Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Importance of Doing Things

Can you build things from piles of lumber, steel, aluminum or bricks?  Can you fix broken things?  Can you create new things?  Can you look at something that someone else created and see better ways to do it? 

If you can answer "yes!" to at least one of those, you are one of the remnant that is going to rebuild things after the Coming Bad Times hit. 

I started out a series here on "the least you should know" about a host of subjects a while back and painted myself into a corner.  The least you should know about electronics varies depending on what you're trying to do.  Say your SHTF radio dies: if you're trying to find and replace a single defective component, you need a lot more knowledge and tools than if you're trying to determine if you replace something like the video card or a power supply in a PC.  That knowledge and tools may not carry over to fixing a PC at all - just as knowing how to fix a PC may not help you fix that radio.  

When I was 13, a friend had a portable radio that had stopped working.  Completely naive, I said I'd look at it for them and fix it if I could.  Now, I've got to tell you I had never fixed a radio in my life and I literally had no idea what I was doing.  The strange part is that I fixed it - pretty much just by observing things.  A wire from the battery holder had broken off a solder joint onto the circuit board.  I saw a solder joint with broken strands of wires sticking out of it, and a wire that looked like it matched.  So I held the wire there and the radio sprang to life.  I soldered down the wire and a junk radio was rescued.  This sort of thing is still possible, and it required no knowledge of electronics, just a willingness to look around for clues and try things.  Could I have ruined the radio that way?  Put it this way, if I did, the radio came out of the garbage for me to try to fix; how much worse could I make it?  

Ever had a car not start?  At the heart of things, a gasoline internal combustion engine needs two things to run: fuel and a spark.  If the computer is messed up, the car will run really badly, but more than likely it's a matter of finding which one of those is missing and why, so you can get it going again.  If the car runs really poorly, maybe limping along still gets you where you're going.

These are both examples of the topic of field expedient repairs.  That seems to me to be the important thing to know.  And this is an enormous field in itself.  What do you do if your water pump's housing cracks and there is simply no replacement?  Can you weld it together?  Even if it fails once a year, that's better than not having one. What would you do if you found that solder joint with a handful of broken wire strands hanging out, and you had a battery wire in the other hand.  Could you solder it?

So let's start there.  Do you know how to solder? Take a look around - there's a bunch of web pages, like Instructables, that teach some aspects of soldering.  We'll talk about it in a day or two.  And start looking for a Metcal station.  I picked up one like this at a hamfest for $100, a few years ago.  I became really sold on these when I used mine to solder wires outdoors, to ground, on cool day - a task that used to tax my large soldering gun. 


  1. Ah, you hit two things. If it is not working, there will be little damage you can do if you are careful.

    Soldering? I spent a week in Western Electric soldering class.

    Great post!

  2. I just noticed that the local IEEE group at the University I work at was running a soldering tutorial for EE/CSci students. Almost thought about going and brushing up on my skills, it's been 30+ years since I touched a soldering iron...

  3. Having done more of it than I care to remember, soldering is no big deal. Having the necessary implements, however, is. I'd suggest a reasonable supply of acid core, lead-free solder, flux-core, etc., and flux. Solder wick is pretty handy as well around electronics, and there's benefit in practicing the technique at all levels. For example, if you have to replace a water heater or a section of freeze-damaged pipe, do you know how to solder copper pipe, and have the necessary tools - and skills - to do so?

    Which leads one to silver soldering and brazing, both of which require lower temperatures than welding and can sometimes get one by. Buy some solder, of all types, a good soldering iron or gun, and a small torch (and extra cylinders), some scrap wire and copper pipe and practice, practice, practice. (A Metcal Station is a super terrific tool, but unless discovered at a HUGE discount, beyond reasonable means).

  4. Any opinions on the Hakko FX-888? It seems well-regarded and reasonably priced on Amazon.

    1. I have never seen a Hakko in the flesh, so I'd default to one of these: Weller WES51 Analog Soldering Station

      Virtually the same price, and one of the most common stations used in the industry for maybe the last 30 years. I've used these many times, and they're very good. Because Weller has been The Name in the business for a long time, different tips will be widely available in different profiles. And the soldering iron tips will need to be replaced eventually. I'll get into that a bit more.

    2. Thanks. I should practice soldering more - I'm at the "small welding" skill level with a soldering iron.

  5. I've used the Hakko units before, and they're pretty nice.

    I had a huge selection of Weller tips given to me, so when time came to retire my Ungar unit, I bought one of the bigger Weller temp controlled stations.

    Weller bought Ungar some time back, and they promptly discontinued the tips for the Ungar station I had. I had several new spare tips for it, but since I couldn't find any more any where I looked, I bit the bullet and bought the new WESD51 Weller.

  6. I've got a Pace solder station (ST-25) that I picked up about 7 years ago for around $100. Its got the analog dial and still uses the heater in the pen with hot-swapable tips so its not as expensive (the unit or the tips) as the heater-in-the-tip models (like Metcal or the newer Pace stuff). Its a closed loop temperature control system that works really well adjusting the power to the heater to match the requirements. I've used it a LOT over the last 7 years, worn out several tips, and its never missed a beat.

    Just another option to throw out there...