Tech News

Becky Stern: What’s In Your Toolbox?

This is What’s In Your Toolbox?, an occasional post series where we showcase tools and tips from our favorite fixers. Today’s post features Becky Stern, an all-around, multi-purpose maker, explainer, tinkerer, instructor. She’ll show you how to make an Arduino-powered Slack status update wheel or an eyeball webcam with an auto-robo cover, do device teardowns to explain what’s inside, or just take you along as she fixes the fuel line on her motorcycle. Here’s the stuff she uses to do the dizzying array of things she does.

First off, explain to our community who you are and what you do!

I’m a creative tech maker, building and documenting electronics and craft projects from my small Brooklyn studio. You might remember me for my past work at Adafruit and MAKE. Now I’m product manager for Instructables and publish on my own YouTube channel. I also teach hands-on making skills in an MFA program at School of Visual Arts here in NYC.

How did you get started fixing and making things?

I grew up in a very handy home. When I was a kid, my parents were always renovating some part of the house, almost entirely themselves. My mom taught me a whole bunch of different crafts. Damaged clothes in my house always got a second chance at life through mending. The first thing I remember making all by myself was a clone of my plush Beanie Baby, at age eight. I got into art and design and ended up at Parsons School of Design for college, which is where I learned my first electronics tinkering—in artsy “physical computing” class. 

What’s in your toolbox/workshop?

My home studio is an extra bedroom in my Brooklyn apartment, and it contains tools and materials for my vast collection of crafty/maker hobbies, from leatherwork to LED strip. It’s my happy place! And it’s also my video studio and editing space.

I have a large rectangular LED panel (made by LiteGear) suspended over my work table, and it can easily pivot on its stand to cover my workbench or act as a video chat light. I like the Ryobi cordless power tool family for their size, since I’m petite and not super strong. When I need to make sawdust, I cover my computer workstation with a dust cloth and try to capture as much of it as I can in my Festool CT Mini shop vacuum, or work outside the window on a small roof space I generously call the “patio”.

How do you organize your tools and devices?

I use a rolling tool chest for my hand and power tools, except for the cutters, strippers, etc. that live on my electronics workbench.

I love my label maker. I have a charging station for my iPad, kindle, and phone that stores them upright almost like a bookshelf. Here’s a video/post I made about organizing my workbench.

And another about my workspace in general.

And another about my camera gear/setup.

What are some of your most-used tools?

My flush diagonal cutters and soldering iron, both by Hakko, my Creality 3D printer, and my Panasonic GH5s camera.

What’s your most-coveted, yet least-used tool?

My computerized embroidery machine! It has a lot of accessories and takes up so much space compared to some of my more frequently-used tools, but it’s so cool when it gets to shine! Here’s a recent project I made using it:

Is there a certain tool or material you use often, but seems unorthodox for your field?

I use a jeweler’s bench as my electronics workstation (and occasionally as a jewelry bench too). It provides a higher work surface than a typical desk and has a catch tray for bits of trash generated during an electronics project. 

Something I do with my students to loosen up that precious feeling of starting is to assign a teardown, with no goal of putting the device back together

Every fixer/DIYer/device-opener has a brutal tool injury or failure story. What’s yours?

I had a classic art school injury: cutting paper with a ruler and new sharp utility blade, the corner of my index finger was protruding over the ruler’s edge and was promptly sliced almost off. The flap of skin reattached but it doesn’t have any sensation anymore. Always watch your fingers carefully when dragging blades around!

What’s your advice for people who want to start fixing or making things?

Go for it! You can start by following guides you find online and learn as you go. Something I do with my students to loosen up that precious feeling of starting is to assign a teardown, with no goal of putting the device back together. It could be a kids’ toy, an old cell phone, alarm clock, etc. We try to identify the materials and manufacturing tools and techniques used, and look up any part numbers we can find. This exploration without a prescribed outcome is a great way to get practical experience with low stress.

Anything else you want us to know?

I think it’s more important than ever for us fixers to share our points of view. Technology is only getting less user-repairable, by miniaturization and by planned obsolescence. If we care about the planet, we need to actively promote repair, reuse, and diverting products from landfill. For example, I help spread the word for e-waste recycling events and participate in my local Buy Nothing group.

Oh and I’m supposed to ask you to check out my latest projects on my YouTube channel, and follow me on Instagram and Twitter!