Tim’s Nixie Display

Hello everyone. I’ve designed and built myself a Nixie Tube display, and I’m now going to impart upon the world my build log, schematics (PDF), and Arduino source code. If you have any questions or comments you can email me at tim (at) thetransistor (dot) com.

Project Overview
The goal of this project was to create a nixie tube display using one of our Minimalist Arduino kits and some nixie tubes I happened to come across. It has a demo mode to test the tubes, and it also accepts serial inputs to set the display. In the future, I intend to add a second module which will have an atomic clock receiver, and use it as a wall-clock at my apartment, but that’s another story for another page. Here’s a video showing the finished product in all its glory:

And here’s a video with me breifly explaining it:

Build Log

It all began with me receiving a pile of nixie tubes abandoned at the Transistor. I resigned myself to figure out how to make a controller and eventually a clock for them.

After doing a bit of research I bought a DC-DC High Voltage Converter from the good folks at All Spectrum Electronics ( http://www.allspectrum.com/ ).

I then ran some tests on a tube to see if I could control it with an arduino and transistors as shown in the schematics above. Here’s a video result of that test:

You can see that PWM control of the tubes is possible, and could lead to some nifty transition effects later if I stop being so lazy about writing code for it. Anyways, with confirmation that the tubes worked with the power supply and Arduino, I set to work building my circuit, which will now be shown with a series of many many pictures and brief descriptions:

Early Nixie Tube Test
This is a picture from an early test of a tube.

Cutting Out Lexan for Main Display
Cutting Out Lexan for Main Display
First Mounting Hole Complete
These are me cutting out the Lexan that I will eventually use to mount the Nixie Tubes. I traced the tubes and used a scroll saw to cut out the slots.

Mounted Tubes on Lexan
Mounted Tubes on Lexan - Bottom
Mounted Tubes on Lexan - Artsy
These are pictures of the mounted tubes. You’ll find a pinout from the mounting bracket numbering to tube digits on the schematic drawing above.

Early Board Layout Ideas
This was an early general idea for the board layout. You’ll note two 28-pin DIP sockets. There’s two because I originally intended to include the clock on the same board as the display, but eventually decided that I’d rather have a versatile display that’ll display anything instead of just a clock, even if that’s what it will end up doing most of the time.

Beginning the Assembly - Enamel-Wire
This shows the 20 gauge enamel-coated magnet wire I used to wire up the project. This involved a lot of work getting the enamel off of the wires for soldering. More on that in a bit.

Minimalist Arduino Kit Installed
The first things I got working were a simple Minimalist Arduino kit, and the power supplies.

Minimalist with ATMEGA328 Chip on-board
Minimalist with Tubes
This is a finished Minimalist Arduino on board with the FTDI connector pins working, as well as the 180V power supply circuit board.

ICSP header added
ICSP Header
I also added an ICSP pinout in case I decide I want to use a bootloader other than the default arduino one in the future.

NPN Transistors - Bottom
NPN Transistors - Bottom
NPN Transistors
I next added the 11 NPN transistor circuits, as shown here.

PNP Transistors
PNP Transistors
PNP Transistors - Color-coded
PNP Transistors
After the NPNs I added the PNP controlled by NPN Darlington arrays to the board, and colored the PNP transistors silver on the top so I wouldn’t have to squint to see which one was NPN and which one was PNP.

Header Pins
I made the header pinouts at this point, so I could see where all the wires’d line up when connected.

The Wiring Begins
More Wiring
Still More Wiring
Next I wired all the transistor arrays to the arduino pins. It took a long time, but looked pretty cool when I finished.

Testing Circuits before continuing
Testing Circuits before continuing
With the Arduino wired up, I wanted to test everything and confirm I got it right, and it turns out I did. Huzzah! However, there were miles to go before I rested. Sommat like 288 more wires to solder into place, give or take…

Wiring to the headers
Wiring the Headers
Wiring the Headers
I next wired all the header pins. I really like the way the arched wires turned out.

Dremel Setup
Piles of Wires
Grinding the Wires
For those interested in how I ground the enamel off all the wires, you can see my dremel apparatus here, which I used to grind the piles of wires used on this project so that they could be soldered. Are there better ways? Probably, but this worked.

First tube complete
Wires and Wires and Wires and Wires...
Wires and Wires and Wires and Wires...
Wires and Wires and Wires and Wires...
I then ground and soldered 144 more wire ends to the tubes and headers. I also tested often to make troubleshooting problems easier.

Nice wiring method I found
While soldering to the headers, I found a handy method: I took aligator clips, and attached them to the wires that I had already soldered to hold the next wire in place as shown above. It was much easier than trying to set up my helping hands every pin. Food for thought.

VICTORY! The circuit worked, and I got all the transistors to function. See the video below for my test run of just the working circuit. The rest is more or less just aesthetics, which were important to me for this project. Oh, and programming. Still had plenty of that to do.

Final Assembly
Get Bend, Headers!
Here’s the assembly pics going on. You can see the stained wood, and some last minute additions to the board (the switch, the brass screws used as pinouts, etc.) piling up.

Finally Assembled, and awesome looking
Final Assembly
And it was awesome
In the end, everything finally came together. The hardware was done, and only software was left. See the videos at the top for the final product.

Finished Display Dark
With the software finished, the world was my oyster, and the nixie-tube display was complete. Huzzah!