Dave Richards AA7EE

November 18, 2015

The Sproutie “SPT” Beacon – A Legal, Unlicensed HiFER Beacon

Note – this blog-post discusses the use of the 13553 – 13567KHz band under FCC Part 15 regulations in the US. Although it is a worldwide allocation, rules vary according to where you are. Off the top of my head, I do know that there are HiFER beacons operating in some countries on the European continent, but that is the extent of my knowledge of this type of operation outside the US.

Before saying anything else, I must note that even though the earlier projects which were named after my cats were not my designs, I did at least contribute enough of my own input that I could perhaps get away with naming them. I’m not sure that is the case with this venture, as I simply re-purposed it for a slightly different band and usage. However, the urge to name things around here after my cats is strong, so what I am calling The Sproutie Beacon, is really an original Hans Summers QRSS TX, modified slightly for the 15553 – 13567KHz HiFER band.

I have long been fascinated with clandestine and pirate radio stations. The UK has a long and hallowed history of pirate operation, since Radio Caroline and the other pirate ships began to grace the airwaves in the 1960’s. When I was in my teens in the 70’s, Caroline was still on the air, as was a newcomer to the pirate ship scene, a station called Laser 558. Laser 558 was, like the other pirate ships before it, stationed just outside British territorial waters, in international waters. It differed from the other pirates in one very noticeable detail though – it had American DJ’s, and was programmed like a US Top 40 station. To a British listener who was used to DJ’s talking quite a lot, the sound of American accents and near-continuous music, as dull as it might sound to a Stateside listener, was quite thrilling to these teenage British ears in the 1980’s. London is well-known for it’s many land-based pirate broadcasting stations on the FM band, but there weren’t too many outside the big cities. As a teen in the 80’s growing up in the Midlands, we did have a fairly high-powered pirate station on the AM MW broadcast band, with a wide coverage area, called Sunshine Radio, which I enjoyed listening to greatly.

When living in Los Angeles in the 1990’s, I was asked to DJ on a local FM pirate by one of the resident presenters, but politely declined, as I was already working in my chosen career, doing DJ, voice-over and production work. I was getting my DJ jollies for about 50 hours a week – and getting paid for it at that point, so said no to an opportunity that a few years earlier, I would most likely have jumped at. Los Angeles was not known for pirate activity at all – the area was almost entirely devoid of it, but this one station was a notable exception. It was known as KBLT. The founder, Sue Carpenter, even wrote a book about it, called “40 Watts From Nowhere”. Written from her perspective, and relating the trials and tribulations of running a pirate radio station that was on the air nearly 24/7 out of her apartment in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles, it’s a good read for anyone interested in the subject of pirate broadcast stations.

Then, in 2008, after moving to San Francisco, I was tuning around the shortwave bands in CW mode from my apartment in Ocean Beach one day, and heard a series of dits on approximately 4096KHz, Further investigation revealed that it was one of a cluster of unlicensed (and not legal) beacons operating from various locations in the California deserts on various frequencies centered around ~4096/4077KHz and 6626KHz with powers of the order of a few 100mW’s. All of them operated from solar power. Some also had batteries and could transmit 24/7, while others had only solar panels and were daytime only beacons. Even Jason NT7S could hear one of them from his QTH in Portland, Oregon – propagation was good on a regular basis back then. There are a number of these beacons, most of them in the deserts of the south west. Some send dits at various speeds, some send letters in Morse code. There is also one that sends the ambient temperature in Morse. They are discussed, with reception reports, over on the HF Beacons forum at HF Underground.

If, from all of this, you conclude that I would still be interested in running some kind of pirate operation, you’d be partially correct. I say partially because, in truth, although I enjoy listening to the clandestine activities of others, I wouldn’t want to do anything that might, even in theory if not in practice, jeopardize my ham license. I’d love to take a QRP solar-powered HF beacon out into the desert and leave it there, sending it’s valiant little signal, day after day, year after year, and checking the online reception reports from time to time. It would be interesting to see how long it would last. I read a report from someone who did install such a beacon, and his description was quite lyrical. He described how, whenever he was out hiking, fishing, or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors, he would take his portable shortwave radio and listen out for his beacon, thinking of the little transmitter out in the remote desert, courageously sending it’s diminutive signal across the great expanses of wilderness. Very evocative stuff.

It turns out that there is a way to operate an unmanned beacon on the HF bands below 28MHz, and to do so legally. The details, in the US, are contained within the FCC Part 15 regulations. These are the regulations which set out the requirements for unlicensed transmitters, among them baby monitors, cordless phones, toy walkie talkies, garage door openers, WiFi and Bluetooth devices, to name a few. In much of the spectrum in which operation is allowed, the power limits are very low, though there are a few bands where the allowance is more generous. The band with the most easily-attainable DX potential is the 14KHz-wide ISM band centered around 13.56MHz. Power limits are specified not in terms of the device output power, but as a maximum field strength at 30 meters. Medical diathermy machines operate in this band hence, I presume, the reason for a field strength stipulation rather than actual power into an antenna. This band is also inhabited by RFID devices. If you listen, you may well hear a variety of odd beeps and carriers, particularly near the center frequency of 13.56MHz. The maximum field strength allowed under FCC Part 15 regulations is 15,848 microvolts/meter at 30 meters. Few among us have access to accurate field strength meters, but John W1TAG has written this very informative paper, in which he runs the calculations, and comes to the conclusion that 2.3mW into a ground plane, or 4.6mW into a dipole would produce the maximum allowed field strength. Now 4.6mW isn’t a whole lot of power, but the WSPR and QRSS folk will tell you that DX results can be had, even within those limitations. In fact, the beacon activity on this band is divided between folk who run beacons sending CW at speeds that can be read by ear, and QRSS transmissions. A few people do run grabbers on this band, and report the results. Beacon activity in this ISM band is a very niche pursuit, but there is a good discussion forum over at the Longwave Message Board. As the title suggests, this site was set up for LF operators, but there is HiFER discussion there too,

My first “proof of concept” at putting together a beacon for this band was to connect an N0XAS PicoKeyer in beacon mode to my Pixie 2 transmitter. With the PiicoKeyer, if you insert the prosign BN at the end of stored message #1, it will automatically repeat. Unfortunately, my older version of the PicoKeyer will not power up again in beacon mode if power is lost. This was taken care of in later versions, but it meant that I wouldn’t be using this particular version of the PicoKeyer in the final version of the beacon. My Pixie 2 put out about 170mW on it’s original frequency of 7030KHz when powered by 12V, but this dropped to an encouraging 5-10mW at 3.6V (3 x 1.2V NiMH cells in series).

