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Air variable capacitor from scrap aluminum sheets

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Picture of air variable capacitor from scrap aluminum sheets
I was building a crystal set for my son, but it came to a halt. When i found out that i have no variable capacitor in my pile of junk.
Scavenging one from an old radio was not an option. Since most of new radios uses analog tuning. And the ones with air variable capacitors are very rare, and are collectors item.
I have read an article once about building an air variable capacitor. So i decided to build my own from scraps of aluminum sheets and from things that are easily found around the house.
If you have a drill, a scissors, a file and some sandpaper. You can easily build this one. It doesn't require much skills.:-)
I made mine from aluminum sheets 1.5 and 2mm thick. The housing is from an aluminum heatsink, i also manage to get 3 pieces of bolts with a few nuts from my junk box. The plastic bushing which also acts as an insulator is from a plastic pen and some plastic jar caps.
I also made my own washers/spacers from the 2mm thick aluminum sheet.
The contacts of the rotor which also acts as a tensioner. Were from a broken washingmachine timer.
You can experiment with the number of plates and with the size op gaps by adding more plates and washer, in the rotor and stator.
 
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Step 1: Marking the center for pilot holes

Picture of marking the center for pilot holes
On this step we will do the measurements.
Lay the aluminum sheet flat on your work bench. From on end draw a square measuring 5cm x 5cm. Using a sharp object like a nail or file.
Get the center and punch a hole in it using a small nail. Punch a hole for every 5 centimeters along the straight line as shown on the photo.

Step 2: Draw some circles

Picture of draw some circles
Here we will draw circles on the sheet. We can draw circles perfectly by using a compass.
If you dont have a compass.You can improvise, by driving two small nails on a small piece of wood.
Insert one nail on the hole that you made on the sheet and turn it. It is important that the circles doesn't overlap. So that we will have enough space when we cut them out later.
You can make as many circles as you like, if you have enough aluminum sheet. It is better to have a spare you if you made a wrong cut. Than to repeat the same process if we you ran out of pieces at the middle of your project.

Step 3: Marking lines for the stator plates

Picture of marking lines for the stator plates
Using a tri-square, draw a line from the edge of the sheet up to the center of the arc. (The one that is pointed by a pen on the photo)
It is important to do this, because we need each part to be uniform in size. And this also serves as a guide when we cut them out.

Step 4: Cutting

Picture of cutting
With a big scissors and a strong grip. You can easily cut out all of the pieces. And then flatten each piece with a rubber mallet.
You can also use a hammer. But be very gentle.

Step 5: Marking the holes for the stator

Picture of marking the holes for the stator
Get a piece and draw a line from the center. Going to the left corner.
Get the centerline (from corner to arc) and punch a hole in it.
Mark this piece as pattern.
Put it on top of another piece. And puch a hole on the second piece under it. Using the hole on the first piece as a template. Flip the pattern and punch the second hole.
We do this because we will drill all the rotor and stator plates one at a time. I dont recommend stacking all the pieces and drill them all at one time. The drill bit always tend to bend. Or you may if you have a drill press

Step 6: Marking the inner circle

Picture of marking the inner circle
Again improvise a compass to draw the inner circle.
Using a scissors cut it from both end, up to the arc of the inner circle. Be very carefull not to cut it all the way to the center. :-)
when all of the pieces are cut. Flatten them again with a rubber mallet.

Step 7: Cutting the arc

Picture of cutting the arc
7th.jpg
Here we will cut the arc that still connects the rotor and the stator plates. You can always cut it with a scissors.
But it's easier and faster if you use a curved chisel. (the one's that wood carvers use)
I have one but i don't want to ruin it.:-)
So i made one from a small pipe. Sharpen it at one end with a file. And removed half of it. So that it will be just like a curved chisel.
Dont get confused when cutting. The rotor must have the part with a hole in it. (This is where the spare pieces come in handy:-)

Step 8: Drilling

Picture of drilling
Now that we have our rotor and stator. It is time to make the holes bigger. With the use of a drill. Find bolts (3pcs.) with nuts ( i used 12 pcs. Of nuts because i removed the head of each bolt so i can open my varicap on both ends.) i used a 4mm. drill bit. Find bolts that will fit the holes perfectly, specially for the rotor

