Telescope-Making Books: The Good, the Bad, and the Unnecessary

ATM books

Although the internet can be a wonderful resource for first-time telescope makers, it can also be a source of great frustration. No matter what the topic, it’s possible to find completely contradictory advice. Far more dependable are good ol’ fashioned books — especially those that have stood the test of time.

I’ve never seen a telescope-making book that didn’t offer something worth knowing about, but that said, there are a few that I regard as essential, some that have out-lived their usefulness, and a bunch that fall in between. Listed below are mini reviews of a selection of telescope-making books from my personal library. I’ve tried to include all the titles you’re likely to encounter on Amazon.com, or in a well-stocked used book store.

My selection is based on a couple of assumptions about who you are. First, I assume you’re undertaking your first or second telescope and that you might be considering making a Dobsonian. Second, I also assume that you’ll want to know how to make a mirror, even if you might still choose to purchase one instead.

Build Your Own Telescope by Richard Berry

If you’re looking for the best book to take you all the way from grinding your own mirror to building your first telescope, look no further — this is it. It’s also among the most recently published, though that really isn’t saying much. Berry’s classic is now more than 25 years old, so don’t expect all the latest innovations to be covered. That said, what is in here is very good. There are complete plans for several instruments (including a couple of Dobsonians) and the text is well written. Even the section on mirror making is solid, despite its brevity.

Best feature: Well thought out plans
Worst feature: It’s getting long in the tooth
Rating: Essential
Status: In print (published by Willmann-Bell)

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All About Telescopes by Sam Brown

This volume not only lives up to its title, but if your introduction to astronomy happened in the late 1950s or early 1960s, you’ll find yourself on a trip down memory lane back to the days when Edmund Scientifics was the place to get your astro stuff. Brown’s book is a personal favourite because it’s absolutely jam packed with useful info and ideas — much of which you won’t find elsewhere. And yes, you can make a decent telescope with the instructions included in here. A glorious hodge-podge of optics and telescope-making info.

Best feature: Lots and lots of good information nicely presented
Worst feature: Pre-Dobsonian construction plans and concepts
Rating: Essential
Status: Available from Edmund Scientifics and used.

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A Manual for Amateur Telescope Makers by Karine and Jean-Marc Lecleire

I’m surprised this book isn’t better known, given its relatively recent vintage. It gives detailed information on mirror grinding and on building three different telescopes, including a 10-inch Newtonian and a 12-inch Cassegrain. The prose is a bit formal, perhaps due to its translated (from French) origin. The Dobsonian telescope is given only a cursory treatment, but over all, this is still a pretty good book.

Best feature: Detailed information on mirror grinding
Worst feature: Possibly intimidating for first-timers
Rating: Desirable
Status: In print (published by Willmann-Bell)

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Making Your Own Telescope by Allyn J. Thompson

This book has one goal, and one goal only: to guide you through making an equatorially mounted 6-inch f/8 reflector. If that happens to be the scope of your dreams, this is a great book. I found it very useful when I built my 6-inch f/9, but if you really want to make a 10-inch Dobsonian, then there’s little here beyond the excellent treatment of basic mirror-making. But even today, it’s still true that a 6-inch f/8 mirror is a good place to start, and the instructions in Thompson’s book are clear and well presented.

Best feature: A comprehensive guide for making a classic instrument
Worst feature: Of limited use in this day and age
Rating: Optional
Status: Out of print

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Making & Enjoying Telescopes by Robert Miller and Kenneth Wilson

For a book so recent (1995), this one is strangely obscure. It’s one of the most attractively produced telescope-making books I’ve seen — indeed, it’s the only one I own that has colour photos. The subtitle reads “6 Complete Projects & Stargazer’s Guide.” Inside there are detailed plans for a simple barn-door tracker to gear as sophisticated as a 10-inch reflector. As there is no mirror-making information, this book is best suited to builders looking to utilize commercial optics.

