Whenever I post a project tutorial on Instructables I usually list the majority of tools I used for the project. Having said that, I get a lot of questions about tools like “What is a good soldering iron for a beginner?” so I thought I’d post a list of what I use and recommend and what I do and not like based on my experience. I’ll be doing a few tool reviews on my YouTube channel as well.
Here’s a list of what I use in my home work space when building props, costumes and animatronics. I’ll try to keep this updated with notes for everything and direct links for purchasing. I do some affiliate links for Amazon (full disclosure here- it does help fund my projects and tutorials) but not any other supplier at this time. I’ve been a big fan of Adafruit, Sparkfun and Servocity for a very long time since they are all great companies with excellent service and customer support.
Since I make my living as a jeweler (and I write tutorials for that too) I’ll include links for that as well. Jewelers use a LOT of tools, many of which come in handy when building props and costumes. Setting up a jewelry shop to do full custom work is an expensive proposition. If you’re just starting out my recommendation is have an outside shop do all of your metal casting and spend the most money on good rotary tools, a microscope, GRS benchmate and a good ultrasonic. Those are the tools that will make the biggest difference in your ability to do a good job and be a good return on investment. Also shop Craigslist for used tools like rolling mills, steamers and other big ticket items as you can save a bundle if you’re patient.
Taig lathe– The Taig is a fantastic little lathe for small garage shop and with the inexpensive milling attachment it becomes an amazingly versatile tool. Taig also sells a nice small benchtop mill. I’ve also used the Sherline lathe and mill fairly extensively and they are wonderful tools as well. Both brands have a ton of accessories available. The work envelope is slightly bigger on the Taig equipment but the Sherline is a little nicer quality. You would be amazed at what you can make with these tools. Both are much higher quality and far more accurate than the inexpensive $500-$1000 Chinese lathes you can buy from places like Harbor Freight (I have many hours on those lathes and they take quite a bit of work to get them dialed in before they produce accurate work.) If you need something larger than the Taig or Sherline check out LittleMachineShop.
Benchtop drill press-This is what I would get if I had to replace my Hitachi as it’s a little better built. The laser sights on these are useless so I just take them off. If you’re going to be drilling 1/2″ holes in metal all day long try to find a good quality heavy duty drill press on craigslist.
Digital calipers– I’ve had my Mitutoyo calipers for over 20 years and they still work great. Lots of other cheap calipers have died during that time but these keep on going. They’re the best for a reason.
Dremel tool– I much prefer the corded Dremel tools as they seem to hold up better and I never run out of power.
Dremel Versa Tip torch– I purchased this last year and it’s really great for simple soldering jobs (thin brass sheet w/silver solder or field soldering repairs) when I don’t want to use a large torch as well as heat shrink tubing. I grab this (along with a Hakko cordless iron) when I don’t want to bring my nice soldering station out to the garage. Overall a very versatile tool.
Scroll saw– I use this tool a LOT. Super handy for making props and costumes. If you have the funds get the DeWalt scroll saw as it’s a lot nicer and the blade changes are MUCH easier if you use pinless blades.
Cordless drill- If I had to replace my old Makita drills I’d get the Milwaukee M12. It also comes in a drill/impact driver combo kit. A really nice small drill with a metal chuck. There’s a lot of tools in the M12 battery system and the batteries aren’t crazy expensive.
Mini belt sander- I use a Makita mini belt sander– an absolutely wonderful tool that saves hours of work compared to hand sanding and grinding resin and fiberglass castings.
Combination disc/belt sander- I use this a lot for radiusing metal edges and shaping wood and plastics. I have the larger 6″ Delta model (which is no longer made) but I’d probably get the Grizzly 5″ version to replace it as it takes up less bench space and it’s a bit better quality- the Delta has a fair bit of trouble with belt tracking.
Orbital sander- I really like this Makita sander. The extended handle makes it easier for me to hold vs. the palm version. Mine has been wonderful to use.
Router- I’ve had this model Milwaukee Body Grip for several years and it’s a really nice rock solid router. I’ve used it freehand, with guides and in a router table without any trouble whatsoever. The height adjustment is especially easy to use in a router table. This also comes in plunge/fixed base combo kit so you can leave the fixed base in a fixture or router table and keep the plunge base for all other operations.
Circular saw- I bought my Bosch worm drive saw 15 years ago when I was building a shed and if it ever dies (which I doubt will happen) I’ll immediately go buy another one. This thing has been flawless through multiple home remodeling projects. One of the things I like most about worm drive saws is that having the blade on the left side it makes it much easier to see your cut line.
Japanese saw- My kids got me this Dozuki saw and it’s fabulous for accurate razor thin cuts in wood. Super useful for all kinds of joinery work and mitering thin material.