Step 9: Turning with a drill

Picture of turning with a drill
At this stage we will make our rotor plates perfect arcs. And to remove burrs and sharp edges. With the help of a drill and a coarse file and some sand paper.
Stack all of the rotor plates facing each other forming a circle. (we do this to avoid vibrations when we turn them with a drill) Insert the bolt and tighten the nut.
Insert the end of the bolt on the chuck of the drill. Just like a normal drill bit. Turn on the drill and use the file to smoothen the sides of the rotor plates. Be very carefull set the drill at low speed. Do not press the drill swith for a long time. (the nut may loosen) if this happens reverse the direction of the drill.
Finish with a fine sand paper

Step 10: Shaping the stator plates

Picture of shaping the stator plates
We will shape the stator plates at this part of my instructable.
Like what we did with our rotor plates. We will also stack all of the stator plates. Insert the bolts on each hole, and tighten the nuts. If you have a bench vise so much the better.
If you can see the photo clearly. I colored the parts to be remove with a black pen. Or just simply follow the arc and avoid the head of the bolt and the nut. Be patient you can do this with a coarse file. Remember aluminum is not that hard to work with. :-)

Step 11: From this to that

Picture of from this to that
At this stage, your pieces must look like the 3rd piece on this photo. Well done.
At this point you can also remove the paint. If they have paint on. And check again for curves or if ever they are crooked.

Step 12: Making your own washers

Picture of making your own washers
Make your own washers/spacers. From a heavier guage or from the same sheet. But you will need 2 pcs. Of washers/spacers for each gap. I recommend using the same guage as the stator and rotor plates.Lighter guage is much easier to cut.
Cut a strip of aluminum about 1cm. wide. Drill holes in it using the same drill bit you used for the stator and rotor plates. Cut the strip into squares. Making sure that the hole you drilled is on the center. Insert the bolt with its head on top. Then cut the corners using the head of the bolt as a guide, as seen on the photo.

Step 13: Finishing your washers

Picture of finishing your washers
As what you did with the rotor plates. Hammer them gently to make them flat. Stack them up, insert the bolt, tighten the nut. And again with the use of a drill turn them and smothen with a file and finish with a fine sand paper.

Step 14: Rotor and stator assembly

Picture of rotor and stator assembly
Remove the head of each bolt. Put one nut on one end of eah bolt. Turn the nut until 5cm. of the bolt protrudes from the nut. Get one of the bolts, insert on one stator plate followed by two washers. And again a stator plate and two washers. Repeat this step until you finish. Leave enough space for 2 bolts and two washers and dont forget the shaft on where to put a knob

Step 15: The housing

Picture of the housing
I made the housing from an aluminum heatsink salvaged from a television chassis. It is more or less 2mm. thick.
I placed the rotor and stator on top of it. leaving a distance of 1mm. Between the rotor and stator. Marked the 3 holes to be drilled using the rotor and stator holes as template. Then drilled all the holes using the same drill bit used for the rotor and stator plate. Then i just cut it in a triangular shape and rounded all of the corners.

Step 16: The insulator

Picture of the insulator
Look for something that will insulate the rotor's axel from the end plate/chassis. Like for example a rubber hose from a fuel line of an automobile. Since i don't own a car. I just used a plastic pen for a bushing. Note: look for the right pen before you make the top hole bigger. Don not drill until you have your bushing:-)

Step 17: Plastic jar caps

Picture of plastic jar caps
Cut two triangular shaped plastic from jar caps. Or any plastic of your choice. This plastic will insulate the rotor contact from the aluminum housing. I just glued my contact temporarily. I will later change it with a copper connector. The ones that look like washers like the ones used for ground connection.
Now you just put the two triangular plastic on both sides. Followed by the two triangular shaped aluminum and you are done.
Remember if you have two stator plates, you must have three rotor plates. 4/5, 5/6 and so on.
I hope that this instructable will be of much help. Thanks :-)

