Heathkit’s Triumphant Return?

Heathkit, the storied purveyor of high-quality DIY electronics kits that inspired a generation of enthusiasts and launched the careers of many engineers, has returned from the dead. We think. At least it seems that way from this build log by [Spritle], an early adopter of the rebooted company’s first offering. But if [Spritle]’s experience is any indication, Heathkit has a long way to go to recreating its glory days.

img_20151202_170350
No solder? That’s just screwy.

The Explorer AM radio kit, currently Heathkit’s sole complete kit offering – they do offer a few upgrade and repair boards for earlier Heathkit products – is far from the classic Heathkit experience, at least to those of us who actually assembled one of the company’s myriad offerings back in the day. The most glaring departure from the old days: the Explorer kit does not require soldering. The PCB is drilled with oversized holes for machine screws and nuts, and component leads are simply wound around the screws and torqued down. A handy method, perhaps, and accessible to electronics newbies, but hardly suitable for delicate component leads. Indeed, [Spritle] reports several over-torqued screws pinching off component leads almost to the point of not having enough lead left to make a connection. Imagine the frustration of destroying a component and not being able to complete the build.

Nice retro look, but is it retro quality?
Nice retro look, but is it retro quality?

[Spritle] also reports some disturbing errors with the manual for this kit. Heathkit was famed for the quality of their assembly instructions, and their manuals were the “holy of holies” in your project. Nothing else was to be touched before you read the manual, which guided you through the assembly process in exquisite detail. But this manual leaves out instructions for installing one resistor, and gets the color code wrong for another one. Having parts left over on a classic Heathkit project would be an indication that you did something very wrong; a builder not as observant as [Spritle] might have had a very confusing time trying to trace that error. And expecting an electronics newbie, which seems to be the target market for this kit, to catch a color code error is hard to take. Yes, attention to detail is an important skill for the budding electronics hobbyist, but why throw curveballs before the hitter knows how to hold the bat?

Personally, I don’t recall any non-solder kits in the Heathkit catalogs of yore; in fact I recall the instruction manuals having extensive soldering lessons in case your iron handling skills were not quite up to snuff. My first kit, an SW-717 shortwave receiver, was recommended by my neighbor, a ham trying to get my 11-year-old self into amateur radio. He drilled me on soldering skills for hours before we ever broke open the parts envelopes, and it paid off, both for that build and in the long run with a life skill that I’m still proud of to this day.

Looking back on my first build, it seems like the most valuable part of it was that mentorship. Knowing that I had someone to guide me and answer my questions was incredibly helpful. I’d love to be on the other side of that mentoring relationship today with my kids, and the Heathkit of old would be a fantastic way to do it. I’d pay a lot of money to bust open a new Heathkit project with my kids. But a no-solder kit? What’s the point?

I’m not saying that there’s no place for a no-solder experience as a “gateway drug” to more complicated kits. But the choice of this kit as the first offering is puzzling; it begs the question of where Heathkit sees the company going from here. The price point is baffling too – $150USD for a battery-powered AM radio with no speaker. Yes, it looks nice, but I’m not willing to pay a premium for that.

Where Heathkit goes from here is anybody’s guess. Our own [Brian Benchoff] has been keeping close tabs on the on again, off again Heathkit reboot, and earlier announcements of a Heathkit return that included a reddit AMA and a bizarre geocache promotion. We really hope that Heathkit makes a comeback, but for now, all we can do is watch and wait. And practice soldering with the kids.

45 thoughts on “Heathkit’s Triumphant Return?

          1. I think it’s the ST-225R you’re thinking of. That drive could be used with an RLL controller. I don’t know that the ST-225 can be. Unfortunately, my most recent experience with that model drive (beyond testing the one I recently obtained) was roughly 29 years ago. It’s entirely possible that I tried an RLL controller on a regular 225, but I can’t say for sure. :)

          2. Many RLL drives were just MFM drives that had been formatted and tested as RLL and had a number of defects low enough to qualify for use with the denser encoding.

            Early hard drives went through the same progression as most CPUs, early on, getting enough that pass for higher speed/recording density is hard. By the end of a design’s production nearly 100% that aren’t uselessly defective can run at the highest speed or recording density. Then the different ‘bins’ are merely marketing.

