Pot Cleaning Or: How to Repair Old Electronics in Minutes

Home electronics today are made so cheaply and repair costs are so expensive that it’s usually not worth trying to repair damaged gear. Most repair shops have a bench fee starting at $30/hour and you’ll pay for the full hour even if the repair takes only 30 minutes. You’ll also be charged for parts and diagnostics. Unless you have access to sophisticated electronics test equipment, it’s not easy to trouble-shoot your increasingly complicated, electronically dependent world. Imagine tearing into your cell phone or motherboard to get to the bottom of a malfunctioning micro-part! Most of us can’t figure out how to get the case open, let alone how to do diagnostics and repair. Isn’t there anything a consumer can do without knowing a lot about electronics or having a wirehead’s workbench in the basement? It turns out there is.

Image of 60s G.E. Radio
1960s General Electric Radio. Watch the skies!

I was recently given an old stereo receiver which was headed for the landfill. It was called the Realistic Modulaire and was manufactured in Japan over 20 years ago by Radio Shack. After years of use, neglect and storage, it was a real mess. The wood case and aluminum channel front panel were covered in a haze of grime. All the “pots” (geekspeak for potentiometers, e.g. volume controls, balance, treble and bass controls) were so dirty that it was impossible to listen to the audio. It was tempting to just give it the ol’ heave-ho! But, I liked the size and design of this icon of ’70s stereos. Its retro style spoke of a bygone electronic heritage, and I figured, if it could be salvaged, it would make a nice foundation for a modest home theater system for our study.

When attempting to salvage old gear, you’ve got to resist the temptation to just “plug ‘er in and give ‘er the smoke test.” With the unit unplugged, it’s best if you can get into the case and visually inspect the top and bottom of the circuit boards and power supply. Do this in good light or use a flashlight if need be. Look for evidence of obvious problems: loose, rotted wires, charred or missing components, damaged circuit boards and the like. If you discover such problems and don’t have the skills to fix them, give the component to an electronically-knowledgeable friend. At the very least, he or she will be glad to have more spare parts and it’ll keep one more thing out of the landfill. If your inspection doesn’t turn up any obvious problems, plug it in and give it the juice!

The Modulaire was an analog tuner — that’s the kind where you twist a knob and a pointer rides along a dial showing what frequency is being tuned. It had a shiny, opaque, black dial which came to life when I turned it on, illuminating gold markings and lettering silkscreened on the inside of the dial. It positively glowed through the haze. I strapped on a pair of headphones and slipped the plug into the phone jack on the front panel. Turning the volume up, my ears were blasted by a horrific scratching sound. I tried the balance, treble and bass knobs and got the same response. It was time to apply my meager restoration skills.

Image of 1962/63 Zenith Royal
1962/63 Zenith Royal

For years I’ve chatted with a friend of mine who repairs electronic equipment for a living. In the process, I’ve picked up a couple of valuable trouble-shooting tips. The first is: Always check the fuse! He says that often, equipment thought to have been damaged by lightning, or simply worn out, simply needs a new fuse. Most electronic devices including computers, fax machines, stereo gear and satellite receivers, have one or more fuses to protect various circuits from being blown. Most fuses are obvious — they’re located on the back of the device and are clearly labeled. Some, however, are located inside the device. With the unit unplugged, remove the cover and look for circuit board-mounted, glass-type fuses, or plastic circuit breaker boxes. The latter will be small rectangular boxes, usually on edge and mounted to the board. There will often be a label on the board stating that it’s a circuit breaker. There will also be a small white, orange or other color button on top. If the breaker has been tripped, it will click when you push down on it.

The second tip is to spring for a can of Radio Shack Tuner Control Cleaner and Lubricant (RS Cat #64-4315). This is a product which seems too good to be true. It’s a 4.5 ounce spray can which comes with a “flexible extension tube” for spraying its miracle-making contents into tight places. At just US$8 a can, this product will make you look like an electronics genius. Within seconds, you can breathe life back into radios, TVs, car stereos, Walkman tape players, you name it! If it’s got a volume control or switch, it can be cleaned, even without removing the case. In most cases you should be able to pull the knobs off the front of the gear to be fixed. On larger knobs check to see if there’s a small set screw on the side of the knob which needs to be loosened before the knob can be removed.

