Building or upgrading a desktop PC probably sounds intimidating if you’ve never done it before. But it’s easier than it sounds, and the barrier to entry is low—you don’t need any special skills or computer expertise, nor do you need a fancy computer-building workspace or a toolbox full of computer-building tools. In fact, a lot of PC builds these days can be performed with just a screwdriver and a prayer.
If Henry Cavill can do it, so can you.
Picking out the perfect components, buying them, and then waiting the agonizing day or two it takes for them to arrive in the mail is a lot more work than actually building anything. I’m not going to give build advice because there are so many options (we’ve reviewed some of them here), but I recommend you start with a tool like PCPartPicker, which will help you gather components and check their compatibility with each other (while staying within your budget). Once your components are on their way, it’s time to get that screwdriver and start praying.
You don’t need a lot of tools to build a PC, but there are a handful of things that are essential.
A lot of modern PC cases are tool-less, which means they’re held together with thumbscrews and other mechanisms that twist and click and snap into place. You may not need any tools at all to open up your case, but once you’re inside, there are a handful of tasks you’ll still need a screwdriver for, such as mounting the motherboard or securing fans and heatsinks.
For most of your components, you’ll need a #2 Philips head screwdriver. This is the most common Philips head screwdriver; you probably already own at least one if not several. If you happen to be installing, upgrading, or otherwise fiddling with an M.2 SSD, you will also need a smaller #1 Philips head screwdriver.
And that’s…basically it if you’re doing a standard build. Don’t be tempted by special “computer-building” screwdriver sets with fancy heads. You only need these types of screwdriver if you’re taking apart individual components (don’t do this) or if you’re working on a laptop or a mobile device.
You don’t need to be super picky about screwdrivers. My go-to screwdriver is a nameless, generic magnetic screwdriver that I got for free somehow. But if you are on the prowl for the perfect PC-building screwdriver, I recommend one with a longer shaft—good for working around cables and components—and a magnetic head. Some people will tell you that it’s dangerous to use a magnetic screwdriver around sensitive electronics, but the magnet is very weak and modern electronics are fairly robust. As long as you aren’t using a magnetic screwdriver to pry apart the magnetic shielding on a hard drive, it poses very little risk to your components. (Also, without a magnetic screwdriver you run a much bigger risk of dropping screws into places with potentially ruinous consequences, such as the power supply unit.)
It doesn’t matter how well-lit your workspace is; the second you need to actually do anything inside your PC, the chassis becomes a black hole. If you’re not prepared for this unexplained phenomenon of physics, you will most likely reach for your phone, and—trust me—this will only end in frustration.
The most effective solution to all your lighting problems is to strap a light to your forehead. That’s right, a headlamp. It’s easy, cheap, and maybe a little dorky, but it does exactly what you need, which is shine light directly on the thing you’re looking at.
If you are, for some reason, strongly anti-headlamp, you still need a source of directional lighting that isn’t your phone. Ideally, you use something that clips onto or sticks to the side of your case, so you don’t end up blocking the light source with your giant headlamp-free head. I have a pocket COB work light with a magnetic base that I use for extra illumination.
Good cable management is largely about making the inside of your case look fantastic, but it’s not just about aesthetics. Organizing, bundling, and tucking away your cables frees up space inside your PC, which keeps it cooler (better airflow) and makes it easier to clean and upgrade. Managing your cables is, in other words, absolutely worth it, even if you’re the only person who ever sees the inside of your case.
There are many different ways to organize your cables, from budget-friendly zip ties and twist ties to less budget-friendly custom cable kits. I personally prefer zip ties, because they’re easy, cheap, and I’d rather just clip them off if I need to instead of unwinding twist ties or Velcro wraps. But it doesn’t really matter which system you decide to use, so long as you’ve got something on hand. I once embarked on an upgrade journey with no cable ties whatsoever. Instead, I used a mix of twist ties I scavenged from my cable drawer and hair ties, and I have to admit it looked terrible.
Thermal paste, also known as heatsink compound, is a thermally conductive paste that goes between two components—usually a heatsink and the CPU/GPU—to maximize heat transfer. It does this by filling in microscopic imperfections on the components’ surfaces to prevent air, which is a terrible conductor of heat, from getting trapped there. You need to use thermal paste whenever you do anything with a heatsink, such as install a brand new one, remove one temporarily to get to a different component, etc. Unlike cable ties, you cannot synthesize thermal paste from stuff lying around your house, so it’s good to have a tube on hand.
If you’re building a brand new rig or you’re replacing your CPU cooler, you may not need extra thermal paste immediately. Coolers usually come with thermal paste (either pre-applied or in tube), but CPUs do not. If you buy a CPU that comes with a stock cooler, the stock cooler will likely come with thermal paste. But don’t assume that thermal paste will somehow float your way just because you’re upgrading almost everything—it probably won’t. Also double-check pre-applied thermal paste. It can sometimes be really old and too tacky, which means separating the CPU from the cooler later could be difficult. In most cases, it’s better to just remove the old stuff and apply your own.
There are many different brands and types of thermal paste, but that’s a whole separate article. I tend to go with the classic Arctic MX-4, which I’ve used for almost a decade with no issues.
If you’re upgrading, this is probably the first time you’ve opened your desktop in a long time. Maybe ever. It’s going to be a little dusty. Maybe very dusty.
You might be tempted to pull out a hand vacuum. Resist! Regular vacuums quickly build up static electricity around their nozzles, and an unexpected discharge is not something you want to risk around your components. There are special computer-safe vacuums, but you probably don’t need one unless you work in some sort of computer-cleaning field.
What you do need is canned air, so you can blast dust out of your PC and off of your components. If the dust is too stubborn for canned air, you can also use a soft-bristled brush made of non-conductive materials (I use a natural-hair paintbrush, but you can also buy special anti-static PC brushes) to gently brush dust off components. Tweezers can also be handy for cleaning dust bunnies out of the dark recesses of your case.
For anything that’s not dust, such as thermal paste, use an isopropyl alcohol solution of 90% or higher and cotton swabs or a lint-free cloth.
PC cases come with all the mounting hardware you need—motherboard standoffs, screws, washers, etc.—while components come with nothing. If you’re upgrading your system and keeping the case (like most upgrades), you may not know where all those extra screws are anymore. You’ll have some screws—you are taking out old components, after all—but it’s likely your configuration will be at least slightly different and require a slightly different amount of hardware. (And if you’re adding anything, such as storage, you’ll definitely need extra screws.)
Don’t go rogue and try to Velcro a hard drive to the side of your chassis! Just pick up a cheap hardware kit with all the screws and standoffs you’ll ever need.
There are a few other things that might come in handy during the PC-building process, but you probably don’t need them. For example:
Wire cutters: For clipping zip ties and cutting open tamper-proof packaging.
Anti-static wrist strap: You do build up static electricity in your body and an unexpected discharge can shock your components. But you’re not a vacuum and you ground yourself every time you touch the metal part of your case (unpainted metal—some paints interfere with this), which is constantly. That said, anti-static wrist straps are pretty inexpensive, so they’re worth a look (especially if your workspace is carpeted).
Flat-head screwdriver: You shouldn’t need a flat-head screwdriver for anything specific, but it will work on thumbscrews (if you get lazy), and the flat-head is useful for prying things apart.
Thermal paste spreader: Some people like to use a tiny spatula or a credit card to spread thermal paste. I prefer the dot method.
The basic PC-building toolkit is pretty simple and cheap to acquire, and for good reason: You need to save your money for that graphics card!