If you are reading this article, most probably you had thought of starting out on DIY-ing your own cables, repairs or even building your own Custom IEMs but are not sure where and how to start. In this ongoing tutorial series, we will be showing you from the start all the way to building and modifying custom audio products!
Here in Episode 1, we have compiled a comprehensive buy list with links to amazon and aliexpress and will elaborate on what some of the tools are used for. Beware, long article below.
*Disclamer* The links are from amazon and aliexpress affiliates, meaning we will earn a small commission from each sale generated by clicking on the link and checking out from there. As all our contents are self funded, this is one way you guys can support us and in return, we will be able to come up with more and better quality contents like this. So if you see somthing you need in the buy list, do feel free to do the purchase from there!
We are not endorsers or affliated to any of the brands and manufacturers in the list.
There are many tools and equipment required to perform any form of DIY work, be it a simple audio jack repair / replacement, building your own set of custom cables or making your own personal set of Custom IEMs. You might already own some of the tools here and are able to start right away! If not, here is a list of our recommended tools and equipment to get started. There is also a premium list of items that we either own, or is in our wish list.
I personally started out repairing IEMs, headphones and building cables with just a 35 watt soldering iron(no soldering iron stand), a pair of scissors(no wire stripper), a pair of pliers and a piece of blue tack putty. While having only this is not recommended, they are sufficient for basic work. Do refer to the links at the top for the bare minimum set of tools required to comfortably start out on your DIY audio journey.
The article will be outlined in the following categories:-
- Work Desk & storage
- Clamp & Assistive Tools
- Cutting Tools
- Working & Testing Tools
- Adhesives & Finishing
- Conclusion & Final Words
1. Work Desk & Storage
The most important thing to have is a work desk. While the below are not a necessity, they are great to have in order to maintain a clean and well organised work area.
- Cutting Mat / Glass table top
- Drawer Divider Tray
- Jewelry / Accessories Box
- Rubbish Bin / Trash Can
Cutting Mat / Glass table top
When doing craft work, especially during soldering or gluing, there is a high chance there will be unwanted things staining the table top (e.g. melted solder, glue residue, marker / paint marks etc.) Therefore it is recommended to protect your table surface with a simple cutting mat.
If you have the budget, get a glass table or a sheet of treated glass to lay over the table top. The glass sheet is very easy to clean and can act as a base for suction mounted clamps and vices.
Drawer Divider Tray
A divider tray is especially useful if your table has a pull out drawer either by the side or a drawer for keyboards. These comes in a stackable form in various sizes so you can use them to store unused tools neatly, prepare parts to be used for the session, use it to collect rubbish or my personal favorite, modify them into a work area + LED bulb continuity tester.
If a large tray is placed on a keyboard drawer, it can act as a pull out trash collector where you can sweep all the rubbish on the table into it, keeping your table top free of trash at all times. If you accidentally discarded a small item, it is also easier to search thru the trash tray as it has a large area vs a trash bag or trash can.
A simple modification to a large tray can convert it into a really useful table top accessory! By attaching a strip of 5V LED and some batteries, we now have a tray where we place our required parts, collect all the trash and also double up as a continuity tester! Everything you need for the project you are working on in one place. We will be uploading a video tutorial to show you how to build your own set in the near future.
Jewelry / Accessories Box
When you have dozens of parts to keep track of, a multi compartment organizer box can come in real handy. Just sort them in their own compartment. You can even have multiple boxes for different parts category! I personally recommend buying them in the same sizes so you can stack them like normal boxes and keep the whole area neat and tidy.
If you can find the right size, they can even be used to store your cables and IEMs!
Rubbish Bin / Trash Can
This should be self explanatory.
As with most work, we will need some stationeries. These are the items you most likely have at home.
- Colored Permanent Markers
- Colored Paint Markers
- Measurement Tape or Ruler + Clear tape
Colored Permanent Markers
Permanent, oil based markers are cheap and comes in many colors. They can be used to write, color and label wires. We strongly recommend you guys to mark the ends of the wires after soldering and before braiding them so that you will not need to use a tester to find out which wire goes to which channel after they are braided.
