The 11 Tools Every System Builder Should Own


Plus 20 others that will come in handy for maintenance and other specialized tasks.


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Whether you're a system-building newbie or an accomplished veteran, having the right tool for the job can make your products easier to build, resulting in higher quality. What's more, a well organized, well equipped bench can help speed your assembly and repair work.

In this TechBuilder Recipe, I'll show you the 11 essential tools that every system builder should own. I will also discuss some important maintenance tools, as well as four special-purpose tools that can come in handy. Finally, at the end, I offer my top three tips for system-building tools.

THE 11 ESSENTIAL TOOLS

These are the basic tools every system builder needs to build and repair PCs.

1. Screwdrivers: These are your most essential system-building tools. Have several screwdrivers on hand, or at least have one with interchangeable bits and a comfortable handle. I prefer drivers with long shafts, which allow me to keep my big hands out of small places. Most of the screws encountered in system building are Phillips head screws (with slots in the shape of a cross), so you'll certainly need a driver with the appropriate bit. But I also find that small, flat-blade screwdrivers come in handy, too.

Either way, the key is to have screwdrivers in appropriate sizes. Avoid the temptation of using anything but the one that fits exactly in the slots with the least amount of play. The chief problem with Phillips-head screws is that they "cam-out" or slip if the tool doesn't fit exactly. This tends to damage both the bit and the screw, and soon your screwdriver will be slipping out every time you use it. To avoid this problem, always use the correct-sized screwdriver. The most popular screw sizes you'll need to work with will be drive mounting screws (#4-40) and case screws with hex-head (#6-32, in 0.25-inch and 0.15-inch lengths).

Many system builders like the advantages of a screwdriver with a magnetic tip. It can fish out screws that have fallen into a tight corner, or help insert screws into narrow spots. But these tools carry the risk of zapping sensitive electronics with their slightly magnetized tip. If you choose a screwdriver with a magnetized tip, be careful where you put it.

2. Needle-Nose Pliers: These are useful for grasping small items and for removing and replacing jumpers on circuit boards. I like to have two pairs on the job: one very long, the other short and sturdy. Use the long pliers for getting into tight spots where your hand won't reach. Use the short pliers for holding and adjusting parts.

3. Wire Cutters: Use these diagonal cutters, or wire snips, for cutting wire, trimming nylon ties and stripping insulation. Buy a good-quality pair that is small and can fit into tight spots.

4. Small Flashlight: Even in a well-lit area, some additional light is extremely useful when you're working inside a PC box. There are lots of very small things you'll need to see, such as the "pin 1" marking on a connector. Don't rely on ambient light, especially if you have middle-age farsightedness.

5. Magnifying Glass: Use this to make small printing appear bigger, especially the small, cryptic and sometimes flawed printing on components. Occasionally, you'll also want to take a very close look at parts and contacts. (Further down in this list, you'll find that a jeweler's loupe can be an even better tool to have on hand during some jobs.)

6. Long Tweezers: Use these to retrieve screws that have dropped into the box. Another tool similar to tweezers is a part retriever; it has a tiny set of retractable claws and a spring-loaded handle.

7. Compressed Air or Vacuum: Canned air can be OK for cleaning a PC's inner workings, but a small vacuum is actually better. It traps the dust and sucks it out, rather than merely blowing it around.

8. Parts Tray: This is a place to keep all the loose hardware you're working with, so it doesn't get scattered over the bench. Your tray could be as simple as a small plastic box. Or it can be a more elaborate metal magnetic sheet. Either way, a parts tray will help you enormously. In addition to a stocked parts box, I have an old change drawer on my bench that makes it easy for me to store the screws I use most often for assembly or pluck out the ones I need for quick reassembly on repairs.