            So when RLL first hit the scene, your chance of failure at reformatting to RLL was high, largely because the sector defect map on the case label wasn’t valid for the higher density. You could just go without entering the defect list in the controller BIOS low level format then use a DOS utility to test and block bad clusters, but then you had that reminder of how many bad clusters were taking up space.

            For MFM drives with a very short defect list, chances were good that doing a fresh low level format in MFM or RLL would come up with zero defects when tested after high level formatting.

          3. lol @ [keithfromcanada]

            That proves two things –

            1) You have a very good memory

            2) Something about your age that I am a little uncomfortable saying because I am *that* old to lol.

            I also remember using something called spinwrite (was it Norton) to optimise the sector order. I can’t remember if it worked low level like g=c800:6 or if it was high level.

        1. I used a bunch of those things in computers that I gave away back in the 90s. I saved them from a junk heap, bought them inside of old 286 PCs for $1 a piece. Upgraded them to 486s and off they went. I do wish I had kept a few now. Look at what they go for on FleaBay!

  1. There are many historical Heathkit items that are still highly-coveted by amateur radio operators, for example their QRP transceivers, linear amplifiers, and so on, and I have to believe they could re-release many of them exactly as they were originally and turn a profit. They own the rights to all the old designs, and by replicating prior kits exactly, they could supplement their income selling repair/replacement parts for built-up kits already in use…

    1. Not an expert on HeathKit stuff, having never seen or heard of one until the introduction of the Internet. But I imagine that *identical* kits to the original would be impossible seeing as how some of the specific components may no longer be widely available. For instance, I would imagine any tube based kits or those with multi-value capacitors, or specific IC’s would be tough to recreate.

      Not an expert on their products so I might be way off.

      As for their current offering…. huh? For $150 I could grab one of those old Radio Shack style 300 in 1 kits with the spring terminals. No soldering and a much broader scope of projects to learn from.

      1. As a specific example, take their SB-220 linear amp. It is a much-prized amp, commanding a respectable price on the used market. It is also so well-regarded that several people offer kits to replace the tubes used, ‘re-cap’ kits to account for aging capacitors, and some folks have even offered conversion services to put them on 6 meter band (something they were not designed for). There are no unique tubes or other parts in the amp that can not be sourced today, AFAIK.

        If the SB-220 kit were offered at a price comparable to an Ameritron amp of the same power rating, many hams would prefer to get the Heathkit amp and invest a bit of sweat-equity into an amp they built.

        I imagine the market would snatch up 1,000-2,000 of this kit were it available, once pent-up demand is satisfied, a few hundred units a year would sell year after year, if not more.

        1. Are the tubes used, NOS or new?

          If they’re used or NOS isn’t that kind of the point?

          If they’re new, out of genuine curiosity, where are they coming from and who is still making them?

          1. High power transmitting tubes are still made. The SB-220 isn’t that different than other amplifiers sold for the ham market, as far as the component selection goes. It’s still popular today because of the quality of the mechanical design.

          2. The 3-500Z used in the SB-220 is a VERY common tube used in current day amplifiers, for example this Ameritron amp uses 2 of them:

            http://www.ameritron.com/Product.php?productid=AL-82

            The tubes used in the SB-220 are still currently in production and readily available, like here:

            https://www.rfparts.com/3-500zg-rfp.html

            (I don’t know where they are being produced, I think in Eastern Europe, but that’s just a guess)

            Here’s a link to a guy that specializes in supplying repair/restoration parts for the SB-220:

            http://harbachelectronics.com/product-category/heathkit-sb220-sb221/

            This is STILL a popular amp, some 30 years after production of the kits ceased…

            >

        2. en,

          The trick would be doing it in a cost effective manner. I suspect the parts would add up to the better part of $1k. A tube set alone is ~$150+, and the transformer will be even more as they are no longer made. Add in another $150 just for the chassis & enclosure and the price is starting to get out of the reach of many amateurs.

          But un-built Heathkit amps often fetch $1k+ at auction… So who knows. If someone gets the rights to the design, I say we do a kickstarter campaign! At least we know it will actually work! :)

          1. “If someone gets the rights to the design, I say we do a kickstarter campaign! At least we know it will actually work! :)”

            The new Heathkit has the rights to all prior designs, AFAIK.

            If the parts cost $1,000 (a reasonable guess) and Heathkit offered them for $2K to cover costs and overhead, I can imagine 1,000 being sold quite quickly.

