How I got started building telescopes and making mirrors

Well, I grew up helping my dad build all kinds of strange and useful things in the woods in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan, a very beautiful state I must add (at least once you get north of Lansing a bit).  The sky was quite dark and transparent on many mosquito-laden summer nights, and one night I decided, since I liked science, that I should know the sky and constellations.

Enter a pair of binoculars.  I found the Andromeda galaxy, M13, lots of globulars in Opiuchus, the Lagoon Nebula, and all the open clusters and star clouds of the Milky Way through Sagittarius and Scutum.  I borrowed a neighbor's 60mm refractor and the moon looked great.  I remember observing Jupiter with this scope and with the 3" or 4" reflector that my parents bought for me soon after.  From our greenhouse I watched the moons change position every night, but I can't remember if I saw cloud detail on the Jovian disk or not.

I needed a better telescope.  After looking through countless ads in Astronomy Magazine, I realized that most in the size that I wanted (8") were too expensive.  Thus, the only solution was to build one.  I think around this time I picked up a subscription to Telescope Making, at issue 36 (Spring, 1989).  (Sadly this magazine ended at issue 46, in the winter of 1991.)  Somewhere in this eye-opening publication I got the idea that I could make my own primary mirror and my own telescope.

My parents got me an 8" mirror kit from Willmann-Bell, which I think cost around $100 at the time.  A large wooden spool that once held power cable for power lines became my grinding stand, and I still have the plywood board that served to hold the mirror/tool and the bucket I washed them in countless times.  There is a lot of pyrex dust in the woods around the old house.

I can't remember what focal ratio I went for first, but I ended up regrinding to a different one and polishing the mirror again with what I now suspect was a VERY hard pitch lap.  Wilmann-Bell even sent me some more pitch in an attempt to help me out in my struggle.  I didn't have any contacts to ask questions of, and I was having no luck changing the figure of the mirror.  Somehow for one fleeting moment I got a sphere.  It probably would have been best to quit here, but I persevered and tried to parabolize, with poor results.

A move to Cincinnati in 1990 left the mirror and tool in a box for a while.  I think I started working on them again for a bit, but they were soon packed away again.  I was given a scope containing a 5.25" F/8.8 mirror.  When I removed the mirror, the remains of a dead mouse were lying on it.  I built a Dob using this mirror, but its performance was incredibly bad.  Stars didn't really focus.  I disassembled the scope and put the mirror in a box.  (I would find out later that the glass had been etched by something, and then I would refigure it.)

After frustrations with two mirrors, I capitulated and bought an 8" F/6 mirror from Meade, and built another Dob.  This scope was used extensively, and I got to see most of the Messier list and good detail on the planets.

One day I was in the basement of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society building (since demolished, sadly, and another building put in its place) and came upon a large metal tube rusting.  Inside was a plate glass primary mirror and a secondary.  I brought it up at a meeting, and the club was happy to have a high-school student interested in buying a piece of junk rusting in the basement.  I still remember driving home on a cold winter day with my new telescope parts all over the place in my car.  It was a good day.

Months later I had completed my version #1 of my 10" F/6.8 telescope, named Messier 10.  I even wrote an article about building it for the club newsletter, the Sidereal Messenger.  It had 15 pounds of lead counterweight in the back, but I didn't care.  It was hauled back to Michigan and provided great views.  Then came high school graduation, and four years of college.  I joined the Rose-Hulman Astronomical Society and became president for a couple years.  We played with SCTs and CCD cameras, and watched comets Hyukatake and Hale-Bopp glide across the sky.

Next came graduate school, membership in the Astronomical Society at the University of Illinois (UIAS), and a trip to Astrofest 1998.  I took my 10" scope and sneezed for two days straight due to hay fever, but I didn't care.  I was surrounded by 800+ people and nearly as many telescopes, and Jupiter looked great through my modest scope.  I made sketches.  I won an award in the telescope contest.  Another trip to Astrofest a year or two later got me thinking about finishing the project that was sitting in the closet - the 8" mirror, now ground to approximatey F/4.

When I bought a house in 2001, it needed work and I spent a year and a half fixing it up and creating a workshop space in the basement.  In late 2002 the house work was mostly done and I realized I now had a work space that I had full control of, and some small bits of pitch in the kitchen were fine with me.  Mirror grinding began on December 26th, 2002 and was finished in March.  I had completed a very good 8" F/3.9 mirror.  I built a scope around it and first light occurred in April of 2003.  I stayed up late cruising the Milky Way, waiting for Mars to rise.  When I saw surface features, I knew that I had finished something useful, and I will never sell it.

Since the beginning of 2003 (it is now early 2008) I have ground or refigured ~90 mirrors, ranging in size from 4.25" F/4.5 to 32" F/4.  This includes four Cassegrain scopes (12.5", 14.25", 16.25" classicals and a 28" RC), for myself, a friend, for the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society (CUAS), and for a very motivated friend, respectively.  I've also done some work on flats, including fixing/making small and large elliptical diagonals up to 8.25" m.a. for Newtonian scopes.  I seem to have a knack for testing and figuring high-quality optics, and I enjoy doing it.  I really like taking precise measurements, so testing optics is perfect for me.  Needless to say, I will be making optics for a long time to come.  It gives me great satisfaction to make or fix a mirror for a friend or client (clients usually become friends), and then to watch them use it up to its full potential.

I was the president of the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society for 2006 and 2007.  I also enjoy giving talks on mirror-making or telescope making at meetings, star parties, etc.

My talks and articles are listed here.

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