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Working with fragile and finicky tube sockets can be challenging for soldering novices.
Before You Build …Some questions to consider before attempting an amp build:
Not for noobs? Anyone with average intelligence and properly functioning hands, eyes, and ears can build an amp from a kit—but it’s a lot easier if you have some electronics experience. If you’re just getting started with soldering, schematics, and the like, consider a relatively simple project, like a fuzz pedal kit from the likes of BYOC, Mod Kits, Mammoth, or General Guitar Gadgets. There’s no better way to learn the basics, and when—um—the smoke clears, you’ll have some nice new stompboxes. And remember: While it’s all too easy to hurt yourself with tools while building pedals, low DC voltages mean you’re unlikely to electrocute yourself. With AC power, you run a genuine risk of painful, or even fatal, shocks. Take safety guidelines seriously.
Know your motivation. Are you building an amp to save money? To learn how amps work? For a few fun hours at the workbench? Your motive can steer you toward your ideal project. Consider the kits reviewed here: The Mojotone project includes a ready-to-solder turret board to house the passive circuitry, while the Tube Depot project requires you to make your own turret board. You must mark and drill each hole and pound in each tiny turret. Does that sound like a good time or a royal pain? Choose accordingly.
Download docs in advance. Most kit companies post schematics, wiring diagrams, and build instructions (if any)online.Download and review them in advance to minimize nasty surprises.
A clean, well-lighted place for solder fumes. You need decent tools to complete these kits.Not just screwdrivers, pliers, and wire cutters, but an electric drill and a set of bits. A high-quality, adjustable-temperature soldering station such as a Weller or Hakko helps immensely. It’s definitely worth spending the $75 or so, especially if there might be more DIY projects in your future. A ventilated, well-lighted workspace is also crucial. Also, count on everything taking longer than intended, so don’t start building at your kitchen table if you plan to eat there this week.
Help on the horizon? DIY kit vendors rarely offer meaningful tech support. Some companies have online forums where you may find good advice, but plan for the worst, and don’t count on unpaid support. Do you have any friends with electronics skills? Do something nice for them now so you can hit them up for help later. Do you have a favorite amp tech? Ask in advance whether they’d be willing to help if you get stuck. If you hire good help at an hourly rate, you can learn volumes and still emerge with a great amp at about half the cost of a premade one.
Pick your parts? Most amp kits include high-quality parts. Still, you may want to upgrade to ultra-premium parts. Most companies offer stripped-down versions of their kits for those planning to provide their own tubes, transformers, speakers, and/or cabinets. (If you don’t see such options on the website, ask.) There’s a lot to be said for the convenience of one-stop shopping, but if you’re a devotee of audiophile transformers, rare NOS tubes, or a speaker type not offered by the vendor, consider an “incomplete” kit. On the other hand, you might not want to blow your budget on fancy parts for your first build—you may need the experience of several builds to create your dream amp.
Patience, patience. Chances are something will go wrong during your build. With so many parts per kit, there’s much room for mishap. Your kit might show up minus a small part, or you might lose one, so prepare for the possibility of waiting for replacements. The same goes for parts you damage yourself—and sadly, it’s all too easy to snap a fine wire or melt a plastic tube socket. Don’t build when you’re stressed or rushed. Don’t count on your new amp being ready for Saturday’s gig. And if you find yourself wanting to break things intentionally, put down that soldering iron and step away from the workbench!