Among the expensive professional tools and machines that are used in a commercial electronics assembly facility, there are some small hand tools that are used all the time. These are none the worse for being low cost, generally available tools, and any musician interested in doing some of their own tech work can put these to good use on a regular basis. Here are six great tools you can go buy for yourself right now, and not one of them is over forty bucks.
Jonard JIC Wire Strippers and Cutters
One of my colleagues left one of these on the workbench by accident, and then kindly let me keep it after I confessed to using it and liking it so much. There are three different versions of the Jonard JIC wire strippers and cutters that strip wires from 30 – 10 AWG. The 20 – 30 AWG model will be suitable for most small electronics such as guitars and pedals. If you are working with larger cables such as on amps and speakers, then you may need one of the larger range versions too. At around $10 each, you can get all three so you can cover the full stripping range, or just choose the one that covers the range of wire sizes you typically work with.The stripping notches are very sharp and accurately machined so you can strip wires quickly with a nice edge and no nicks in the conductor. The wire sizes are clearly marked on the blades on both sides, and in AWG and metric, so you can easily see the correct one. The cutting blades are also sharp, and make nice clean cuts in solid and stranded wire. The spring loading speeds up the work when preparing multiple wires.The grips at the tip hold on to wires, bolts and nuts really well. I use them for removing the hot nozzle of a soldering iron when I need to switch tips.
If you do maintenance or assembly of tube amps, the wire bending holes are really useful for quickly and accurately putting clean bends in the wire conductors for wrapping around components and turret boards.
Xcelite XST Super-Tru Tip #2 Long Phillips Screwdriver
Some Phillips screw heads can be a challenge if the head of the screw is soft, old, or already partially rounded off. Removing such screws or doing them up tightly without further damage can be tricky, especially in hard to reach places. The Xcelite XST 1020-12200 Super-Tru Tip #2 long Phillips screwdriver is perfect for these situations. Xcelite describes the Super-Tru Tip as designed to reduce damage to screw head recesses, and it really works. I prefer the long (10”) shank version for accessing screws that are hard to reach inside larger amp and speaker cabinets, but Xcelite make shorter length versions too, as well as a #1 tip size version if you need it.
Xcelite was founded in 1921, and you’ll often see their tools in labs, fabs, and machine shops in the electronics and aerospace industries. Many are not as expensive as you might expect. You can pick up the XST 1020-12200 screwdriver for under $20, and even Home Depot is stocking some Xcelite products these days. Just make sure to look for the Super-Tru Tip on the Phillips drivers.
Wiha Magnetizer Demagnetizer
Sometimes a screwdriver or similar tool with a magnetic tip is extremely useful for retrieving fixings and parts that may have been dropped into a chassis. At other times, such as when positioning small parts, a magnetic tip can make things more difficult as the tip will not let go of the part. One way around this is to keep both magnetic, and non-magnetic tools, but another option is to use the Wiha Magnetizer Demagnetizer. Pass the tip of a steel tool through the + side to magnetize it. When you are done, pass it through the – side to demagnetize. Sometimes tools can become magnetized through use, and using the demagnetize side of this tool can reverse this. At just 2” square, about 4oz, and less that $5, there’s no excuse not to keep a few of these around.
Pro’s Kit 30pc Metric and Inch Hex Key Set
Hex key bolts are popular for self-assembly products or those that require end user adjustment. The hex key tools can be manufactured cheaply, and when using the correct size tool, the chances of an inexperienced user damaging the fixing are reduced. The problem is that there are just so many different sizes. You never seem to have the correct one, and unlike slot or cross type heads where you can usually get by with a driver that’s slightly the wrong size, for hex sockets, you really need the right size.
The Pro’s Kit 30pc Metric and Inch Hex Key Set has 15 metric, and 15 inch hex keys. The inch side ranges from a small 0.028 used on small items such as clocks and watches, to a 3/8” at the largest. Unless you have a sideline building bridges, or maintaining marine engines, 3/8 should be large enough for anything found in music electronics. The metric side has a similar range from 0.7mm to 10mm. If you search around you can find the kit for under $30.
Donegan Optical OptiVISOR
When working with small parts on circuit boards in amps and effects, or doing fine work on guitars such as fret dressing, a Donegan Optical OptiVISOR headband magnifier will help you work more accurately. Interchangeable lenses let you choose the amount of magnification, but remember that the more magnification, the shorter the focal length, so you have to get your head closer to the work with the higher magnification lenses. This is OK for inspection, but you need some working distance when doing assembly.
I use DA4 lenses mostly. The 2 times magnification is enough for most projects. The 20” focal length gives enough clearance for soldering parts, and provides a good all round view of the work piece. For inspection, I switch to a DA10. The 3.5X magnification is good for examining small surface mount parts, and solder joints, but the short 4” focal length means you’ll have to switch back to the DA4 lenses to carry on working. Switching lenses is quick with just a couple of screws holding them in place.
You can pick up a headband with one set of lenses for around $40. Make sure to get the real thing which has prismatic lenses for true stereoscopic vision. The very low cost non-prismatic magnifiers are not stereoscopic so you can really only use one eye at a time, and the focal length is often very short. This is maybe okay for inspection, but is hopeless if you are trying to place SMD parts, or do any other fine positioning activity.
Ubante Digital Caliper
Sometimes using a ruler, or measuring tape is not accurate enough. Drilling holes in enclosures for home-brew effects, measuring material thicknesses for correct fitting etc. These require a digital caliper. Mitutoyo are the gold standard caliper tool, but at over $100 for the entry level unit, and they are outside the price range of this article. Top of the line Mitutoyos utilize carbon fiber construction and can set you back over $3000. The ones I mostly use are somewhat more modest, from Lowes, but unfortunately are no longer available there. I like the stainless steel body, clear display, and simple to use controls. However, The Ubante Digital Caliper, available on Amazon for under $25, looks like it is the same tool just with a different brand.
Machinists and industrial designers I know carry their calipers around with them, as they just never know when they may need to measure something accurately. Start using these and you’ll never go back.