Ok, so I know making a nixie clock isn't necessarily the most original of clock ideas, but I wanted something elegant to tell the time in my living room. When I made this I lived in a rented house where I couldn't mount a clock on the wall, so I needed it to stand on my (CRT!) telly. I'd been playing with nixies (see the name badge - I didn't take any pictures of it once it was assembled, but it had a 555 to switch between "Hi I'm" and "Simon") and I'd recently bought a 50s telly which inspired the styling: all curves and fillets. Add knowing someone who makes gorgeous guitars and has off cuts of some very nice sustainable woods and it almost designed itself.


I've been meaning to make an instructable on this for about 3 years. I didn't take quite enough photos on making it so sorry about that. Hopefully this should give you enough to inspire something similar though.

Step 1: Introducing Nixies

What are they?

Nixies are what was around to make numeric displays in scientific equipment back before LCD and LED displays were made. Technically Nixie was a brand name, but it has become the generic term for this type of indicator lamp. They are individual glass tubes with a number of shaped electrodes for each of the digits.

How do they work?

The numbers are illuminated by cold cathode emission, just like the neon indicator you get to say your 4-way mains extension is powered.The electrodes sit one in front of another and are pretty thin, so you can see the illuminated one from the front.

To achieve the cold cathode emission they run on over 150 volts. Once the gas inside starts to ionise its conductivity increases so a ballast resistor (similar to using LEDs) is used to limit the current and keep the glow rather than allowing an arc. PWMing them also works, although everything has to be happy with voltages higher than usual 5V electronics so high voltage transistors are required.

My Nixies

My Nixies are from Russia. The Soviet Union continued to produce Nixies long after they were obsolete elsewhere. Mine were made between 1975 and 1984, but others were made into the early nineties. The model is ИН-14 (IN-14 in Latin alphabet). These are one of the more affordable nixies, and even when they were made they were low cost... they cost reduced them by using an upside down 2 as a 5. I quite like this quirky look, although it clearly isn't to everyone's taste so these tubes are cheaper than others.

Step 2: The Base Design and Build


I was on a mission to make sure that for once things didn’t look shoddy, design was the starting point.

As I said, I was inspired by a 50s Bakelite TV I had recently bought, I used my then limited CAD skills to draw up the body form in Solidworks based on the dimensions of an off cut of beautiful wood (Padauk) offered to me by a friend who makes beautiful guitars (small plug for Organic Guitars…).

The body was lofted from three rounded rectangles (for each pair) to six circles, one for each tube. A cuboid extension was added to the back to house the electronics, which was filleted to an appropriate roundness. A cavity was added for the circuits to go in, with a cover to screw on the back. Holes were then put in for each nixie's wires, with a filleted counterbore to support the base of the tube. Two more holes were put in for the colon tubes, and the CAD was about done.


My friend then CNC milled the base for me so I can't really describe any hard graft here...

While he wasn't supposed to do more than that he also spent much of a weekend sanding and oiling it for me. Not only was I extremely grateful for him taking the time to do this for me, I was even more grateful when I discovered I'm allergic to the wood and doing this myself would have left my hands very red and uncomfortable!

Step 3: Electronics

My basic design principle is similar to the way people often drive small LED displays. I connect all the tubes' cathodes with all the same number cathodes from the other tubes. I then individually switch each tube's anode. By doing this I only need to control 10 cathodes and 6 anodes. By connecting one anode and the correct number cathode I can make any digit glow. Because once recently lit the tubes relight instantaneously, I can pulse through the digits quickly and brightly and persistence of vision makes it look like they are all lit at once.

The control of the entire clock is achieved using an Arduino. I initially breadboarded with an UNO, but I went for a Nano when I needed to fit it in the box. Everything was designed to fit the piece of stripboard I cut to fit in the box. I also soldered dusk till dawn to get it ready just before a Maker Faire...

The bit that is harder than LEDs is that any switching needs to be happy at around 170V, and that isn't Arduino territory! Each output needs high voltage transistors to do the switching.

For the cathodes this is easy as our Soviet friends also made (until 1992) a handy chip to drive their old school indicator lamps, the К155ИД (K155ID). This chip is a high voltage sink to pull down the selected cathode based on a low voltage binary coded decimal (BCD) input. You give the 4-bit number you want displayed and it pulls down the appropriate cathode.

For the anodes I used some 300V bipolar transistors I had lying around. To switch the anode a PNP is required, but to switch the PNP a high voltage sink is required, so I used an NPN to pull each of six PNPs down to control the anodes to select the active lamp. Current limiting resistors are required on the base pin of each transistor as well as on the anodes to control current through the nixies. I didn't write the values on my diagram (I probably worked them out as I went), but if you are less colour blind than me you can hopefully work it out from the 4th photo where there is a close up of the anode transistor array.

I used DIP sockets to connect one ribbon to the cathodes and one to the anodes.


