TOOLS: My Olde Friends

©2008 by eddie ciletti

Did you ever have to be creative with an unfamiliar set of tools? (Yeah, I know, sometimes this happens with "just" a software upgrade.) Like a paintbrush, a musical instrument or recording gear, amazing things can happen when tools become an extension of mind, body and soul. This is made obvious on a daily basis as I watch first-time electronics students learn to solder and use a pair of needle-nosed pliers. 

Assembling a student tool kit on a budget helped define the "essential" facet of this list. Investing in tools made from hardened tool-grade steel alloys (plus a little respect) will ensure that your hardware friends will have a long productive life. For example, I’ve had a Wiha miniature screwdriver set in daily use for over 15 years that is still very useable because its steel alloy consists of their "special blend" of herbs, spices and in particular, chrome, vanadium, and molybdenum.

NOTE: Pure iron is too soft; iron plus carbon = one variation of hardened steel.


While your tools may be high-quality steel, the same cannot always be said for the screws and nuts used to hold your beloved gear together. Add to that the use of screw guns to expedite production and you’ve got screws that often don’t want to come out on the first try. If the driver does slip out of a screw, the head is often damaged, making it twice as hard to get out.

One of the most important "tips" when using any screwdriver – Phillips in particular – is choosing a driver that matches the screw head size. The fit should be snug with no rotational "play." Before turning, be sure to exert enough downward force to keep the driver securely mated to the screw head.

Audio geeks need a range of screwdrivers that is almost mind-boggling - there are easily a half dozen "standard" Phillips and Flat head sizes alone - plus Pozidrive, security bits and the various lengths needed for hard-to-get screws. With so many options, I’ve chosen two multi-purpose screwdrivers that cover the four most commonly used tip sizes.
Crescent SDMB&V (under $7)
General 744DB (under $4)

FIGURE-1: The SDMB7V multi-purpose tool from Crescent (Cooper Tools) is made from S2 grade steel. It includes #1 and #2 Phillips, 3/16" and 9/32" flat (slotted) blades plus 1/4", 5/16" and 7/16" nut drivers. General’s pocket driver includes 1/16" and 1/8" Slotted Tips and #1 and #00 Phillips (Cross-Point) tips.


A rose by any other name – needle nose, long nose and even chain nose – are all variants on the "electro-mechanical pliers" theme that are rarely found at a local hardware store or even at a Radio Shack. Notice that these are "just" pliers (not wire cutters), approximately 5-inches in length. The jaws are either minimally serrated (gripping grooves) or not at all. 


$4 @

MCM 22-3750

Xcelite LN54

$17 ~ $20

Klein D321-41-2

$15 ~ $19

Erem 544

About $60

FIGURE-2: From left to right, entry-level to upscale needle-nosed pliers for delicate electro-mechanical work (bending component leads and placing parts on a circuit board). 


general purpose shear cutter

Xcelite MS54V

$17 @ Parts Express

Xcelite S54NS

Standard diagonal

$16 online @ HMC Electronics

Swanstrom 415

$26 @ digikey

FIGURE-3: Flush cutters are preferred over the more common style of diagonal cutters because they leave a clean, flat surface (rather than a sharp edge). Also note the blade diagrams: a flush cutter ejects the lead away from the component, while a traditional diagonal blade can inflict shock upon the component. 


There are all sorts of wire and component lead cutters and while just about anything can cut the legs off a resistor, capacitor or transistor, it’s the "flush cutter" variant of diagonal pliers that really tickles my fancy. No matter what’s being cut, flush cutters require less effort and in the process, inflict minimal shock to delicate electronic components. Flush cutters also minimize the potential for after-the-fact pain - especially with wire ties. (Nothing is more annoying than messing with cabling with razor-sharp wire ties, the result of using a special tool that stretches the tie until it breaks. Faster, in this case, is not better.

The disadvantage of flush cutters is that a sharper blade is more vulnerable, one reason it’s important to choose the correct tool for the job. Having experience with cheap tools is motivation enough to invest in better tools. Studer, for example, included a set of screwdrivers and hex keys that helped establish a high standard back when I was cutting my geek baby teeth. These days, European-made tools (like Erem) and test equipment (like NTI) are more expensive partly because of their quality, but also because of the poor exchange rate. 

