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Tools of the Trade - Fixing Vintage PCs

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    Tools of the Trade - Fixing Vintage PCs

    Not really sure if there was a previous post on this, if there was, then a quick link to that post will satisfy this one quickly... =)

    Now that I am starting to actually fix my stuff instead of just searching for "good used" parts to replace what is broken... I want to know what tools do the veterans recommend as "must haves" for repairing the vintage stuff (i.e. 286, 386, 486, etc) which I know I can also use for mods and prototyping modern PCs as well. Please also include the brand name/ model too, your favorites (and if you have time the "why" you chose that model, brand, etc. over others)... instead of just saying "solder iron", tell me what use, or prefer to use.

    I like to do things "right" instead of "jimmi-riggin" something (no offense to any jimmy's out there... lack of a better word) and get frustrated when I do not have to right tool for the job...

    Thanks for all your advice... and pointing me in the right direction.

    Soldering iron

    * Adjustable temperature (via front panel control)
    * Removable tips
    * Tips of different shapes and sizes to suit different jobs
    * A built-in sponge is good for cleaning the tip

    I'm still using a Royel soldering iron that I purchased in the eighties.

    Temperature control is important. For example, the ground plane in a PCB (printed circuit board) acts as a big heat sink, and thus as compensation, the tip temperature typically needs to be raised when soldering ground connections on PCBs.

    As for tip types, I've been able to get away with three types of tips: chisel, bevel and conical.
    Wedge: A good general purpose shape. I use this for the vast majority of work.
    Bevel: Good for tinning wire.
    Conical: A finely pointed one for when you need to get into a very tight (restricted access) spot. Not good at heat transfer (due to small area of contact), but sometimes you have no choice.

    The tip range (shape/size) you purchase really depends on the range of work you envisage. If you only want to purchase one tip, and will be restricting yourself to PCB work, then I suggest a wedge tip of 2 or 3 millimetres width (2 millimetres is what I usually use).

    Digital multimeter

    For use when diagnosing a problem:
    * Measuring a DC voltage
    * Checking electrical continuity between two points
    * Diode checking (via the meter's diode checking functionality)

    A meter that auto-ranges is highly recommended.

    I recently retired my old Fluke 77, upgrading to a Fluke 115, but such meters are overkill for the above. I use my meter for purposes besides personal computer repair.
    Last edited by modem7; October 5, 2013, 03:04 PM. Reason: tip shapes incorrect


      Two good soldering tutorials:



        Well, just to show you the amount of flexibility.

        Soldering Iron

        I use a Weller WTCP iron--no front-panel controls. Each tip is stamped with a temperature value (they're very inexpensive). It uses the Curie temperature of a slug in the tip to operate a magnetic switch in the handle. No SCRs, MOSFETs, transistors of any sort. I've had it since the 1970s. Indeed, there are a fair number of these things still around that have outlived their original owners. I'm not suggesting that you go out and purchase one, but I wouldn't pass one up if offered at a bargain price--but neither would I pass up a Metcal iron.


        I hate auto-ranging meters--and I've owned a few. I know what I'm looking for and prefer to set the range that way. Out-of-range is easy to spot--I've known someone to quote an absolutely outrageous reading, mistakenly reading mV as V.

        I'm not recommending either of these approaches. Only that you should buy the best tools that you can afford (not necessarily the cheapest, either) and buy the ones that will work for you. So, I'd only recommend a temperature-controlled iron (whatever the mechanism) and an accurate and flexible multimeter (an audible continuity test will be very handy) To quote a friend of mine, "I can't afford cheap tools".

        Hand tools

        Get a good set, take care of them and they'll last forever. Screwdrivers, and particularly, nutdrivers (Xcelite makes some great ones). There are plenty of good vendors (Snap-On, KD, perhaps even Craftsman). Don't buy cheap "bargain basket" tools--you'll regret it. A good pair of long-nose pliers, a pair of flush-cutters (inexpensive). A small clean hog-bristle or sable paintbrush will help in cleaning away dust. Isopropyl alcohol (for clearing away flux deposits), a "Soldapullt" solder sucker, some desoldering braid and a good brand of small-diameter solder (I recommend Kester).
        Last edited by Chuck(G); October 5, 2013, 05:00 PM.


          @modem7 and @Chuck(G):

          Thank you very much, that it what I was looking for... I was scouring youtube to watch some recapping videos since that is what I need to do... and I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly in techniques... but regardless, I was excited. The hard part about getting started is having the right tools... most of the time its by trial and error... sometimes you get too much or buy something you didn't need. I found asking professionals what they use to do their job... definitely fast tracks you on the path you want to go. That's what you guys did for me and I really appreciate it. I am current looking around, mainly for a soldering station and multimeter...

          I decided to focus on the essentials you mentioned above:

          1. solder iron station (most likely Weller)
          2. multi-meter (probably auto-ranging since I am a beginner)

          what I already have:
          1. solder sucker
          2. mini hot glue gun
          3. torx tool set
          4. wire strippers
          5. x-acto knife
          6. needle nose pliers
          7. precision tweezers
          8. wire cutters
          9. dremmel

          I looked at these so far:

          Looked on Ebay:


            I suggested the Weller only because I use one and used ones are readily available. However, if you're looking for a decent iron without spending too much, you might consider one of these. Some are clones of the Hakko iron you mentioned (they even take Hakko tips). The guys at CSI are very helpful, so don't be afraid to ask questions.

            I'd also recommend a logic probe with a "pulse" indicator--it can tell you an enormous amount with just 3 LEDs.

            (Speaking of logic probes, does anyone out there use the old HP Logic Dart? Pretty cool device--I wish I had one).


