I’ve had a number of requests for a look at my workspace, so I figured I’d finally sit down and do one. I like reading about other peoples’ workspaces, because it’s such a deeply personal thing. You learn a lot about someone by the crap on their bench. It’s a bit like a fingerprint- no two hacker workspaces are alike. For example, in my case, I’m a notorious cheapskate. If I started a religion, “Bang for the Buck” would be the first commandment. Well, maybe that whole “don’t kill each other” thing is still a good one, so that’d be at the top. But “Bang for the Buck” would be somewhere in the single digits, I think. Okay, enough theology. Let’s take a look around.
I have two work areas. One for the small clean stuff, and one for the big dirty stuff. The former is probably where I spend the most time, so let’s start there. This is the first work area I set up. It worked well in the small apartment I was in at the time. When I moved into a larger place, it was easy to relocate as-is.
My “bench” is actually just a computer desk with a hutch on top. I wanted something that looks like furniture, since it’s in the house and I have to look at it every day. The best way to make your workbench look like furniture is to make your workbench furniture. This is pretty easy to get away with for electronics, since it’s a pretty clean activity. The desk is nothing fancy. I think I googled “desk with hutch” and bought something that came up in the results. Getting the matching armless banker’s chair was a little tougher, but this isn’t an interior decorating blog, so I’ll skip that story.
Next to it is a stainless steel cart from Ikea that I got second-hand. A metal surface is handy sometimes (you can ground it!), and the open shelves make handy storage for things I need often, but don’t need to be immediately at hand. I like to think of storage in terms of “deep” and “shallow”. Deep storage is stuff you need maybe once every six months. This goes away in a box in the closet. Shallow storage is stuff you need multiple times a day. This goes somewhere immediately at hand when seated. This rolling cart is somewhere in the middle. It holds PCB making supplies, for example, which I don’t need that often. The cart also acts as a movable work surface. My main desk area is very efficient, but not very big. Sometimes you need to spread out more, and a movable surface gives you options.
Okay, let’s zoom in a little now. The devil is always in the details. There’s a running theme throughout my work areas- organization and tidiness. I could give a whole speech about how being organized makes you more efficient and you can get more done and blah de blah de blah. I could also simply admit that I’m mildly obsessive compulsive, and arranging my screwdrivers in a row makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. As with most things in life, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Starting with the hutch on top of the desk…
All the bins you see in the hutch are from Art Bin. I like them because they positive latches, good hinges, and moveable compartment dividers. They are also made of a smooth plastic that allows labels to stick, but still be removed cleanly. The value of this is flexibility. No storage system is perfect on the first attempt, and you’ll always need to rearrange things at some point. The simple act of buying a new resistor value that you never had before can throw the whole system into chaos if you don’t have a system that can adapt. In my experience, inflexibility is the death of most attempts to organize. Getting organized is pretty easy. It’s staying organized that takes practice and technique. One of my other hobbies is managing logistics for an endurance racing team (when I’m not in the car, of course!). You learn all this stuff in a hurry when you have get a couple thousand pounds of gear moved all over the state, and still be able to find an exact size O-Ring on a moment’s notice when the Chief Wrench asks for it.
Moving up on top of the hutch now, we have the most-used electrical tools. Getting them up above the work surface is very convenient, because all these tools have wires dangling from them. Elevating the tools moves those wires into the third dimension, instead of having them lying all over the work surface. In other words, putting your multimeter up high means the test leads will be floating in space over the desk, instead of splayed out on it, eating valuable real estate. It also puts displays closer to eye level. By maximizing use of space in all three dimensions, you can do a lot with a little.
Here’s what I’ve nominated worthy of elevated hutch space, left to right.
This bench supply is a great example of another philosophy of mine- making everything do multiple jobs. A key advantage of a supply like this is the displays. In particular, the ammeter. Any time I connect power to a project, the first thing I do is glance at the ammeter. That tells you a great deal about what the circuit is doing. If there’s a short, the ammeter will jump immediately to a high value that you can tell “doesn’t seem right”. That gives you enough time to disconnect without damaging anything, and start looking for the problem. The ammeter tells you other things as well- for example, on Veronica, I can tell if there’s bus contention because the current draw will be 50-60mA higher than normal. There’s a surprising amount of diagnostic utility to be had from an “always-there” ammeter. It also frees up the multimeter for other things, like finding the short that’s causing the amps to spike.
Hackers and electronics hobbyists love oscilloscopes. They have big screens and they’re covered in knobs, and they reveal deep dark secrets about electrical signals. What’s not to love? Truth be told, I think they’re far less necessary for most kinds of hobbyist stuff than people seem to think. There’s only a few times that I’ve genuinely needed a ‘scope to debug something, and that includes building a home-brew computer from scratch. Having said that, they do make life easier if you take the time to learn how to use them. Also, look at all those knobs and blinkenlights! Did I mention the knobs?
