Where to Get Xenon Flashes/Strobes and Parts

To Use, Abuse, or Hack!

Updated slightly 7/15/2001.


General notes - PLEASE READ!

Before you "reinvent the wheel" trying to build a strobe light, especially any battery-powered version, you might want to consider using a commercially available one that works. You may want to use one as-is or modify it for your application. Perhaps you might remove part or all of the trigger circuit and add your own. Perhaps it only needs to be disassembled (preferably only partially) and rebuilt into whatever you need a strobe light for. Or, you can hack the DC-DC converter out of it, so that you don't have to develop from scratch something to make 300 or so volts DC from batteries.

One caution: In some battery-powered strobes with fixed flash rates, you may not want to change the flash rate nor the value of the energy storage capacitor, unless you change both in inverse-proportional manner. If you half the flash rate, you may need to also double the capacitance. Otherwise, the storage capacitor may charge up to a different voltage - potentially insufficient (causing dim and/or skipped flashes) or excessive. Before changing anything, measure the maximum voltage the storage capacitor actually charges up to, and be sure this does not change much.

In a few strobes, the trigger circuit does not use a timer circuit but senses the storage capacitor voltage. If this is the case, you can change the storage capacitor and the flash rate will largely adjust itself. However, there may be some delay from the time the storage capacitor reaches a particular voltage to the time the flashtube gets triggered. If the storage capacitor is decreased to get a faster flash rate, the capacitor may get charged to a higher voltage.

One other note: At lower energy levels, some flashtubes work most efficiently at higher voltages. If you decrease the storage capacitor and use a higher flash rate, you may want the capacitor value to decrease somewhat more than the time between flashes if this achieves a higher voltage, AND if the capacitor and the diodes used to charge it and the DC-DC converter's transistor will withstand higher voltages.

If you need to reduce the power delivered by the DC-DC converter to get lower power consumption or to reduce the voltage the storage capacitor charges up to (for smaller capacitor or slower flash rate), try a lower input voltage. If you are daring and/or know what you're doing, you may be able to find a resistor to replace with one of a different value, typically larger if the DC-DC converter is a "ringing-choke" type. To increase power, there may not be much to do except increase the input voltage. This has the risk of burning out major parts of the DC-DC converter. If you succeed, you may need to increase the flash rate or the storage capacitance to avoid charging the storage capacitor to an excessive voltage.

What you can get and where!

You may be able to find a used camera at a flea market or a thrift store. The flash may work. If it does not, it may only need the storage capacitor to be "re-broken-in". Or, it may need a new storage capacitor, and/or the flashtube may be bad. Or, the DC-DC converter may indeed not work, but may be repairable. Problems may be as simple as corrosion, a broken wire, or a bad switch. If you can hack a working DC-DC converter out of a camera, you have a means to charge up your own storage capacitor, and probably not have to worry about the capacitor continuing to charge when the voltage reaches what the camera's capacitor gets charged up to. The camera flash's circuit board will also have a trigger circuit that usually works and is generally easy to adapt/ hack for your needs.

Where to get half-complete to complete strobes/flashes

Radio Shack sells strobe lights: (Prices as of 2000 catalog)

1) Catalog No. 42-3009 is an AC-powered variable rate strobe. It does not include anything to produce high voltages from low voltage DC, but it has everything else. It is a bit expensive, $34.99.
Apparantly it's discontinued, but the new-for-2000 42-3067 is similar and has the same listed price of $34.99.

2) Catalog Number 42-3048 (new for 1997, same price for 2000) is a more compact AC-powered variable rate strobe light. It is also a bit expenseive, $34.99.

2a) Catalog number 42-3066, new for 2000, $49.99 is a more deluxe but similar strobe, 1 to 15 flashes per second.

3) Catalog No. 49-527 is a 12 volt yellow strobe light that is marketed for use with security systems. It draws about .2 amps at 12 volts, and works (but at slightly reduced brightness) at 6 volts. It flashes roughly twice per second, slightly slower at lower voltages. This strobe can be rebuilt into smaller packages. It is a bit expensive at $24.99.

4) Catalog No. 61-2506 is a "personal safety strobe" that works with just one "C" battery. It could be rebuilt into things to use a 1.5 volt battery of a different size. However, you may not get good performance for long with alkaline batteries smaller than "AA" or non-alkaline batteries smaller than "C". This one is also a bit expensive, $19.99.

Personal safety strobes may also be available from some sporting goods and camping equipment suppliers.

A battery powerable strobe kit is available from Black Feather Electronics (1-800-526-3717). Its catalog no. is SLK-1. The cost of one kit is $7.50, and the shipping charge for your order is $4.00. This strobe has an adjustable rate of 60 to 120 flashes per minute, and can be wired for 4.5, 6, or 12 volts DC (according to their ad).

