The Budget Workshop
Electronics is a fantastic hobby to get into, you be as creative as you want, and the rewards are unlimited. Want to build a clapper so you can turn off your lights by clapping? Easy! How about a retro Z80 computer so you can re-create your favourite software and games? Absolutely!
But electronics doesn't need to break the bank and can easily be done by those who are on a tight budget. Don't be fooled by those who insist that you must have a top brand multimeter or a professional soldering station with heat control because the simple truth is that a £5 soldering iron will take you a long way (even surface mount devices). How do I know this? Simple, I used to be on a very tight budget of £20 a month so I made sure I got my money's worth out of every nut and bolt.
So here is how you can get a complete electronics workshop for less than £100!
Note - I do NOT endorse any product listed here and what you do see listed is just for example sake.
To begin, you will need a soldering iron with a small tip. Having a set of different heads is pretty pointless if you will be only using through hole parts. But which soldering iron should you get? Many types exist with many functions but at the end of the day it just needs to melt some metal and last. The best bang for buck is a kit such as this:
A 9 in 1 soldering set from eBay
This kit type is typically £10 which gets you your soldering iron, flux, simple tools (screwdriver and tweezers), de-soldering pump and a stand. I personally purchased a kit similar to this more than 8 years ago and it is still going strong! Just remember to look for an iron with a power rating of at least 40W as this results in a decent heat capacity (the ability of the soldering iron to stay hot).
Soldering Iron Kit : £10
Pliers, screwdrivers, nuts, and bolts are all useful items in an electronics workshop and can all be obtained from any decent pound shop (dollar shop for American readers). Believe it or not, these tools last a really long time as electronics work is so delicate and precise (as opposed to requiring the force of Thor’s hammer). What makes pound shop tools even better is that screwdrivers and pliers come in sets! This means that for £1 you typically get a pair of needle nose pliers, bent nose pliers, and a standard pair of pliers. The screwdriver sets are always very small, so these are ideal for taking apart most electronics (important for either salvaging or repairing).
A mini screwdriver set from Poundland
Not only are pound-shops ideal for small tool kits, they're perfect for containers too! Most times you will find many multi-compartment boxes ideal for small components and mini multi-draw desktop units.
The last tool (but possible the most important) is the faithful wire stripper. Personally, I prefer the automatic types which just require you to squeeze the handle and it will automatically grab and strip the wire. They sell for less than £3 and are great for their value!
Some trusty, inexpensive wire strippers
A word of caution about cheap tools : Tools such as pliers and screwdrivers are generally OK for electronics work but it is recommended that dangerous tools such as knifes and other sharp implements are branded such as Stanley crafting knifes. This is because they are much less likely to break and cause serious harm.
Screwdriver set + Pliers + Hex Keys + 3 containers + Wire strippers = £9
Testing your designs is vital for a functional circuit and the best tool for the job is the multimeter. There are two paths that you can take, either several cheap multimeters or one with many functions. Multiple cheap multimeters are useful when testing several aspects of a circuit and a common example would be measuring the current draw of a circuit while testing an output. But at the same time, a more expensive multi-function multimeter would be useful when needed to test components such as capacitors and transistors.
Here is a multimeter that sells for £4 and contains many functions including the ability to test transistors!
An inexpensive multimeter from eBay
Here is a more expensive multimeter that sells for £6 but can also measure capacitance and frequency, can also be found on eBay.
An oscilloscope can help a lot when debugging circuits, but for those who are setting up their first electronic workshop, it is a tool that is better obtained later. But for those who are desperate for one, there are only a few ways on this budget :
- Build a custom sound card scope that costs only a few £1 and uses free software
- Buy a cheap DIY digital oscilloscope for £16
- Find a free give away (very unlikely)
Overall cost of one cheap multimeter + one multifunction = £10
What would electronics be without a source of electricity! The best option in this case, is to use a mains power adaptor as it drops the voltage to a safe level, uses a proven double insulated unit, and is cheaper than batteries. But caution must be taken when using such a unit and so a good project would be to construct a +-5V regulated circuit for your projects. You can connect this unit to a circuit containing a 5V regulator, a 100mA fuse (in case you short the power supply) and a negative voltage generator to get your split supply (very handy in advanced circuits).
An AC/DC power adapter from eBay
Total cost, £6
Components are the bread and butter of an electronic workshop because, without them, you can't exactly build a circuit. As we are on a budget we need to make a few compromises, so get onto online shops such as eBay and get component packs from China. Certain components such as ICs are better purchased from reputable suppliers but simple components such as capacitors and resistors will be OK. At the end of the day if the part fail you can get your money back and try other suppliers.
Resistor packs typically go from £3 to £5
Capacitor packs also go from £3 to £5
Mixed packs are typically expensive but give a good range of parts. This kit contains 2000 electronics components and costs £30
Breadboards & Stripboards
Breadboards are always needed for prototyping circuits and have the added benefit of being reusable. Here is one that contains jumper wires and a fitted power supply that takes power over a USB cable. Strip-boards are non-customised PCBs that contain set traces for components to be soldered into and connected via wires. They offer a more permanent circuit than breadboards and are helpful for soldering practice too.
An inexpensive breadboard and stripboard from eBay
Cost for 2000 components, mixed resistors, capacitors, breadboard and stripboard: £46
The Total Cost
So now that all the parts have been gathered its time to see the total cost…
|Soldering Station (Soldering Iron, stand, solder pump)||£10|
|Tools (Pliers, Screwdrivers, wire strippers and compartments)||£9|
|Equipment (Two multimeters)||£10|
|Components (a lot of components)||£46|
Grand Total : £81
This list of parts gives a complete starter electronics workshop with £19 to spare! This is more than enough for a DIY digital oscilloscope, a simple USB logic analyser, or even more components and tools! However, don’t feel that you have to spend it, you can always put it in a jar and save for a later project or for replacements.
Just remember, fancy tools and expensive components are for fancy people with fancy circuits. If your objective is to get into electronics as a beginner, this list will see you through for a very long time!