Hacklet 44 – Teardowns

Just about every hacker, maker and tinkerer out there received their early education the same way: A screwdriver in one and a discarded bit of electronics in the other. There is no better way to find out how something works than cracking it open and examining each piece.  In recent years, teardown videos have become popular on YouTube, with some of the great examples coming from users like [EEVblog], [mikeselectricstuff], and [The Geek Group]. This week’s Hacklet is all about the best teardown projects on Hackaday.io!

copierWe start with [zakqwy] and his Savin C2020 Teardown. Photocopiers (and multifunction machines) are the workhorses of the modern office. This means there are plenty of used, abused, and outdated photocopiers available to hackers. [Zakqwy] got this monster when it started misbehaving at his office. Copiers are a venerable cornucopia of motors, gears, sensors (lots and lots of breakbeam sensors) and optics. The downside is toner: it’s messy, really bad to breathe, and if you don’t wear gloves it gets down into the pores of your skin, which takes forever to get out. [Zakqwy] persevered and found some awesome parts in his copier – like an  Archimedes’ screw used to transport black toner.

wemoNext up is [Bob Blake] with Belkin WeMo Insight Teardown. [Bob] wanted a WiFi outlet, but wasn’t about to plug something in to both his power grid and his network without taking it apart first. [Bob] did an awesome job of documenting his teardown with lots of great high resolution photos – we love this stuff! He found a rather well thought out hardware design. The Insight has 3 interconnected PCBs inside. The power switching and supply circuits are all on one board. It includes slots and the proper creep distances one would expect in a design that will be carrying 120V AC mains power. A small daughter board holds an unknown chip – [Bob] is guessing it is the power sensing circuitry. A third board a tucked in at the top of the module holds the main CPU, a Ralink/MediaTek RT5350F SoC, RAM, and the all important WiFi antenna.


x-ray[Drhatch] took things into the danger zone with an X-ray Head Teardown. We’re not sure if [Drhatch] is a real doctor, but he does have a Heliodent MD dental X-ray head. Modern X-ray machines are generally radiation safe if they’re not powered up. Radiation isn’t the only dangers to worry about though – there are latent charged capacitors and cooling oils which may contain nasty chemicals like PCBs, among other things. [Drhatch] found some pretty interesting design decisions in his X-ray head. The tube actually fires through the cylindrical high voltage transformer. This means the transformer acts as a beam collimator, focusing the X-ray beam down like a lens. He also found plenty of lead shielding. Interestingly there are two thickness of lead in the housing. Shielding close to the tube is 1 mm thick, while shielding a bit further away is only 0.7 mm thick.


3phaseFinally, we have [danielmiester] with Inside a 3ph AC Motor Controller(VFD). [Daniel] tore down a Hitachi Variable-Frequency Drive (VFD) with the hopes of creating a frequency converter for a project. These high voltage, high power devices have quite a bit going on inside, so the conversion became a teardown project all its own. VFDs such as this one are used in industry to drive high power AC motors at varying speeds efficiently. As [Daniel] says, the cheaper ones are ” just really fancy PWM modules”. Handling 1.5 kW is no joke though. This VFD had a large brick of power transistors potted into its heat sink. The controller board was directly soldered to the transistors, as well as the rectifier diodes for the DC power supply. [Daniel] was doing some testing with the unit powered up, so he built a custom capacitor discharge unit from 3 C7 Christmas lights. Not only did they keep the capacitors discharged, they provided an indication that the unit was safe. No light means no charge.

Not satisfied? Want more teardown goodness? Check out our freshly minted Teardown List!

That’s about all the time we have for this week’s Hacklet. As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Reverse Engineer a VFD after Exploring How They Work

[Dave Jones] got his hands on a really wide, 2-row Vacuum Fluorescent Display. We’ve come across these units in old equipment before and you can get them from the usual sources, both new and used, but you need to know how to drive them. This recent installment of the EEVblog reverse engineers this VFD.

The function of these displays is pretty easy to understand, and [Dave] covers that early in the video after the break. There is a cathode wire and phosphorescent coated anodes. When current is applied the anodes glow. To add control of which anodes are glowing a mesh grid is placed between the anodes and the cathode wire. Applying negative potential to the grid prevents the electrons from traveling to the anode so that area will not be lit.