9. Electrostatic Discharge Wrist Strap: I know a lot of builders who don't bother with this anymore and who've instead become mindful to touch a chassis before working on it. But an inexpensive device worn on the wrist can reduce the electrostatic potential between your body and whatever part you're working on. It's certainly easy to have one around in case you want to absolutely sure static doesn't damage a system's components. I especially recommend using a wrist strap when working with expensive data-acquisition, communications and other specialty cards.

10. Cable Ties: The use of simple plastic ties can make all the difference between a jumbled mess and a professional-looking build. Either organizing the cables into bundles or routing them through specific paths can have three major benefits. First, it will make it much easier to work inside of the case. Second, it can actually aid in the airflow inside of the computer. Finally, organized bundles of cables or wires simply makes a build look better.

11. Pencil and Paper: Such a common household item doesn't initially sound like it would be important, but having a way to record settings and options can prevent a lot of errors during configuration. Consider keeping a notebook with your information, contacts and system specifics for each build. My guess is you'll be surprised at how often you reference it.
THE 16 MAINTENANCE TOOLS

While these items are used less frequently than the 11 above, they are certainly handy to have along on a job, especially when you have more than one machine to maintain.

1. Nut Drivers: A set of nut drivers is good to have, but if you just want to buy to, 3/16-inch and 1/4-inch are the sizes most commonly used on PCs. These hexagonal nuts are used as mounting hardware for motherboards and serial and parallel ports. Without the 3/16-inch driver, you'll be attaching port connectors using a pair of poor-fitting pliers.

2. Box of Extra Screws: This is a good way to keep your hardware organized. The box should contain the following:

  • Screw 6-32 x 0.25 inches: Used in PC case cover and I/O plates.
  • Screw 6-32 x 0.15 inches: Used to install hard drives.
  • Screw M3 x 0.25 inches: Used to install floppy drive, CD-ROM drive and motherboard screw 4-40 x 0.18 inches: Used in I/O plate connector.
  • Metal Jackscrew Standoffs 6-32 to M3: For motherboard installation in pre-taped PC chassis.
  • Metal Jackscrew Standoffs 4-40: Used in I/O plate connector.
  • Case Fan Screw: Used to install plastic-framed cooling fans to PC chassis.
  • Nuts 4-40 x 6 mm: Used in joining cables.
  • Nuts 4-40 x 1.6 mm: Used with screw 4-40.
  • AT-style PC Case Standoffs: Used to install motherboards to a PC chassis.
  • Pre-trapped PC Case Standoffs: For motherboard installation in a pre-trapped PC chassis ATX-style PC.
  • Case Standoffs: Used to install motherboards to a PC chassis.

3. Hemostats: It may sound odd, but on my bench I have some long hemostats, a kind of pliers used by surgeons to clamp off bleeding arteries. I find them extremely handy for holding wires or screws in tight places. A hemostat is especially useful as a kind of "third hand" when you need to solder or align parts before assembly.

4. Soldering Iron: Even if you won't be repairing circuit boards, a soldering iron can be handy for extending or repairing wires and other repair work. Also buy the appropriate solder for doing electrical work; be careful, as there are other kinds. You may also find extra wire, black electrical tape and shrink wrap useful on occasion.

5. Air Compressor: If you regularly need to dislodge layers of dust, a small compressor is just the ticket. This device can pay for itself very quickly.

6. Isopropyl Alcohol (99 percent) : This is a high-quality rubbing alcohol that can be found in most drugstores. It does an excellent job of removing thermal compounds without leaving a residue that could impact future compounds. It is useful for cleaning CPU and heat sinks, as well as for cleaning contacts and other parts. But alcohol can dissolve plastic parts, so be careful where you use it.

7. Plastic Storage Bags: Use these to store all those loose parts after the computer is finished. Bags are also useful for spreading thermal compounds. Since thermal compounds can be contaminated by the oil on your skin, try spreading the compound with your hand inside a new, clean plastic bag.