              When dealing with old floppy drives and disks one absolutely needs a disk drive head cleaning kit. One quick pass over a bad floppy disk can easily foul the floppy's heads to the point where the drive becomes unuseable. I've noticed this is more common with 5.25" disks than it is with 3.5" disks but it does occur with both. It's a quick process, easy to do and it works every time. 15 seconds or so and the drive is up and running normally once again.
              PM me if you're looking for 3" or 5" floppy disks. EMail For everything else, Take Another Step


                Hand Tools

                Good screwdrivers, especially good flatheads if you work on equipment old enough to contain a lot of them. I prefer Wiha screwdrivers and insert bits. Never stripped a screw of any type while carrying my Wiha set as a field engineer.

                Get a good pair of close/flush/zero clearance diagnoal cutters. These are especially helpful for removing ICs by snipping the leads off as close to the IC body as you can. You don't have to buy the super-expensive ones.

                For soldering irons, a temperature controlled station is definitely by far the best. I do have a pencil iron in my toolkit as well, just make sure you get something of a lower wattage. As to brands, I use Hexacon irons (a Mini-Iron and several Select-o-Temp stations)...never had a problem with them, and the larger tips for the sleeve-type irons will stand a lot of polishing before they need replaced. You'll also want /both/ a solder sucker and a roll of quality solder wick.

                Test Equipment

                Most of the time, I get by with a multimeter and a logic probe. An analog multimeter is just fine, if you're comfortable reading one. I've got a Simpson 260 that sits on the workbench, and a Simpson 160 that goes in the toolbox. If you are diagnosing low-level problems, a logic probe will be very handy. Most of the time, a logic probe will keep you out of having to pull out the oscilloscope.

                If you're doing PC repair, those BIOS error code boards can be pretty useful. The one I have has an ISA connector on one edge and a PCI connector on the other.
                Check out The Glitch Works | My Retro Projects | Vintage Computer Services | Glitch Works Tindie Store -- Vintage Computer Kits and More


                  I've a Hakko 936 soldering station that I absolutely love. Easy to find parts, good quality, cheaply had. The RC car guys love this $15 Hakko 936 clone sold by Hobby King - at the time that I first read about this, I found some reviews that had it going head-to-head with a true Hakko 936, and the differences were negligible, made even moreso by using true Hakko tips and heating elements with the Hobby King clone. Add in some Kester 60/40 solder, an Edsyn Soldapult and some desoldering braid, flush cutters, some dental tools (great for using as extended fingers to hold that wire in place when you're working in close quarters w/ a really hot soldering tip), a few small brushes, and some alcohol, and you're a great little soldering kit that can handle virtually any hobbyist job!

                  I'll also second the Xcelite hand tools! I've a handy dandy little get-up with screwdrivers and nut drivers in a roll-up canvas bag, and it's a rare day that I'm not pulling those out for something either work-related or hobby-related.

                  I think the best advice was given by Chuck's friend in regards to "cheap tools" - buy something that you think will meet your needs, acclimate yourself to them, and learn to use them. You'll get along quite fine... (I'm still learning new things in using mine everytime I pull them out!)
                  Currently seeking:
                  * Roland MPU-401/AT (with daughter card header)
                  * Magitronic K-156 Keyboard (5pin DIN w/ XT-AT switch)
                  I also collect PC and C64 Sierra On-Line software!


                    One thing I'd add to the list is a desoldering station. Not the hot air gun type (which blows hot air) but the vacuum pump type. Basically a soldering iron with a hollow point sucking air and solder in. They used to be really expensive but as with many of these things, they now come from China for $65 or so.

                    I have the ZD-915, but there's probably other & better ones.

                    For removing parts, it's an amazing time saver - and gets parts off boards without destroying them. Yesterday I removed a faulty IC off a TRS-80. It literally took one minute to remove all solder, the IC drops out of the board clean and intact. It even removes all solder off pins that have been bent around a corner before being soldered in.

                    The main benefit: you can speculatively remove an IC you suspect without too much risk of damaging it. This tool has sped up my vintage computer repair expeditions more than anything else.

                    More experienced types tell me you can do it just as well with a manual solder sucker or solder wick. Maybe they can, but I can't - not without heating the part for much too long, with lifting pads as a frequent result. My previous approach thus was destructive: clip all IC pins, then remove them one by one.

                    I guess the less experience you have, the better your tools need to be...


                    My Vintage Computers & Homebrewing collection:
                    My Retrocomputing blog:


                      I'll confess to owning one of these. It is quite handy from time to time.

                      Just keep it clean, tinned and well-greased.


                        Originally posted by Chuck(G) View Post
                        I'll confess to owning one of these. It is quite handy from time to time.
                        Wow... NINE dollars! That's an unbeatable price. I think I paid that for the manual solder sucker...
                        I'll see if I can find a 220V version of it. At that price, it's a must-have bit of equipment I'd say.

                        [update: here it is. From the European store where I bought my $65 version. Hmph.]

                        Just keep it clean, tinned and well-greased.
                        So I heard indeed that these things do need some maintenance, but I'm not sure exactly what. What part are you supposed to grease?


                        My Vintage Computers & Homebrewing collection:
                        My Retrocomputing blog:


                          Periodically, remove the plunger, clean out the barrel and then apply some light grease (petrolatum is fine) to the rubber o-ring on the plunger. A "solder sucker's" efficacy depends on a large part on the plunger being able to move quickly once it's been triggered.


                            Wow, this is cool... I have never seen one like this... thank you!


                              I like these prices... and the fact that I can use the better tips (Hakko) if I need to...