Dad’s Shop: Part 1

Some of my earliest memories of working with electronics are with my dad in his shop. I grew up in Madison, WI, where the winters are cold and indoor heating is a necessity. Our house was built in 1921, when gravity heating was the typical system for keeping warm. Because of this, our house had a basement with an octopus furnace, which my dad took out when he and my mom moved in. Going down the basement stairs, you first came to a small room with one door that led to a pantry, one door that led to a family room (where we also took shelter from tornadoes), and a third door that led to the shop.

Dad’s shop had a bare concrete floor and usually smelled like a mixture of sawdust and scented kitty litter since that’s where the cat boxes were (we always had cats while I was growing up), but the smell was not unpleasant. The centerpiece of the shop was a Sears Craftsman radial arm saw, which my dad had purchased early on in his married life even though he had to keep it in a storage room below the apartment complex where he first lived with my mom. He definitely made good use of the saw and it’s still in great shape after myriad remodeling, furniture, and craft projects.

Against the far wall of the shop was the wooden workbench, which had hundreds of holes in it from drill usage and which was always covered with our latest project, in various stages of disassembly or assembly. The wall above the workbench was covered with pegboard, and held all the tools my dad used most commonly, neatly organized. There were several different sizes and types of hammers, wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers, and each tool had an outline on the pegboard so you knew just where to return it.

Above the workbench there was one small window (the only natural source of light), which opened just above ground next to the driveway. We would place a board from the opening of this window to the shop floor and slide heavy bags of water softener pellets down through the window (not unlike the original use for this opening, which was to receive coal for the old furnace). Lighting was mostly provided by two fluorescent tube fixtures hanging from the exposed joists in the ceiling, plenty of illumination for any kind of work.

During my childhood, many broken appliances and other household items found their way down to the shop to be repaired. I frequented the shop to work on school projects, as well as a fairly complex catapult for a Science Olympiad competition. I also remember experimenting with electronics in the shop—one of my early successes was a simple flashlight, made out of an AAA battery, a single wire, a miniature light bulb and duct tape.  I was so proud of this flashlight that I made up excuses to use it, like reading books under a blanket even though it was daytime. As I got older and our neighbors learned I was interested in electronics, I became the recipient of many a broken device. Often the fix was simple, e.g. a bad switch or single burned out component, and it was always fun to find the problem. The best part was that I usually got to keep what I fixed! In this way, I ended up with a stereo and a Korg DW-6000 synthesizer, among other things. Regardless of the project, there was always something exciting about coming into the shop and feeling the potential of all the parts, tools, and equipment—I felt like I could make or fix almost anything!

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