Hosfelt Electronics (1-614-264-6464 or 1-800-524-6464) sells DC strobes.

Catalog No. ST-1 is a strobe light kit. It supposedly has a flash rate that can be varied from 2 to 60 flashes per minute and works on 6 or 12 volts DC. This kit costs $10.95.

(The following 24 volt strobe items may be out of stock or discontinued as of October 1998)

Catalog No. 17-102 flashes 17 times per minute and draws 40 mA at 24 volts DC. It costs $7.95.

Catalog No. 17-103 flashes 34 times per minute and draws 80 mA at 24 volts DC. It costs $9.95.

Although I don't have any of these to test, I believe they will work with 2 or 3 9-volt batteries.

Hosfelt Electronics' shipping charges vary. Customers must add $6.50 for orders paid by check or money order; any surplus beyond $1.00 plus actual UPS rate will be refunded.

All Electronics,sells a bit of strobe stuff including a flashtube, and a trigger coil. This company charges $5.00 for shipping. (1-818-904-0524)

Another possible source is Electronic Rainbow (1-317-291-7262). This company sells kits, probably including a strobe light kit.

All prices are in US$ and are according to catalogs and ads as of June-July 1996. I do not guarantee availability nor accuracy of prices nor specifications.

Electronic Goldmine (800-445-0697, 602-451-7454, http://www.goldmine-elec.com) sells plenty of flash and strobe stuff. It may be worthwhile to get their catalog. Here are some bits from their No. 238 Fall 2000 catalog, page 91:

CAT. NO.  ITEM DESCRIPTION                                   PRICE US$

G678 Board with small straight tube 45 flash/min needs 250+VDC 4.00
G9059 Reject strobe boards 24 VDC (require repairs)            2.49
G2595 tiny flashtube and board with 180uF270V, trig. coil      2.75
G3052 small straight flashtube with reflector, some plans      1.75
A1033 1.75"long flashtube 50 W-S (?) with reflector            2.49
      (above flashtube is very similar to Heimann BGA-3030)
G9624 2" strobe tube, reflector, trigger coil                  4.00
G8178 Tube/reflector assembly 1"*5/8"*5/8"                     1.00
      (above flashtube is apparantly a Heimann BGA-0013)
C6844 on back cover strobe board kit 1.81x1.5" 9V 35-240 flash/min  12.95
UPDATE 12/9/2001 - G4587, camera flash guts with a small flashtube, reflector, and a 250 uF 330V capacitor and an inverter board, uses one AA battery. $1.98 each, $1.50 each in 10's quantities, $1.25 each in 100's quantities, $1.10 each in 1,000's quantities. No guarantee on staying in stock and price is subject to being increased after February 2001. Note that "disposable" cameras usually have 160 or even 120 uF capacitors.

UPDATE 7/15/2001 - I tested a G4587 and it works. Use an AA battery in the battery holder with positive towards the board. The inverter circuit works when the spring on the solder side (green side) of the board is pressed against or connected to a silver colored square that it goes over. Two red wires go to a trigger contact device of some sort - short these two wires together to trigger a flash.

Then there are those "disposable" cameras. You can get them for as little as approx. $6 at Wal-Mart, mostly around $10-13 at supermarkets and drug stores. Flash versions of these cameras have complete flash circuits as well as a AA alkaline battery. The flashtube is good for use beyond the life of the camera. These cameras have good photoflash capacitors, usually 120 to 160 uF and rated for 330 volts. The capacitors are marked with value and voltage rating in Kodak cameras but not in many others. CAUTION - The flash charging circuit is easily triggered in some of these cameras! Taking apart the camera may trigger the circuit and charge the capacitor. The capacitor may be charged from recent prior handling of the camera.

A few photo processing places may give away used camera guts upon request.

Where to get just flashtubes

Radio Shack sells the usual U-shaped flashtube, with a catalog no. of 272-1145 and a price of $3.29. I recommend a maximum of 20, mybe 25 joules of flash energy, preferably at a voltage of 260 to 330 volts. With lower flash energies of a few joules or less, this tube works best at higher voltages of 350 to 500 volts.

Electronic Goldmine (1-602-451-9495 or 1-800-445-0697) sells small flashtubes, about 1.2 inches long (~30 mm. )by .16 inch (~4mm.) diameter. These cost US$.49 each, or 100 for US$ 25. The catalog number is G7852. Minimum order is US$ 10, shipping is US$ 5.

