Friday, May 22, 2015

Achievement Unlocked: My First Nixie Tube Clock!

Several years ago I started jotting down a "Craft Bucket List," and number one on my list has always been "assemble my own nixie tube clock."

Well, last night, I FINALLY DID.


Just look at all that beautiful soldering. Eh? Eh?!

(Those of you who actually know what beautiful soldering looks like: be kind. It's my first try!)

Ok, maybe the underside of a circuit board isn't all that impressive. So how about...


 ... this?


Now scrambled!

Now a close-up!
 Oooh. Aaaaah.

(Oddly enough, the LEDs underneath are actually pure cobalt blue in real life, but in photos they turn that crazy ultraviolet.)

Even that boring underside is lovely with the power switched on:

Here's the clock switched off:
 Next John and I will have to make a case for it, since I don't want the circuit board to show. I haven't decided on a style yet, but you can bet it'll be appropriately steampunky.

John got me this kit for Christmas from PV Electronics in the UK, but I was too intimidated to start on my own. Enter my dad the electrical engineer, who was invaluable in helping me sort and label all the parts (since I can't tell a resistor from a capacitor). Once we had that done, Dad taught me a few soldering tricks, and set me to it.

We hit a road block a few hours in during the high voltage test, when one of the parts began to smoke. (For the record, smoke = VERY BAD.) So we shelved the project for a few months, during which Pete from PV very kindly sent us a replacement part (we think the one piece was defective) and then patiently walked us through some trouble shooting via instant chat on their website. We were really impressed, so if you're in the market for a nixie clock kit, I highly recommend those guys.

I think I spent a good 10 hours on this, but a chunk of that was trouble-shooting and back-tracking with my Dad's help. (Removing soldered pieces takes about ten times as long as putting them on in the first place! o.0) The time really zipped by, though, since it turns out I actually like soldering. :)

The kit comes pre-programmed with a dizzying array of display options, so John and I had fun playing with some of the settings. It's almost hypnotic watching the numbers shift, and we turned on a "slots" feature that jumbles the numbers every 60 seconds. Here, I took a little video so you can see:

  video


This still doesn't quite capture how gorgeous the colors are; on video the LEDs appear to fluctuate, but they're rock-steady IRL. And the colors aren't quite right here, either; they're more electric sherbet orange and rich ultramarine blue. So I guess you guys will have to either come visit or make your own to see what I mean!

30 comments:

  1. Too cool, love that sort of old yet modern look!

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  2. I've noticed a nixie clock in one of the "Tomorrowland" commercials. Perfect timing (pun intended) with the movie comin out today. Now that you've mastered soldering, I look forward to seeing some soldered jewelry tutes!

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    1. Jewelry soldering is actually quite different from electronics soldering! The tin based solder flows much more quickly than solder containing silver, which you'd want to use for jewelry. Most jewelry soldering is done with at least a small butane torch, not a soldering iron. It's also actually much harder to solder copper or brass than silver, and soldering plated metals is quite tricky since the chemicals used to remove firescale are quite similar to those used for patina-ing copper and brass.

      Except for those broken glass/plate/etc pendants that have solder around the outside. Those are done with an iron.

      TL;DR: Soldering jewelry parts together is tricky, annoying and not worth it unless you're actually brazing fine or sterling silver and I use 2-part epoxy to join pieces, which when done right, is just as strong as a soft soldered join.

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  3. Getting a friend who works with electronics to build me one of these now!

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  4. LEDs blink, but we cannot see that for the same reason we don't notice the individual frames of a movie, but when you film an LED, the blinking will show up in more than a single frame so at times, they look like they blink much more than we percieve. If the camera and LED were on the same frequency, and you times it just right, they'd either look off, or you'd see no blinking.
    The Rods and Cones song and video from Blue Man Group does a funny bit on this.
    I've spread enough silly useless knowledge for the day ... carry on

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  5. What kind of soldering iron did you use? i have a raspberry pi kit and I really want one of these clocks. Thanks for your help. Love the site and the clock!

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    1. I used the cheapest one John could find at the store, so nothing fancy!

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  6. That is super cool, gonna have to visit PV Electronics.

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  7. Certified solder-er here...for your first time, you did great! I like the neon look, I might have to look into one of these myself.

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  8. I tried soldering twice and I was just not very good at it. I wonder if I could talk someone into making this for me if I bought the kit haha. Maybe I'll wait to see what kind of case you make for yours. I think a black shadow box type thing with the board in the base piece would really showcase the tubes, maybe with some metal corner pieces? :D

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  9. Is that an invitation, Jen? Be careful, we may just take you up on it! The clock looks *gorgeous*!

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    1. Bring me some gluten-free whoopie pies, Meg, and you can LIVE here. ;)

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    2. Understanding that from-scratch baking requires time and effort: artofglutenfreebaking.com has been an invaluable resource over the past few years. (I'm the family baker and had to do some fast learning when my sister and niece went gluten free a few years ago)

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  10. Nice! That thing is super cool. Even though I COULD put one together myself, I have to admit I'd rather just buy one.

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  11. Wow, I had no idea these existed, and now its on my list too! I have a soldering iron, didn't like using it.....maybe its time to try again!

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  12. I work as a circuit board repair tech, and I can tell you from experience that removing components in a timely manner is all about having access to the right kind of tools. You can use just a soldering iron for a lot of surface mount components, but seeing all those through hole components on your PWB I can only imagine how much of a PITA it was for you to remove anything. I feel your pain! Good job on the first time soldering! It's not really that hard, but there is a bit of a knack for doing it well (and trust me I have seen the guts of some mass produced electronics, it isn't pretty!).

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  13. My dad worked as an electrician for years when I was a kid and the smell of a soldering iron still takes me back to happy childhood memories =)

    very cool clock and I need one to go on top of the entertainment center but I think the seconds ticking away would bug the crap outta me. I should see if they have one with only minutes and hours

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  14. It looks great! Nice work. Any chance you could post a photo of it next to something else for those of us who are completely unfamiliar with nixie tubes and don't have any idea what size it is? (Just me?) Googling hasn't helped me, and I'm curious as to it's size relative to, well, anything I would be familiar with. :D

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    1. Ah, good point! I'll include something for size reference next time, because it IS actually quite small. The tubes are probably the length of your thumb, if that helps any (tho I know it probably doesn't!)

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  15. That's so cool! Pretty AND functional!

    I'm good at crafts and good at science, but for some reason I'm often intimidated by electronics - so go you for finishing this!

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  16. Gorgeous! Can't wait to see the case you and John build for it!

    KW

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  17. Any chance you could provide a description of the basic display options? I've keep debating about this kit, and that has been my big question

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  18. This is amazing, Jen! Electronics scare the crap out of me, so the only clock I own is a satellite alarm clock and my cell phone, so I'll just admire this one from afar. :)
    Looks amazing though!

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  19. Your soldering looks fine, Jen! Soldering IS fun. I've been doing it for more than 50 years for fun and for work, and still think the aroma and the lovely wicking action of component to PC board is hard to beat. My electronic soldering lead me to do some stained glass work (with manly lead cames, not copper foil), which was great fun, and I realize now was my first artistic expression outside of circuit design.

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  20. Could you talk your Dad into a tutorial series where he teaches us the basics of soldering?

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  21. Ok, that is super-cool!!!! Color me impressed!

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  22. I've never seen one of these before, and I think it just might be the single most cool thing you have ever made on this blog! I completely want and need one right now.

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