Once the knobs have been taken off, fit the extension tube into the spray nozzle of the can and place it where the shaft enters the control. This is where the dirt is. Press the nozzle quickly for one short blast. You don’t have to hose the thing down. Now, work the control’s full swing rapidly back and forth for about thirty seconds. On particularly dirty pots or switches, a second or third application may be necessary. Wipe excess spray off with a soft, absorbent cloth. Information on the side of the can claims that it is non-flammable and safe on most plastics, but I don’t think I’d want to breathe too much of it.

After bringing the pots back to life on the Modulaire, I was inspired to finish the job. Using non-abrasive cleaners, I attacked the grime on the case and the front panel. Within minutes they were completely cleaned. I rubbed furniture oil into the wood case and the warm walnut veneer, favored on stereo components from this era, looked like new. The aluminum channel shined brightly and I was delighted to see a bright red pilot bulb light up when a stereo station was tuned.

The unit was given to me with the two speaker cabinets it had when it was originally sold. One speaker was blown and the other was of poor quality. In the years since this product was made, small speaker technology has made some impressive progress. By pulling the original speakers from the case and installing inexpensive Radio Shack replacement speakers, I’ve now got a respectable, if not chest-pounding, audio system for the TV in the study.

Finally, here’s a tip on dealing with Radio Shack products. Their website is extremely well done. After you’re at the homepage, click on “support.” Here you can print out manuals for their entire line of audio, video, telephones, scanners and CBs as well as all their computers and peripherals. In addition, you can download software updates, recovery and computer setup programs. Entering the model number I copied from the back of the Modulaire, I was able to print out a user’s manual in minutes, replacing the original which was lost years ago. Unfortunately, they don’t have service manuals or schematics online.

After the success I had with the Modulaire, I was inspired to roam the house fixing every scratchy volume control and intermittent switch I could squirt with the cleaner. I rejuvenated everything from old click-stop TV sets to the radio in my wife’s car. You just can’t beat the satisfaction of saving money on repairs and earning the admiration of friends and family, all for a measly eight bucks!

Ken Reitz [1/22/99]

Steampunk goings on at Maker Faire

I’m just back from the third annual Bay Area Maker Faire. This year, one of the things I helped organize was the steampunk presence at the Faire, namely the Contraptor’s Lounge, featuring such icons of the scene as Jake von Slatt, Datamancer, and Molly Porkshanks, and the Saturday Night Steampunk Spectacular, featuring the band Abney Park. Here’s an excerpt from the piece I just posted on the Make: Blog. Read the entire article here.


The steam mechanics, oilpunks, contraptors, neo-Victorians cosplayers, retro-futurists, post-apocalyptic Playa pirates, New Dandies, and electric cowboys were all out in force at this year’s Bay Area Maker Faire. There was the Victorian castle on wheels, the steam-powered runabout, the steam-effects scooter, the fire-spewing bar with vaudeville side-stage, the radio-tubed Theremin, and the outdoor Victorian sitting room with a disgorged cabinet of wonders of brassy computer mods, rayguns, clockwork guitars, and a light-spewing violin covering several tables. There were also at least three airship crews.

One of the coolest things about all this is that many of these artisans were already great virtual friends, even collaborators, but had never actually met in person. Seen above is a drawing, by the amazing Suzanne Forbes, of the inimitable Jake von Slatt (left) and Datamancer (right). This is the first time these two well-known steampunk makers had met in meatspace. Here they’re seen building a special Maker Faire Contraptors’ Lounge keyboard (which we’ll likely give away here on the blog at some point). More of Suzanne’s drawings from the Lounge can be seen after the jump.


Sitting in the Lounge: Crewmembers of the HMS Chronabelle, Magpie of Steampunk Magazine. In the background (left) Captain Robert of Abney Park and Jake von Slatt, (center) MAKE photographer Sam Murphy and me (the bald dude — and I swear I’m NOT picking my nose), (right) David S. Dowling (black vest). Seen on the table is Molly Freidrich’s Sinister Device and one of her rayguns.


One of the tables in the Lounge, this one mainly featuring work by Jake von Slatt, including his clockwork guitar, his copper-plated etched mint tins, his telegraph sounders, and a phone project he’s currently working on. Also seen is the forthcoming Steampunk Anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer and a portfolio of Molly Freidrich’s work.


Tom Sepe’s steam-assisted motorbike.


Jake von Slatt: You’ve just been “steampunked” (by Meredith Scheff).

