Last Lone Wolf CRT Rebuilder Fades to Black

Flat screens and consumer attitudes spell end to 62-year-old business
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Avitt seals a new electron gun onto a small cathode tube. His breath provides the small amount of air pressure necessary to keep the soft glass from collapsing inward in this step. By James E. O'Neal --
DES MOINES, IOWA
Scott Avitt swims several miles a week, frequently runs several miles before dawn, and is an ironman tri-athlete. And he's also one of the last players still standing in another field—cathode ray tube rebuilding.

Avitt, 57, has been rebuilding picture tubes since he was 17, following in the footsteps of his father, Frank, who founded the Hawk-Eye Picture Tube Manufacturing business here in 1958. Avitt took over the corporate reins in 1976, and to this day continues to make new CRTs out of old, but not for much longer. The migration to flat screen video displays that accompanied this country's shift to digital broadcasting, coupled with the public's "don't fix it; dump it" attitude has spelled the death knell for this 52 year-old business.

Avitt has seen them all—round tubes, ultra-rectangular, glass/metal envelopes, delta guns, in-line guns and bonded yokes. Virtually every type of CRT that has been produced in America or the Far East has found its way into this tidy shop here in Iowa's capital, and Scott, his father, or late brother Alan, found a way to take them apart, replace the worn parts and put them back together as good as, or better, than new.

Hawk-eye has been known to the broadcast crowd for several decades, providing a budget-friendly alternative to factory replacement tubes for Sony, Tektronix, Barco, Conrac, Ikegami and other broadcast lines. (In many cases, the company has been the only source of replacement CRTs for monitors that were orphaned by their manufacturers; literally bringing the dead back to life.)

MAJOR SHIFT

In addition to being a skilled technician who enjoys his work, Avitt is also a businessman and has seen the handwriting on the wall.

"Business really began to slump in 2009 due to all of the flat screen sales," Avitt said. "Before that, we used to average three tubes a day, five days a week. Now it's down to just a trickle."

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After the regunned CRTs are baked out and pumped down to a high vacuum it’s time to activate the new getter material inside. This is done by heating the getter assembly to a high temperature with an RF heater. In this step Avitt positions a tube over the RF heater coil. When the operation is complete, the getter material is released and condenses on the glass as the silvery deposit seen inside most vacuum tubes. It adsorbs any gasses remaining in the tube after pumpdown. With home viewers and broadcasters both turning their backs on cathode ray displays, Avitt has decided that it's time to turn the bakeout ovens off for good and retire the vacuum pumps that have characterized his rather unique trade.

At one time, the United States boasted hundreds of CRT rebuilding operations. They existed both in the big cities and in small towns, filling an important niche in making it easier for John and Jane Public to "stay tuned" when the most expensive component in their television sets failed. Typically, a CRT could be rebuilt and sold for one-half to two-thirds of the cost of an all-new tube. Avitt and many others in his trade did their jobs so well, that there was no distinguishable difference between the new and rebuilt CRTs. They even carried the same warranties.

"At out peak—between 1965 and 1971—we kept five employees busy," Avitt said. "We did it all then—even constructing the replacement electron guns and re-phosphoring and aluminizing screens. Our revenue was around $390,000 a year. Collectively, rebuilding was a multi-million dollar business."

Avitt reflected that this all began to change beginning in the 1980s when the "throwaway society" mindset began to kick in.

"The smaller rebuilders started going under in the 70s and 80s," Avitt said. "My brother made a pitch to get broadcasters' business by sending out a brochure listing the broadcast gear that we could rebuild tubes for. That brought us a lot of new business."

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Technicians at Quest International continue to rebuild specialty CRTs. DIVERSIFYING THE BUSINESS

Hawk-Eye also went after other markets that were opening up then—bowling alley score displays, coin-operated amusement machines, and even keeping Toys "R" Us supplied with specialty CRTs. Avitt recalls working double shifts and dozing on a lounge chair in between operations to be able to handle the volume. The company expanded into its present 5,500 square foot building in 1991.

However, other rebuilding operations ceased to exist as television got closer to the 21st century—with even the big operations such as Channel Master, Sylvania, Philco and RCA winking out of existence.

Now it's Hawk-Eye's turn.

Even after 40 years of putting in 12-hour days that begin at 4:00 a,m,, Avitt still enjoys his work, but is reconciled to moving on.

He's currently working part-time as an athletic trainer and coach, and will move into this field on a fulltime basis later this summer when he's finished up the last of the standing rebuild orders (now mostly from TV collectors who want to keep their vintage sets alive). After the last CRT is regunned and processed, Avitt plans to donate his tube rebuilding equipment to the Early Television Museum in Ohio, and has volunteered to instruct others in its operation if there's sufficient interest.

"I'm really going to miss rebuilding tubes, though," he said.

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