Casting a vote for DIY

Writer Doman at work on the Karel Mars DIY valve amp.
Writer Doman at work on the Karel Mars DIY valve amp.
Date:8 May 2014 Tags:, , ,

Putting your faith in a political party to uphold your interests is all very well. Instead, I chose to do it myself on May 7th. (I have to confess that I did vote first.) Being a holiday, Election Day gave the opportunity to indulge my inner DIY man.

That involved  firing up my trusty soldering station. Waiting for it to warm up gave me time to reflect on how the DIY spirit lives on, never mind the relentless march of technology. Case in point: Gauteng’s second DIY audio showcase.

The Gauteng event can trace its roots to an enthusiastic band of audio amateurs – and a few professionals – on Tired of just talking about it, last year they put together a showcase of their handiwork. And if you think these are Heath Robinson creations put together on a shoestring with a dollop of ingenuity and crossed fingers, be prepared to be very, very surprised. Some of these creations stand comparison with commercially available equivalents costing many times the money. (Even the refreshments, we’re told, are worth the trek.)

The logical next steps:

* Similar events at other centres;
* Specialised showcases for particular aspects of the hobby.

A sign of the former is the Cape Town Hi-Fi Club’s “show and tell” evening. In introducing themselves at the club’s inaugural meeting three months ago members made it clear that there’s a formidable range of technical and DIY skills out there, not all of it located up north. Equipment has been built, from speakers to amplifiers and even turntables. In fairness, when labour is factored in, the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t always come out in favour of the DIYer. But the time and the inevitable money buy you something that no off-the-shelf gadget can: the satisfaction of having created and even, perhaps, understood something.

My own efforts are rather more humble. I don’t pretend to be able to design and build devices myself. I’m more of an assembler. I lack the all-round skills that would have been needed to build the countless Popular Mechanics projects of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s an indication of our lifestyles, I suppose.These skills are no longer deemed necessary or even desirable in the Candy Crush universe.

Still, late last year, under the watchful eye of its designer Karel Mars, I put together an EL84 valve amplifier kit for our December 2013 issue. PM projects of old would have been more demanding: I’d at least have had to master the metalwork and woodwork skills to fabricate a case for the thing in addition to soldering it together and possibly winding a component or two. This time around, all I had to do was populate a pre-made chassis. Even so, it took a couple of days’ work. And it has generated a fair deal of interest everywhere it has been shown – most recently at our stand at the Getaway Show – both because of its DIY roots and because it just looks so cool. (Watch as Karel Mars talks about the principles behind the power supply and earthing arrangements of his EL84 valve amplifier.)

DIY doesn’t stop at creating things from first principles. Here’s an example: those who know me well will know I’ve got a soft spot for classic British audio equipment, particularly the Quad brand. That’s partly because it usually sounds good, has great retro looks and, being second-hand, is generally cheap. (The last-mentioned bit is, sadly, changing). It’s also given me the opportunity to do some of that DIY stuff. The thing about classic equipment is that it can become old and tired over time. Electrolytic capacitors dry out and leak, old carbon-composition resistors drift upward in value over time and potentiometers can become worn. If you lack the requisite troubleshooting skills to tackle these, the www is a mine of information whether you’re being bothered by a below-par amp or simply feeling the upgrading itch. In my case, Dada Electronics is the go-to place for advice and kits.

As for the DIY spirt, there’s no sign that it is waning. DIY Showcase 2015 is already being talked about. Let’s get soldering…


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