For the final version, I wanted all the electronics to be on one single board. At that point, I was thinking about purchasing a PicoKeyer chip from N0XAS and building the keyer, Manhattan-style onto the same board as a Manhattan-built transmitter. Then I remembered the Hans Summers QRSS Transmitter that I had built a few years ago. After a brief flirtation and a lot of fun with QRSS on 30M, the board sat languishing in a box. A little experimentation showed that it would still work down to voltages below 5V, and with the drive trimpot, I figured I’d be able to adjust the drive to give an appropriately low output power. Even better was the fact that on the QRP Labs website, there were details of a mod by Aldo IW2DZX for altering the output from FSK to straight on-off modulation, which I happened to want with this beacon.

Getting the QRP Labs QRSS TX on the HiFER band was straightforward. A pack of 5 x 13.56MHz crystals was purchased from an eBay seller. I chose HC49/U crystals over the more popularly available HC49/S, as I have read that the former tend to pull over a wider frequency range, due to the crystal cut. Receiving this pack of crystals in the mail was exciting. Think of the possibilities!

Here’s the final schematic for Hans’ little beacon transmitter, modified for straight on-off keying, and with values appropriate for the 13553 – 13567KHz HiFER band –



The jumpers on pins 5, 6 and 7 of the ATtiny13 are used for programming the sending speed. Refer to the original kit instructions for programming the speeds. Hans’ firmware allows 6wpm, 12wpm, and 6 QRSS speeds ranging between QRSS1 (1 second dits) and QRSS20 (20 second dits). The original schematic didn’t include the 3 x 10K pull-down resistors on these pins. I included them, as my TX wasn’t transmitting the selected modes. If these pins are left without pull-down resistors, then an unconnected pin might be incorrectly interpreted as “high” by the chip. The original circuit used a reverse-biased red LED to provide frequency-shift keying. This was removed, along with a 470K resistor and a “gimmick” capacitor, and a 2N3904 transistor, 22K resistor, and 0.1uF capacitor added to key the PA transistor. Also changed were the values of inductance and capacitance in the output low-pass filter. To cap off the mods, a 3.3V regulator was added. Because of the strict power limitations on this band, I wanted to ensure that the TX was running close to the maximum allowed power at all times, with minimal variation due to power supply fluctuations.

Although I modified my existing QRP Labs original QRSS transmitter, if you don’t have one to modify, you could build it from the schematic above, Ugly-style or Manhattan-style. A little transmitter built using MeSQUARES and MePADS would look quite nifty, methinks. The values in the schematic are the final values for the HiFER band. If you decide (with the help of the info on Hans’ site) to build it for QRSS operation as an MEPT on a ham band, you can run it from 5 – 6V for increased TX power output. I believe it can put out up to 150mW. On the HiFER band, of course, we don’t want anywhere near that much power, so a 3.3V regulator does the trick nicely.

Here is a top view of the modified board, with both new inductor and capacitor values for the HiFER band, and the IW2DZX mod for straight on-off keying completed. The speed selection jumper holes to the right of the ATtiny chip have been drilled out to accept a header block. With the original TX, you had to solder a wire between 2 holes to select a given speed. Now, the speed selection is accomplished by plugging in a jumper block (or a combination of jumper blocks). You can also see the 3.3V regulator at the far left edge of the board, in the middle. 3 old parts to the left of the trim cap have been removed, and 2 new ones added. I’ll leave you to figure out what they are :-)  –


The underside of the board, showing the extra transistor (a 2N3904) for the straight on-off keying mod. You can also see the 3 x 10K pull-down resistors, as well as a 1pF NPO capacitor added across the trimcap to tweak the frequency coverage.  The new values of capacitors required in the output low-pass filter were larger than I had on hand, so I made them up by placing smaller values in parallel. You can see 2 of those parts in the photo, placed on the underside of the board, in parallel with capacitors on the topside. I cleaned the board with flux cleaner, but ended up with a white residue. Not sure what it is. It bugs me, but I decided to let it go –


A few more views of the board –






If at this point, you don’t have a functioning keyer chip, you can verify that the transmitter is working by connecting pin 3 of the DIP socket to pin 8 (the +3.3V supply), which will activate the keying transistor and turn the PA on. You can listen to the little transmitter on a nearby receiver, or look at the output on an oscilloscope (or both).

Now to decide on a callsign, or other beacon ID that you want to send. There are no ID requirements when operating under Part 15 regulations. Indeed, this band isn’t even intended for these types of communications, though this usage does fall within the rules. This leaves you, the fledgling HiFER control operator, free to transmit any ID you want. I decided that I wanted the letters “SPT” in honor of my youngest kitty, Sprout. But how to go about changing the firmware? This was no mean feat for a person like myself, who has studiously avoided all types of non-analog electronics my entire life.

This next part of the narrative will be blindingly simple for many, but is directed at people like myself, who are fairly new to the task of compiling and flashing code to a micro-controller. You have to search around a bit to find this fairly basic information in a form that we newbies can understand, so I thought I’d attempt to provide a tutorial of sorts here. For those who know what they’re doing in this area, please feel free to add comments and correct me.

The code, written in C, is posted on Hans’ personal site here. The general page on the keyer chip on his site is here. By the way, if you haven’t seen Hans G0UPL’s personal site, you’re in for a treat. It’s a treasure trove of personal projects and just screams “home-brewer/experimenter”. There are many happy evenings of reading on it!

