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Success at All Hands Active Repairsday

This is a love letter to Ann Arbor’s scrappy little downtown makerspace, All Hands Active. In particular, their weekly Repairsday event, which takes place on Thursdays from 6-8pm. And it’s a vignette of how they helped revive a lovely old keyboard/synthesizer.

All Hands Active is a nonprofit. Their mission is educational. I’d argue it’s political, too, though not in the common sense of the word as it relates to electoral politics or parties. Rather, there’s an ethos that you should be free to modify and repair things, that people should help and teach each other, that consumer culture and its quickly-obsolescent, disposable goods are bad, and that knowledge should be free. (Some of that might be me projecting).

So, Repairsday. Any human can bring in an object they’d like to repair. Volunteer AHA members are on hand to help. That can look like advice, diagnosis, or attempting to fix the item together. Sometimes an item can’t be fixed, but that’s okay too. You learn from taking it apart, and for me, knowing that a thing was unfixable – in my case, a toaster that only heated one of its two slots – put me at ease with discarding it.

Last week, AHA Repairsday helped me fix a classic keyboard, rescuing a valuable object from the landfill and giving it a second life.

Background: a house a few doors down from me sold last month. When the prior owner vacated, they left some stuff out by the curb, including a massive electronic keyboard. My kids and I saw it on the way to school in the morning, and I brought it home on the way back:

keyboard on a cargo bike
obligatory cargo bike photo in every post

The keyboard had sat through an overnight rain storm, so I let it dry for a few days before plugging it in. When I did: nothing. Maybe it was dead from the beginning, or had died in the rain. But it had slots for 6 big D batteries, so I tried popping those in. It worked! I used a non-contact voltage detector to confirm that indeed, the fault lay with its DC power adapter brick. Electricity was going in, but not down the cord. Maybe the dead adapter is why it was put out by the curb?

If so, the keyboard had found its way to the right new owner. My kids played on it using batteries, but recharging them got old quickly. I took apart the old adapter and realized I was out of my league.

Dead power supply. They don’t make ’em like this anymore – in a good way.

I needed help. On Thursday, my son and I brought it to Repairsday to hack together a new power supply. And Nate, an AHA volunteeer and electronics whiz, delivered.

I started by producing the dead supply. Everyone present agreed that I should ditch it and move on. Nate pointed out several drawers of salvaged DC adapters to rummage in and we found a suitable replacement. The dead OEM adapter had been 9 volts, which matched the 9 volts supplied by 6 D batteries, but the keyboard’s manual and sticker specified 12v. We surmised there might be limited output or functionality running with 9v. And we found a nice donor candidate, a modern 12v power supply that used to power some networking equipment:

The power supply was given a new life, too

Its tip even fit snugly in the keyboard. But there was a wrinkle: the keyboard required a center-negative plug tip, with negative on the inside and positive on the outside. Every replacement candidate was the opposite, center-positive. I’d been trying to test this using a multimeter, but Nate pointed out the polarity symbols, which I’d seen before but never wondered about. See the three linked circles on that power supply pictured above? They indicate that negative is on the outside, positive on the inside.

No biggie, Nate said: we’d reverse the wires on the new power supply: cut it apart, separate and strip the strands, solder them back together in in switched order, repair with heatshrink tubing. Now, this clever solution would not have occurred to me. And while I had done all of these wiring steps on my own on other projects, what would have taken me an hour and resulted in a shaky job took Nate, using AHA’s nice soldering workstation, about 8 minutes. He had my son and I do some of it and the rest he explained, teaching us as he went.

a pair of hands applying heat-shrink tubing to a cord using a heat gun
Almost done! Nate applying the heat-shrink tubing

We re-tested the polarity, confirmed it was correct, and plugged it in. Voila! The keyboard now plays beautifully on its new 12v power supply. My daughter promptly switched it to trumpet mode and improvised a triumphal ditty.

Repairsday: there’s nothing like it. Maybe in hours of online research and posting, I’d have gleaned the knowledge to do all of that, but even then, the internet can’t test the polarity of my plug or solder the wires together.

Hooray for people sharing knowledge, teaching and learning, and fixing things instead of landfilling them. If your record player or pressure cooker or other gadget you’re fond of needs help, check out AHA’s Repairsday! Or visit their Saturday open hours if you’re generally curious about making things and want to see their laser cutter, 3D printers, button maker, etc. or just to learn more about an organization that embodies some of my favorite things about Ann Arbor.

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