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Off-The-Shelf Hacker: Tools You Should Carry Everywhere

Jul 2nd, 2016 1:38am by
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Last week, I talked about tools you can use to stay motivated and handle adversity. They weren’t exactly hardware-centric. As Off-The-Shelf Hackers, we’re flexible with our approach to problem solving, whether by using hand, power, logical, programmatic, metaphorical or spiritual tools.

This week, I’ll cover the tools I take with me for my conference tech talks. Naturally, this also applies when I’m working at my offsite (Panera Bread), at an Orlando Robotics and Maker meeting or on vacation. The collection doesn’t take up much space and can certainly save your bacon when you need to repair a project, write a story or maybe fix your cable/Internet connection.

I’ve sorted my minimalist mobile tool set into groups. You can add or subtract something according to your needs. A lot of times, I just stuff the bigger items into a plastic bag and roll it up tight. Add a couple of good rubber bands to keep it compact. This keeps things clean and dry. You might even include an extra plastic bag, just because.

Screwdriver Group

  • Straight
  • Phillips
  • Pen

I usually like to pack a straight and a Phillips head screwdriver, in a 6-inch size. They fit comfortably into my computer bag.

A pen screwdriver is absolutely invaluable when working on Arduino, Raspberry Pi and 8266 projects.

You can buy them at any electronics or hardware store. They have a small straight blade on one end and a tiny Phillips on the other end. The body is plastic, usually with a pocket clip, like a pen. My hot tip is to keep a sharp eye out for this swag when you cruise the show floor at your next tech conference. Grab a handful and you’ll be set for years.

Pliers Group

  • Needlenose pliers
  • Tiny side cutters
  • Wire stripper
  • Vice grips

A small pair of needlenose pliers let you pick up tiny nuts and bolts, bend wire around terminals and with the aid of a rubber band act as an impromptu part holder. Likewise, a pair of side-cutters is great for trimming through-hole soldered wires and even stripping insulation, if needed. Regular wire strippers are handy too. Many times they have a wire cutter and plier jaws built-in. My uncle gave me the tiny needlenose and side cutters, back around 1967. Take good care of them and they’ll last a lifetime.

I was in the press room at a conference last winter and my long-time public relations friend was breaking down his equipment at the end of the day. His telescoping display stand wouldn’t collapse due to a stuck adjustment collar. I grabbed the vice grip out of my project box, and together we broke the collar loose. People always appreciate and remember others who are helpful.

Soldering Group

  • 25-watt soldering iron
  • Solder

I always carry a small 25-watt soldering iron and a little roll of solder with me to events. At OSCON a few years ago, I was at lunch and the talk turned to hardware. I mentioned my talk about microcontrollers and a guest at the table commented that it must be nerve-racking to do demos, especially with DIY hardware. Off handedly, I said, “Just make sure you have your soldering iron handy and be prepared for anything.” The guy replied, “Oh you brought your soldering iron to the conference?” With that, I pulled my soldering iron … out of my pocket, and held it up for everybody at the table to see. Everybody had a good laugh at that one.

The larger lesson was that it pushed me up a couple of notches in the credibility department and marked me as an authentic “tool carrying” geek. If you’re going to be a real Off-The-Shelf Hacker, you might as well live the life.

Binding Group

  • Duct tape
  • Scotch tape
  • Zip ties
  • 3′ length solid core CAT 5 cable

Duct tape, scotch tape, and zip ties certainly are handy for a lot of make-shift repairs when mobile. Want to stand out as a geek at a conference? Don’t forget the duct tape.

The 3′ length of CAT 5 cable is actually four pairs of 22-gauge wire. That’s 24 feet of potential binding wire. In a pinch, I use it to hold cables together, keep my suitcase zippers closed and repair connections on my conference-oriented devices, while on-site. Of course, you can use the wire for quick repairs on your microcontroller projects, when needed, as well.

Group of Miscellaneous Tools

  • Pocket knife
  • P38
  • 8′ extension cord — modded for three-prong plugs

When I’m local — meaning an event I attend within driving distance — I always carry a little pocket knife. For decades I had a nearly-antique stainless steel lock blade from an Arkansas knife company called Rigid. It didn’t rust and was very durable. Never would hold a razor sharp edge, though. I’ve since retired the knife as a family heirloom.

1970's era stainless-steel Rigid lock-blade.

1970’s era stainless-steel Rigid lock blade.

Last Christmas, my daughter gave me a regular old steel lock blade from Smith and Wesson. It’s similar in size to the Rigid and has an aluminum handle. The thing stays scary-sharp, with just a few licks from a kitchen steel.

A P38 can-opener, from an Army-Navy store, is a great addition to your keyring and is handy for opening cans, screwing screws and many other jobs.

Don’t forget to pack a cheapo 8′-10′ extension cord. I clip the little tab off the end, so a 3-prong plug fits into one of the sockets. I can’t tell you how many times, it’s saved one of my colleagues or me when our other cords were just a few feet short.

Why Carry?

Off -The-Shelf Hackers have plenty of opportunities to lead and help others in need. You might have to repair some gadget or demo device. You might have to tape down your Raspberry Pi presentation machine, so it doesn’t slide off the podium. Or, you might lend a hand to a colleague, with a stuck display collar, when he’s trying to catch his flight home. Being ready with a minimal tool kit and knowing that you can fix most common problems, helps your confidence. It’s great to help people, and they definitely appreciate your efforts.

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