Repair a Weller soldering gun

I scored a Weller 8200 soldering gun at an estate sale one street over from me for a few dollars. They didn’t know what they had. I got it home and it didn’t work–it wouldn’t heat up–so maybe they knew exactly what they had. Lucky for me, it’s easy to learn how to repair a Weller soldering gun yourself.

It turns out the most common problem with these guns is very easy to fix and doesn’t cost anything. But if you’re like me and got a gun alone, without the case or instructions or the tool they give you, you’d never know.

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How to roll your own mini PC and potentially save

I’ve talked at length about HP’s new mini PCs, but there are some alternatives in the DIY space. For example, Asrock offers the D1800B-ITX, which sells for around $53. Going the DIY route, you won’t get a discounted copy of Windows, but you also won’t spend money on RAM and an SSD that you’re going to end up replacing and you can get exactly as much CPU as you want.

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In the city, a $6 antenna is all you need

There are a lot of good plans for DIY antennas on the web that you can make for less than $10 worth of parts, which is good considering the flood of $50 antennas on the market that are little more than hype.

A couple of years ago I made a Gray-Hoverman antenna. I had no complaints about how it worked, but it wasn’t very durable. And in St. Louis it was overkill–it picked up everything said I could get indoors and nothing more. No SIUC PBS station for me. A Gray-Hoverman is probably more useful along the eastern seaboard where the cities and TV stations are closer together.

Rather than fix the Gray-Howerman yet again, or build something else, I bought a basic, traditional-looking RCA ANT111F for $6. Even the simplest DIY antenna, made primarily of a cardboard box with aluminum foil, costs $3-$4 in materials to make and my time is worth more than the difference. If my kids were a bit older, a DIY antenna would be a great science experiment to do with them, but they aren’t.

I did find my reception in the basement, below ground level, was pretty abysmal. The range seemed to be less than five miles, and I could only get about five channels. But on the first floor, with the antenna about seven feet above ground level, my range is 10-12 miles, depending on the strength of the distant signal, and I could get 30 channels. To improve reception in the basement, I connected a longer cable to the antenna (using a cheap keystone jack as a coupler) so I could put it up in the ceiling, closer to ground level. When I did that, I could get 24 channels, though the signal strength wasn’t all that good.

One thing to remember when changing or repositioning an antenna: always scan for new channels afterward.

An easy DIY Lionel-compatible high-side gondola

My preschool-aged boys and I made train cars this weekend. Yes, I introduced my boys to the idea of making train cars from scratch–scratchbuilding.

They aren’t finescale models by any stretch. But the project was cheap–no more than $30 for the pair of cars, total–and it was fun.

Here’s how we made these simple train cars, so you can too. Read more

How to power your computer up from away from home

The low-tier, DIY VPN has proven popular. The biggest drawback with its approach has been that it requires you to keep a PC on at home. But if your computer is configured to hibernate after a period of inactivity, or if the power goes out, you’ll have a problem.

If you’re willing to do some work, you can use Wake-on-LAN over any Internet connection to solve that issue and power on the computer at will.
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Roll your own Retro-64

So an upstart company has licensed the Commodore name and unveiled an updated C-64, which is essentially a nettop in a 64-alike case with a 64-like keyboard. Reactions are extreme. People either love it or hate it.

I’d like to have one, but I’m not paying $595 for a nettop. But it should be possible to roll your own.

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Homemade toy train track

For some reason, a lot of people are interested in making their own Lionel train track. I don’t think it’s practical, but it’s definitely possible.

I found a 1944 Popular Mechanics article on making your own DIY Lionel train track. During World War II, toy production all but stopped, so short of buying from stores like Madison Hardware that sold old stock, making your own was all you could do. Even Madison Hardware had to resort to creativity, building a machine to straighten curved track sections to make straights so they would have straight track to sell.

The article used scrap tin salvaged from cans, wire salvaged from a coat hanger, and a homemade jig made of flat steel bar and wood. It was possible to make both straight and curved sections, although the article didn’t elaborate a lot on making curves.