Step 18: Finish

Picture of finish
Here is the finished variable capacitor. Installed on a crystal shortwave receiver.
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Whoa! This is incredible, true DIY!
Tachyon1 year ago
This is a really great Instructable. I especially like how you did everything using simple tools and scrap.
Every crystal radio buff out there is going to love you for this as those darn variable caps are hard to source.
Nice work!
Jezan (author)  Tachyon9 months ago

thanks

http://www.midnightscience.com  Source Air Variables
Hinesdarrel10 months ago

Hey it is really amazing to make a capacitor for just scrap aluminium. Its very good use of wasted aluminum. Appreciate you a lot. Thank you for sharing this idea.

http://www.analogtechnologies.com/capacitorkits.html

Jezan (author)  Hinesdarrel9 months ago

thanks hines

dditlya1 year ago
Or you can get a variety of variable capacitors from us - spraguegoodman.com
Jezan (author) 5 years ago
Here is the finished radio. All the wirings are done under the plastic base. I will publish an ible of this crystal set soon.
Drakekay Jezan3 years ago
How would you measure this type of Capacitor? I'm guessing it would have a resistance range? Do you think the number of plates would add variability to those values? Perhaps adding in a few extra plates at the top end only. You could do this by using 1/4 and 1/8 of a circle for a few of the rotor plates instead of the 1/2 circle rotor plates. I'm not sure this will translate into capacitance the way I'm image it. Varying the degree of the rotor plate to achieve a larger range?
Example.bmp
You need a meter that measures Farads. An Air Variable like this for Broadcast band should go from 0-365 pF.
Air Variables can be had from MidnightScience.com for about $12 +/- US.
Adding or subtracting plates will increase or decrease the caps value.

If you can make caps like you suggest then you should have a Ham Radio License and build your own Transmitter and Receiver to operate.
raypsi Dr.Bill2 years ago
A little FYI goes a long way:
the equation for a air plate capacitor is:

C= {k*0.2248*A}/d

this is in inches:
C is the capacitance of 2 plates
k is dielectric constant air and vacuum are 1
A is the area of one plate in square inches
d is the distance between the plates in inches

The maximum capacitance of a multi plate variable capacitor would be:

Ct= {n-1}*C

Where:
Ct is the total maximum capacitance
n is the number of plates
and C is the capacitance in pico farads of just 2 plates

If you do like the Japanese do and put a dielectric between the plates it can make the capacitor smaller no real advantage in a crystal set. but if you were shipping tens of thousands of them it would save you sum money.

Say you take a 3 inch diameter circle the area fro the caqpacitor would be r^2*PI= A
or about 7 square inches then you only will be using half of the circle so making A=3.5 inches for the capacitor equation.

say you make the distance .04 inches between the plates
so:
{1*3.5*.2248}/.04=79.4 pf for 2 plates

so 365/79.4=4.59 so 5 plates total will get you close

{5-1}*79.4=317.6pf
6 plates would be
{6-1}*79.4=397pf

it is perfectly ok to have even about of stator and rotor plates
or you can tweak the diameter with a spread sheet to get an odd number of plates

73
de N8ZU

Dr.Bill raypsi2 years ago
I just stick ah meter on it.

73's
de WH7WP
zwheel Dr.Bill1 year ago
Or.. for the purpose of building a crystal set... why bother with the meter. Just hook it up and see what frequencies you get. That could be part of the fun!
Dr.Bill zwheel1 year ago
When I build an X-Tal set I tend to use what I have in the junk box.
I have BCB air variables from the tube era that I use that are not near 365pF but they usually have trimmer caps on their sides. If that do the trick I have been known to adjust the capacitance with fixed caps and micro switches. My last X-Tal set I had set up under the transmitting antenna, at a Boy Scout Jamboree, of a 100 watt HF transmitter. My long wire was lower and parallel to the antenna on the transmitter. With the switched caps on my air variable I was able to have complete separation of frequency's. HF radio did not bleed over to the BC X-Tal set. I had 2 meters on the thing to detect null spots for each tank circuit on the X-Tal set. I had a Push Pull coil and a spider web coil all working together with a matched pair of 1N34 detector diodes. No "Taps" on any of the coils. The results I had were astonishing to me. I was able to tune from below 53kHz AM all the way into the SW Bands to around 40 meters somewhere.
The separation was great. The 2 Meters I used as tuning aids. Best X-Tal Set I ever had. Next time I use 600/44 Litz wire for the coils.

