Kit Review – adafruit industries Ice Tube clock v1.1

Hello readers

Today we examine a kit that perhaps transcends from general electronic fun and games into the world of modern art – the adafruitIce Tube” clock.

What is an Ice Tube clock? Before LCDs (liquid-crystal displays) were prevalent another form of display technology was popular – the vacuum-fluorescent display (or VFD). This clock uses a VFD originally manufactured in the former Soviet Union (link for the kids) or Russia (I think mine is date-stamped January 1993). This particular VFD contains a series of seven-segment digits and a dot, which allow the display of time in a bright and retro fashion.

Since this kit was released I had always desired one, however my general parsimonious traits and the wavering exchange rate against the US dollar kept my spending in check. But lately my wallet was hit by a perfect storm: the Australian dollar hit parity with the greenback, adafruit had a discount code and I felt like spending some money – so before the strange feelings passed I ordered a kit post-haste.

Sixteen slow, hot days later the box arrived. I must admit to enjoying a good parcel-opening:

packagingss

As always, the packaging was excellent and everything arrived as it should have. But what was everything?

boxcontentsss

Included is the anti-static bag containing the PCB and general components, a bag with the laser-cut acrylic pieces to assemble the housing, another bag with the housing fasteners and the back-up coin cell for the clock, a mains adaptor, and finally another solid cardboard box containing the classic display unit – albeit with the following sensible warning:

warningss

And finally the Russian IV-18 display tube:

tuberulerss

The tube is a fascinating piece of work, certainly a piece of perfect retro-technology and a welcome addition to my household. Assembling the clock will not be a fast process, and in doing so I recommend reviewing the detailed instructions several times over at the adafruit website. Furthermore, it is a good idea to identify, measure and line up the components ready for use, to save time and confusion along the way. Your experience may vary, however this kit took around three hours for me to construct.

Normally with most kits you can just solder the components in any order, however it is recommended you follow the instructions, as they are well written and allow for testing along the way. For example, after installing the power regulator, you can check the output:

firsttestss

At this stage, you can test your progress with the piezo beeping at power-on:

pcb2ss

These mid-construction tests are a good idea as you can hopefully locate any problems before things get out of hand. Another item to be careful with is the PLCC socket for the Maxim MAX6921 VFD driver IC (second from the left):

pcb3ss

However with time and patience there is no reason why you would have any problems. Once the main PCB is completed, the next item is the end PCB which connects to the VFD:

endpcbss

At this point it is a good time to have a break and a bit of a stretch, as you need all your patience for soldering in the VFD. Before attempting to do so, try and carefully straighten all the wires from the VFD so they are parallel with each other. Then using the adafruit instructions, make sure you have the tube wires lined up with the correct hole on the PCB:

endpcb2ss

After I had the leads through the correct holes on the PCB, trimming the leads made things easier:

endpcb3ss

It is also a good idea to check the gap between the VFD and the PCB is correct, by checking the fit within the housing:

testfitss

And after much patience, wire pulling with pliers, and light soldering –  the VFD was married to the PCB:

endpcb4ss

So now the difficult soldering work has been completed and now it was time for another test – the big one… does it all work?

alivess

Yes, yes it does. *phew* The low brightness is normal, as that is the default level set by the software. Please note: if you run your VFD without an enclosure that you must be careful of the high voltages on the right-hand side of the PCB and also the VFD PCB. If you test your VFD in this manner, don’t forget to allow ten minutes for the voltage to return to a safe level after removing the power supply. If you have been following the instructions (I hope so!) there is some more soldering to do, after which you can put away your soldering iron.

Now to remove the liner from the acrylic housing pieces and put it all together. Be very careful not to over-tighten the bolts otherwise you will shatter the housing pieces and be cranky. If all is well, you’re finished clock will appear as such:

tothisss

The clock in use:

runningss1

And finally, our ubiquitous video demonstration:

VFDs can lose their brightness over the years, and can be difficult to replace – so if you want many, many years of retro-time it would be smart to buy an extra tube from adafruit with your kit, or a modified DeLorean.

Overall, this was an interesting and satisfying kit to assemble. Not for the beginner, but if you have built a few easier kits such as  the “TV-B-Gone” with success, the Ice Tube clock will be within your reach. Furthermore, due to the clear housing, this kit is a good demonstration of your soldering and assembly skills. High resolution images are available on flickr.

You can purchase the kit directly from adafruit industries. As always, thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments and so on. Furthermore, don’t be shy in pointing out errors or places that could use improvement. Please subscribe using one of the methods at the top-right of this web page to receive updates on new posts. Or join our Google Group.

[Note - The kit was purchased by myself personally and reviewed without notifying the manufacturer or retailer]

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John Boxall

Founder, owner and managing editor of tronixstuff.com.

3 Responses to “Kit Review – adafruit industries Ice Tube clock v1.1”

  1. JIM SHEEHAN says:

    NICE REVIEW, GOING TO ORDER ONE TONIGHT. ALMOST DONE WITH AN IN8-2 6 TUBE CLOCK FROM PV ELECTRONICS!

  2. Charlie says:

    I second your warning about the Max6921. This is the first time I have dealt with a PLCC chip. I paid careful attention to lining up the flat corner of the chip with the flat corner of the socket, but I inserted the chip upside down. Since I have only worked with DIP ICs before it seemed natural to me to insert this chip with the prongs pointing down. The printing on the top of the chip is so low contrast that I never saw it and have trouble reading it with my magnifiers. It looks like I fried the chip since the tube lit up when the chip was upside down but does not now that it is right side up.

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