A rolling blog of everyday life
on and around the workbench
As anyone who's visited my workshop will attest, I'm a big fan of
recycling. Not so much the quinoa pots and tofu jars type, but more
the "Oooh, that'll come in handy one day" variety.
It's what folks used to do 'when I were a lad'. If you take a trip
to your local tip these days you can often pick all manner of household
items...from brooms and hoses right through to washing machines
and furniture - even bikes, Super-Soakers and X-Boxes. But back
in my youth a trip to the tip would be lucky to yield half a rusty
bike, a broken table leg and a kettle with the bottom burnt out
of it. People just didn't throw stuff away - they fixed it, or they
passed it on. Or they bunged it in the shed until such times as
it would come in handy for spare parts.
you can only accumulate so much 'handy stuff' before you run out
of room - and having found myself in need of a little more floor
space I decided a bit of a clearout was in order. It was while I
was rummaging through various boxes (a collection of sheet music
from the 1960's, a Grunding Yachtboy radio with a busted dial, a
pile of computer magazine CDs...) that I stumbled upon an old Miele
It had given up the ghost years ago when all the magic smoke came
out of it, and I'd only kept it for spares because I had another
one exactly the same. But that too went west some time ago, so this
old thing was now rather redundant.
But there are all sorts of wonderful things inside a vacuum cleaner;
switches, springs, clips, plugs, nuts and bolts etc., so rather
than just take it down the tip I decided to dismantle it and see
what useful stuff I could salvage from it. The prize pick was the
self-retracting cable drum. What a fantastic gadget, what an amazing
piece of engineering, what a crime it would be to throw it in the
bin. But what was I going to do with it? I mean, what use would
I have for a drum that spews out cable and then retracts it at the
push of a button...?
Well, as it happens...
There's a leaklight
that hangs above my bench, and with the aid of a pair of pulleys
I'm able to pull the light down from the ceiling when I need to
check a horn for leaks and pull it back up out of the way when I'm
done with it. It's a bit of a Victorian setup, but it works well
enough. But here was this fancy-pantsy self-retracting cable drum
- and with a bit of hackery I figured I ought to be able to turn
it into a very posh leaklight indeed.
So I grabbed a sheet of paper, took a few measurements and sketched
out a design for a case. Making the case was going to be the largest
part of the project - and I'd very much liked to have merely adapted
an existing box...but I had nothing suitable lying around. I had
a couple of sheets of plywood offcuts though, and plenty of glue
don't mind saying I'm not all that keen on woodwork. I don't have
the skills or the tooling to make what I'd consider to be a first-class
job of it - which means that all my woodworking projects tend to
be...ahem...functional rather than aesthetically pleasing. If I'd
had access to a welding kit (and I knew how to weld), I'd have made
the box out of metal. You know where you are with metal. And, in
case you were wondering how I tackle clarinets and suchlike, I class
tropical hardwood as a metal because you can cut, turn and mill
it to much the same precision as a piece of metal. Unfortunately
I didn't have a large sheet of grenadilla to hand...
Mounting the cable drum in the box was going to
be tricky. It had been designed to clip into place, so there were
few places where you could drive a screw through it. It did, however,
have a hole right through the centre - so I figured I could mount
it on a shaft. The tight fit in the box would keep it in place,
and I found a spot where I could drive a screw through it for a
bit of extra stability.
Making the shaft was simple enough - it just needed brazing to a
disc that could be fixed to the box - and it'd be supported at the
other end by sliding into a boss. This would enable me to fit a
removable lid to the box so that in the event of needing to make
any adjustments or repairs, I wouldn't have to completely dismantle
There needed to be some provision for the cable
to fit through the box, and I went for a slotted hole. This allows
the cable to roll itself back onto the drum without tending to bunch
up in one spot - and I made another hole for the cord which would
operate the retraction mechanism.
I found out pretty quickly that the drum must not be allowed to
retract the cable all the way onto the drum. If it does so it loses
tension in the mainspring, and the end of the spring then pops out
of its detent slot.