Other Electronic Goldmine flashtubes:

G5109     flashtube 1.4"long*.12"dia, 10 W-S      $.90
G5110     flashtube 1.3"long*.12'dia, 12 W-S      $1.25
G5111     flashtube 1.2"long*.12"dia, 10 W-S      $1.00
A1034     flashtube U-shaped 1.25" tall, 24 W-S   $4.50
   The A1034 flashtube seems identical to one and similar to all
   flashtubes sold by Radio Shack with the catalog number 272-1145.
G700      flashtube U-shaped 1.5" tall            $4.95
   The G700 flashtube appears to have much lower xenon pressure than usual.
   This reduces efficiency slightly, especially at energy above 2 W-S
   The color is somewhat green-bluish and the spectrum is low on red.
   This tube supposedly handles 40 W-S.
G8178     1" flashtube in small reflector         $1.00
          (Flashtube is apparantly a Heimann BGA-0013)

Mouser Electronics (http://www.mouser.com) sells flashtubes:

CAT. NO.  ITEM DESCRIPTION                                   PRICE US$

36FT050    Straight flashtube 50 mm long 4 mm dia                  3.50
36FT108    U-shaped flashtube 38 mm tall 60 W-S                    3.70
361-4425   Apparantly the common U-shaped strobe tube 30 mm tall   5.85
361-8538   Larger U-shaped flashtube 40 mm tall 100 W-S            6.92
361-0118   1-1/2 turn coil flashtube FT-118 125 W-S               12.25
361-0218   Larger 1-1/2 turn coil flashtube FT-218 250 W-S        15.17

Beware that the FT-218 has unusually low xenon pressure that I estimate to be around 40 Torr. This will impair efficiency a little and make the spectrum less suitable for color photography. This is probably intended for use as a strobe tube.

If you need a higher power flashtube, you may be able to get these from some photocopier repair places and some camera shops that sell replacement flashtubes for professional duty photoflashes. You may need to supply a model number of equipment that takes the flashtube you want, or a model number for the flashtube itself. These places may not be too helpful if you only give a description or requirements.

Here are three flashtubes I am familiar with and that I have seen at camera and photo supply stores that cater to serious and professional photographers: (Two of them available at Vantage Lighting.)

1. The FT-6. This is a glass tube that is ring-shaped and was described as having a maximum flash energy of 500 joules and a maximum voltage of 500 volts. I believe it works well from about 300 volts to at least 600 volts. Its maximum safe flash energy may be a bit less at lower voltages. It is rated for an average power input of up to 50 watts (100 watts for up to 1 minute) with forced air cooling. Derate power handling proportionately with voltage below 450 volts and inverse-proportionately above 500 volts. My experience is that this tube is not the best for repeated strobe use.

2. The Photogenic C4-5. This is a ring-shaped quartz flashtube in a clear dome. Be sure you are getting what you want, since this may also come in color-corrected/UV-blocking versions and/or with diffusing domes.

This tube takes 500 joules well at 500 volts and 150-200 watts average power at least for a little while without forced air cooling.

3. The Speedotron model MW8QV or 14570. This is a really high power quartz flashtube used in Speedotron's "Black Line" Model 102 flash head. I have heard of a maximum safe energy of 3200 joules, and I have known it to take 1200 joules with no problem. It seems to be able to take an average power input of a few hundred watts long-term (hours?) and a kilowatt short-term (15 seconds?) with enough forced air cooling (attach it to a small vacuum cleaner?). Optimum voltage is around 900 volts to maybe a kilovolt. I tried to break mine with an average power input of 800 watts and no cooling - couldn't ruin it! But I caution that this tube may not survive that sort of abuse reliably nor for long. This tube triggers easily for a big one.

4. The Lumedyne 090Q is a medium sized quartz flashtube with big flashtube ratings and a price like that of the big ones above. Although it looks very well made, I consider the ratings awfully optimistic. It has a rating of 2400 watt-seconds and I can believe practically useful at 1200 and having good life expectancy at 400. Better than the FT-6 for medium to medium-large jobs, and the price may be worth it if you need the compact size.

I have more info on larger flashtubes in my Large Strobe Parts Page and more data on some of these tubes in my Flashtube Ratings/Data Page.

Where to get just capacitors

You probably want the catalogs of Hosfelt Electronics, All Electronics, Electronic Goldmine, as well as Digi-Key to see what they currently have in stock. For serious capacitors, Allied and Newark are good. I like Vishay/Sprague's 36DX series for larger capacitors.

UPDATE 12/11/2001 - All Electronics (800-826-5432, 818-904-0524, http://www.allcorp.com) has 2400 uF 450 volt "computer grade electrolytic capacitors. The catalog number is CG-2445 and the price according to the 101 early 2001 catalog is $6.50 plus shipping.

