December 08, 2012, 7:25 AM — You would think that building a modern PC would be a matter of simple assembly: Insert Part A into Part B, connect all this to Part C, and you're off to the races. Components are relatively standardized, so as long as you ensure your parts are compatible with each other, piecing everything together should require little more than a number two Philips screwdriver, and an hour of your time.
But it's never that simple.
While you probably can build a PC with just that single screwdriver, the time you'll take and the roadblocks you'll encounter will lead to unnecessary frustration. With the right tools, however, you can shave hours off your assembly time, and turn that PC building or upgrading project into a truly enjoyable experience.
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Allow me to share the tools I use, why I use them, and how my preferred workshop essentials make the art of PC assembly a breeze.
If you assemble (or upgrade) just one or two PCs in a given year, a pair of handheld (that is, non-powered) Philips screwdrivers should suffice. The two I use feature long shafts, which are necessary for turning the screws hiding behind heat sinks or water blocks, or otherwise located in hard-to-reach places. As for head sizes, you'll want both a number one and number two Philips model. Although most screws used in PC assembly are number two, a few are just a wee bit smaller.
To ensure you're prepared for any job, consider expanding your collection. My long screwdriver with the yellow handle and small, standard blade is useful for removing (or attaching) VGA and DVI connectors to graphics cards or monitors. My extremely small screwdrivers are for laptop work, or for the occasional oddball PC case that may use very small screws.
If you're a serious PC enthusiast who's constantly embroiled in building or upgrading projects, you may want to consider a power tool. Indeed, for most PC assembly work, I use a Milwaukee 6547 2.4v cordless electric screwdriver. I've owned one for more than five years now, and it's my go-to tool for any light screwdriver work. The key to making this useful for PC assembly is the adjustable clutch. Dial the clutch to its minimum setting, and you'll never strip a pot-metal screw or attachment point that ships with most PC cases.
Panasonic makes a nearly identical model to the Milwaukee in its EY6220N. Either can be found for about $100, but the Milwaukee kit includes a spare battery and carrying case. Both units use 2.4v batteries, but have an amazing amount of torque for a 2.4v motor. I use magnetized bit holders, which make retrieving accidentally dropped screws a breeze. They also extend the reach of the bit, allowing you to reach areas that may otherwise be inaccessible due to the bulk of the motorized body.
Sometimes you need a tool that will firmly grab a small item. Enter the hemostat, which is perfect for locking onto the end of a tiny connector (say, a motherboard power switch connector) and then guiding the connector onto a tiny pair of leads. Other times, you just need a third hand to hold something in place while making an adjustment. Hemostats (sometimes incorrectly referred to as forceps) are great for this.
You don't need high-quality surgical gear. Low-price hemostats can be easily found at your local electronics store, hobbyist craft shop, or online. I have two of them, one large and one small, and use them appropriately depending on how much reach I need. They're also very handy for picking up screws or stray small items that may have fallen inside your PC case.
The interiors of most PC cases are black, and often a very flat, matte black at that. So, even if you're working in a brightly lit room, the lack of contrast inside a case makes it difficult to see where connectors, screws, and wires may go.
To bathe my case interiors with plenty of light, I use the Clamplight from Blackfire. It's more compact and costs less than similar devices from the major tool manufacturers. The LED light is plenty bright, but also power-efficient, so it won't eat batteries. Almost any flashlight will do, but I would avoid those small LED lanterns that put out a very bright, 360-degree light. Those tend to be more blinding than what's useful for working inside a PC case.
These small tools have two purposes. The larger socket tool attaches or removes motherboard mounting nuts, which reside inside your PC case, and support the motherboard. The smaller tool is used to re-attach the tiny nuts used in DVI and VGA connectors. Sometimes, when you remove a DVI connector, the little nut will remain behind, attached to the graphics card. So you can use this tool to remove the nut from the card, and re-attach it to the connector. I've also used small nut drivers that insert into the bit holders of electric screwdrivers, but an electric screwdriver often isn't useful in this scenario, as some of these motherboard nuts are in very cramped locations.
Needle nose pliers and wire cutters
Sometimes you just need the basics, like a good pair of small needle nose pliers and wire cutters. Note that the wire cutter built into many needle nose pliers isn't as useful, since it won't reach around tight spaces to actually cut a wire. However, I don't use the wire cutter to actually cut wires. Instead, they're handy for cutting cable ties used to route wires.
You want really small versions of these tools, because large ones are too clumsy inside some of the smaller cases. To this end, look for pliers and wire cutters at hobby shops instead of hardware stores.