Milwaukee hand saw– This is super handy, inexpensive and it uses standard reciprocating saw blades.
3D Printer– I have a Printrbot Simple Metal and I love it. It’s very easy to use right out of the box and it produces really nice prints. Probably the best printer you can buy for under $1000. Print volume is 6″ x 6″ x 6″. It’s set up to print PLA but it can print ABS material if you get the heated bed for it (which also extends the print volume to 10″ x 6″ x 6″.) At my work we use the super nice Formlabs Form2 SLA printer for printing 3D jewelry models in a castable resin for lost wax investment casting.
Laser cutter- I’ve been using a 40W Full Spectrum Laser 5th gen 20 x 12 Hobby Laser and it’s pretty darn nice. It will cut 1/8″ thick acrylic and plywood with ease and the software is super simple to use. You need to vent it outdoors with an exhaust fan and it’s not exactly quiet but those are minimal complaints for what this machine can do.
Clamps- I have several of these spring clamps and bar clamps and they are super useful to have around in the shop. The spring clamps are great for gluing together rigid foam sheets and thin wood and the bar clamps are great for work holding and gluing larger wood pieces.
Welder- I’ve had a Lincoln flux core MIG welder for many years and it works great for basic welding duties but it’s really difficult to weld thin wall 4130 steel with it. I learned to TIG weld on an ancient machine that was about the size of a large swamp cooler and I could weld .035 and .049 4130 with it but the control wasn’t super great. I used a friend’s Miller Syncrowave TIG machine while working on a project and it was like a magic ray gun by comparison- somewhat similar to the laser welder at my work. Unfortunately I don’t have $1000+ to spend on a nice squarewave Miller or Lincoln TIG setup for home shop use so I’m really interested in the Everlast TIG DC welders as they’re less expensive than a decent used blue or red TIG welder on Craigslist. I know a few bike guys that have been using them for a couple of years and they seem to be pretty happy with them.
Welding helmet- I’ve had a Jackson auto darkening helmet for years and it’s never given me any trouble. It’s a great helmet. Having an auto darkening helmet will greatly improve your welding.
Soldering iron- I use a Pace ST30 analog soldering station. The digital version of this is the ST50. I love the Pace soldering station and it’s an absolute joy to use with rock solid build quality. The soldering station comes with the slim TD-100 handle and you can buy different handles, soldering tweezers and tips directly from Pace too. There are over 130 different tips available just for the TD-100 alone. Being able to buy tips directly from the manufacturer without hunting all over the internet for them is a big plus. Overall, these Pace models are professional level irons that are tough to beat for the price.
Another really good choice for a bit less is the Hakko FX-951. Hakko is known for making really good reliable irons with excellent quality tips. With either iron get a small chisel tip as it’s probably the most useful, followed by a small curved or bent tip for more precise SMT work. The Hakko FX-888D is probably the best new soldering station available for under $100. I’ve also used a Metcal soldering station and it was really nice but the new MX stations are expensive- they start around $500. Used older Metcal stations can be a very good buy- the models to get are the STSS-PS2E and the MX500 line. Both of these units use the same handle and the same tips. I would stay away from the SP200 models as they are a different technology. With Metcal soldering stations you change the temperature by changing the tip- there is no provision for temperature adjustment on the base station.
If I were just starting out I’d get the Hakko FX-888D or the lower cost Hakko FX600 adjustable pencil iron if you don’t have the space for a soldering station. If you’re on a really tight budget Adafruit sells a good adjustable temp Xytronic 30W iron for $22. If you have a bit more experience and are interested in soldering more difficult things like surface mount components go for the Pace or Hakko FX-951- if you can’t solder with one of these irons it’s not the iron. You will never, ever regret getting a good soldering iron like this. If I were setting up for mass production I’d probably go Metcal. If you want what many claim is the best there is (and you’re willing to pay for it!) go for a JBC soldering station. I’ve never used one so I can’t comment on how good it is.
I have a soldering iron video on YouTube where you can see some of these irons in action.
Hot air rework station– I received this Sparkfun hot air tool as a Christmas present and it works great. This allows you to perform repairs on circuit boards by flowing hot air over components so it’s easy to heat up multiple soldered joints at the same time. I repaired a friend’s damaged plasma TV (fried transistor on a circuit board) in 5 minutes with this and saved them form buying a new one. Also killer for heat shrink tubing and removing adhesives. Once you use one of these you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.
Soldering flux– This is incredibly useful when you’re trying to remove a damaged component from a circuit board, complex solder jobs and those instances when you’re not using flux cored solder. There is a really great page on solder types and fluxes here.