Scopes are expensive, however, and I am cheap. How do we reconcile these conflicting facts about the universe? The answer is “eBay”, but more specifically the shadowy secondary market that exists behind eBay. In my opinion, there aren’t many great deals to be had on eBay anymore. However, if you use eBay as a starting point, there are deals to be had behind the scenes. My scope here is a good example. I searched the completed listings for mixed signal scopes that had the features I wanted. I found one like you see above that went for a really great price. I sent a message to the seller, asking if they had another one, and would sell it for the same price. This tactic fails 99% of the time. The other 1% of the time, however, you get a great oscilloscope for an embarrassingly low price. The seller happened have another one in his basement that he had forgotten about, and was happy to get rid of it, since I asked. Another common tactic is to buy something from a seller, then ask if they any other related items they’d be willing to do a deal on. Often they will have other stuff they haven’t listed yet, or will pull stuff out of other listings they have. Once you have a personal dialog open with the seller, the price drops a lot and you get great package deals. I use this technique a lot when indulging my Snap On tool fetish. I love them, but could never afford to pay anywhere close to retail. Thanks to the shadow eBay market, I never have.
It’s worth noting this is an older Rigol scope. It’s “only” 25MHz. However, it has a 16 channel digital logic analyzer. That’s easily a $1000 option on current scopes. The fact is, 25MHz is way more than enough for anything I’m going to build. It’s easy to fixate on the numbers and decide you “need” a 1GHz scope. However, a logic analyzer is infinitely more useful (to me, anyway), and it is by far the most used feature for me. Going with a much older model allowed me to get the really sophisticated mixed-signal option I wanted. A proper 16-channel digital logic analyzer is an amazing tool, and I could never have afforded one otherwise.
In terms of bang-for-buck, it’s hard to do better than a multimeter. No doubt anyone reading this blog knows that, but it bears repeating for younger hackers who might run to the ‘scope too quickly. A surprising number of things you might use a scope for can be done on a meter with a little thought about what you’re trying to test. In case you’re wondering, that meter is not a museum piece or a funny funny joke. It is in fact a Radio Shack house brand meter from 30 years ago. I have honestly had it that long. Sure, I’d like a shiny new Fluke, but I can’t justify buying new tools if the old ones still work; and this thing JUST WON’T DIE. The only thing that has EVER gone wrong with it was the continuity beeper became intermittent recently. I popped it open, resoldered the wires on the piezo element, and it’s been fine since. This thing once sat in a crate with leaking batteries in it for five years, and never missed a beat. It. Won’t. Die.
Having said that, I do genuinely like this thing. In particular, I’m a fan of manual ranging. It’s hard to get a meter that isn’t auto-ranging these days, and frankly I find auto-ranging really annoying. If I’m working on a 12V circuit, and there’s no meaningful voltage, just show me a zero, m’kay? I don’t care if you think there’s 26mV detectible there. That tiny mental analysis required every time I glance at the display drives me nuts. “Oh, the range changed to mV, so this is really saying zero”. Ugh.
Speaking of under-appreciated tools…
I’ve never quite understood why logic probes don’t get more press in the hacker community. If you’re doing anything digital, this is an incredibly powerful and inexpensive tool. There’s a sort of “zen state” you can get to with this thing, whereby you can read frequencies, and debug protocols entirely by ear. For example, I debugged almost every aspect of Veronica’s video system with a logic probe. Only when I got into a couple of really gnarly high-level protocol issues did I genuinely need to bust out the logic analyzer. In terms of bang-for-buck in diagnostic tools, it’s hard to beat the logic probe.
A lot of people like those “helping hands” things, and I used them for a while myself. These days, however, I’m finding a PCB vise more useful. I received this as a promotional item. It’s not brilliant, quality-wise, but the prices are fairly reasonable on them. However, note the rolls of blue tape. If blue painters’ tape was a person, I would marry it. Again, on the bang-for-buck scale, it’s hard to beat this stuff. It’s a mask, it’s a clamp, it’s a helping hand, it’s a labelling system, it’s a mounting device, this stuff does it all. As much as clamping things in this vise, I just as often tape stuff to it while working. I keep a couple of squares of tape around all the time to hold wires in place while soldering and such. A couple of pieces can be used over and over during a work session. As for the vice itself, I appreciate what they’re trying to do with it, but the screw clamps don’t hold very well, and need constant adjustment. It’s a bit annoying.
Moving down to the work surface itself, now…
As I mentioned before, my “bench” is really just a writing desk, so I don’t particularly want to mess up the surface. I have a base layer of wicker placemats for general protection. On top of that is a cutting mat, and on top of that is an ESD mat which is properly grounded. Normally I work on the ESD mat (as evidenced by all the burn marks). A word of praise for cutting mats- these things are great. An X-Acto knife is a marvelous tool, useful for a great many things. A quality cutting mat underneath it amplifies the effectiveness of that tool. It’s one of those things that, once you have it, you don’t know how you worked without it. Combine it with a good steel straight edge, and you can conquer the world.
