Dave Richards AA7EE

August 29, 2009

On QSL Cards and My Elmers

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 8:29 am
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I haven’t collected many QSL cards in my lifetime; shockingly few, as a matter of fact.  The reasons are several, but I won’t delve into them here.  I’m not even sure where the cards that I received under my UK callsign of G4IFA are – probably back in England somewhere. Perhaps my brothers saved them when they cleared out my parent’s house, or perhaps they got lost somehow during my years of moving not only to another country, but during my many moves within my new adopted country, the USA. To make matters even worse, I cannot find my logbooks before 1992. This has all been quite distressing to me, but if they don’t turn up during my next visit to the UK, I will have to give them up for lost.

Anyway, the thing that I am slowly coming round to mentioning is that of all the QSO’s I have had, there are a few memorable ones that I would have liked to have had QSL’s for, but those aside, the amateur stations from which I most wish I had QSL’s are the amateurs I knew on a personal basis that elmered and halped me when I was starting out.  They are the hams that I talked to on the air on a quite regular basis – mostly on 80M and on 2M, and because they were local and because I knew them, just didn’t bother to give them a QSL and seek one in return from them. Several of them are now silent keys.

Probably the most significant elmer to me was Norman Maries G4FHP (SK).  When I started attending The Redditch Radio Club in Worcestershire in the UK as an eager 15 year-old, I met Norman, an ex-Navy man who was diabetic and blind (he hadn’t been blind from birth and I’m assuming that his blindness was linked to his diabetes.) I didn’t know many of the details as a kid, but Norman wasn’t in service by the time I met him.  We were a good match; I was a youngster, eager to spend time with an experienced ham and keen to sit in his shack and talk radio, and he had the time, and the generosity to give me some of that time.  He occasionally needed help constructing circuits due to his blindness;  I was good at assembling from schematics and was happy to wire up as many parts as he could throw my way.  It was just the biggest treat to sit in his shack and watch him take part in his regular net on 80M with his ex-navy pals. I remember looking at his FT-101E and wondering if one day it would be possible for me to have a radio that cool. We went on 2M FM with his IC-215 and I was as happy as a bug in a rug.

Then after a few more years I went away to University and for the most part shelved my ham radio hobby.  On graduating from University, I moved to the US, and it would be a few more years before I decided to get a US license.  Occasional periods of activity interspersed with longer periods of inactivity followed for almost the next 20 years.  At some point I found out that Norman, my elmer, had passed away.  I felt really bad for not keeping in touch with him.  I sent a letter of condolence to his widow Inge, and wished that I had told Norman how important he had been to me.  That old saying about telling people how you feel while you still have a chance, is very true.  I don’t even have a photo of him, or one of his QSL’s.

Gordon G3EES was a clergyman who lived in the Malvern area of the UK.  I remember him giving me a guided tour of Worcester Cathedral (a beautiful medieval cathderal built about 900 years ago, with a crypt that is 1000 – 1100 years old).  He was a source of much local history and had a great enthusiasm for telling it to others.  He lived in a cottage in the countryside, and his landlady must have been very understanding, as he had telephone poles installed in the back garden that supported his HF antenna. Very impressive! I went to University, moved away from home, eventually moved to the US and only thought some years later to try and track him down.  His callsign wasn’t listed anymore, and as he was an older gentleman when I knew him in around 1980, I’m thinking that he is most likely a silent key by now.

There were others too.  Because I knew these people personally, I never tried to get a QSL card from them.  I mean, how much of an achievement was a QSO on 80M with someone 10 miles down the road? However, as an adult living in another time and place, to have a physical reminder of my elmers would be really great.

So here’s what I’m getting at with this post.  This first part applies universally – make sure to let people who influenced you in a positive manner know what an effect they had on your life. Make sure that you do it while you still can.

