Putting together a microscope set

Putting together a microscope set

I’ve been working on microscope sets for Maker Shed. Until now, the only microscope set the Shed carried was the Thames & Kosmos TK2. That’s a decent set, at under $100, but it’s still a toy. We wanted some better sets, so I put together three, which we imaginatively named the Basic Microscope Set, Intermediate Microscope Set, and Advanced Microscope Set. The sets differ only by microscope is included; the accessories are all the same.

I’ve always been annoyed by the accessory selection in typical microscope sets, which seem to be chosen for cheapness rather than usefulness. A typical set includes a few prepared slides, which are usually of such poor quality that they’re not worth having. Most sets include a “cleaning kit,” which again is cheap and of limited use. (If you keep your microscope covered with a plastic bag, the optics should remain clean indefinitely. When they do get dirty, you can clean them with a soft cotton cloth and a drop or two of window cleaner.) And you usually get maybe a dozen blank slides and a a few coverslips, which is barely enough to get started. In other words, the typical accessory set is pathetic, but has the advantage from the seller’s point of view of being cheap to include and they make for an impressive-looking list and product image. I knew we could do better.

When I sat down to make a list of accessories to include, I realized that I didn’t need to re-invent the wheel. When I started work on the forensics book, I bought a microscope (not coincidentally, the Shed now carries that model, including the objective upgrades). When I ordered the microscope, I also ordered accessories, so all I had to do was check back to see which accessories I ordered with the microscope.

First up were slides and coverslips. I actually ordered three gross of slides (six boxes of 72) and several ounces of different coverslips (at about 100 to the ounce). That’s obviously overkill for a set, so I decided to include one box of 72 slides and an ounce of coverslips. Glass, in both cases. Yeah, glass breaks, but plastic slides are a pain and plastic coverslips are really poor optically. For slide making, I included plastic forceps, which are better than metal ones for handling coverslips and most specimens, a pack of ten polyethylene pipettes, and bottle of glycerol for making temporary wet mounts. I was going to include a bottle of permanent mounting fluid, but the good stuff is expensive and would needlessly boost the price of the set. A small bottle of colorless Sally Hansen’s Hard As Nails from the drugstore costs only a couple bucks and works about as well. No one ever thinks about how they’re going to store the permanent slides they make, so I included a slide storage box. Oh, and because a beginning microscopist needs lots of interesting things to look at, I included one of our Microbe Motel kits, so they can grow their own microorganisms. (Yeah, the name is cute, but it includes everything you need to culture bacteria and other microorganisms. Real stuff, not shoddy plastic junk.)

I dithered about which stains and supplemental reagents, if any, to include. I have more than 30 biological stains and reagents at my microscope workstation, but real biostains and reagents are relatively expensive, so including even a few of them would boost the prices of the sets for something that some people wouldn’t use. Then I was struck by a cunning plan. I headed for my local strip mall.

At Walgreens, I scored one ounce bottles of iodine tincture and gentian violet and a pint bottle of ethanol for about $7 total. At the supermarket, another couple of bucks got me a box of four food coloring dyes, two or three of which are actually useful biostains, and a bottle of distilled white vinegar (acetic acid). And at the pet store next door, I picked up a small bottle of methylene blue for a couple bucks. So, for a grand total of about $12, I ended up with a pretty decent starter set of biological stains and reagents, including everything necessary to do basic biostaining and even Gram staining. Including all that stuff in the microscope kits would boost their prices by a lot more than $12, so I decided it made more sense just to recommend kit buyers make a quick trip to the local mall. Our beancounters probably hate that, but set buyers should love it.

Check out all of our microscopes and sets in the Maker Shed Science section.
Check out our Choosing a Microscope article and all of the other labs and tutorials in the Make: Science Room.

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