The drawer in this desk is actually a keyboard tray, as this is intended to be a computer desk. This works to my advantage, because the drawer front flips down, in addition to the drawer pulling out. This is great for quick access to small items, so I put all my frequently-used small tools in here. The flip-down front means you can access things without opening the drawer if they are near the front. The less commonly-used stuff gets shoved in the back. It all adds to the efficiency- cutting down on little motions needed to grab a tool means you get things done a little quicker. It also makes cleanup quicker, making it easier to stay organized. It all snowballs into glorious productivity.
I love lamp. In keeping with our themes, this fellow serves double-duty. It has a daylight CFL bulb in it, which shows accurate colors in your work. This makes reading resistor color bands easier. Furthermore, it is very effective for exposing UV-sensitive PCBs. Note the height adjustment- when it’s time to expose a PCB, I can lower it down to desk-level and position it directly over the board being exposed. Simple, and it even has a classy faux-bronze finish to compliment the desk.
That’s it for the inside workspace. For many years, that was all I had. Recently, Blondihacks World Headquarters has relocated to a larger facility, which means I now have a second area for big messy stuff. Let’s go have a look at that.
Before I had this space, I used to do messy stuff outside. This was fine for small jobs like cutting a PCB or painting an enclosure. That’s not convenient for bigger projects, though, so I’m lucky to have this now.
The workbench you see above was a project itself. The shell of it was left behind by the previous owner of the house. It was a real mess, but you could see underneath the crud, it was really well made. Judging from the brass spring-loaded hardware, I’d say it’s maybe from the 1940s. Hard to say, but with a little elbow grease and a new maple top from Grizzly, it came back to life in terrific form.
To the right of the workbench, there’s a grey steel cart. That’s a makeshift pinball lift, for when Johnny needs moving around. In the spirit of multiple uses for things, it also acts as a mobile work surface when in the jacked-up position. In the spirit of being a cheap-ass, it’s a 500lb hydraulic lift cart from Harbor Freight bought on sale (and with a coupon code), hacked into a pinball lift with Stanley gate hinges. Total investment, about $100, for a very useful and heavy duty tool. In addition to moving pinball machines, it’s also great for loading heavy things into trucks, working on transmissions, and riding down hills in traffic.
To the left of the workbench is something everyone always asks about.
This tool chest has all manner of social and psychological issues wrapped up in it. For starters, I’m generally very opposed to the whole “let’s make things pink and then women will buy them” school of product design. Aside from demonstrating a total obliviousness to the history of pink in gender dynamics, it’s really insulting to womens’ intelligence. Not to mention being a deeply cynical marketing ploy. Having said all that, I bought it, didn’t I? Well, I don’t particularly like pink, frankly. However it also happens to be a well made tool chest with steel ball bearing drawer slides, and all the proper accouterments. Furthermore, the setup you see here was on sale on Amazon Prime at the time I bought it. Yes, Prime- that means shipping was free. This is way too big and heavy for UPS, so it was delivered by freight, to my door, in two days, for free. On sale. It was taken down shortly thereafter, so I can only assume it was a mistake. Someone who isn’t me took a real bath on shipping this baby, I can tell you. On top of all that, it’s just SO pink. It’s as though the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man was made of Double Bubble, ate the Barbie aisle of a Toys R Us, threw it back up, then died and decomposed on the same spot. Something about it just amuses me. I guess that means I own it ironically. I dunno. Anyways, it’s a conversation starter, to be sure.
Opposite the work bench, I have a sort of “kitchen island”.
That little gem is a rolling steel chest of drawers. It was also left behind in the house, and appears to date from the same period (1940s, maybe) as the workbench. I’d guess it came out of a machine shop, originally. It has the marks of being used in and around machine tools and parts. The quality of this thing is amazing. Decades old, and every drawer still glides and latches like butter. The whole thing is on spring-loaded casters, so you can roll it around, but when you lean on it to do something, it squats down imperceptibly and won’t move, rather like a library stool. Brilliant. It needs a refinishing treatment, like the workbench received. One of these days I will get to that.
As much as I like the maple top on my workbench, a strong metal surface is really desirable sometimes. When you need to hammer metal into shape, for example, or do a little welding. Having a mobile metal surface is very useful. The drawers are perfect for the Sterlite containers you see holding all my hardware and such. I love Sterlite bins. Almost everything I own is in them. They come in every size imaginable, and they are really nicely made.
Lastly, we have the large material scrap area. Not much to look at, but if you’re going to work on larger projects, you’re going to need something like this.
That’s about it! I’ve done everything from designing a computer to remodeling a house to restoring a pinball machine to building a race car in these two spaces. With a little creativity, a smidgen patience, a splash of anal retentiveness, and a deep desire to death-grip your dollar bills as though they are giving you life eternal, you can put together a nice personal workshop.