The second part is this – keep all your old logbooks.  They contain precious memories – and don’t limit your QSL collection to DX stations and stations that can help you qualify for the fancy awards.  Make sure to get and keep some QSL’s from the hams you know personally – especially your elmers.  One day they may not be around, and you’ll have something to remember them by.

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August 26, 2009

On QSL Cards

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 6:50 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

I knew when I became active on the air again a couple of months ago that I would have to deal with the question of QSL cards sooner or later.  I’m currently unemployed and am watching all my expenses closely. Even so, it seems against the spirit of amateur radio not to reply to QSL requests – even if I were to make it perfectly clear on my QRZ page. So that option was out of the window. At the time of writing this post, I’ve made the statement on my QRZ page that an SASE will be much appreciated for anyone that wants a QSL. I’m going to start using LOTW and will probably renew my relationship with eqsl, as well as figuring out which bureaus to use. That still left me wondering what to do about an actual physical QSL card.

When I started in the UK as G4IFA (actually, my first call was G8RYQ,  but it was short-lived, as I upgraded to the full G4 license within a few months) my brother drew a great cartoon of a ham sweating away at the key.  I wish I still had a copy of that card. Next came a home made affair constructed with lots of cutting and pasting (the old-fashioned way – not on the computer) and photocopiers:

By this time I figured it was time to try a professionally printed product.  These 2 cards were from Rusprint:

The Rusprint cards were great, but by now my address had changed twice and besides, I am into CW for the first time, and I wanted a card that reflected that. One thing that I learnt from the Rusprint experience was that my requirements of a QSL card tend to change a long time before the cards have run out, leaving me with a stack of fairly useless cards. I liked the idea of a simple yet informative and elegant card that would be easy for me to design and print at home, so that when my circumstances change (like I move, or start operating 80m AM and want to change my card yet again), I can make the changes, and only have to print what I need as I go along.

Then I found out that Kinkos, or as they are now called “Fedex Office” will let you upload a file online and go pick up your order a couple of hours later (sometime sooner) at any store you choose. Brilliant – I don’t have to fuss with printer cartridges, and all those pesky cleaning cycles that use up a lot of ink. I realized that I could fit 4 postcard sized QSL’s on a single piece of 8.5 x 11 stock and cut them myself at home with a box cutter and metal rule. The prices are quite competitive with the professional QSL printers. In some cases, it costs a bit more to do it yourself (especially if you’re printing color, and not just black and white) but to me, the ability to just print the quantity that I need, and make changes as necessary give the homebrew method the advantage.

I had decided that I wanted a card that was fairly functional and simple, yet appealing in it’s design. Operating CW has made me feel quite connected to the roots of this hobby, so I started looking at designs of QSL cards from the 20’s and 30’s. I liked the idea that cards of that era were simple and functional. They served to confirm a radio contact, and they did it perfectly. Some of the full color photo cards we have today feel like overkill in some ways to me, and besides, they cost too much to print! On top of that, I just think that a lot of old QSL cards look great. Steve VE7SL had cards printed by VE7DK that closely resembled many vintage cards, and I was impressed with the result. This page shows some vintage cards from Steve’s collection (opens in a new browser window) and also the card that he had VE7DK print for him. As an aside, Steve built his own replica of a “Paraset” (opens in a new browser window) – a British WWII spy transceiver. If you work him on his Paraset, he’ll send you one of his lovely vintage cards.

A few hours on the computer, and I had found a free old style font and put together a card with the help of Photoshop. I used much of the wording on VE7SL’s card, but did change it a little to suit my needs. He has spaces in which he can enter the voltage and current to the final transmitting tube, as was customary back then. I changed that to a simple space for power in watts, as I don’t have plans to build a tube transmitter. I also added my SKCC and NAQCC numbers, and made one or two other changes. It might seem like plagiarism, but this design was very basic and common for the era. I particularly like the idea of having the station callsign in large letters “behind” the QSL info.

