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Upgrading and Repairing PCs Tip #24: A Checklist of PC Maintenance Hand Tools

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In this excerpt from the 22nd edition of Scott Mueller's Upgrading and Repairing PCs, you'll learn about the tools required to assemble a kit that is capable of performing basic, board-level service on PC systems.

Find more tips from Upgrading and Repairing PCs here.

From the book

When you work with PC systems, the tools required for nearly all service operations are simple and inexpensive. You can carry most of the required tools in a small pouch. Even a top-of-the-line “master mechanics” set fits inside a briefcase-sized container. The cost of these toolkits ranges from about $20 for a small service kit to $500 for one of the briefcase-sized deluxe kits. Compare these costs with what might be necessary for an automotive technician. An automotive service technician would have to spend $5,000–$10,000 or more for a complete set of tools. Not only are PC tools much less expensive, but I can tell you from experience that you don’t get nearly as dirty working on computers as you do working on cars.

In this section, you learn about the tools required to assemble a kit that is capable of performing basic, board-level service on PC systems. One of the best ways to start such a set of tools is to purchase a small kit sold especially for servicing PCs.

Because they work better than conventional screwdrivers, use nut drivers to remove the hexagonal-headed screws that secure the system-unit covers, adapter boards, disk drives, and power supplies in most systems. You will, however, still need standard screwdrivers for systems that have substituted Phillips-head screws for the more standard hexagonal-head screws. If slotted screws are used, they should be removed and replaced with Torx (preferred), hex, or Phillips-head screws that capture the driver tool and prevent it from slipping off the head of the screw and potentially damaging the system.

Tweezers or a parts grabber like the one shown in Figure 19.2 can be used to hold any small screws or jumper blocks that are difficult to hold in your hand. The parts grabber is especially useful when you drop a small part into the interior of a system; usually, you can remove the part without completely disassembling the system.

FIGURE 19.2 The parts grabber has three small metal prongs that can be extended to grab a part.

Finally, make sure your kit has several sizes of Torx drivers or bits; a Torx driver has a star-shaped head that matches the special screws found in some systems (see Figure 19.3). Torx screws are superior to other types of screws for computers because they offer greater grip and the tool is much less likely to slip. The most common cause of new motherboard failures is the use of slotted screwdrivers that slip off the screw head, scratching (and damaging) the motherboard. I never allow slotted screws or a standard flat-bladed screwdriver anywhere near the interior of my systems. You also can purchase tamperproof Torx drivers that can remove Torx screws with the tamper-resistant pin in the center of the screw. A tamperproof Torx driver has a hole drilled in it to allow clearance for the pin. Torx drivers come in a number of sizes, the most common being the T-10 and T-15.

FIGURE 19.3 A Torx driver and bit.

Although this basic set is useful, you should supplement it with some other basic tools, including the following:

  • Electrostatic discharge (ESD) protection kit—These kits consist of a wrist strap with a ground wire and a specially conductive mat with its own ground wire. You also can get just the wrist strap or the antistatic mat separately. In areas or times of the season when there is low humidity, static charges are much more likely to build up as you move, increasing the need for ESD protection. A wrist strap is shown in Figure 19.4.
  • FIGURE 19.4 A typical ESD wrist strap clipped to a nonpainted surface in the case chassis.

  • Needle-nose pliers and hemostats (curved and straight)—These are great for gripping small items and jumpers, straightening bent pins, and so on.
  • Electric screwdriver—Combined with hex, Phillips, standard, and Torx bit sets, this tool really speeds up repetitive disassembly/assembly. Use on exterior screws only!
  • Flashlight—You should preferably use a high-tech LED unit, which enables you to see inside dark systems and is easy on batteries.
  • Wire cutter or stripper—This makes or repairs cables or wiring. For example, you’d need this (along with a crimping tool) to make Ethernet cables (refer to Chapter 16, “Local Area Networking”).
  • Vise or clamp—This installs connectors on cables, crimps cables to the shape you want, and holds parts during delicate operations. Consider adding a “helping hand” device by Sona Electronics (available from many outlets). It has two movable arms with alligator clips on the end and a magnifier. This type of device is very useful for making cables or for other delicate operations during which an extra set of hands to hold something might be useful. To learn how to make your own flexible alligator clip helper, see www.instructables.com/id/Third-Hand-A-multi-use-helping-hand-for-electro/.
  • Metal file—This smooths rough metal edges on cases and chassis and trims the faceplates on disk drives for a perfect fit.
  • Markers, pens, and notepads—Use these for taking notes, marking cables, and so on.
  • Windows install media—Installation media for your OS can be used to boot test the system from an optical or flash drive, to attempt system recovery, to install the OS, or to run memory diagnostics.
  • Diagnostics software—You can use this software for PC hardware verification and testing. I especially recommend the Ultimate Boot CD (www.ultimatebootcd.com), which is a free collection of diagnostics on bootable discs. Ultimate Boot CD includes a script on the media that can be used to create a bootable USB version.
  • POST card—This displays POST diagnostics codes on systems with fatal errors.
  • Nylon cable-ties—These help in routing and securing cables; neatly routed cables improve airflow in the system.
  • Digital multimeter—This checks power supply voltages, connectors, and cables for continuity.
  • Cleaning swabs, canned air (dust blower), and contact cleaner chemicals—These clean, lubricate, and enhance contacts on circuit boards and cable connections. Products include those from www.chemtronics.com, as well as contact enhancer chemicals such as Stabilant 22a (www.stabilant.com).
  • Data transfer cables and adapters—These quickly connect two systems and transfer data from one system to another. For modern systems, use Ethernet crossover cables and USB-to-Ethernet and USB-to-USB data transfer cables. Use parallel or serial transfer cables only on very old systems that lack USB ports.
  • 2 1/2-inch PATA drive cables and adapters—These connect 2 1/2-inch (laptop) PATA drives to desktop systems for transferring or recovering data. Although PATA devices are rapidly approaching obsolescence, you still might encounter them in some systems, and it’s worth having these cables around. This includes 44-pin (2 1/2-inch) PATA-to-40-pin (3 1/2-inch) PATA ribbon cable/power adapters, 44-pin PATA-to-USB/FireWire adapters, and 2 1/2-inch USB/FireWire external drive enclosures.
  • 3 1/2-inch drive enclosure—A hard disk drive enclosure equipped with a USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 port enables you to recover data from a hard disk if the original host system is no longer functioning. Normally you will need separate enclosures for PATA and SATA drives.
  • Spare keyboard and mouse—You can use these to operate a system if the existing keyboard or pointing device is defective or difficult to use.
  • USB hub, USB/FireWire cable adapters—These connect multiple external USB devices. The cable adapters and gender changers are recommended for connecting different types of USB and FireWire devices.
  • Spare screws, jumpers, standoffs, and so on—These are handy if you lose any of these items from the system you are working on.
  • Spare CR-2032 lithium coin cell batteries—These are used as the CMOS RAM batteries in most systems, so it is a good idea to have a replacement or two on hand. Although a number of CR20xx battery types are available, most systems use the CR2032.
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