About Starlight Instruments
By Darren Drake for "Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews"
It was sometime back in the mid nineties that members of my astronomy club called the Northwest Suburban Astronomers first started acquiring a fancy new type of focuser for their homebuilt Dobsonian telescopes. The maker was a well-known club member named Werner Schmidt. Werner was at the time a machinist/astronomer and telescope maker who had proven himself many times over as a master craftsman. This new focuser had one new quality that had never been truly seen before; it had both a coarse and fine focus knobs. While this type of feature is common in microscopes it had never really been seen in a telescope focuser before. One possible exception is the Astrosystems focusers of the day but theirs implemented a much less sensitive 2 or 3 to one focus ratio. The new Starlight Instruments focuser was a true 10 to 1 focus ratio and had an unrivaled level of smoothness.
Over time anyone in the club who really cared about having the best components for their scopes had to have a Starlight Instruments focuser called the Feathertouch. Over the years the design of these amazing focusers evolved and improved again and again. Just when it seemed they could not be improved any further another version was made that did somehow make the best focuser in the world even better, smoother, and capable of supporting more weight. Later, focusers were made for refractors of various types and new features were available such as a motofocus with high precision focus ability for imagers. As the business grew, Werner and his wife Brigitte continued to make and improve their focusers for back yard astronomers all over the world. Soon other companies made their own versions of two-speed focusers but for many they were not a match for the craftsmanship, quality, precision and smoothness of the Feathertouch by Starlight Instruments.
By early 2007, Werner and Brigitte decided to pass on the business to a larger company more capable of handling the overwhelming worldwide demand. So now the business is owned by Jon Joseph and is located in Columbia City, Indiana. The town is fairly small and isolated from any major cities so there are very few walk-ins or visiting customers. Since I am spending another summer at Camp Eberhart as a resident astronomer in Three Rivers, Michigan doing astronomy outreach, the company is less than a 90 minute drive and so I decided to come out for a visit as they welcome walk-ins and take a tour while I had one of my Feathertouch focusers get an upgrade. I was so impressed that I later got the idea for this article and went a second time this time with my camera. There has been surprisingly little information and behind the scenes information available about Starlight Instruments and so it is my intention here to shed some light on the business that makes these absolute works of art.
The building is in an unsuspecting factory warehouse at the end of a cul-de-sac. There are no fancy signs indicating at all the type of production work going on inside. The building is also used to manufacture other non-astro related products. The day I arrived for my second visit was only the second day that all operations had been in this building as they had just relocated manufacturing and sales from a smaller building a short distance away. Consequently much of the office and production management area was still not completely in place.
Much of my time was spent visiting with Wayne Schroeder who runs the sales department and Jon Joseph the owner. While there I was shown many of the various focusers currently offered as well as some prototypes of new products yet to be revealed. There are a lot of new and exciting projects in the making. Jon is primarily the one responsible for designing and engineering all new products. Whenever a new scope or design of a new scope comes out, Jon is the one who fabricates a new focuser or adapter to offer to owners of those scopes. One of the more notable new products is the sub f/4 TeleVue Paracorr/focuser combo that should be offered by October and retail for about $900. Also in the works is a new lightweight version made for smaller scopes as well as the Portaballs. Neither of these were available at the time of my visit to photograph but I did see the lightweight version on my first visit and I was very impressed at how much weight was reduced while still retaining the Feathertouch quality.
I also spent much time visiting with Mike Gasdorf. Mike is the production manager who has the daunting task of assembling all focusers. This is no small task as the machining tolerances are extraordinarily tight and assembly requires much skill and patience.
When assembly is completed, it is Mike who is responsible for deciding if the focuser meets his strict criteria for friction and smoothness. Mike spent 4 solid months training with Werner and periodically for another 8 months to learn how to master his craft. Watching him disassemble, fix, and reassemble my focuser was quite an experience and gave me an appreciation for the work that goes into each focuser that comes out of the shop. Working by his side is Eddie Jones.
Eddie is responsible for assembling the complex planetary gears that give all Feathertouch focusers their 10 to one fine focus reduction. It is no wonder that mass produced focusers from overseas, while perfectly adequate for many, can't match the levels of precision of these hand made works of art.
Before assembly can take place of course the parts have to be manufactured. There are 17 separate parts for the basic Newtonian version focuser not including the individual bearings. Except for a few minor exceptions all parts are manufactured in house. I was able to get a close up look at the milling machines that produce some of the many parts that goes into each focuser. A few of the machines were only recently acquired and not yet ready for use. Seeing the sophistication of these massive and highly technical machines gave me an appreciation for just how much work and expertise is involved in the production process. I was able to see some of the various parts made in bulk right as they come out of the machines in their raw form.
Another area I was shown was the Anodizing room, which is run by Tammy Hardy. There I saw the many chemical baths that the various parts are immersed in to give the parts a nice and smooth black finish. Recently Starlight began offering red and blue nebula versions. I myself have one of only a few (to date) "Blue Nebula" versions that are somewhat artistic in appearance. Mine is a mate appearance while others offered have a more nebulous appearance. Tammy uses her artistic talents to give each of these focusers a unique one of a kind appearance. I was surprised at just how complex the whole anodizing process can be.
In all this was a very informative tour and one that gave me a sincere appreciation for just how much work goes into each focuser. A few decades ago almost all focusers were high profile rack and pinion versions that were quite simple by design. Then the first Crayfords were made that were friction based and were made of simple parts that some amateur telescope makers were able to fabricate themselves. Now we have companies like Starlight Instruments who have made focusers their primary product and have taken the process to the highest level. I would like to thank the staff of Starlight Instruments for letting me tour their facility so that I could bring some insight as to how they make these amazing products.
Back Row: Chad Wilson, Kaylynn Boling, Dena Joseph, Lilly Joseph,
Wayne Schroeder, Jennifer Joseph, and Mike Gasdorf.
Front Row: Maxwell Joseph, Tammy Hardy, Jon Joseph,
Samuel Joseph, and Eddie Jones.