Modding in the digital age: Putting it all together

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In part one of this series, we looked at choosing the controller chip that we wanted at the heart of our build. In part two, we looked at various enclosures that would be suitable for it as well. Now it’s time to put it all together. A daunting task to the casual observer, but with a little time, and a little patience, it’s really not that hard to do.

Before you build anything, you’ll need the proper tools. Building a custom mod requires tools for cutting and drilling, soldering, and mounting (tape, adhesives, epoxy).

Pictured below are examples of tools I use for building my mods. I prefer a cordless drill with a 11/32″ drill bit for the atomizer connection, a 1/2″ bit for the MadVapes horn button switch, and a 1/16″ bit for the Nivel controlled LED, and the USB charger LED. You will also need a rotary tool (Dremel is just a brand name, there are many others) with a cutting wheel, router bit (recommended), and a sanding wheel of some sort. I also recommend a good set of small hand files in various shapes. They are very handy for fixing little mess ups and de-burring.

Cordless Drill with various bits, Dremel with various cutters, Soldering station, Solder

You will also need a good soldering iron. You can get cheap ones at Wal-Mart or Radio Shack, and they are okay, but for a little more money, I highly recommend a good temperature controlled soldering station. I use the HAKKO FX-888 Soldering station which can be had for around $80. If you opt for different soldering iron, at least make sure that it comes with (or also purchase) a small chisel tip. Chisel tips distribute heat faster and more evenly (resulting in better solder joints). I recommend staying away from pointed tips.

HAKKO FX-888 Soldering Station

Speaking of solder, 60/40 rosin core solder works well for modding. Stay away from the lead free stuff as it is harder to work with, especially for the novice. You will also need flux (helps bond solder and wire), and solder wick (in case you make a mistake).

You will need some good wire as well. The Nivel chip comes prewired for the most part, and thus it is a good, albeit expensive, board to work with. The DNA12 and 20D boards are not prewired (and also a little cheaper), and you will need to solder the leads (wire) to the pin outs on the board. It’s best to have multiple colors of wire to keep things straight. For modding you will need 24 gage for buttons and switches, etc., and 22-20 gage wire for battery terminals and your atomizer connection. I like solid core wire because it is easier to solder to the pin outs, but it is very stiff, so keep that in mind if your enclosure is really small. I got my wire here, but you can find it virtually anywhere. CAT5 (Ethernet data) cable is 24 gage as well and has multiple colored strands inside of it.

Don’t forget to pick up some shrink tubing. You’ll need that to cover your solder connections to prevent shorts.

Finally, speaking of shorts… Should your mod have an issue where a dead short causes a dangerously high current draw, you’ll need to fuse your battery. I personally like the 3A PTC resettable fuse, soldered in parallel gives you a 6A fuse. Plenty of room for the battery to give what it needs, but protects your device from having a really bad day.

The following is a quick rundown of the mod I’ve decided to build. I decided that for the enclosure, I wanted to use a Camel SNUS tin. It’s metal, durable, opens for easy access, small, colorful, and best of all… ironic.

The parts list includes: The Nivel Chip, Evolv microUSB charging board, MadVapes horn switch, brushed silver 510 connector, 24g wire, 2 PTC fuses, 1AA open battery holder from Radio Shack, Micro 1.8mm LED, Hot glue gun and or epoxy, solder (the thinner the better), flux, a small sheet of 1/16″ clear Lexan, and an 1100 mAh AW 18490 battery.

Getting all the parts together

Once you have an idea of how you want to lay your project out, it’s time to start preparing the enclosure. Remember to measure twice, and cut once. If you have extra material lying around, you may want to practice using your drill and rotary tool before putting your enclosure “under the knife.” I had lots of SNUS tins lying around, so making a few practice cuts was a not a problem.

With the tin closed, 1st drill out the atomizer connector hole using the 11/32″ drill bit. Best to start with a pilot hole and work your way bigger for a better result. Once that is done, take a small file to de-burr it and clean it up. Take your 510 connector and fit it down inside the hole to assure a good fit.

Once that is to your liking, do the same thing for the push button, starting with a pilot hole and work your way up to a 1/2″ drill bit. Again, clean it up and make sure everything fits. You may have to use a grinding stone attachment on your rotary tool to make it look perfect.

Before you permanently affix the atomizer connection, horn button, and microUSB board to the enclosure, solder short (2 inch or so) leads to the appropriate spots or pinouts. For the horn switch, it doesn’t matter, there is no positive and negative (use 24g wire one color), for the atomizer connection solder a 20g red wire to the underside of the center post, and a 20g black wire to the underside of the outer sleeve. You may need to scratch the surface a bit with a small file to aid in adhesion of the solder. For the micro USB charger, solder a 24g red wire to the (+)pinout, and a 24g black wire to the (-)pinout.

Cutting the enclosure with a drill and rotary tool (Dremel). Afterward, make sure everything fits.

Once you have the holes for the switch and atomizer connection to your liking, hot glue or epoxy the respective parts in place. I recommend using the epoxy over the hot glue because it will be stronger. I also recommend using a cartomizer screwed into your atomizer connector to ensure that it is straight. You will have to hold these parts in place for several minutes until the epoxy hardens. Hardening times vary depending on the type of epoxy you use.

Next you need to install the microUSB charging board. I found it’s easiest to use a rotary tool with a routing bit. Be extra careful making this cut, and pay real close attention to your tool. It will want to jump around and very possibly make your hole too big. If you can, secure the enclosure so that it doesn’t move. For me, setting my rotary tool to 3/4 of max speed and using several medium pressure swipes yielded the best results. Even after doing several of these, however, I occasionally bugger one up. If this happens, don’t fret, you can still fix it.

