Monday, June 3, 2013

Building Electronics

If you're of a certain mindset and a certain age, the name Heathkit is going to get a reaction from you.  You're probably getting all warm and runny inside just thinking about it.

For the rest of you, the Heath Company, apparently still existing in some form, was founded in Chicago in 1926 selling kit airplanes.  Later, (as I've heard the story) when they got hold of some electronic parts that were WWII surplus, they started the electronic kit business that made them legendary, and moved to upstate Michigan.  Most of the people that are all warm about them are thinking "Benton Harbor, Michigan" right about now.  

What made Heathkit great was their manuals.  They realized that they needed to be as explicit as possible and they needed to guarantee your success, or folks simply wouldn't buy the kits.  They needed to make them as foolproof as possible, and their manuals remain a monument to the draftsman's art today.  Here's an example, a view of a page in one manual:
Their designs and products were solid, rarely stellar (all IMO, of course); what sold them was two things.  First, in the days of this sort of assembly, doing the hand work yourself could save you a substantial part of the cost of the electronics; perhaps 30 to 50%.  Second, there is an undeniable moment of magic when you turn on something you built yourself, possibly hundreds of parts and hours upon hours of work, and it works.  As the electronics industry moved from hand-wired, hand-soldered things like this (I actually owned one of these HD-11s!) over to printed circuits (AKA printed wiring boards), the portion of price that was labor went down, reducing the incentive to build the kit. 

That said, they produced some products that are still revered in ham radio circles, and some unique items like color TVs with test equipment built in to align the fussy sets yourself.

Over the last couple of years, there have been rumors they're starting up again, and rumors they're not.  They appear to be there again at the expected URL.    And if you're tragically geeky and want to do a very in-depth survey that takes about half an hour, don't tell anyone I told you it's here

BTW, the first "major" Heathkit I built was this one, when I was 13. 


  1. my uncle built a Heathkit hifi system replete w/seperate amp tuner turntable and speakers. And tv later - along w/other stuff. I think an o-scope too. Purty heady stuff in the 60's.

    IIRC there was a Heathkit store in Cincinnati - I suppose there were others as well.


  2. Very Nice! I have on of the last kits from them. An alarm clock that actually has some SMT components. Its on my night stand. Still.

  3. Don't forget the airplane! I'm still tempted to build one with something a bit more studly than a Model-A engine.

  4. I've built many a Heathkit and Knight Kit.

    Heath had by far the best manuals, and if there was a factory store nearby, you could drop in and chat with them about your kits.

    I built an SB-301 Amateur band receiver, and the first time I powered it up, I almost let the smoke out.

    I spent days trying to find the problem with no luck, so my Dad drove me back up to Chicago, where we dropped it off.

    Turns out I had pinched a wire in the wiring harness, shorting it "almost" to ground, and causing the weirdness.

    Cost to find and repair it?


    And the Tech who fixed it wrote a nice note on the service ticket complementing me on a fine job of assembly and excellent soldering.


    I think that this must be one of their planes .. the Heath Parasol.

    1. That looks good. Even airworthy.

      I'm going to butcher the quote, but a famous test pilot said the Piper Cub was a safe airplane because it could only just barely kill you.

  6. I loved that radio. Wish it survived. Schematics?

    Learned more about practical electronics from Heathkit than many a formal class.

    1. I'm sure they're out there. I saw lots of schematics while looking for a picture from a manual. A good handful of sellers with old schematics and manuals for sale.

      I've almost bought one on eBay a few times, but never have. You can't throw a paper wad without hitting a shortwave receiver around here. No need for this, just nostalgia. It was an "All American 5" with a few extra coils.

    2. *MOST* of the schematics for Heathkits are available only through the guy that bought the rights to them. For a long time you could get them from BAMA ( ) but they pulled them all when he sent them a "Cease and Desist" letter.

      Partial story here:

      Google will still find quite a few, mostly on non US servers. Just google for "heathkit manuals" and have fun.

      I've bought some from the guy for radios that I bought that didn't come with a manual, and for the most part they're good quality. Expensive for what you get, but what isn't these days.

  7. I worked at the Heathkit store in Mission, KS in the early 1980s. All our customers became part of a family, and the store was a wealth of knowledge on many different disciplines. HERO robots, Atomic Clocks, and H-80 PCs offered continued relevance to an aging business model, but eventually even those technologies couldn't compete against the wave of inexpensive electronics from overseas. The company traded hands several times as owners "mined" the remaining good, then was mercifully put to rest. In any case, I enjoyed my tenure with the firm, especially earning extra money building kits for display (and gaining valuable skills in the process).

  8. My first "real" guitar amplifier was a Heath. Kind of a copy of a Fender twin-reverb, 2 big honkin' speakers, Hammond reverb, & 60 watts per channel, IIRC.
    Took a couple tries to get it to work, but then again, having built it, my Dad & I knew how to fix it!
    That was in '67 or so; I had the coolest amp around.
    In this throw-away world, I can't see them making a go of it again, but...

    1. That's a perfect example of a kit that would sell today. Vacuum tube amplifiers sell quite nicely these days.

  9. I built a GR-64 when I was 12 or 13. Put the PS capacitor in backwards and let the smoke out of it; my Dad helped me get a substitute. He built a great stereo system which we've still got and which still worked the last time we plugged it in. Great memories; I hope that they can make another go of it.

    1. I really don't remember if it worked when I turned it on. I suppose it didn't, because it figure I would have been pretty excited if it worked. But I do remember hour upon hour listening to shortwave on it!

      Every day after school and into the evenings.