March 1965 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Although the article's title
specifies "electronic hobbyist," the advice applies equally well to students and professional
technicians and engineers. A few of the tools are no longer available from the original
manufacturers, but modern equivalents - often of better design and quality - are available.
If you are nostalgic for the originals, though, you can always look for them on
there's not much you cannot find there if you wait long enough. To show how much
times have changed, get a load of (pun intended) that pistol-shaped soldering gun. Can
you imagine the mayhem that would ensue if it showed up in a high school electronics
lab today? For that matter, is a classic Weller soldering gun allowed? Can you even say
A wide variety of tools are available to help you do the job right.
Various specialized types of cutters and pliers are available as well
as straight "dikes" and needle-nose pliers as Crescent Tool Co. photo shows.
Weller D550PK kit includes dual-heat gun and specially shaped tips
for hard-to-reach work.
Soldering options include gun, iron, or soldering pistol. See text
for discussion of merits.
Brand-new is Blixt automatic iron sold by Curin Electronics. Squeezing
trigger advances solder.
By Don Lancaster
The success or failure of every piece of electronic equipment you build depends on
the tools you have and how you use them. Beginner or old-timer, professional technician
or experimenter, you need certain tools, each of which requires an investment. An unused
tool is a waste of money. A missing tool means lost time and occasionally a botched-up
What are the essential tools for electronics work? Who makes them and how much do
they cost? There are four categories of tools we should consider: (1) basic tools absolutely
essential for the beginner; (2) "luxury" tools for the beginner, but otherwise generally
useful and convenient; (3) special tools required for serious home-brew work, magazine
construction projects, equipment modifications, custom audio work, etc.; and (4) the
"there must be an easier way" tools that greatly simplify work and improve results, but
are not really necessary.
Suppose you're just getting started in electronics. Table 1 on page 68 lists the essential
tools you will need. This selection of tools will ultimately become the set around which
your whole collection is built.
Table 1: Essential Tools for the Beginner
Soldering Tools. Foremost is something to solder with. Solder is
the glue of electronics. Without it, you'd be as bad off as if you tried to build a house
without nails. You must choose between an iron or a gun. A soldering iron is low in cost,
holds a fairly uniform temperature, and in general enables you to do neater work, particularly
on connectors and printed circuits. On the other hand, a gun is much more convenient.
It heats and cools quickly and needs no stand. It lights its way into dark corners. Some
models provide dual heat. The gun is much better suited for installation work, to get
inside speaker enclosures and television sets that can be serviced in the living room.
Eventually you'll want both a gun and at least one iron (two if you do heavy work).
The rule on the initial choice is this: If you are going to do most of your work on a
bench, or if you are somewhat restricted financially, get an iron. If you are going to
work on a kitchen table, get a gun.
A good choice to start out with in a gun is something in the 100-watt range such as
the Weller Model 8200 which offers a dual-heat capacity of 100/140 watts. The best choice
in an iron is a handle and cord assembly with a removable tip. Tips with heats of 37
1/2 watts and 47 1/2 watts are available (among others) and will prove eminently practical
for general-purpose work. Less wattage is needed in an iron for the same soldering job
because the thermal mass of the tip stores heat better than the small gun tip.
Dikes, Pliers, and Screwdrivers. You'll need a pair of diagonal cutters
("dikes"), and a pair of needle-nose pliers. Dikes are used for cutting component leads
and wire, and for stripping wire. Needle-nose pliers are used for bending and positioning
component leads and wires prior to soldering. Watch the quality of the tools you buy.
The 88-cent variety just doesn't cut properly or hold up well. A very good choice is
the so-called "jeweler's pliers (4 1/2" size, Kraeuter #81, #83, Crescent 942, etc.)
instead of the larger, more cumbersome "electronic" pliers.
Worthwhile is an assortment of screwdrivers with regular and Phillips
Several sizes of nut-drivers or a set will add much to working convenience.
Basic tools include large and small screwdrivers, diagonal cutters,
and needle-nose pliers. A 6" adjustable wrench helps handle control nuts, etc.
Add to your basic tools a 1/4" nut-driver, a set of Allen wrenches,
a nut starter, Phillips screwdriver, wire stripper, and a shop knife.
The jeweler's pliers are cheaper, have soft cushion-grip vinyl handles, and are easier
to use, especially in tight areas and on printed circuits. Of course, you can't bend
1/8" steel or cut bolts with this size tool, but the small size is otherwise perfect
for all electronic work.