Now driving this low-level stuff is not easy, but rest assured that most VFDs you find are going to have a driver attached to them. The reverse engineering is to figure out the protocol used to control that driver. On this board there is a 2-pin connector with a big electrolytic filtering cap which is a dead giveaway for power rails. Looking at the on-board processor which connects directly he ascertains that the input will be 5V regulated since this is what that chip will expect. Connecting his bench supply yields a blinking cursor! [Dave] goes on to pump parallel data and test out the control pins all using an Arduino. He finds success, sharing many great reverse engineering tips along the way.

We often call this type of thing a dark art, but that’s really just because there aren’t a lot of people who feel totally comfortable giving it a try. We think that needs to change, so follow this example and also go look at [Ben Heckendorn’s] recent LCD reverse engineering, then grab some equipment and give it a try for yourself. We want to hear about your accomplishments!

Continue reading “Reverse Engineer a VFD after Exploring How They Work”

The ChronodeVFD Wristwatch

Not just another steampunk fashion statement, [Johngineer’s] ChronodeVFD wristwatch is as intricate as it is beautiful. Sure, we’ve seen our share of VFD builds (and if you want a crash course in vacuum fluorescent displays, check out Fran’s video from earlier this year) but we seldom see them as portable timepieces, much less ones this striking.

The ChronodeVFD uses a IVL2-7/5 display tube, which in addition to being small and low-current is also flat rather than rounded, and features a transparent backing. [Johngineer] made a custom board based around an AtMega88 and a Maxim DS3231 RTC (real time clock): the latter he admits is a bit expensive, but no one complains about left-overs that simplify your design.

The VFD runs off a Maxim MAX6920 12-bit shift register and is powered by a single alkaline AA battery. A rechargable NiMH would have been preferable, but the lower nominal voltage meant lower efficiency for his boost converters and less current for the VFD. [Johngineer] won’t get much more than 6-10 hours of life, but ultimately the ChronodeVFD is a costume piece not meant for daily wear. Swing by his blog for a number of high-res photos and further details on how he built the brass tubing “roll cage” enclosure as well as the mounts for the leather strap.

Never Miss a Thing With This Programmable Vacuum Fluorescent Display Ticker

VFD Ticker

[Coyt] wanted a more convenient way to keep up to date with the ever-changing Bitcoin exchange rates, as well as weather and other useful information. He realized that the vacuum fluorescent display (VFD) he had purchased a couple of years ago would be perfect to display small amounts of information.

[Coyt] discovered that the VFD had a serial interface. The problem was that the VFD was looking for a 12V serial signal but the Raspberry Pi he wanted to use runs at a 3.3V. Upon closer inspection [Coyt] discovered that the VFD actually ran at lower levels as well, but it had a level converter chip installed in front of the main connector. He simply bypassed the level converter and was then able to get the RasPi speaking directly to the VFD.

The brain running this display is a Raspberry Pi. The Pi runs a Python script that pulls down all of the relevant information from the internet and displays it on the VFD. [Coyt] didn’t stop there, though. He knew that having the screen on all of the time would be somewhat of a waste, so he hooked up a PIR sensor to automatically turn on the display only when needed. The PIR sensor can detect motion in the room and will disable the display after a set period of inactivity. Most of this is powered by an LM7805 voltage regulator. While [Coyt] admits a linear regulator is not his ideal solution, it does get the job done. The metal stand acts as a nice heat sink for the regulator.

[Coyt] also wanted his project to have a certain aesthetic. He started by bending a metal plate into a stand for the electronics. He then mounted the VFD on the front of the stand and the RasPi on the back. He also mounted green LEDs between the two plates to light up the edges for a little extra pizzazz. [Coyt] believes he can use the RasPi to PWM the LEDs but this has not yet been implemented. This would allow him to pulse the light for added effect.

Since the whole thing is run by a Python script, it would be trivial to modify it to display other kinds of information. What would you do if you had a motion sensitive automatic ticker?