I don’t think it’s practical, at least not today, when clean used O27 or O31 tubular track sells for $1 or less per section and most dealers take in used track faster than they can resell it. The jig will cost more to make than a circle of track costs, and then there’s the trouble of locating suitable metal sheet to use, which is likely to cost more than the track as well. Then there’s the time involved with cutting the metal, forming the rails, and assembling the track. It’s something to do because you really want homemade train track, not to save money.

But I do think the article is interesting from a historical perspective. If you found some track in a stash of 1940s trains that appears to have been homemade, there’s a pretty good chance the person who made it found the instructions in Popular Mechanics. And there’s a pretty good chance whoever made it didn’t have any other source for track at the time.

The rise and fall of Shack, and how to fix it

Wired has a nostalgic piece on the not-quite-late, not-quite-great Radio Shack. I think it’s a good article, but it glosses over part of the reason for the store’s decline.

It blames computers.But blaming computers ignores Tandy’s long and successful run in that industry. Most Apple fanatics and other revisionist historians conveniently overlook this, but when Apple launched the Apple II in 1977, Tandy and Commodore were right there with competing offerings. I don’t know about Apple, but Tandy and Commodore were selling their machines faster than they could make them.

As demand for home computers with color and sound grew, Tandy released its successful Color Computer line. And after IBM got into the PC market, Tandy became one of the early PC clone makers. They made businesslike PC/XT and PC/AT knockoffs, but their most successful machine, from a sales perspective, was the Tandy 1000. The Tandy 1000 started off as a clone of the IBM PCjr, but whereas the PCjr lasted about two years in the marketplace, the Tandy 1000 became a lasting standard for home PCs that could run IBM business software as well as entertainment titles with color and sound. It was everything the PCjr should have been, and it resulted in IBM software often being relabeled “IBM/Tandy” in stores.

In the 1980s, Tandy was definitely one of the big five companies. The first computer I ever used was a Tandy, in 1982. But the next year, I changed schools, and that school had Commodore 64s, so my allegiance changed. But I really think it was Tandy, more than any other company, that was the undoing of my favorite company, Commodore. Tandy’s computers weren’t any better than what Commodore had. And Commodore computers were sold at Kmart, but Tandy computers were sold at Radio Shack, and the prices were comparable. You had to go to St. Louis to buy a Commodore 64 or Amiga, or order it through the mail. But even in tiny Farmington, Missouri, which was a town of about 8,000 in the middle of nowhere, there was a Radio Shack on the edge of downtown where you could walk in and buy a computer.

Admittedly, the computer industry did change, and eventually it outgrew Radio Shack. By the early 1990s, when I did my stint selling computers at retail, the computer section of the store where I worked was larger than the typical Radio Shack store. Just the computer section. We sold four or five brands of computers and generally had at least four models of each brand, with an entry-level machine, something near top-of-the-line, and a couple of mid-range models in between.

If you wanted cheap, we had Packard Bell and Acer. Tandy couldn’t compete with them on price, though its machines were generally of better quality. But if you wanted quality, we had Compaq and IBM, which generally were better quality than Tandy, and by the mid 1990s, they’d gotten religion on price too.

And on the odd day that we couldn’t beat Radio Shack on price and or selection with the computers themselves, we had a much larger selection of monitors and printers, not to mention the aisles and aisles of books and software.

And if you didn’t live in the big city, another alternative sprung up in the early 1990s. You could pick up the phone, dial an 800 number, and order a computer from Dell or Gateway 2000. Just like ordering pizza, they’d build a computer to your specifications and deliver it to your door. You wouldn’t have it the same day like you would by going to Radio Shack, but you’d pay less, and you could get exactly the processor speed, hard disk capacity, and memory that you wanted.

There just wasn’t any way for the Tandy/Radio Shack model that had worked so brilliantly for about 15 years to compete with those two new models.