8. Spare Parts: Expansion-card inserts, drive faceplates, hardware from mounting kits, as well as cables for power, IDEs, floppies and CD-ROMs are all handy to have around for troubleshooting on the job. An extra power supply, keyboard, mouse and some CD-ROMs and floppy drives are also essential to have on hand.

9. Dental Mirror: This is very valuable, especially after you've already assembled you PC. This will allow you to look around inside the PC without tearing it all apart again.

10. Jeweler's Loupe: Inexpensive versions of this jeweler's tool are available to magnify small parts. They're handy for spotting physical damage on circuit boards, marginal solder joints and part numbers.

11. Bench Light with Magnifier: If you do a lot of repair work, this will simplify your job.

12. Precision Screwdriver Set: If you do any work on laptops or need to clean, repair or adjust drives, you'll find that the smaller precision-style tools are a must.

13. Crimper and Assorted Ends: The look of many a build has been trashed by someone trying to crimp a connector on with a pair of pliers rather than with the right tool. Crimpers give a solid connection and a professional look.

14. Volt/Ohm Meter: This piece of test equipment can be handy for testing voltages, polarity and continuity. It needn't be expensive. Also, having alligator clips available to clip to leads can aid you on repair jobs.

15. Cleaning Tools: Wipes, brushes and cleaning supplies that won't damage cases, plastic parts and display screens all go a long way to give your finished product an attractive look-and-feel.

16. Touch-up Paint: This can be help in a quick-fix for scratched or dinged cases. On dark faceplates or covers, black markers can hide many flaws. Silver markers work, too.
THE 4 SPECIAL-PURPOSE TOOLS

1. Pozidrive and Torx Screwdrivers or Bits: These special-purpose screwdriver heads are used in the cases where you need to make equipment tamper-proof.

2. Case-Modding Tools: Sheet metal "nibblers," reamers, drills, dremels and metal saws are essential for modifying cases.

3. Molex Pin Removers: These tools come in various sizes to handle the different size pins in Molex connectors. They're good for putting pieces back together if they come apart or when you're modifying cables.

4. Heat Sink Lapping Kit: You should include a set of sandpapers ranging from 400 grit to 2500 grit. These are designed to help provide a flatter surface for your heat sink between the CPU and the cooling device for optimal cooling.

What about those toolkits you may see advertised in print catalogs and on the Web? My advice: Avoid them. Most of the tools included in these kits are of poor quality. Also, many of these kits waste your money by including tools you'll never use when building a PC.


SIDEBAR: 3 HELPFUL TIPS

Tip #1: Buy the best quality tools you can afford, but buy only the tools you will use on a regular basis. In other words, think before you plunk down your hard-earned money.

Also, some older tools you may have bought for other jobs can be used for system building, too. Just be careful. Some tools that work fine for other tasks may not be ideal for PC building. For example, while a small pair of wire cutters is all most builders will need for trimming cable ties and wire ends, the cutters you're most likely to already own are probably a "general purpose" size. Did they cut things for the work you used to do? Sure. But are they the best tool for system building? Probably not.

Tip #2: Take a hard, critical look at the tools you're using, and ask yourself, Is there something that would do the job better. If so—and often, there is—then locate the better tool, and buy it. You'll thank yourself the next time you're out on a job.

Tip #3: To minimize tool loss, organize your work space. Losing tools is a constant problem for many, if not all, system builders. Replacing lost tools is expensive. Using an inappropriate substitute until the lost tool resurfaces is frustrating.

To overcome this, while at the same time making your operation more efficient, start by organizing your space. If everything has a place, and everything is in its place, then it's easy to see when something is out of place!

To put this theory into practice, make sure each of your tools has a place where it waits to be used, and a place to return to when its job is done. The place a tool lives should be within easy reach, so you don't need to interrupt your work. Strive to organize your tools so that you can quickly see when something is missing. Then get into the habit of keeping your tools in their place.


ANDY MCDONOUGH is a professional musician, composer, voice actor, engineer, and educator happily freelancing in New Jersey.

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