself. Even though you know it won’t last forever, it’s just more meaningful than some cheap, rage-inducing tchotchke or assemblage from a place where the air is ~85% offgasses. We love necessity-driven self-built tools around here so much that we gave them their own Hacklet.

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