List of Common Tools Useful for Working With Computers

Checklist of tools to have when working on a personal computer

Engineer assembling circuit board

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Before one really sets out to work on a computer system, it's important to make sure you have the proper set of tools. In the middle of building a system or even doing a repair job, it's a major distraction to have to go searching for another item you need to complete the task.

With that in mind, here is our guide to tools that are important to have on hand when doing work on a computer.

A computer houses lots of components that are sensitive to electrostatic discharge, which can cause your computer to fail. It's best to try and get tools that are designed to prevent this.

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Phillips Screwdriver (Non-Magnetic)

This tool is probably the most important to have. Pretty much all computer parts are fastened to the computer through some form of a screw. It's important that the screwdriver not have a magnetic tip. Having a magnetized object inside of the computer case can damage some circuits or drives. It's not likely, but best not to take the chance.

If you plan to work on a notebook computer, they typically use a smaller style of a screw. For this, you want to look for a Philips jeweler's screwdriver or a 3mm sized model. This much smaller version will fit the tiny screws. A few companies use a fastener called a Torx that is pointed star, but usually, these are not meant to be removed by the user.

Zip Ties

The use of small plastic zip ties can make all the difference between a jumbled mess of wires and a professional-looking build. Organizing the cables into bundles or routing them through specific paths can have two major benefits.

First, it will make it much easier to work inside of the case. Second, it can aid in the airflow inside the computer. Some reusable options are also available, such as hook-and-loop straps and large external cable management ideas.

Be careful if you make a mistake and need to cut the zip tie to avoid damaging wires and components.

Hex Driver

Not many people have seen these outside of a computer toolkit. A hex driver looks like a screwdriver except it has a head like a socket wrench. You can find two typical sizes of hex screws inside computers: 3/16" and 1/4". The 3/16" one is more common. The smaller hex driver usually installs the brass screw standoffs inside of the case that the motherboard resides on.

Tweezers

The most frustrating aspect of building a computer is dropping a screw inside the case, especially if it rolls into the tightest corner so you can't reach it. Tweezers are helpful when working in tight spots or for retrieving that lost screw inside of a computer case.

Another area where they're handy is for removing jumpers from motherboards and drives. Sometimes small gripper devices that feature a set of small wires in a sort of claw can really help. A plunger at the top of the device opens and closes the claw to easily pick up a screw in a tight spot.

Isopropyl Alcohol (99%)

Isopropyl alcohol is probably one of the most important cleaners to use with a computer. It's a high-quality rubbing alcohol that you can find in most drug stores. It does an excellent job of cleaning off thermal compounds without leaving a residue that could impact future compounds.

You typically use alcohol on the CPU and heatsink to make sure they're clean before you mate them together. It can also be useful for cleaning contacts that have begun to corrode. It is typically used in conjunction with the next couple of items.

Lint-Free Cloth

Lint and dust can cause lots of problems inside of computers. In particular, they build up inside the case and deposit on fans and air slots. These contaminants will directly impact the flow of air inside the computer and can lead to overheating and failure of components.

It also has the potential of shorting a circuit if the material is conductive. Using a lint-free cloth to wipe down the case or components will help prevent the build-up of dust.

Cotton Swabs

It is amazing how dirty computers can get with the dust and grime from use. The problem is that some of these small cracks and surfaces can be hard to reach. This is where a cotton swab can come in handy.

Be careful about using swabs. If the swab is too loose, or there happens to be a sharp edge that it can snag on, fibers may end up inside the computer where they can cause problems. This tool is best used only for cleaning exposed contacts or general surfaces.

New Plastic Zip Bags

The most obvious use for plastic bags is to store all those loose parts after the computer is finished or even to hold the spare screws while you are working on it. It helps prevent the loss of these small parts.

Another area where it is useful is for spreading thermal compounds. Thermal compounds are directly impacted by the oils from the human body. By putting your hand inside the bag before touching the compound for spreading, you keep the compounds free of contamination and thus better suited to conducting heat.

Grounding Strap

Static electricity can cause severe damage to electrical components due to the short, high-voltage burst of a discharge. The easiest way to deal with this risk is to use a grounding strap. This tool is generally a strap with a metal contact fixed to a wire that you clip to an external metal part to help discharge any static charge that may build up on your body.

Canned Air/Vacuum

Again, dust is a major problem for computer systems over time. If this dust gets bad enough, it can cause overheating and potential part failures.

Most computer stores sell cans of compressed air that are useful for blowing dust out of parts like a power supply. However, they aren't a perfect solution because they tend to just spread the dust around instead of removing it. In general, a vacuum is best because it pulls the dust off the components and out of the environment.

Specially designed computer vacuums or blowers are nice, but a standard house vacuum with a decent set of hose attachments can work just as well.

If conditions are hot and dry, avoid using a vacuum; it can generate a lot of static electricity.

Prebuilt Tool Kits

Of course, if you don't want to try and put together your own kit, plenty of computer toolkits are available on the market. Some of the best are from iFixIt, which is a company that specializes in instructing consumers on how to repair their computers.

They offer two kits: an Essential Electronics Tool Kit and Pro-Tech Tool Kit, which offers the basics or just about any tool you might need for any type of computer or electronic device.

iFixit's kits only include tools and don't contain some of the other, more disposable items in this article.