Vern Graner, a writer for Nuts and Volts magazine did an article on the electronics hobbyist workbench in the June 2008 issue that catalyzed this long considered project of creating the poor mans workbench. I plan to give advice and help on creating a practical economic and fun workbench that will teach you as you create it. It will provide you with tools and experience and it will be aimed at both beginners and mid level technicians and budding engineers. I plan to do this by using the handy features of the internet that will allow the beginner to drill down to more detail while letting the more advanced person to get the overview.
Vern asked for pictures of users benches and a short write up, which I sent in. I did not expect it to be published (except the pictures) but Vern put nearly the whole letter in the magazine, a full page. It was then I noticed it was geared for Vern and not a beginner. So with that, I have resolved to try to aim for both. Normally, this dual readership leaves both unhappy most of the time and that is where I think HTML and the Internet will make the day. I have thought for ten years or more that since one can link to more detail with just a click (for the user) that nearly every word in the treaties except A, And and The, should be defined. I wont do that here but will try to strike a balance. I will also try to reference other work on the internet and not re-invent the wheel each time, unless I have a good reason to. For example, I plan to reference Wikipedia and dictionaries and articles whenever they are available but go into tedious detail to point out how things work as well as how to build them. I notice that many of the beginners kits like the RadioShak 200 in one kits show how to build it moderately well (but with lots of glaring errors) but they rarely explain why it works, what it is doing or even why you want it at all. Still, getting a kit and building it (and reading everything it has to offer in the way of explanations) might be worth the time and money spent. I will try to make a beginners explanation of electronics but I think it will take me some time to realize what exactly people need explained. So have patience. Initially I will assume you have some knowledge and experience in electricity so that I can get some useful projects started.
This is a challenging goal I have set and will be a work in progress. It will need to share my tome with other, perhaps more pressing projects, such as getting into my new house and going on my first vacation in 10 years. A little push now and then from friends and readers would likely do wonders for the enthusiasm needed to complete some of the more arduous steps and research. I need to learn HTML much better than I do now. I need to go back and review info I learned 30 years ago and am quite rusty on. And I need to keep up, as much as an old man can, with the new technology. But I feel that the old way, to some extent is still useful. I wont be teaching tube design, nor even much transistor design (except as a simple switch or driver) because OP amps are so common and cheap.
What kind of a bench do we want and what needs to be on it for sure? Well, that is largely determined by what you are interested in. An audio enthusiast will need different things than an RF (Radio Frequency) guy who needs other gear than a computer or home automation person. There are some things in common though and we will try to start there.
First and foremost, a smallmulti-meter, is probably the most important tool in the Electronics persons tool box. But luckily, you can get them cheap. I have a local tool store (Harbor Freight) that has them on sale for $2.99 at least half the year for years now. It reads AC and DC voltage, Ohms and DC current and even has a transistor/diode checker. Best $3 you can spend, even if you donít want to be a techie person, it can help around the house and garage. Measure the AC wall voltage (do you have power?), Battery volts (is it any good?), continuity (is the wire really connected?) and much more. Get one. The more expensive ones have more features, sensitivity and accuracy(important to later projects). I recommend the cheap one first. DMMís can be damaged fairly easily and it is much cheaper to replace the economy model. Also, it is often not obvious to the beginner (or even the pro) weather you are getting a good deal because there are many trade-offs in the design and sale of these devices. Buying an expensive brand name will give you (usually) a fine instrument but if you need it only to measure batteries and house voltage, save the other $50 (yes, it can cost that much at the wrong store for a similar featured device) for something more useful. Note that it is often the case that you can dedicate the cheap ones for many projects and thus, you wont be stuck with something you donít use later.
I think I need to point out that a good tech needs a good set of hand tools to work on the things he is interested in. Screwdrivers, Pliers, wire stripers, socket set and such. And more often than not, a soldering iron. You may do lots of electronics work without ever learning or needing an iron but I believe it is still necessary to be an all around good tech. You can make and fix many things more easily and cheaply with an iron. Learning to solder is not hard but requires practice and preferably training. It is not obvious when it is too hot or clod to a beginner. And things often just donít work right if the solder is done poorly. Irons can come in $4 to $400 models but with practice, the $4 RadioShak model is good enough. Do not under any circumstances use an old soldering "Gun". It was made for truck drivers and forklift operators, not electronics. (just kidding, but it is not good for electronics, trust me). A good magnifier is also a big plus, especially if it has a light. Harbor Freight has some for $25 on sale now and then. (I should buy stock in that company). A hand drill will come in handy for many projects, especially if you are into building finished projects from scratch. Kits are fine but more expensive. And of course, you need a BENCH. Thatís what this article started out to do. I have used old desks, tables, handmade benches and old doors laid on boxes (works quite well after stabilizing it).More space and shelving is always better if you can arrange it.
On the other hand, there are people and places that donít have much room or an interest in big projects. I think a good case can be made for a large briefcase and some creative design for certain kinds of projects. I think I will make a separate project just for this approach.
DMM- Digital Multi Meter, sometimes known as multi-meter, Ohm meter, Volt meter, Volt-Ohm meter, VOM, and probably others I cant think of. These meters detect and display the amount of Voltage, Resistance (Ohms), Current and sometimes other things (such as temperature, inductance, etc). In the old days they were analogue meters with a little wire moving over a calibrated faceplate. Now they are digital and have 3 or more digits to read. 3 digits can display up to 999 and a decimal point is usual indicated so you might read 9.99 volts. Sometimes they have a leading one available such as 1999 and are called 3 and Ĺ digits. Occasionally they read to 4 in the leading digit and would be 3.999 volts which are called 3 and ĺ digits. The number of digits is the resolution. The accuracy is not always the same. In fact it is usually much less than the displayed value, such that 3.99 volts might be anywhere between 3.90 and 4.09, for example. Accuracy and resolution (number of digits) cost more. The minimum elements usually are DC Volts, AC Volts, DC current and Ohms with AC current as the next added element. Many more can be added. Temperature (with a probe included), Capacitance, inductance, frequency are often added to expensive meters. And a computer hook up is now becoming common so the computer can capture (and analyze) the data, which is especially good for watching trends. The Full featured DMM is a powerful compact instrument and are very cost effective. They are fairly delicate, especially the cheaper ones so take care of them.