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Where To Start In DIY Electronics? 301

Posted by Soulskill
from the hold-off-on-the-homebrew-lightsaber dept.
pyrosine writes "I've been thinking about this for a while and have no idea where to start. I have little or no previous experience in electronics — just what is covered in GCSE physics (wiring a plug and resistors — not much, I know). The majority of my interest lies in the wireless communication side of the field — i.e. ham radios and CB — but I am also interested in how many things work, one example being speakers, simply to better understand it. I would preferably like to start with some form of practical guide rather than learning the theory first, but where I would find such a walkthrough eludes me."
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Where To Start In DIY Electronics?

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  • Forrest Mims (Score:5, Informative)

    by seanadams.com (463190) * on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:36PM (#31822946) Homepage
    Gettng Started in Electronics [forrestmims.com] . It takes you through everything from basic soldering to building logic circuits, oscillators, amplifiers. His "mini notebooks" are great too.

    Once you have the basics down you will probably want to get into microcontrollers. There are a lot of ways to go here depending on how much time you want to spend wiring things up yourself, and your comfort level with software. You might start with the very popular PIC. Although the architecture is a bit long in the tooth and is a poor target for C, there loads of example projects for it so it's easy to learn. There are also many high-level building blocks (Basic stamp etc) that can get you up and running quickly. If you have sophisticated software needs, you'll want a more modern micro with better tools - check out Atmel or TI.

    Eventually you will need a more formal treatment if you want to design your own circuits. I consider The Art of Electronics [harvard.edu] to be the bible here - it is thorough but also very practical and you will find it has specific solutions for many everyday engineering problems. It has been a great investment, and one of the better worn books on my shelf. Have fun!

  • Simple answer (Score:5, Informative)

    by Gordonjcp (186804) on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:41PM (#31823024) Homepage

    The majority of my interest lies in the wireless communication side of the field -- i.e. ham radios and CB

    Join your local amateur radio club. Get your licence.

    73s de MM0YEQ

  • by searleb (168974) * on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:42PM (#31823038) Homepage
    I should also point out Tangent's tutorials [tangentsoft.net], which are fantastic introductions into wiring and soldering even if you're not interested in audio work.
  • by jab (9153) on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:43PM (#31823044) Homepage

    Thumbs up from this electrical engineer. Here's a portion of the Amazon description:

    It may be the only "introduction to electronics books" with back cover comments by Dave Barry, Ray Bradbury, Clive Cussler, and George Garrett, as well as recomendations from Robert Hazen, Bob Mostafapour, Dr. Roger Young, Dr. Wayne Green, Scott Rundle, Brian Battles, Michelle Guido, Herb Reichert and Emil Venere. As Monitoring Times said, "Perhaps the best electronics book ever. If you'd like to learn about basic electronics but haven't been able to pull it off, get There Are No Electrons. Just trust us. Get the book."

  • by idontgno (624372) on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:43PM (#31823048) Journal

    Learn not to grab hot soldering iron by the barrel or tip.

    Handle is much safer.

    Metalesson 1: it doesn't matter if you think you need to keep your eyes on that twitchy almost-mechanically-sound connection in order to keep it from springing apart before you can solder it. You still need to pick your head up and guide your hands to the soldering iron, because grasping blindly WILL HURT.

  • Re:Forrest Mims (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:43PM (#31823050)

    Art of Electronics is a good book. I am an EE and I have it and would replace it if stolen.

    I probably wouldn't replace the other one if I owned it and it was stolen.

  • Maplin (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:43PM (#31823052)

    Since you seem to be in the UK, Maplin is the place to go for hobbyist electronic stuff.

    http://www.maplin.co.uk/Search.aspx?criteria=Electronic%20Kit&source=15

  • Short list (Score:5, Informative)

    by Paul Rose (771894) on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:43PM (#31823060)
    Short list:
    1) Horowitz and Hill "Art of Electronics" 2nd ed -- human readable mix of theory and practical application -- must have
    2) ARRL Handbook -- any year in the past decade -- great introduction to RF communications, good mix of theory and practice -- must have for ham radio
    3) Wes Hayward "Experimental Methods in RF design" -- must have for homebrew ham radio enthusiast who wants practical advice but also wants to learn the theory
  • Hackerspaces (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:44PM (#31823068)

    My group HTINK offers occasional intro to electronics courses, as does NYC resistor (events.htink.net, www.nycresistor.com)

    Check out www.hackerspaces.org for a list of hackerspaces near you.

    -Eric

  • Re:Forrest Mims (Score:5, Informative)

    by Curtman (556920) * on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:46PM (#31823100)

    You might start with the very popular PIC. Although the architecture is a bit long in the tooth and is a poor target for C, there loads of example projects for it so it's easy to learn. There are also many high-level building blocks (Basic stamp etc) that can get you up and running quickly.

