Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

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I've been buying gadgets.
Nothing very unusual in that - most people know I'm a sucker for gadgets...from the cheap and crap to the expensive and superb, I just love 'em.
In years gone by my 'gadget-fests' were limited to those times when I encountered a shop that sold them - you know the type; the dingy, dark Aladdin's cave-like emporiums that could often be found down the narrow lanes that encircled the main shopping streets of any large town.
Sadly, most of these establishments are long gone - having been priced out of the rental market and replaced with brightly-lit estate agents and chic boutiques that sell handbags for £750 a pop. Not to worry though, because the internet has picked up the baton - and the world is awash with the sort of cheap crap that would make PT Barnum soil his longjohns in delight.

In order to avoid (much) disappointment, I tend to categorise my gadget purchases into three distinct types. The first is undoubtedly cheap, and very likely crap. By accepting this from the moment you press 'buy now', you're limiting the amount of disappointment you'll be subjected to when the goods eventually arrive. In fact, if they arrive at all that's already a win - and if they a: work, and b: work more than once, it's smiles all round. I find it's also useful to limit the purchase cost to a maximum of £10.
It's always a bit of a lottery, and yeah, I've got a (large) box of broken-down gadgets for my pains - but I've also got a nice collection of really natty tools and toys that have proved their worth a long, long time ago...such as a magnifying headset with a built-in light, a handful of zooming LED torches (these are fantastic value for money), extra-strong magnets, digital recorders and a whole host of other cheap and cheerful goodies that make life just that little bit easier.

The second category is less fun, and tends to be confined to gadgets that I need for a specific purpose, but that won't see regular use. A jigsaw, for example. I've got one - an ebay special - that I bought solely to fit a kitchen sink. It did the job, and it did a few other jobs - and as far as I know it's still functional...so that's a big win. Ditto a cheap circular saw that I bought to fix up my shed. It's since been housed in a makeshift box, so it doubles up as a basic saw bench. Not bad for £20.

And the last category is the most serious - devoted to gadgets that need to work, and keep on working. I'd put things like my Dremel, my Hitachi drills and my Bosch multitool into this category. Big-ticket purchases that I expect to last. I did pretty well with the Dremel - which cost me around £80 back in the '80s, and is still going strong today.

Of course, it helps if you know in advance whether or not a gadget is likely to be useful, and whether or not you need it to last.
I used to follow the 'buy the best you can' mantra - which means I have some very nice bits and bobs that I bought many years ago, and that are still as functional now as when they were bought. But they cost me dear, and sometimes it's turned out that they're either not as good as they seemed to be, or I simply haven't ever been able to make use of all their features. My Le Crueset frying pan springs to mind - completely brilliant, until you actually want to shake or lift the damn thing. Weighs a ton, especially when it's loaded with a full English. Ditto my Gustav Emil cooks' knife. It's a beast, and beautifully balanced - but I can get a much better edge on my cheapo Stellar knife...and I'm not exactly a klutz when it comes to sharpening blades.
So these days I take a more realistic approach and tend towards the 'good enough' - and on the whole this has proved to be very successful. Naturally, it relies on your being able to define what 'good enough' is...and if you can't then perhaps 'buy the best you can' is the better bet.

Anyway, all this waffle is by way of an introduction to my latest gadget-fest, and one connected directly to my trade.
Many visitors to the workshop will have noticed a bright yellow flame burning cheerfully on the workbench. This is my bunsen burner. It's my main source of heat when setting pads, and has been since the day I got my first workshop. It's simple, efficient, and provides a variable flame depending on my needs at the time - from a hot blue one for rapid, precise heating through to a soft yellow/blue flame for gentle, careful heat...and the bright yellow 'standby' flame, in which state it spends most of its time.
It's a great little tool, but it's rather hampered by the need for it to be connected to a gas bottle - which means it has a length of sturdy hose attached to it. It also has a separate gas tap - and as it's something of a chore to keep turning this on and off, lighting the bunsen and then adjusting the gas, it tends to get turned on and lit first thing and left burning until the end of the day. Which is a bit wasteful of gas, obviously - and having a constantly lit flame on the workbench can sometimes provide some 'amusing' moments.