Our favorite color combination is as follows:-
- RED = Right +
- BLUE = Left +
- BLACK = Left -
- Unmarked = Right -
Most cables be it 4, 8, 16, 32 wires are grouped into 4 channels for balanced signal. Therefore, 3 color should be sufficient but you can go ahead and grab a 4th color to mark the last group.
For single ended cables, we will only need to mark the Left+ and Right + as both ground are grouped together and does not need to be marked.
Colored Paint Markers
Acrylic Paint Markers are excellent for coloring on projects. After drying, they can be sanded smooth and lacquered without smudging as the paint layer is inert. This is super useful when performing an IEM repair or modification where the use of resin or epoxy is required, resulting in color difference of the new part. Paint Markers can also be used to mark out the polarity of the pins and even the channels.
Measurement Tape or Ruler + Clear Tape
This is by far the most important set of stationery to have. A measurement tape or ruler can help you accurately cut your materials into the correct length. For example a 1.2m (approx 4ft) length IEM cables will require a total of 5m of material.
What I personally do and recommend, is to tape a piece of measurement tape onto the edge of your work desk permanently so that you will have easy access to the measurements at any given time.
3. Soldering Tools
Any form of soldering work will definitely require the use of soldering tools. Apart from a set of soldering iron and solder, there are a number of additional tools listed below which are useful once you acquire them.
- Soldering Iron / Soldering Station
- Rosin Core solder (regular or silver / gold solder)
- Soldering Iron Tip Cleaner
- Solder Fume Extractor
- Heating / Flame Tools
Soldering Iron / Soldering Station
The core piece of tool for DIY audio craft and repair, we recommend you start off with a good set of soldering station as they can follow you a long way. A good set of soldering station usually comes with a soldering stand and cleaner included, adjustable temperature setting, interchangeable soldering tips and sometimes a hot air solder attached. If you have experiencewith a soldering station before, you will greatly appreciate the ease of use that comes along with the hefty price tag. Various temperature can be set for different kind of jobs, be it soldering regular wires, components, IEM drivers, litz / coated wire soldering and even attaching various soldering tips to perform different tasks(even attaching a set of heated knife attachment for glue / plastic cutting or a pre-made stamp for logo stamping on leather or wood)
However, if your budget does not allow for a premium set of soldering station, we have included budget options in the list above. You can even make do with a correctly rated (30-45 watts) soldering pen. I personally used a generic brand-less soldering pen for 7 years without any issue. The key here is to maintain the solder tip properly. Oh, you will need to purchase a separate soldering iron stand in this case, mainly for safety.
Rosin Core solder (regular or silver / gold solder)
Another important component for soldering is the solder itself. They are the ammunition to your soldering iron. Choosing a good solder will ensure smooth flow and coverage of your soldering area. We recommend starting out with an off the shelf Rosin Core Solder at 8mm - 10mm thickness. A leaded solder has better strength for the long run, but due to the concern about the effect of lead exposure, we recommend you to go for Rohs certified unleaded solder like the kester 44. Safety first.
Of course you would have heard of silver, gold and even platinum based solders. This is a rabbit hole you might not want to get involved with at an early stage but if you have access to those, you can play around with the combination. But first, make sure you have an adequate skill level to minimize waste.
We will cover this topic in a future video in this series.
Soldering Iron Tip Cleaner
Maintenance is an important aspect of soldering. A soldering iron tip may be inexpensive, but if well maintained, they can last for a very long time. Also it is important to clean the soldering tip of any left over solder as the flux would have already burnt off and will inhibit the flow of solder. We also do not want a large blob of solder on a small soldering surface. A tip cleaner can also remove oxidation on the soldering tip.
There is a debate on whether to use a wet sponge or a tip cleaning wire mesh where a wet sponge is said to suddenly cool down the iron tip too much, causing micro cracks and decreasing the lifespan of the tip. We will leave this up to the habit and preference of the individual.
Solder Fume Extractor
One key hazard of soldering, apart from burning yourself, is inhaling solder smoke. A solder fume extractor can draw the fume away from your face and the activated carbon filter can remove 80% of the odor, but not the harmful, micron thick particles.
