I think it might be interesting to write down all the info about my participation in the When Prague Meets Shanghai contest as it eventually became one of the milestones in my fight for resurrecting the nixie tubes manufacture.
I had just finished the garden shed in the summer 2013 and immediately moved my tube making equipment to it. I was pretty eager to push the research forward because I spent too much time by digging in the soil and hammering nails. I didnt take long and I made a wierd looking, but fully functional nixie tube.
By that time, I started to think about making a clock using my own tubes. But because I am more technician than artist, I began serching for a designer who would prepare the look of the new clock. I came accross an advertisement for a contest for glass-making artists called When Prague Meets Shanghai. It was arranged by well known company Preciosa lighting and Museum of glass in Shanghai, on very professional basis, so I decided to try luck and apply for it.
The contest was opened to artists under 35 years, making the glass in Czech republic. There would be picked 20 finalists from all registered into the contest and their twenty artworks would be sent to large Museum of glass in Shanghai for a three months long exhibition. Visitors of the exhibition would vote for the best one and the maker of it would win a four weeks long glass-making workshop in Shanghai.. Great motivation to make something really cool!
First, I had to send application form together with photos of the subject being registered to the contest, but I had nothing to show. So, I decided to make a visualization and try to pass the selection comitee with it. During few days, I sketched a simple and clean design for two-tube clock. Just two because struggling for more could easily end up by fail. It was contest focused on glass, so I chose black matte anodized aluminum body for the clock with black glass top board. There would be two LED indicators (Power on and seconds) below the glass board, illuminating laser-engraved circles. Two nixie tubes sticking through the glass board, the nixie tubes will have a glass tubing on the back. This was meant as a design element and I also planned to lead the anode wire through it. This all should represent an unobtrusive design that would let the tubes to be dominant point of the piece. And I also didn’t want to be turned down from the contest because my artwork contains electronics and parts from metals..
It was October and deadline for handing artworks over was November 04, 2013, less than two months – short time to go from a crappy tube to real clock that would not shame me by failing in the middle of the exhibition I got to work immediately after sending the submission. I thought the most complicated part would be the aluminum body, so I started with that. It took me few days to find out that I need a 3D software cabable of working with solid models. I chose a ViaCAD 2D/3D, not bad software for $99. I was able to model the body easily using ViaCAD in combination with QCAD for 2D drawing.
First problems appeared when I tried to find a company that would be able to CNC-mill it for reasonable price. After long discussion, I got first offer, $600 + VAT, I was shocked! This was too much, so I continued in looking for another company, but no luck. I then got great idea to look for a machinist on a local machinist forum, I got two reasonable-priced offers in a few days. I ordered a prototype from both, just to be sure. The price for the prototype was around $170 and I got first one in two days!
The bottom lid was cut on water jet from 2mm aluminum sheet, no problem at all. I took both, the case and lids for black matte anodizing. I was a bit afraid of how it will eventually turn out as anodizing is a kind of alchemy. I had to smile when I saw the result, it was so great!
The next step was the glass board that would go on the top of the aluminum body. I originally planned to use a black glass, cut it on the water jet and laser-engrave circles for the LED indicators. However, it turned out to be pretty difficult to obtain it, even smoked glass was almost impossible to find, and if so, it was very expensive. But I happened to find a glass that was from one side covered by a black lacquer and it looked absolutely great, just like really black glass! I got a piece for laser engraving test for free and started looking a company that will make the engraving. I soon found a guy who does engraving to glass and the test came out surprisingly well. So, I made a CAD drawing from the water jet and ordered ten pieces (for $250 in total).
In a few days, I was called to pick up the finished glass. When I saw the result, I was a bit concerned about the look of the edges, they were like sandblasted.. Visible and pretty disturbing stuff, it could not stay that in a clean design I wanted to produce – I had to come up with a way how to make it more visually pleasing But first, I called the guy with laser engraver, I needed to make the circles to the black lacquer that will serve as indicator lights. When he brought it back, I was quite shocked.. The laser engraving to the black laquer layer was not easy (it made bubbles in it), so he decided to wash out the laquer by hot acetone and apply his own. The laser engravings went out well, but he made tiny scratches in the glass surface, flaked off the edges on some places and under the black laquer was visible dust Sh*t! However, I was able to pick out five pieces in relatively good condition. Next step was to grind the rough edges made by water jet.
