Step By Step 10 - Techno-Tools

Originally published in Australian Personal Computer magazine, August 1998
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.

 

You don’t need much in the way of tools to work on computers - a Phillips head screwdriver is all that’s called for in most hardware installation jobs. But for more involved operations, like adding a new cooling fan or repairing a power cable pinched in the case, you’ll need some extra gear. Fortunately, most of the extra tools for working on computers come in well under $25 (Australian dollars).

Hemostats

Hemostats

These are the "scissor clamps", sometimes incorrectly called forceps, that surgeons use to clamp off blood vessels. They have serrated jaws and a three-position ratchet closure that gives gigantic gripping power. Hemostats are handy for holding little nuts in place while you screw in their bolts, keeping wires still while you solder them and a host of other tasks. They’re commonly available at electronics stores for less than $10.

Alligator forceps

A surgical tool which I find myself using rather more often for computer applications, though, is the "alligator forceps", also known by various names having to do with the bit of the body you're expected to poke them into.

With scissor-ish handles, a long very thin two-part sliding neck and 10mm serrated jaws at the other end, these can be threaded through a hole less than 4mm wide and open and close freely, with a fair amount of gripping strength. They’re useful for most of the things you’d use hemostats for, with less strength but more manoeuvrability. Nothing beats alligator forceps for gripping and hauling wires though a thicket of other cables. They’re common medical instruments, but it’s an unusually well-equipped hobby or electronics store that stocks them.

You can also use them for getting the detached fuzzy tip of a cotton bud out of your ear. I'd rather not say how I know this.

PLCC chip puller

PLCC chip puller

Plastic Leaded Chip Carrier (PLCC) chips are square, and click into a socket which looks something like an above-ground pool for fleas. Getting them out of said socket is challenging, without a PLCC chip extractor. You can do it with a jeweller’s screwdriver, but it’s somewhat nerve-wracking. A PLCC puller clips onto opposite corners of the chip and pops it out with one squeeze. Well under $10 from an electronics store.

Of course, if you never have to extract a PLCC chip - and there’s a decent chance you never will - don’t bother buying the tool.

Pearl catch

A pearl catch is a vaguely syringe-ish doodad. Press the plunger, and three little spring-steel jaws pop out of the other end. These are quite good at snaring that annoying screw that rattled down into the works of the PC. It’s even easier to do this with a magnetic pick-up tool, but using magnets around magnetic media is a general no-no. A pearl catch costs a few bucks from an electronics store.

Threadlock

You know those little hex-headed male-to-female screw thingies that hold on the ports on the back of most PCs? You know how the thumbscrews on the sides of connectors screw into them? You know how they tend to stay attached to the thumbscrew, not the computer, when you unplug the cable? You know how losing both of them lets the port fall off inside the PC case, causing you to say rude words?

There is a solution. Get ye to a hardware store and purchase a little bottle of blue Loctite 243 threadlock, or the generically branded equivalent. One drop on the thread of the port screw, give it a few hours to set, and they’ll never unscrew again without permission.

Don’t get the red high strength stuff. That’s for things that nobody ever wants to remove again.

Soldering iron

Soldering iron

Soldering is easy, and tremendously useful. Splice new connectors onto your power supply. Lengthen that dinky fan cable. Fix the reset switch lead that got pinched in the case.

A basic mains powered iron can be had for under $25, plus a few bucks for a roll of solder and a damp tip-cleaning sponge. If you’ve never soldered, practice on random bits of wire until you feel confident about attacking a real job.

If you find yourself having to solder where there isn’t any mains power, consider a butane powered iron. These give lots of heat - though precise temperature control is difficult - and run for ages on one squirt from a $10 gas can, which is good for many, many refillings. Expect to pay about $50 for a brand name Portasol butane iron, less for the various clones.

Do not use a honking great plumber’s iron for circuit board soldering. Excessive heat can, and will, lift tracks off the board, making problems worse. A 25 watt iron is plenty.

The iron in the picture is my big Portasol, which is actually a pretty good example of what not to use for fine work; its maximum power rating is something like 150 watts, and it's hard to accurately set it lower.

Heatshrink tubing

On the subject of soldering, heatshrink is the cure for all those awful wire splices insulated with electrical tape. Heatshrink shrinks to half its starting diameter when subjected to a few hundred degrees, and it moulds itself to cover the joint. Available in various sizes and colours for not much from electronics stores.

Wire stripper

Wire stripper

All true electronics hobbyists have a slight V-notch between their front teeth from stripping cables the macho way. This is fine for thin wires, but trying the trick with anything of any size will give joy only to your dentist. So get yourself a proper wire stripper.

Forget the horrid supercheap ones with lots of graduated holes on a scissor-ish base. Get either a "T-Rex", named for its vague resemblance to the eponymous big lizard and costing less than $20, or one of the other models of automatic stripper. They all auto-adjust to the size of the cable and yank the insulation off even quite large wires cleanly. $25 buys you a nice one.