A solder fume extractor alone is not the best tool to remove the dust particles but it is better than having nothing if you are working in your own room. We strongly advise NOT TO work in a place without air circulation and especially NOT in your own room. The reason being solder fumes or smoke are made up of dust particles containing all sorts of harmful chemicals and heavy metal dust which can settle and stick to your bed sheet, walls, keyboard etc. Once you are in contact with those, they can easily enter your lungs and bloodstream and cause all sorts of problems.
How I know this? I Kena Jialat Before.
In 2016, I fell so ill that I had to make multiple trips to the clinic and eventually the hospital for about 2 months. If you are doing something you love, you would want to do it for as long as possible, so not take health issues lightly!
Working close to a ventilator exhaust might be the best solution.
Heating / Flame Tools
It may not be surprising to know that most of DIY work will require heat one way or another, and soldering is basically using a heated tool. The most common use of heat is to shrink heatshrinks and to melt glue during teardowns. Although most of the work can be done with a directed flame from either a windproof lighter or a torch, it is absolutely essential to use a heat gun where temperature control is important. A heat gun is less likely to burn a heatshrink, char a wire's insulation or melt an IEMs housing.
Using high heat on headshrinks and plastics will generate dangerous toxic fumes, so once again, work in a well ventilated area.
4. Clamps and Assistive Tools
And so, when you have your soldering station set up, what you will need next are tools and equipment to be able to hold the tools or parts you will be working on. In most cases, a simple piece of Blue Tack putty will be sufficient, but to make certain jobs easier to handle, here are our list of item which will allow you to perform a wide range of DIY and custom work.
- Blue Tack Putty
- Binder Clips
- Helping Hand / 3rd Hand
- Mini Bench Vice / Panavise
- Leather / Gripping Cloths
Blue Tack Putty
One of the most overlooked item in the whole article, we did not realize that Blue Tack is not known commonly all over the world until people started to ask repeatedly on our YouTube channel. We grew up with it being in most of our schools and daily life and thus it was common to us.
Blue tack is most commonly used as a temporary adhesive to mount (stick) papers or photos on the walls. Here in DIY, they can be used in any amount, in any shapes and forms, to hold any item you are working on without too much of an issue. They are also easily moved around on the table to suit what kind of job you are working on.
You probably can guess what these are used for. You can clip your wires on a table edge and use them as a braiding clamp, clip the ends of a braiding if you need to stop mid way or even use them to hang your cables!
As these are inexpensive, you might want to get them in multiple sizes.
Helping Hand / 3rd Hand
Everyone needs some help here and there. A set of helping hand can really boost your productivity and enable you to perform different task easily. These are especially useful when soldering and patching wires.
If your budget does not allow for a set of helping hands, Blue tack should be able to substitute them for most of the time.
Mini Bench Vice / Panavise
Having a good vice can allow for more intricate work. A vice allows for heavy drilling, sawing and grinding of materials. While not essential, they are highly recommended.
Suction based vice such as the Panavise are especially useful combined with a smooth or glass table top as you can move them around with ease. I received these as a gift and has been using them almost daily for years.
We use needles exclusively for application of super glue. Pour some super glue onto a piece of plastic, dip the needle in and apply on the desired surface. We do have a few sizes ready for different applications and even a specific holder for them!
Leather / Gripping Cloths
Leather pieces are generally used for additional grip, to prevent scratches on the workpiece or to protect your bare hands from heated surfaces.
5. Cutting Tools
A majority of work requires some form of cutting. While a pair of regular scissors can bring you a long way, there are actually some more cutting tools which are essential especially for repairs and modification work. Below are everything we recommend you to work towards having.
- Craft Knife / Pen Knife / Exacto Knife
- Scissors / Shears
- Wire Stripper
- Wire Cutter (Thick and Thin)
- Rotary Cutting / Grinding Tools
Craft Knife / Pen Knife / Exacto Knife
Pen knifes can be very useful apart from cutting and trimming. They can be heated / torched to act as a heated knife for glue removal and my personal favorite, to slit into thin part lines on IEMs and prying them open. The thin blades can also act as a saw, cutting into acrylic IEMs without removing much materials. Sometimes you might be required to remove insulation or sheathing on cables. A pair of sharp pen knife will come in handy.