Dorkbot DC Tommorow Night! (2/26/08)

Next Meeting:
Tuesday 26 February 2008
7 PM – 9 PM (ET)

Smith Hall of Art, Room 114
George Washington University
801 22nd St NW
Washington, DC 20037

Exploded view of the MESSENGER spacecraft.Katie Bechtold : The MESSENGER Project
Katie, a spacecraft flight software developer and controller, will discuss MESSENGER, the first mission to visit Mercury in over 30 years. Now on its way to orbit Mercury starting in 2011, it flew close by the planet last month, offering some tantalizing images. Along with the scientific goals of the mission and an overview of the probe’s onboard sensors, Katie will present a few of the engineering challenges in exploring the innermost planet of our solar system.

Photo of Justin Sabe showing an onlooker his hacked toy accordion. Justin Sabe : MIDI Control — How to make expressive digital instruments
Justin broke all his toys as a kid and has spent the rest of his life putting them back together in new and interesting ways. He has toured playing keytar with the goth industrial rock band Ego Likeness taking him around the United States, Germany and to Shiney Z’s, the finest fetish club in Luxembourg. He also plays accordion and has performed at the Kennedy Center in an all tuba christmas concert. Last year he got a Technician class amateur radio license but has yet to key up because he can just call his ham friends on a cell phone any time he wants. He produces a podcast of cats purring.

Justin uses low-cost components to create fun MIDI controllers. He’ll have a show and tell and expand a bit about how to use MIDI for control and how to make expressive digital instruments.

Photo of Remembrancer installation showing the three panels and robotic painters. Alberto Gaitán : Remembrancer — (Part 2 of 2: The Software)
Alberto is a composer/ programmer/ artist who creates a wide range of new media work. His net-aware piece, Remembrancer, deals with transformation, memory, and the spacial, temporal and cultural resonance of events through automated robotic painters responding in real-time to RSS data flowing in over the Internet.

Alberto will be talking a bit about the applications he integrated to create Remembrancer including Max/MSP, Yahoo! Pipes, and RS485 commands.

Welcome to Dorkbot DC! – Link

First Dorkbot DC/Make: DC Joint Project Event

On January 16, 2008, the first joint event of Dorkbot DC and the newly formed Make: DC was held at the Marian Koshland Science Museum. The evening was a smashing success, with some 65 people showing up! We built Arduino-controlled LED Cubes, inspired by the Make: Weekend Projects Podcast on building a “Pocket LED Cube.”

One bit of added excitement to our evening was the ever-present fear that we might set off the fire alarm system which would have killed power to the *entire* building. We were told about the room’s overly-sensitive alarm system — blinking its status-light taunts right above our heads and over one of our work tables — just as dozens of adorable Dorks were pouring into the place, 600-degree firesticks in hand. We nervously moved some tables and scrounged up a bladed fan to push fumes around. As probably 20 irons fired up and that heady, fluxy aroma of solder filled the air, we held our collective breath. I (only half-jokingly) told folks with cameras to have them at the ready so that, when the power went out, as the building filed out into the cold, dark streets, we could at least blog the whole sordid business (“DC Dorks Darken City Block”). Miraculously, no buildings were harmed in the making of our little LED cubes and a great time was had by all (at least as far as I could smell… er tell).

Dorkbot DC has been holding meetings in the Metro area since June 2006. Make: DC is one of a growing number of groups sprouting up in various US cities, started by fans of MAKE who want to get together to build projects inspired by the magazine. So far, there are Make: City groups in Philly, NYC, SF, and now DC. These groups are unofficial, but Maker Media has been kindly supportive of their efforts. For this first Make: DC meeting, The Maker Store generously helped subsidize the cost of the Arduino microcontrollers. A million thanks to Dan, Rob, Sherry, and everybody at Maker Media and at the store.

The next meeting of Dorkbot DC will be Feb 26, at GWU. Check our website for details as they happen. The next Make: DC is not scheduled yet. Adam Koeppel and Nick Farr, co-creators of Make: DC, have put up a website (still being constructed) and will announce the next meeting date and details there.

[Few more pics of the evening after the jump…]


Dorkbot DC/Make: DC Project Night, This Wednesday!

This Wednesday (7 PM – 9 PM ET) is the January meeting of Dorkbot DC and the inaugural meeting of Make: DC, a new project building group inspired by MAKE magazine. We will likely be holding several joint Dorkbot DC and Make: DC events throughout the coming year.

