Good equipment to buy when getting started
Getting started with electronics design takes buying some equipment, but it can be confusing what to buy. I'm going to list here some of the items that I thought were helpful getting started. For all equipment and especially components salvage can be a nice cheap way to acquire stuff see: Salvage Topics. Also see Test Equipment and Other Equipment
Workshops In General
Breadboard with Power Supply
Most people start with electronics by connecting up circuits on a breadboard. A breadboard is great for trying out circuits before moving to more permanent construction techniques such as perfboard or custom PCBs. A battery can be a simple power supply, but to avoid replacing then you can probably find a wall transformer of a reasonable voltage and current capacity. The specs are almost always on the unit. They are pretty safe, unless something really goes wrong you are kept from the mains voltage, and most are ul labeled.
The pencil type are probably the way to go. For most electronics a tip about as fine as a blunt pencil is useful. They can be very cheap, but the more expensive ones are better, particularity if they have a thermostat and/or power control. Guns types can be used, but waiting for them to warm up quickly becomes a pain ( 30 seconds over and over ) and many are too big for electronics work. You can start cheap and work up later. An important tip is keep the tip clean.
The basic soldering article has tips on using a soldering iron.
Spools of wire
Wire is available as stranded or solid. Solid works best with breadboards and perfboards. Stranded works best when creating cables for inter board connections. Stranded is nice an flexible and does not break quickly when bent back and forth, solid is easy to press into perf board, breadboard and stays bent the way you bend it. Lots of bending will break solid wire.
Try to get many different colors of wire. Tracing a single wire through a big circuit is almost impossible if all the wires are the same color.
Radio Shack is a good source of cheap multimeters. I would also add that harbor freight has THE cheapest meters (sub $10).
An oscilloscope is critical for debugging analog circuits or communication protocols. I prefer PC based oscilloscopes since they are cheaper than dedicated equipment and are more automated than a traditional phosphor oscilloscope.
As more components are bought, it becomes necessary to store all the components in an organized way and storage compartments are very helpful. These can be bought at the local home improvement or hardware store. We are collecting more ideas here: Component and Parts Storage
It's important to have a lot of different resistor values around as it's almost impossible to buy the correct values in advance. Digikey sells resistors in kits that have a small number of all the standard resistor values. If you are a cheapskate in need of some practice reading the color codes, you can get a grab bag from Jameco and sort them yourself.
Capacitors are like resistors. You need a large number of values. Digikey also sells capacitor kits in addition to the resistor kits. Assortments and grab bags are available for electrolytics, ceramics, and Mylar caps from Jameco as well.
Microcontrollers are a great way to get started in digital electronics. They are essentially a little computer on a single chip. Unlike large computers these processors usually don't run a full blown operating system so dedicated hardware is used for programming an debugging. In Circuit Debugging are the preferred way to go for development since it's a huge time saver to be able to program and debug software without needing to pull the chip from the circuit. Spend the extra money -- it is worth it.
Main Article: demo board
If you are willing to spend some money development boards are a quick way to get started. They typically have a microcontroller, voltage regulator, some LEDs, and some sensors all on one board. The downside is that if you break anything on the board you have to buy a whole new board. With discrete components only the broken part needs to be replaced. On the other hand, more and more components are only available in surface mount packages which almost require a custom PCB to use at all. ARM processors are relatively powerful microcontroller but at present are not available in through hole versions.
There is a lot of information on the web, until we update Google to find it.