Welcome to the paulorenato.com electronic's lab. In this article we have a look at my workspace and the many gadgets I've collected over the years.
The paulorenato.com lab
Since I was a kid, I always dreamt of having a "fully equipped" electronics lab for my home experiments. It took many years, but my current lab more than meets my needs as an electronics hobbyist. It would be no exaggeration to state that my childhood dream has come true. While there are certainly larger and better home labs out there (I've seen a few), I'm quite proud of what I managed to get in a quite reasonable budget. In this article, I wanted to give the reader a tour inside the "paulorenato.com lab". This is not a mere geek-vanity exercise (though I don't consider myself as a vain person, I'm no stranger to the feeling). Instead I hope the tour gives you a sense of what a good home-lab should include, and hopefully inspire newcomers to the hobby to pursue their passion. The world needs more Engineers!
But before we dive into the tour, a few thoughts on buying equipment for your home lab.
Equipment purchasing strategies
In my humble beginnings (early teens), my "lab" consisted of no much more than a DIY adjustable power supply and a cheap analog multi-meter. Reflecting back on those days, I sometimes wonder how I was able to put together some of the projects I built. The funny thing is that having the best equipment available to you doesn't make you a better Engineer. Actually, there is something to be said about the creativity equipment scarcity engenders. When you don't have that sophisticated and expensive piece of equipment, you must do with what you do have. That often forces you to find measurement techniques you didn't think were possible. It also forces you to understand the problem and the equipment you *do* have that much better. This is a long way of saying that you don't need the best equipment in the world to do good work in Electronics. Actually, it may be better to start slow, finding where the equipment you have starts limiting you before investing in new one.
I'm also a big proponent of buying used test equipment. In this specialized market, there's a huge price differential between the new, leading edge equipment and the used one. While there are always better and faster "gadgets" coming into the market, often the old equipment is more than adequate to the hobbyist. It is also often more serviceable in case you ever need to repair it. Most new equipment is full of SMD components and highly integrated ASICS, almost impossible to replace. Older equipment is larger, more accessible and in some cases you can even find service manuals and schematics online.
When I need to buy a piece of test gear for may lab, my two favorite stops are Craigslist and eBay. Craigslist is where you will normally find the better deals. Sometimes people are retiring from the hobby or moving always and will sell you expensive equipment for a very reasonable price. My $100 TAS465 analog oscilloscope is one such example. Also, always negotiate the price. Sellers on Craigslist expect this and most of them will take a lower offer than listed. The key in Craigslist is to be patient. Depending where you live, it may take a while for the equipment you need to show-up for sale. If you live in a rural area, than it may take a very long time indeed.. Enter eBay.
EBay is my second favorite place to buy electronics gear. Prices may be a little higher than Craigslist, but the selection is huge. There's almost nothing you can't find on eBay. If the equipment you are buying is expensive, make sure that the seller accepts returns. Also inquire about their shipping and packing procedure. Particularly with heavy older equipment, it is important that the seller knows how to properly pack and pad the equipment to protect it against damage.
Finally, another place that is often forgotten is Garage sales. If you see one on craigslist from a ham radio operator or other electronics enthusiast, you can sometimes find gold in there. You will find stuff you didn't even know you needed:)
Without further ado, let's start the tour. Figure 1 shows a section of my home lab, highlighting the "Big Items". These are not only literally "big" (don't recommend lifting the hp 8656B alone), they are also some of the larger investments in any lab.
Starting with my trusty analog scope (already mentioned above), the 100 MHz TAS 465 is a dual-channel analog scope from Tektronix. I'm partial to Tektronix scopes, having used them at work quite extensively over the years. The TAS 465 is somewhat of a "hybrid" analog/digital scope. While the display is the typical analog CRT kind, the controls are borrowed from the TDS series of digital scopes; it even includes an auto-set button! It's a good second scope and would probably also be a good starter scope for someone coming into the hobby. They often sell for as little as $100 to $150 on eBay. As shown in Figure 1, I bought a separate scope car (aka "scope mobile) so I can move the unit around. Not a must, but certainly convenient.