Here’s my new QSL card:

It’s one sided, so it’s cheap to print – even cheaper if I want to print it in black and white on a colored card stock, and I can stamp and address the other side to take advantage of cheaper postcard rates. Some hams don’t like to send their QSL’s like postcards, because of the opportunity for damage in transit, but here’s another way to look at it; those old QSL’s with stamps and hand-written addresses on now are even more appealing 70 years later. The stamps that might seem pedestrian to you now, serve as a historical timestamp to folk who might be viewing them in the future.

Set up a sked with me so I can send you my new QSL card!

August 25, 2009

My 5 Watt Sigs Heard (Well) By A One Tube Regen Receiver at W7QQQ

I’ve worked W7QQQ 3 times now over the course of 4 nights, and each time has been a pleasure. Jack is a retired engineer who lives in Sierra Vista, Arizona, and is an accomplished homebrewer. However, in this case he’s not whipping together small solid state rigs and fitting them into Altoids tins. There are no surface mount devices or printed circuit boards in Jack’s projects, because the home brew station that he used in our QSO’s consisted of a one tube regenerative receiver and a one tube transmitter.  You can see a picture of his homebrew station here on his QRZ listing. There are also some pictures of his station here on Flickr. When we were chatting, he had the output of the one tube TX fed to a pair of 813’s in grounded grid.  He gets about 500 watts out this way, and his signal sounded great at my QTH in Oakland. What was pretty cool was that I gave him a solid 59, and he was hearing my 5 watt sigs at 57 on his regen receiver!

Jack’s crystal controlled TX operates at about 7050.5 KHz give or take a few hundred cycles. One thing I love about his transmitter is that it has it’s own distinctive sound. The note has a great timbre, and occasionally a bit of chirp creeps in; when that happens, you’ll hear Jack key down for a few seconds and retune to stabilize the note. Listening to him tune up and getting ready to call CQ, I thought to myself that this must have been what the bands sounded like 70 years ago – the majority of operators rock bound on their own frequencies, operating transmitters, each with their own distinctive sound. I don’t know how to explain this, but I’ve really enjoyed listening to him work stations on 7050 these last few nights. Even if I’m not decoding his code; if I’m doing other things and letting the CW float around the room as background, there’s a magic and romance to the sound of the CW notes from his one tube rig making their way the 800 miles to my apartment in the Bay Area.

This evening when I heard someone key down and send QRL? on 7050.32 I knew who it was.  Before he even had a chance to call CQ, I called “W7QQQ W7QQQ de AA7EE AA7EE AA7EE KN”  The combination of knowing what frequency his crystal controlled transmitter operates on, and knowing the sound of his TX helped me recognize his signal before he had even sent his callsign. I think the amateur bands must have been a very warm and friendly place back in the 30’s and 40’s. We chatted back and forth for just under 45 mins, mainly about homebrewing, before I mentioned that hot chocolate was calling me and I’d need to say 73.

If you haven’t QSO’ed with Jack before, listen for him a few hundred cycles above 7050 in the evenings and give him a call.  He’s great to talk to, and a knowledgeable and generous conversationalist.

August 14, 2009

In Which Dave Experiences The Odd Feeling Of Having A QSO With Himself

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 3:21 am
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Lately, I’ve been keeping the radio on 7030 when I’m at home – even in the middle of the day when there’s not much (if anything) on the band.  Occasionally if I hear a CQ, I can call right back, shock the other station’s pants off and hopefully get a pleasant QSO to boot.

Around lunchtime, I heard someone calling CQ – pretty strong signal too.  I called him straight back, and as he was coming back to me, pulled up hs profile on QRZ.  AE6PX – it was a station in Oakland – same city as me. I was kind of hoping that he’d be just a little farther away. The propagation aspect of radio adds extra interest for me.  I love to wonder at how my modest 5 watt (or lower) signals are somehow making it to the other station’s receiver.  In this case of course, it wasn’t too amazing, as he is about 5 1/2 miles away from me. Still, I always need someone to practice my code on, and it’s good to speak to a ham that I haven’t spoken to before.