Solder– This is the good stuff. .031″ diameter 63/37 will handle everything from small surface mount components to large gauge wire and connectors.
Solder wick– Super useful for desoldering and cleaning out holes in circuit boards.
Wire strippers– I love these inexpensive wire strippers.
Panavise– Excellent for holding circuit boards and larger parts while soldering.
Wire cutters– These are probably the best wire cutters ever. I have Lindstrom pliers that are 20 years old and they’re still awesome.
Tweezers– These ESD safe tweezers are perfect for holding parts while soldering.
Hitec servo programmer– For programming Hitec digital servos.
Battery charger- You can get these pretty cheap but the Hitec X1 Multi-Charger is my favorite. It’s extremely versatile and will work with all types of battery chemistry.
Smart tweezers– I use these inexpensive tweezers for quickly identifying surface mount components.
XMEGA Xprotolab– This is a very, very cool little device that I received as a birthday present a while ago. It’s a tiny (palm sized) breadboard compatible mixed signal oscilloscope, waveform generator and voltmeter. It’s not a replacement for a full size bench oscilloscope or a good logic analyzer but it’s super portable, dirt cheap and it flat out just works. If you’re a student or on a tight budget it’s an excellent buy and for many Arduino powered costume projects it may be all you ever need. You can even connect it to a laptop for a larger screen view.
Bench power supply– A basic linear power supply that can provide 0-30V and 5A is all that is needed for most costume/animatronics projects. As you get into more advanced electronics a good triple output power supply becomes a lot more useful ( I just wish I could afford one!) Older HP/Agilent and Power Designs power supplies on eBay can sometimes be a good buy too.
Power analyzer– This little device allows you to measure how much power your costume electronics are using for calculating battery life.
Jeweler’s bench– A jeweler’s bench should have a thick sturdy top (it’ll get hammered on a lot) and it should have a large metal lined pan to catch metal filings/scrap. I keep most of my larger tools like large hammers, files, ring mandrel, sanding sticks and my saw in this pan so I can quickly grab them. This European style bench is a great bench that is a fraction of the cost of many benches. Mine has served me well for several years and I have no complaints. Sure you can spend $1000+ on a bench but it’s certainly not necessary.
Rotary tools- I probably use these more than any other bench tool and as such it’s important to spend your money wisely. Rotary tools are used for drilling, grinding and sanding. I have two Foredom flexshaft motors- one with a quick change handpiece and another with a #30 handpiece. The quick change handpieces are really nice for stone setting since you can change burs really fast. The #30 handpiece is great for using drill bits, large sanding rolls and large rotary burs. The Foredom flex shaft motors last forever- mine are over 15 years old. The #30 handpiece will also last forever. I manage to wear out the quick change handpieces every 1 1/2 to 2 years. I’ve been using a NSK Evolution EMax micromotor rotary tool for a few years now and it’s the cat’s pajamas. It is simply the finest rotary tool I’ve ever used and they’re known for being extremely robust. The big benefit of micromotor rotary tools is the motor is in the handpiece so you’re not fighting the tension of a flex shaft drive cable- it’s a pretty big deal when you’re doing delicate work and stone setting. Unfortunately the NSK EMax is also very expensive! Foredom does make a less expensive alternative- while it’s not as nice as the NSK it’s less than half the cost and if I were on a budget I’d definitely go for it- I liked it a lot when I got to try it out.
Faro #10D quick change handpiece– if you want a quick change handpice for your flex shaft this is the one to get as it’s the most durable one out there and it has a duplex spring for greater mobility. Trust me on this one- I’ve used pretty much every quick change handpiece made.
Parallel pliers– These are incredibly handy for holding wire securely and bending metal. These are the good ones that are serrated and have a V groove for holding wire. I’ve purchased the cheap ones and most of them are made pretty poorly with non parallel jaws and are annoying to use.
magnifying ring light– A good inexpensive bench light with magnification.
Torch- My torch of choice is the Hoke brand. I’ve been using the same torch for 20 years and you can do everything from the smallest chain repairs to welding Platinum with this torch.
Flux- Batterns flux is the best stuff out there for soldering Gold, Silver and Copper alloys.
Pickling compound– This is used to clean metals after soldering.
Ceramic soldering block– This is way better than trying to solder parts on a charcoal brick.
Meiji scope w/ Acrobat stand– I’ve been using this scope for several years and it’s outstanding. The Acrobat stand is probably the best microscope stand available.
AmScope w/ stand, barlow lens and ring light– an excellent microscope buy if you’re on a budget.
GRS Benchmate stone setting package– This is the hot setup for setting stones. This allows you to hold rings and other jewelry pieces in multiple positions securely to allow for safe stone setting. Getting the drop plate will allow you to lower it so you can use this with a microscope.
