PHY3840L - Building Scientific Equipment

Fall and Spring Terms, 2004-2005

Time & Location: Thursdays, Periods 2-3 in Room B3, NPB

Instructor:  F. Eugene Dunnam---2364 NPB; telephone 392-1444 <>
                 ---with expert instruction contributed by members of the Physics MachineShop staff

Course Prerequisites:  Completion of a General Physics course sequence and junior/senior standing as a physics major, or consent of instructor.

Note This course is instructor-intensive and is intended primarily for physics majors, who are given priority in registration.  Others will be admitted, up to the lab's capacity, with priority according to the number of physics courses taken beyond PHY2048-49.  See Ms.  Chris Scanlon,  NPB 1210,  to add your name to the waiting list.


Early physicists and their predecessors the 'natural philosophers' had to build their own equipment--- there was no one else around to do it for them.  See H. Benson’s University Physics  (Wiley,1996) for several illustrations of apparatus built by Volta, Faraday, Henry, and others which led to some of their landmark scientific discoveries.

Nowadays a good machine shop is considered a necessity for any large physics department that is seriously committed to research.  Working at the frontiers of scientific investigation often requires specialized equipment that is not available commercially . Keep in mind, however, that in the long run a commercial device that will do the job, if available, is almost always the more cost-effective choice.  Although a good scientific machinist or instrument maker can turn out remarkably complex devices, the services of these skilled craftsmen costs money.  The going rates of commercial machine shops and the actual costs in academic shops are comparable to or higher than those of automobile and electronics repair specialists [$50 to $100 or more per hour!].

Shop time is therefore a valuable asset that ought not be squandered on simple items that the experimenter can personally fabricate with a modest investment of time and effort.  And great though their skills may be, few machinists can read minds(!)---their work has to be based on clearly understandable plans and diagrams provided by the experimenter.  Finally, most machine shops work on a daytime schedule while research laboratories do not:  laboratory equipment seems rarely to break down or demonstrate its limitations on a 9 to 5 schedule!  Experimenters' ability to make emergency repairs or simple modifications during the pre-dawn hours or on weekends and holidays is a significant asset which may expedite your graduation.

Rationale for the Course

Here is what we hope to accomplish:

1.  Learn the safety rules required in a machine shop.
2.  Become familiar with the basic hand and machine tools used in fabricating laboratory apparatus.
3.  Acquire skills in building/ repairing/ modifying laboratory equipment oneself [and in knowing when to call in the expert(s)!].
4.  Become able to make intelligible working drawings for machine shop jobs.


Familiarization and hand-on experience with [in approximate order]:

Hand tools
Precision measurements: calipers and micrometers
Band saw
Cut-off saw
Drill press
Tool grinding
Belt sander
Milling machine
Welding and brazing [portions of this may be demonstrations only]

Participants will be required to make precision measurements, shop drawing(s), and after instruction to use the lathes and milling machines to fabricate two small pieces of work.

Grades are based on the instructors’ collective assessment of each student’s:
(1) efficient use of class time. This means regular, on-time attendance and  clean-up of tools!;
(2) compliance with safety measures;
(3) quality of work.

Approximate Schedule


Thanks go to the previous instructors in this course:  Professors Dwight Adams and particularly Andrew Rinzler, for many helpful suggestions. Special thanks to the Physics Machine Shop staff : Shop Foreman Marc Link, Ed Storch, Bill Malphurs, and others.

Last updated 01 04 05