As simple as these may be, practice extra caution while working with a sharp blade. I personally had a part of my index finger cut off and reattached in a hospital. It is not a fun experience.
Scissors / Shears
Without much introduction needed, this household item is generally used to cut wires and heatshrinks. A must have item.
Shears as basically heavy duty scissors and can be used to trim thin plastic parts.
As the name suggest, wire strippers strips wires. They are an absolute essential tool for working on cables as every single cable job requires stripping wires. You might want to invest in a good set of these. Do take note of the AWG(American Wire Gauge or basically the thickness of the wire) when buying these. The size we will encounter most often is 22AWG to 32AWG so do get a pair that are able to work on these gauges.
Also do take note, some Chinese wire cutters has the same AWG range printed but they are of a different dimension. China uses a different set of gauge sizes.
Wire Cutter (Thick and Thin)
What are the differences between wire cutters and scissors? Basically, wire cutters are made from high carbon steel where scissors and shears are made from stainless steel. With a short blade and long handle design, the wire cutters are much stronger and can cut through very thick solid core wires with ease and without damage to the blades.
Rotary Cutting / Grinding Tools
The ultimate, must-have tool for advanced modification and crafting work. Rotary tools can drill, cut, grind, sand and engrave. They are very useful for a wide range of advanced work like drilling or enlarging an entry hole for connectors, drilling nozzle holes on a DIY Custom IEM, cutting and sanding custom parts, polishing CIEMs, enlarging audio jack exit holes etc.
Any budget rotary tools will do but I would recommend investing in a Dremel as they are really well designed and can last really long. Also while we are at that, get the wireless version as you can bring them outside to work on as things can get really dusty real quick. Just make sure to have some spare batteries available and put on your safety googles!
6. Working And Testing Tools
So with all the above, we are now fully capable of building cables and perform some basic repairs. However, there are some more tools for more intricate works, mods and finally testing of the finished products. Essential tools are listed below. We recommend to get the full list as we cannot live without any of the items below!
- Pliers (Long nose, Standard and Fishing Pliers)
- ESD safe Tweezers
- Spudgers (Prying Tools)
- Screwdriver Set
- Bulb Continuity Tester and Multimeter
- Testing Rig (your own Audio Setup)
Pliers (Long nose, Standard and Fishing Pliers)
Pliers are very useful tools to clamp and grip items. Often used together with a piece of leather or grip cloth to prevent scratches and excessive heat, a pair of pliers can be used as extra grip when trying to install or uninstall stubborn screw type joints.
One other way I use my pliers is to use them to expand the thickness of a piece of headshrink. This however unorthodox, is actually very useful as not all the shrink rate of different sizes of heatshrink matches the job you are working on.
I would also recommend getting a set of fishing pliers as they have various clamping shapes built into a single unit.
ESD safe Tweezers
When working on audio DIY, most of the work and soldering will be done on small parts. A pair of tweezers allows us to grip wires and work as close as possible to the hot iron for much better stability. This is especially important for soldering on drivers with thin enamel coated wires.
It is important to get ESD safe and non magnetic tweezers as IEM and headphone drivers are magnetized and may hinder with the use of certain tools when working close to the drivers.
Spudgers (Prying Tools)
Prying is a large part of repair and modding work. These prying tools can come in handy as they comes in different shapes and materials for the different jobs you will encounter. Basically we will want to open up a part lines on a shell of an IEM or a pair of headphones with minimal damage to the edges and surface. These are used almost always in conjunction with pen knives.
When you encounter a wider variety of headphones or equipment, you will likely find out that a philips(+) and a flat(-) screwdriver is no longer sufficient. Having a complete set of screw driver tip will be almost compulsory.
Bulb Continuity Tester and Multimeter
A continuity tester is something we use to test the flow of signal from one end to another. A bulb tester is basically a bulb being hooked up to a battery pack and have 2 open ends(usually in crocodile clips) that will light up when the two ends are connected. The most common use of this is to find out which wire is goes to which soldering point and checking for short circuit.
A multimeter is required for electronic works, board tracing and testing. These are not essential if you are not developing towards that.
