Reshoring Vacuum Tube Manufacturing, One Tube At A Time

For most of us, vacuum tubes haven’t appeared in any of our schematics or BOMs in — well, ever. Once mass-manufacturing made reliable transistors cheap enough for hobbyists, vacuum tubes became pretty passe, and it wasn’t long before the once mighty US tube industry was decimated, leaving the few remaining tube enthusiasts to ferret out caches of old stock, or even seek new tubes from overseas manufacturers.

However, all that may change if [Charles Whitener] succeeds in reshoring at least part of the US vacuum tube manufacturing base. He seems to have made a good start, having purchased the Western Electric brand from AT&T and some of its remaining vacuum tube manufacturing equipment back in 1995. Since then, he has been on a talent hunt, locating as many people as possible who have experience in the tube business to help him gear back up.

The new Western Electric, now located in Rossville, Georgia, is currently manufacturing 300B power triodes and marketing them as a premium product aimed primarily at the audiophile market. A matched pair of tubes in a cherry wood presentation case will set you back about $1,500, so they’re not for everyone. But it seems like the company is using the premium tubes to bankroll the production of more mainstream tubes, like the 12AX7 dual triode that’s expected to launch this summer, along with a host of other tubes. These will all be aimed at a much broader market: professional audio gear and guitar amps, which have long coveted the sound that they swear only tubes can provide.

It’s good to see someone putting effort into rebuilding an industry, even if it is for most purposes an obsolete one. It reminds us a bit of [Dalibor Farney]’s Nixie tube factory, and that’s a good thing.

64 thoughts on “Reshoring Vacuum Tube Manufacturing, One Tube At A Time

      1. I second this. Tried it many times myself for my radio hobby.

        Even with an iron core, AC transformers are good enough as humble AF transformers.

        That’s nice, because all I need is galvanic insulation and a ca. 3 KHz audio range.

        So whenever I see a broken power supply in the wild, I collect them for their transformers. ^^

        They’re nice for being simple to use, passively operated galvanic insulators.
        No power source that ads noise, no worrying about harming either side.
        No transistors (photo transistor) that can oscillate or malfunction etc.

        Let’s just be a little bit careful with the impedance.
        The 220v/110v side is high-impedance (has more turns), while the 6v to 24v side is low-impedance.
        Impedance issues on the reception side can be neglected in practice. It’s the sending/transmitting side that should be kept an eye on.

        If it’s high-impedance (say a few kohm) in relation to the reception side (up to a few hundred ohms), the 220v side of the transformer might be better suited.

        A capacitor of up to a few uF (say 4,7 uF) can be installed in series, too, to avoid DC going into the transformer. Not required, but it technically can avoid shorts or other issues (of the AF signal carries a bit of DC). The capacitor itself provides pseudo galvanic insulation on its own, too.

        Oh well, I miss classic technology. It was so simple, yet elegant. I feel sorry for the upcoming generation(s) which will be stuck with switching PSUs and LED bulbs. 🙂

    1. Jensen Transformers makes low level audio transformers. Several manufacturers of AC power transformers also make audio power transformers, but you might need a custom design for your purposes. Look around, there may already be a product you can use.

      If you need quantity, it’s not so much a problem of starting a new factory as finding an existing manufacturer who’s willing to make what you want at an acceptable price.

      If you can get the appropriate laminations, winding your own is not a terribly difficult task.

      1. That would be wonderful if more of the audio electronics industry could be re-shored to NM, where much effort has been devoted to economic diversification. Places like Grant County, have been leaders in silver and copper mining for generations, enjoy a college educated workforce and attractively low energy and commercial real estate leasing rates. . And many other counties excel at combining an environmentally responsible commitment with a pro business agenda, such as

    2. Yeah why not? The writing is on the wall for reshoring a lot of stuff, and I feel that the government is going to be handing out more and more incentives to do so in the years ahead.

      1. Yes, perhaps now, ~ 30 years after Wall Street’s been streaming countless trillions of capital into low cost overseas factories and pushing tariff free NAFTA legislation, which left the American and other economies hobbling real wage stagnating and low tech shadows of what they should have been by now. Pardon the rant.

  1. You can easily buy custom transformers in the US.

    I don’t know about audio transformers specifically, but I buy custom power transformers from Toroid all the time. I think they’re made in Maryland.

  2. Western Electric…wow. I think of all the phones, but that’s just a tiny part of what they made. Long Lines equipment, military gear, even fiber optics. I remember looking at a catalog of fiber cables, long before fiber became a thing for networks (FDDI was in its infancy). Everything you could do with cables, was replicated in fiber. 66 blocks (well, their fiber analog) on up.

    That’s a brand with a LOT of history behind it. Hope he does it justice.

    1. Do not forget that Unix was originally a Western Electric product, also the 3B computer line which really brought Unix out of the lab and into businesses. The original C++ compiler was sold by Western Electric. Those lovely colored glass insulators you see in every antique shop, many have that Western Electric logo pressed into the glass.

      And who can forget their dial telephones with the handsets that also worked as a hammer or a nutcracker. Those things cost over $400 adjusted for inflation, remember that when you buy a new smartphone.

  3. Don’t care for it. I get he wants perhaps a bespoke shop. That is GTG. But pricing these things at $1500 a pair in general is not my style.
    Sourcing audio/live production transformers is easy. Heyboer is right there in Michigan and they aren’t the only non Chinese source either.

    1. Love Heyboer, really miss Magnetic Components. I’ve been meaning to call and see if Heyboer can wind the old MC Inc “standup ultra linear” 6k6:16/8/4 transformer. I used one on an amp I built ages ago and want to build another. I read that Heyboer has access to all their designs; hoping it’s true!

