Stock Up on All the Tools Any Handy Cyberpunk Will Need
When my boss calls and says I need to be in New Mexico tomorrow because a camera worth several times more than my car can’t fly until we’ve rebuilt the entire wiring harness, the things I grab in order of importance are 1) a toothbrush and 2) my tool bag. It’s not perfect.–not for me, and probably not for you. But if you want an idea of what tools can help you on an expedition beyond the Warranty Void if Removed sticker, this guide is a good place to start.
Just Torque It
The first step of almost any electronics project is getting through the protective case into the guts. That usually means undoing a number of screws. You could carry a whole set of screwdrivers, but that’s not exactly compact. Most replaceable driver bits are ¼” size, and I carry a set of those for larger screws. Leatherman makes an interesting set of driver bits specialized for their tools but compatible with most others, but I usually just reach for some standard hardware-store bits. Of course, you can’t use a bit without a handle of some sort. There are some cool 3D printed options, but I like a small ¼” hex drive ratchet. I use the Topeak Ratchet Rocket (item 1, fig. 1) but there are other options as well. I also use a Leatherman bit extender (item 2, fig. 1), both to extend the reach of the driver and to extend the length of the handle. This tool provides both of those functions in an all-in-one package.
Of course, many electronics have quite small screws, often in hard-to-reach places. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve glared at a tiny screw head deeply recessed into an injection-molded clamshell case where the shoulder of a ¼” bit or its driver just wouldn’t fit. 4mm bits are the standard size for jewelers’ screwdriver applications. Even there, you want a nice long shank on the bit, so I highly recommend this set. The bits (item 3, fig. 1) are fantastic, and the handle’s quite nice too. However, many things that use small screws make up for their size by using a lot of them, and by using longer threaded shafts. That, coupled with their fine threads, means you can spend a long time pulling screws to pull the top plate off a racing quad, for example. It can therefore be nice to have an electric screwdriver. My ES120 (item 4, fig. 1) is the Cadillac of such tools, but certainly not the only one that would work.
Possibly the most important piece in a hardware hacker’s arsenal is the one she uses to sling hot lead, or a lead-free alternative, depending on her preference. There are a lot of options for portable soldering irons, depending on your definition of portability. A digital thermostat model that plugs into any wall outlet can be quite inexpensive. A butane powered iron cuts the cord and has the added versatility of a heat gun and torch—but it’s not quite as delicate, and be warned, when the tip wears out, it can be surprisingly hard to find replacements. For the best combination of precision and versatility, my money’s on the TS100 (item 1, fig. 2), which with the right adapters can run off of wall current, RC or power tool batteries, or even a car cigarette lighter outlet.
You’ll also likely need a wire stripper. My favorite, for compactness and versatility, is this 3D-printed model (item 2, fig. 2), which seems to have a commercially available equivalent here. I’ve also used one of these for years, but from the reviews it looks like their quality is not as reliable as one might hope, and they’re not great for wires that are too big or too small.
A lot of the time, replacing a damaged wire or component means removing the old solder before you can add new. A solder sucker is a little more optional than a lot of the other tools here, but I’ve found myself needing one and not having it too many times not to carry it. This one works well, but for compactness and smoothness of operation, I carry the Engineer SS-02 (item 3, fig. 2).
Don’t forget your consumables: heat shrink and/or electrical tape, a bit of wire, and, of course, solder.
Meter Out the Situation
Before you fix or “improve” anything, you have to know exactly what you’re dealing with. One of the most important tools for that is a multimeter. Is there a break somewhere in this wire? What’s the running voltage of this leg of the circuit? Did he really throw the breaker, or am I about to get a 120v surprise? These are all questions your multimeter helps you answer. Cheap, compact meters are prevalent and work well while they work, but in my experience you’ll be replacing the meter before the batteries run out. The Uni-T clamp meter (item 1, fig. 3) is relatively compact and has the added versatility of an amp clamp for high-draw applications, but is really ideal for house wiring. My favorite compact meter for low voltage work is the Pokit meter (item 2, fig. 3), which uses a smartphone as a screen via Bluetooth, and also has some oscilloscope functionality. It only goes up to 60v though, so no mains voltage works.
A Good Tool for Cutting Edges
Molly Millions has her scalpel-blade fingernails. Hiro Protagonist has his swords. What do you carry for making big things into smaller things?
A multitool knife has excellent versatility. My beloved Leatherman Skeletool CX (item 1, fig. 4) has been at my side for about a decade now, but its light weight comes with a rather light complement of tools. Its proprietary bit driver is a bit annoying. The aptly-named Victorinox Cybertool is another good option, one with a more versatile bit-driver.
Sometimes, sharp blades that you don’t have to worry about ruining come in handy. The Gerber EAB (item 2, fig. 4) is small and light enough that there’s practically no reason not to carry one, and takes the same ubiquitous blades as the wire stripper I mentioned above.
A pair of nail clippers (item 3, fig. 4) is surprisingly useful for biting through soft copper wire, carefully stripping even very fine wire, and a load of other cutting tasks that are difficult to accomplish with other cutting implements. Plus, you know, personal grooming.
Not pictured but often useful is a pair of small side-cutters, with largely the same complement of applications as the nail clippers, but often able to reach into more constricted areas.
Other Helpful Tools for Miscellaneous Work
There are various other things I like to keep in my bag that fall outside any of the above categories but are nevertheless indispensable. Item 1 in fig. 5 is a small, rechargeable headlamp, the strap of which I’ve replaced with a shock cord to make it lighter and more compact. Cell phone lights are great, but hard to keep trained on anything while keeping your hands free. Item 2 of fig. 5 is a small set of calipers, indispensable for sussing out thread sizes on machine screws, taking measurements to design parts for 3D printing, or any variety of other tasks. Item 3 of fig. 5 is a dielectric cellulose probe (popsicle stick). It can be shaved into whatever shape of spudger you need for a given task and is imminently replaceable.
Item 4 features nylon zip ties that are good for hasty repairs or even long-term structural elements on many projects. These are consumables and should be kept stocked up. Item 5 is a lighter, useful for heat-shrinking, igniting things, and fusing cord ends. Speaking of which, item 6 is a bit of paracord and a small carabiner. The cordage and ‘biner are useful for a myriad of things in their unaltered condition, but the cord can further be dismantled into a sheath (useful for light-gauge wire sleeving) and the much smaller braided threads that run inside of it. This can be used to tie wires or other fine items together in a harness. Finally, item 7 is a pair of tweezers for gripping anything too fine for my multitool.
That’s a Heck of a Cyberpunk Toolkit
Now it’s time to bring it all together.
Of course, you need a proper container for all of this. I like my MOLLE medic’s pouch (fig. 6) since the way it opens gives good access to all the tools without unclipping it from my belt. Make sure you get belt clips with it, if that’s how you intend to carry it. Other options include hard or soft cases.
These are the tools I carry for some rather specific tasks. The things you work on may require other tools, or more specialized versions of similar items. Remember, there’s no point in carrying around a bag of tools you don’t know how to use, so take some time to acquaint yourself with each one–especially those that can burn or cut you or the things around you.