I've also got a couple of handheld gas blowlamps. Nothing fancy, just your bog-standard DIY things - and these come in handy for one-off jobs (those days where I've not planned to do any padding, but a client comes in needing a single pad replaced). Rather than faff around firing up the bunsen, I just reach for the blowlamp.
However, this tool has a few drawbacks too - the largest of which is that it really doesn't like being being held much off vertical. A quick tilt to get a better angle on the flame and the gas valve chokes up, which results in a (very) large orange flame that can singe your eyebrows if you're not careful.
But the portability is a big plus, as is the ease of lighting.

Which is why a new gadget caught my eye recently - a micro torch.
This is essentially the same as a DIY blowlamp, but a great deal smaller. They're typically 'gun' shaped, and usually have built-in ignition. They're quite popular with chefs, who use them to burn puddings (though I've always managed to do this without the aid of a gas torch) - and jewellers.
I'd never really considered them before - but with the failure of my little 'jet flame' lighter, which came in handy for all sorts of little jobs around the house, I found myself looking for an alternative...and ended up buying a micro torch for the grand price of £7.99.
In fact I bought two - one for home (to replace the old lighter), and one for work...to see if using one in place of the bunsen was a viable proposition.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but you get used to the way a particular tool works. I know exactly when to pull the bunsen's flame off a key cup, and this will depend on the way the flame is set, the size of the key cup, the finish on it (vintage lacquers are notoriously scorchable) and whether or when the cup has previously been heated.
So the idea was to give it a go. If a cheap and cheerful one could do the job, it'd be worth splashing out and getting a decent one - and as a decent one costs upwards of fifty quid, it's worth finding out beforehand.

Well, it worked - but there were some 'issues'.
The first of these was the damned safety lock, which consisted of a little sprung metal knob below the trigger which had to be pulled down before the trigger could be pressed in. The whole idea was for me to be able to pick up the torch, press the trigger to ignite the flame, heat the key cup...and then chuck the torch aside while I did all the fiddling about with the pad. The torch would shut off, I'd save a few bob on my gas bill and I wouldn't set anything alight. So having a safety lock was a bit of a drawback because it made using the torch a two-handed operation. No bloody good - if I've got an instrument in hand I don't want to have to put it down just to pick up and light the torch.
This issue was dealt with by wrapping wire around the safety button to hold it open - though I neglected to take into account just how little pressure was needed to operate the trigger and fire the torch up. Halfway through wrapping the wire around the button, the torch fired up and punched a hole right through my jumper. Bloody powerful little things, these micro torches.
But then my finger kept catching on the wire, which was annoying - so I took a pair of wire cutters to the safety switch and cut it off. And burned another hole in my jumper.

The modified torch worked fine...for a while.
It was all good and well having it fire up with one hand and go out when put down, but there are times when I need a bit of heat followed by a bit of time to fiddle with something, followed by another shot of heat. And then there are times when two hands are needed on the job - which usually means bringing the job to the flame rather than the flame to the job. But when you let go of the torch's trigger, it goes out.
Well, I wasn't having any of that - so out came the screwdriver and apart came the torch.
I quickly worked out that I could use the safety switch in reverse. With a simple mod to the springing, I could make it push downwards - so that when pushed up into a suitably placed hole in the underside of the trigger, it'd lock the trigger in place. To turn the flame off all I had to do was give the trigger another little squeeze and the safety switch would spring back out and allow the trigger to return to the off position. Excellent idea.
Only one problem though - I'd just cut the damn thing off.
Never mind, I felt sure I could cobble something up if I examined the trigger mechanism to see what went where and what it did. This I did, by repeatedly pressing the trigger and noting the action of the various parts. At least I did...until (because, remember, the torch was in two halves) the whole affair shot out of the gun and disappeared God knows where. I spent half an hour trying to find the various little bits, but had to give it all up as a bad job.

