The Shoestring Workshop

Jim William's Workbench
Jim Williams Workbench, courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

There has never been a better time to get into hobby electronics. Unfortunately, the tools required can be daunting for a newbie, and can quickly make the hobby look expensive and unappealing. I’m getting ready to move into a house where I’ll have my own electronics workbench, so I’ve been devoting a lot of attention to budget tools. I’ve got the basics, but since I joined the LVL1 Hackerspace, I’ve really let my tool collection atrophy. In the spirit of sharing, here’s a list of tools needed to get into electronics hobby. These tools are roughly listed in the order of priority, and all of them are list at new prices. You’ll definitely be able to get away with cheaper tools if you’re willing to do a little digging.

A disclaimer: You might not need all of these tools, and this list is not comprehensive! These tools are highly useful for analog and digital circuit design and construction, but if you’re into different areas of the hobby, you’ll need different tools. For example, radio geeks will find antenna analyzers and SWR meters extremely useful! For more inspiration, browse the Electronics Workbench Flickr Group:

If you know of a better/cheaper source for any of these tools, or you’d like to suggest an addition to the list, please leave a comment! This is as much a learning experience for me as anyone, and we all love learning about new sources for these toys.

Unless mentioned otherwise, I have experience with all the hardware mentioned below (although not necessarily with the suppliers). Super Budget items are things that I would tolerate using if I didn’t have a better alternative, Medium Budget items are probably items that I have bought or would buy, and Standard budget items are tools that I would prefer to use. You can definitely spend more than the standard budget on every item in this list, but this is supposed to be a post about the shoestring workshop, and if you’re spending more than the “Standard” budget, you’re no longer in shoestring territory!

A Hackerspace

$Varies (Free to $100/mo)
A hackerspace is one of the best tools an aspiring electronics experimenter can have. A hackerspace will often have all the tools you need to affect some truly great prototyping, along with people to teach you how to use it!

A Soldering Iron

Super Budget – $15
This iron doesn’t suck too bad, but it won’t be great for surface-mount work.

Medium Budget – $20
This iron is actually pretty good. Fine for most surface-mount work.

Standard Budget – $55
Digital Control makes this iron a lot easier to use.

Miscellaneous Hand Tools

You can nickle and dime here if you want, but for most of this stuff, it’s worth to spend a little more up front!

Side Snips – $4
Critical for cutting leads off components!

Wire Strippers – $5
Critical for stripping wires!

Good Screwdriver Set – $10

Solder Wick – $3
Critical for fixing mistakes!

Tweezers – $4
Critical for placing SMD components and small wires!

Needle Nosed Pliers – $4
Critical for grabbing things in small places!

Brass Sponge – $10
Critical for extending the life of your soldering iron!


Standard Budget – $60
Spend a little money now, and never worry about it again. Meters cheaper than this are only good for telling you whether a circuit is live or not.

Power Supply

Super Budget – $10
This breadboard power supply will get you through a few Arduino experiments, but not much else.

Standard Budget – $45
A current limited DC power supply is critical for board bring-up. Being able to verify that you don’t have a dead short without risking your board is an asset not to be underestimated.

Lab Supplies

This category includes tools that are useful for getting your workbench set up and livable.

Magnifying Light on a Stick – $35
Extremely useful for getting an eye in closs-up spaces

Panavise – $30
Extremely useful for holding boards while you solder things at awkward angles.

Helping Hands – $3
Honestly, these are frustrating and get in the way just as much as they help out, but sometimes you just need something to grab something else for you.

10X Magnifying Loupe – $2
Useful for inspecting SMT components.

Bus Pirate – $30
This is a very handy tool for digital work. You can go without, but it will save you a lot of time programming micros.

AVR Programmer

Super Budget – $15
This programmer will make due for a lot of boards with a 6 pin ISP header.

Standard Budget – $52
The AVR Dragon is the best value for money out there. This will program any AVR in existence.

PIC Programmer

As a disclaimer, I have *never* used any of these PIC programmers. I’m basing these judgements off the experiences of others.

Medium Budget – $20
PICKit2 Clone

Gambler’s Budget – $25
PICKit3 Clone. There are rumors that this doesn’t provide proper voltages to the board. See this post:

Standard Budget – $50
PICKit 3.

ARM Programmer

Super Budget – FREE – $30
Just buy or obtain a dev-kit for the family of processor you want to use. The kits that include a built-in debugger will often program and debug other chips in the same family. Handy!

Standard Budget – $52
This board just works, and is worth having in your toolbox.

Logic Analyzer

Medium Budget – $50
This is a pretty decent open source logic analyzer. Fast, but a limited number of samples.

Standard Budget – $150
The Saleae is the gold-standard in the hobbyist and low-end professional logic analyzer arena. Super high quality hardware and software. If you’re daring, you can get chinese knock-offs on eBay, but come on, support a guy from our own community!

Hot Air Rework

Standard Budget – $100
Useful for SMD work. Impossible to go without if you’re soldering things with hidden pads. Very useful for reworking boards with mistakes.


An Oscilloscope is a useful tool, but it is not a necessity! You can get by without one for a very, very long time. I suggest avoiding the $100 “pocket scopes” tucked in an old MP3 player case. These are extremely limited in their usefulness, and you’d be better off investing that $100 in a used eBay scope, or saving for the Rigol.

Super Budget – Ebay – $Varies
Search eBay for a cheap 25+Mhz scope from a reliable vendor like Tektronix or Agilent. You can find some deals if you’re willing to hunt, but if you don’t know much about scopes, you can also get burned pretty badly.

Standard Budget – $400
The Rigol DS1102E is the successor to the popular DS1052E. They’re very similar, so if you can find a DS1052E for cheaper, snatch it up. Don’t worry about 50/100 MHz for the 1052E, you can hack it to turn the 50 MHz version into the 100 MHz version:


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