Friday, December 7, 2012

SHTF Electronics Part 1 - Basic Tools

SHTF Electronics Basic Tools

PART ONE: Small Hand Tools

After I wrote up the little “SHTF Radio” article for wirecutter, I started to think a little bit further, and started to think about how I could support other people who might have electronics problems after the SHTF. I started to think about what’s in my toolbox, and on my bench, sort of like the “What’s In YOUR Range Bag” articles that my fellow bloggers have posted.

Now, I’m sure most of you reading this already have quite an assortment of tools. People like us, whether we work on old cars, guns, airplanes, or just tinker around the house, have tools. Lots of tools. My wife used to say TOO MANY tools until she saw me pull some weird looking stuff out of one of my toll boxes, and fixed a problem on her car in 15 minutes that the dealer wanted all day and $450 to fix.
After that episode, whenever I say I’m buying another special tool for something, she just smiles.

A lot of the common tools most of you have are “kinda sorta” suitable for electronics use, but buying some specialized items will make your electronics hobby far more pleasurable, and will surprisingly come in handy for a lot of other things, too.

I’ll start with small hand tools first, and move on up to the more expensive, specialized stuff later.

As a general rule, I stay FAR away from “pre-packaged electronics technician’s tool kits” sold by companies like Jensen Tools and others. Over the years I’ve found their assortments to be lacking in variety, they include tools you’ll rarely (if ever) use, the quality questionable, and the prices outrageously high.

Build your own tool kit, one piece at a time, and buy only the highest quality tools you can afford.

When I mention a specific tool company, keep in mind that I get NO kickbacks, free tools, or other inducements. I’m just recommending tool companies that I’ve used, and own, tools from, and I’ve been doing this stuff for 50 years now. I know what works, what breaks, and what you can get away with!

Gee, where have we heard things like that before?

And BTW....sorry for the crappy formatting of the pictures, and their placement. This damn blogger interface won't let me size and place things where I want to!

Looks like I'll have to crack out the HTML books again, and start doing it that way.

I have a very nice Micro$oft Word document, but when I imported it, it dropped ALL the pictures.

Oh, well........


You need some GOOD QUALITY long nose, or ‘needle nose’ pliers, about 4-1/2 to 6” long. There are many different kinds (smooth jaw, chain nose, serrated jaw, end nipper, flat jaw, curved jaw, etc), and the Xcelite catalog has SEVEN PAGES of long nose pliers!

The same applies to side cutters. You NEED a good, sharp pair of them. If you do a lot of circuit board work, get a pair of flush cut pliers. They clip the leads off right at the solder joint, and don’t leave a sharp point of the cut off lead sticking up, just waiting to snag your hands as you maneuver the board around on the bench. The Xcelite catalog also has seven pages of side cutters.

For long nose pliers, I prefer the Xcelite ELN54 thin long nose model, and for more delicate work, I like their LN542 plier


              ELN54                                                                                   LN542

Get the “Cushion Grip” handles if you can. Your hands will thank you!

For side cutters, I use the MS549J flush cut with a small head for restricted spaces, and the MS54J for general use. For cutting larger leads, I use the S54NS, which have a coil spring to force them back open.

 MS549J                                                               MS54J

Keep in mind that these small pliers are NOT to be used for cutting, bending, or forming anything other than soft copper wire! I loaned a pair to a guy at a job site once who brought them back with a series of round dents in the jaws, complaining that they wouldn’t cut anything. After I calmed down a bit that he’d ruined my $20 pliers, I asked him what he was cutting, and he said “Wire, why?”. He showed me the “wire” he was trying to cut, and it was copper-plated STEEL wire for his MiG welder. The pliers looked like he’d tried to cut small screws with them, and they were completely useless for their intended purpose. If you want to install Cotter keys (“Split Pins”) in your car, use your big old honkin’ Craftsman pliers, NOT your rather delicate Xcelite electronics pliers!

