Computing stuff tied to the physical world

Thursday Toolkit

In Hardware on Mar 8, 2012 at 00:01

Welcome to a second new initiative on this weblog: a weekly series about tools, i.e. the stuff you can use to design and create stuff, in the context of Physical Computing, that is. Again, you can bookmark this Toolkit link to find back all the related posts on this weblog, now and later.

People regularly ask about what to get, how to get started, and sometimes I see comments indicating that maybe a few basic extra investments might help understand and fix a problem much quicker.

Tools can be anything: the soldering iron you use, various electronics “lab instruments”, but also the software you use, and even the computer setup you work with. There is no “best” answer. It’s all matter of goals, interest levels, amount of involvement, and of course budget.

What I’d like to do is start off this series from scratch. I vividly remember the time when I re-booted my interest in electronics a few years ago and started JeeLabs to get into Physical Computing. It was very confusing. Do I get the best tools money can buy? Sure, dream on, but if going broke is not an option, what do I get first? When should I buy specific items? Which items are risk-free? Is really everything required? What’s “everything”, anyway? What would be the absolute minimum? Is this the start of never-ending upgrades?


The good news is: you can start having immense fun, and learn, and build stuff for less than the price of an Xbox. To draw on a theme from Alice in Wonderland: you can pick the red pill or the blue pill, it’s all up to you. The red pill is: watch videos, play games, surf and consume, follow the pack, compare yourself (and keep up) with others. The blue pill is: launch yourself into a new adventure, find out what so many explorative minds before you have invented, discover the gift of boundless learning, and start contributing to change the path of the future – your own, of your friends, of your community, or maybe even of your whole world. It’s all possible, these journeys are totally real (and indeed also non-virtual). Today. Now!

The even better news is, that these make incredibly nice gifts (note that gifts are not tied to a particular time of year – the best time to give IMO, is when you feel like it and can turn it into a genuine act of generosity).

Thinking about how to start off this series (which, incidentally, will be open for guest writers, so feel free to suggest topics or contribute with posts), I decided to take on the role of someone who really wants to dive into Physical Computing and has to start from scratch: knowing nothing, having nothing, eager to learn, willing to buy what’s needed – or indeed, having received some sort of starter set as a gift.

I came up with a list of items: some tools, and a fun kit to build, which can catapult you into this world of technical invention and creation. It’s meant as a suggestion – no more. Whatever works for you, ok?

Next question was – how to make this meaningful, i.e. how can people get hold of this stuff, if they simply want to get started? I decided to select appropriate items from Conrad, a mail-order shop with outlets all over Europe, which has been in the business of supplying all sorts of electronics and hobby products for many decades. You’ll find cheaper stuff in China, and you may be served better by a local company you already know, but if you really start from scratch, Conrad is a fine mail-order source of hobby-oriented products for the Europe region. And although I don’t know them as well, I suspect that Jameco has a similar audience in the US.

I do not have even the slightest affiliation with Conrad – I just order from them once in a while (and know from experience that returns and cancellations are handled in a courteous and responsive manner). Their website is not the fastest or the most convenient, but hey, it works.

Here is a list of what I found and will be discussing in the upcoming installments. Unfortunately, it appears that these item numbers are not identical across different countries – these links are to Conrad’s Dutch site:

  • indispensable: a soldering iron + some extras (item 588417)
  • just about indispensable: multi-meter + screw drivers, pliers, etc (item 046027)
  • essential, because we only have two: a third hand (item 588124)
  • consumables, better never run out of this: leaded solder (item 812803)
  • nice to “undo” soldering mistakes: desoldering wick (item 588243)
  • convenient and cheap: solder cleaner (item 588371)

Cost so far: € 86.04, including VAT and free shipping (Dutch prices, other countries should be similar).

That leaves plenty of spare cash in our sub-Xbox budget to buy one more thing: a delightful robotic kit (item 191451) – the same as used for the TwitLEDs project. Total expenses: € 146.03 (over 40% of which is that robot).

588417 GB 00 FB EPS 046027 BB 00 FB EPS 191164 LB 00 FB EPS

The coming weekly posts are going to describe these items in detail, and explain why less is too little and more is not essential. Feel free to pick alternatives, but don’t omit too many of these items. Even that robot (or some starter project) is essential. Walk first, then run. But as you’ll see, even walking is fun!

My reasoning for this approach is as follows: when starting out, you need enough to get going, to be able to really learn and get used to everything, and to build up the skills which will allow you to step up to more advanced tools – but only then, and only if you decide that you want to take it further!

Nobody in their right mind would start learning to play the violin on a Stardivarius. Well.. I have to admit that my well-documented recent oscilloscope acquisition sure feels like a “Strad”. And I’m glad I didn’t get it any sooner, or skipped the Rigol trial, because I would probably have had no idea how to make use of it otherwise.

So this series will be about picking tools, making the very most of them, and focusing on the world beyond.

It’s not the tools that matter. It’s what they enable. And it’s for everyone who’s interested, from age 7 to 77.

Update – ALthough this will slightly exceed the total budget, I recommend also getting a large set of resistors, such as Conrad’s 418714. I’ll go into this in one of the upcoming Toolkit posts.

  1. You might want to link to those Conrad items (for Dutch speakers) like this:

    Unfortunately the item numbers and “goto” URLs appear to differ across countries for the various Conrad sites…

  2. And for the more mature amongst us – a magnifying glass ! Plenty of choice from “jewellers” conventional round lens to planar “Fresnel” strips, illuminated, swan necked…..
    Some guidance there would be helpful – many build problems are resolved by finding that “cat’s whisker” short or “dry” solder joint while your experience and skills are growing.

    • There’s a small/bad one in that toolbox. Cheap, but should work. Good point, though. The other thing I’d recommend is a magnifying loupe with circular light – I have something like this: item 815203 – works fairly well.

  3. … and maybe a small something to file the “physical”stuff away in, like a collection of matchbox cases, or a little cabinet with small drawers or something. Because I would swear those little bugs do indeed have legs, and they are not afraid to use them.

  4. Similar to an article I published on ( http: // , in italian). I divided the needed things in categories like ‘must-have’, ‘really useful’, ‘quite useful’, ‘handy’ and ‘not (usually) needed’.

    • Thanks for the link (I can sort of guess most of it through French and Latin!)

      Good idea to split things up. You seem to be aiming slightly more high-end. In this series I really wanted to start as affordable as possible without getting into serious trouble.

  5. Tools vs XBox. Funny enough I just gave my 6 year old a toolbox for his birthday. I was considering a Wii, and i am sure he would love it and spend countless hours playing with that. We thought this would be a better gift though. It’s got a real saw, drill, screwdriver etc all made to fit children’s hands. I will wait a bit before handing him a soldering iron though. First he has to learn not to leave his hammer and saw lying around in the playground!

  6. jcw, you have me in! I’m a starter at electronics, soldering etc etc. You know how to make a lot of text interesting to read. Keep up the good work! Wish it, dream it, do it!

  7. Suggestions look good! Yes, Jameco is similar, I spent a lot of time reading their catalogs as a kid, and buying what I could. Got many Heathkits, sorry they’re gone! but lots of places now like Sparkfun, Adafruit, Pololu, Dangerous Prototypes, JeeLabs…

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