Artisanal Vacuum Tubes: Hackaday Shows You How

Homemade Vacuum Tube
Homemade Vacuum Tube

About a decade ago I started a strange little journey in my free time that cut a path across electronics manufacturing from over the last century. One morning I decided to find out how the little glowing glass bottles we sometimes call electron tubes worked. Not knowing any better I simply picked up an old copy of the Thomas Register. For those of you generally under 40 that was our version of Google, and resembled a set of 10 yellow pages.

I started calling companies listed under “Electron Tube Manufacturers” until I got a voice on the other end. Most of the numbers would ring to¬†the familiar “this number is no longer in service” message, but in one lucky case I found I was talking to a Mrs. Roni Elsbury, nee Ulmer of M.U. Inc. Her company is one of the only remaining firms still engaged in the production of traditional style vacuum tubes in the U.S. Ever since then I have enjoyed occasional journeys down to her facility to assist her in maintenance of the equipment, work on tooling, and help to solve little engineering challenges that keep this very artisanal process alive. It did not take too many of these trips to realize that this could be distilled down to some very basic tools and processes that could be reproduced in your average garage and that positive, all be it rudimentary results could be had with information widely available on the Internet.

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Piezo Vacuum Pump for Lightweight Pick and Place

If you’re building a pick and place machine, or even just a vacuum pen, you’ll need some way to pick up tiny part. This means something that sucks, aquarium tubing, and everything that goes with that. A few months ago, [Wayne] found an interesting device called a Micro Blower that will blow small amounts of air from a small, lightweight device. A few modifications later, and he had a piezoelectric vacuum pump for picking up tiny parts.

The Micro Blower [Wayne] found is available on Mouser for about $45, but this device blows. To turn it into something that sucks, he would need to find a way to block up the input side of the pump so it could draw a vacuum. Eventually settling on mounting the blower inside a stack of foam board, [Wanye] glued on a 20 gauge needle and was able to suck up 0603 SMD parts.

The new piezoelectric sucker is extremely light, and the power draw is very reasonable: 18V and 20mA. This would be a great device to mount to a certain pick and place machine without having to run vacuum lines through the mechanics of a motion platform. Video below.

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Solder Sucker Meets Industrial Vacuum Pump

[borgartank] is starting a hackerspace with a few guys, and being the resident electronics guru, the task of setting up a half-decent electronics lab fell on his shoulders. They already have a few soldering stations, but [borgar] is addicted to the awesome vacuum desolderers he has at his job. Luckily, [bogar]’s employer is keen to donate one of these vacuum desolderers, a very old model that has been sitting in a junk pile since before he arrived. The pump was shot, but no matter; it’s nothing a few modifications can’t fix.

The vacuum pump in the old desoldering station was completely broken, and word around the workplace is the old unit didn’t work quite well when it was new. After finding a 350 Watt vacuum pump – again, in the company junk pile – [bogar] hooked it up to the old soldering station. Everything worked like a charm.

After bolting the new and outrageously large pump to the back of the desoldering station, [bogar] wired up a relay to turn on the pump with the station’s 24V line. Everything worked as planned, netting the new hackerspace a 18 kg soldering station.

A pick and place tool from medical equipment


A vacuum tool is an invaluable tool if you’re working with tiny SMD parts, and even with tweezers you might have a hard time placing these nearly invisible components on their pads for soldering. One tool that’s really great for these parts is a vacuum pen, usually made from an old aquarium air pump. [Jon] may have found a much more suitable piece of equipment to scavenge for a vacuum pen build – a nebulizer.

Nebulizers provide¬†asthmatics with low pressure, low volume air to atomize medication for inhalation. Inside the nebulizer is a small diaphragm pump, just like the small aquarium pump teardowns we’ve seen. In just five minutes, [Jon] tore his thrift store nebulizer apart and reversed the flow of air, turning something that blows into something that sucks.

After the suction part of the build was finished, [Jon] needed a way to pick up small components. He did this by blunting a large hypodermic needle and fastening it to the end of a Bic pen with heat shrink tubing. After drilling a small hole in the pen body, he had a very nice looking SMD vacuum pump.