[Fran]’s LEDs, Nixies, and VFDs.


With a love of blinky and glowey things, [Fran] has collected a lot of electronic display devices over the years. Now she’s doing a few teardowns and tutorials on some of her (and our) favorite parts: LEDs and VFD and Nixie tubes

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that someone with hardware from a Saturn V flight computer also has a whole lot of vintage components, but we’re just surprised at how complete [Fran]’s collection is. She has one of the very first commercial LEDs ever made. It’s a very tiny red LED made by Monsanto (yes, that company) packaged in a very odd lead-and-cup package.

Also in her LED collection is a strange Western Electric part that’s green, but not the green you expect from an LED. This LED is more of an emerald color – not this color, but more like the green you get with a CMYK process. It would be really cool to see one of these put in a package with red, green, and blue LED, and could have some interesting applications considering the color space of an RGB LED.

Apart from her LEDs, [Fran] also has a huge collection of VFD and Nixie tubes. Despite the beliefs of eBay sellers, these two technologies are not the same: VFDs are true vacuum tubes with a phosphorescent coating and work something like a CRT turned inside out. Nixies, on the other hand, are filled with a gas (usually neon) that turns to plasma when current flows through one of the digits. [Fran] has a ton of VFDs and Nixies – mostly military surplus – and sent a few over to [Dave Jones] for him to fool around with.

It’s all very cool stuff and a great lead-in to what we hear [Fran] will be looking at next: electroluminescent displays found in the Apollo Guidance Computer.

Videos below.

Continue reading “[Fran]’s LEDs, Nixies, and VFDs.”

VFD And Nixie Clock Twofer


Sometimes the stars align and we get two somewhat similar builds hitting the Hackaday tip line at the same time. Recently, the build of note was clocks using some sort of display tube, so here we go.

First up is [Pyrofer]’s VFD network time clock (pic, above). The build started as a vacuum flourescent display tube he salvaged from an old fruit machine – whatever that is. The VFD was a 16 character, 14 segment display, all controlled via serial input.

The main control board is, of course, an Arduino with a WizNet 5100 Ethernet board. The clock connects to the Internet via DHCP so there’s no need to set an IP address. Once connected, the clock sets itself via network time and displays the current date, time, and temperature provided by a Dallas 1-wire temperature probe.

Next up is [Andrew]’s beautiful Nixie clock with enough LEDs to satiate the desires of even the most discerning technophile. The board is based on a PIC microcontroller with two switching power supplies – one for the 170VDC for the Nixies, and 5V for the rest of the board.

A battery backed DS1307 is the real-time clock for this board, and two MCP23017 I/O expanders are used to run the old-school Nixie drivers

All this is pretty standard for a Nixie clock build, if a little excessive. It wasn’t enough for [Andrew], though: he used the USB support on his PIC to throw a USB port on his board and wrote an awesome bit of software for his PC to set the time, upload new firmware, and set the color fade and speed. With this many LEDs, it’s not something you want in your bedroom with all the lights on full blast, so he implemented a ‘sleep’ mode to turn off most of the lights and all the Nixie tubes. It’s a great piece of work that could easily be successfully funded on Kickstarter.

VFD Display Becomes an Amplifier


Born well into the transistor era of the late 80s, [Fernando] missed out on all the fun you can have with high voltage and vacuum tubes. He wanted to experience this very cool tech, but since you won’t find a tube checker down at the five and dime anymore, where exactly do you get a vacuum tube to play around with? [Fernando]’s solution was to rip apart the vacuum fluorescent display from an old radio (Google Translate) and use that as a triode.

Inside every VFD is a filament, grid, and cathode – three simple elements also found in the triodes of just about every tube amp ever made. By applying a small voltage to the filament, a larger voltage to the cathode, and sending an audio signal to the grid, this triode amplifies the electrical signal coming from a stereo or guitar.

[Fernando] built his circuit on a breadboard, and with a little tweaking managed to get a fairly respectable amount of gain from parts salvaged from a radio. While using VFDs as amplifiers is nothing new – we’ve seen it a few times before, tube builds are always great to see, and bodged up electronics even more so.