In this blog post we’ll be sharing some of our tips for setting up and organising your own home lab.
Just as a little disclaimer, this is by no means a definition of what a home lab should be — based on different interests, everyone will want slightly different kit and not everyone will want the more expensive devices. But we’ll take you through the tools we use regularly!
What Makes a Good Creative Space?
First of all, a home lab isn’t just about putting aside space for making stuff. For us, it’s also where we go to design. This means it has to be a friendly space good for both thinking and working.
To help spark our creativity, we like to have lots of colours and inspiring little bits around, like previous projects or stuff we’ve recently bought and want to incorporate into projects.
Once we’ve had an idea, we want to be able to write it down quickly before it slips away. We like to have writing stuff to hand, not just pens and paper but also a big whiteboard. There’s nothing worse than having a great idea and then forgetting it because you were scrabbling around trying to find a pen. Writing stuff down is also a great way to kick start some collaborative discussion.
General Tools & Organisation
We have a tool wall which holds pretty much all the basic tools we need, both for projects and more generally for home DIY. This has lots of kit that’s good to have to hand, like screwdrivers, pliers, wire strippers, a multimeter, Allen keys and a torch.
While we do have toolboxes, we prefer having stuff out where we can see it. It can’t just be me who’s bought a tool thinking I don’t have it only to discover it hiding at the bottom of a toolbox!
It’s also nice when you’re working to be able to have all of your tools out where you can see them and easily get to them, while simultaneously having them organised reasonably neatly. Much better than having them strewn across the floor.
We have lots of basic / small components like resistors, capacitors, transistors, connectors and wire. Because of their small size, you can fit loads of these components all in one place, like this component organiser.
Having labels on the drawers on your organiser and not cross contaminating makes a world of difference when trying to make something. It prevents a lot of frustration and saves you a lot of time when you can rely on your organisation system to be accurate!
Our Making Process — Electronics
A lot of our work takes place on the workbench. It’s a glorified table, really. We’ve got an ESD mat, which basically drains static charge from anything you put on it. If there’s one thing you buy, let it be this. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than destroying a new component you’ve just bought because you were rubbing your feet on the carpet on the way down the stairs.
Generally, the first stage of our prototyping work takes place on a breadboard. We have a handy multimeter for testing stuff quickly. This is probably one of our most used pieces of kit and having a good one is really important to us. This one also has the added bonus of being magnetic so it sticks (that’s the scientific term) straight onto our tool wall! We also have a movable magnifying glass lamp. This is a must have for us because the lighting in the lab isn’t great so you can get really annoying shadows when trying to work. The magnifying glass also really helps when doing fiddly work.
When we take the project off the breadboard and onto perfboard we need a soldering iron — this is pretty key to all our projects Soldering irons aren’t just plug and play and you need to be super careful when using them to avoid those nasty fumes — get yourself a fume extractor! At a minimum you should have an extractor fan, ideally one which is linked up to tubing to divert fumes directly outside. Faffing around getting giant pieces of tubing out of the window might seem like a lot of effort, particularly when it’s -2 and snowing outside, but future you thanks you for your conscientiousness.
A soldering iron which can vary the temperature is important for working with different devices. For the small connections on led strips made of thin metal, you want to use a low temperature, otherwise you can burn the connection out. But you also want to be able to get real hot if you’re working with thick wires.
Although not entirely necessary, a lab bench power supply is a really good thing to have. It allows you to control voltage and current meaning you can test your projects but also do things like charge batteries. Before we got our lovely one, we had a power supply in this cute little Werthers Originals box, which we made ourselves following Great Scott’s tutorial.
We’ve got solar panels outside our lab which we use to charge a battery. Admittedly some of this kit needs an upgrade and we’re definitely not using our renewables to their full ability. This is something we hope to do more with in future!
Our Making Process — Software
It’s all very well having the hardware, but this needs a whole lot of software to make sure everything works.
We use git for version control and we also back up our stuff to the cloud. This sounds really basic but don’t underestimate its importance — we’ve learnt the hard way! You don’t know the pain until you’ve lost something important!
We have our own home development pipeline which is hosted on a Raspberry Pi, which is great because it means we can use industry standard best practices for our projects. This includes:
- Hosting out own git home repository.
- Building projects with docker.
- Using drone for continuous integration and deployment of our software.
- Constantly monitoring the services we run so we know if something fails.
- Automating back ups of everything.
- Making sure we have scripts which mean that if something goes wrong, we can start again using the backed up version
Our home development pipeline means we can do things like update all our CCTV cameras around the house with a simple git push.
Our Making Process — Casing
Lots of our projects require us to create some sort of case.
The design process for this sort of thing usually starts with a lot of squabbling around a whiteboard or over a piece of paper. Once we’ve settled on a design, we measure everything up as accurately as we can using a digital micrometer. Obviously, this is much faster and much more accurate than a ruler. We use this piece of kit a lot and rely on it to be accurate!
When we discovered 3D printing it was a bit of a revelation and we went a bit nuts. It’s fun, rewarding and can produce really cool stuff in almost no time with almost no effort. We have an entire little room set up as a shrine to our 3D printer and all its associated paraphernalia — namely filament, which we have hanging from 3D printed hangers on a rail above the printer. We used to have it stacked, but we really wouldn’t recommend this for obvious reasons…
Trying our best to be organised, we re-purposed a cheap second hand TV unit, using all the nooks and crannies for storage. We’ve also found that filament boxes are ideal as project boxes. This helps us keep everything together that needs to be, so if we ever break a project mid make, we can come back to it in six months with no problem.
We’ve also got some funky lighting in here because, well, we wanted it and it makes it feel cool.
Starting out as a maker can be daunting and it can feel like a big step when deciding to dedicate some actual space to your projects.
From our experience, we’ve learnt two important things in our journey making our home lab:
- Setting aside space for making is a good idea!
- Allows you to organise things in a way which suits you.
- Create a space where you can think and work.
- Healthy work life balance — keep your making separate from the rest of your life so you can dip in and out rather than live in a pile of tools and projects!
- Buy quality tools
- It can be really tempting to buy cheap tools but they’re not always reliable or even up for the job.
- Don’t cut corners when it comes to safety — do invest in compliant tools and making your workplace fit for purpose!
Thanks for reading
Thanks again for following us through our home lab journey — we hope you enjoyed it! Remember that our recommendations are based on our own personal experiences and our lab is set up to suit our interests and requirements. Check out some of the projects which have come out of our lab at T3chFlicks.org, including our Smart Buoy, security owl and a wireless charging sofa! Hopefully we’ve been able to inspire some of you! (YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter).