How I choose and buy microscopes.

contributed by Gordon Couger, USA

When I first got interested in microscopes again and had enough money to indulge it as a hobby, I started to look around and try to decide what kind of microscope to buy. I read everything I could find on the Net, devoured Micscape and made a pest of myself with everyone I knew that had anything to do with microscopes. When you work at a university that can be a lot of folks.

I quickly found that the optics were the important part of the 'scope and the stand is just what holds them. The stand is important because it determines what attachments can be added to the 'scope and the durability of the 'scope.

Working at the university I could play with lots of microscopes and talk to the lab managers. I found that some old stands were still serviceable after 50 years and some of the new ones were needing parts rather often. Students find the weak points in machinery pretty quick and the weak point seemed to be plastic. Plastic gears seemed to be a particularly bad problem. Later when I tried to help someone find a replacement plastic gear for an older microscope, I found out what a problem that they could be. The factory wanted $820 dollars for the assembly and the least expensive used one we could find was $200.

Looking around, the old Leitz and Zeiss 'scopes were the ones still being used on a daily basis by faculty. For some of these departments, money was not a problem and they could have whatever they wanted. When I aske why they were still using a Leitz Ortholux or Zeiss Universal they said that they were still good enough for what they did.

Based on what I had seen I decided to buy a used microscope instead of a new one. I believed that for the same money I could get a lot better used microscope than I could a new one. From past experience with machinery of all kinds I knew that anything new depreciated a great deal in price as soon as you took it home, whereas used things value was based more on their condition and utility. Other people will come to different conclusions, and if you do, I would like to hear your reasoning. If we all thought the same there would be only a few models of automobiles and very little variety in the food store.

I decided I wanted a modular 'scope with a trinocular head. This would allow me to make photographs and digital images and have as flexible a setup as possible. I was doing some work in Vancouver B.C. when a  trinocular Leitz SM came up on eBay needing just a few parts. And I was hooked. I made a mistake in buying a 'scope that wasn't complete. However, the people I met and friends I made trading and buying parts for it, more than made up for the mistake.

I ended up with the trinocular Leitz SM and then really started to get an education about modular 'scopes, workmanship in the 50's and 60's and all the attachments that could be added to a microscope. I started with achromatic optics and I am slowly upgrading to some plan-apo objectives, a set of POL objectives, a set of infinity reflected light objectives and a full darkfield setup.

In buying, selling and trading I made some friends that actually knew something about microscopes. People that make their living servicing, manufacturing and selling microscopes. I made a pest of myself some more and picked their brains for all the knowledge I could absorb.  The one thing that all my mentors seemed to agree on was that the old 'scopes from the 50's and 60's with all metal gears built when labor was inexpensive and workmanship was at its peak, stood the test of time and should do so for another 50 years as well. Parts for the popular models were no problem because there were thousands of them gathering dust in corners around the world.

I first chose a Leitz SM and I am not sure that is the best choice because it takes 170 mm optics and 160 mm is the more common tube length. But that's what I got started with and all the parts from the SM interchange with the Ortholux I picked up later, so I will probably stay with Leitz. With an Ortholux you can build almost any kind of light microscope that you view with the eye and several that you can't if you can afford the attachments. Most attachments are reasonably priced but don't try to get a polarized light or DIC set-up at bargain prices.

I must admit that Zeiss makes a more attractive 'scope than Leitz and it uses 160 mm objectives. I believe that a Zeiss is more expensive than the equivalent Leitz 'scope, but I know that there are people that see it the other way round when looking at reflected light DIC and polarized light 'scopes. One thing to watch out for is delaminated Zeiss objectives. They seem to have more problems than other manufacturers with this.

The Reichert Zetopan and its Vickers equivalent are the real bargains in modular 'scopes. I saw a Zetopan sell for under $300 on eBay that was only missing the condenser and any condenser can be adapted to a Zetopan with a little machine work or a determined man, a piece of brass, a hacksaw and  a file. The parts and attachments are harder to find in the USA for Vickers and Zetopans but they are both fine 'scopes.

One of the good things about the old brand name 'scopes, is that if you decide to sell them or trade up you can get back most if not all of what you paid for them, depending on how hard a bargain you made and where you bought the scope.

Today there is a good used microscope for any pocket. Starting with monocular scopes for $100 USD to as much as you want to spend. I  believe in staying with the brand name 'scopes; Zeiss, Leitz, Reichert, Vickers,  AO Spencer and Bausch & Lomb. I don't think the Japanese 'scopes from this time frame have the quality that they have today as this was just when the Japanese were getting started with their optics industry.

For your first 'scope make sure it is complete and working properly. Finding a part for a microscope can be expensive if you are in a hurry for it. Often it is cheaper to buy a complete scope for one part and then sell the rest of the parts on eBay than buying a single part.

Buying from a local source is best, but unless you live in a large city there is not likely to be a local source near you. There are many dealers that sell mail order that have excellent reputations. Just make sure that they have a money back guarantee and pay with a credit card so if there are problems you have some hold over them. Then there is buying on eBay. Fortunately most of the dealers on eBay are pretty honest. Their reputation is all they have to trade on. A few bad deals and word gets around real fast. Just read what they say very closely, look at their feedback and make sure that they sell lots of microscopes and related items. Several offer money back guarantees. I trust what they say about their merchandise more than someone who doesn't offer a guarantee. If you buy on eBay ask lots of questions on anything that is not clear. Does everything work right and is the glass good are two questions that should always be answered. If they don't offer return privileges ask about them. If you buy on eBay get everything understood before you bid.

If you buy microscopes on eBay you will quickly find out about snipers. They have software that places their bid the last few seconds of the auction. Well over half the microscopes sold on eBay have one or more snipers bidding on them. The sniper doesn't always win but don't be upset when you think you have won and someone buys the 'scope in the last 5 seconds of the auction.

The best strategy I have found for buying on eBay without a sniper program, is to set an alarm clock and have the placed bid up in one window with the maximum you will give for the 'scope entered and your name and password typed in. Then watch the auction in a second window and place your bid as late in the auction as you think you can. The less time your bid is exposed to other bidders the less likely someone is to keep bidding until they give a few dollars more. You can't take the snipers into account, but there is no point in giving everyone else a target to shoot at by placing your bid early, and maybe you will be lucky and the 'scope won't have anyone sniping it and you may get a real bargain.

Contribution by Comments to the author sent via our contacts page quoting page url plus : ('gcouger','')">Gordon Couger, comments welcomed.

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Published in June 2002 Micscape Magazine.

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