Somewhere online, (in a Yahoo group, I think), I read a message from Yan XV4Y to the effect that he hadn’t been able to compile Hans’ code, and had made a slight modification to it to correct that, as well as making an addition, to allow spaces to be included in the sent message. Later, Hans told me that he had been using Atmel Studio 4 on an older version of Windows, and that it was possible that some folk might have had trouble compiling it with newer programs. He also said that he wasn’t sure whether the code on his site had been updated or not.  I sent an e-mail to Yan, asking if there was any chance of him sharing his code with me. He responded very quickly in the affirmative, and also said it was fine for me to share it here. Please note that Hans’ code, as posted on his site, may very well compile and work fine. It’s just that I used Yan’s version. Yan was quick to point out that this is really Hans’ code with just a few minor mods from him. Many thanks to Hans for allowing me to post it here, and to Yan for allowing me to post his slightly modified version. For the slightly clueless people like me, the instructions at the beginning tell you what to do in order to insert your own custom callsign. For the record, Yan said that this code compiles perfectly on Mac OS X with Xcode using Crosspack-AVR. I’m a Windows person, so I’ll relate it the way I did it. In the following piece of beacon code, I set the callsign to be GRC. If you’re a fan of grilled cheese sandwiches and bacon, the idea of a “grilled cheese beacon” might be appealing, hence the callsign GRC. I know it’s a bit corny, but it will suffice for this example –

// This is an amendment to the beacon program written by Hans Summers
// G0UPL. It adds the facility for a space character to be embedded 
// within the transmitted callsign character string

// To change the callsign string you have to :-

// alter #define MSGMAX to the length of the callsign string +1

// insert the callsign you want, ensuring each character is seperated by a space
// into the text between the curly brackets after int8_t msg[MSGMAX] ending the string with a _SPC

//  e.g. for AB4CDE 

// #Define MSGMAX 7

// int8_t msg[MSGMAX] = { A B _4 C D E _SPC };

// e.g. for PA5D M M 

// #Define MSGMAX 9

// int8_t msg[MSGMAX] = { P A _5 D _SPACE M _SPACE M _SPC };

#include <avr/io.h>
#include <avr/interrupt.h>

volatile uint8_t msgIndex;
volatile uint8_t timerCounter;
volatile uint8_t counter2;
volatile uint8_t audio;
volatile uint8_t key;
volatile uint8_t bit;
volatile uint8_t pause;
volatile uint8_t character;
volatile uint8_t speed;
volatile uint16_t callsign;
volatile uint8_t keyDelay;

#define PERIOD 6

#define A		0b11111001,
#define B		0b11101000,
#define C		0b11101010,
#define D		0b11110100,
#define E		0b11111100,
#define F		0b11100010,
#define G		0b11110110,
#define H		0b11100000,
#define I		0b11111000,
#define J		0b11100111,
#define K		0b11110101,
#define L		0b11100100,
#define M		0b11111011,
#define N		0b11111010,
#define O		0b11110111,
#define P		0b11100110,
#define Q		0b11101101,
#define R		0b11110010,
#define S		0b11110000,
#define T		0b11111101,
#define	U		0b11110001,
#define	V		0b11100001,
#define	W		0b11110011,
#define	X		0b11101001,
#define	Y		0b11101011,
#define	Z		0b11101100,
#define _SPACE  0b11101111
#define _SPC	0b11101111
#define _0		0b11011111,
#define _1		0b11001111,
#define _2		0b11000111,
#define _3		0b11000011,
#define _4		0b11000001,
#define _5		0b11000000,
#define _6		0b11010000,
#define _7		0b11011000,
#define _8		0b11011100,
#define _9		0b11011110,
#define _BRK	0b11010010,
#define _KEYUP	0b10000000
#define _KEYDN	0b10100000

#define MSGMAX 4
#define SHORTSTART 0
int8_t msg[MSGMAX] = { G R C _SPC };

uint8_t speeds[8] = {1, 2, 10, 30, 60, 100, 150, 200};
uint8_t dit[8] = {150, 150, 150, 150, 150, 150, 150, 150};
//uint8_t speeds[8] = {1, 1, 1, 10, 30, 60, 100, 200};
//uint8_t dit[8] = {150, 36, 30, 150, 150, 150, 150, 150};
// 150 		1		12wpm
// 150		2		6wpm
// 150		10		QRSS1
// 150		30		QRSS3
// 150		60		QRSS6
// 150		100		QRSS10
// 150		150		QRSS15
// 150		200		QRSS20
// 36		1		50wpm
// 30		1		60wpm

int main(void)
	DDRB = 24;
	TCCR0B |= (1<<CS01) | (1<<CS00);	// Prescale by 8
	TIMSK0 |= (1<<TOIE0);
	msgIndex = 0xff;
	return 0;

	if (audio == 1)
		if (key) PORTB |= 0x08;
		PORTB &= ~(0x08);
		audio = 0;
	// 1500Hz here
	if (timerCounter == dit[speed])
		// 10Hz here
		timerCounter = 0;
		if (keyDelay)
			if (counter2 >= speeds[speed])
				counter2 = 0;
				if ((character == _KEYDN) || (character == _KEYUP)) 
					key = 0xff;
					bit = 0;
					if (!pause)
						if ((!key) && (!bit)) pause = 2;
				if (key == 0xff)
					if (!bit)
						if (msgIndex == MSGMAX) 
							msgIndex = SHORTSTART;
							if (callsign > 6000)
								msgIndex = 0;
								callsign = 0;
								speed = 0;
								msgIndex = SHORTSTART;
								speed = (PINB & 0x07);
						bit = 7;
						// Get character from message
						character = msg[msgIndex];
						// Look for 0 signifying start of coding bits
						while (character & (1<<bit))
					if (character == _SPC)
						key = 0;
					else if (character == _KEYDN) 
						key = 1;
					else if (character == _KEYUP)
						key = 0;
						key = character & (1<<bit);
						if (key) 
							key = 3;
							key = 1;
					if ((character == _KEYDN) || (character == _KEYUP)) keyDelay = 100;
				if (key)
					PORTB |= (0x10);
					PORTB &= ~(0x10);
	TCNT0 = 156;

Copy and paste this code directly from here into a simple text editor, such as Notepad, if you’re using Windows. You can include the instructions at the beginning if you want – the compiler will know to ignore them. In the text editor, you can alter the code to include the callsign/message of your choice (no more than 8 characters, including spaces), then save it. You can name the file whatever you want, but make sure that the file extension is .c so that the compiler knows what it is.

