I'm going to make a list of what I think the best starter work bench for electronics should contain. This list will be costed, -there's nothing worse than seeing a list of really useful tools then realising that you need to be a millionaire, (or be ninety and have been collecting tools your whole life) to have these things.
My "ethos" when making stuff is to make good stuff made well made cheaply.
by cheaply I don't necessarily mean that everything will cost pennies to make, indeed some things are very expensive to make -yet still cheaper than buying off the shelf. this applies to products and tools/equipment.
However, if I can buy off the shelf, and get a cheaper and better product than what I can make, then I'll probably buy off the shelf.
I'll be producing a few of these lists, because I don't think woodworking tools fit into the electronics tools list, nor do metal working tools, but if you are interested in making finished products, not just testing stuff out on a dev board, then you're going to need some tools and some skills to make a final project.
In accordance with an old hack a day post http://hackaday.com/2008/01/20/hackit-your-ultimate-hacking-workbench/ asking people to build up a work bench for $600 or less...
Well being as I'm from the UK, and that was from 2008. I'm going to say £600, (that allows me to not have to convert all the values, and allows for inflation). but I won't be spending all of that in this post. that's the complete bench costs, my bench needs tools for creating finished products. so I'll going to try and build the whole workshop for that price.
I'm also going to try to order the list in a getting your feet wet type arrangement, -so this will be the stuff that you might want to just pick up to be able to see if you even like making stuff for yourself.
so.... Here goes.
Electronics (Beginners list)
Multi-meter, -I don't recommend getting the cheapest, on the other hand I don't recommend getting the most expensive. (in the same way as my view on power tools went, professionals buy De Walt drills because the absolutely need them day in, day out), professionals by Fluke because they need them, day in, day out they are built to work in the shittiest of shit conditions, day in day out, they are drop proof, shock proof waterproof, dust proof and humidity proof.... my opinion is: "if you're a hobbyist, buy hobbyist tools".
For an absolute beginner, look for one that measures voltage, current and resistance. lots of meters will also have a transistor tester, and a continuity meter. More modern meters I've noticed recently, are including inductance, capacitance, temperature and even humidity and light meters as well as the standard volts/amps/resistance meters.
For the absolute beginner, ignore the fancy toys. buy basic, spend £10 - £20. if you need more functionality later then buy a bigger fancier meter later, you can keep your beginner meter laying around for emergencies, or when you want to work on the car and don't want your £200 meter getting dirty.
We'll call the price £20. (total so far £20).
I have a huge problem with people telling newcomers that they must get the latest greatest soldering station, with solder pots, and temperature control, and hot air reworking and all the other fancy gadgets. soldering stations of that calibre fall well into the professional end of the spectrum, and cost like they do as well.
http://www.rapidonline.com/Tools-Fasteners-Production-Equipment/Soldering-Equipment/Soldering-Stations/Weller-WSD81-80W-digital-temperature-controlled-soldering-station/300591 isn't that a lovely little soldering station? it's also £239.
Now how about this one? http://www.rapidonline.com/Tools-Fasteners-Production-Equipment/Soldering-Equipment/Soldering-Irons/Soldering-Iron-40W-230V/303066
40W iron, it's powerful enough to do pretty much all the work you'll want to do, and a mere £8.55
As a beginner, you need a around a 30w iron, (if you get a smaller one you spend too long trying to heat up the parts and just damage them, or don't get enough heat into them and end up with dry joints).
So 25w iron minimum, the rough price of this is £10 (total spend so far £30).
The 15W irons that get sold in some places are useless. In fact they are worse than useless.
The final thing to say it that as you;re doing electronics, not plumbing, get one with a fine tip.
If you can, get a stand too, that stops you dropping your soldering iron on the kitchen counter.
That stand holds the iron when you're not using it, and has a sponge for cleaning the tip of the iron, (a nice shiny tip to your soldering iron helps it transfer heat efficiently, and means that you don't have to hold the iron on the work longer than is necessary.
Cost £5 (total spend £35)
Now, anyone familiar with electronics at all is probably thinking of the little boards with holes in, copper below that used for prototyping, but no, I'm still thinking about the solder stand and protecting tables, get a wooden breadboard. (your parents/significant other/house mates will thank you for the consideration). Any size will do, really, but somewhere between the paper sizes of A4 and A3 is probably ideal. and it doesn't have to be a breadboard, it could just be a bit of old counter top, or a piece of plywood bought new.