Best feature: Attractively presented, detailed plans
Worst feature: No mirror-making information
Rating: Desirable
Status: Out of print

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How to Make a Telescope by Jean Texereau

This book was once the ATM’s bible. It’s thorough, authoritative, and comprehensive, but to be honest, I never really warmed to it. Perhaps it’s because I encountered it in my elementary school library at a young age and was scared off making a telescope for many years because of it. That said, it is a good book that will take you through making an 8-inch mirror (although Texereau’s Foucault test analysis section still makes my head hurt), but much of the rest of the material is looking a little dated. It’s also pre-Dobsonian, so if making one of those is your goal, you won’t get there with just this book.

Best feature: Detailed instructions for grinding an 8-inch f/6 mirror.
Worst feature: Test analysis method tedious and math heavy
Rating: Desirable
Status: In print (published by Willmann-Bell)

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The Best of Amateur Telescope Making Journal, edited by William J. Cook

When the original Telescope Making magazine (edited by Richard Berry) met it’s too-soon demise in 1991, Bill Cook took up the torch and began publishing ATMJ. This two-volume compilation reproduces most of the articles that originally appeared in ATMJ and it’s a real treasure trove of ideas and inspiration — much of which would have been long forgotten if not for appearing here. It’s also a real hodgepodge that will frustrate anyone who prefers a more linear approach to dispensing information. Some of the material is dated, but there’s enough of lasting value that it deserves a place on the shelf of every experienced telescope maker. (My full review of this set appeared in the March 2004 issue of Sky&Telescope, page 74.)

Best feature: Plenty of great information
Worst feature: Organized by ATMJ issue, rather than topic
Rating: Desirable
Status: In print (published by Willmann-Bell)

Amateur Telescope Making, edited by Albert G. Ingalls

The current version of this 3-volume classic is an annotated rearrangement of the Ingalls edition that dates back to the 1920s. Like The Best of ATMJ, this set is tremendous collection of material covering the full range of telescope-making and related endeavors. However, as a source of information that you’d actually use when making a telescope, it’s not going to be as helpful as most of the rest of the books listed here. Indeed, it’s probably the reference I consult least often when researching an ATM project. None the less, it is regarded as a classic by many.

Best feature: A wealth of classic articles
Worst feature: Much of it is terribly dated
Rating: Optional
Status: In print (published by Willmann-Bell)

The Dobsonian Telescope by Richard Berry and David Kriege

Subtitled, “A Practical Manual for Building Large Aperture Telescopes,” this is the book to reach for if you want to make a truss-tube Dobsonian. Everything is well explained with nicely written prose and plenty of diagrams and photos. Though the design of large Dobs has continued to evolve since the late 90’s when this book first appeared, the basics have mostly remained the same. You really could simply follow the instruction contained in this book and emerge with a fantastic instrument, even if it’s not “state of the art.”

Best feature: Detailed instructions for building a truss-tube Dob
Worst feature: Some material is dated — as usual
Rating: Essential
Status: In print (published by Willmann-Bell — as usual)

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Amateur Telescope Making, edited by Stephen J. Tonkin

In terms of approach and contents, this book has more in common with the Ingalls ATM series or The Best of ATMJ than the other single-volume books in this reveiw. Fifteen chapters give detailed instructions for building a range of telescopes as well as several mounts and some projects for astrophotographers. There’s some good material in here, but the book’s appeal will depend on whether or not you’re interested in any of the specific projects described. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will point out that I wrote the chapter on building a hi-res Newtonian.)

Best feature: A wide variety of projects covered in detail
Worst feature: Selection of topics almost random
Rating: Optional
Status: Still available.

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Standard Handbook for Telescope Making by Neale E. Howard

Howard’s book has always struck me as Texerau lite — much of the same material is covered, but in a more approachable style. It’s a favourite among many, but like Texereau’s classic, I’ve always been a bit lukewarm to it. There is unquestionably some good material on mirror making — indeed, some of the most complete instructions to be found in any volume. However, the good material is partly offset by the bad. His test-analysis section in particular could lead a beginner seriously astray.

Best feature: Howard shows the reader three different ways to do everything
Worst feature: Howard shows the reader three different ways to do everything
Rating: Optional
Status: Out of print,

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