Before compiling and flashing this code onto the ATtiny13 micro-controller, the other thing you will need to know is how to set the fuses on it. This beacon circuit uses an ATtiny13V, but I believe the ATtiny45 or ATtiny85 could also be used, as the only significant way in which they differ is that the later versions have more memory. The fuses determine basic operating parameters of the chip, and only need to be set once, though they can be reset, if you wish. After setting them you can re-flash the firmware as often as you like, and the fuse settings will remain the same, unless you purposely change them.

To find the fuse settings, you can use a fuse calculator such as this one. I used the default settings, with the exception that I disabled the internal divide-by-8 divider for the internal clock, and set the BOD (brown-out detection level) to 1.8V. The piece of code we are using assumes use of the internal 9.6MHz clock.  If you don’t disable the internal divide-by-8-divider, your keyer will send the code 8 times too slow. You can read elsewhere as to why the BOD level is set at 1.8V – try this page, under the heading “Brown-Out Detect (BOD). The resulting command line argument to set the fuses, as given by this calculator, is -U lfuse:w:0x7a:m -U hfuse:w:0xfd:m

The code for the beacon, as written in c, cannot be flashed to the ATtiny – the chip wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it. Before it can be flashed, the program has to be converted into a format that the micro-controller can recognize, through a process called compiling. It might be overkill to use such a big suite simply to compile a program, but Atmel Studio was the first free one I came across, and it worked, so I used it. Download the latest version of Atmel Studio (at the time of writing, it is version 7). It’s a big download – several hundred MB, if I remember correctly, so depending on the speed of your connection, it may take a while.

After opening Atmel Studio 7, select File>New>Project

A dialog box appears. On the left-hand side, under “Installed”, select “C/C+++” and then on the right-hand side, select “GCC C Executable project”. At the bottom of the window, you can name the project “grc-beacon” (or whatever you want to call it), and select where you want the generated files to be stored, unless you want to stick with the default location. Then click “OK”. Then a device selection box appears. You’ll want to pick ATtiny13, unless you’re using an ATtiny45 or ATtiny85. I haven’t tried the latter 2 devices, but believe they will work for this application. Then click “OK”.

You can insert your code where indicated, but at this point, I chose to completely delete everything that appears on this screen, and paste the code into the window. If you have already edited the code in a text editor to include your desired callsign, then no further changes will be necessary. If you are still using the code exactly as displayed on this page, you can at this point edit callsign “GRC” out and replace it with your callsign. Remember to also alter #define MSGMAX to match the number of characters in the callsign +1 (if a change is necessary). For the callsign GRC, that will be 4. If, for instance, you were using “DOGGIE” you would set it to 7. That’s it. Simple!

In the next step, we will generate the hex code that can be flashed onto the valiant little micro-controller chip in our beacon. Go to Build>Build Solution. As soon as you click “Build solution”, you should see all sorts of activity in the window at the bottom of your screen, as the compiler goes about the business of compiling the code. Hopefully, after the bottom window has finished scrolling, you should see –

Build succeeded.
========== Build: 1 succeeded or up-to-date, 0 failed, 0 skipped ==========

Then, towards the top right-hand side of your screen, in the solution explorer, after clicking on the little arrow next to the “Output Files” section, you should see the coveted hex file. Note that I called this project “grc-beacon-3” (I think the original version was called “grc-beacon” but this was my 4th attempt at getting it right) –

If you double-click on the hex file in the Output Files section, a new window will open up, and you’ll see the code in hexadecimal format. Mine looked like this. This is the code for the “grilled cheese beacon” :-)

Now you have the code in hex format, and the command line argument for setting the fuses. All that remains is to flash this onto the ATtiny micro-controller. SparkFun make a Tiny AVR Programmer that includes the target board for plugging in the ATtiny chip. I already had a USBTinyISP AVR Programmer from AdaFruit, so decided to make a target board, which cost me nothing extra, as I already had the parts on hand –


The ribbon cable that connects the AVR programmer to this target board can be inserted the wrong way, as the header connectors are not polarized. I opened up my AVR programmer and traced the pins from the ATtiny45 in the programmer to ensure that they would be connected to the correct pins on the ATTiny chip plugged into the DIP socket on the target board. Like goes to like, i.e. reset pin is connected to reset pin, MISO is connected to MISO, MOSI to MOSI, SCK to SCK, +vcc to +vcc, and gnd to gnd.

Here’s what my version looked like when finished (made with Rex’s MePADS). The thin strip of solder at the top left-hand side of the board in the next shot was put there as a visual reminder of which way to plug in the ribbon cable from the USBTinyISP –



Here’s the target board plugged into the AdaFruit USBTinyISP –


P.S. – when programming the ATtiny chips, I don’t fully insert them. With high quality machined sockets, a gentle push makes good enough contact, and makes it easy to remove the chip without deforming the pins. In fact, I did the same when plugging the chip into the beacon board and it has been running fine now for a few weeks. I do this in case I decide to reprogram the chip a few times before deciding on  the final callsign. Another way of treating the pins gently would be to use a zero insertion force (ZIF) socket when programming the chip. Tayda have them for a low price, or you could use this target board from John KC9ON, and his company, 3rd Planet Solar.


The USBTinyISP Programming Adapter from 3rd Planet Solar. Photo reproduced with kind permission of KC9ON.

(Note – all my instructions here are for Windows. I know next to nothing about Macs, but if you’re a Mac person, the AdaFruit instructional linked below can help you out.)

AdaFruit have a useful instructional on how to use their AVR programmer, which applies to any USBTiny ISP. If you haven’t done this before, refer to their instructional, install WinAVR, and become familiar with it’s use. I’ll assume you know this stuff in the following paragraphs.

I burn the fuses first, in a separate operation. That way, I know they are set, and it makes subsequent programming operations simpler (with fewer things to potentially mistype at the command prompt). With the USBTinyISP plugged into your computer via a USB cable, as well as the target board, make sure the ATtiny13 (or ATtiny45 or ATtiny85) is plugged in to the 8-pin DIP socket on the target board, and you are ready to flash.

At the command prompt, navigate to the directory where your hex file is located. If it is on the desktop, for example, at the command prompt, you type

cd desktop

– and just to the left of the blinking cursor, you should see


– indicating that the Windows Desktop is the current directory. You’ll also see some other stuff to the left of the word “Desktop” but exactly what, will vary, depending on your particular set-up, so I won’t confuse you.