You'll need two screwdrivers, a large one with a 3/16" blade for general assembly
work, and a small one with a 1/8" blade for knobs and smaller hardware. Two types of
screwdriver blades are the cabinet tip (straight) and keystone tip (keystone shaped).
The cabinet tip is much better suited for electronic work, and is a bit less common than
the keystone tip. Watch for it when you buy.
Again, avoid the bargain basement screwdrivers. There is a definite relationship between
the quality of your tools and the quality of the work you do. Further, cheap screwdrivers
tend to slip and mar cabinets and finished panels, and have caused more than one gouged
finger. A quality screwdriver costs 88 cents (Proto, Xcelite, Craftsman, etc.) and is
well worth it.
Table 2: "Luxury" Tools for the Beginner
The final basic tool is a 6" adjustable wrench. This tool enables you to remove and
fasten everything from a sheet metal screw to a volume control nut. You get a lead and
bracket bending tool, a small vise, and a changer mechanism repair tool free in the bargain.
Make sure your wrench is drop-forged; any other type just won't last. The chrome-colored
variety is a bit more expensive than a black wrench, but has a better "feel."
This minimum collection will get you started. If you only do occasional electronic
work, it may be all you will ever need. But if you're like most electronic "types," you'll
start adding "luxury" tools to your basic collection. These tools are not absolutely
necessary, but are extremely helpful. Some of them are listed in Table 2 (on page 70).
Tables 1 and 2 together will give you a good, well-rounded, basic electronic tool set.
Additional Tools. The first addition should be a 1/4" nut-driver,
either a pocket - or full-sized one. Virtually every radio, television set, and phonograph
is held together with sheet metal screws that have a 1/4" head. Also, all of the #4 hardware
and almost all of the #6 hardware use nuts that are 1/4" across the flats. As these are
the two most common electronic hardware sizes, the 1/4" nut-driver is a most useful tool.
You can buy nut-drivers individually or in sets (Xcelite PS120, etc.).
You may want a wire stripper of the low-cost variety. They do neater stripping than
dikes and there is much less of a tendency to nick the wire. They are also much easier
on the hands than dikes. The strippers with vinyl handles are a better choice at twice
the cost of the inexpensive variety. There are also "automatic" strippers available which
may be a good investment if you do considerable work in electronics.
A soldering aid and a heavy-duty shop knife are two tools that everybody has his own
special uses for and are generally well worth their price.
"Easier way" tools include a riveting tool, vise grip pliers, traverse
cutting pliers, a terminal crimping tool, and a chassis nibbling tool.
Left - Circle cutter is also essential if you do much metal work. It's used with carpenter's
brace for cutting out round holes for meters, dials, etc.
Right - Two chassis punches are a good investment. Common sizes - 1 5/32" and 5/8"
- take care of most socket and capacitor mounting problems.
Basic tools for chassis layout include a ball peen hammer, a scriber,
a center punch, and a combination square. Good tools are an asset here.
If you plan to do much home-brew work, an electric drill is a must.
Also essential are a reamer, and rattail, half-round, triangular, and round files.
A nut starter is usually provided free with your first kit from at least one kit manufacturer
(Heath). This 25-cent piece of plastic tubing can save you hours of frustration trying
to get nuts on elusive #4 and #6 screws in tight locations.
A Phillips screwdriver should be bought when you need it. A #2 or #3 tip is best suited
for the screws occasionally found on some consumer electronic items and certain car radios.
These screws are not too common, but when encountered, a Phillips driver must be used.
A pair of pliers of either the low-cost slip-joint "gas" plier variety or else the
multiple slip-joint "water pump" variety makes a good addition. These are used for positioning,
holding, bending, and clamping. They also will do heavy cutting (busbar, appliance wire,
etc.). The water pump variety (Channellock, etc.) at $2.60 or so is much more expensive
than the 69-cent pair of gas pliers, but is more useful in some instances.
You will probably never run across an Allen head screw until you try to take apart
your first piece of military surplus gear or do an industrial service job. Then you will
find dozens of the little monsters staring at you. At this point there is only one answer
- go buy a quality set of Allen wrenches. Contrary to popular belief, a file tang just
won't work! The bargain basement Allen wrench sets are worthless on three counts: They
are not hardened, they are not small enough, and the sloppy plating job makes them murder
on the screw heads themselves. Be sure your set is hardened or tempered steel, and not
the plated variety.
Table 3: Special Tools for Home-Brew Work
Tools for Home-Brew Work. You now have a rather complete collection
of electronic tools, well suited to most experimental work, almost all service work,
and certainly all kit building. But you still can't build anything of your own! You have
no way of cutting and laying out chassis and panels, or of handling cases and cabinets.
