I’ve been tinkering with electronics on and off since I was a child. My dad used to bring home enormous circuit boards from Burroughs in the 1970’s with many discrete IC’s, passive components, transistors, etc soldered on. My dad taught me how to scavenge components from the boards, identify parts, and trace circuits at a very early age. We had very little extra money, so any junk box full of parts was going to be scavenged. Any tool was second or third hand.

These days, with a much advanced supply chain, a determined individual can buy a lot of parts to work with on short money. Tools of the electronics trade are inexpensive and in wide variety. The downside today is that someone on a very small budget won’t have an easy time scavenging electronics parts, as it’s all tiny smd components which require some practice and tools to work with.

If I had to start all over today with nothing but curiosity and a very limited budget, here is my list, in priority order, of what I would buy.

  1. Arduino My first purchase would be an Arduino (or a clone), and an assortment of parts. The Arduino starter kits, and especially the clones can be had for less than $60 US. (I’ve had good luck with Elegoo brand). Even without any other instruments, you can do a lot of exploration with an arduino and some basic components.
  2. Prototyping Breadboard If your arduino starter kit didn’t come with a breadboard, or you need more space for your work, a breadboard is next. If you go cheap due to limited funds, remember that you may work a lot harder to get your components mounted properly and debugging problems might be a little tougher for large projects.
  3. Multimeter Your first bit of measuring equipment should probably be a multimeter. Your first one can be whatever you can afford that is auto-ranging. Later, you will likely want to plunk down for a nice Fluke or B&K if you can afford it, but not before you fill out the rest of this list.
  4. Hand Tools Get a nice wire stripper, diagnal cutters, magnifying glass, good lighting, screwdrivers, and assorted other tools to make your life easier.
  5. Safety Gear Before getting into soldering components, you should probably get a pair of safety glasses and a fume extractor. If you can’t afford a fume extractor, you’ll need to work in a well ventelated area.
  6. Consumables You will probably need shrink tubing, solder, solder wick, electrical tape (but try to use shrink tubing where possible), and solder flux (avoid the acid flux).
  7. Soldering Station Again, whatever you can afford but I suggest something with a nice base and adjustable temperature. Learning to solder is essential to working on more complex projects that a breadboard can handle. A soldering station, especially one with a hot air gun, is great for salvaging components, though it’s almost all going to be surface mount stuff that is hard for a beginner to handle.
  8. prototyping board or copper clad pcb Consider getting this around the same time as your soldering station. A nice selection can be had for $20 or less to get you going.
  9. moar components!! Find a “electronics assortment” on an auction site or retail mall. A good assortment will cost between $40 and $100. It should include:
    • resistors
    • capacitors
    • transistors
    • diodes
    • opamps
    • other stuff
  10. Workbench You don’t need to spend a lot, and if you have the skills, you can build it yourself. It needs a nice flat space with plenty of outlets nearby, and probably some modular storage for all of those components you’ve been hoarding.
  11. Oscilloscope The last thing on the list is often the most expensive general purpose item that a hobbyist will buy. I think if I was new to the field, I would probably save and scrape every penny until I could plunk down $400 for a Rigol or Siglent oscilloscope with at least 50MHZ bandwidth, and 2 to 4 channels. If you are really short on cash, visit the auction sites or your local surplus store and pick up an analog oscilloscope. I would suggest at least 100MHZ bandwidth and something that you can confirm works. I love old analog oscilloscopes. The Tektronix 465 is what my dad used at Burroughs, and I have it now (thanks dad). Analog oscilloscopes have a feel and immediacy that you don’t get with cheaper digital oscilloscopes. The problem with old oscilloscopes is that they are delicate and can fall out of callibration easily. Repairing them and tuning them can be a bear, but it can also be rewarding. There are whole video channels on the internet devoted to repairing oscilloscopes and other old test equipment.

Once you are at the end of this list, you are probably getting a sense of what you want to specialize in. If you get into radio electronics, you may want to look into a nice spectrum analyzer. If you are more into digital electronics, a logic analyzer may be more your speed. As you get into more high speed circuits, you will probably find the limits of your current cheap test equipment and will pine for better. Much like any hobby, there is always a place to spend more and more money.

My next electronics post will explore the Arduino and using it to investigate RC (resistor - capacitor) circuits.