Just to check that your programmer is working, with it plugged into a USB port on your computer, type


and you should get a list of all the commands that it recognizes. It should look something like this –


Then, at the command prompt, type

avrdude -c usbtiny     

Then hit return, and because you didn’t specify the target part, the programmer will tell you so, and give you a long list of all valid parts. I’m not showing it here, because the list is too long to fit on the screen without scrolling but near the bottom, you’ll see the ATtiny13, and it’s abbreviation, which is simply “t13”.

Now that avrdude has slapped your wrist for not specifying the part, let’s give it what it wants, by typing

avrdude -c usbtiny -pt13  (or -pt45 if you are using an ATtiny45, or -pt85 for an ATtiny85)

Hit return, and you should get something like this, which indicates that your USBtinyISP is accepting commands, and recognizes the ATtiny device. In other words, it is ready to flash the firmware –


Then to set the fuses, type

avrdude -c usbtiny -U lfuse:w:0x7a:m -U hfuse:w:0xfd:m

Hit return, and if you get something like the following, it means you have successfully written the fuses. Congratulations – you don’t have to do it again!


If you want, you can set the fuses when you are flashing the hex file, but there is the potential to goof up, set the fuses incorrectly, and render the ATtiny incapable of further use. I’d rather do it in a separate operation and then not have to worry about it again.

Now to flash the beacon firmware onto the chip. At the command prompt, type –

avrdude -c usbtiny -pt13 -U flash:w:grc-beacon-3.hex

The above example assumes that your hex file is already in the directory that you have navigated to (in these examples, I have navigated to the Desktop), and that your hex file is called grc-beacon-3.hex  It probably won’t be called that, so make sure to substitute the name of your hex file. After hitting return, if you get something like this, you have hit the jackpot, and it looks like you are in business –


If you have already built/modified the beacon transmitter, you can plug the ATtiny chip into it, and should hear the sweet sounds of your beacon ID being sent repeatedly on a nearby receiver (with a brief pause between ID’s). You can also connect a crystal earphone or other piezo-electric transducer to pin 2 of the chip to hear sidetone, as a check.

Tayda Electronics is now carrying a small range of enclosures, including some diecast ones, and they have great prices. I ordered a couple of sizes to see how they were, and ended up using the smaller one for this beacon. Here’s the board mounted inside it’s enclosure –


That’s a small dummy load plugged into the BNC connector. Once connected, you can measure the peak to peak voltage across it with an oscilloscope, and use that to calculate the output power.



Although you can’t see them, I fixed 4 little vinyl bumpers to the bottom of the case.


Once you have this little powerhouse in an enclosure, you’re ready to set the output power with the 2.2K drive trimpot. Ideally, you’d be able to accurately measure the field strength at 30 meters from the antenna and use that as your yardstick. This is what K6FRC did when setting up his “FRC” HiFER beacon. IIRC, he runs 1.8mW into a groundplane. I saw an online posting from him in which he said that he was running very close to the maximum permitted field strength at that power level (he has access to a field strength meter). As I don’t have an FS meter, I chose to go with the results from W1TAG’s paper and chose 4.6mW into a dipole as my goal.

If you have an oscilloscope with a bandwidth high enough to measure voltages at such frequencies, it is a useful tool for measuring the output power of your beacon. As the power is specified in terms of the field strength it generates, there is no need to locate the transmitter close to the antenna feedpoint in order to minimize losses. If the regulations specified a maximum power out of the transmitter final, then this would be a worthwhile approach. This is the case with some Part 15 allocations (such as the one for the MW AM broadcast band). However, in this band, we are free to calculate the loss of the feedline and adjust the transmitter power accordingly.  This means that the transmitter can be located indoors, and away from the extremes of weather and temperature.

With my MFJ-259B, I measured the loss of my 50 feet of RG8-X at about 0.7dB, and figured that a transmitter output power of 5.4mW should result in about 4.6mW at the antenna. Using this online calculator, 5.4mW translates into a peak-to-peak voltage of ~1.47V into 50 ohms. With the 3.3V regulator in circuit, the maximum power output was only 10mW,so adjusting the drive to produce 1.47V peak-to-peak on the scope was fairly easy.

Incidentally, the backwave is very audible when you are close to the transmitter. The backwave is the carrier that is still radiated from the antenna when the keying is off. This happens because we are keying the final, so that when the key is “up”, some of the signal from the oscillator still leaks through the PA and into the antenna. I measured the backwave on this transmitter as 01.mW, and it remains at the same level regardless of where the output power is set. Granted that at lower output levels, such as 5.4mW, it is a greater fraction of the power when the key is “down”, but although I could hear the backwave in my immediate neighborhood, it gets lost in band noise pretty quickly. 0.1mW is about 34dB lower than 5.4mW, meaning that if someone is hearing the beacon at S9 +30dB, then the backwave will be a little over S8. Realistically though, anyone who is not really close to it will not be hearing the mighty 4.6mW signal at anything more than a few meager S-points at most, relegating the backwave into the noise. If it really bothers you, you could run the transmitter from a 5V regulator, set the output power higher, and then reduce it with an attenuator pad in the output circuit. That would lead to less backwave in the antenna. I didn’t bother about it.

Here’s the antenna – a Buddipole vertical element, mounted on a painter’s pole on the balcony of my house, putting the base of the L-shaped dipole at aobut 25 feet above ground level. The other element of the dipole is a length of wire. It’s a pretty good take-off to the north and east, but it is blocked by the house to the west and south –


This is what the beacon sounds like on the K2 in my shack. I purposely took steps to reduce the signal level into the receiver, so as to get an idea of what it would sound like at a distance –

Here’s Mingus the neighborhood cat, listening to the Sproutie beacon on my K2, from across the street. Apologies for the cat butt! You can hear the backwave in this video –

The “SPT” Sproutie Beacon is now sitting in my shack, pumping it’s plucky little signal into the ether 24/7, and has received 2 “DX” reports so far. The first was from Jeff KF7RPI, who heard it at his QTH in Portland, Oregon, briefly at a 239 – 339, before it faded back into the noise. He is about 530 miles from me as the crow flies, which is pretty good for such a QRPp signal. The second report was from Bill Hensel on the LWCA message board. He was hiking in Pike National Forest when he heard SPT one day at 1845utc (also briefly) on his KA1103 portable receiver. Bill was about 900 miles distant from me, so that is also exciting. These are the only 2 reports SPT has received so far, but it is encouraging. Some folk do run grabbers on this band and look for QRSS signals. I’m thinking that if SPT’s 4.6mW signal can be heard at 900 miles while at 6wpm, it could go a lot further if it were sending much slower. However, I do like being able to decode it with my own ears, so will keep it at 6wpm (or maybe 12 wpm) for the time being.

