A few people have asked me variations of “What tools do I need to fix my first radio?”, and it’s not as simple of a question as you might think. There’s a lot of equipment out there, and if you’re starting out it’s not always easy to tell what’s good from what’s garbage. Picking the wrong tool for the job will give you a frustrating repair experience at best, and that’s no good. You do only need a few things to get started: a soldering iron, a multimeter, a wire clipper, a wire stripper, and some basic safety gear. If you’re a casual hobbyist who will do a few projects a year, you can get started for under $100. If you’ll be working on electronics a little more often than that, you’ll want to spend a little more for more durable tools but it still won’t break the bank.
Below are some tools I’ve selected which will help you get through your first successful repair and then some:
Probably the most important item on this list, you’ll use the soldering iron to make connections between wires and components. You need to make sure you get an iron that will be durable enough, and produce enough heat, to quickly melt the solder and heat up joints without taking too long and causing “heat soak” which can damage other near-by components you’re not actively working on. While it might seem counter-intuitive, too small of a soldering iron is actually a bigger problem than too big! I recommend a soldering iron around 50W for most hobbyist applications. Stay away from any of the “cold heat” soldering tools which aren’t very effective for this kind of work, and stay away from any gas-powered soldering iron as those are more suited for plumbing or off-the-grid work.
For electronics repair, you can get started with a no-frills soldering iron for under $10 (left). I’d recommend spending a little more, though, to gain temperature control and easier replacement parts if you need a new tip or heating element. For about $20, you can upgrade to a Velleman 50W adjustable soldering station (center) which has a handy cleaning pad and soldering iron holder built in. If you think you’re going to be doing more than a couple of projects, though, I’d recommend upping your budget to $100 and getting a high-end soldering set like the Hakko FX888D digital soldering station (right) which has a digital temperature control, and you can get dozens of different size and shape tips and replacement parts very easily. I use the Hakko FX888D in my shop, and it’s fantastic.
If you’re going to be doing some soldering, a tip cleaner and debris catcher is also very handy for keeping your iron clean but isn’t strictly necessary. The Hakko comes with a sponge and brass tip cleaner in the stand.
You’ll use the multimeter to make a few circuit tests, including checking for the correct voltage at a few points in the circuit, and for measuring the value of resistors. A homeowner’s multimeter (for example about the size of a credit card, maybe that came in another tool kit) isn’t a good choice for these repairs, but even an inexpensive digital multimeter will be more accurate than most of the tools in a repair shop back in the day. At about $25, the pictured (left) MASTECH AC/DC Auto/Manual Range Digital Multimeter will measure AC and DC volts up to a higher range than you’ll ever likely need. It also can measure current, resistance, test diodes and continuity with a buzzer (useful for checking coils!), roughly measure the value of capacitors, and do some basic frequency measurements. Sure, it’s no Fluke (right) but it’ll get the job done just fine. I have a half-dozen of the Mastech meters at the shop to use for most working measurements, alongside the more accurate bench meters for special occasions.
You’ll need to cut old component leads and cut wires down to size when doing repairs. A set of flush-cut wire clippers makes short work of this, and they’ll last longer and won’t get the cutting edges nicked up as if you tried to use a general cutting tool like a pair of household scissors. They’re very inexpensive – under $5 – and come in handy around the house as well as in the workshop.
Right along with the wire clippers, you’ll need to prepare old and new wiring for soldering by removing the insulation. An adjustable pair of wire strippers is critical so you remove the insulation without damaging the wires underneath. At the low end, around $5 will get you a set of TEKTON continuously variable wire strippers (left) with an adjustment nut, and they have a cutting edge as well. This is okay if you have only one wire size, but it’s a bit annoying to adjust every time. I prefer wire strippers with their own sized guide holes. Moving up to around $20, you can pick up a nice Klein Tools wire stripper (center), or a Greenlee Communications wire stripper (right). I own the Greenlee and it’s got a comfortable grip and is very sharp and easy to use.
You’re also going to want a few other things. Rosin Core Solder is the right kind for electronics and includes flux inside for a good connection. There’s new RoHS-compliant (“lead free”) solder out there, but personally I find it’s more difficult to work with. Wash your hands after soldering and you’ll be fine using traditional lead solder, like this 60/4o Electrical Repair Solder. Be sure never to use acid-core solder as you’ll damage your device, acid-core solder is only suitable for plumbing.
Soldering does produce some toxic fumes, and you’ll want to make sure you’re in a well ventilated area. Soldering indoors isn’t a big deal occasionally, but you don’t want to breathe in the smoke too often. If you can’t open a window, you can use a variety of smoke absorbing filters for your workbench. They start at about $35 for a smaller desktop model, suitable for light work, up through many hundreds of dollars for a professional fume extraction system like the Hakko FA-430 which Rain City Audio uses.
Sometimes molten solder can splash, or a piece of wire can go flying, and you’ll want to protect yourself. Safety glasses are highly recommended, and can be had for as low as $3 if you’re buying some of the other items. That’s a low price to pay for peace of mind! Some people like to use a surgical filtration mask while soldering as well, to help with residual fumes. They’re available for about $1 each in boxes of 20. I don’t use a mask, personally, but if you don’t want to spring for a fancy ventilation system and don’t have good airflow in your location, you might consider it.
That’s all you’ll need to get started. If you get further into the hobby, or run into functional issues once you’ve finished replacing the needed components, you’ll also want a few pieces of test equipment. Look for my recommendations on hobby test gear for radio and electronics repair in a future article!