Now there is control, all the electronics needed to illuminate the nixies is a high voltage supply. To make the project a little safer I used a low power 12V DC supply and a step up PSU to power the nixies. The 12V comes in a barrel connector in the back plate with a flying lead to the board. I have used a few different step up PSUs for nixies and I have not found any as good as the Taylor Electronics one. This works reliably and is very well designed. In practice I think this involved an extra resistor not drawn in the diagram to set the voltage, but it comes with good documentation to say how to do this. I set it to about 180V.


Having had one clock project ruined by the DS1307 RTC failing to keep time, I splashed out on the Sparkfun Dead On RTC. This is easy to implement with the RTClib library over SPI and keeps time exceptionally. I have not had to correct the clock in over 3 years! I added some code to the Arduino to automatically adjust for British Summer Time.


The colons on the clock are made from sub miniature mains neons connected directly to the power supply. Each neon has its own current limiting resistor in series. Resistor values need to be carefully chosen to avoid outshining the nixies. The legs are bent to structurally position the neon lamps. Each colon assembly is then carefully positioned in a mini test tube to fit in with the nixie styling. Clear silicon sealant applied at the opening stops them sliding out.

Step 4: Wiring in the Lamps

Another feature of the cheaper ИН-14s is the fact they have flying leads rather than sockets. This makes them difficult to mount neatly and very tiresome to replace. That said mine have been running for 3 years 24/7 without issue. The counterbore I added to the base covers any untidiness, but nothing can prevent the need to do 66 fiddly insulated solder joints to mount these nixies.

The anode is connected to one ribbon that is split into 6 strands, making it nice and easy to feed in through the hole in the wood. The cathode ribbon is much harder, since there are actually two ribbons, one from the previous tube and one to the next tube. These have to be folded to get through. Each of the solder joints needs to be made in turn, splicing ribbon two wires onto each cathode wire, while trying not to forget to put the little bit of heat shrink on first!

Feed the wires through, solder, shrink, solder, shrink, solder, swear, unsolder, put the forgotten bit of heat shrink on, solder, shrink... etc.

When I was done I used clear silicone sealant to mount the tubes, using a block of wood with parallel holes drilled to hold them straight while it cured.

Step 5: Finished

Fitting the electronics into the back, screwing on the back cover, and giving the wood a final polish are the last steps to complete a beautiful glowy nixie clock.

If you have enjoyed this instructable and like the clock please vote for me in the Time and Make It Glow contests