If you do happen to make your cut too big, cut a small piece of Lexan and hot glue it over the hole on the INSIDE of the tin. Once that is dry, make another cutout for the microUSB connector with your router bit, and you should be good to go.

The USB board comes with a micro LED light to indicate charge status. If you’d like to see it, drill a small 1/32″-1/16″ hole just to the left of the USB slot (looking at it from the outside). When you add epoxy, it will act kind of like a fiberoptic pathway and the light will be visible when charging.

Mount the USB charging board in the tin. You may need to fill the space between the bottom of the enclosure and the bottom of the PCB. I found that using old cartomizer mouth pieces work well for this. Hot glue one in, and set the board on top of it. Once everything is lined up, epoxy it in place.

Now it’s time to mount the battery holder. Normally, an 18490 battery won’t fit in a AA battery holder. To make it fit, you’ll have to “skeletonize” it. Using a rotary tool with a cut off wheel, remove as much of the plastic as possible so that just a frame, with contacts still in place, is left.

Skeletonizing the AA battery holder to fit an 18490 battery

Once you get it down to where your 18490 fits and makes contact, place it in the tin and hot glue or epoxy it in place. Be careful not to get epoxy on the contacts.

Epoxy all the components in place

Once that is finished and hardened, you will need to work on the screen cutout. The Nivel chip viewable area is 8mm x 14mm. You want the cutout to match that so that it has a nice clean look. After placing the chip in the lid to get the best place for it to fit, I masked the outside of the lid with painter’s tape (doesn’t leave residue) and sketched the window on the tape where I wanted it.

Masking the window cutout, then carefully cutting with a rotary tool

Once I’ve marked where I want to make my cuts, I used the rotary tool with a cutoff wheel to carefully cut along the lines I just drew. Some pointers so that you don’t mess this part up: 1) save your old worn down cutoff wheels. They still cut, but are much smaller for delicate work. 2) Use light pressure and let the tool do its thing. Don’t force it. 3) Better to make smaller cuts and have to punch it out, than to over shoot leaving gouges in the area around your cutout.

Take your time here, slow and steady is the order of the day.

Now that the window is cut out, hand file it down to even it out and make it smooth. After you get it even and smooth, cut another small piece of Lexan and affix it inside the lid, over the cutout, and hot glue it in place.

The Nivel screen is raised from the PCB higher than all the other components on the board. To eliminate wobble when epoxying it in, first glue a couple cartomizer mouth piece tips to the board to even it out. You will have to cut them down some to get it all even. Once that is done, center the Nivel screen in the window cutout and epoxy in place. Allow it to harden before releasing pressure or it will move around and become crooked.

Lastly, for a nice touch, I elected to place the micro LED light in the camel’s eye. To do this, I drilled a 1/16″ hole in the proper spot, and then hot glued the LED in place.

Attaching the window, Nivel and LED to the lid

The hardest part is over. Go to the fridge and get yourself a frosty beverage. You’ve earned it!

All that remains now is wiring it up. Try your best to maintain a nice clean look, and duck your wires in natural chases in the enclosure where possible.

First, wire the LED light to the Nivel board. I highly recommend downloading the schematics so that you know what leads control what. Try and keep your leads as short as possible for a clean look.

Next, wire the switch leads from the nivel to the leads you attached to the horn switch. Before you solder, don’t forget to place a small section of shrink tubing over the wire. Solder the leads together and slide the shrink tubing over your joint. Apply heat (a short blast from a heat gun, lighter, or a blowdryer on high) to shrink it down, making sure no bare wire is exposed.

To wire the negative side, solder the black lead from the USB charger to the black lead of the battery holder. On the other end solder the black lead from the atomizer connection to the negative lead (blue) of the Nivel chip. Next place a short section of shrink tubing over one of the leads you just soldered. Now solder the top two negative leads to the bottom two negative leads. Once it cools, slide the shrink tubing over your joint and apply heat to shrink it down over it. Make sure there is no bare wire exposed. Tuck the wires between the battery holder and the wall of the enclosure. You can use hot glue to tack it down.

To wire the positive side, cut the red lead from the battery holder to about 1″ long. Take your two PTC fuses and solder them together in parallel. Slide a small section of heat shrink tubing along the red battery holder lead, and solder one leg of the fuse to the battery holder red lead. Once it cools cover the joint with the shrink tubing and apply heat.

Solder the positive lead from the Nivel chip (red) to the positive (red) lead from the microUSB board. Slide a piece of heat shrink tubing over these leads then solder them to the other leg of the fuse. Once it is cool, slide the tubing over the joint and apply heat.

You should be able to neatly lay the positive leads and fuses in the space above the battery holder. Once you get them arranged, you can hot glue them in place.

Lastly, wire the positive (red) lead from your atomizer connection to the atomizer control lead from the Nivel. As before, don’t forget to slide the shrink tubing over one of the leads first. Once the joint is cool, slide the tubing over the joint and apply heat.

Now that you are all wired up, add your 18490 AW IMR battery, and it should look something like this.

Final assembly of the Nivel SNUS mod

Carefully place the lid on the enclosure, and fire it up. You can download the user guide for the Nivel chip here. To turn it on, click the fire button three times. You should get the displayed power setting and a short burst of flashes of the LED. Attach your favorite atomizer or cartomizer, set your voltage or power to the desired level, and vape away.

Completed Nivel SNUS mods

Test the the microUSB charging board. Plug a microUSB cable into the port. You should see a red LED light up indicating that it is charging. It will turn green upon completion of the charge.

You can see the small hole to the left of the port illuminated red, indicating the unit is charging

Now that you’ve finished, and tested your mod… have a vape, and amaze your friends with your mad skills!

The proof is in the vape, and the vape is good!
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