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Make: Asks is a new weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column will spark interesting conversation and that we’ll get to know more about each other.

One time I accidentally shorted the transformer on one of my guitar amps, sending sparks flying. This was definitely an epic (and dangerous) fail for me.

This week’s question: What was your most epic mistake on a project you were working on? Were you able to fix it?

Post your responses in the comments section.

Michael Colombo

Michael Colombo

In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens’ educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

  • Greg Williams

    Here’s my latest epic fail. Built a rock tumbler I was quite proud of only to find out my motor was underpowered. I’m rebuilding now with a much larger motor, so I think I can save it.

  • apeine

    Well, that should have been when I first learned how to solder. When I tried to do it, I created a pool of solder, with all resistors, transistors and IC practically together. When I connected a battery, I learned how burnt components smell like.
    20 years later, saw a video on youtube, and darn, soldering is so easy, even to get a good finish… Wish I had learned that before…

  • oldsweng

    I was about 13 when I built my first transformer, in my bedroom. The primary was two wraps of 22 AWG magnet wire and the secondary was a single wrap of the same wire around an empty toilet paper roll. I then hooked a light bulb to the secondary and stuck the primary into the 115VAC. I was able to put out the fire pretty quickly and decided I needed to get a little more electrical knowledge before experimenting again. I’ve now been in the electronics industry for 40 years, but that incident still sticks in my mind.

    • adcurtin

      I’m sorry, but this is hilarious. it’s just so ridiculous to imagine. Also, the thought process to know about transformers, but not to know that a cardboard tube won’t make a good transformer it pretty funny.

  • Lear

    I was patterning a Mokume-gane billet (think Damascus steel… but in precious metal) and was hot-forging it on an anvil. Lost my grip with the tongs and reflexively reached out caught hot metal with my opposite (and ungloved) hammer hand.

    Two weeks later I did it again.

    I had a lovely crucifix shaped burn on the palm of my hand for about 6 months. I may be a slow learner but I always wore gloves on both hands no matter what thereafter.

  • RockDoggy (@RockDoggy)

    When I built my first computer from parts (probably 20+ years ago) it came without instructions or information on how to wire it through the mechanical power switch in the case. Two leads in, two leads out, no idea which lead was which.

    In the absence of a multimeter, and being young and a tad anxious to get it running, I guessed on how to wire it. The breaker tripping in my apartment was a spectacularly loud and obvious method of finding out what a bad guesser I was. Not the smartest move, obviously.

    Luckily for me, I managed not to fry the power supply, wires, or any components, and the fire department didn’t need to be called. I believe I bought my first meter that night. The computer, once properly wired, worked perfectly for years to come. And I’ve since become a little more patient and methodical about these sorts of things, especially where electricity is concerned.

    • adcurtin

      with old AT and XT power supplies, I think the mains ran right to the switch. so you probably just shorted out the mains when you closed the switch. Could’ve destroyed the switch, but not really anything else.

    • Michael Durham

      When I first wanted to get into building computers was when my Gateway power supply bit the dust about five years ago…. Not realizing they used proprietary PS’s I just bought a generic ATX supply thinking I’d tapped into the grand secret underground of DIY computer wizardry and outwitted the manufacturers trying to charge too much for a replacement. This also created a loud pop inside the computer, in addition to tripping the house’s circuit breaker. I never did try a real Gateway PS to see if the MB was ruined, I just did more research about actually building my own, and I’m still using the one I built then as my main computer today.

  • Allan

    Tried t oconnect a vintage Bridgeport milling machine wired for 3-phase to 2-phase,
    while inteligently shorting two. Differential switch in workshop panel flew and left a mark on the opposite wall.

  • Allan

    Tried to connect a vintage Bridgeport milling machine wired for 3-phase to 2-phase,
    while intelligently shorting the other two terminals. Differential switch in workshop panel blew and left a mark on the opposite wall.

  • Lewis Baumstark

    I had a monitor with a push-on/push-off switch. The switch stopped working for some reason so I wired around it to make the monitor “always on” (this was in the day when computer power supplies had an output for powering a monitor so my plan was to just use that to turn it off and on).

    Unfortunately, my first attempt at wiring ended up shorting supply power to ground, with the expected breaker trip. Fortunately I didn’t do any permanent damage to the monitor, my parent’s house, or me, and I was able to re-wire it properly. That monitor lasted several more years until I could afford better.

