Whether you’re a seasoned tinkerer or a wide-eyed beginner, every builder needs a few key tools in their workshop to bring their creations to life. In this tool guide, we’ll be delving into the essential tools that should have a permanent spot in every roboticist’s arsenal. From must-have hand and power tools to prototyping equipment, I’ll give you plenty of options to fit your budget and space requirements.
Far too often I hear that “I can’t build anything because I don’t have or can’t afford any of the tools” or “I don’t have a workshop or garage”. I started out with just a household tool kit in my bedroom and worked up from there and you can too! Building your tool collection is a journey and it grows one tool at a time alongside your skills and abilities as your portfolio of projects gets stronger and stronger. Start with what you can afford and makes sense for your workspace and continue your journey from there.
It’s impossible to catalog every tool you’ll ever need so I’ve included the ones I use the most and ones I hope to acquire in the near future. Santa please!
You’d be surprised at how many cool things you can build with just hand tools. That’s how I got started – turning every screw by hand with a screwdriver, tightening every bolt by flicking my wrist back and forth with a wrench and cutting materials with a handsaw. You get a project and a workout at the same time!
I assume you have at least a typical household tool kit with things like screwdrivers, a hammer, wrench, pliers, etc. so I’m not going to list every beginner-level tool here because you probably already have most of what you need. As you begin your first builds you’ll naturally fill in the blanks to round out your basic tool collection.
This is where things get fun! By now you’re introducing better movements in your robots or animatronics projects and want to take your ideas further. There are many more tools that I could include here but these are the ones I use on a more consistent basis that are still small enough to operate in smaller workspaces. I’ve listed them in no particular order:
Power Drill – You can build pretty much anything with hand tools but a power drill set with different bits will help you get your projects done even faster.
Rotary Tool – This is one of the most useful tools you’ll own in your collection. If you don’t have one yet, I recommend it be one of your first purchases. I prefer the rotary tools with a flex shaft extension for reaching into small spaces.
Hot Glue Gun – Before starting any build, it’s a great idea to prototype and a hot glue gun is great for making temporary attachments to fine tune the layout of your components before committing to it in the final design.
Clamps & Bench Vises – If you’re like me, I often work alone and having bar clamps, spring clamps and bench vises to hold things in place is like having an extra set of hands in the workshop. Plus, clamps are necessary for securing a glued joint together until it’s set.
Jigsaw – Certain parts of your robotics or animatronics project may require you to make curved cuts and a jigsaw uses a reciprocating blade to cut irregular curves and even stenciled designs in wood, metal or other materials.
Shop Vac – A messy shop is a good sign that work is getting done but I like to clean up after every session so sawdust, metal shavings, and debris doesn’t pile up or worse, dirty or damage my project. Unlike a regular household vacuum, a shop vac has more power and larger diameter hose to clean up big messes fast.
Soldering Station – From wiring LEDs to motors and even making your own PCBs a soldering station kit with the usual accessories will get you started on making your projects interactive.
Heat Gun – A heat gun isn’t only for securing heatshrink tubing to protect your wiring, it’s also a great tool for shaping foam, plastic and PVC pipe.
Measuring Tools – I like to use different measuring tools for different jobs. For longer runs, a measuring tape with fractions is a necessity. But for measuring shorter distances along flat surfaces, I prefer metal rulers. When I need extremely precise measurements, I reach for my digital caliper.
Multimeter – No electronics project is complete without a few gremlins and a multimeter is an invaluable tool for quickly identifying what’s wrong in a circuit.
Cutting Boards & Mats – If you’re working from your desk or kitchen table, these will save those surfaces from getting nicked, marred or scratched. Even for a beat-up workbench like mine, using a cutting mat extends the life of my plywood top so I don’t have to replace it as often.
Nuts, Bolts, Washers & Screws – I buy different sizes as I need them depending on the width of the material I’m trying to bolt or screw together. But when you do buy them, I recommend buying the bulk packages because it’s more economical and you’ll have plenty for future projects. If you’re just starting out, you can get a small or medium-sized assortment kit which will cover you for the most popular sizes of bolts, nuts, and washers.
Magnifying Glass – This is especially useful for those of us with more mature eyes – lol! But even for younger makers, seeing more details of your brush strokes or clay sculpts helps them look more realistic. On the electronics side, it helps with soldering certain tiny components and making custom circuits on perf boards. I recommend a hands-free magnifying glass that sits on your table or a headband magnifier.
Spray Can Grip – My spray can grip has saved my fingers from cramping up when having to spray large pieces. Plus it allows you to have more control over your paint strokes so the coverage looks more even and consistent.
Metal Files – You’ll be doing a lot of cutting of materials from wood and metal to PVC pipe so having a metal file set to deburr and smooth out any rough edges is part of the process. It’ll make your project look more polished and save you or your wiring from getting snagged on rough edges.
Sandpaper & Sanding Blocks – Having a few different grits of sandpaper allows you to do anything from knocking down excess glue, shaping and smoothing wooden surfaces, and even creating age effects on various materials. To keep your hands from getting tired, sanding blocks give you a more ergonomic hold so you have more control on each pass. I like the kits that have different shapes to make it easier to sand contours.
Nail Files – To sand in a tight spot, I used to wrap a piece of sandpaper around my finger but I have since found a much easier way to do this. It turns out that even robots and animatronic characters like manicures! Nail files like emery boards are slim and most are dual-sided, giving you rough and smooth options.
Drill Guide – When you need to drill a hole straight down at 90 degrees to the surface, a drill press is the way to go. But not all of us have the space or budget for one. A good, inexpensive alternative is a drill guide. These are metal blocks with different diameter holes in them to accommodate a variety of drill bit sizes. Just pick the right size hole and drill down into it. There are also blocks that have tilted 30- and 45-degree holes in case you have to drill at an angle.