He mentioned his name – Dave. Hang on – that’s my name.  So I’m speaking to another radio ham called Dave who also lives in Oakland.  It got better.  On his QRZ page is a picture of him riding a bike.  Criminy – I ride a bike too – although Dave is into Ultra Marathon Cycling, whereas a bike for me is my sole mode of transport – just a way to get around and get some exercise at the same time.  Even so, I was now chatting via morse code with another ham called Dave who is also in Oakland who also rides a bike.

At this point, Dave mentioned that we were having a Twilight Zone moment.  A bit later I said that I had to go because I had a dentist appointment. Dave came back to me and said that he went to the dentist yesterday. Yikes! We were separated at birth!

In reality, we are probably very different, but it sure was a nice twist to a QSO with a local amateur.

Update: A week after having this first QSO with AE6PX, I QSO’ed (on 40m CW again) with KE6YX – another guy called Dave who also lives in Oakland, and who also rides a bike.  In fact, he works as a bike repair technician on the weekends.  We’re multiplying!

August 12, 2009

The NAQCC Sprint From Vollmer Peak

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio,Uncategorized — AA7EE @ 7:33 am

Vollmer Peak has become my favorite local high spot from which to operate. Now it’s not quite Pike’s Peak, the peak in the eastern Rockies from which famous QRP’er Steve WG0AT operates. Pike’s Peak is approximately 14,000 feet above sea level. Vollmer Peak is a more modest 1900 feet above sea level. However, it is close to my house, which makes it very attractive. I can cycle there in a couple of hours (a trip which includes plenty of walking once I get to the steep parts.)
Today was the North American QRP CW Club Sprint, so I thought I’d take part from Vollmer Peak in order to try out my new homebrew portable dipole. First of all, let’s backtrack to my desk about a week ago:
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If you work me when I’m at home, this is where I’m sitting.  It’s not usually this messy though.  It only looks like this when I’m making something, and that particular day, I was making a dipole for portable ops.  I wanted to try using a pre-tuned antenna that was light and didn’t require me to cart along an ATU, so this is what I made.  The center of the dipole was made from a Nalgene bottle.  I originally bought it from REI to put shampoo in for a short trip, but now it serves as a cheap way for me to connect coax with a BNC on the end to my dipole:

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The end insulators cost me a fortune.  They were made from plastic rings that I found stacked on top of the CD-R’s in a spindle of 50.  There were several on top of the CD-R’s:

IMG_7336I wanted the dipole to operate on 40, 30, 20, 17 and 10 meters, so each leg of the dipole had jumpers like these placed at the appropriate positions:

IMG_7334

Bingo ! A portable antenna for 40, 30, 20 and 10 that cost me nothing up to this point, as I already had all the parts.  I wanted about 50 feet of coax to feed it, so I ordered a 50 foot length of stranded RG-58A/U with a BNC at each end from Buddipole Antennas. Their price was a very reasonable $14, so I went for it.

Now do I hear someone grumbling that RG58 type cable is awful and lossy, and what the jiminy am I doing using it? I mention this because I’ve heard comments along these lines before from hams.  The highest frequency I’m going to use this length of cable at is 28.5MHz and at that frequency I measured the loss of the 50 foot length to be 1dB.  At 7MHz, which is the frequency I’ll be operating on most of the time with this antenna, the loss as measured was just 0.2dB.  Both these figures are perfectly acceptable and are typical for a cable of this type. This is a light and flexible cable, which makes it perfect for carrying in the backpack for portable ops. Just don’t use it to feed your eme array.

