Product Review: Carson AM-20 Desktop Magnifier

Now that I'm working from home, I'm beginning to realize that some of my work habits have cumulative negative effects that I didn't really feel before. For instance: every time I carve a western saddle, I end up crouched over my desk like Quasimodo.

My left shoulder ached, my lower back complained, and while okay in the short term it was pretty obvious that this was simply not sustainable.

Justin recommended a set of jeweler's glasses, but I think he just wanted to laugh at me. Besides, I'd tried using reading glasses before and it just hadn't worked. I could see too much of the 'regular' world in my peripheral vision and the difference in magnification gave me a headache.

I picked up a desktop magnifier a few weeks ago and I think it was a success. I now sit more like this:

The neck angle is a little wonky, but I promise: it's more comfortable than crouching.

I bought a Carson AM-20, for several reasons. I wanted something cheap(ish), freestanding, and here's the funny part - I wanted to be able to put it back in the packaging without obvious damage in case I hated it. The Carson ticked all of those boxes and threw in built-in LED lights.

I didn't hate it, thankfully. The magnifier is very sturdy and has a clamp that opens pretty wide.

It's VERY stiff and has grippy rubber teeth to help it hold. The tip of the clamp is hinged, which is a really great feature. I keep a little piece of leather between the clamp and the top of my desk to protect it, but I'm a little paranoid; my dad helped me make it from my grandmother's cedar chest, so I take some perhaps unnecessary precautions.

The neck of the magnifier is made up of four jointed segments that have a decent range of motion. Each one has a little screw that, per the back of the packaging, can be tightened or loosened to adjust the tension. Mine was great out of the packaging, so I haven't tried it yet. You can see my current configuration below.

With the clamp at the front of the desk and the magnifier turned the way it is, I sometimes have to work around shadows created by the structure that holds the magnifier up. I'd actually prefer it to be clamped to the back of the desk, but my current lighting configuration prevents that. I tried it, and the result was horrible glare from the Ottlight that sits right above my desk.

In theory, the LED lights (controlled by a switch on the top of the magnifier) should help with the shadows. Unfortunately, the little lights are kind of laughable. I notice a slight color tone change when I turn them on, but there's no noticeable benefit. The slightly blue-tinted glowing dot in the photo below is one of the two lights.

Not only did I not hate using this, it actually helps. This is the best way I can illustrate how it magnifies: the out of focus grid  on the right is 1/4 inch; the focused grid on the left is through the fully extended lens.

The ache in my left shoulder has let up and my carving is actually a little smaller and tighter. The flower on the left was done without the magnifier, working as small as I was comfortable. The flower on the right was done with the magnifier, again as small as I was comfortable. The magnifier allows me to work a little bit smaller, but I'm still limited by my tools. The flower on the left is perhaps a little less defined than it's larger sister.

I carved this saddle, or at least portions of it, using the magnifier. It's one of my most detailed, and I think that's at least in part due to the AM-20.

So with all the good stuff - sturdy, functional, helpful, cheap - there are still a few problems. The biggest is probably the learning curve and adjustment period. At first, I had to constantly remember to use the magnifier. Now, I reach for the magnifier but have to work on not crouching over it, just like I used to crouch over my desk. Just like glasses, the lens needs to be cleaned occasionally. I'm tempted to make a sleeve to slide over it to keep it dust-free when not in use, but I've had so many western saddles lately that it hasn't been set aside long enough for that to be worth it.

Additionally, I have to find the sweet spot - the perfect combination of distance between desk and lens and lens and eyes. That takes some doing sometimes, and isn't perfectly consistent. If I don't have the focal point positioned correctly, there's distortion and it can give me headache. Most of the time, the optimal distance between the desk and the lens is around 5 inches; between eyes and lens between 7 and 8.

There are probably better magnifiers out there, and some day I might try one. If I were to look for another magnifier, I'd probably try to find something that has a longer neck and a larger surface area on the lens to help avoid the distortion I sometimes see at the edges.  For now, I can recommend the Carson AM-20 as an entry level option for someone who isn't sure they'll like working with one.

Just for fun:

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