During this first joint meeting, we’ll be building LED cubes based on on the Make: Weekend Projects podcast. See the Dorkbot DC website for details on what tools and hardware to bring. If you don’t have the require components, you can still come and help out. There’s *a lot* of soldering to do.

We’ll be meeting at the lovely Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academy of Sciences, 6th & E Streets, NW, Washington, DC 20001, (202) 334-1201.

This event is co-sponsored by The Maker Store.

I want an Arduino-powered Christmas, baby!

My Make: Books co-conspirator Brian Jepson has posted a quick n’ dirty way of building a 64-node LED matrix (green and red, natch) of holiday lights, driven by a Max 7219 chip and controlled by an Arduino cloneboard. Not too shabby. The resulting LED “net” will only cover a small tree. For a larger tree, you’d have to do a much more ambitious build and cascade Max chips, but it seems to be time-consuming than anything else. Being the geek that he is, Brian also got the thing talking to his mobile phone over Bluetooth, which he promises more info on soon.


Geekly Gift Wrap

I love wrapping presents. I treat it like improvisational art. I have my various pieces of wrapping paper (some commercial, some stuff like ad slicks, street maps, magazine pages, wall paper, craft paper), old Christmas cards, stickers, rubber stamps, bits of wire, ribbon and string. And tape. Lots of tape. Now picture a comic book blur of furious activity and out pops a present. Sometimes the results thoroughly suck. Sometimes it approaches art. Such is the way of improvisation. But I have fun, either way. And hopefully, the recipient can feel that and appreciates the effort.

[Read on…]


Dorkbot DC this Thursday, Nov. 29

This Thursday is our last Dorkbot DC gathering for ’07. It’ll be held at Smith Hall of Art, Room 114, George Washington University, 801 22nd St NW, Washington, DC 20037. See our (newly designed) website for more info/directions. Here’s the event flier:

Schedule for Next Meeting (last one in 2007)

Gareth Branwyn: Maker Faire: A World of Difference Gareth Branwyn is a contributing editor at MAKE and part of the MAKE: Blog team. He also recently became an editor at Make: Books. His first title in that role is The Best of MAKE, a collection of 75 favorite projects from the first ten volumes. Gareth is also “Cyborg-in-Chief” of the personal-tech website Street Tech and a contributor to Wired.com.

Gareth will talk about (and show pics of) his recent trip to Maker Faire Austin and share his thoughts on the current DIY movement/”handy heyday” and what it means in the greater scheme of things (at least as far as he’s concerned). [Photo by Scott Beale]

Philip Kohn: Real-time processing of live video images Interactive video artist Philip Kohn will discuss some of his latest work that combines live video feeds with software that places the subjects in virtual worlds.

remembrancer.jpg Alberto Gaitán: Remembrancer (Part 2 of 2: The Software) Alberto Gaitán is a composer/programmer/artist who creates a wide range of new media work. “Remembrancer” deals with transformation, memory, and the spacial, temporal and cultural resonance of events through automated robotic painters responding in real-time to news data flowing in over the Internet.

Awesome Kit: The Chronulator

One of the coolest things to happen in deep geekery in the last few years has been the emergence of lots of mom and pop electronic kitmakers. The latest are Jared Boone and Jenny Marx and their company ShareBrained Technology. Their first offering is an awesome, and very buildable, clock kit called The Chronulator ($49).

Inspired by other cool kitmakers of record, such as Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories and Lady Ada at Adafruit Industries, ShareBrained have gone out of their way to make a really sweet kit that’s very easy to build, with well-designed, well-written instructions, an equally well-designed circuit board, and tiny components thoughtfully sorted and bundled in little envelopes.

[Read on…]


Maker Store Report

MAKE contributing editor and my Make: Books cohort Brian Jepson has a nice report today on the MAKE: blog about the Maker Store at the Austin Maker Faire. The store was by far my favorite part of the fair. It was a brilliant combination of a killer book store, a hands-on electronics lab, and a demonstration/presentation stage; a three-ring circus that any geek would love. I heard so many people raving about it and all the cool stuff to see, play with, and buy. We also had on-hand Lady Ada, Dave and Cheryl from Solarbotics, Raphael Abrams (Daisy MP3), and other indie kit makers whose wares the Make Store sells. Dan, Rob, Heather, Brian and everyone else involved did an amazing job.