What’s on your workbench?

by on Aug.17, 2009, under How-To's, Networking, Software

A lot of people keep asking me, “What tools do you use to hack with?” and I’ve always told them about the same handful of items listed below.  These are the tried and true and have never let me down. Read more to get a full list of items that I use regularly that you might find useful on your workbench for hardware hacking.

I’ve been hacking hardware for the last ten years of my life.  It’s started out with the old 486 computer that someone from school gave me and has escalated from there.  I’ve used a ton of tools ranging from the super expensive to the super cheap but I have managed to find that the following list of items invaluable when it comes to modifying hardware:


  1. A good multimeter – Although most people’s definition of “good” can vary, I mean “good” as in accurate with a lot of options available.  I recommend a multimeter that can read up to 500V AC or DC voltage, Amperage, Ohms, Polarity check (usually with a diode icon) and Continuity with a buzzer.  I highly recommend the buzzer for continuity because the act of turning to look at the display could cause your leads to shift.  It doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy, but one with a good set of test leads (alligator clips or pokey-sticks) will do fine.  My multimeter is one that was produced by Archer (part of RadioShack) for $20,  Catalog # 22-802.
  2. A soldering iron – Think of a soldering iron as the surgeon’s scalpel.  While some hardware hacking can be performed easily without the need for a soldering iron, most of the heavy, deep getting down to it requires the use of a good quality soldering iron.  Mine is about 23 watts which provides enough heat to be able to make the solder melt and distribute evenly.  Too much heat can damage components while too little heat can cause issues with solder.  My soldering iron is a Weller SP23. NOTE: Because a lot of these hacks involve sensitive electronic components, I strongly discourage the use of a soldering “gun” unless you can verify it produces heat via resistance and not via a transformer.  These soldering “guns” make it very hard to work on smaller components as the unregulated heat and the magnetic interference produced by these guns will oftentimes damage components.
  3. Soldering Stand– A soldering stand is pretty much a requirement as you need somewhere safe you can put your soldering iron while it’s not in use or it is heating up/cooling off.  I think Radio Shack sells these for $10 standalone or $20 for a kit that comes with a soldering iron as well.
  4. Solder Wick– This is a small spool of flux-treated copper braiding and it makes it almost painless to desolder things for removal or repair.  It’s a lot easier to use in tight spaces where a solder sucker won’t work very well.
  5. Multi-bin parts container – Don’t let your projects take over your house.  Get a parts container that has multiple compartments or drawers.  I bought mine at a hardware store on clearance for $15 and have never regretted it.  A container that has multiple compartments is highly recommended for those odds-and-ends that just won’t fit in a smaller parts container.
  6. A powerstrip – You’d think that this would be a no-brainer, but it surprises me to see some people with extension cords stretched all over creation.  This is both unsafe and an electrical hazard.  What if your soldering iron slips and manages to burn through it while you’re distracted?  Not the good kind of fireworks.  My bench has something similar to this one and it has yet to fail me.  Ample places to plug stuff in and lots of space.  This one is firmly attached to the back of my bench in arms reach if I need it.
  7. A desktop power supply– Before you freak out on me here, I am serious.  You don’t have to go spend a kajillion dollars on a fancy EE grade power supply.  If you have an AT power supply, this will be more than ample.  You’re looking for one that can output 5VDC, 12VDC or one that is adjustable.  I will be posting a howto shortly on how you can make your own AT power supply for your bench.
  8. Screwdrivers, screwdrivers and more screwdrivers! – How are you going to get the case off if you have nothing to get the case off with.  I recommend a good phillips (+) or common (-) screwdriver set or one that is reversible.  I have one I found in a grocery store that cost me $5 and it has done me quite well for the many months I’ve had it.    I also recommend a torx (star shaped) set, a precision/micro screwdriver set (don’t fall for the $4 set at the dollar store) and a security bit set.
  9. Needle Nose Pliers and Diagonal cutters – Needle nose pliers and diagonal cutters are important additions to your bench as they can get into places that your fingers or larger tools can’t.
  10. The Dremel, prized amongst hardware hackers! -The dremel tool is quite possibly one of the most important tools you’ll need in your adventure of hardware hacking.  This useful tool allows you to cut and grind where a hacksaw won’t go and a file won’t fit.  I highly recommend one, along with a healthy supply of cutting disks.
  11. A large supply of electrical tape – Whether it’s used to get that one wire out of the way or to tape up a splice, electrical tape is very important to keep on-hand

It’s not just tools that make a good bench It also takes a good computer and some other things you normally wouldn’t expect to find on a hardware bench.  Nowadays hacking has gone a lot further than just soldering connections and that’s all she wrote.  With computers getting smaller and smaller, you are able to find them in the darndest of places.  These items are also recommended as they do come in handy quite often.

  • RS-232 Cable Tester
  • A combination of serial port cables and adapters: 9 pin male to 9pin male, 9 pin male to 9 pin female, 9 pin male to 25 pin male, 9 pin male to 25 pin female, 9 pin male-male gender changer, 9 pin female-female gender changer, 25 pin male-male gender changer and a 25 pin female-female gender changer
  • A computer with a true -12V/+12V serial port. *note: USB dongles don’t supply the standard voltages that some devices require for serial communication and will sometimes inhibit connectivity to the device.
  • A USB hub with a power brick
  • USB Zip100 in the clear “old-school” style.  Most embedded devices can boot off of a USB Zip100 and as such might prove useful to have one ready.
  • USB Keydrive (any size, preferrably 512M or more)
  • USB network adapter based off the pegasus driver.  I use a 3com USB network adapter and it has served me quite well.
  • A 10/100 HUB – I said HUB because I meant it.  NOT A SWITCH.   The reason for this is due to the nature of switches and hubs, it’s easier to do packet sniffing for network analysis if your target and your analyzer are plugged into a hub.  A switch won’t necessarily broadcast all packets which makes analysis a bit harder.
  • A linux computer with the following utilities: Wireshark, NMAP, TELNET, SSH and with multiple network interfaces (for isolation.) I will also post a howto on how tobuild a good network analyser soon.
  • A good digital camera – for documenting your hacks and mods!

There are certainly more advanced hacks that might require additional items and some unexpected things may come up, but this list (at least the first one) will put most of the hardware hacks into your scope of ability.  In all the hacks documented on this site, I will outline which tools are required so you can read and know which ones you’ll need before you get started.

Hapy Hacking!


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