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One of the things that I don't think we talk enough about is all the consumables that we use in a hobby project. While I've talked about solder elsewhere, there's a bunch of others that you typically need to keep around. These are the ones I continuously keep in stock, and my thoughts about why I chose what I chose. I would also consider wire a consumable, but don't discuss it here.

Spoil Boards

There are many times when you need to cut, chop, or otherwise mangle something and you don't want to be doing that on something expensive like an ESD mat. While there are dedicated cutting mats available, I've found the best strategy is one stolen from the machining world: spoil boards. These are sacrificial surfaces, so they're inexpensive. In my case, I just have some 11x14" 1/4" MDF boards that I picked up in a pack of a dozen for cheap. They are also sometimes called "chip boards". I'm still on my first. Whenever I need to cut something, out it comes. It's often the thing under other things... just in case.

Distilled (or deionized) Water (H2O)

Safe Handling

While, yes, distilled (or deionized) water is water, it is actually somewhat dangerous compared to regular tap water. Because distillation removes all minerals from water, and water is one of the most ideal solvents, there are some studies showing that drinking distilled water can actually pull minerals and electrolytes out of your body, which could be unhealthy. Just drink regular tap water if you're in most parts of the world.

I'm going to treat these two as interchangeable, even though they are produced through vastly different techniques and have slightly different properties. For the hobbyist, this doesn't matter. The primary uses for distilled water are:

  • Cleaning things. Because water is an excellent solvent, it is a good starting point to clean components.
  • Wetting a solder sponge. Your soldering iron may have a sponge with it for cleaning the tip. Rather than using tap water, it's best to use distilled water as it is much less likely to add additional contaminants to the surface.

Not Everything is Watertight

Not every component is watertight. In addition to things like sensors that may be open to outside elements intentionally, there may be a small amount of ability for water to find a way into devices.

Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA)

Safe Handling

Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is a reasonably safe material to handle, but I would strongly recommend a few precautions. First, you should, if possible, obtain the MSDS for the product you purchase, but if not, you can use one such as this from Sigma-Aldrich. Reading this will give you a good understanding of what some of the risks and safe handling procedures are.

The general advice I would give is:

  1. If you are going to directly handle IPA, meaning it will touch your skin, wear gloves. I know this is a hassle, but it is better safe than regretful in an ER in the future. You can use your own judgement when this is triggered, but for me I will wear gloves if I'm not using a swab, or at least a wipe between me and the IPA.
  2. Never, ever, ever get IPA above its boiling point (typ. 82C, 180F) unless you absolutely know what you're doing. IPA vapors can cause severe respiratory distress and long-term damage. They also can introduce the IPA into the bloodstream, which can lead to it metabolizing into your body as acetone. You don't want that.
  3. Store in a well-sealed container, and keep any you're not actively using in a dark cool place for ensure long-term stability.

Also called isopropanol, and often just referred to as IPA, isopropyl alcohol is a very inexpensive solvent that is used heavily in both hobbyist and commercial electronics and mechanical works. While typically available in a 60-90% concentration, you can easily obtain 99-99.9% concentration, which is what I recommend for use in this case. Reducing the amount of water also reduces the possibility of water-induced corrosion. Definitely, I wouldn't use anything below 90% for electronics work.

For general use, I will admit to just buying the Amazon Basics 99%, which is "good enough".

So what do you use IPA for? A lot of things, but the main uses are:

  • Cleaning solder flux off of PCB.
  • Cleaning contacts.
  • Removing adhesives.
  • Removing Sharpie markings.
  • Removing fingerprints from many surfaces (but not all).

One of the great things is that it evaporates quickly.


Safe Handling

Like, IPA, acetone is generally recognized as safe in very low quantities, but that means that, like IPA, you need to take similar steps to handle it. Acetone is a highly flammable and volatile substance that can ignite at room temperature, so never use it near fire or anything that can create a spark. Also, ensure that acetone is stored in cool, well-ventilated areas away from direct sunlight and heat sources.

Always wear (latex!) gloves, and never let it get above its boiling point (typ. 56C, 133F) where it can be dangerous. But note, if you're going to have anything more than very brief contact with acetone, you will need to invest in latex or butyl rubber gloves, as nitrile (my preference) will allow permeation after a few minutes.

