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Amateur Telescope Building

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Looking for a hobby that will give you a whole new perspective on the universe? Amateur telescope making (or ATM for short) focuses starry-eyed wonder into the practical challenge of building an instrument to scan the skies.

Dan Cassaro is the creator of a website on telescope making. He estimates that around 2,000 people in the U.S. and Canada "do this as a hobby on a fairly regular basis. The number would be much larger if you include all those who've built one and then stopped, or who build a scope every 10 years or so."

Marc Baril is an amateur telescope maker. To him, the beauty of ATM is that anybody can do it. "Telescope making attracts people from all walks of life and with a diverse range of skills and abilities. Many devotees are engineering or science professionals, but many others are not," he says.

The "big bang" in ATM occurred 80 years ago when optician Russell Porter decided to teach telescope making to the public in Springfield, Vermont. Six years later, he founded the Stellafane Convention, which continues to draw amateur telescope makers to the city every year.

Like stars forming a nebula, Porter's class spun off into the first-ever ATM club, the Springfield Telescope Makers. Current club member Maryann Arrien says the movement that it launched has had its ups and downs, but is back "on the upswing."

A filmmaker by day, Arrien is completing a documentary on the history of ATM. In the early days, she says, many people took up the hobby simply because they couldn't afford to buy commercial telescopes.

That's rarely the case now. "One of the most common questions asked by beginners is, 'Will I save a bundle by making my own?' Of course, answers will vary," says Cassaro.

"But generally, making your own is more the end than the means. In other words, most amateur telescope makers make their own for the pure enjoyment of making their own. Any money they save is just a side benefit."

A telescope's main feature is its sophisticated set of mirrors, which diehards fashion on their own. Standard sizes of glass cost between $50 to $350 and require additional grinding, beveling, polishing and aluminizing. Some enthusiasts aluminize the glass themselves, but most prefer to send it to a coating lab.

"Don't forget that to make a complete scope, you will need to add a mount, tube, focuser, cell, secondary and so forth," says Cassaro. "Prices can add up quickly."

But Arrien, who has judged countless telescopes at Stellafane, says she is continually amazed at how people can make them to fit any budget. Ultimately, each telescope reflects its maker as much as it does the light from distant stars.

Though ATM can be a lonely pursuit, many enthusiasts share it through conventions like Stellafane, get-togethers known as "star parties," e-mail lists and clubs.

"It's always been a great group-making activity," says Arrien. She notes that the grinding ritual can easily turn into a chatty social occasion when amateur telescope makers work on their projects together.

ATM can also expand people's horizons by showing them unexpected sides of themselves. "After having built one or two scopes, those who weren't quite up to speed in their math eventually get curious and start looking at the math more carefully to understand what is going on," says Baril.

"After a while, many amateurs dabble in electronics so that they can provide computer control for their scopes. Some even build electronic CCD cameras to capture images of the sky."

Getting Started

Most amateur telescope makers start by immersing themselves in how-to books. Cassaro recommends the Amateur Telescope Making set edited by Arthur Ingalls. "By all accounts, these three volumes represent the ultimate ATM books. They contain lots of theory, procedures and practical advice," he says.

However, Baril cautions beginners that the set "contains too many conflicting views on techniques and much of the information is dated. Otherwise, it is a great book for perusal."

His personal favorite is How to Make a Telescope by Jean Texereau. "This book is extremely well-written and contains useful information for the beginner and advanced optician alike."

If you live in a city without an ATM club, Baril says the next best alternative is the local astronomy club. "Most have a number of telescope-making enthusiasts, so it would be best to get in touch with them."

"Many good books, the ATM list, and hopefully a local club can help you through the process," says Cassaro. "Generally, persistence and patience, rather than special skills or talents, are what you need."


Amateur Telescope Makers of Boston
9 Bear Hill Terr.
Westford , MA   01886-4225
E-mail :

Springfield Telescope Makers
P.O. Box 601
Springfield , VT   05156


The ATM Page
This site contains detailed how-to tips for different types of telescopes

Sky and Telescope Magazine
It contains a regular ATM column

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