May SkyTalk | Acquiring A Telescope

Poet Robert Frost felt that someone in every town owed it to the town to have a telescope. I would extend this to someone in every home should have one! And there are three basic ways to come about one of these magical instruments: making one (including the optics) from scratch, assembling a scope from available components, or purchasing a complete commercially-made instrument out of the box.

Back when I got started in astronomy, if you wanted a good telescope you either had to be well off financially or build one yourself. Of necessity I opted for the latter and built a 6-inch reflector, a standard-size instrument for the time. (A refactor is much more costly and demanding to build for a variety of reasons.) And I’ve ever been glad I did, for there is no thrill quite like viewing the wonders of the heavens with a scope you’ve built totally from scratch yourself! The most demanding and challenging component to make is the optics—grinding, polishing and testing the parabolic primary mirror. This typically takes several months of spare time activity (although the telescope-maker John Dobson of Dobsonian telescope fame could actually produce a mirror in one afternoon!). Of the many helpful guides available, two classic favorites stand out. One is All About Telescopes by Sam Brown. It covers every aspect of building the complete telescope itself in addition to the optics. Filled with hundreds of delightful drawings by the author himself, it’s available from! The other book is Making your Own Telescope by Allyn Thompson.

For those who want to bypass making the optics themselves and assemble a telescope from commercial optical components and readily available materials, an excellent guide is Build Your Own Telescope by Richard Berry. This work actually describes the assembly of five different telescopes, including four sizes and types of reflectors and a refactor. And here again, Sam Brown’s classic is a treasure-trove of various types and sizes of telescopes that can be assembled.

Finally, in today’s fast-paced hectic lifestyle, the way most stargazers opt to get their telescope is to purchase one ready to go. The number of different sizes, types and prices on the market is—frankly—overwhelming! A fine selection of quality instruments for every taste, level of experience, and pocketbooks can be found on the site. For readers who enjoy doing a lot of “window shopping” before buying something, see also the many telescopes and accessories advertised in the two leading astronomy magazines: Sky & Telescope and Astronomy.

However you decide to acquire a telescope, be assured of this: properly used and cared for, it will provide you and your family a lifetime of adventure and viewing pleasure exploring the nightly sky show unfolding overhead!

— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from