    I would highly recommend the Arduino [arduino.cc] to beginners. It's a great target for C, and there's loads of example projects for it too. Seeed Studio [seeedstudio.com] has been a great resource for me, especially the store, and the forum. #arduino on Freenode is popular and very helpful too.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:50PM (#31823164)

    ...a terrorist.

    Back in the olden days, you could once buy a chemistry set and experiment with it, and you were considered to be a science geek. Then the day came that anyone interested in chemistry outside of university chemistry education and/or working in chemistry for an established company was suddenly considered by the law enforcement authorities that you must be a druggie who only wants to make illegal drugs. No other explanation is accepted by the govt anymore.

    Up until a few years ago, if you wanted to play with electronics and build you own circuitry, you were free to do so. Hobbiests and ham radio enthusiasts commonly built stuff from parts from Radio Shack, Newark, Digikey, etc, but now the authorities are starting to watch such people very closely. After all, unless you're ligitimately employed by some corporation in a professional electronics engineering capacity of some sort, then otherwise you must only be kind of terrorist who is bent on making bomb triggers. There's no other explanation in their minds.

  • A classic trainer (Score:2, Informative)

    by AcidTag (528338) on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:53PM (#31823202)
    Formerly sold at Radius Shack as an OEM product. I learned on Radio Shack's earlier version the 100-1 Electronic Project Kit when I was 10.

    Elenco 200-in-1 Electronic Project Lab, you can find it on amazon.
  • Re:Forrest Mims (Score:5, Informative)

    by serviscope_minor (664417) on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:58PM (#31823266) Journal

    I can second almost everything that you say.

    1. Forest M. Mimms III books are fantastic.

    2. The PicStart1 kit is very good, with excellent Linux support. The PIC datasheets are very thorough and contain all the information you need. This makes using PICs really rather covenient.

    3. The art of electronics is a truly excellent book. Amusingly, in the first edition, it points to the now venerable 741 op-amp as being obsolete. It is still going strong to this day.

    4. Designing your own analogue circuits is hard. Designing your own RF circuits is very hard. It is about 70% theory and 65% black magic, along with about 10% blind luck. However you can start from existing designs. Build them to get practise then start modifying them.

    5. Transmission line transformers are deeply strange.

    Based on the OP's use of the term "GCSE", I assume that he is English. So: Find your local Maplin. They are very handy, since you can often pick up parts from the store, reducing the latency for project building if you forget to buy the right parts. Farnell and RS are handy places to mail-order from.

    I also recommend getting a solderless breadboard, a DC power supply (a cheap wall-wart will do, as will 6V lantern batteries), a small tube of 741s and 555s, 100 resistor reels of: 100R, 1K, 10K, 100K and 1M resistors, a big bag of misc. caps, a reel of red and a reel of black single core wire, a multimeter, a bag of LEDs and a bag of small-signal transistors (eg 2N2222). That will do you for many of the things in (1) above.

  • Math or Logic (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 12, 2010 @05:59PM (#31823272)

    There are two paths in electronics you can take, analog and digital. Analog requires a lot of math and education, avoid this unless you're willing to work with a lot of theory (this is especially true if you want to work with signals). The funner route is to go the logic based Digital. Microcontrollers, basic digital logic chips, you name it.

  • Re:A classic trainer (Score:3, Informative)

    by IceCreamGuy (904648) on Monday April 12, 2010 @06:04PM (#31823328) Homepage
    Seconded - these were great for any age and I think there are still new versions of them with nice prototyping boards built in. Look on the shelves near the dwindling supply of components in the now tiny bins at the back of the store.
  • by ari_j (90255) on Monday April 12, 2010 @06:19PM (#31823558)
    For me, it was more cheap than lazy or sloppy. But I second most of the advice and offer the following:

    Great soldering station with adjustable temperature: SS-1 for $40 [powweb.com]. Get this one or something like it. It's worth every penny.

    Now, story time with a good moral. I was, two years ago, working on something with a super-cheap soldering iron that came with a computer toolkit with various screwdrivers and such, all of which are great other than the soldering iron. My grip on it slipped and my instinct from years of having pens and pencils slip in my hand was to pinch harder. Unfortunately, the lack of a safety guard on the iron meant that I pinched down very hard with my thumb and first two fingers on the hot barrel of the iron. The blisters went away after a few weeks but the pain lasted longer.
  • by richardkelleher (1184251) on Monday April 12, 2010 @06:52PM (#31824038) Homepage

    I concur on The Art of Electronics. It contains most of the information I received in two+ years of Electrical Engineering classes. It starts out slow with the basics, this is a resistor, this is a capacitor, this is an inductor and the like. Scanning through my (now 21 year old) second edition, about the only area it doesn't cover that I got in school is power, but then power is not electronics.