Acetone is a solvent like IPA (it's also a precursor to producing acrylic materials), and as such, it is useful for cleaning things. For example, in chemical lab settings, it is often use as part of the process of cleaning glassware to ensure it has minimal residue before the final wash (note, it is not the final wash).

In hobby use, there's a few places where it can be helpful:

  • Acetone vapors can be used as part of a process to smooth ABS and ASA 3D printed parts. This works with some other plastics as well, and you can use a small cotton swap to buff off a scratch by literally dissolving a bit of the plastic.
  • Unstick acrylate glues, such as superglue.

Acetone and PCB

Never, ever, under any circumstance use acetone on a PCB. It will strip the top coatings off; specifically, the solder mask and silkscreen.

Fingernail Polish Remover

Fingernail polish remover typically contains acetone, but also has many other components such as dimethyl glutarate, dimethyl adipate, dimethyl succinate, and propylene carbonate. This makes them not interchangeable with pure acetone.

Anti-static Cleaning Spray

One thing to be aware of, though, is when you're cleaning an electrostatic workbench mat, is that IPA can reduce the efficacy of the mat at dealing with ESD. To avoid degrading something that's not particularly cheap, I use a specific cleaner for anything where "static control" is an issue (this includes my wooden workbench top as well, although it's unclear if that does anything useful other than waste more expensive consumables): ACL Staticide Mat & Table Top Cleaner.

To use it, you spray the surface with the Staticide, and then allow it to sit 2-3 minutes, and then wipe off (with a lint-free wipe preferably). Doing this will ensure you maintain the ESD protection of the mat over time.

Paper Towels

I do keep a roll of paper towls (specifically Viva "signature cloth") around for general cleaning purposes, wiping down a bench, etc. It's worth keeping them close at hand, and so I have them mounted under the desk to the drawer module.

Possible Reusable Replacement

Adam Savage is a big fan of these huck (surgical) towels in his shop. I've ordered some and will update once I've had a chance to use them for a while.

Lint-Free Wipes

You'll need to wipe things a lot when working with electronics and 3D printing, so it's good to keep a heavy stock of lint-free wipes. You want non-woven wipes in a blend of polyester and cellulose. Personally, I keep a stock of 4x4" AAWipes, which are common in cleanroom applications. You can buy smaller volumes on their Amazon store. Sadly, they are typically single-use, although I have been known to reuse one if I've just used it to wipe a reasonably clean surface with IPA and need to do it again.

Disinfecting Wipes

Don't confuse these for disinfecting wipes like what you would use in the kitchen. Those have chemicals in them that can damage sensitive electronics and often will leave a residue behind.

Low Lint Swabs

Often, you'll need to get into the crevices of something, or between leads on an IC, to clean them, and to do that using a low lint cotton swab. The relative of the random cotton swab at your local pharmacy, they're a tiny bit more expensive, but have wooden handles, and cotton woven in a way that leaves a minimal amount of lint behind.

They're also available in an ESD-safe version, but it's about 10-15x more expensive, and while I know I should probably use them, I'm simply too cheap to buy them. The ESD-safe ones use a plastic handle and a polyurethane foam tip. If you're wanting to splurge, please do.


Not All Gloves Are the Same

Not all gloves are good for every use case. While I discuss primarily nitrile gloves here, they are not appropriate for a few use cases. Please review this guide to the chemical resistance of gloves for concrete scientific recommendations.

Gloves are disposable, much to the surprise of many people. They are also relatively inexpensive. While there are a few materials on the market, I am a big fan of nitrile gloves as they (typically) will not trigger latex allergies, which are more present than you'd imagine, and no reason to tempt fate. In addition, I would use something that is at least 5 mils (0.005") thick (typically measured at the palm). Personally, I like them in purple, but they come in a bunch of different colors.

The gloves I use are from Kimberly-Clark

If you're just touching things with your fingertips, you can also consider using finger cots, which cover just the last joint of your fingers in most cases. They also come in nitrile, and are pretty common in the electronics industry. Personally, they drive me crazy, and I'd rather go through the time of putting on one or two gloves.

Third-Party Resources

Comments or Questions?

If you have any comments, questions, or topics you'd like to see covered, please feel free to either reach out to me on Mastodon (link below) or open an issue on Github.