  • RossinDetroit

    Soooo many. But one is relevant to MAKE. Take a look at the Squelette article or the online page. At the left rear is a silver button at the top of the chassis. This is a cover plug to fill a hole I accidentally made when drilling for the power switch. It was 2:00 am. Deadline loomed. I was in a hurry, drilling holes from the underside and I got my orientations reversed. I could either get more metal and spend 2 hours remaking the piece or pop in a plug and ignore it. Amazingly, nobody ever asked why that was there, and it was faithfully reproduced in all of the drawings in the article.
    Now you know.

  • kjunkins

    My first work with electronics was a Sinclair computer kit. I was a horribly sloppy solderer, but the ads for the kit made everything look so easy. The backup plan was that for $20 more, you could send your kit back to Sinclair and they would send you one already assembled. So I had nothing to lose. I did all of the hard work, plugged it in, and NADA. The extra $20 kept me interested in computers, but it didn’t force me to troubleshoot and fix things on my own. Now I am a software guy who tinkers with electronics and teaching myself things I should have learned 26 years ago. It was a FAIL on multiple accounts if you take that into consideration.

  • mental404

    While building a sous vide machine a year or two back, I was having trouble with the relay not tripping properly, so I grabbed the multimeter and started testing various points in the circuit trying to figure out where the problem was. Apparently I got a little carried away with taking notes and not really paying attention to what I was doing; I went to test the last set of contacts on the PID, which didn’t quite register in my head that the were pretty much wired directly into the wall socket at that point. A short (ha!) bang-flash-smoke later, I had a dead multimeter w/ melted probe tips and a dead PID. Not exactly my most stellar moment, but a good reminder to pay attention while playing with live circuits.

    • Mattwa

      Ha, that sounds familiar. I made a sous vide system myself. When installing my first PID i got the wiring diagram confused and wired the mains (240v in Australia) into the thermocouple input. Bang, smoke, and I was on ebay buying another PID 15 minutes later.

  • barbecuesteve

    A couple weeks ago I was building a coil gun for a “high striker” style game using the iPhone accelerometer. The action circuit for the coil gun uses the flash from a disposable camera. In my testing, I triggered the circuit while holding a lead in each hand — sending 300v right across my chest, knocking myself to the ground, sending my eyeglasses flying, and making my left hand act palsied for about a half hour.

  • RossinDetroit

    Here’s a fail that wasn’t my fault. Back in the old days just after the Earth cooled and the meteors stopped falling you could buy very high quality sophisticated audio equipment as kits to assemble yourself. It took tens if not hundreds of hours to put one together but you saved money and got bragging rights. Over the years I have fixed not one but TWO fine tube stereo amplifiers that were completed but never ran because of a single soldering error out of hundreds of joints. Finding the error was like a needle in a hay warehouse. One was soldered correctly but a tiny filament of solder splash had bridged two traces on a circuit board. I found it with a magnifying glass. I’ll never forget flicking it off and having the amp run perfectly. These units were basically rare 50 year old New Old Stock. Can you imagine working a month of evenings to make a tube stereo and just put it back in the box because it didn’t work? Both of those units ended up in the hands of happy new owners in Japan.

  • Travis Will

    I was 12 or 13 I don’t remember what I was trying to make but it involved me plugging an electromagnetic I don’t know what into a wall socket without a ground. It tripped every breaker in the house and caught on fire!

  • Andrew Huntley

    I actually have two that really stick with me. The first was whenever I was really young, experimenting with my father’s multimeter. I wanted to see if it worked like his circuit tester, and so I stuck the leads right into the light socket on a plugged in lamp. I managed to spot-weld the leads in place.
    The second big error was whenever I was building my first Jacob’s Ladder. I didn’t realize there was a capacitor inside the transformer, and that it didn’t discharge. It was a huge shock whenever I touched a screwdriver to the positive side, and it almost embedded said screwdriver in the wall.

    • adcurtin

      I dunno, while the second one probably shouldn’t’ve happened, I don’t think it’s a fail. You used a screwdriver, and I assume you didn’t get shocked yourself. While it sucks that the screwdriver flew like that, it did do it’s purpose of making sure the cap was discharged before it hurt you.

