What is it? Hint: your life depends on tools like these.
Some time ago we wrote about five relatively obscuretools for doing electronics. But, five tools barely scratches the surface of the stuff out there, and here are a few more of our favorites. In this roundup we’ve collected some handy–and even important –tools along that you might not have seen before, along with some best-of-breed versions of everyday electronics tools.
1. The Ideal “T-stripper,” model 45-121. I’ve used an awful lot of different wire strippers– even much more expensive ones –with different geometries, brands, mechanical principles, and levels of precision, but this is the one that I’d want on a desert island. It’s really that good.
It’s fast, solid, sharp, and durable. No nonsense. Precise. It works perfectly the first time, every time. The inner cutter part cuts through ridiculously thick wire and cable with ease. Handles are comfy and long lasting. Overall, it’s just hard to say enough good stuff about it.
If you have one of these, it’s easy to forget that there are so many simply terriblewire strippers out there. But then someday someone asks to borrow your wire strippers. You let them and then, after stripping their wires they stop and stare at for just a moment– surprised.
Here’s another version. It’s still the T-stripper, but it’s the bent-handle model– meh –and it’s also branded by Technitool. Still cuts freaking well. These are also available in smaller and larger wire-gauge sizes and in red or yellow handles to label whether they’re calibrated for solid or stranded wire.
2. “Surgical tools.” Soldering isn’t brain surgery. Only, sometimes it is.
Clockwise from top: Hobby knife, nonmagnetic fine point tweezers, scissors of different sizes, hemostats or locking forceps.
Hobby knife: No, this isn’t really a surgical tool. Scalpels are easy to come by, but I find that the blades are generally too thin. They flex and break. In most cases for electronics, the good old hobby knife is stronger and more capable. This tool is one of the most important for general-purpose repair and hacking. You can use it to easily cut a trace on a circuit board, to scrape the solder mask off of a trace, to trim down stubborn connectors, or to cut a path through a molten solder bridge. Just damn handy.
Fine point tweezers in different shapes: Just the thing for setting individual surface mount components in place. The angled ones make it much easer to flip over a component– say that tiny SMT resistor that happened to land upside down. They’re also handy for guiding wires into terminal blocks and placing patch wires before you solder them down.
Scissors: For trimming kapton tape to size, cutting copper wire in awkward locations, and fitting where wire clippers can’t. And for all kinds of other things you never think of until you use them.
Locking forceps: Like the grown up version of an alligator clip. Use it to hold two wires near their intersection for soldering, or any number of other uses. (See here for some of those other uses.)
The purpose of this type of tool is to bend the leads of DIP-ICs so that their wire leads point straight up and down, rather than out at an angle– making it easier to insert them into a circuit board or a socket.
In our earlier articlewe showed a simpler, handheld IC lead forming tool.
This one is different. It has a center guide that you slide the chip along. The chip then goes between two ball bearing rollers that uniformly compress the “shoulders” of the chip, crimping it just enough– simply by sliding it right through. The two screws on the top side can be loosened to adjust the spacing of the ball bearings if need be. The top side of this tool is for 0.3″ lead spacing DIP chips. The bottom side of this tool looks similar, but has a wider center guide that fits 0.6″ lead spacing chips.
4. The humble solder sucker, one of the basic desoldering tools. Melt the solder joint with your iron, bring the tip of this very close and push the button– quickly, without letting the solder cool. Push the spring-loaded piston back down to cock it for the next solder joint. Works moderately well, and quite inexpensive.
5. Counting scale. If you need to count out 193 resistors or 325 tiny screws for a project, a counting scale is a very helpful device. This one came from eBay and has a 200 g capacity with 0.01 g resolution; you’ll need high resolution like that if you want to accurately count tiny parts.
6. Lots of tiny screwdrivers. Now, I’m really not one to advocate interchangeable bit sets in general– real tools are better –but the simple fact is that there are *a lot* of little screw sizes out there. This particular set, the Boxer 30 piece, 4 mm “Precision Screwdriver Set” happens to be surprisingly nice.