Incidentally, if you want to put a HiFER beacon on the air with the minimum of fuss, the Ultimate 3S QRSS/WSPR transmitter kit from QRP Labs will operate on any frequency in the HiFER band, thanks to it’s Si5351 frequency synthesizer. The LPF for 20M should work fine for attenuating harmonics. As this kit is capable of producing far more power than Part 15 regulations allow, it is your responsibility to limit the output power if you operate this transmitter on the HiFER band. The Ultimate 3S will do multiple modes and bands – it’s a do-it-all-in-one MEPT, really, and at a very affordable price.


If you hear the SPT beacon on 13558KHz, please send a report – either to the e-mail address listed on my QRZ account, or as a comment underneath this post. Reception reports will be very eagerly received. One gentleman in Seminole County, FL, reported that the area around the SPT frequency was a cacophony of noise in his area, and he stood no chance of hearing it. Those kinds of reports are useful too.  If you put your own HiFER beacon  on the air, do introduce yourself on the LWCA message board, and John can include you on the list of known active HiFER beacons.


4.6mW of legal, unlicensed pluckiness and grandeur, hiding out in a diecast box.

November 11, 2015

A Few Manhattan, and General, Construction Pointers

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio,homebrew radio,QRP — AA7EE @ 9:27 pm

Someone recently left a comment on one of my older blog-posts asking if I could go into a little more detail about my construction techniques. It’s a question I’ve been asked a few times and although I have never detailed them in one post, if you were to read the posts for my main construction projects, you’d probably be able to glean enough info and links to pick up what you need. However, that information is scattered around this blog, so this post is an attempt to gather all the tidbits into one place. Please note that this is not a step-by-step “how-to” instructional, but more a collection of thoughts, tips, and links. It is a rough guide to how I do it, and not intended to be definitive. There are many ways to achieve a goal, and your mission is to find the way that works best for you.

I get my PCB material from seller acbfab on eBay. He has a good selection of different thicknesses of substrate, double-sided and single-sided, and even different thicknesses of copper. 0.06″ thickness is a nice stout board, good for enclosures, and also for Manhattan construction. The lesser thicknesses would probably only work for small enclosures, but would be fine for most circuit construction, unless you’re using a larger board and specifically need something inflexible (a thicker board would probably be more stable for a regen, for example). Up until now, I have used 0.06″ board for both enclosures and circuits, but a friend recently gave me some really nice pieces of thinner board (about 0.04″, I think), which I will use for building circuits on. When buying from abcfab, my standard order is for 0.06″ thickness, 1oz/ft² weight copper, single-sided, FR-4 substrate material. FR-4 is a composite of woven fiberglass cloth with an epoxy resin binder that is flame resistant (hence the FR designation). He also has a few different colors, which are fun for enclosures. I have bought red, blue, and the usual light brownish-colored boards from him. I did try to find a supplier for small quantities of other colors, such as orange, but the only way I found to do it was to buy whole sheets from a supplier and have them cut down to size, either for my own stash, or perhaps to also distribute to other home-brewers to spread the cost out a bit.

I won’t go into detail on enclosure building here, but I talk about my methods in this post. Ken WA4MNT has an excellent tutorial here. I learned most of what I know about building PCB enclosures from Ken’s tutorial. Ken uses shears to cut his material. I found that scoring it deeply on both sides with a box cutter allows it to be flexed and snapped cleanly. Running a file over the edge gives a nice result.

Anyway, a little about building circuits, which is the main subject of this post. Here are my main tools –

At the top is a 2.25mm crochet hook, used for winding toroids. I use the hook to pull the wire through the toroid, which is a great way of keeping the turns snug against the core. Beneath it, from left to right, is a tube of superglue gel. The gel form works best – the liquid is just too runny and gets everywhere. Next is a pair of round-nose pliers with round cross-section jaws (Pro’s Kit 1PK-29). I use these for bending component leads for the rounded look –

Round component leads on the Etherkit OpenBeacon

Next to the rounded pliers is a pair of green-handled Xcelite MS543J flush cutters with ESD-safe cushion grip handles, and a couple of small jewelers screwdrivers (from a cheap set bought from Radio Shack), which I use for scraping lacquer off the board in the places where Manhattan pads will be glued, as well as pressing down on the pads when gluing them to the board. Then a pair of Pro’s Kit 1PK-036S long nose pliers. I didn’t like the spring action, so I removed the spring from the handle. Next is a red-handled pair of needle nose pliers (cheap ones from Radio Shack). On the far right is a craft knife or as some call it, a box cutter. In the UK we call them Stanley knives, after the brand – in the same way that the British also call a vacuum cleaner a Hoover, and we in the US talk about Scotch tape, while the Brits refer to the same thing as Sellotape. This craft knife is used to deeply score both sides of a piece of PCB material before breaking it cleanly off. You’ll go through blades fast with this method. I bought a pack of 100 blades as typically, I find that every time I score a board enough times on both sides so that it can be broken off, I need to replace the blade. Blades are cheap when bought in bulk, and it’s not worth putting up with substandard cuts just in order to save a few pennies.

Looking at the needle nose pliers a bit closer, you’ll see that I filed flats into the ends. This has nothing to do with Manhattan construction. I needed a specialty tool to remove the nut holding a VFO encoder pot on a Yaesu FT-817, and found out that after filing a couple of flats in the jaws of these pliers, they fit the cutouts in the pot nut perfectly, allowing me to use the pliers to unscrew the nut –

The round-nose pliers in the foreground, and the needle nose pliers in the background.