This is a "proper nuisance" because it's not easy to get
the end of the spring back into its slot without dismantling the
entire drum. As it happened though, a springhook turned out to be
the ideal tool for the job.
The wiring was pretty simple - it only needs to
handle 12 volts DC, and rather than hardwire it to a power supply
I opted to fit a 1/4" jack socket. It's a reliable and simple
connector, and it means the unit can be removed without having to
unhook loads of cable from its clips.
Above is the box before final assembly and wiring.
As you can see, I wasn't kidding about my woodwork being functional.
You'll not find any morticed or dovetail joints here mate...oh no,
it's all nails, glues and screws. It'll do the job though, and a
lick of paint on the exterior will make it look like a million dollars.
Or a fiver, at least.
And here's the finished unit prior to fixing it
to a beam and connecting up the associated lighting. I'm rather
pleased with how it turned out, considering it's essentially a prototype.
I had a few hiccups along the way though. It was only after cutting
the slot for the cable in the lower panel, and drilling the hole
for the pull cord, that I discovered the panel was about 5mm too
short...at which point I suddenly decided that the bottom of the
box would look really neat if the edges were rounded off. That sorted
that little problem.
On testing the cable retraction I found that I'd made a slight miscalculation
between the diameter of the power plug and the width of the slot.
The plug was supposed to park itself neatly in the slot...but in
one spot it was able to go right through. Which it did. Which allowed
the drum to spin the mainspring off again. Lucky I made a removable
lid, eh? I got around the problem by deciding that the slot could
do with being lined with vinyl strips to, er, prevent chafing of
the cable. Probably. Having fitted the strips I then found that
they dampened down the clunk as the plug docked...which ties in
rather neatly with the "There's always something' principle
I wrote about in a recent Notes article.
previous setup used locking DC power jacks to connect the lead to
the light, but these proved to be unreliable over the long term
due to the amount of flexing the device goes through during daily
use - so I upgraded the plug to a 1/4" jack socket. It's a
far sturdier connector, but because it doesn't lock inside the leaklight
socket I found the leaklight sometimes detached itself from the
cable when pulling it from the drum. I fixed it by popping drop
of solder at the base of the plug's shaft, then filing it down into
a small wedge so that the plug is very snug fit in the socket. It's
a bit of a bodge but it'll do for the time being - and at a later
date I'll put some thought into a better locking mechanism. I could
have hardwired it, but I prefer a 'modular' setup because it allows
me to fit lights of different lengths and diameters on the cable.
The part I spent the most care on is the knob
on the end of the pull cord. This will dangle above the workbench,
so I'm likely to be looking at it every single day for at least
the next couple of decades (with a bit of luck) - so I spent some
time getting the aesthetics right. It's made from tropical hardwood
- not sure which one, but it's from a billet of wood that's incredibly
oily...even more so than rosewood.
I picked it up years ago in a job-lot of end cuts of unmarked hardwoods,
and to date it's been the only piece I've never been able to use.
Note the foam wedge (salvaged from the lining
of an old flight case). This is to lock the leaklight in place when
it's inside the bore of a horn. It's just a tapered tube of dense
foam with a generous slot cut into it, so that it wedges itself
into the crook socket and grips the shaft of the leaklight. Works
I was only at the end of the project that I realised
the whole thing was entirely constructed from recycled parts (excluding
the bulb of the leaklight itself). The wood, the nails and screws
and even the glue had come from the tip; the base of the central
bar came from a piece of old angle iron, the bar was part of a monitor
stand, the boss was turned down from the head of a very large old
bolt, the plugs and sockets came from a broken guitar cable and
an old effects pedal. Even the paint came from the tip. And the
cord. And then there's the cable roll from a broken vacuum cleaner...which
itself had come from the tip in the first place. And the power supply
As for the associated lighting - I have a momentary
footswitch on the floor that switches power between the leak light
and a small LED spotlight on the ceiling so that I can turn the
main lights out, spot the leak with the leaklight then temporarily
kill it and switch to the small spot while I make any adjustments.
And most of these bits were bought used from ebay.
Now that's what I call proper recycling.