The "sturdy, adjustable aluminum tripod" (quoted from Meade's ads) included with the LXD500 mount is indeed aluminum, and it is indeed adjustable. Sturdy? Ha! No.
Listed below are some things you can do to improve the standard tripod. They will have varying degrees of effectiveness. My own solution was somewhat radical (but inexpensive, of course!) -- build a completely new wooden tripod. Go to the bottom of the hints to see how to do it.
Tripod Fix-Up Hint #1: Make sure everything is tight!
When my tripod arrived, the nuts on the bolts that hold the legs onto the base of the LXD500 were quite loose. These nuts have nylon inserts to act as lock nuts so they won't vibrate off their bolts. Take a wrench and tighten these down CAREFULLY (you're dealing with aluminum legs and an aluminum base -- too much tightening WILL bend things!) until you can still easily move the tripod legs out and in on their posts, but the sloppiness in the attachment is reduced. While you're at it, make sure all of the screws and nuts on all parts of the tripod are tight enough to remove slop, but not so tight as to bind or bend.
Improvement Factor: 1 out of 10
Tripod Fix-Up Hint #2: Anti-Vibration Pads
An all-metal tripod like this one, when it picks up vibrations, tends to "ring" at a specific frequency. This ringing reinforces the vibration, prolongs it, and makes high-power viewing or focusing damn near impossible.
You can reduce this effect considerably by putting something under the feet of the tripod that absorbs some vibration and keeps it from reinforcing itself. Celestron sells official Telescope Anti-Vibration pads for about $49 that do just this...but you don't need to buy them. Get yourself down to Home Depot (or a similar store), and look for 1-inch round rubber feet intended to protect floors from furniture legs. These have a flat bottom and a cup-like top side, with concentric circles inside the top portion. They sell for about $2.50 for 4 of them, and they work just as well as the Celestron pads. I'm serious! They work great!
Improvement Factor: 3 out of 10
Tripod Fix-Up Hint #2: Make it Heavier!
The first two hints are quick, simple, and very inexpensive. Now we have to get a bit more involved.
The standard tripod just does not have enough weight or mass to avoid vibration. The slightest touch will cause it to move around, and a good bump will start in oscillating for many seconds (even if you use hints #1 and #2). It just plain needs to be heavier. Here are two things you can do to give the tripod some more heft:
1 -- Add an attachable weight
Take an empty 1-gallon milk jug. Fill it up with water or sand, and cap it. Tie a rope to the milk jug's handle, and then tie the other end of the rope around the top of the tripod, so the jug hangs about 1" off the ground. Instant mass increase!
Improvement Factor: 1 out of 10
2 -- Fill the tripod legs with Sand
Remove the caps on the ends of the tripod leg sections. Pour in sand. Re-cap the legs. You've just increased the mass of each leg by over 300%!
Improvement Factor: 2 out of 10
Tripod Fix-Up Hint #3: Add Upper Leg Clamps
One of the reasons this tripod is so shaky is because of the design of the adjustable legs. The center leg piece slides up and down the two outer pieces in a V-shaped channel. The intention here was to keep it in the channel, and so keep it from moving around...but in execution the middle leg doesn't fit tightly in the channel, and so the middle leg wobbles back and forth. You can correct this by purchasing clamps that are made just to fix this problem (sold by ScopeTronix) for about $50, or you can make your own clamps out of wood or metal. Basically, these clamps go on the upper part of the legs, and when you set the tripod at the height you want, you tighten these down just like the existing clamps. This keeps the legs inside their little channels, and keeps them from wobbling quite so much. Jordan Blessing at ScopeTronix tells me that his customers report excellent results using these clamps on the ETX version of the tripod, especially with the heavier ETX-125.
Improvement Factor: 2 out of 10
Tripod Fix-Up Hint #4: Replace it!
I tried some of the above hints (except the filling with sand part). They made the setup more stable, but not nearly stable enough for enjoyable high-power viewing, and certainly not enough for astrophotography! After tapping, twising, and bumping every part of the 203SC/LXD500 setup, I was sure that all of the vibration problems I was having were coming from the tripod alone, so I decided to build my own tripod!
I got 2 cedar boards from Home Depot, 3-inches by 2-inches and 8 feet long. I had them cut each of them into 4-foot long (48-inches) sections, then brought them home. Using my drill press, I drilled a 1/4-inch hole at the top of three of the pieces 1/2-inch from the end for the bolt to mount to the LXD500 base. Using my table saw, I cut a 2-inch deep cutout into the top of the three pieces, 1 1/4-inches wide. These make the three new tripod legs, and bolt right on where the old legs used to be, using the same attachment nuts & bolts.
I used the fourth piece of cedar to make a spreader/brace/accessory tray. This tray is permanently attached to one of the legs with a hinge, and attaches to the other two with bolts that pass through the legs into t-nuts on the sides of the accessory shelf. The legs are now fixed-height, but 48-inch long legs put the scope at a very comfortable height for me.
To assemble the tripod, I spread the legs apart, swing the acessory tray up, then push bolts through the legs to the t-nuts on the sides of the accessory shelf/brace, and tighten them up. Then the GEM gets mounted to the top of the tripod, and the OTA on top of that.
Take down is easy, too. Remove the OTA and GEM, remove the three acessory tray bolts, swing the tray down, and push the three legs together. Collasped, it fits easily in the trunk of my Nissan Sentra.
This tripod has completely changed my telescope! Even with some of the improvements above, vibrations would still take three to five seconds to damp out, and focusing at high power was very difficult because of the shaking. With the new tripod (I still use rubber pads under the new tripod's legs), vibrations are gone in less than one second, and there just aren't as many vibrations to start with. When focusing at high power, I see no vibration through the scope at all unless I kick the tripod REALLY HARD, and then they go away quickly. The new tripod is heavier, more solid, more stable, and the accessory tray is better too! (If you have the #1702 drive system, and you've tried to get the square control box to stay on the stock round accessory tray, you know what I'm talking about).
This tripod cost less than $10 to build, and is worth ten times that much in improvement. I only currently have the not-so-good picture of the unfinished tripod above, but as soon as I get better pictures back I'll post them, along with detailed plans and drawings for building your own tripod.
Improvement Factor: 10 out of 10!
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