Here was the radio gear before I stuffed it in the backpack:

IMG_7340From left to right:  Many-in-one type of tool containing pliers, screwdrivers, pen-knives etc all in one handy tool, portable dipole with 50 feet of coax underneath it, notebook and pen for logging QSO’s, FT-817 encased in very useful protective cover from the now defunct Mountain-Ops Communications (what happened to them?), KK1 Straight Key, spare set of AA batteries for the radio, and a reel of 40lb test line with 3 lead sinkers for throwing the line in trees (fun!) I also packed a set of earbuds but forgot to include them in this picture.

Non-radio items also stuffed in the backpack: sunblock, map, water bottles, trailmix, energy bars, and a compact digital camera.

I stopped for lunch at a taqueria in Berkeley at the base of the hill, then cycled/walked most of the way up before taking a brief break. All the radio gear as well as water, maps and food are in the backpack, and it’s only half-full. Brilliant!

IMG_4354The operating position on Vollmer Peak:

IMG_4361So how did I do in the Sprint? *Clears throat loudly* I only made 4 QSO’s due, in part, to my inexperience as a CW contest operator, and also due to the uncomfortable operating position, which led me to take a lot of standing breaks in order to get the blood flowing again. However, I enjoyed it, and it was a great excuse to get out for the day.

Cycling back down the hill, I heard 2 owls hooting from opposite sides of the road, and saw a wild rabbit scooting into the hedgerow.  I know – just little things, but combined with the experience of looking down on a setting sun shining on the tops of the clouds, it was all very beautiful. Here’s a view of the setting sun from Grizzly Peak (which is very close by) taken a week earlier:

IMG_4350Shortly after this picture was taken, the moon came out and lit up the tops of the clouds – awesome!

Stations worked in the NAQCC Sprint were W6GY, KA7SPS, WY7N and NG7Z.  I then came home and had a brief but very enjoyable QSO with W7CNL in Boise, who was also running 5 watts.  All on 40m.

CW is fun.

Vollmer Peak is home to several towers and many antennas.  Only a radio amateur would find antennas against a setting sun attractive:

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August 10, 2009

K3WWP Has A QRP CW QSO Every Single Day For 15 Years

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 6:45 am
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John Shannon K3WWP has been running a web site to promote the use of morse code on the amateur bands since about 1996.  I discovered his site for the first time in around 2002 and was impressed that he was so singular minded in his devotion to the use of QRP CW on the HF bands.  The only mode he ever uses is CW with a power of 5 watts or less into simple wire antennas.  From his QTH, which is on a small lot in a valley in the town of Kittaning, PA he has had at least one CW contact a day – not pre-arranged, by the way.  He just goes on the air and looks for QSO’s. Think about this – he has done this every single day for 15 whole years, without missing a day.  Quite amazing.

John’s web site is well worth a visit. There is a lot of information and reading there,  so you might want to bookmark it and visit regularly. He just passed the 15 year mark of his daily QSO streak and to mark the occasion has been publishing an interview with himself divided into 6 parts.  I’ve been eagerly looking forward to this.  John has been such a figurehead to me for QRP CW that I was keen to know a little more about him and about his 15 year streak. His diary is here (opens in a new browser window), and the interview starts with the entry marked Wednesday August 5th 2009.  I submitted 5 questions for John and was thrilled to find that he answered 4 of them in his interview – the other one had already been asked by someone else and answered by John earlier in the interview series. I wasn’t expecting John to answer even one of my questions, but for him to answer 4 was very exciting.

John is also an officer,  co-founder and member of the North American QRP Club (NAQCC). The club is free to join,  and one of the benefits of membership is your own unique membership number that is good for life and will never expire.  You can exchange the number with other club members in club contests and activity days. The club is not big on web-based activities – the web site exists mainly for informational purposes, and to encourage members to get on the air with CW.  They really want to encourage and promote the use of CW on the bands, as does John; a read of John’s site makes this very apparent.

One of the things I love about John’s site and his approach is that it doesn’t concentrate very much on equipment or fancy antennas.  The focus is very much on operating using low power and simple wire antennas. I really hope that CW is around on the bands for a long time to come.

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