How to get started in hobby electronics
A lot of people imagine a brilliant genius in a garage somewhere soldering wires together to create a new device or perhaps a custom computer system when they think of an electronic hobbyist. This is not an incorrect picture but hobby electronics is far from just tinkering with electronic components. There is a lot more to it than that. Hobbyists can make virtually anything to suit their needs, including novelties and necessities.
When it comes to making your own gadgets and gizmos, there are a variety of ways to get started. You can buy a starter kit for kids, which includes snap-together components, or you can devote an entire room in the house to storing electrical components, including a soldering station and power sources. Getting into electronics as a hobby usually doesn't necessitate any prior knowledge of software or hardware; instead, it can be a hobby that allows you to pick up these skills along the way. The ability to think critically, be creative, and be innovative can all be enhanced through an interest in electronic tinkering. It's a fascinating pastime, but how do you get started?
The first step An easy way to get started if you are completely new to electronics, and don't know anything about circuit boards or wire gauges, is with a starter kit that includes all of the necessary components and even a computer board like a Raspberry Pi or Arduino. These are fully functional computers, usually shipped as a circuit board with the processors and ports already attached and ready to be used. As long as they are plugged into a power source and an SD card is installed with an operating system, they can be used as normal computers. This lends well to using them to test out homebrew operating systems or other electronic systems, such as robotics. They are also fairly cheap, with both the Arduino and Raspberry Pi averaging around $40. They can also be acquired in kits, with an Arduino starter kit, found many places online and running anywhere from $70-$100. These kits come with the computer board, along with a variety of other components necessary to get started. It's common for these kits to come with pre-assigned projects and detailed instructions to follow, which are designed to give you an idea of how certain electronic projects come together and teach basic electronic skills. In some very beginner kits, the breadboard connectors do not require soldering, allowing absolute beginners to get started on projects without first learning the intricacies of soldering wires. Know where to go Many of the resources available for new electronic hobbyists can be overwhelming for those trying to learn new skills, but there are some that are very useful. In addition to YouTube videos on how to create specific projects, websites like Thingiverse, which hosts 3-D printing files for hobbyists to download and use, and AdaFruit, which hosts various projects that can be done with Raspberry Pi or Arduino circuit boards, have a variety of ideas for projects to try, and even links to where you can purchase the components needed. There are a slew of resources available for the beginning maker, regardless of your technical skill level. It is possible to download various homebrew operating systems and Linux kernels for the Raspberry Pi, such as the RetroPie kernel, a gaming system that uses a version of Linux to run emulators that will run ROMs of long-forgotten video games, from the GitHub online code library. If you have some time off over the Thanksgiving holidays, there are a number of free projects you can try with any of the kits mentioned above. Tools you will need Once you’ve decided that hobby electronics is for you, you will likely quickly grow beyond the starter kits. If you want to pursue more complex electronic projects, maybe even take a hand at manufacturing your creations, there are a few tools that you will need to tackle more complex projects. It is not necessary to go out and buy a variety of electronics tools right away, as some of them you won’t need until you tackle a specific project, but some of the following you’ll want to have on hand, as most projects will need them: • Organization bins- crafting electronics is an exercise in acquiring an obsessive amount of small, easy to lose components. It is beneficial to have some sort of organizational system compartments to house specific items from the start. Most serious hobbyists usually end up with anywhere from 4 to 5 compartment organizers complete with different size drawers to hold all of the various electronic bits and pieces they will end up using. • Wire strippers- The tool that removes the protective casing from the ends of wires is a must have for electronics hobbyists. It is a rare project that will not require cutting and running wires of some sort. • Breadboards- even if you did not know what they were called, no doubt you have probably seen them. These are white temporary circuit boards with various access holes that let you work out your ideas with the wiring configuration, to see if the layout you are envisioning will indeed work before you solder the wires to a permanent board. • Capacitors and resistors - capacitors even out voltage fluctuations and resistors change the voltage and current for things like LED lights. Nearly every project will use them so grabbing some packs of a variety of sizes will be necessary. • Soldering iron- soldering is not as difficult as the new hobbyist might imagine, and with the proper instruction can be picked up in a matter of minutes. Any project that will be permanent when finished should be soldered, so have the tools on hand, including a soldering sucker for when you mess up. • Wire- it probably goes without saying that every electronics project will require quite a bit of wiring, so keep a variety of different sizes and types on hand. • Multi-meter – This is a must-have tool that measures a variety of electrical functions, but is mainly used to determine voltage, resistance and current, for the purpose of evaluating electrical circuitry. If you have wired something incorrectly or with the wrong power level, you will want one of these to diagnose the problem. • Super glue or hot glue gun – Occasionally you will find yourself constructing something that needs to hold in a particular place and drilling screws won’t work. You might also find yourself needing to hold electronic circuitry in place in a custom made casing and it doesn’t quite fit just right. • Helping Hands with magnifier and light – This highly useful tool holds small parts in place, and with an attached magnifying glass and light, makes them easy to see. If you need something to hold still while you attach a component but you need both hands for the delicate work, this tool is essential. What can you create? The answer is anything you can imagine. Once your mind becomes accustomed to thinking like a tinkerer, you will start envisioning all kinds of projects, including some you had no idea you even wanted to try. Usually, when you acquire a new tool or component that does a specific function, you start envisioning the various projects and what you can use it for. If you spend a lot of time on communities online where other hobbyists post their DIY home projects, you might find a way to improve upon them or alter them for your own purposes. You can build such things as a RetroPie gaming system, an alarm clock, LED lighted holiday projects, 3D printed but functional game props, an infrared motion detector, an FM transmitter, or a custom fire alarm. Add some 3D printing to your arsenal, and your projects can end up with fanciful cases, moving parts, or even designs never seen before. In many cases, electronics hobbyists make devices for themselves based on their own needs that they either cannot find elsewhere, or if such a device already exists, costs more than they are willing to pay. Some hobbyists have created useful tools such as self-watering devices for plants, blinking lights for bicycles, digital temperature and barometer devices, and Internet connected controllers to control various house functions such as lights and AC. On your way It’s easy to be intimidated by the complexity of electronics when you are first starting out in the hobby. Indeed, your maker space might quickly accumulate the remains of several failed projects that will quickly outnumber the successful ones, but just remember, these are not failures, only learning experiences. Finding the flaws in a design or wiring something incorrectly is the best way to learn how not to do it the next time. The best thing you can do now, however, is just get started. While reading and watching are certainly useful for gaining new information, when it comes to crafting or any other type of hobby, learning by doing is one of the best methods. Don’t let yourself be put off by just looking at the kits online or reading about it without taking any action. Pick up some wires, a bread board, and some LED lights, and get started.