Saturday, October 29, 2016

It's been a long, long time...

It's been a long, long time ... since I last built a Heathkit.  The last one I remember building was a CW DX receiver, vacuum-tube based, probably in '67 or '68.  Heathkit went out of business several decades ago (or at least stopped making kits), but a year or so ago I stumbled across an article saying that they'd somehow come back to life.  I don't know the details of how they did that – in particular, I don't know if it's actually the same company or if someone just bought the name.  When they announced their first kit availability, for the Most Reliable Clock (GC-1006), I decided to give it a whirl and ordered it.

One thing you should realize is that for me (and probably for many other hams or electronics buffs my age) this was a real nostalgia-fest.  I probably built 15 or 20 Heathkits in the '60s, including ham transmitters and receivers, test equipment, bench power supplies and function generators, etc.  The quality of those kits was unbeatable back then, and (to my knowledge) completely unobtainable today.  The manuals were excellent, the support stellar, and the designs and build quality superb.  This particular kit is a nicely-executed digital clock, but at $100 is really rather absurdly pricey.  I got it anyway, just on the chance that it would be like building the Heathkits of yore.  Also it's my little financial contribution, sort of like a Kickstarter for Heathkit. :)

And you know what?  Largely, it was like building a Heathkit back in the day!  This Heathkit had an excellent manual, in which I only caught one (trivial and obvious) error.  All of the parts were present, along with a few extra of various things (including two extra resistors, which had me going for a while!).  The design is modern, using a modern microprocessor, LED drivers, etc.  The execution is nice: easy to use, all the really necessary features, not any useless fluff.  The assembly takes a moderate amount of skill, especially for a few areas that were sort of “redneck” construction.  For example, the manual leads you through a tricksy bit of heat-shrink tubing manipulation in order to make a couple of LED light shields.  But I'm not complaining about any of that; in fact, it was all very reminiscent of the old Heathkits, which often had some redneck assembly or fabrication to do.

I made one mistake during assembly, and it was entirely my own fault: I installed the first (of five) switches after very carefully reading the manual.  Then I noted the four additional switches on the PC board mask, and just assumed they would be assembled the same way.  Whoops!  Bad assumption!  Instead, they were mounted on the back of the board.  That's why I needed the desoldering tool yesterday. :)

If I had to cite a disappointment, it was this: when I got all finished building the kit, everything worked on the first try.  I was sort of looking forward to troubleshooting it, but there was no need.  Dang it!

So now I have a very expensive new bedside clock, and I'll smile every time I think about the pleasure I got building the silly thing.  And if Heathkit ever comes out with another kit I might enjoy, quite likely I'll buy that one as well.  Right now the only other kit they're offering is a not-so-good AM radio.  I haven't listened to any AM stations for 15 years or so, and even if I were to start listening again, I'd do it on a much better radio than that!

1 comment:

  1. With your interest in kits, amateur radio, and software development, I think you would really enjoy tinkering with software defined radio. Instead of hardware demodulation of the various signals and modes, the RF signal is downconverted to baseband, sampled to digital, and everything else done with digital signal processing.

    A cheap way to play in this space is with kits from KB9YIG, available at

    I've build the simple SoftRock Lite II receiver and it works well. Free software is available to do the soft side of things, but you could write your own. There are some Linux-based open software projects to use for starters. I have the SoftRock RXTX Ensemble transceiver on my bench, but I haven't started it yet.