A guide to get you started making all the things!
Prototyping a tic-tac-toe board
Back in February of this year I picked up electronics as a hobby. I’ve been tinkering with computers since I was a kid, and programming for 15 years, but had never really dabbled in the marriage of those things: hardware + software.
In the four months since I started tinkering with this stuff, I’ve jumped in about as deep as I probably could. I’ve turned an entire room of our home in to a makerspace for our kids (and, ahem, me) and am building new little gadgets just about every week.
I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, though. Those tangential benefits I’ll cover in another article. Here, I want totalk about how I got in to it, how you can get in to it, and list some resources to keep your wheels turning.
The easiest way to get started is with a kit of some sort. I kicked things off with the Arduino Starter Kit, which was around $80 on Amazon. It’s project-based learning with 15 projects and all the supplies you need to learn the basics.
Arduino Starter Kit
The kit, and all the code inside, assumes you’ve got very little experience. It also has the added benefit of everything using a solderless breadboard, so no soldering required.
There are other popular kits for getting in to electronics (such as Make: Electronics and it’s corresponding Components Pack) but I found the others either overly verbose or too simplistic and impractical.
I knocked out all 15 projects in the Arduino Starter Kit over the course of a few evenings and weekends, which isn’t to say they were all really easy projects…I was just that engrossed with doing the projects. I took over our dining room table and sat down to tinker every chance I got.
I don’t know enough about other platforms, such as Raspberry Pi, to recommend one way or the other. From my limited research, Arduino seemed slightly more accessible for beginners so I just picked that and went with it.
Basic tools & supplies
Assuming sticking your toes in the electronic waters was successful, there are a few tools and supplies you’ll likely want soon thereafter so you can create more substantial and permanent gadgets.
Here are the things I’ve found I use basically every day.
- Compartmental organizer — You’ll amass an obscene amount of tiny little bits and pieces. I’ve got four different organizers that I’ve already filled up.
- Soldering iron, solder & cleaner — Once you start creating anything you want to keep around for a while, you’ll need to solder. I’d never soldered a single thing in my life and I picked it up in about 10 minutes. You’ll want a solder sucker as well because you will mess up.
- Helping hand — When you’re trying to solder multiple tiny things together, a Helping Hand (literally, that’s what it’s called) is a must, lest you enjoy yelling at wires.
- Wire strippers — You’ll find your entire workspace is frequently covered in tiny little wire bits, but it’s a sign of progress. :)
- Multimeter — Lots of uses for a multimeter, but I find I use it mainly for debugging and making sure I’m not overpowering a circuit.
- Mini-vise — Similar to a helping hand, this thing is about the only way to solder things components on to a circuit board.
- Breadboards — Breadboards are temporary circuit boards that let you quickly prototype your ideas. You’ll want a few of these around unless you linearly complete all projects and never have multiple things going at the same time…which also would make you weird.
- Jumper wires — Jumper wires plug in to breadboards and many other electronic components to let you quickly prototype things…they go hand-in-hand with those breadboards and you’ll want a lot of them.
- Capacitors — On a basic level, capacitors help smooth voltage fluctuations, and nearly every project will use them. Get a variety pack of these puppies as they’re relatively cheap and it’s annoying to not have what you need on hand.
- Resistors — Resistors, wait for it…resist the flow of electricity, changing the voltage and current. Things like LEDs will use the heck out of these as they prevent high voltages from blowing junk up. As with capacitors, there are an infinite number of resistor values, so you’ll want a variety pack.
- Perma-proto PCBs — Printed circuit boards (PCBs) are what you’ll use when you’re wanting to make your little creation in to something more permanent. These perma-proto PCBs are freakishly convenient as they’re basically a solderable version of the breadboard and translate directly from breadboard to PCB.
- Wire assortment — Once you start making things that don’t fit in a nice compact breadboard or once you start creating more permanent things, you’ll need wire out the whazoo.
I linked to the places I purchased these things, but you can find most of these things just about anywhere that sells electronic components. Most of these things can be found for really cheap (as in pennies) on eBay, but you’ll likely have to wait weeks for them to arrive as they’re usually shipping from China.
Building wake-up light alarm
What do I build?
When I talk to people about this stuff, they usually ask, “What do you make?” To which I usually respond, “All the things!” I’ve found that once you start tinkering, your brain quickly starts coming up with ideas. I’ve got a Trello board with hundreds of random ideas and not near enough time (or money) to build them all. You won’t run out of things to build.
Here’s a short list of some of the stuff I’m working on or have built in the past few months:
- LED tic-tac-toe board
- Wake-up light alarm
- Freezer door alarm
- iTunes upvote/downvote button
- Garden humidity & temperature monitor
- Garage door remote control
- LED rainbow lanterns (for the kids!)
The list of things above is just scratching the surface. There were lots of other “failed” projects where I got deep in to the thing and realized there were some major flaws in my design/idea and so I’d scrap them until later. I say “failed” because screwing junk up is one of my favorite ways to learn…so it’s hardly an actual “failure”.
It’s easy to be intimidated by this stuff or to overcomplicate it in your head. If you’re even remotely interested in this stuff, quit researching things or creating folders of saved links and tools you’d love to have one day.
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