What kinds of tools are required to build a robot?#

Well, the answer depends on the robot. If your robot comes as a kit, you might not need any additional tools at all, or only those supplied with the kit (such as an Allen wrench or a Phillips head screwdriver). If you're building your own bespoke robot you may need to construct your own chassis or hardware components, or ask someone with tools and experience to help you.

Some Tool Advice#

It's important to learn how to use both hand and power tools properly — they can be quite dangerous if you don't know what you're doing or if you don't use sensible practices such as clamping your materials properly before drilling or cutting (I have a few scars to prove it). Here's some safety tips:

  • Buy as good a quality tools as you can afford:   good tools can last your lifetime if you take care of them (don't leave them somewhere they'll rust). I have a pair of scissors from 1978 and they're still sharp. My pliers and cutters are still like new and I use them a lot. I take good care of my power tools and they are like new after many years' use.
  • Take care of your tools, and only use a tool for its intended purpose. Using a screwdriver as an awl to poke a hole or pry open a container is a good way to poke a hole through your hand, ruin the screwdriver, or ruin the thing you're opening
  • Store your tools in appropriate containers (like toolboxes or the cases they came in) to protect them from dust and moisture (and insects and mice too). Don't allow sharp edges of tools to bang together or even touch when stored, wrap them as necessary in some spare cotton or wool fabric. In fact, if you can help it, don't let different kinds of metals touch during storage, as this can sometimes create a chemical effect that can invite rust.
  • Steel parts like drill bits don't mind being bathed in light oil when they're not being used. Or you can store them in an oily rag. You just pull them out of the oil and wipe it off before use. Drill bits stored in oil will last a long time.
  • Keep your tool edges sharp using appropriate sharpening tools and techniques.
  • Clamp stuff down before operating on it. A block of plastic that gets caught in a drill bit quickly becomes a very dangerous weapon!
  • If something you're doing seems like a bad idea, don't do it. A mistake can be costly.
  • And lastly, wear proper eye, ear, and hand protection, i.e., follow proper safety precautions. It's pretty hard to fix your eye after a piece of metal has flown into it.

As an illustration of that last point, a few years' back I was hand-sanding some metal part and a tiny piece flew into my eye (I was wearing eyeglasses but not protective eyewear), and after about an hour of desperately trying to flush it out with water in the bathroom sink (I was starting to really panic as it seemed pretty stuck) ended up having a doctor at the local hospital's emergency ward fish it out in a couple of seconds. Really nice young guy. I don't want to see him again.

I'm lucky it wasn't a bigger piece and that there was no lasting damage.

Hand Tools#

If you're making your own chassis, platform, and/or other hardware components you may need tools such as:

  • good quality straight ruler. A stainless steel metric ruler should last a lifetime; I've had mine for over 30 years
  • good quality small needlenose pliers
  • good quality wire cutters
  • screwdrivers to match your bolts (Phillips, straight, square, star)
  • Allen wrenches as necessary for the bolts you're using
  • small hacksaw for cutting plastic or aluminum/aluminium (a power tool works too, but sometimes a hand tool is slower, safer, and more accurate)
  • hand clamps or a bench clamp, to hold things while you're working on them. I find the blue and yellow Irwin Quick-Grips pretty handy and come in many sizes

Power Tools#

  • power drill is probably the most important power tool, as almost everything else can be done by hand. Yes, you can use a hand drill but you have to hold it much more carefully, for longer, as you rotate the handle. Wobbly use can make a poor hole, and with small drills even break the bit. A drill press is nice but not really necessary.
  • power jig saw is handy but not essential. Likewise, a table saw is handy but kinda overkill for most of the cutting you'll do.
  • power screwdriver is not recommended as it's easy to overdrive a small screw. Hand screwdrivers work just fine

This is not to say that if you already have a whole shop full of power tools you shouldn't use them. It's just that building a small robot doesn't require that. David Anderson, who built the SR04 robot, has an entire home machine shop at his disposal. I can't pretend not to be a bit envious...

Soldering Iron#

For making wiring connections you may use solderless connectors, but you may find that even for that task tinning the wires (i.e., flowing some solder into the strands to make them solid) is necessary, especially if the wire is stranded rather than solid. In that case you'll need

  • a soldering iron (good quality, ask for help at the store where you buy it). Murray has a Goot PX-335 85-120 Watt with automatic temperature control, but that's kinda expensive unless you plan to do a lot of soldering
  • solder (recommended: 0.71mm 60% SN, 40% PB, flux 2%)
  • solder wick (woven copper mesh used to remove excess solder)
  • flux tip cleaner, to keep your soldering iron tip clean
  • maybe a spare tip?

Electronic Multi-Meter#

A multi-meter measures voltage (Volts), current (Amps), resistance (Ohms), with more advance models measuring capacitance (Farads), and frequency (Hertz). Places like Jaycar sell multi-meters; I have a BK Tool 2704B, which is good and reliable. But any model that provides volts, amps and ohms is probably fine. Digital is easier to read than the old-school ones with a needle, but needles are pretty cool too. You just have to learn how to read them.


You probably won't need an oscilloscope until you do.

These come in analog or digital flavours. Older oscilloscopes were all analog and a little TV screen in them; most modern oscilloscopes are digital. You can even make a Raspberry Pi into an oscilloscope. See 1, 2 or 3 (there are many web pages if you search for "raspberry pi oscilloscope").

If you really need an oscilloscope for a project and you're local, contact Murray as he may be willing to loan you his Iwatsu (a big old Japanese analog oscilloscope) or bring it to an NZPRG meeting to use.

Tags:  Hardware, Tools