So it was off to buy another one.
Having got the second torch apart without setting fire to myself (I didn't fill it with gas this time...I'm clever like that), I set about modifying the safety switch.
The first thing that was needed was a small hole in the base of the trigger. Easy enough - put the thing back together, align the trigger in the closed position and drill a hole through where the (now removed) safety switch sat. How hard can it be?
What I didn't think about was the spring that powered the trigger. As I merrily drilled into the plastic, the drill caught hold of the spring. When a drill bit gets grabbed like this it tends to stop going round...and goes forward, a bit like a worm gear. And so it went forward...right up through the trigger, and onwards up through the piezo ignition module.
It wouldn't have been a problem had I been able to find the parts from the first torch, but I hadn't...so it was off to by another one.

This time it was going to work.
No gas in the torch, no springs hidden away...it was all going to go to plan.
I got the damn safety switch out and managed to take it apart - without losing or breaking anything.
Although a relatively simple device, I could see that modding it wasn't go to be as easy as 'reversing the polarity' - and to make the switch do what I wanted it to do would require turning up a small part on the lathe.
You'll be relieved to hear this went without incident, despite a lengthy session of measuring various parts, sketching up a design, finding some stock rod and turning it to size - after which time I had a reverse-spring lock ready to be fitted to the torch. I'd managed to drill a hole in the bottom of the trigger without destroying anything...and now it was just a matter of popping the switch in and reassembling the torch.
But the switch didn't fit. I'd used a circlip to prevent the 'pointy bit' that would slot into the trigger from falling out of the locking mechanism, and this circlip was preventing the two halves of the torch body from coming together. I'd have to drill the body out.
OK, so trigger out...no springs, gas tank empty, should be a cinch.
And it was...up until the point where I accidentally depressed the piezo ignition module while trying to hold all the gubbins in place while I drilled the body.
Normally this would result in a spark at the gas nozzle - but because I had my thumb over the ignition module, it gave me a belt. Granted, it wasn't a very big belt...but it wasn't pleasant, and when you're not expecting it, it really makes you jump. This I did, halfway through drilling the body.
I let go of the body, the drill grabbed and shot right through the piezo ignition module. Serves it bloody right.

So I bought another one...and this time I bought a spare. Just in case.
Right - no gas, no springs, no ignition module, no nothing...I stripped the bloody thing right down.
I already had the modified safety switch - and the drilled trigger...all I had to do was drill the body to allow for the circlip.
It went like a breeze, and five minutes later I'd got the whole thing reassembled and ready to fire up.
I filled it with gas, pressed the trigger - and hey presto...it fired up a treat.
The 'anti safety' switch worked a treat. Press the trigger with your forefinger, slide the second finger up to press the lock in and bob's yer uncle...a constant flame. Press the trigger again, out pops the lock and the flame goes out when the trigger is released.

At long last...at long bloody last, I was ready to trial the torch.
And for the most part it worked. There's a flame adjuster which allows you to set the size of the flame, and an air adjuster...which allows you to set a hard, precise flame or a softer one. This adjuster is sprung, so it doesn't stay put...but rather than risk destroying any more torches I wedged a piece of cork in it to set the flame a little softer.
I suppose you might wonder whether all of this was worth it - but it at least showed me what I'd need from such a device. Single-handed operation (on and off), a constant flame lock, a variable flame size and an air control. I'd also worked out that I'd want the torch head to be angled slightly upwards (most of them come out horizontal). It would also need a base stand that didn't keep falling off.
I carried out a number of common tasks; setting pads, freeing up rusted screws, heating epoxy mixes etc. I even did some soldering, and I have to say it was brilliant for soft soldering...a much lighter tool to wield than my Sievert torch handle. I even tried some silver soldering, but it didn't quite have the punch a better torch would give.
Oh, and I also drew a smiley face on the back of the workshop door. Well, you gotta have some fun.