Speed & Framing Squares – If you need to make perpendicular joints, then a speed square or framing square helps you line things up quickly for 90-degree corners. These are useful for creating wooden or metal bases to support your robot or animatronic or a place to hide electronics.
Step Drill Bits – Unlike the usual drill bit that pulls out debris as it spins, step bits make clean precisely-sized holes through material as thick as 1/4 of an inch. A step drill bit is a single conical shaped bit that allows you to drill a variety of hole sizes. The tip or point of the bit will drill the smallest hole and the diameter increases as you drill (or step) deeper.
Center Punch – You’ll find that especially when drilling into metal, getting started is the hardest part. The tip of your drill bit will wander away from the mark and you’re constantly fighting to keep it in place. A center punch looks like a spring-loaded pen that allows you to precisely mark a spot by creating a small indentation that’s just enough to hold the tip of the drill bit in place while it starts spinning.
Tap & Die Set – I admit, this is one toolset that was in my toolbox for years before I ventured into using them. But now I find myself incorporating my tap and die set into many of my projects. If you’re not familiar with how they work, a tap is a threaded tool that cuts or forms threads in the inside of a hole. The die cuts threads onto the surface of cylindrical rods to create a screw or bolt. This is useful for creating your own linkages to use with motors and servos, creating your own fasteners or even repairing damaged threads.
Compressor – An air compressor not only operates your pneumatic tools, you’ll also need one for solenoids in pneumatic props.
Grinder – As your projects get larger, you’ll most likely transition into using metal for framing and armatures. A handheld angle grinder or bench grinder will be useful for cleaning and shaping metal.
Portable Band Saw – If you don’t have space or it’s not in your budget at the moment to get a desktop kind, the portable band saw does just as good a job as cutting through metal. Be sure to secure the piece you’re cutting well because you’ll need both hands to operate the saw.
At this point, your projects are getting larger and/or need more complex mechanisms. These tools take up more space and many are best used in a garage, shed or outdoors because of the noise and mess.
3D Printer – You can build just about any mechanism by hand that you can imagine, but having a 3D printer makes it so much faster to print custom parts or entire assemblies.
Benchtop Drill Press – Drilling precise holes, especially copies of holes is challenging to do with a regular power drill. A benchtop drill press makes it easy to drill precise holes at any depth, countersunk holes, counterbore holes and more. It’s also much easier drilling through steel this way than by hand.
Miter Saw – I’ve cut a variety of materials with a hand saw but a miter saw will speed up your work process and make precise straight, miter and bevel cuts in wood and PVC.
Chop Saw – Although you can get away with cutting metal from time to time with your miter saw and the right blade, you should really get a dedicated metal chop saw – especially when you begin working with steel. Unlike miter saws, chop saws make straight crosscuts only. But some models have a fence that can be turned up to 45 degrees for making miter cuts.
Benchtop Band Saw – The advantage of the benchtop band saw over the portable option is that the blade is stationary so you can focus on using your hands to maneuver your piece through the blade to make straight or fine curved cuts rather than controlling a heaving tool through the material.
Desktop CNC Machine – This is a handy prototyping machine that can cut different shapes out of a variety of flat materials like foam, wood, acrylic, plastics and softer metals like aluminum. A desktop CNC machine allows you to cut precise copies of a shape that would otherwise be difficult and time-consuming to do by hand.
Vacuum Form Machine – Create forms, panels, costume pieces, masks and molds from a variety of plastics with a vacuum forming machine. They come in different sizes and you can even make your own.
Welder – A welder may seem intimidating to learn at first but as your projects get larger and you start working with steel, sooner or later you’re going to have to learn. But once you start, it’s a skill you’ll really enjoy.
It goes without say that you should always practice as much safety as you can while operating tools and guarding against the debris they can kick up at and around you. Here are some safety items you should have at minimum:
Safety Glasses – Protect those peepers! I like buying safety glasses in bulk because mine get abused and once there are too many scratches and blemishes it gets hard to see out of them!
Work Gloves – When working with tools your hands are bound to get knocked, nicked and scratched so adding an extra layer of protection with well-fitted work gloves will keep your hands going from project to project.
Dust Masks & Respirator – If you’re working with a cutting, sanding or shaping tool, then there’s definitely dust particles or shavings being thrown into the air. Always wear a dust mask even if you don’t see much dust. This is another item I like buying in bulk! For fumes and very fine dust I prefer to wear a respirator.
Ear Muffs or Plugs – Running power tools for extended periods of time can affect your hearing so use ear protection in the form of muffs or plugs.
First Aid Kit – A good first aid kit is an absolute must-have to keep near your workspace. Cuts happen when you least expect them and the faster you act, the better the healing.
Fire Extinguisher – As you learn, mistakes can happen like overloading circuits or faulty components that overheat so have a fire extinguisher handy to put out any flames quickly.
My tool collecting journey is certainly not over! The world of animatronics and robotics offers limitless opportunities for creativity and innovation. Equipping yourself with the essential tools I’ve outlined in this tool guide will set you on the path towards successfully bringing your ideas to life. From basic hand tools like screwdrivers, pliers, and wrenches to more advanced equipment such as welders, desktop CNC machines, and 3D printers, these tools are the building blocks for your animatronic and robotic projects. As you gain experience and refine your skills, you may discover additional specialized tools that cater to your specific needs. But for now, these foundational tools will empower you to unleash your imagination and embark on a thrilling journey in the world of animatronics and robotics.
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