Cost £5 - 10 (total spend £45)
I prefer this to solder braid, but each to their own, the principal is simple, you're soldered something in the wrong place, so heat the solder so that it goes runny, then suck it up out the way.
Cost £5 (total spend £50).
That is, in theory enough to get you started.
You should be able to follow some simple schematics and make simple circuits.
though if you've just gotten £50 for your birthday, you may want to not spend all of that on equipment, as you'll want some money for components to get you started!
Though there are a few more things that you'll want to consider getting.
Breadboards are prototyping tools, they have standard spaced holes that are connected inside the board by wires that you can't see, they enable you to build simple circuits by poking the legs of components into holes on a board. these have a range of prices. starting at around £2 rising to around £10
that one is a good beginner board (and when you buy multiple boards then can be joined).
it costs £5 (total cost £55).
Aside from some little hand tools like screw drivers and a few components to get started, that is about it.
there is one very big thing missing however, a power supply.
Now I have to admit that I've gone a little all out on a power supply in the past and have one of these:
(the single supply one). 0-32v 2amp supply, digital readouts, super accurate, professional quality, but again a £250 professional price.
What's worse is that I hardly use the thing at all. Instead using my ATX conversion supply. A supply I converted myself from an ATX computer power supply. It has less range, but more usability due to it having split rails at common voltages.
Perhaps I should have gone for the bigger brother of the supply I did get and spent £320? but then I'd still only have two voltage rails.
Perhaps I should have just used my "free" (salvaged from an old PC) power supply, and not bought the supply I did at all.
Perhaps I should have just gone with a "wall wart" type supply. 3v - 15v, enough current for small circuits, cheap and available everywhere.
You decide what power supply you want. The general idea is...
digital circuits will tolerate some noise, as there are thresholds on the signals used. analogue circuits are more susceptible to noise. (hence you sometimes hear a hum on audio equipment) -that's mains hum, it's an AC waveform that's introduced on either the power signal or ground planes, and the fact that you can hear it means that it matters.
I'll post up some instructions on converting an ATX supply in the near future.
I'm therefore going to take an average power supply (wall wart) say that you'd cut the plug off and have a variable power supply for building/testing circuits.
If you look at this supply http://www.rapidonline.com/Electrical-Power/Power-Supplies/Bench-PSUs/3A-Switched-output-switch-mode-power-supply/65050 it's basically just a wall wart in a prettier case anyway.
cost £5 - 10 (depending on the current capabilities). (total cost £65)
So you've spent a little over half a ton so far, and you haven't really got a whole hill of beans to show for it (yet). -though you could get away with not having the iron stand, bread board (either the wooden type or the prototyping type). You may not need the power supply (use batteries? though these can be just as expensive). If you're building really really simple circuits you may not need the multimeter. In fact you can start making stuff with electronics without any of this stuff (I did when I was a child).
What you buy depends on what you need to do, if you only ever want to build test circuits, then the need for a soldering iron is small.
If you want to permanently keep everything that you make, you'll definitely need to solder it (else it'll fall apart).
In addition to this you're going to want some components. stuff like wire
LEDs, resistors, capacitors, transistors, op-amps... lots of components.
I'm not going to specify what you need, your projects will specify that for you.
Just know that you can start out with almost nothing, (a bit of wood, drawing pins, a paper clip, batteries and a light bulb) and still make something.
If you're just wondering about getting your feet wet or you've so far managed to make a torch, but really want to make just a little bit more, then I'd really recommend one of the 200-in-1 kits. these are a little pricey, (~£60). but as a thing for getting people into electronics they are really good, the projects in the book include making radio receivers, radio transmitters, lie detectors, amplifiers, light switches, light level meters, sound level meters.
Strangely, I don't think that I would recommend the 500-in-a kit. it's much more expensive (£150). the only additional benefit that it offers is a microprocessor (but a very odd one that I can't say I've seen used in many places, that's programmed in a peculiar way). For the same money you could get the 200 in one kit, and breadboards and such and get a more current microprocessor such as the Arduino, or a PIC set-up, with a programmer.