Whenever I need a bit more functionality I turn to my "crown jewel", the 1GHz Tektronix TDS784D digital storage oscilloscopes. I was very fortunate to be able to buy a relatively cheap, broken unit and even more lucky to have been able to repair it. This 4-channel scope oscilloscope is fully-featured with all kinds of measurement capabilities and superior bandwidth and sampling speed. I hope it lasts me a long time because I don't expect needing anything better for home use (it's probably "overkill" for most hobby uses).
The hp8656B is an example of something I bought for a very reasonable price on eBay. This RF generator is capable of generating sine waves from 100 KHz to about 1GHz. It takes over where my low-speed function generators stop. With some patience, you can also use it along with the 1GHz oscilloscope as a poor man's network analyzer (for sub 1GHz measurements anyways).
Also shown in Figure 1 are my tool and component storage units. As you spend a few years in the hobby, you will eventually gather a large assortment of components. Organizing them in small drawers like this is essential if you ever hope to find the components for your projects. I actually have quite a few more of these (not shown in the photo). There are many available units out there like this one from Amazon.
Figure 1 - The Big Items
Moving to Figure 2, we get a more detailed view of the smaller, but often just as important, instruments in the lab. Perhaps second only in utility to an Oscilloscope in a good electronics lab is a good and reliable Multi-meter. The Fluke 87-V is one of the best portable multi-meters in the market. Fluke has a (well deserved) reputation for reliability and quality. The fluke 87 is full featured, and besides the normal Ohm/Amps/Volts modes, it also includes capacitance, temperature, frequency and even duty cycle measurements. Flukes are not cheap, but you can often find good deals on Craigslist or eBay. Given their quality and reliability, a used Fluke is often almost as good as new, but at a significant discount. Shown in Figure 2 are also my two other "cheap" multi-meters that I often use in more "dangerous" circuits or whenever I need to make noncritical measurements.
Good adjustable power supplies are another must-have item in an electronics lab. This should probably be your very first purchase along with a multi-meter. I have both a 0-8V older hp adjustable power supply (shown on the left of Figure 2) and a more recent "budget" unit (similar to this one on Amazon). There's also a very small DIY unit sitting on top of the frequency counter.
And speaking of DIY, my home-made adjustable constant current load (described in this article) sits also on the top shelve. Useful for testing power supplies, this is also a fun project to build on your own.
The Extech 380193 LCR meter is another eBay find and is very useful for accurate characterization of capacitors and inductors. If you work with DC-DC converters, a LCR meter can be very useful in selecting inductors for example. Not a must in a starter electronics lab, but useful nonetheless. Sitting on top of the table is also a(very) cheap LC meter I used before purchasing the Extech but that now sees little use. It's not a very accurate instrument but does the job on a pinch.
Any good electronics lab should also have at least one function generator. I happen to have two of them the BK Precision 4003A 4 MHz Function Generator, and the GW Instek 8250A. Both operate in the sub 5 MHz range, not enough for RF (thus the hp8656B), but more than enough for audio work for example. They both offer the usual selection of sine/square and triangular waves, with the BK precision also featuring sweep capabilities (useful for frequency response characterization work).
My frequency counter is a "budget" F1000 unit capable of measurements up to 1GHz. I don't use the counter very often so this seemed like a good compromise. If you do use frequency counters often I would suggest investing on a more capable unit. Some features like adjustable trigger level are missing in these cheap units, and the accuracy is also nothing to write home about.
An infrared thermometer like the Kintrex IRT0421 has many applications besides electronics (want to measure the turkey temperature in the oven? What about the insulation in your doors?). However, they are also quite useful for quick (though not very accurate) case temperature measurements or heat sink temperature measurements. I've been happy with this Kintrex unit that in my view offers quite good value for the money.
Figure 2 - Detail View
And finally, to wrap things-up, an essential tool for anyone building electronics circuits is a good soldering station like the Hakko FX-888. There are also other good brands like Weller that make good quality soldering stations. Look for adjustable temperature controls and a good selection of soldering tips.
And that's it. Hope you enjoyed the paulorenato.com "lab tour".
Comments, questions, suggestions? You can reach me at: contact (at sign) paulorenato (dot) com