I forgot to photograph my steel rules. I have 3 of them – a 12″ one marked in mm, a 6″ one also marked in mm, and an 18″ one marked in inches. They are used for scoring the lines in boards when cutting the PCB material and, of course, for all other kinds of measuring applications.

Moving along, at the top of the next picture is a T-handled reamer. This is used for making larger holes in chassis and enclosures. I start out with a drilled smaller hole, and enlarge it with the reaming tool. The brand name is General, and it is a No. 130. Then from left to right are a couple of files – a mill bastard, and a half-round bastard. The hand drill (and set of bits at the far right) is much used for drilling holes in enclosures. Finally, in the middle is a set of small files, which are very useful for finishing off all kinds of holes and rough edges. This particular one is made by General #707476 and is called a 6-piece Swiss Needle File Set –

When gluing Manhattan pads down, I first scrape the lacquer away from the board with a small jewelers screwdriver in the area where the pad will be glued. I know you’re not supposed to use screwdrivers for scraping things, but these were from a cheap set. I also roughen up the underside of the MeSQUARE or MePAD with a sharp craft knife blade to help adhesion. I put a small drop of superglue gel in the center of the area on the board where the pad will be, and lower the pad into position with the long nose pliers.

This next part is tricky. Once you begin to push down on the pad, you only have a few seconds before it is glued fast to the board. The trouble is, that as you push down on it (with a screwdriver or whatever other implement you’re using), the pad tends to slip around on the gooey gel, and change position. If you’re fast, you will have time to re-position it as it does this. You achieve this with a combination of pushing down slowly, and quickly re-positioning it by nudging it with the screwdriver. Once you start pushing down, the clock is ticking. You’ll have time to re-position the pad if necessary, but you’ll have to be fast! The good news is that if you do succeed in gluing the pad down in the wrong place, you can remove it and try again. Just wait a couple of minutes for the glue to set, then slide a sharp craft blade under the pad and pop it off the board. Be careful when doing this so that you don’t slice a finger, or slip and damage something else on the board. Once the pad is off, you can scrape away any remaining glue and go for a second try.

Component leads can be pre-cut and pre-formed with the cutters and pliers, and then placed against the pads and board to check the fit, before soldering. A few folk have asked how to actually get the parts standing up on the pads in exactly the position desired. This is the wonder of tack-soldering. Most modern components come with the leads already pre-tinned. For the purposes of tack-soldering though, it helps to have just a bit more solder on them. Once you have tinned the lead(s), you can place the part in the position you want it using a pair of pliers (or other tool), and temporarily fasten it in place with a bit of heat from your soldering iron. Then you can either tack-solder or permanently solder the other lead into place, after which you go back to the first lead and make that solder job permanent. As well as using pliers, I often use jewelers screwdrivers to coax leads into the right positions – use whatever you have, and whatever works for you. You’ll develop your own techniques over time. It can be a slow process, often taking many years, so don’t despair – enjoy the journey!

Oh, I forgot to mention the soldering iron. A temperature-controlled soldering station is preferred over a cheaper iron without temperature control. A temperature-controlled iron can deliver more heat when needed, such as when soldering to a circuit board ground plane. It’s surprising how much heat even a small ground plane on a circuit board can “sink” away from the tip of a soldering iron. The station I use is a Hakko 936. I don’t believe they make that model any longer, but there are plenty of affordable soldering stations available, for around the $100 mark. As for tips, chisel tips are good for most purposes. I use a 1/16″ chisel tip for most things, switching to a smaller 1/32″ chisel tip for the more fiddly tasks. The flat sides of a chisel tip will allow you to transfer heat more effectively to the area being soldered than will a conical tip.

Oh, and test gear. The most important piece of test gear by far, is a multimeter. I have a 20 year-old analog multimeter from Radio Shack, which used to be my main meter. Nowadays, I mainly use it for the times when I’m peaking circuits, when being able to see a needle move on a scale makes it easier to adjust a control for a peak or a null. My main meter now is a cheap manual DMM, an Extech MN35. It was a gift from my friend Antoinette last Christmas. IIRC, they are about $25 –

Most folk seem to prefer auto-ranging DMM’s. My preference is for a manual, as I like the manual control. Whether you are using a manual or an auto-ranging DMM, you should have an idea of roughly what kind of voltage you expect to find at a particular point before poking the test prods anywhere near it. Knowing what voltage (or current, or resistance) ball-park you are in, it is no trouble, in my opinion, to switch the meter to the appropriate range. That may be just be my justification for the fact that I’m rather stuck in my ways, and just happen to prefer manual meters. It’s convenient that they are cheaper too :-) With a DMM like this as your sole piece of test gear, you can build an awful lot of stuff. There are cheaper DMM’s out there, but the really cheap ones have low build quality and poor accuracy, in my experience. I do also have an old Tek 465 oscilloscope which a local ham very generously gave me. Combined with a signal generator, you can do all sorts of fun things with a ‘scope, such as injecting a signal into an amp stage, and seeing what it looks like when it comes out (as well as calculating the gain of the stage). I recently used it to measure the output of a 5mW QRPp transmitter, by measuring the peak to peak voltage across a 50 ohm resistor. At such low output powers, RF probes aren’t accurate, and a ‘scope is a good way to go.

My DMM doesn’t measure capacitance, so this capacitance meter does a great job. I often check values of components before installing them into a circuit, as a double-check to ensure I didn’t misread the value printed on the part. I got this one for a little under $15 from Sparkfun. It measures capacitances from just a few pF up to many uF’s –

There are some really useful cheap pieces of test gear on eBay. I plan to ask for a little frequency counter, and maybe also an ESR meter for Christmas.

Anyway, the purpose of this post was to show you the tools I use for my home-brewing activities and hopefully, to demonstrate that you don’t need a lot of expensive ones to build a lot of cool things. However, if you have the interest and can afford it, feel free to get yourself lots of cool test gear!

Those are the basics, I think. I cannot think of any more right now. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer.

April 7, 2015

The National HRO NPW Dial and Gear Drive

The gradual (and selective) acquisition of vintage radio parts here continues, as I hone in on the perfect tuning dial and drive for my next regen, I’ve been wanting to find a really nice National HRO Micrometer dial and drive for the purpose, and have finally found it.  I had to purchase 4 dials and 3 drives to get exactly what I wanted though.