            A 31 year-old kit has the same issues a 31 year-old amp has, a lot of the components (capacitors) are no longer ‘good’ and need to be replaced, then there’s the question of missing/broken parts in the box, etc.

            A brand-new kit with brand-new components and a warranty would easily command a price of $2K.

            There is a radio from a company called ‘Elekraft’ and they sell $2K radios built or as kits, same price. The kit involves NO soldering, but many hams opt for the kit to be able to say ‘I Built That’.

        3. when I was a kid, the sb-104 was the new hotness. my father was also going for his ham radio license, so I was lucky that he would buy the rig setup we both would use ;)

          mid 70’s, IIRC. we had the sb-104 and the matching linear amp sb-230.

          that sb-104 was a bear to build. I was a young teen and I could focus on it better than my father could, and it still took well over a month to build, and it didn’t work on the first try. I don’t think either of us were good enough to tshoot it, and so we drove it to the local heathkit store (which was also a repair center) and in a few weeks, they fixed it and tuned it. I have no idea how much that costed, but it was a nice luxury to have.

          the 104 was one of the first air-cooled transceiver (no fans) and even its linear (sb230) was fanless with some kind of berylium block to connect the metal-case transmitting tube to the rear heatsink. there were many warnings in the heathkit manual about how careful you have to be with that stupid block and the tube-block-heatsink connection.

          between 75 and 80, I probably built more than 10 heathkit things (clocks, ham radio stuff, some test equip). matching the build manual quality level from back them to today would be hard and expensive. if I ever see new things to that quality level, I’m usually surprised (sad to say).

      2. I don’t remember those Rat Shack kits teaching much. The better ones had a little bit of circuit theory but not really enough that you could use it to design anything yourself. Most were just connect the numbers and then… hey.. your done.

    2. They need to deep-6 the screw connector boards! Soldering isn’t that hard, and those that want to build a radio aren’t going to be scared of a little soldering; they will likely already have an iron or two…

      I’d love to see their older kits broken down into 4 line items: assembly manual + PCB, manual + PCB + enclosure, hard-to-find components like tunable caps, coils, and antennae, and as a complete kit. The manual gives the purchaser the right to build the design (and the theory behind it), and they should price it like a textbook that contains a license to build.

      It’s the build manual with the explanations and theory behind the build that are the true value. People don’t painstakingly assemble these things because they want an AM radio, they want to know how it works, so they can open it up and show people that, “That resistor is there to … and that cap filters …”

      The enclosures are art and convenience, and should be priced accordingly. The hard to find components can be rare and valuable, as well as expensive to design/create. By selling them separately, you also allow repair of vintage units already out there. And by pricing the regular components separately, they’re ensuring buyers that they’re not selling them 2c components for $2 each, and reinforcing that the value is in the manual, design, and any rare components.

      Will they do that; probably not. And they won’t be able to sell too many $150 speakerless AM radios, so they’ll fade away again. Perhaps before they go belly up, they’ll scan and release all their original build manuals… nah. That’s just wishful thinking.

  2. I don’t think they’re back from the dead. It’s just someone who now owns their name willing to cash from some leftover parts by arranging the cheapest possible radio receiver and selling it at an outrageously inflated price. We could see other similar kits in the future and some people will buy them because it could be their last chance to get a HK kit.
    I’m pretty sure they will close shop for good when the last kits/parts are sold, then use the name to rebrand cheap chinese junk.

  3. Can’t help thinking that this is just the wrong direction to take. Look at how Adafruit does it: extensive on-line instructions and videos, companion apps, and kits for things like cellphone chargers, mini arcade cabinets and LED watches. And they’re a lot cheaper. That seems like a lot more effective approach if you want to get kids interested in electronics. This looks like what it is: an overpriced product from previous century.

      1. Well, in my country there are at least two companies that make electronics kits. One of them, AVT, also prints some magazines for both hobbyists and pros. Most of those kits cost less than 30 dollars and include complete circuit description and basic assembly guides. They also sell both bundles of soldering tools and supplies and complete beginner’s courses on electronics. The only downside is they screw up from time to time by introducing design errors into circuits.

        Whoever got this idea to avoid soldering parts by using PCB with screws was an idiot. Next time they should use screw terminals glued to wooden board. Or better yet: twisting leads together.

        1. > Whoever got this idea to avoid soldering parts by using PCB with screws was an idiot.