Cable ties & anchors

The inside of most PCs looks like a drug-addled cable orgy. This is annoying to work with, stuffs up cooling airflow and can jam the CPU fan, which is A Bad Thing. Cable ties are the solution.

Made of nylon, cable or "zip" ties are a ribbed strip with a slide-through, ratchet end. Thread one end through the other, pull it and, with a distinctive zipping sound, the tie cinches down on whatever it’s around, never to let go. Big ones are used by law enforcement persons as somewhat inhumane quickie handcuffs.

You can get releasable, reusable cable ties, but the regular version is easy enough to cut and very cheap (maybe 10 cents each, for 200mm ties). You can also get self-adhesive anchor blocks the ties thread through, which let you pull your cable bundles up against some case metalwork. Cable ties are available at hardware stores, but cheaper at electronics stores.

Anti-static strap

Every time you work on a computer, it’s a crapshoot. A static potential of as little as 200 volts is enough to destroy components, and a charge that small is too little to feel, and can be accumulated by doing pretty much anything. If you leave the computer plugged in, to maintain the chassis earth, and touch some bare chassis metal before starting the job and periodically throughout it, the chance of damaging anything is slight. But for more security, use an anti-static strap that fastens around your wrist or ankle and clips to the PC chassis. It’ll only set you back about $15.

Torx drivers

Hard disks are usually held together with Torx screws, which have a funny six-pointed-star shaped hole in the head. What this says is "Do not undo these screws". This is a fair statement; hard drives are, basically, unserviceable, and opening one and letting in even a few tiny motes of dust is a recipe for disaster.

But maybe you want to swap the controller board on a drive that contains the only copy of some invaluable data (since the board probably costs more as a spare part than a whole new drive, that data would have to be invaluable). Or maybe you’ve got a dead drive and you just want to get the pretty platters out of it and hang them on your wall. By the way, I strongly recommend this latter course of action - hard disk platters make fine decorations, and also serve as a warning to other drives considering misbehaviour.

In a pinch, you can undo Torx screws with an Allen (hex) key of the appropriate size, but you’re meant to use the proper star-shaped driver. If the hard drive was made by a company really determined to keep you out, the screws may be "tamperproof Torx", with a pin in the middle of the screwhead to stop the driver engaging. Naturally, special tamperproof Torx drivers are available, and they work fine on regular Torx screws too.

Maglites

Maglites

A decent torch (flashlight, to you non-Queen's English types) is essential for PC twiddling. Even when you've got the blighters on a well-lit workbench there'll be something in a cranny you can't read, and the dedicated computer-tweaker is likely to spend a depressing amount of time peering at things in the gloom beneath a desk.

You don't want a five quadrillion candlepower searchlight for poking around in PCs; you want a small, durable, reasonably bright penlight. There are about a zillion different makes of penlight, and any of the cheapies will do in a pinch, but the most popular quality ones are the Maglite range, made by Mag Instrument of California and available in camping and department stores the world over. The ISO standard small Maglite is the 2-AA-cell Mini Maglite, but the tiny single-AAA-cell Solitaire is great too; it's not as bright, but it's so small it can live in your pocket.

Mag also make a double-AAA model and various C and D cell units as well, up to the mighty six-D-cell monster which less civilised souls than I might refer to as the Rodney King Signature Edition.

It is generally accepted that this model is unsuitable for computer service work, though it makes an admirable LART.

 

Tools to avoid

Lousy chip puller

Electronics stores often sell little kits of "computer service tools", which include among other things DIP (Dual Inline Package - the standard chip layout with a row of legs on either side of a rectangular package) chip pullers and inserters. The pullers look vaguely like tongs, while the inserters have a holder for a chip at one end and a syringe-ish plunger at the other to shove it into its socket.

Avoid both of these tools like the plague.

When you’re hauling away on a DIP chip puller, it’s easy for one end of the chip to pop out before the other, and before you know it you’ve got a chip standing perpendicular to the board with its last pair of pins bent 90 degrees but still plugged in, and all of the other pins also bent according to their proximity to the still-connected end. And when you bring your thumb down on the plunger of a DIP inserter, it’s easy to misalign the chip slightly and bend each and every pin in half.

Remove DIP chips by gently levering each end in turn with a small flathead screwdriver, raising each end a little at a time until it comes free without forcing. And insert them by hand. It’s easy.

While I’m sounding off, think twice about using an electric screwdriver on your PC. For taking screws out, electric screwdrivers are fine - provided you don’t use them on a seized screw or with the wrong sized bit, whereupon they can strip a screw head in a second.

Most electric screwdrivers, however, don't have a torque control clutch, so they make it easy to overtighten PC screws (cordless drills normally do have clutches, these days; set the torque low and you'll be fine). In all but the most expensive PC cases, the screws bite into poorly tapped holes in thin sheet metal. So it’s easy to ream the hole, assuming the screw’s a good one, or wreck the screw, if it isn’t.

Remember, it’s a PC, not the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

More tools!

Check out another load of PC hacking tools here.



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