  • clearpaint

    I started out in Avionics, working on transponders and comm radios. I had learned about taking conducted measurements on high wattage output in school, but had never actually done it at this point. I took a probe and placed it on the output pin, the can was ground and of course I slipped shorting the two together. It was enough to give me a really good shock. Yeah it hurt. Luckily I didn’t damage the transponder.

    Most recent epic fail. I was working on a project with a friend and I explained to him it was important to not totally discharge the lith-ion batteries. So I thought hey he knows and went on not adding an automatic threshold shut off; wow do those things expand once you drain them completely.

  • balloondoggle

    I had just spent some lawn mowing money on a yard-sale car radio – probably AM only. I took it home and “powered” it with a cut-off extension cord. All the smoke came out.

  • RossinDetroit

    I once rebuilt and assembled a motorcycle engine, installed it in the frame, and the last thing to do was install the spark plug. I cross threaded the plug and wrecked the threads in the head. Had to tear the whole thing apart and mill out the plug hole for an insert. That’s a mistake I’d rather make on the bench when things are already apart.

  • MSilvia

    I decided to liberally apply hot glue to a board I had just finished soldering up, in order to add some structural strength. After doing so, I seemed to have a bad connection, so I plunged my iron through the glue and re-melted the solder.

    It turns out molten solder and molten hot glue can mix into a horrible blob of difficult-to-fix goo that has alternating tiny pockets of insulation and conducting. It was a nightmare. I had to strip the board, clean the contacts on all components and holes, re-solder the board, and swear I’d never do it again.

  • timesuptim

    Amplifier fail was using an old tube guitar amp as a vocals amp in the rehearsal room. Great, until it started distorting. We looked over and there was thick yellow smoke pouring out of the back of the tube amp, toxic as hell.
    Earliest experiments in 220V wiring by twisting the ends together led to fantastic fireworks and sputtering molten copper all over a bright purple vinyl beanbag (it was 1979 or so) that put me off voltages above 12 for a long long time.
    Double Ouch.
    But the real fail (same time period) is:
    Building an extension cable with piggy back plugs on both ends for added flexibility.

  • tonyv

    I was trying to make an electromagnet for a cubscout badge, long, long ago. My mom bought me plastic insulated wire and a 6-volt lantern battery. The wire didn’t look like the shiny lacquer-coated bell wire in the cubscout manual, so I peeled off all the plastic insulation and then wound my coil. It looked JUST LIKE the picture, except my battery was rectangular and the one pictured was cylindrical. This was undoubtably why the magnet didn’t work, and why my battery got really hot….I had my mom get me a cylindrical battery, exasperated that she had failed to follow my directions the first time…

  • edison101

    My very first project was a winch made from an RC car. It was too weak to pull anything. I figured more voltage means more power so I decided to hook up a 10V drill battery in addition to 5 AA’s. I still keep the charred remains as a reminder to learn from your mistakes.

    • edison101

      My second attempt got me and my Destination Imagination team to state finals for the first time ever. Now were going to global finals this year. I guess I learned from my mistakes after all!

  • baztastic

    Was backstage in a theatre, looking at the light fixtures all around the mirror, daydreaming wondering what the spring behind the contacts felt like (some bulbs were missing) – stuck my finger in, not realising that if I could see, the lights were on. Ouch. Luckily they were wired in parallel so I didn’t get all the current.
    Second one was when I used a low-voltage circuit tester to check if a lamp was working – pop, fizzle, smoke.
    Last one was a friend of mine – in the computer lab when he notices that on the backs of the power supply there’s a switch that says “110/240″ (I’m in Ireland), so he switches it to 110 – that let all the magic smoke out. No idea why such a switch would be on the *outside* of a computer, but there you go.

  • Chrome6

    Built a Wheatstone bridge with one of the diodes reversed- boom!
    Hot pieces of diode down my shirt, small temporary burn. I always check polarity now, second nature.

  • ethicalcannibal

    Mine was recent. I was carving some foam, and coating it in that black tool dip type stuff to create a prop that would look like a skull, but was safe to beat on someone’s head. I had the whole thing covered in tool dip, when it just popped out of my hand. Time froze as it descended down to bounce around on my apartments beige carpet. I don’t know about you, but explaining permanently bonded tool dip in the vague shape of a skull to your husband is very anxiety inducing. For his part, the hubby laughed, and said we were probably losing the deposit anyway. He’s very kind about what I’m tinkering with.

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