Table 3 (on page 88) shows the tools you'll need if you decide to do serious home-brew
work or try to duplicate magazine construction projects. Here the cost of your tool collection
will go up considerably. The best rule to follow before you buy is to wait until you
have a definite need for each item and are certain that you will need the same tool again
in the future.
A basic set of layout tools consists of a combination square, a scriber, a ball peen
hammer, and a center punch. A bit of common sense at this point may save you some money.
If you are only occasionally going to be doing construction work, then by all means get
the low-cost tools. But if you're going to do any serious work, get the best-quality
tools you possibly can.
To cut your brackets, panels, and chassis, you will need two more tools, a 12" hacksaw
with a fine-tooth blade, and a pair of shears. You have a choice between conventional
"tin snips" or the more expensive double-action aircraft shears.
Now to put the holes in. You must have an electric drill if you are at all serious.
Otherwise you'll be wasting your time. At least a 1/4" - or better yet - a 3/8" chuck
should be chosen. The only difference between a $15 and a $30 drill is the quality of
the bearings (bushings vs. ball bearings) and the ruggedness and "burn-out-proofness"
of the motor. For occasional work, choose the cheaper models. For professional or production
work, get the finest drill you can buy (Skil, Black and Decker, etc.). It will pay for
itself many times over.
Wire strippers are handy to have. Unit at left is "automatic" type
- good if you do a lot of wiring. Inexpensive stripper (right) will also serve.
A drill index with some drills is next. Here there should be no compromise. Even if
you are only going to drill one hole, get a quality drill. The bargain basement drills
dull quickly, cut a ragged hole, and walk all over the place.
The same goes for files. Stick to the quality brands (Nicholson, etc.). You'll need
these for enlarging holes, cutting square holes for sockets and transformers, and finishing
panel edges. A basic set consists of a 1/4" "rat-tail" file, a small triangular one,
a large half round, and a large flat file. Another important rule: When a file gets dull
(not clogged, but just plain dull), do one of two things with it - either use it as a
paint stirrer, or throw it away. But don't try to file with it. You'll be wasting your
Two cold chisels and a taper reamer for enlarging holes complete the basic construction
tools you'll need. The chisels are fine for transformer holes. The reamer is required
to get a 1/4" hole large enough to accommodate a volume control or a pilot light.
"Easier Way" Tools. Maybe you already have most of the tools listed in Tables 1, 2,
and 3, and are considering getting the rest. But Table 4 lists a new breed of tools.
They are the "there must be an easier way" tools that make child's play out of some rather
boring and hard jobs, or else improve results and quality considerably. Or maybe they
just make life easier. You may want to add some of these nonessential tools to your collection.
Foremost on this list is a pair of locking (vise grip) pliers. This tool is just plain
wonderful. It serves as a third hand, a vise, cuts bolts, wire, and rod, positions parts,
and holds small parts for soldering. Next is a crimping ("Champ") tool. Outside of its
obvious use for crimping solderless connectors and terminals, it makes a fine wire stripper,
and a bolt cutter that does not damage the threads while cutting. It also cuts wire along
with its other functions.
A nibbling tool has to be seen to be appreciated. This little known tool neatly chomps
its way through a chassis to provide a smooth-edged hole. It takes a small bite each
time. The little bites all line up to give any size hole you want in any shape - rectangular,
round, or free form. Nibbling one power transformer hole will pay for the tool.
Table 4: "There Must Be an Easier Way" Tools
One or two chassis punches in the common 1 5/32" and 5/8" sizes makes tube socket
and capacitor mounting hole punching a snap.
Another little known tool is the traverse cutting plier. This is a cutting plier that
looks like a pair of "needle noses," but cuts clear out at the tip (as a dog would bite,
not on the side as the cutters on some needle-nose combinations). There is nothing like
this tool for close cropping of printed circuit leads, and tight, "down under" cutting
of any type.
The cutting plier neatly cuts off leads that a pair of dikes can't get near.
A final special tool is a relatively new item. Five dollars will get you a "POP" Rivetool
that will enable you to rivet electronic assemblies together. This is done from one side
at the squeeze of a handle. The cost is less than that of standard hardware. You can
use a Rivetool in blind or nearly blind locations where a nut cannot be backed up. The
rivets will not shake loose, but they can be drilled out easily if you have to remove
them. And you can fasten two thin sheets of metal together where a sheet metal screw
will not hold. The resulting appearance is "professional."
Of course there are other tools that could be mentioned, but they are not too widely
used. What we have listed here should represent a good setup for anyone in electronics.
Posted March 13, 2018