Eventually Tandy sold its factory to AST, a mid-range brand that fell by the wayside late in the decade but for a while was a retail juggernaut. Initially Radio Shack switched over to selling AST PCs, and later replaced them with Compaq and IBM, but there was never enough room in the store for more than one or two models.

In retrospect, I think the best thing Radio Shack could have done in the late 1990s would have been to go back to its DIY roots, selling computer components like cases and motherboards to people who wanted to build their own PCs rather than settle for what larger retailers offered off the shelf. It’s not a large segment, but it’s a niche that the large retailers have never had much success catering to. (The exception being regional chains like Fry’s and Micro Center.) And while the independent clone shops almost without exception can offer better advice, better selection, and, probably, better prices, Radio Shack is almost always closer, and the clone shops can’t compete with Radio Shack’s hours. Radio Shack is open on Sunday, and it’s open until 9 PM on other days.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I was tinkering with a PC in the evening or on a Sunday, needed something, and Radio Shack was the only place open. So I went, whether I thought they’d have what I needed or not. Sometimes they actually had what I needed.

If Radio Shack wants to reverse its sagging fortunes, I’m not sure that it’s too late to take that DIY road. Stock a book on building PCs and a book on upgrading and repairing PCs in order to grow that market. Limit the selection in order to accommodate the limited space in most stores, but carry one or two of everything that’s needed to build a PC, or to upgrade or repair a PC when the competition is closed.

Deciding exactly what to carry could be difficult, but a safe and non-creative approach would be to just pick a couple of price points and sell whatever they can find at that particular price point while remaining profitable. Keep it simple, using multiples of $25. Have computer cases priced at $50 and $75. Have power supplies for $25, $50, and $75. Have hard drives for $75 and $100. Have a motherboard for $100, and CPUs for $50 and $100. AMD or Intel? Carry both, or see if one or the other is willing to cut a deal to have an exclusive.

And this also opens the door to oddball gadgets and adapters, like 20/24-pin ATX converters, ATX power supply cable extensions, USB cable extensions, USB hubs, serial, parallel, and PS/2 to USB converters, and other small, profitable niche adapters. And if there’s room, of course they can carry an Ethernet switch, Ethernet cables in a variety of lengths, and perhaps even cable and DSL modems.

They can take the same approach to selling computer components as they’ve always taken to selling discrete electronics components. When I need a resistor or an LED, I can get it a lot cheaper by ordering it online or by driving to an electronics supplier. But I can be at Radio Shack in five minutes, and they’re open late and on weekends, so I usually end up going to Radio Shack and putting up with their cellphone pitches.

If they’re still able to eke out a profit selling resistors and heat sinks by virtue of being the most convenient option, I think they can do even better selling computer components the same way.

And that would still leave room in the store for cell phones, the odd adapters and components that no other major retail chain sells, and cheap R/C toys.

I think it’s a better plan than officially unofficially renaming itself to Shack (next door to Hut, where you buy pizza) and harassing customers about cell phones at the checkout.

And… bailing out.

Scratch one investment property.

Running the numbers, it might have still been possible to make it work. But a lot would have to go right, and this particular property didn’t have an especially good track record.We had a plumber come out and look over the biggest problem. He came back with a best case scenario of $5,000. He called this morning with what he thought was a more realistic figure: an eye-popping 15 grand.

Well, there’s a problem. The property easily needs another 15 grand worth of work. And most of it isn’t stuff that a do-it-yourselfer ought to be doing. It was overzealous DIY work that got the house in this mess in the first place.

According to the books we’re reading, we could afford to put $33,000 worth of work into the house, based on what it should rent for. But it’s easy to see how one project going over budget could blow the whole thing out of the water.

And, frankly, doing that much work would cause more debt than I’m comfortable carrying.

We’ll lose some earnest money. But the risks are starting to outweigh the benefits.

We’ve learned some expensive lessons. But at least we’ve learned. We’ve gone and looked at a couple of other houses already. And we noticed things we hadn’t noticed before.

Not only that, in one case we liked what we saw. The question is, how many other people have seen it and liked it too?