All in all it performed quite well, though I wasn't that impressed with the run time. It wasn't bad, but on a big job I was having to refuel it several times a day. Easy enough, but a bit of a faff.
Maybe I wasn't filling it enough? It's easy to fill (you use standard butane lighter fuel cans), and when it's full you get that 'blowback' to tell you the tank is full - but what if you carried on filling it. I tried this, and found I could force a bit more gas into the tank - which pleased me no end.
Unfortunately there was a bit of a side-effect...
Remember what I said about the DIY blowtorch, and how it tended to flare up when you tilted it a bit? Well...the same thing happened to the micro torch...only this time it did it even when the torch was held vertically. More worryingly, when I let go of the trigger it carried on burning (the control valve had probably frozen).
And even more worrying was that it was now shooting out a stream of flame...about...oooh...three feet long.
Holding on to a mostly plastic, out-of-control blowtorch that's full of butane and won't turn off is a very bad thing to do - so I did the only sensible thing, which was to lob it out of the door. As my car is parked just outside, I didn't want to just toss it out the door - so I really chucked it.
It didn't like that at all, and spewed out even more flaming gas as it arced its way through the air - before coming to rest on a lump of concrete. It went out at this point, but probably only because the whole thing flew apart.
Lucky I had a spare one, eh?

It's been a couple of weeks now, and the Mark V Seems to be doing OK. I salvaged the modified safety switch (damn right I did, it's worth around £60 of my time) and managed to fit it to the torch without any tears (though with lots of effing and blinding).
On paper it's been an expensive exercise. What with the outlay for the torches and the time spent on wrecking modifying them, I could have bought two or three professional quality micro torches. But then I'd have been buying blind. I had my eye on a very nice one, but as it turns out it can't be operated with one hand. Another that looked quite good has a horizontal flame, and yet another doesn't have a variable air control.
All this mucking about has told me I need a Blazer ES-1500 - it's about £50, and, frankly, nothing else will do.

Postscript.

Having spent hours trawling the web, reading specs and watching You-tube videos before finally settling on the Blazer ES-1500, I set about ordering one.
Fat chance. Turns out these things are rare as hen's teeth, and while plenty of people stock the 2001 model, it wasn't what I wanted. So I went straight to the source and got in touch with the manufacturer's European distributor and asked them if there were any UK stockists. They very kindly gave me the contact details of a chap...who'd retired from the business some two years ago. I sent another email, and they suggested I try getting in touch with Snap-On tools (a franchised tool distribution network)...but the ES-1500 wasn't a current stock item, and whether they could get one for me might depend on what I wanted (quantity-wise, no doubt).
This all seemed like a lot of arsing around for what's, essentially, a professional tool - and it didn't bode well in terms of product support and servicing...so I had another think.

And what I ended up with was a Dremel Versaflame. You can get these things almost anywhere and they're just a tad over half the price of the Blazer. I figured it'd be a bit of a compromise, what with the built-in safety features demanding two-handed operation - but as it turns out it's dead simple to disable the safety lock (bit of adhesive tack), and the constant flame lock is within reach of the forefinger once you've pressed the fire button with your thumb.
It's got an angled head, a flame adjust (bigger/smaller) and an air control (softer/fiercer) - and better still it comes in a snazzy metal box along with some useful accessories (a stand, a catalytic soldering bit, a hot air extension and a heatshrink tube mask...and a little wiping sponge in a tin (for the soldering bit), a roll of soft solder wire and a wee spanner. Even as a 'professional user' I'm impressed...but as a gadget freak I'm 'well chuffed' with the whole package.

Time will tell if it proves to be a sound investment - it'll have to withstand quite a bit of punishment, but it looks pretty well made (it has a metal gas tank). The only fly in the ointment was that even on its lowest setting the flame was twice the size I wanted...but it was easy enough to take the top apart (four small screws) and adjust the flame control lever...it's just a toothed ring that sits on a cog. And while I was in there I completely disabled the safety lock.
But best of all, if it ever breaks...I can get another one the next day, and that sort of thing matters.


Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015