73's
WH7WP de
zwheel Dr.Bill1 year ago
That capacitor doesn't look like it would go as high as 365pf. But.. he didn't say Broadcast Band, he said Shortwave. That wouldn't require as large a capacitor so it makes sense.

If you are going to build something like this shortwave might be more fun anyway. AM broadcast radios are still so common. I'm sure we all have several even if we never use them. It's fun to build anything, just to be able to say you built it yourself but better yet when it is something you don't already have!
micchow1 year ago
Just got this Instructable in my e-mail digest. I see that the plates are made from aluminum. Would it be possible to make the plates from the aluminum from an old drink can?

Thanks for the wonderful build.
Late to the party, but this is really cool!
tlynch13 years ago
wow neat
my grandfather built a bunch of those old radios theirs even a couple sitting in my dads basement
Dr.Bill3 years ago
In the begining of Amateur Radio operators built All the parts needed to assemble Transmitters and Receivers.
wirecutter3 years ago
Wow! First class! A True instructable and a real make your own radio. Will it be a make your own crystal next.?
This has taken me back to the 50s when I use to go around the Second hand shops, and scrounge 'Old Faulty Radios' for a few pence of my pocket money, and either make them work or use the parts. I did find a box of Carborundum crystals but the best sensitivity was far less than an OA90 diode.
I had thought that no one was doing crystal sets any more, as in Europe T.P.T.B. (the powers that be) have sold off for "Data" use most of the AM and FM . frequencies and pushing for every one to listen to D.A.B. ( and I am not saying the other use of those initials!) You try building a receiver for digital out of just six simple items, and explain how it works to a youngster, if three of them are little black multi-legged chips!
Oh yes, for those that wanted to know how to find out the value of of 'C' the mid range of digital meters have an "F" or "C" range. Once again what a great instructable.
joliwana4 years ago
way to go Jezan! keep it up!
Awesome
genesis_tan5 years ago
nice!! great job tito!!
Re-design5 years ago
You take DIY seriously don't you!
Jezan (author)  Re-design5 years ago
It's habit forming. lols  
Jezan (author) 5 years ago
Thanks a lot for all the nice comments.
parker2165 years ago
Jezan, I really like what you did here. Your instructions were exact and precise. I love this because I try to build EVERY component of a crystal set myself. I would like to suggest the book "The Voice Of The Crystal". There are a lot of diy crystal radio projects inside. You might be able to find it on amazon, but midnightscience.com has it in stock and they are a great crystal radio club with many books and parts. Thanks for this instructable!
scottm_1135 years ago
Being an ex-radio operator (that made Most of his toys) I have to say that this has GOT to be one of the BEST Instructables that I've seen to date! Well Done!
seandogue5 years ago
Ok, I'm officially impressed. That's ingenuity and gumption
Jezan (author)  seandogue5 years ago
Thank you Sean.
Nucleus5 years ago
where should I hook up the terminals using this capacitor?
Jezan (author)  Nucleus5 years ago
Hook up terminals on the rotor using the thin copper sheet ( photo step 17.) for the stator part you can hook up wires on any of the four nuts that holds the housing. Or you can put a terminal lug on each nut if you are to mount it on a PCB. These are like washers that have a portion to crimp a wire in place
gmoon5 years ago
You did an absolutely fantastic job--really! (but radio-type variable capacitors are fairly cheap and easy to find...)
Jezan (author)  gmoon5 years ago
Yeah right, cheap and easy to find. Im in the middle of the desert nowhere to find and nowhere to buy. :-) thanks..
gmoon Jezan5 years ago
Oh, sorry, you've got a delivery / shipping problem? If I'd had a way to get it to you, I'd have sent you one...
Jezan (author)  gmoon5 years ago
And so do you, lols
gmoon Jezan5 years ago
Not so much--on this end. ;-) Good luck. Looking forward to seeing your the finished radio.
Stuffses5 years ago
how much can the capacitor hold
Jezan (author)  Stuffses5 years ago
I'm sorry i dont know how much capacitance it holds. I have seen some 25 rotor plates/24 stator plates at 450 fF. Mine is 6 rotor plates/5 stator plates. Maybe its about 100 fF im not really sure.
i forgot to add a {?}
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