UPDATE 12/9/2001 - G4587, camera flash guts with a small flashtube, reflector, and a **** 250 uF 330V photoflash capacitor **** and an inverter board, uses one AA battery. $1.98 each, $1.50 each in 10's quantities, $1.25 each in 100's quantities, $1.10 each in 1,000's quantities. No guarantee on staying in stock and price is subject to being increased after February 2001. Note that disposable cameras usually have smaller capacitors of 160 or sometimes even 120 uF.

For electrolytic capacitors under 100 uF, some axial lead versions such as Vishay/Sprague's TVA series have less internal resistance than most PC-mount and "snap-cap" ("radial") types which can have enough resistance to noticeably reduce efficiency. Generally, most electrolytics in good condition and at least 220 uF as well as ones specifically designed for photoflash use have adequately low internal resistance.

"Disposable" flash cameras have photoflash capacitors. The Kodak "Funsaver" has a 160 uF 330V capacitor. My experience has been that the "Max" has a 120 uF 330V capacitor, but Sam Goldwasser reports seeing 160 uF ones in "Max" cameras. Flash cameras with Max guts (including the button to jump-start the flash charger) but of brands other than Kodak usually have the 160 uF capacitor. I found unmarked ones in Fuji cameras and store brand cameras.

For capacitors under 20 uF, you may want really conductive non-electrolytic capacitors such as oil-filled ones, "motor run" ones, or foil ones or "extended foil" types and ones rated for use in pulse forming networks. Repeated strobe duty usually heats up photoflash and most other electrolytic capacitors - you may want something else or at least to watch out for heating!

For small capacitors of just a few uF or fractional uF, I recommend extended foil types and Vishay/Sprague 715P series (but not so much the other "orange drop" series), their 131P and 735P series, and Cornell Dubilier's WMF and MMWA series and the like.

Newark Electronics (800-4NEWARK, http://www.newark.com) and Allied Electronics (800-433-5700, http://www.allied.avnet.com) are good sources for capacitors, but have minimum order requirements and shipping charges and probably not the lowest price in the world.

If you watch for air conditioners (especially commercial duty ones) in the trash, you may be able to trashpick motor run capacitors. You may also find them and other oil filled capacitors in electronic surplus parts places and hamfests.

Digi-Key sells Panasonic dry film capacitors suitable for motor run use. Although I have not tested these, I believe the "Stack type" "SQ" ones are especially suitable for strobes! The 230 volt ones are highly reliable with rapid strobe duty to 330 volts DC and generaly reliable to much higher voltages. In general, motor run capacitors are reliable to a DC voltage at least twice their rated AC voltage.

I have heard of concern about blowing the internal fuses that some motor run capacitors have. So far in my experience, I have yet to blow one by discharging a capacitor with a flashtube. Putting two or more motor run capacitors in parallel will result in lower peak current through each capacitor and will further reduce the chance of blowing any internal fuses.

Capacitors to avoid include electrolytic "motor start" capacitors (these are usually junk) and some metallized film capacitors which cannot handle the high current surges of strobe use.

Where to get trigger coils

Electronic Goldmine sells two trigger coils:

G9879, with three wire leads, $1.00 each
G9626, with four leads for PC board mounting, $1.75 each

Mouser Electronics(http://www.mouser.com) sells trigger transformers:

422-1304   4 KV trigger coil axial lead plus HV lead               2.06
422-2304   4 KV trigger coil PC mount                              2.79
422-3308   6 KV trigger coil PC mount                              2.79
422-2310  10 KV trigger coil PC mount                              2.87

Radio Shack has one as a special order item - RSU-11996667, 99 cents.

You can make your own - Go here to find out how!

Where to get other useful bits such as SCR's and reflectors

Electronic Goldmine sells an SCR useful for trigger circuits. The catalog number is G9625 and the price is $1.00.

Digi-Key sells SCR's - I like the Teccor TCR22-6 (Digi-Key catalog number TCR22-6). For something really robust and immune to interference but only requiring 15 mA to fire, there is the Teccor S6010L, also available from Digi-Key. Call 1-800-DIGIKEY to order or request a catalog.

Radio Shack's 276-1020 also works!

The TCR22-6 and the Radio Shack SCR's are "sensitive gate" models requiring only a few milliamps to trigger. Be prepared to deliver as much as 10 mA to the gate for reliable triggering unless you know that the requirement is less. Many Teccor sensitive gate models such as TCR22-6 only need .2 mA to trigger. Non-sensitive-gate SCR's require much more current still, 15 to maybe 80 mA for guaranteed triggering (15 mA for many Teccor models).

Electronic Goldmine sells reflectors. You should get their catalog.

Written by Don Klipstein.

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