by Helga Hansen
One time I was sitting in my grandparents living room and pushing the door of the VCR. How did this thing work? I peeked into the darkness of the machine. This was the time before the internet was a click away and it was the only VCR my family owned. The Do-It-Yourself and repair culture of earlier electronics was slowly going out of fashion and people had started to just buy a newer model instead. That might have given me the chance to open up a broken VCR and look inside its actual guts. Unfortunately, ours never broke down, and I dared not to take it apart anyway and risk getting in trouble. So I had to start with the things I could look inside more easily, from pens to flashlights. Now, as a grown-up and an editor, it’s my job to regularly take things apart. I figure out how they work so I can explain it in an article. In doing this I learned more than in some of my engineering classes at the university.
So why is taking things apart a good start for working with hardware? First off, it requires little beforehand knowledge. You don’t have to start with research and later move on to actually building something. Instead, you start working with a physical thing and learn about it in the process. But you still have a goal from the beginning: understanding a piece of technology. This is also a fairly manageable goal, though it’s up to you whether you want to understand the bigger system or decide to investigate each component. And let’s remember that destroying stuff can be a lot of fun, because even if you actually break something, you still have a lot of opportunities to learn. Why did it break in that spot? Was it weak and obviously would fail? Or did you have to pry the glued case open, overcoming a security measure? By now, you’ll probably have some ideas about how to repurpose the components, whether it’s for art or another hardware project. You might have also found ways to improve this tech or maybe set out to repair it anyway. By starting with stuff you already have and acquiring knowledge in the process, tearing things down is a very accessible way to work with hardware. Finally: kids love it. Please encourage as many kids around you as possible to stay curious.
Now, what do you need to start taking things apart yourself? First, find something to take apart, whether it’s a tiny USB stick or the big old TV set. Now you need to know whether you want to just disassemble your device, or put it back together, maybe even fix it. In the latter case you should document the shit out of your project by taking pictures and notes then collect every piece in a designated project box. How does the whole thing look before you start? Which screw was unscrewed first? Alternatively, you’ll need to be ok with wondering for hours where that one last screw fits, when it actually belongs in another machine. But even if you’re not planning on rebuilding anything, documenting will prove to be quite useful.
In the next step, you should equip your workspace with tools. The absolute basics are a couple of screwdrivers. I keep a set of two pliers (round and needle-nose), a small wire cutter, and screwdrivers on my desk. The amount of different head sizes can be overwhelming, but the most used are a selected crop. I usually stick to my iFixit 26-bit driver kit, their most basic one. Finally, a lamp and a magnifying glass come in handy, especially if it’s getting dark outside. Depending on the project, specialized gear might be necessary, like a suction cup to replace a mobile phone’s screen, a soldering iron and desoldering pump to desolder electronic components, or a multimeter to measure voltage, current and resistance. An alternative to buying tools are hacker- and makerspaces or fablabs. While often lauded for bringing 3D printers and laser cutters into town they usually also stock regular old tools and offer assistance or courses. There are even some decidedly feminist hackerspaces out there. If you’re staying at home, be prepared that your designated workspace might be occupied for some time, when you need to get a new tool or just get stuck and frustrated. Also keep an eye out for your safety: be careful with sharp edges, wear clothes that are ok to get covered in oil, and maybe even safety goggles.
Finally, the actual work, also the fun part. For electronics, always start with unplugging the device or taking out the batteries. Still, there might be some charge left in the capacitors, especially in things like microwaves or TV sets which use large capacitors. For projects like these, beginners should seek the help of an expert. Just to be on the safe side, wait for a couple of minutes after turning the device off. Maybe get out your notebook. Then it’s time to remove the enclosure and inspect component after component. Did I tell you about the importance of being organized earlier? It might have happened once that I just took the screwdriver and loosened every screw I could find, desoldered sensors and sliced open their casings…
Opening an electronic device and seeing the green (or yellowish) breadboard with lots of different little dots on it can feel overwhelming. So look out for recognizable items like LEDs. Check markings for units. 100uF probably refers to a capacitor. Resistors and capacitors are regularly numbered, from C1 to Cx and R1 to Ry, too. Also: look up everything. Electronic chips often have a label and searching for that “AB12CD45” usually yields its datasheet. If in doubt, add “datasheet” to the search term. The first few sentences on the sheet should describe what the component is supposed to do. If you dig deeper there might be a pin connection diagram detailing the kind of information exchanged over each silvery pin or notes on its operating conditions or power consumption. Some sheets are just a page, other are almost books with detailed diagrams. Look at the conductive traces on the circuit board to see which components are connected. If you haven’t already desoldered everything, use a multimeter to check the voltage over components and connections. If you have, use the Google Image search to identify components. Sift through Instructables, blogs and iFixit for teardowns of similar devices. Research your device as thoroughly as you like.
I’ve already emphasized documenting your work for yourself. If you want to go further, consider creating your own blog, a zine, or submitting a talk to your local makerspace. Chronicle your journey in hardware, celebrate what you’ve learned and give back, and empower others to start taking things apart as well.
Blog recommendation: Elecia White’s Taking Apart Toys
Strain gauges I removed all the plastic insulation from this strain gauge to have a look at the patterned electrical conductor. The gauge is used in a portable suitcase scale. The scale used shows one centimeter.
Alcohol sensor This is the tiny sensor in a breath alcohol tester, from which I removed the case. It’s just a speck of semiconductor that is heated to stop conduction. Alcohol in the air restores its conducting capability.
Charger A board I found in a USB charger. It uses a small coil to store energy. On the left is a step-up-converter to step up the accumulator’s voltage for USB use. The board is also about a centimeter wide.
Helga Hansen is a journalist from Germany. She likes working with a soldering iron as well as nail polish. hanhaiwen.wordpress.com