    If you are not interested in getting an engineering degree to do some DIY electronics, I'd suggest two places to start: 1. Make: magazine. Regular articles on electronic control circuits with some good information on how they work. (and many other great things I might add) 2. The Encyclopedia of Electronic Circuits, Rudolf F. Graf. (now called Volume 1, since they put out 6 more over the years) It has almost 100 simple to complex circuits with descriptions of what they do, but not much about how. To get the how, get The Art of Electronics and plan on reading a lot of the first 100 pages and then using it for a reference each time you try to decipher what some circuit is doing.

  • by LostInTransportation (1012423) on Monday April 12, 2010 @07:12PM (#31824290)
    Try: http://www.allaboutcircuits.com/ [allaboutcircuits.com] This has some good lessons describing the prinicples behind circuitry, and suggests some experiments to try. Best of all, it's free!
  • by Facegarden (967477) on Monday April 12, 2010 @07:17PM (#31824370)

    The Art of Electronics is the best book ever for learning all these basics.
    http://www.amazon.com/Art-Electronics-Paul-Horowitz/dp/0521370957/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1271114053&sr=8-1 [amazon.com]
    (not an affiliate link)
    Yeah, it's $90, but its worth it. Broke? I'm sure the library has it, and that's free!

    After that I'd really recommend learning microcontrollers, and for that, Sparkfun Electronics is great.
    http://www.sparkfun.com/commerce/tutorials.php [sparkfun.com]

    My only other advice is to learn stuff the same way I've been learning stuff the last few years - just look on google. You'll find what you're looking for.
    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=learning+electronics&aq=f&aqi=g-sx10&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai= [google.com]
    -Taylor

  • by scorp1us (235526) on Monday April 12, 2010 @08:08PM (#31825038) Journal

    They have a book on basic (analog) electronics, a digital electronics book that covers digital, and a communications book that include RF and amplifier design (classes A-D). The basic one is really good. It takes you through a NP junction, complete with holes and depletion zones, explaining diodes, then transistors, NPN and PNP and goes over other basic circuit components. As someone who was not new to computers or general electronics, I found these three books from RadioShack of all places to be exactly what I needed to get down to business. I would highly recommend them.

  • Re:Maplin (Score:2, Informative)

    by K10W (1705114) on Monday April 12, 2010 @09:01PM (#31825564)
    I think he meant for UKers maplin is the place NOT to go just as pcworld is the place NOT to go for comp stuff. I'm in the UK and online prices are good enough if you shop around and steer clear of fleabay. For big orders and especially if need decent components I tend to use digikey but shipping and so on mounts up to make it not worth it for bits and bobs. Mauser have some alright stuff too along with other stores but again they are better for bulk orders. For small bits I use either my local shop (independent owned) or from places with regular p&p and low price branded stuff that have no minimum order, that way I might be paying an extra £2 compared to if I'd ordered the same stuff in a bulk order but if I only want £5 of bits then paying £50 to make a big order worth while isn't really worth it. Maplin however are utter sh*te when it comes to quality and their prices are just bloody silly. Even rapid online have better quality cheaper and they are far from the best place.
  • Re:Forrest Mims (Score:5, Informative)

    by falconwolf (725481) <falconsoaring_2000@@@yahoo...com> on Monday April 12, 2010 @09:04PM (#31825592)

    Gettng Started in Electronics [forrestmims.com]

    If you're going with Forrest Mims, go all the way and get his Electronics Learning Lab [radioshack.com]. From there check out MakerShed's Intro Electronics [makershed.com]. Also check out, and subscribe to, Make Zine [makezine.com]. You mention micro-controllers, they have a number of projects that will let you learn them. One I liked and thought about trying was Garduino: Gardening + Arduino [makezine.com]. This project uses an Arduino [arduino.cc] controller to control how much light and water plants get.

    Now the OP asked about ham radio and CB, the best thing there is to find a local amateur radio group and ask them about learning. I don't know if things have changed much, but the local groups I knew or heard of were willing to help new people. They even had free classes.

    Falcon

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 13, 2010 @12:45AM (#31827448)

    http://www.earthshinedesign.co.uk/ASKManual/Site/ASKManual.html
    is freely downloadable and uses the arduino and resistors, LEDs, pushbuttons etc to start from a very basic level and move up step by step.

  • Re:Forrest Mims (Score:3, Informative)

    by AmiMoJo (196126) <mojoNO@SPAMworld3.net> on Tuesday April 13, 2010 @08:41AM (#31830174) Homepage

    An important point about AVRs and why you might want to use them instead of a PIC. The development environment for AVRs is a lot better, mostly because they are so easy to set up with in-circuit programming. You just get a programmer (£10) and put a header on your board, after which you can update code in seconds. It's really really helpful being able to get immediate results to code changes.

    I'd also look for a cheap second hand oscilloscope. It will help immensely when trying to understand any kind of wave or amplifier, particularly important in radio.

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