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Lab Hacks: Lab equipment from the hardware store

While almost every lab has a small toolbox with some screwdrivers, pliers, and such, here are some tools that may not have obvious utility at the bench, but could make your life easier.

A Butane Torch
If your OCD is as bad as mine, then watching a bubble flow out of the flask onto the Petri plate you’re pouring bothers you… a lot. A short (~6 inch) butane torch comes in quite handy for flaming bubbles off the top of freshly poured plates. I also use this to pop bubbles that form while pouring agarose gels, but you have to be particularly careful while doing this not to damage the casting tray or any other part of the gel rig. In addition, these guys come in real handy as a portable Bunsen burner when you need to work away from a gas outlet.

What to look for: Almost all of them can be refilled with the generic cans of butane, but double-check to be sure the one your looking at doesn’t require some proprietary refill system, which will almost certainly be more expensive. In addition, make sure that it has an auto-start feature. If you think you might use it as a Bunsen burner, make sure that it has a large, stable base and a button to lock the trigger ‘on’.

What I use: Ronson Tech Torch

An Infrared Thermometer
Ideally, you would cool a flask of autoclaved agar in a waterbath, but that isn’t always possible. And once you leave it cooling on the counter, the gamble begins. Pull it too early, and you risk inactivating your antibiotic. Pull it too late, and you’ll end up with lumpy plates. (Did I mention my OCD?) One solution to use an infrared thermometer to monitor the flask.

After acquiring mine, I set up a test where I outfitted a flask of boiling water with a stir bar and a traditional thermometer, and compared the readings of the IR thermometer (aimed at the outside of the flask, below the fluid level) and traditional thermometer (in the fluid) as the water cooled on a stirplate. The two readings didn’t differ by more than a degree or so the entire time the flask cooled. This is particularly valuable if you have inexperienced people (ie – undergrads) making the plates in your lab. In addition, these things are great for getting an immediate temperature on anything without having to wait for a traditional thermometer to equilibrate. Once you have one of these, you will use it more than you think.

What to look for: Make sure that the thermometer you’re looking at can be switched to output Celsius (if you’re in the US or Canada). Also, you might want to get one that has “adjustable emissivity”. Emissivity is the ability of a material to radiate energy, and in practical term this means that glass at a particular temperature will emit a different amount of infrared radiation than aluminum at that same temperature. If you find that you want high sensitivity for one particular application, then you can adjust this parameter to fine tune the thermometer. (A quick Google search for “emissivity coefficient” will turn up tables of emissivity settings for common materials.)

What I use: Advanced Tool Design Deluxe Infrared Thermometer

Strap Wrenches
As a group, we scientists aren’t known for our intimidating physiques, and this is usually revealed in the lab when the liquid nitrogen knob, or the top of a centrifuge canister or bottle gets stuck. You then have to go find the largest scientist you can think of to help you out of the jam, which for guys is “The Walk of Shame”. Strap wrenches will save your pride or even save your experiment if nobody is around to help. These tools consist of a flexible strap that wraps around and grips the object, with a straight handle that allows you to get some leverage on the beast. (If you’ve ever watched a mechanic change your oil, he likely used a specialized version of this tool to remove your oil filter.)

What to look for: Choose ones that have a urethane coated nylon strap to make sure that it doesn’t damage anything you might use it on. They are adjustable, so choose ones with a large capacity (~5 inch diameter), as they will also likely adjust down to less than 2 inches for smaller tops. You will want two, since you may have to wrap one around the bottle and a second (in the opposite direction) around the lid. Of course, be careful if you are removing the stuck top off a glass bottle.

What I use: Klein 12-Inch Strap Wrench

Are there any tools that I missed?


  1. Ian on March 26, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Not quite all from the hardware store but …

    I made a multichannel aspirator by taking an old broken multichannel pipette,removing the pistons and feeding narrow gauge rubber tubing down the barrel of the channels and then using splitters to pairwise combine the channels until I had just one line, which I attached to vacuum source. Not only was it multichannel, but it also took standard tips, making it easy to keep it clean and sterile. Kind of fragile though.

  2. Jode on March 16, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    I’m glad you liked it, Arla. If you liked this one, then you really need to check out the archives – there are a lot of great articles in there. Also, remember to forward the links of your favorites out to friends and colleagues and introduce others that might also enjoy the site.

  3. Caroline on March 16, 2010 at 7:12 am

    Geez, I’ve come across so many websites on making your own equipment, from a GFP cheaposcope to the dark reader. I learned a lot from looking at the patents of the dark reader. The main problem is the plastics, but there are many photographic gel filters that can be used as well. Also, I’ve recently discovered do-it-yourself bio (DIYbio). Basically, regular folks that do biotech stuff in their garage. One interesting thing I’ve come across is a way to turn a dremel into a little microfuge.


    The LED array is pretty easy, just go to ebay. You can get an array board cheap LEDs there, and the needed resistors. You can also buy high powered Luxeon LEDs, though be very careful with these. They are bright enough to hurt your eyes. I would even suggest checking out some high powered flashlights. I currently am having a problem with my imager and have used the dark reader hand lamp. It’s a simple 16 LED array with some sort of blue filter. But it works much better than the UV to blue light converter plate that came with the imager.

  4. Arla Stubenrauch on March 16, 2010 at 4:56 am

    Where have I been? I just discovered your website on Yahoo. Great article! Thanks for taking the time to share this.

  5. EngineeringDoc on March 10, 2010 at 5:19 pm

    Jode, Unfortunately, I disagree that it is a matter of perspective. With water being a liquid and air being a gas at the temperature and pressure we are considering, both are fluids. They both deform when a shear stress is applied.

  6. Nick on March 10, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Hi Caroline,

    We’d love to hear more about how you put together your LED array and how well it works.

    It’d also be interesting to see a dark reader design. It could be worth considering using a photography filter. I once made a gel viewer (for EtBr stained gels) using a Cokin Orange filter — you can get the details here — https://bitesizebio.com/2007/08/29/low-cost-dna-gel-photography/.

    Also, Paul Hengen wrote a nice article here on BsB that listed some neat ways to use everyday objects and substances in the lab. Its here:

  7. Jode on March 9, 2010 at 5:04 pm

    It’s all a matter of perspective, EngineeringDoc. Since I’m a (psuedo)chemist, water is a fluid and air is a gas. I’m sure my turbine-designing engineering friend would agree with you, though. We won’t even get into the mind-bender of glass…

    I had considered doing the same thing, Caroline. I thought it would be cool to mount the diffused array under the center of my gel boxes, then make a new cover for the gel box out of orange acrylic so I could monitor the gel while it was running. None of the colored acrylics that I’ve found so far work very effectively as filters, however.

  8. Caroline on March 9, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I’d like to hear more examples! I have made an LED array to visualize sybr safe gels for example. I think I can make my own “dark reader” as well.

  9. EngineeringDoc on March 8, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Speaking of OCD that is as bad as yours :), water and air are both fluids. Therefore, you’ll want to aim the IR thermometer below the water level.

    Also, even as the “largest scientist” around our lab, I occasionally encounter a cap or two I have difficulty opening. I’ve found a leather glove helps in most of those cases.

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