          Actually it was a great idea – in the 1960’s. “Making A Transistor Radio – by George Dobbs, G3RJV” (A Ladybird Book)

          http://www.mds975.co.uk/Content/george_dobbs_trf_radio.html

          This implementation seems less satisfactory. Compare to this offering for under USD $10:

          http://www.banggood.com/DIY-FM-Radio-Kit-Electronic-Learning-Suite-p-1017325.html

          1. Hmmm… it has a digital display and an analog tuning capacitor. You see an FM radio kit. I see an $8 frequency counter!

            Some years ago there was a pre-assembled radio that worked that way and sold for a similar price in drug stores in the UK. It was very popular with hams who would mod it to do various things. Living in the US I missed that of course.

    1. The reason Heathkit shut down is because after surveying their customers they found that every year the average age of the customers was increasing by one year. They were smart, they shut down in an orderly way rather than waiting to fall into bankruptcy. At the time they closed down auto-insertion equipment was becoming widely available and it cost more to put the parts in little plastic bags than to have a machine assemble the circuit board. They couldn’t compete with assembled equipment. They can never return to their gory days, the world has changed.

      1. “They couldn’t compete with assembled equipment. ”

        Heathkit was never, as far as I know, cheaper than assembled equipment, it was pretty close on cost as I recall. A friend’s dad built a color tv, not because he was trying to save money, but because he wanted to say ‘I made that’ (he was an investment banker and could have afforded any TV he wanted).

      2. When I was in college many of my fraternity brothers build AR-1500s. It was the go-to receiver. One even built the Computer Tuner, which was like seven PC boards plugged into a backplane. I could never afford Heathkit and bought an Advent receiver instead. If Adafruit and others can make money selling kits, Heath could too, if they tried. What made Heathkit stand out was their manuals, and I’m very disappointed to hear this new Heath is putting out a substandard manual. $150 and no soldering? For an AM radio with no speaker? This Heath is going to fold soon.

      3. Well here’s an idea – maybe they should skip the cost of bagging components entirely, and just sell the manual along with the bare PCBs and enclosures. The manual could even be a pdf file.

        There are lots of us that either already have a slew of components, or know how to get them, but for whom one-off large size PCBs and enclosure hardware is beyond DIY. If the HK ghola, or anyone else could provide the latter, we would happily supply our own components. I could probably build an H89 right now with the stuff in my junk box, except for the blasted PCB.

  4. Sigh, I have ***MANY*** fond memories of putting Heathkits together, but I am finding it rather discouraging to keep seeing reports that it is coming back when it hasn’t after all the statements saying it would.

    Still, I AM keeping toes crossed that it actually happens, preferably sooner than later…

  5. i suggest we could go with a Raspberry Pi B and a basic circuit which measures temperature. i was putting one together two afternoons ago and our grandson came by – he’s 5 1/2 – and i just asked him to help me out with the soldering. i told him i didn’t know much about soldering and that i needed some help holding the parts – which i did. He helped and we soldered the 5 – 6 wires together and with some python code i found online we had the Pi sending the readings to ThingSpeak in no time. We was really happy and engrossed for the hour or so that it took to do the soldering. Now we need to figure out how to connect an H bridge to our Pi and a power source on a breadbord to make it run forward and backwards. Eventually i want to use it, with more code from the net, to control our parabolic solar hot water heater. Gee, you must be able to find kits or designs on the net that are siimple enough to work with on a breadboard at least and then after testing with a MM, solder up…

  6. Interesting reading about Heath possibly making a comeback. When I graduated from college, I bought myself a GR-2000 television kit and built it in the evenings and used it for many years. That was a great TV set and I wish I still had it. I remember it was as heavy as a small house.

  7. My first Heathkit was the SK-10 AM radio “broadcaster”. It had 1 transistor and used a crystal earphone as the microphone. The entire circuit was built on fahnestock clips. Lots of screws and NO SOLDER! The SK-10 looked like an oversized walky-talky but was transmit only. Never could figure out why they used 6 C-cell batteries to power a 1-transistor, flea-powered circuit. It was a perfect first kit for a 10 year old. Later came a full stereo (AD-27, two AS-16) and IO-103 scope. Last was the IG-5240 Color Generator. Lots of fond memories. And yes, all the manuals I used were 100% accurate. I can’t imagine how anyone could create a viable business in this century selling kits as Heathkit once did. It was a great business model for it’s time. But today – I don’t think so.

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