  4. According to some audiophiles in my bubble, Western Electric is still years behind other Western manufacturers (e.g. Elrog) and they don’t know what they’re doing. The tubes are supposedly so expensive because they have extremely bad yield. Their 300B production could apparently have been ready by 2018/2019, but you can only buy them since 6 months ago.

  5. I’m not sure that anyone can lose money catering to audiophiles because as a generalization they seem to be among the most gullible of consumers … things like oxygen free AC wall sockets selling for $300, wooden knobs for more hundreds of dollars, and just about anything from Machina Dynamica.

    1. Sure they can. All they have to do is grow a conscience and be honest.

      The audiophiles will go elsewhere. “You can’t get some amazing sound that is better than what everyone else has by putting a gazillion dollars into your speaker cables…” Tell them stuff like that and it’s like selling real news to Fox fans.

      Your customer base is gone and you are bankrupt!

      1. For some crappy ham stuff I made metal knobs mean the capacitance or something changes when you touch the knob and gave me humming. Being a non-crap builder/designer would fix this. Wood knob is insulating so it would eliminate this, but how could that even be a thing on high end gear ? Besides, plastic knobs are just fine but don’t look as cool I guess.

    2. I enjoy listening to music, first and foremost. I let my ears guide my purchases. Your generalization of “audiophiles” is misguided and unfair. I agree the there is a huge amount of snake oil, but that is equally true in automotive, sports equipment, cosmetics, [insert your passion here].

      Instead of a mindless comment, why not participate. Build your own 300B amp and make an informed decision…..

    1. This would likely looks like “first enter this big building where those high-power eletric lines come in, and that produces hot water for the whole neighborhood. Just the Wiifi/Bt chip would look like an aisle of the building…

    2. Actually, they can be very small, there won’t be a big difference. Miniature tubes are of the size of little incandescent lamps used in wrist watches or miniatures (model making).

      Generally speaking, miniature tubes can be operated with ~1v to 6v heating voltage.

      If we talk about tubes for the cellphone’s transmitter, then heat and output power are an issue. On the other hand, the cells get smaller and smaller and less and less RF power are required. In the 90s, cellphones had real antennae (not just a fractal antenna on a PCB) and had to work on lont lonely roads between cities.

      But then, there also was Nuvistor technology. It was a tube that acted like a transistor. It stayed cool, merely required little voltages, was rugged (vibrations and mechanical stress were no problem). Too bad research had been discontinued in the ~1960s because of solid-state fantasim. Nuvistors were invulnerable against EMP, like tubes, and could handle strong input signals without becoming deaf.

      1. That’s the first thought when I read this article. It’s no use just reviving an old factory of tubes he needs to introduce a better tube to create a market or rejuvenate the interest on vacuum tubes.

      2. The Nuvistor was not competition for the transistor. It was small to be a better tube. Yes, some got used where small was needed, but generally they were designed and used for low noise vhf/uhf applications.

        People who weren’t around back then think they were tube transistors.

      3. The heater voltage can be little, but the operating voltage of a miniaturized tube is still in the tens of volts. 11 Volts was the practical minimum, I believe, and that represents an unnecessarily high power draw for a device.

        In the 90’s early 00’s I think they were looking into making “vacuum tubes” by etching silicon, which would have brought the device down to a few tens of nanometers scale and the voltages down to something you could get out of a lithium cell battery. I wonder what happened with that.

          1. Maybe they’re in use in some esoteric applications, like replacements for traveling wave tubes in satellites or something.

            Either way, the point was to use the micro-machining techniques used for making MEMS sensors into making a vacuum-tube-on-chip and integrate them by the thousands. Why? That was not really answered.


            Faster, higher temperature, higher power handling, immunity to radiation. That’s the short list. Why they don’t exist is because they haven’t been able to get them working properly.

            “due to the high electric field, the source electrodes degrades over time, thereby decreasing the emission current. Due to the degradation of electrons source electrode, vacuum-channel transistors suffer from poor reliability”

  6. $1,500 for a matched pair? A far cheaper route to “tube sound” (second-order harmonic distortion from the tube interacting with the inductance of the output transformer) would be to use a tube preamp with tube power amp characteristics to feed a solid-state power amp. But I guess people with very large disposable incomes aren’t interested in cheaper.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m no kind of expert but is that distortion interaction you describe the only likely “euphonic” effect that attracts some people to tube amps; perhaps 300B SET amps, in particular?

      At the same time, could the attraction also be largely based on the fact that SET amps must all be Class A biased (which otherwise would produce waveform clipping)-and that, perhaps also due little need for negative feedback, might thereby produce a similarly pleasingl “warm” sound?

  7. Well now it seems like we need a revival of those tube testers that used to be in every Radio Shack. Are there any still around? Maybe today one could make a really clever tester that can figure out the pinout and even tell you what kind of tube it is, how much life is left in the filament etc

    1. My first job was at the Lee’s Summit works. I walked by the tube lines on my way to make germanium and silicon diodes. The tube burn in quality control area was nice and warm on a winter day.

  8. One super pedantic grammar issue: decimate is often used, as in the context of this article, to mean eliminated entirely or laid to waste. Common usage so can’t really say it’s wrong. But for the dorks in the room, It stems from antiquity and literally means “decreased by one tenth” (deci- means one tenth) and was considered how badly you had to kill the other army to put them out of the fight. About a tenth of them. Source- open classroom classics lectures from some Harvard guy.

    1. That’s odd. I had learned that it was the punishment for the failure of a legion. Every 10th man was struck down. However, no one takes it literally today and I think common usage is simply an extreme reduction of force or laying waste to something.

      There are plenty of Latin-root words that no longer carry the same meaning. Alienate comes to mind. Or fascinated (sorry, Mr. Spock).

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