Ham Workbench

SARA Electronics Workbench ~ last update: 12 Nov 2022

Ham Electronics Work Bench

If you are starting out as a new Ham or electronics hobbyist, you will soon find a need for having your own workbench. The ultimate electronics workbench is different for each person and changes as personal knowledge and interests evolve and as technology changes. The choices and decisions of precisely which tools and equipment you need to have available are not easily resolved. The location where the bench will reside, the actual physical size, where the technical support information will be located, and how much 'extra equipment'/'parts storage' will be required are all factors to be considered and will impact your other tool choices. As your interests grow, perhaps adding 'more benches' will be decision to face. Many have a basic work bench, a ham/radio work bench and a computer/micro-controller bench. Yep, that is three different benches.

HINT: Add items to your 'gift lists' for birthdays and Christmas. This can help you add quickly to your bench!

SAFETY must ALWAYS be your very first and most important consideration on or around your workbench. Make your bench as safe as possible. All work benches have electrical power involved in some manner. Include a single power emergency 'kill switch' into your bench design and setup. Please, please make sure your entire bench area has Ground Fault Interruption [GFI] supplied power. Isolated power for all equipment being worked on is a major consideration. Improper consideration on grounds can KILL you. Think and act accordingly! Various pieces equipment are all potential electrical shock hazards. Include the "workbench lighting" in your list, if you are touching a piece of equipment and touch a lighting component (switch or fixture), what is the possible result? The testing equipment and any units under test require your considerations. Insure proper fusing in all power circuits. A good article can be found in the March, 2019 QST magazine on page 36. if you are a member of the ARRL you can find an electronic copy of the article on the ARRL web site. PLEASE in all cases give some careful thoughts to your work bench power! Ground paths and shock hazards are 'sneaky' safety areas to be around... plan accordingly. Then re-do the thinking with a 'failed' piece of equipment - say a bad capacitor in one of your pieces test gear... are you still safe? If the answer is not 'Yes' then go think more BEFORE turning on any power.

A details list for you to consider for safety:

  • Rubber Floor Mats - beside offering better foot comfort these can insulate you from floor electrical conductivity.

  • Isolated power - supplied to all test equipment and units you are working on. You do not want direct connect power to any surface you will be touching or able to come in contact with (intentionally or accidentally).

  • Bench Lighting - You will need more light then what you initially think. Suggest you go 'over bright' and have a method to dim it down if desired.

  • Computer Access - Most modern benches will use a computer (with internet access) to provide information directly at the workbench. I stopped using clipboards on the bench in the mid 1980s. Consider it's power connections and isolation.

TOOLS - WORKBENCH Here is a list of basis tools that 'well equipped' electronic workbenches will usually have available. The quantity can be added to as you learn and finances allow, but please remember: "You get what you pay for". Cheap tools will usually have a short life and may not be up to the task which your requirements may have for the tool. a 'cheap' special tool may be quite a bit better than 'no tool', just consider what your requirement should be. You do not need all these tools to start, but as you take on more workbench tasks, the list below will handle a very large portion of any bench task. There may be others that your needs/wants require in order to be "all inclusive" - add as you desire. Consider how you are going to provide storage and access to your tools (tool boxes vs drawers and shelves). Work benches are best utilized when you are comfortable at the bench, consider your chair or stool. I use several 'close-by' tool boxes and many shelf units for tools, equipment and spare parts.

Experimenter Stuff:

  • Breadboard

  • Wires for Breadboard (Solid Conductor to start).

  • Patch Cords with Alligator Clips.

  • 'Miscellaneous Junk Electronics' - great for starting a parts supply {Hams call them 'Junk Boxes'}.

  • Various spare parts. I have resistors, capacitors, inductors, small modules, various controls (pots / switches / pilot lights / nuts & bolts / etc.)

Basic Mechanical Tools - Nearly 'required' for some tasks:

  • Set of Screw Drivers (small 1/8", medium 3/16" and large 1/4" ~ 5/16") - Flat Blade and Phillips (#1; #2; & #3) of various lengths

  • Standard Combination Pliers ~ Slip Joint (6" and 8")

  • Needle Nose Pliers (4", 6", and 8") fine tips to beefy

  • Diagonal Cutters (Small and Large)

  • Adjustable Wrench (4" and 8")

  • Wire Stripper & Crimper (Champ Style - smaller is better)

  • Channel Lock Pliers

  • Set of Hex Wrenches (English & Metric Sizes)

  • Nut Drivers w/hollow shafts (English & Metric Sizes) - consider pocket depths for your needs

  • Soldering Iron/Station (about 40 watt)

  • Solder 60/40 or "low melt" No Lead ~ small diameter

  • Solder Sucker (or vacuum bulb)

  • Desoldering station ?

  • Small Tape Measure (English and Metric Scales)

  • Pocket Knife / Razor blade knife

  • Hand Reamer w/ Tee Handle

  • Automatic Center Punch

  • Nibbling Tool

  • Small Ball-peen Hammer (1 lb.)

  • Hacksaw

  • Rat Tail Files (small and medium - & Flat and Triangle small)

  • Vise Grip Pliers (Small)

  • Miscellaneous - Emery Cloth; Pencil Scribe; Electrical Tape; non-magnetic Tuning Tools; Various Adhesives/Silicon Sealer; Machine Oil; Various Insulated Wire (Enamel coated; plastic insulated; different sizes; etc.)

Additional Tool Considerations:

  • 1/4" Electric Drill (perhaps a 3/8") ~ Variable Speed

  • Various Drill Bits (Metal Bits from No. 60 up to 1/2")

  • 4" Bench Vise

  • Magnifier with light on movable arm

  • Dremel Tool (with Bits "As Needed")

Electronic Tools (Instruments):

  • Volt-Ohm Meter / Multi-meter ~ Small Digital with high input impedance

  • Vacuum Tube Volt Meter [VTVM] (with large analog meter) ~ An older device, but robust with high input impedance

  • Computer & Printer (w/ Internet Connection) - direct access from workbench position is mandatory in today's world.