Engraving/ stone setting tools- This is a set of stone setter’s gravers already cut and ready to go- 12 different gravers are included in the set. I use this quick change graver handle– you attach the gravers to the individual inserts.
GRS Power Hone with sharpening fixture and sharpening wheels– This is used for sharpening gravers fast and accurate.
Polishing motor/dust collection– The polishing system at my work is pretty similar to this model except ours is a single hood setup that is a bit more powerful.
Crest 1.5 gal ultrasonic– We use a Crest ultrasonic cleaner at my work. This is something that will get an awful lot of use so buy a good one, take care of it and it will last many, many years. I prefer digital controls vs knobs because it’s easier to clean- also never had problem with durability. I’ve used cheap ultrasonic cleaners and they don’t hold up to shop use- ditto for steamers.
Jeweler’s saw– I use this for cutting out detail areas. I primarily use 4/0 and 8/0 saw blades. The 8/0 saw blades are great for cutting in very small areas while the 4/0 blades are used for cutting rings for sizing and for cutting thicker sheet material. Antilope blades are good quality at a reasonable price. Cheapo saw blades don’t cut well (or straight) and break really easily.
Antilope 4/0 saw blades– buy them by the gross pkg (144 blades)
Split lap– The greatest tool ever for getting the sides of rings/surfaces really flat for a mirror finish. Also great for creating high polished bevel edges. As the felt wheel spins you look through it- you can see the material being lapped on the underside of the wheel. For practice using one put beveled edges on a penny.
Magnetic pin tumbler– I use one of these machines for smoothing and polishing metal castings. These work especially well with rings that have tiny areas that are difficult to polish by hand.
Ring bending pliers- For forming ring shanks these ring bending pliers are great as they bend nice uniform curves with minimal marring.
Bow bending pliers– I use these for bending thin material and wire.
Ring clamp– this is a good one with replaceable inserts. Won’t come loose on you!
Rolling mill- I use a Durston rolling mill at work. It has gear reduction, a good width flat section, square stock dies and half round dies. It’s pretty much as good as it gets. For something smaller/less expensive I’d get the Durston 80mm Mini. I wouldn’t buy a rolling mill without the square dies as they are incredibly useful.
Plating- I have an old plating setup but if I had to replace it I’d get this rectifier for its compact size and power.
Laser welder– I use a 180 Joule Z-Tech laser at my work and it’s an awesome (and bananas expensive) machine. I have over 8 million shots on this machine and it’s really, really nice. I’m totally spoiled by this machine I can’t imagine not having one. Lasers allow you to do repairs that are extremely difficult, unsafe or just not possible with a torch. The catch is that you have to have enough work passing through your shop to justify the expense.
Air engraver/hammer– I’ve been using a GRS air engraving system for years and it’s one of the best tools ever for stone setting, bright cutting and engraving. The quick change gravers I listed will fit right into the handpiece of this system and allow you to make much cleaner, faster cuts than doing it by hand pressure alone. You can also use this for bead setting stones and bezel setting stones with less risk of damage to the stone. A really wonderful tool.
Electromelt furnace– I’ve had one of these Kerr hand held electromelt furnaces forever. Very useful for melting alloys to a set temperature when casting and for making casting grain.
Vulcanizer– This is used to make rubber molds for wax injection using Castaldo rubber (I like No Shrink Pink the best) and mold frames. With this you can make very durable wax injection molds of metal rings and other small objects in less than one hour.
Wax injection pot– Heats up wax and injects it into rubber molds to make patterns for lost wax casting. Unless you’re doing a LOT of production work you don’t need a very big wax pot.
Air compressor- For wax injection and air engravers a pancake compressor works just fine. They are very loud though! For a bit over twice the cost you can get a nice silent compressor. Your ears (and neighbors) will thank you! I’ve used a SilentAire compressor once before and it was whisper quiet (could barely hear it running!) while they are very well built they are over $1000.
Steamer– The Steamaster is probably the most widely used steam cleaner in the industry. Very high quality machine and spare parts are readily available. I’ve been using this for quite a while now and it’s great.
Online Metals– This is where I go to buy Aluminum tube, bar stock, sheet and plate.
Bolt Depot – This is where I go for fasteners.
Kapton tape– High temp tape useful for holding things down while soldering and securing wires.
Superglue– Gorilla glue is my favorite superglue as it’s slightly flexible.
ProPoxy20 epoxy putty– This stuff is incredibly useful. Hardens in 20 minutes and can be sanded/filed/drilled.
West Systems epoxy resin– This is what I use for fiberglass/composites work and it’s really good stuff. Insane shelf life. The metering pumps make it super easy to use.