Electronics Basics: Using a Breadboard

A breadboard is a rectangular plastic box filled with holes, which have contacts in which you can insert electronic components and wires. A breadboard is what you use to string together a temporary version of your circuit. You don't have to solder wires or anything else; instead, you poke your components and wires into the little contact holes arranged in rows and connected by lines of metal; then you can connect your components together with wires to form your circuit.

The nice thing about breadboards is that you can change your mind and replace or rearrange components as you like. You typically create an electronics project on a breadboard to make sure that everything works. If it's a project you wish to save, you can create a more permanent version.

If you want to create a permanent version of your circuit, you need to create a soldered or printed circuit board; see below to find out how to go about that.

There are a few different sizes of breadboards and you can link breadboards to make a larger circuit.

Wires pull it all together

When you place components in a breadboard, you don't get much action until you connect those components with wire. Wire used in electronics is copper surrounded by a plastic insulator, usually called hookup wire. Hookup wire comes in various diameters referred to as a gauge. The standard gauge measurement used in the U.S. is American Wire Gauge, also referred to as AWG.

Someone decided at some point that the smaller the gauge, the larger the diameter of wire. For example, 20 gauge wire is 0.032" in diameter, and 22 gauge wire is 0.025" in diameter. Don't ask why — just memorize this fact!

Use solid wire — never stranded wire — between components within a breadboard because stranded tends to separate when you try to insert it into the holes of a breadboard.

You can buy hookup wire in spools containing 100 feet of wire. If you are starting with only a few projects, you can get smaller spools containing as little as 30 feet of wire.

The insulating plastic that surrounds wire is made in different colors. Pick up a spool of red and a spool of black. Using different colors helps you to identify the purpose of different wires in your project.

You might also consider buying an assortment of different lengths of prestripped and prebent 22 gauge wire jumpers. Jumper wires — which are used to connect components in a breadboard — save you a lot of time you might otherwise spend cutting small wires to length, stripping them, and bending the stripped wire when you're building a breadboard.

Connectors

Finally, terminal blocks are used to connect wires from components such as speakers, motors, and microphones to the breadboard. A terminal block is a small block of plastic that you mount on a breadboard. You insert the wires into the terminal block through a hole in the block and then tighten screws to hold the wire securely.

When choosing terminal blocks, the diameter of the pin that inserts into the breadboard or circuit board is important. Some terminal blocks that work fine in circuit boards where the components are soldered in do not stay in place on breadboards.

Printed circuit boards

If you create a circuit on a breadboard and decide that it's worthy of immortality, you can make it permanent by soldering components in place on a printed circuit board. To do this, you have to get your hands on a universal printed circuit board. This is much like a breadboard except that you can solder all the connections you've made to keep them around.

A universal printed circuit board has rows of individual holes throughout the board with copper pads around each hole and metal lines connecting the holes in each row, like in a breadboard. You mount parts on the face of the board and then pass leads through holes to the components. You can solder the leads to the copper pads on the bottom of the board.

Universal printed circuit boards are available in a variety of patterns of contact holes and metal lines.

You can get custom printed circuit boards made for your circuit; this is typically done by submitting a drawing of your circuit to a printed circuit board company. These boards eliminate the need to solder jumper wires between components.

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