You can download the entire Xcelite catalog at:


Please, don’t use your teeth to strip wire on a regular basis! When I was 10 years old or so, I was having my teeth cleaned, and the Dentist dug out a small piece of red plastic, and wondered out loud what I’d been “eating”. I looked at the piece, and told him it was from some small wire I had to strip, and his jaw about hit the floor.
Besides running the risk of a self-extraction of your incisors, remember what Mom always said…”You don’t know where that’s been!”, and keep your teeth for eating things.

While you can strip wire with your side cutters, it takes skill and experience to do so, and you’ll wind up cutting the end off a LOT of wire before you get the hang of it!

I have two different strippers, for different sizes of wire. They’re not with me now, but one pair will handle up to #10 wire, while the other pair goes down to #24. They overlap a few sizes, but nobody makes a single pair that covers all the wire sizes I work with, so I have two pair.

They look like this:

The pictured ones are made by Klein Tools, whose catalog you can download from here:

You can also use one of the “Automatic” wire strippers if you have the room to do so, and these are really nice if you’re stripping a lot of wires, like to make a wire harness. You’ve probably seen them, and they look like this:

These are made by Ideal Industries, and go by the name of “Stripmaster”. I’ve been using these since my high-school days in the 60’s, and if they’ve been around that long, they must have something going for them!

Ideal is another fine tool maker, and you can download their catalog here:

Snap Ring Pliers

You won’t need these very often when working with electronics, but when you do, you’ll need them. Get a small pair, with changeable tips, and you should be good to go. Most consumer electronics uses “E-rings” or “C- clips”, but occasionally you’ll find small snap rings used, especially in military equipment.

The dreaded “E-Ring” or “C-Clip”

I’ve never seen the two-piece clip in the center, but I’ll bet it’s fun to remove/install. Most of the ones you’ll find are similar to the two in the upper right of the picture. You can pop them off using a small flat blade screw driver, and snap them back on with some long nose pliers.

Be care, or they’ll go flying across the room, leading to their other name, a “Jesus clip”!

That’s it for this chapter. I’ll cover things like nut drivers, precision screwdrivers, hex keys, spline keys, ball drivers, and other “drivers” in the next chapter.


  1. Great post and I concur! Good stuff here! I still have my Xcelite cutters issued by Ma Bell. They are fantastic!

  2. I like Klein! They've got good (if expensive) stuff...

  3. And on the split ring pliers: don't get the Horrible Freight kit. POC steel, bent on the first use.

  4. Yep, goes along with what my Dad taught me.....Buy The BEST Tools You Can Afford, And SAVE For Them If You Have To!

    A poor quality tool can be worse than no tool, as it tempts you to try and do the job, often leading to ruined parts, a broken tool, or blood.

  5. Most of my tool usage is/was for farm based stuff - like pliers that can cut barbed wire and still have decent set of gripping jaws. Old CeeTees were the best, but they've been crap for over twenty years. The jaws don't even meet on most pliers for sale these days and are too soft to cut barbed wire. Which is pretty soft itself. My father planted numerous examples, but alas, they failed to grow. He never got 1/2" or 9/16" combo wrenches to grow, either. Go figure.

    When I worked for a discount store way back when, one of my duties was to replace the ballasts in the florescent light fixtures (twenty five foot ceilings). They sold a cheap wire stripper that I came to love - and I used to have a pair. They featured nothing more than a triangular cut in one jaw, flat on the other with an eccentric wheel to change the gauge, and a flat screwdriver tip. I never used the gauge wheel - you could "feel" when biting into wire and strip accordingly. It was simple, light, and super easy.

  6. Yepper, Jeff, I've got some BIG old honkin' pliers for that kind of work, too!

    And you've obviously stripped enough wire to know what it feels like when it just barely cuts through the insulation, and you can give it a good pull to get the insulation off, and not have half the strands of wire come off with it!

    When I worked for both Hughes Aircraft and Boeing, they were so paranoid about damaging the wire that our wire strippers had to be sent to the calibration lab twice a year!

    We also had thermal wire strippers, but depending on the type of plastic insulation on the wire, you could drive people out of the room (or the building!) using them.


Keep it civil, please....