What's a geek to do when his retractor fails?

Ah, I see there are some confused readers. We geeks often require access to electronically protected facilities. This usually means a badge reader of some sort. The badges are generally supplied with a clip, suitable for attaching to your collar or shirt pocket. But then you have to bend down or unclip the badge to scan it. Retractors are small mechanical devices -- essentially a string connected to a coil spring -- that allow you to pull the badge to the scanner without bending, and retract the badge to a comfortable location when you release it.

When mine broke, I could've just obtained a new one. But instead, I channelled my inner geek and took it apart, thus saving an artifact with priceless personal value. Unfortunately, I didn't take pictures.

You see, mine is no ordinary retractor. It's a heavy-duty model, obtained during one of my trips to Fort Leavenworth. Instead of the nylon string favored by cheap retractors, mine uses a high-test braided steel wire, coated with thin transparent plastic. At the end of the string, the standard hotglued plastic nub is replaced by a cast steel barrel, with a trapped brass bead providing a bearing to eliminate rotational wear; that's attached by knotting the end of the retractor wire. Instead of a cheap plastic housing, like the kind companies hand out at trade shows, mine has an oversized Army-issue shockproof metal casing. This thing could probably deflect a bullet. (Very slightly.) The larger housing also hides a large-diameter, thick metal coil spring attached to a plastic wheel. When my kids pull the badge, it snaps back with authority. I try to keep my fingers out of the way to avoid losing them. The loop that threads though the badges is still plastic, but it's reinforced with fiberglass. You can just imagine an Army engineer designing these things. They don't break, they fail. Catastrophically.

I actually received two when my cheap plastic version broke at an Army facility. When the wire on the first one broke from metal fatigue, I just tossed it and used the second. Then the second one succumbed to exactly the same metal fatigue problem.

The design flaw was that the last inch or so of the steel braid wasn't coated. I assume this was to ensure that the knot had better friction. In reality, it just made the steel fray at the brass bead. Eventually it wears completely through, dropping the bade on the floor and allowing the spring to uncoil completely, retracting the remaining line completely into the housing.

Luckily, the whole thing opened up with one screw. Even greater luck: the coil was still contained. I simply took the spring off its anchor and ran the line out of the opening (which turned out to have an bearing of its own).

If you've seen the other "Alpha Geek" stuff, at this point you might expect me to solder the line to the brass bead. But no; I'm not certain the solder would stick to brass. And the line is coated with transparent plastic, which would melt and burn in a nasty way. Instead, I used tweezers and needle-nosed pliers to tie a knot in the end, again.

I then recoiled the spring, giving it an extra half-turn with the needle-nose pliers before anchoring it again. This ensured that the spring would attempt to retract the line into the casing, providing a snug fit with no gap between the barrel-and-bead connector and the retractor case. It's always under tension, but there's no gap.

Voila! Working retractor. Not to mention fascinated kids. I think I'm getting a reputation as a fixer.