An Xmas Kit: A Poignant Story

Wed 11/25/2009 3:22 pm. On a whim, I tried building a little LED Christmas tree kit. ... In my day, I have been a great and powerful professional — but also a puking mewling hobbyist. ... In neither role have I ever been very successful at putting kits together. This has not changed; a few LEDs lit on this pitiful little kit, but most did not. The transistor multivibrator presumably never multivibrated, and presumably the electricity never even arrived at the second section of the tree.

But there was a certain moment while making the kit — which took hours no matter how great and powerful I am or what they say — when I realized and remembered — I realized how unlikely it was this thing would ever work, and I remembered how every single kit I ever built was just like that....

The realization part was after installing the LEDs; there was a little detail in the “instructions” where they showed each LED being bent in a certain way, which was not the natural way to mount them, and that I, in my deeper concern for the kit designers’ apparent fascination with making the polarity of the LEDs astonishingly obscure, didn’t do. ... In the event, this meant my electronic Christmas tree (a.) wouldn’t display its beautiful LEDs to best effect and (b.) wouldn’t actually assemble, since one of the unbent LEDs obstructed another.

... The memories were of the seeming ages of kits, almost infallibly broken in some novel way or other, and I so indignant — at the perfidious manufacturer and his incompetent ways, mostly. As I am, indeed, about this kit. ... I arrived near the end of the age of kits, but they never made any economic sense. ... Well, hardly ever. I suspect some earlier tube kits weren’t so silly, because tube-age designs were for many years hand-assembled, with a good deal of point-to-point wiring, so that doing it yourself conceivably could save a few bucks over a fairly skilled factory worker. ... But once the printed circuit boards marched in, and all the automation that followed, it was just stupid. ... Even with the hand-assembly, the way it actually works is no matter how nearly-illiterate, the factory worker learns how the wiring goes. ... The kit builder never does, since he usually builds just a single kit. ... And thus, if I were building 10 of these idiotic LED Christmas tree kits, units #2 to #10 would have the LEDs bent right.

But they probably still wouldn’t work. ... As I write this, I’ve been scurrying pitifully to my workbench, trying to fix my sinful errors, redeem my faulty craft. ... I noted just now that when I wiggle one of the electrolytics, both pads just pop right up! ... Previously I tacked down a few other pads, and got half the LEDs lit, but I don’t know how to make the electrolytics adhere to the PCB. ... I mean, aside from soldering them, which apparently wasn’t enough. ... And I used an expensive real professional soldering iron; the target for these things is presumably the Radio Shack tinkerer with his wood-burner....

This Day Here Only

... But please note, this is the only place you will ever read about the tragedy of kit assembly failure! ... That never happens! All the other hobbyists make ’em work perfect! ... Every time! ... I alone am ashamed. ... And then, as the pads were popping, I realized my sin: I had forgotten to thoroughly clean the PCB! ... With light sand paper, or abrasive soap powder, or detergent; Windex; perhaps with the rarest of Arabian sands. ... Something; I can vaguely recall the solemn instructions with some wretched kit, warning of the peril of omitting this step. ... I cannot recall any particular evidence it did any good; and why exactly we were supposed to clean a brand-new PCB we’d just paid money for I was never quite clear on — but the obvious reason occurred to me, that the vendor, failing all else, could blame the customer for not cleaning the PCB — and even if he did clean it, even ever oh so hard, then he must’ve cleaned it in the wrong way. ... Leading inevitably as the day does the night to the tragedy of kit assembly failure....

... At the end, I pushed a 9 volt battery on the bottom of the unit, where I had been instructed to solder some dubious springs. Contact was made, and a glorious quarter of the LEDs lit up, so then I pulled the battery out — along with the spring connected to the minus side which had insinuated itself into the battery connector, never to be parted except with excessive force....

... The Heathkits were better. ... But by the time I arrived, they were actually more expensive than equivalent equipment; you were supposed to get the deep satisfaction of assembling something yourself, and that would compensate. ... I somehow missed the deep satisfaction; I just wanted cheap. ... And some of my kits, despite the annoyances, got assembled and I was poor and they were cheap and it was good, even ’though I still fumed at the perfidiousness. ... I still have a SouthWest Technical Products signal generator I use often; and I made it myself!...

But my pitiful Christmas tree, like so many disappointing kits, wouldn’t be cheap at any price; and the web has a ready-made “USB LED Christmas tree” at $9.95, compared to the $7 kit. ... The store-bought flavor doesn’t have the tacky PCB/naked-LED “look”, nor the pride of “building it yourself”. ... But it probably works. And I see it changes colors....