When I was a kid learning about engineering and electronics, the magazines that we read in the pre-internet days were full of articles, projects, and kits promising hours of enjoyment and even the proposition of making money from my favorite pastime. Electronics kit building kind of fell out of favor during the computer age as the home based technology nuts moved to assembling PC’s and software development, but home brew electronics has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years in what is now called the maker community. Internet electronics stores such as Adafruit and Element 14 are enabling 21st century geeks to build anything from simple circuits to complex embedded computing projects. These sites provide documentation, tutorials, video channels, and of course, a store, where you can purchase the tools and components required to internet enable your toaster or feed your cat from the couch.
Guitar effects pedals are a great way to get started with electronics. The simplest ones only require some basic skills to assemble. The few parts can be easily obtained, and the minimum of tools required can be purchased quite cheaply. Better still is the gratification from plugging it in for the first time and being able to incorporate a pedal that you made yourself into your music. With the skills you acquire, you can graduate from simple to more complex projects; maybe build an entire pedalboard of your own effects. Your friends might ask you to build pedals for them too. What you learn can also be put to use with commercial pedals, as you will better understand how they work, and will be able to repair and hot rod old pedals. If you are interested in working at a repair shop, as a guitar tech, or for an electronics company in the future, your portfolio of home built pedals will be a great asset.
The entry point for guitar pedal self-assembly is the effects pedal kit. A lot of the work such as designing and manufacturing the circuit board, drilling the enclosure, and selecting suitable parts has already been done for you. With a little care and careful following of the instructions, there’s no reason not to have a first time success with a pedal kit.
For: Beginner to intermediate
Requirements: Soldering iron, solder, pliers, cutters, small screwdrivers
Key Benefit: High chance of first time success
Resources: buildyourownclone.com, modkitsdiy.com
Choose a pedal kit or two from one of the kit suppliers. If you are new to this, start with one of the simpler kits such as a boost pedal. You can move on to more complex circuits such as delays and reverbs later. You can order multiple kits at once if you want, but learn your skills on the easy ones first. Good kits come with comprehensive documentation. They normally list the tools that you will need, so read the documents online first and make sure you have the tools available. If not, order them at the same time as your kits so you’ll have everything ready. It’s very irritating when you are keen to get started on a pedal project and are missing that one small part. If you are new to electronics, the essential tool you most likely will need to buy is a decent temperature controlled soldering station. A basic one such as a Weller WLC100 can be bought for less than $40 and will do the job just fine. Really nice ones with digital temperature readouts from Weller or Hakko are $100-$150 and as much as you will ever need for a home pedal shop. The soldering pencils have interchangeable tips, so you can keep a selection of different sizes. The one that normally comes with a new station will be suitable for most through-hole pedal kits.
Make sure you have a sharp pair of wire cutters and a pair of those pointy nose pliers for bending and cutting component leads. Don’t forget solder, too. There are a whole bunch of solder specifications covering materials, size, process etc. You’ll need rosin core solder. It comes in different thicknesses. 0.031” diameter is a common size, and will work for most pedal projects. Solder is normally sold in reels by weight. A 1/4lb reel will be enough to last a good few pedal projects. Lastly, get lead free, no clean solder. Although not strictly necessary for personal projects, lead-free solder is common now and safer. No clean, means that you can leave the flux residue behind without having to clean it off, and it won’t damage your board.
If you have little or no experience in electronic assembly, there are some great free video tutorials on the web. In particular check out Adafruit learn, and search Collins Lab on Youtube. These include fun and informative tutorials on components and soldering. Watch these before you attack your first board with a hot iron.
Now you should have all you need to assemble your first effects pedal. Make sure you have a clean, well-ventilated area to work. Wash your hands before you start. If you like, wear some conductive nitrile gloves. Avoid handling components any more than necessary, as contaminants on the components and PCB will make them harder to solder and can cause reliability problems. Certain IC’s can be damaged by static electricity from handling. Solder is hot and creates dangerous fumes, so be careful. Follow the instructions carefully; in particular, making sure you insert components in the correct places and the correct way around. Many components look alike and some are polarity sensitive, so take your time to get it right. Solder one pin of a component and then double-check it before soldering the rest. It’s much easier to move or remove a component with only one lead soldered to the board.
The tip of a soldering iron is very hot (around 700F) and can damage the board, component packages, and wire insulation in a fraction of a second; not to mention your own skin, so be careful the tip does not touch anything as you move it in and out of the soldering area. Put the pencil back in its holder when not soldering. Don’t leave a hot iron laying on a bench or table.
Once everything is assembled, check through the instructions one last time for any additional notes on connections, power, etc and then plug in your pedal and give it a try. There’s a good chance it will work first time. If not, go through the instructions again step by step and look to see where the problem might be. Missed, incorrect, or reversed components are the most common causes and can be diagnosed just by checking each step carefully.
After your experience with a kit or two, you may want to make a few changes. Once you are ready to move on, here is where you can get yourself going on an intermediate project, along with some supplies that you will need for that.
For: Intermediate to advanced
Requirements: As above plus digital multimeter, digital calipers, drill and drill bits, hook-up wire, wire strippers
Key Benefit: Customize with your own choice of parts
Resources: muzique.com, pedalpartsplus.com