Part-time Passions: Breathing New Life Into Old Things

These engineers spend their extra time immersed in the artistry, craftsmanship, and restoration of electronics and furniture

6 December 2011

Gregory L. Charvat

As a child, Senior Member Gregory L. Charvat and his mom, an electrical engineer, would scour their neighborhood on garbage-collection day, looking for cast-off TV sets and radios, which they’d haul back to their basement to dismantle and restore. That was in the 1980s, when discarded sets contained vacuum tubes and other salvageable parts.

By high school, Charvat was not only restoring old electronics but also designing and repairing amateur radio equipment. His homemade radio telescope receiver placed second in the engineering category at the 1997 International Science and Engineering Fair, held in Louisville, Ky. His passion grew while taking electrical engineering courses at Michigan State University, in East Lansing. “Ultimately, this hobby launched my career,” he says.

charvat Profession:

In grad school, Charvat parlayed his RF engineering experience and a course on electromagnetics into a project: building a small, high-­resolution radar-imaging sensor in his basement. Some reps from MIT Lincoln Laboratory of Lexington, Mass., in town for a job fair, heard about his work through an MSU alum and stopped by his home to check it out. Shortly after, Charvat had a job offer from the lab, and he’s now an electrical engineer there.

Charvat’s hobby has made him a better troubleshooter at work, he says. “Every one of my projects is like solving a puzzle, and you can apply problem-solving skills to just about anything.”

He spends about 18 hours a week fixing old radios he finds at antique radio swap meets and on eBay, as well as his friends’ heirlooms. After an initial US $400 investment 15 years ago for workbench staples—an oscilloscope, RF signal generator, voltmeter, and a soldering iron—he now spends no more than $50 on parts for each project. 

He finds the parts—such as vacuum tubes and capacitors, resistors, and transformers—at swap meets, by salvaging from other radios, and by buying from suppliers such as Antique Electronic Supply of Tempe, Ariz. For replacement parts, he opts for modern capacitors and resistors to gain reliability and safety and period-appropriate tubes.

“It takes about 80 hours to restore your average radio,” he says. “It’s very labor-intensive, and because my heart’s not into doing this professionally, I often just give away the finished projects as gifts.” In addition to restoring antique radios, since March he has been building a ham radio from scratch, using state-of-the-art parts in an old chassis.

He also fixes pocket watches, which is less time-­consuming and complicated but offers him an aesthetic rarely seen in the 21st century. “A mechanical watch looks better inside than out,” he says. “From the late 19th century to the start of World War II, American watches were the best in the world, from sapphire bearings to decorations on the movement [the internal mechanism]. There’s a lot of action happening inside, and it feels like my restorations are breathing life back into them.”

Check out photos of Charvat’s restoration projects.

Bruce Wedlock

wedlock Profession:
Director of MIT’s evening school, retired

Life Fellow Bruce Wedlock still has the wooden footstool and roll-top sewing cabinet he built as a teenager for his mother in 1948. And he is still enamored with woodworking, only now he infuses it with a little engineering and some master craftsmanship.

Wedlock has become an expert in building and finishing American Federal period furniture (1780–1820). He also builds other styles and has constructed a contemporary queen-size bed for his home, a pair of heirloom doll beds for his grandnieces, and an 18th-century Newport-style document chest. He hopes one of his latest pieces, a Federal period worktable [shown above], will be selected for display in a Connecticut Historical Society exhibit in Hartford.

“It takes time to build these things,” he says. “People ask me to make them something, but when I tell them what I’d have to charge, they have a heart attack. My dentist asked me to make one of my doll beds for him. When I quoted him US $500, he stared at me. I said, ‘That’s only half what it would cost for a root canal!’”

After high school, Wedlock didn’t seriously revisit his hobby until he took a 1992 woodworking class offered by MIT for retiring employees. Wedlock retired in 1996 from his job as director of MIT’s Lowell Institute School, in Cambridge, Mass.

He followed up with furniture-making classes at the nearby Furniture Institute of Massachusetts and the North Bennet Street School.

He has since spent about $25 000 on power and hand tools and instruction (“still a lot cheaper than a yacht!” he says, laughing), plus $400 to $900 for wood and materials per project. Wedlock works up to 10 hours per week in his home shop, and he contributes articles to woodworking magazines.

“I’m known for applying engineering to woodworking,” he says. “I work things out mathematically that others usually figure out by trial and error.” For example, to make the 12 semicircles that decorate the vertical reeded legs of his Federal period worktable, he calculated the relationship between the diameter of the semicircles and the overall diameter of the leg. “People are always teasing me for working out formulas, but they’re very useful,” he says.

“Working on these pieces gives me a lot of satisfaction. When I’m working and concentrating, I’m not thinking or worrying about anything else.”

If you have an interesting hobby you would like to share, e-mail the editors:

Top: John Cioffi; Bottom: Katy Phillips

IEEE membership offers a wide range of benefits and opportunities for those who share a common interest in technology. If you are not already a member, consider joining IEEE and becoming part of a worldwide network of more than 400,000 students and professionals.

Learn More