I first bought a bunch of various grinding and poslihing tools. The outer edges was quite easy to do, but I was not able to polish the holes inside the glass. I desperately started googling what to do with it and suddenly found a guy, who engrave glass. I sent him five pieces of the glass and it came back in a few days, with nice uniformly grinded edges! Great!
Next step was the electronics. There is nothing much to say, all went flawless. The electronics is based on Arduino, ATmega328. Time is kept by precise DS3231, the high voltage is made by Yan Zeyuan’s HV PSU. Both tubes are direct driven, one tube directly by the ATmega, the second one via 74HCT42, BCD to decimal decoder. There are three buttons from the back, one for hours, one for minutes and one for changing 12/24 time format. The PCB’s were made in Printed.cz, great quality, a little bit more pricey compared to chinese manufacturers, but this is normal.
Another issue to solve was how to hold the tubes in the clock, as I had no socket, just few thin and terribly brittle tungsten wires sticking out of the bottom of the tube. I finally got a rod of Delring plastic, cut few pieces and machined a sockets on the metal lathe. I welded a copper wires to those tungsten electrodes, those wires would later be soldered directly to PCB.
Parallel to all those steps, I worked on nixie tubes itself. It was also very long way and I thought I will never make it. I started with making the stem – vacuum tight connection of the wires through the glass. Sealing 11 wires into glass turned out to be difficult like hell, I made around 40 seals and all were leaky, no one good. I must thank again to Ron Soyland here, I know that he is successful in making this kind of seal, so I continued and finally found a combination of power of the flame during glass work, intensity of the flame during driving out the air from the wire before sealing, right amount of time of heating the wires to make appropriate layer of tungsten oxide on it and some other factors. Finally, I made first few vacuum tight stems and after some practice, I got from 0% to 30% success rate.
Stem was the most complicated part, but there were many other issues, like breaking mica sheets, breaking ceramics, glowing connecting wires, difficult sealing envelope onto the glass stem with inner assembly.. I had to make around10 tubes to get two of the same shape and proportions On the picture below is evolution of the nixie tube for ShanghaiTime clock.
I kept the programming as a last step, there were absolutely no problems, however it took much longer then I expected. I was programming it even the last evening before deadline. The next day (November 1, 2013 – this was Friday, Monday 04 was the deadline), I packed the clock carefully and took them to Preciosa. Even today, I remember what a relief it was, like after graduation on high school
After few weeks, Preciosa arranged a small one-week long exhibition in DOX gallery in Prague, gallery of contemporary art. It was nice reward to take part in the vernissage and see other contestants with their artworks. There was around 80 artworks submitted to the contest! But the main exhibiton took place in Shanghai Museum of Glass, Preciosa packed the 20 chosen artworks (my clock among them) and sent them to China for the exhibiton. I was very scared of cracking the glass in the freezing cargo bay in a plane (they finally chose ship), but all worked well after unpacking
The exhibiton took three months, and visitors finally placed my clock on second place, not bad!
The ShanghaiTime clock took all my autumn 2013, but I don’t regret. It was great competetion, it pushed me hard to make a final product, after all the previous experimenting. I learned that even that it is hard, I am able to make it. Just after this competition, I started to prepare next project, a single tube clock.. But this is another story..
I must thatnk here to all Preciosa team for arranging great competition, my wife for support (I was few months only working and working!) and all people who helped me (one name for all – Ron Soyland!).
Do You count yourself as a nixie tube enthusiast?
Would You like to become a part of nixie tube’s rebirth?
I worked really really hard past two years, on full time basis, putting a small scale nixie tube manufacture together and I am almost ready now.. I designed first nixie clock with tubes made by myself and the only thing I need now is a handful of customers, crazy enough to rush in and help me with testing!
You are going to get:
- An amazing single-tube clock controlled via amplifier-like rotary knob, with geeky 3D printed case. The nixie tube has 50mm tall numbers and is made using the latest technologies (in nixie tube manufacture), incorporating helium leak testing for 100% vacuum tight seals, high vacuum pumping, pure gases, getter, a mercury dispenser for long-life. I put many hours of handwork into each tube.