Swanstrom is a comparable US-made brand - a pair of their model 415 flush cutters is shown in Figure-3d. Manufacturers that feature "Induction hardening" of tool grade steel results in a cutting edge hardness of 62HRc – 65 HRc. HRx is the Rockwell Hardness Scale where "x" refers to the type of metal under test (B for soft metals like Brass and Aluminum, C for hard metals). HRc 55 - HRc 65 is the range typically preferred for tools and knives. Comparable hardness for AISI (American Iron and Steel Institute) are as follows: D2 (HRc 54), M7 (HRc 63), M42 (HRc 66).

STRIPPERS (for wire)

I confess a penchant for simple wire stripping tools over the universal and automatic type. This is partly due to the need to understand (and teach) the behavior of various insulation types. You might laugh, but the Jedi approach of using "the force" will explain how some "masters" manage to get so much from their tools with what seems like so little effort. All of the models shown in Figure-4 sell for under $10, but prices do significantly vary depending on the vender – higher from professional tool suppliers, lower at DIY / hobbyist sites. Just Google the model number to find the many tool suppliers and their varying prices.
ProsKit 6PK-223

$4.75 direct

Miller 101 / 101S

$4.75 / $6.50


Klein 1003 /1004

$6.10 / $6.80

dynamite tools

Xcelite 100x 

$7 @ mouser

FIGURE-4: Simple wire strippers typically available with or without springs. The rightmost three are made in the US of A, believe it or not. 


There are so many specialized tools, but no kit would be complete without a set of hex keys. Just as the trade name "Kleenex" has become synonymous with facial tissue, a hex key is often referred to as an Allen Wrench (1943, Hartford Connecticut). This tool is known by many names around the world – Inbus (1936, Germany) and Brugola (1926, Italy). Other "keyed" variations include Torx, Robertson (Square), Tri-wing, Torq-set, Spanner Head and Triple Square. To my surprise, the Bondhus hex key brand is made here in Monticello Minnesota, the company web site includes a simplified metallurgy overview that’s worth a moment of your time.
Sine/square oscillator

Under $60

MCM 72-505

NTI MR-2 Pro

Oscillator noise generator

$525 list


VOM and dB meter

used only

$100 on eBay


Measure dB, distortion, Phase,


Under $650

FIGURE-5: From left, a) $60 sine/square oscillator that is sold under many brand names. b) NTI MiniRator Pro, sine / square / noise generator features XLR and RCA outputs. c) Fluke 8060A may be out of production but still available on the used market and great for measuring audio levels. d) NTI MiniLyzer is an indispensable tool for measuring level, distortion and spectral analysis to name a few.

ELECTRONIC FRIENDS (test equipment)

Test Equipment will get its own dedicated slot one of these months, but in the meantime, here are the tools I use every day. A multimeter typically measures Volts-Ohms-Milliamps. The Fluke 8060A (fig-5c) also measures dB and Frequency (in the audio range). I also have several "lesser" analog and digital meters, the latter do "other" interesting things like measure Capacitance, Inductance and Transistor Beta (Hfe).

The cheap oscillator (Figure-5a) is great for the price. With sine distortion below .03%, square wave function and the ability to output +4dBm, it does most of what you’ll need at a very affordable price. The MR-PRO (Fig-5b) is for more demanding applications that require lower distortion (.0016), precise level control from –80dBu to +18dbdBu and a bunch of other cool features you’ll have to go online to check out.

Similarly, the Minirator MR-1 has an article’s worth of features, but does two things in particular that are very helpful when working on vintage gear – the ability to measure distortion and provide spectrum analysis. Since "distortion" measurements automatically include "noise," it’s nice to be able to see where the noise is coming from (typically from power supply and grounding issues). An oscilloscope is also an essential tool, an entry level 20Mhz dual-trace scope can be had for under $300. (


All tools will suffer from normal wear and tear, but well-made tools can be brought back to near new quality with a little TLC (and a knowledge of sharpening and polishing techniques). I once found a dozen high-quality used long-nose pliers like the ones shown in Figure-2 for $2 each. A little gentle grinding, filing, sanding and polishing and they were nearly good as new.