OSHW: Where to Start, and How to Participate

So you read my post about OSHW, you’re super excited to do some hardware of your own, but have absolutely no clue where to start. I get that! We hear about that all the time, and I have some really simple stuff to get you started. First thing is first, the excitement and interest is great. At the end of the day your want to learn, and to better yourself is the important part. Even if all you do your first day on the job is light up an LED, i promise it will be cool, and as you get deeper its that interest that will keep you going through the really gross bugs. If you’re already elbows deep in a project and looking for pointers read down a bit, I try to explain the tools you need and how to work with and without them. For everyone else here is my advice for where to start…

Tools

I would really recommend taking a look at Lady Ada’s equipment list as a starting point for what you’re gonna need. The following is my list of comments.

Soldering iron

You just need one for now. Get the most watts you can reasonably afford, but there is nothing wrong with a $25 iron. I used to have one of the Metcals and I loved it (it was also my job to solder for days on end), but unless you are trying to find a place to spend your millions you don’t need one.

Multimeter

If you can afford an auto ranging one get it. I used to bang my head against the wall picking ranges, which is just a pain.

Power Source

My advice would be (and please don’t die or sue me) to take a 12V or smaller wallwart for some old thing that you no longer have and cut the connector off. 12V and below can’t kill you, so you should be safe, and you’re gonna love not having batteries to fool around with.

Tronix

Do you need a scope? a logic analyzer? Universal counter? Variable dc supply? etc, etc, etc. While all very, very cool, my answer is a resounding no. All of these tools make your life easier when trying to solve certain problems. And I really do want you to stick around electronics long enough that you collect all of these tools, but start small. Start with what you need, and when you hit a problem that requires a scope to solve beg, borrow and steal one, and only when you need to – pony up and buy one. I will change my story if someone ever builds a cheap usb accessible display-less scope, or logic analyzer, but for now I say skip it.

Bits n’ Pieces

So, you have some tools and you have parts for an idea. But you are a hacker, and hackers need to hack. So here are some suggestions for the bits n’ pieces to keep around for maximum hack-ability.  I’d start with something like thesparkfun beginners kit. The Make beginner electronics kits also look decent, albeit more expensive, kit1 & kit2. Its totally cool to put together your own kit too, here are my suggestions.

Resistors & Caps

For resistors you need a range of values from 20R up to 1M (20 ohms to 1 mega-ohm). You can have big spread in the high values, so your density should be best between a couple hundred and tens of thousands (250R – 20K). For capacitors you again need a range of values from 10pF to 100uF.

The smaller values will need to be ceramic while the bigger values will need to be electrolytic, but don’t get too hung up on any of this. The important part is that you have a starting point, you will still find yourself needing particular parts, for particular problems as time goes on.

Diodes & Transistors

While super cool and I recommend having a few lying around (1N4148 Diode, 1N4001 Diode, 2N3906 PNP Transistor, 2N3904 NPN Transistor) your need for diodes and transistors will largely be driven by your project. With one exception – LEDs. Because you always need a couple LEDs kicking around.

Others

You’re gonna want a few switches, some wire, and maybe a 7-segment. Headers and pots are useful too. But really don’t worry too much about these. This pile is gonna grow as you hack and collect your stash of bits.

What to Hack on?

So, you’ve got the bare essentials and are looking for a project. My advice would be to start by looking at something like the Spinnerette or the Arduino. Here is a link to a top-40 list of Arduino projects which might give you some inspiration.

Sensors are cool
Robots are cool. Anything wireless, or distributed, or web-connected is cool. But hell even the simple stuff like multi-color leds (2) and making sounds is cool.

How to Use the Tools?

Never done any of this before? No biggie! Here are some videos and tutorials on using the tools – and don’t worry if you mess up, in the end its all about the learning experience and the fun you have hacking away.

Zak’s OSHW Plug

OSHW is made great by the people, the energy and the collaboration in this community. However big or small your project please share it. Post pictures, make a video, share the schematics, give a part list, anythingeverything. Teach others what you learned, and help others to get involved. Together lets make this a great place to learn and hang-out.

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