  • Bench Variable Power Supply (0 ~ 30 volt) with Current Metering

  • Fixed 12 volt Power Supply (and a 3.3/5.0 volt are Handy)

  • Solder re-flow station (Newer stuff uses Surface Mount technology)

  • Equipment for Capacitance & Inductance Measurements ~ Values and Performance Characteristics

Equipment Additions (Electronic):

  • Dummy R.F. Load

  • Miscellaneous Meter Movements (Ammeters and Voltmeters)

  • SWR Meter

  • Attenuator allowing for switching in up to about -80 dB (or more) of controlled attenuation

  • Audio Frequency Generator

  • Radio Frequency Generator

  • Oscilloscope (Dual Trace and Triggered - minimum)

  • Frequency Counter

  • Digital Logic Probe

  • Antenna Analyzer

  • Wavemeter

  • FFT Analyzer

  • Spectrum Analyzer

  • Vector Noise Analyzer

  • Time and Frequency Standards

Electronic Components:

  • Resistor Selection - Leads and SMT types (I suggest 1% tolerance assortments.)

  • Capacitor Selection(s) - Disc; Electrolytic; SMT

  • Diode Selection - Leaded and SMT (Power and Switching)

  • Transistor Selection -Leaded and SMT (NPN, PNP, FET, small signal (audio and RF), Power)

  • Light Emitting Diodes (LED) in various colors and sizes

  • Potentiometers - Various (Variable Resistors)

  • Switch Selection - Various Styles (Toggle, Slide, Rotary, Push Button, Various Pole Configurations, etc.)

  • Ferrite Core Selection

  • Magnet Wire and Teflon Tape for windings on Ferrite Cores

  • Batteries, Tester and Holders (1.5 volt and 9 volt)

  • Voltage Regulator ICs (Various Voltage/Power Sizes )

  • Relays (12 volt - small and large) {Perhaps Sockets for the Relays}

  • Miscellaneous Integrated Circuits [IC] (555 timers; Op Amps; Digital Logic Gates; various analog devices)

  • IC Sockets

  • Loud Speaker(s)

  • Displays - Seven Segment and Sixteen Segment

  • Micro-controllers / Microcomputers

  • Various Sensor, Clock, GPS, etc. Modules for small computers. {Watch the voltage requirements - 3.3 volt Vs 5.0 volt can burn out devices quickly!}

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Go online and search to get some tips about "Buying Electronic Components ", search for other ideas on electronic components on the internet. Try scavenging various components from used equipment (cheapest method and not just radios) and by going to a hamfest looking for components (inexpensive) and searching surplus component suppliers (bargains). If you purchase from electronic parts suppliers (most expensive) you can fill voids. Add slowly as your needs develop and "keep it organized" if not you will not easily find what you need. Old televisions, computers w/monitors, microwaves ovens, old Hi-Fis and radios are a few items that you can tear apart for components. My home has a ham shack, work bench, & general activities desk, general type work desk all with computers on an intranet system. Learn to use that computer to organize your parts collection. Use your computer to keep lists of materials on hand for any project (make a 'project card). I use "AZZ Cardfile" as a 'database' of my parts collection (do a web search). You can search the database (card contents) to find physical and electrical information on the item, I include what shelf I put it on last. For each part where I collected the part, links to internet data on the part, datasheet copy, schematic and pin out information, 'other thoughts' I may want in the future, etc. can all be stored on an azz card for the part. I keep an eye on the old equipment cabinets/boxes. I cannot estimate how many times I have used an "old piece gear" cabinet, repainted and holes filled, new drilled, etc. to house a new project. Special attention to 'water proof cases' is a way to save a lot of money.

Please make sure you collect parts in a safe manner - search the internet for safety requirements. NEVER approach this task in a careless manner. Burns, electrical shocks, material chemical issues, hazardous material handling are a few of the important areas you need to ALWAYS consider. Make your environment a safe one for you and all family members / visitors!

Organization of the parts cannot be over stressed. If organized correctly, you will know what is 'on hand' and what you need to look for at swaps and purchase opportunities. Search out datasheets for the components you collect and store them (on your computer). Use engineering simulation (see LT Spice - free version) and layout software (look on internet for free software) to design, analyze, and make circuit boards for projects. The design and construction of electronics can be a hobby unto itself, but it adds greatly to the personal satisfaction of many hams. If you keep it organized, you quickly determine what you have and decide if you need to purchase something for that next project. Hint: I will start the planning of a project by labeling a container and placing a list of all needed components inside. Then I place those parts in the container and cross off the item. When the list is completely crossed off, I am ready to start the assembly step. I usually place a schematic diagram and any referenced source or filenames inside for reminding me of what I was planning. It is not unusual to have several of these containers on the shelf. As I get time I will pull one down and do the construction. Some of my 'projects' have shelf lives of a few years.

Small micro-controllers/microcomputers fit well into these project areas. This will lead to a need to understanding some various software languages and Integrated Development Environments [IDE] as you implement the designs. Only "you" limit what you may accomplish! This knowledge may even lead a younger person to consider a technical career along these lines. People with these skills are always in demand on the commercial fronts. Learn to take advantage of all your new knowledge. Ham Radio and computer technology feed off each other for quick technical understanding and knowledge growth.

Sometimes we need help with a technical issue or procedure. A place for some help is ARRL Technical Information Service. It is for ARRL members, but is a great place to search for information. Searching the internet has grown into a very productive process. There are several 'YouTube' channels that have a lot of electronic workbench information for you.