What's the best way to learn a bit about electronics?

I read Make Magazine, I enjoy their blog, I think those little nixie clocks are sooo cute. I’d like to learn more about simple electronics and building stuff.

Are there any particularly good books? Anything good with “learn by cheap projects”? How much of a Radio Shack investment are we talking about to get started here? I tried picking up a few of those “101 cool electronics projects!” books and realized I need something more… basic. A lot more basic.

What I know about electricity is that you better shut off the breaker before you go trying to fix it. I’ve installed my own programmable thermostat, and that’s the absolute apogee of my accomplishments. I’ve never soldered anything. Actually, I’m pretty nervous about the idea of soldering anything.

I want to learn by doing, but I’m afraid that if I get too far in over my head that I’ll be “cookbooking” projects and not really understanding how they work. My goal here is to learn (and build one of those darling little nixie clocks.) Suggestions?

I now want to build one of these clocks too. Are there more simple, beginner-type electronic projects in the magazine? I looked through the blog and didn’t see too much stuff other than the headphone amp.

I used to tinker around with stuff like this when I was a kid. I built a desktop AC unit with a box, some parts from an old erector set, an ice pack and miscellaneous electronics from radio shack. I’d love to get back into creating stuff like that now that I have kids to show it too.

I do have a basic electronics guide. It’s laid out like a school book with review questions and is a good introduction to the subject matter. If you email me I’ll send it too you.

Get “The Art of Electronics” http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0521370957/bookstorenow57-20

Get a breadboard at Radio Shack.
Pick a simple project NO NIXIE TUBES yet! (They take high voltage and weird drivers).
Build it.
Have Fun.

What about something like this ?

Oh my, thanks for the childhood flashback. I had something like this when I was a kid and I’d completely forgotten about it.

No. Too Advanced.

IMO, anyone who wants to learn about electronics should own the *complete * set of the Engineer’s Mini-Notebook by Forrest M. Mims III. I think there were 7 or 8 volumes. Each volume is very short and priced at a couple bucks. They were once sold by Radio Shack. I’m not sure of they still are.

Once you get your Engineer’s Mini-Notebooks, you’ll want to get a Snap Circuit Kit. They’re pretty cool.

Thirdly, subscribe to Nuts and Volts magazine.

Lastly, read everything Don Lancaster has ever written.

In addition to what has already been said, another thing you can also try is getting cheap garage sale/thrift store junk and take it apart, fix it, etc.

Start with low voltage stuff (battery powered or that works off a wall wart). Stay away from TVs, CRT monitors, microwaves and such.

If you mess up a $1 item, you won’t feel bad about it.

You can learn a lot just tracing out circuits with a DMM looking for bad parts.

They’re also great to practice soldering on (which you will need to learn).

Actually, in this last issue (which I believe is still the ‘current’ issue) they did have some “Intro to Electronics” stuff - using a breadboard, etc. I wanted to get something more basic, though, because the authors obviously were just a little bit above my level - I’d like to go back to it soon, though.

Also, the magazine is just really, really fun - you can subscribe to their blog for free and find out how amazingly smart and creative all these people are. It blows my mind every day!

Oh, and if Amazon is any judge, the Engineer’s Mini-Notebook series seems to be out of print.

Oh - I missed the edit window, the Make blog is mostly links to stuff people do, some of which have instructions (or really awesome Instructables), the magazine has more written projects.

Where do I learn to read schematics? I have some Mims books with key for the symbols but the layout keeps confusing me. Why are things laid out in schematic so differently than in the actual circuit?

Another good reference book I have found useful is Practical Electronics for Inventors . As the title says, it’s got a lot of practical information and seems to be geared toward someone without much prior experience.

Speaking as someone who is a self-taught electronics tinkerer, I think the best way to approach this is just pick a simple project and go for it. Go out and get some cheap equipment from Radio Shack (soldering iron, etc). Get some resistors and wire and try out soldering them. Then move on to your project. Perhaps the best thing to try first is a simple pre-packaged kit from ladyada.net or somewhere else. You get a nice PCB and all of the right components and there not too expensive. Try it out and if you run into trouble, the internet is a great resource. I’ve made the Minty Boost and MiniPOV kits and both are fairly hard to completely ruin.

You could also try some of the fairly simple, well documented projects that get posted on Make. The downside there is getting just a few components can be expensive (Radioshack markups are insane) or confusing (trying the guess which capacitor is the one you need on digikey.com).

In any case, I think the best way to learn something is to have a reason to learn it. So pick something that you want to make and go for it. Focus on figuring out what you need to learn to finish that project. Learn as much as you can about how that project works. When you’re finished you’ll have a chunk of knowledge that helps you understand part of another project and you move on from there. Eventually you’ll have a pretty good toolbox available to you and you can fill in gaps as you need.

Before you know it, you’ll be making your Nixie Tube clock. (By the way, I think they are about the coolest electronics project ever. If the parts weren’t so expensive I’d have built one already. That or an oscilloscope clock.)

Good Luck!

Do a google search on “how to read schematics”. You’ll find a lot of crappy links, but there’s some good ones in there too. Maybe a few different viewpoints will help.