<p>I really love Nixie tubes. I've kept a lot of them over the years, never had the heart to throw them away. It warms my heart to see this nice warm glow.</p>
<p>Here's mine. It's in a different style, using the same nixies. Very cool project and congrats on the first prize!</p>
Nice! That looks properly vintage. And thanks:)
<p>Well done on your first prize!</p>
<p>Congrats on the first prize winner!</p>
Thanks! I'm chuffed to bits! Thanks to everyone who voted for me:)
<p>There is nothing more satisfying than the glow from Nixies!</p><p>I have made a couple of clocks based on the PV Electronics kit as I am hopeless with electronics but can solder well!</p><p>The soft curves that your wooden base has makes it stand out from the crowd. </p><p>Nice work!</p>
<p>you should enter the tech contest too. I like this, a bit advanced for me currently but eventually I will get there. </p>
<p>you should enter the tech contest too. I like this, a bit advanced for me currently but eventually I will get there. </p>
<p>While this is over my level of competency, I really enjoyed the instructable and the finished product. Great job!</p>
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<p>looks great.<br>just a few remarks. You are obviously a mechanical engineer :-) as yr description is more on the building than on the electronic wiring :-)<br>Anyway, for anybody who shys away from high voltage nixies, there are also numitrons. But I must say the nixies look nicer</p>
<p>There are also vfd tubes like the IV-11. They are lower voltage than nixies and last much longer numitrons. I still prefer nixies over vfds and numitrons though.</p>
<p>didnt realize that. Thanks for the info. For looks I prefer nixies as well, for ease numitrons :-)</p>
Totally! Although also, because I'm less strong on the electronics, I mostly used off the shelf modules - meaning it is kind of too simple to add much more detail. The anode transistor array is the only bit that isn't just hooking things up. It doesn't help that it was so long ago so the details are less fresh, either. Let me know if there is any specific detail you think I should add?<br>Numitrons have their own charms (even if iPhone spell check thinks they are munitions!) and are definitely easier, if a little more power hungry, but I do like the curvy 'real' digits of nixies. Nixies also burn out less frequently, which is useful for a 24/7 clock.
<p>Great instructable! The finished product looks awesome! I love the wood work, and the electronic design that lies underneath the tubes. Those tubes also look fantastic!! Great job!! Thank you for sharing !</p>
<p>Looks great! And as a side tip, try using some sockets for the nixie tubes rather than soldering directly to the tube, this 1. lowers the heat traveling through the conductive pins and 2. Allows to swap other tubes if something is to happen to it! Great Job btw!</p>
I definitely agree if your nixie uses pins... Another side effect of cost reduced nixies like mine includes the use of flimsy flying leads instead of pins so alas soldering was the only option for me.
Ah. That makes sense!
<p>That's great! I wish I had the skills to make one of these. I love woodworking but the electronic aspect leaves me dreaming of making one.</p>
<p>I kept the electronics pretty simple here as I'm a mechanical engineer - I'm not the strongest with electronics, so I used off-shelf modules where possible. However if you want the really easy option you could by the drive electronics from something like this: </p><p><a href="http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Remote-Tube-Nixie-Clock-Kit-For-Artists-and-Designers-/181903544002?hash=item2a5a4bcec2:m:mQptk7F5Rt5cARaDRJUaPXg">http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Remote-Tube-Nixie-Clock-...</a></p><p>It might be a bit bigger but it is ready built for you, no soldering needed.</p><p>(I have nothing to do with this kit so can't say how good it is!)</p>
<p>Thank you for the heads up on the kits. I'll be adding that to my wishlist and project list.</p>
<p>Thanks for the nice comments. </p><p>I tend to buy nixies via eastern europe from ebay. The Ukraine seems to be full of them. Several sites also sell them if you google around. Many are new old stock too. </p><p>It is worth buying tested units though as some have lost their seal and don't work and I think they are concentrated by testing removing many of the good ones and leaving bad ones in the population, creating &quot;untested&quot; _subtext:I know some of these don't work_ </p><p>Over 5% of untested tubes I have bought have been no good, that is pretty poor imho.</p>
<p>Hey you can get nixies from <a href="http://mrvalve.co.za" rel="nofollow">MrValve</a>. </p><p>They are really good.</p>
<p>No wonder - as used in Chernobyl - probably glow in the dark - &quot;Kiev, we have a problem&quot;</p>
<p>Cheers for the sketch,mate !</p><p>Will give it a try</p>
<p>That wood looks really nice... I like nixie tubes, except their not really practical. Nice 'ible.</p>
<p>very nice</p>
awesome! I love it! I'm making my fourth wooden nixie clock and I can say for sure that your is a real piece of art! :)
<p>This is really cool !</p><p>Any chance you would share the arduino &quot;sketch&quot; with us ?</p><p>Would really like to build one like this.</p><p>cheers </p>
<p>This is a slightly neatened copy of what I found on my failed hard drive on my old laptop:</p><p><a href="https://github.com/Jellmeister/Nixie-Clock/blob/v1.3/Nixieclock_v1.3.ino">https://github.com/Jellmeister/Nixie-Clock/blob/v1...</a></p><p>I think it is the latest but please note that it may not be as it was a recovered file and I haven't tested it. If it isn't the latest you might see the wrong time occasionally in the two weeks of the GMT/BST hour change.</p>
which nixies did you use for the points?
The colon points aren't nixies, they are sub-miniature mains indicators, like you get to show the power is on in your kettle. They run at their absolute minimum to match the nixies' soft glow... The colons were assembled by me using two neons and a miniature test tube.
<p>Beautiful work! Can I ask the dimensions of the wooden base - both inner and outer? Was it large enough...would you have changed anything?</p>
<p>Thanks,<br>Outer dimensions are easy: 187wx50dx90h<br>Inside less so; I <br>had a hard drive fail a couple of years ago and lost the finished CAD <br>(the cavity was put in last). I would estimate 145wx35dx50h based on the<br> circuit board JUST fitting (not at home <br>so can't measure).<br><br>Space was tight enough to have to plan it a <br>bit (e.g. height was almost too small for vertical arduino nano) but in a<br> pinch (and less tidy) it could be perhaps 40% smaller, I sized the <br>outer to use the full offcut I had and then the cavity to be convenient,<br> neat and strong enough. I'm happy with the size and it wasn't too hard <br>to assemble.<br><br>If I made it again I would add a tidy button or two,<br> (perhaps on the bottom, sub flush) to adjust the time. 3 years down the<br> line it is ~2 minutes fast, and I need to open thte box and reprogram <br>the arduino. The aforementioned hdd fail means I'm not sure I have the <br>latest hour change code (I implemented that last) to program it with. <br>Still, I'm very happy with it:)</p>
<p>hehe, cool stuff</p>
<p>THAT a good project</p><p>inpressing::</p><p>i will like to have a detail of the project</p>
<p>beautiful clock! How did you get your nixies from Russia shipped? Are there websites where you can order them? </p>
This. Is. Awesome. Definitely inspired me to make one

About This Instructable




Bio: By day I am a mechanical engineer; I innovate solutions and design everything from disposable mechanisms for medical devices to payload attachment and deployment mechanisms ... More »
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