Testing Rig (your own Audio Setup)
When a project is done, the most important thing is to perform a full stereo, polarity and stress test. You will need to hook them up to your source(player / desktop amp) and your headphones either via direct connection or via adaptors. What you already have are usually sufficient for personal DIY requirements.
7. Adhesives and Finishing
Finally, a finished product or job needs to be finished, be it properly glued, cast, colored or lacquered. Here are some of the things that may assist the final steps and finally creating a well, handmade, finished product for your own enjoyment or for sale if that is what you are aiming for.
- Hot Glue (and Gun)
- Super Clue (CA 502)
- Epoxy Glue and Putty (A+B type)
- UV resin work (Jewelry grade, skin safe)
- Ronsonol fluid(Lighter Fluid), Turpentine, Contact Cleaner, Isopropyl (Rubbing Alcohol)
Hot Glue (and Gun)
Hot Glue is a very versatile form of adhesive, they can be used to mount drivers, mount cable hardware (Y-split) and do finishing work on soldering(most commonly on the jacks and pins). You will find yourself using the glue stick by itself very often.
Super Clue (CA 502)
Everyone should be familiar with these, a strong glue which dries upon contact. These are generally used to repair cracks in IEMs and for securing parts. The correct way of using super glue is to apply them directly from the nozzle to the crack or part and let it seep between the gaps of the joint, but due to the size of what we will be mostly working on, I will still recommend using the above mentioned method, which is to pour some super glue onto a piece of plastic, dip the needle in and apply on the desired surface.
I recommend getting these in bottles. They do not need to be refrigerated when not in use.
Epoxy Glue and Putty (A+B type)
Epoxy Glue, not to be confused with epoxy resin, is a permanent adhesive stronger than most glues out there. They cure into a solid and are near impossible to remove without damages to the surface they are applied to. These are very useful when working with broken headbands. They usually cures within 5-15 minutes of mixing, so they only have a short working time.
Epoxy Putty on the other and are much more versatile. While it cures into a solid too, they can be shaped and molded by hand during application, and can be sanded, shaped, drilled and painted on after they harden. They can be used to mold out new housing parts or to secure connectors during repairs or mods. They can be worked with up to 30 minutes after mixing and requires 3-6 hours to fully cure, so it has sufficient working time to mold into parts.
UV resin work (Jewelry grade, skin safe)
Resin work are generally on the spectrum of DIY, generally used to fill in or repair cracks, reinforcing joints and making custom products like IEM shells.
I will be going thru UV craft in audio DIY in a future video, and from there, introducing you to DIY Custom IEM building.
Ronsonol fluid(Lighter Fluid), Turpentine, Contact Cleaner, Isopropyl (Rubbing Alcohol)
Cleaning is a large and important aspect of DIY. Most commonly we will find ourselves cleaning oxidized contacts be it for soldering or audio connections, preparing surfaces for gluing, removing glue or tape adhesive marks, or removing melted rubber from products altogether. Lighter fluid should be sufficient to perform all of the tasks above, but be careful as these are highly flammable and I recommend not to use them near flame or even the high heat of your soldering iron.
8. Conclusion and Final Words
Use the right tools for the right jobs.
I believe having a good set of tools is different from having a complete set of tools because there are so many things you will encounter during your DIY journey and at times it is best to be full prepared for what comes at you, or for those time where you have a random inspiration you want to get your hands working on. All the above, while recommended, are not compulsory. Each DIY-er will develop their own habits and styles.
That aside, you will still need to invest a tremendous amount of time on building up your crafting, soldering and finishing skills. There are some who get proficient at DIY craft within a short amount of time but stopped exploring, some who after a few months who still could not still grasp the key to craft work, and a few who, after years, could not deliver a proper, well done job. The key here is to be focused on what more things you can do after mastering the craft and not how much you can earn by doing DIY.
The passion being fueled by the joy of building, will outlast the passion for monetary gains.
That aside, we hope that this article and series will be helpful to whoever is reading and planning to get their hands busy!
Thank you for reading and stay tuned to the next Episode where we will be going thru some soldering basics! Kita kits!