Yes, it’s inexpensive, and the individual tips won’t last forever, but it’s damned handy and reasonably well made. The whole set costs about ten dollars. Includes metric hex sizes, phillips, torx, flathead, and very little else. I’ve used almost every tip in my set. (Er, sets. Get one for every desk that you work at.)
7. The cable tie gun, or “installation tool” more formally. What does it do? It tightens cable ties. No really! It’s pretty common in non-critical situations to just tighten cable ties by hand, or maybe with pliers, and then to just clip off the loose end. If that’s your system, it may be hard to understand why you’d want a specialized tool to do it for you.
The reason is simple: It’s just that sometimes– actually often –cable tie tension isabsolutely critical. Consider, for example, the wiring harnesses that make up the wiring on an aircraft. If the wiring is too loose or too tight, it will eventually be damaged by fatigue or damage to the insulation. One way to solve that is to use a tool that consistently tightens cable ties to a specific, dialed-in tension. This tool does just that: it lets you tighten a cable tie to an exactly set, very reproducible tension, and then cuts the loose end– usually in one swift motion.
(Note: this certainly isn’t the only way to make tough, reliable wiring harnesses. For example, cable lacing is a good alternative method.)
To use the tool, you first loop the cable tie together, and then insert the loose end into the muzzle of the tool. With a squeeze of the trigger, it takes out the slack, tightening towards your set tension.
Then, right when you reach the set tension, something very different happens:
Rather than applying additional pressure as you squeeze, instead a hidden knife bladecomes “out of nowhere” and cuts the cable tie, nearly flush, with the right tension. If you look closely in the picture above, you’ll see the knife blade starting to cut into the cable tie.
Once you get the hang of it, it’s incredibly quick– just a single good squeeze to take out slack, tension, and cut the cable tie.
It’s also amazingly strong, and can tighten cable ties to a much higher absolute tension than is usually possible otherwise. A consequence of this is that you always need to dial it down before using smaller thin or narrow ties– otherwise they just snap under the tension.
The particular tool shown here is Panduit model GS2B, and it’s stellar. At only 0.2 kilodollars, it’s nowhere near the most expensive that you can get– these go up into the thousands. The saving grace is that if you don’t actually do critical wiring and don’t need absolute calibration, you can often find these at surplus shops or garage sales (sometimes with old calibration stickers from aircraft companies!), at twenty dollars or under, potentially leaving you with enough cash to pick up the holster.
In the last few years, cheaper “plastic” versionsbased on the same mechanism have become more common as well. It’s nice that such cool tools are no longer unobtainable.
8. Bent-nose mini-pliers. This particular one is from a set of Sears Craftsman Professional mini pliers, but it’s also available separately. Much like the bent-nose tweezers, these let you reach things that you can’t otherwise. They’re handy for positioning components or for forming stiff wires or component leads.
9. Erem flush clippers. For basic wire and component lead clipping, you can do a lot worse than the flush clippers that come in that Sears mini-plier set that we just mentioned. But, these swiss-precision clippers from Erem are about as nice as they come. ‘Nuff said.
10. “Free agent” helping hands. We’re big fans of the usual soldering “helping hands“, but here’s an independent version that you can make yourself. Good for places where that heavy base on the helping hands isn’t helpful, and this one is light and easy to fit in your to-go solder kit. Make it yourself with a few inches of thick solid copper wire and a couple of alligator clips.
11. The #61-80 drill index. A set of tiny drill bits, ranging from 0.0135″ diameter to 0.039″ diameter. For light-duty drilling of circuit boards, tiny mounting holes, and all kinds of other things that you never thought of. A good adjunct to your regular-size drill set, whatever that size is. Under the microscope each one looks like a full size drill bit; they’re just smaller. And they come in a classic drill index case. That’s good, because at this size they generally aren’t stamped with the size.
You can get these at most places that sell machine tools, but you can get a good deal on them at Electronic goldmine.