Schematics are laid out in a way that makes sense from a logical point of view. For some circuits you can lay them out in pretty much the same way, but for most circuits this will cause you problems. Real world wires are not ideal connections. They have resistance, inductance, and capacitance. On a schematic, we generally show things like bypass capacitors on a completely separate page than the chips they are placed close to. This is because electrically, the capacitors only go between +V and GND. In the real world, though, the purpose of the bypass cap is to keep the voltage supply at the chip constant, so the bypass cap has to be physically located as close as possible to the chip, and the length of its connections to the chip has to be kept as short as possible. This would clutter up a schematic and make it more difficult to read if the bypass caps were shown right next to the chip all the time.

Long wires around op-amps tend to cause instability. A circuit that is laid out exactly the same as a schematic might wail and scream like a banshee. The exact same circuit laid out with short wire lengths for the critical signals might work with no problem. From a schematic point of view, the two circuits are identical. The problem is that one circuit works and the other one doesn’t.

In a schematic, a ground is a ground. In the real world, you have to pay a LOT of attention to grounds.

Circuit layout is an art that takes a while to learn.

As far as electronics is concerned, I started out in high school building effects boxes for my guitar, and branched off into other things as I learned more. Start with things that are interesting and simple. Circuit design, layout, and troubleshooting are all learned skills. You can read all you want, and there’s a certain amount you have to read, but you only really learn by doing.

I really am interested in two projects.

#1 I want a theremin. I have downloaded some schematics and it looks relatively easy and cheap to build one.

#2 a bat detector. I think I can use the work already on a dancing Coke can. I just have to switch the microphone for an ultrasonic one (then adjust for resistance, capacitance, etc and other differences) and replace the servo with a piezoelectric chirper (and make the necessary adjustments)

But I’d like a greater knowledge of electronics so that I can diagnose and fix old computers and gaming consoles and do all kinds of fun LED projects.

I built a theremin for my wife a few Christmases ago. I got the plans from an issue of EPE magazine. It wasn’t hard to build, or too expensive, but damned if I could ever get it to really sound right. It’s currently in my “I’ll get back to it soon, really” pile.

A theremin is cool. Shouldn’t be too difficult.

I’m not so sure about the dancing coke can modification. Just replacing the microphone probably won’t do it. The circuit that detects the audio frequencies might not be easily adjusted to detect ultrasonic frequencies.
Try this instead: http://pw1.netcom.com/~t-rex/BatDetector.html

Start looking into 555 timers. They make easy LED flashers.

I’ll be at Gettysdope again this year, so feel free to pick my brain for ideas or whatever if you are there.

Go to a garage sale. Find the oldest, cheapest piece of electronic garbage that you can find. The older the better. If it was made in the 1970’s it’s perfect.

Buy yourself a cheap soldering iron and some solder from Radio Shack. Open up the el-cheapo piece of junk you just bought. Pick a component, preferably a component with only two leads, like a resistor or a cap (save ICs for when you have more experience). Stick the soldering iron on one lead until it heats up enough that you can pry that end of the component off the board. Repeat on the other side. You have now removed one component, and possibly broke it and other stuff on the circuit board since you don’t know what you are doing yet (this is why I said buy something cheap). Now, solder the component back in. Replace the leads through the holes, and, this is important, heat up the part, not the solder. This is the biggest mistake beginners make. Heat the component lead and the trace on the circuit board, then touch the solder to them. The solder will flow nice and neatly onto the hot parts. If you just heat up a glob of solder and drop it onto the connection, you create what is known as a “cold solder joint” which doesn’t necessarily connect very well and will probably fail over time.

Now repeat the above over and over until you can solder and unsolder parts while heating them as little as possible. Once you’ve mastered this with junk, you can then safely do it with real parts with little fear of damage.

I don’t remember seeing them the last time I went into a radio shack (not that I go in very often), and I couldn’t find them on their web site.

Engineer Comp Geek thank you very much!

Looking at the parts list, I wonder what I can substitute to save money? I already have phone jacks and an earpiece like the one shown. He doesn’t list a cost for the circuit board and I wonder if Radioshack Breadboard and wires would be much cheaper. I wonder what other parts can be replaced. I have a whole box full of harvested resistors and capacitors. I should be able to find working ones with the values given.

$35 is a lot better than the $80-120 bat detectors usually cost. But, I’m broke and cheap and want to bring the cost as low as possible.

Soldering is easy! What you should be afraid of is that you’re not as smart as you or other people think you are, you’ll be unable to master this new area, and your mental abilities will only decline from here!


Ummm, I’m not the only one with this fear, am I?

Breadboard and wires is only good for tinkering. It’s not sturdy enough mechanically for any kind of finished project. I tend to use perfboard because its cheap. Just stick the leads of the parts through the perfboard and solder wires to the back side. You can get a small piece of perfboard (which if you cut it carefully is good for 3 or 4 projects) at Radio Shack for a couple of bucks.

Looking down through the parts list, the electronic components should all be fairly cheap. The 470 uF electrolytic cap is just a power supply filter. It’s value isn’t critical. You can probably get away with ceremic disk caps in place of the mylar caps.

One warning about ordering parts from online folks like mouser and digikey and the like. They tend to have a minimum order. I doubt digikey carries the transducer, so you may do better to order the ICs from mouser as well. Ordering all the parts from one place will save you shipping costs as well.

If you make your own box, you can probably get away with about $5 to $10 in parts.