- The electronics itself based on AVR AtMega328 mcu with Arduino, uses high quality parts for long life and efficience. It uses a highly precise DS3231 RTC chip for timekeeping. The clock will be delivered as a kit with a comprehensive manual, You will enjoy a lot of fun with assembling the case and soldering the boards!
- The funcionality is only as a clock, no alarm is present. However, the clock functionality is tuned, You can choose from various options of displaying the time (fading, flipping)..
- Each clock and tube has its own serial number, first customer gets #1, the second gets #2…
- 10 years warranty for both electronics and the nixie tube – one of the rules I based my work on is long life span, even if it means extra time and extra money spent for me.
The estimated date of shipping of that test-batch is in the middle of June 2014.
You are going to give:
- A reduced price, including economy shipping (10-20 days). Shipping via UPS Express Saver (2-3 days) would cost $15 more (only for US, CA available now). 30% to be paid now, the rest just before shipping, PayPal welcome. The prepayment is due by 31 May. Orders to be placed via email: email@example.com, phone +420 724 321 571, comment under the post or Facebook message.
- And your feedback of course
As You can see, I present only brief information, I want to keep all the photos/details/clock name for the real product launch, once it is ready and tested by You! Isn’t that going to be a great surprise package?
I currently build a getter flasher according to Ron Soyland‘s design (he will publish it on his site soon). There is a few photos from the building process:
Soooo.. After six weeks of intensive development, I am posting first photo of finished ShanghaiTime clock. As I already wrote, I designed this clock for a glass-art contest “When Prague Meets Shanghai” arranged by a czech company producing high-end glass chandeliers called Preciosa. I plan to write more, attach some photos of the innards, electronics etc., this blogpost is just about to share my excitement from how great it turned out to be on a photo!
The ShanghaiTime clock, photo: janskrasek.com
I decided to establish a Facebook page for nixie making project. I plan to add there some random photos, snapshots and so.. I called it “DaliborFarny.com”, on that domain will be a static content and some products for sale I hope
You are welcome here: Facebook page
I am working hard on a clocks for a contest called “When Prague Meets Shanghai” (more about contest here: WPMS). This is a first oportunity how to present working tubes in a real product.
As I promised, I started making a sample tubes. I am now working on a project for one local contest, more later.. And I made two new tubes as a prototypes for that project.
All three tubes, from oldest to newest. Read the rest of this post »
I experienced big success today. I sealed first really working nixie tube (or nixie retort . I surprisingly didn’t forget to do any individual step in the making process and ended up with a tube that by far exceeded my expectations.
I tested the tube carefully on the helium leak detector several times, I also checked all the vacuum system, gass filling manifold and gas connectors. I found one small leak on the teflon washer on one of the needle valves (for neon filling) – repaired – and one on the connector to neon bottle – placed a new o-ring. I pumped down all the vacuum system for several hours, gass filling manifold included. I then rinsed both gas branches with gases to get rid of remaining air, closed both needle valves and made a overpressure in those branches so that no air would get in. It turned up that this step was critical for gas purity.
The tube was baked out to 410C (then it broke down, should go to 480C) and then it was filled with neon and argon (5×10-2 torr of argon accorging to thermocouple – very inaccurate value).
Number “0″ is not working as the wire sticking out of the tube broke off Also the stainless steel assembly inside is attacked by something that made it “rust” I don’t know what.. The tube has so strange shape because I didnt have a tubing of so large diameter, so I had to blow it from smaller one..
The most important thing is that I achieved values of striking voltage that are almost like industry made tubes! That is the most important thing for me!
1 – 139V
2 – 136V
3 – 141V
4 – 140V
5 – 131V
6 – 149V
7 – 126V
8 – 124V
9 – 136V
Finally, the shed is finished and I can start moving all the equipment that I gathered in recent two years there. Building of the shed was the major job during last 5 months, I didnt have much time for real nixie tube research, but that changes! I made the glassblowing stuff working today – torches, propane-butan bottle, oxy concentrators, manifold and so.. I also moved some of the stuff here, it is waiting to be sorted out..
I got a sample of etched parts today, the quality is absolutely outstanding! Sharp edges, no etched spots, no under-etched places. I cant wait to put it all together! Sorry for quality of the photos, all were made in a hurry, as usual
Hexagonal anode grid