As well as selling their gear drives with built-in variable capacitors, National also sold the stand-alone PW and NPW drives which could, with the use of a shaft coupler, be used to drive any variable capacitor the builder desired. The PW drive, in which the drive shaft ran Parallel With the front panel, was also known as a right-angle drive, as the drive shaft came out of the gear box at right angles to the tuning shaft. The drive shaft of the NPW drive was Not Parallel With the front panel, and was also known as a straight-through drive, as the tuning shaft and drive shaft were in the same plane. For many builders, myself included, the PW drive is not ideal, as the variable capacitor would tend to get in the way of the other front panel controls and parts. On the other hand, with the NPW drive, the main tuning capacitor sits directly behind the gear drive, leaving room either side of it for the other front panel variable capacitors, potentiometers, switches etc. From the National Radio Products catalog for 1947 –

The NPW drive was my holy grail, and I set about watching eBay for one. The first such acquisition was listed thus, “has dings,scratches and scuffs – knob has spring and turns, gear turns properly”. The dial had definitely seen better days and although the gear box did look to be a little scuffed, I figured that it was most likely in good working order, and would only need a through cleaning and re-lubrication to put it in working shape for the next few decades. I paid a little more than I wanted to for it but darnit – I wanted it, and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived to find that it was in fair condition. I haven’t pictured the dial, because it was in pretty rough shape but that was of little concern, as I already had a very nice dial. It was the gearbox I was looking for. This one didn’t end up quite making the cut for my next regen, but it came close. These photos are the way it was on arrival, before I cleaned and lubricated it –

The grease was old and although the gears did turn smoothly, I couldn’t help wondering if they’d turn a little smoother with a complete cleaning and re-greasing. The grease was getting a bit dried up, and it was time for this gearbox to receive some TLC –

I wasn’t able to find as much online documentation on this gear drive as on the right-angle drive (the one that uses a worm gear). This makes sense, as the National HRO receivers used right-angle drives – there seem to be more of them floating around than these “straight-through” drives. The only place I found any info on the NPW drives was here. However, after disassembling and lubricating a right-angle drive, this one was easy to figure out. It has more moving parts, but is a very simple arrangement. You may not be able to figure it out from looking at these photos but if you see one in real life, after turning the shafts and seeing the gears turn, it’s operation becomes very clear –

You can’t see the eccentric nature of the hub too well in this picture. I probably didn’t capture it from exactly the correct angle. However, you can see that it had been removed and replaced upside down. Note how the word “top” is at the bottom. This was probably so that the gear drive could be positioned upside down in it’s previous installation (whatever that was) –

Time to take it apart, and thoroughly clean all the old grease off. This was achieved with an old toothbrush, many squibs of WD40, then a great deal of dish soap, scrubbing all the time with the toothbrush, before rinsing and drying. A hairdryer at maximum heat helped the drying process. It was surprising how hot the metal casting became after a minute or two under the hairdryer. Here’s the fully cleaned and dried gear box, before re-assembly, I didn’t remove the gear that was attached to the drive shaft, though this would have been quite easy –

Two closer views of the eccentric hub with the spindle and 2 fiber washers –

The cleaned and re-assembled gear box, before re-lubrication. It’s not too clear in this photo, but the gear on the right is tensioned with a spring to eliminate backlash. You can see the spiral spring near the center of the gear. When re-inserting the tuning spindle, you should use your fingers to tension the gear by just one or two teeth before engaging the tuning spindle. If you tension this gear too much, there will be too much resistance when you try to turn the tuning knob. All you want is enough tension to eliminate the backlash and no more –

A view of the cleaned gearbox from above. What a difference!

And the gearbox cleaned and assembled, but not lubricated (it will have to be partially disassembled in order to be lubricated) –

For lubrication, I use Mobil 1 synthetic grease, applied with a small (1 ml) pipette (the type used to administer medicines to pets), a toothpick and at times, my fingers. After applying sparingly, I turn the gears to distribute the grease and with the toothpick, remove any surplus. Once any grease has been pushed out of the gear teeth and to the side, it’s never coming back,so why keep it around? Grease should be applied in every place where metal moves in contact with metal, but you don’t need a lot. This includes the inside of the eccentric hub, through which the tuning spindle passes (the spindle that is connected to the dial), as well as the outer part of the hub, which comes into contact with the micrometer dial –

In the following view, the anti-backlash spring on the left-hand gear is visible. You can see one end of the spring poking through a hole in the gear, and the other end held in place by a collar around the spline –

Here’s a final view of the assembled and lubricated gearbox. I forgot to install the 4 screws on the top cap but other than that, it’s complete, and ready for many more years of service –

The dial that came with this gearbox has seen better days. Although I have certainly seen gear drives of this type in better external shape, this one does operate smoothly.  You can spin the dial and it continues spinning for a turn or two, even with a variable capacitor attached. Not long after cleaning up this drive, I found another one in particularly nice condition, which will be the main tuning control for my next regen. I’ll  show you that drive in the next post. In the meantime, this one will go on the shelf in a box, waiting for the right future project to come along.

April 3, 2015

An Early Morning Spin On 49M With The Sproutie

This morning, my 2 eldest kitties did a real number on me. The senior was the first. At about 5am, she sat on her food shelf (one of 3 shelves mounted on the wall next to my bed, specifically for the cats to hang out on), next to her empty food bowl and began meowing loudly, while fixing me with an innocent gaze. I was able to ignore this for a good 20 minutes until the next eldest, my blind cat Jingles, jumped up on the bed and also began a “feed me” campaign, which consisted of vigorously rubbing her little furry head against my face. The combined effect of both initiatives was too much to easily ignore so as soon as I had fed them, I found myself sitting in front of The Sproutie and thinking that I might as well make use of the fact that I was up at 5:30am, while night-time and grey-line propagation on 49M would be in full swing.

The choice of 49M for this listening session was simply because it was the coil that was plugged in. I listen to Radio Habana Cuba most nights on 6165 and 6100KHz. The 6165KHz signal, which comes online at 6pm local (0100z) has been rather weak recently, but the signal on 6100KHz from 10pm-midnite (0500-0700z) is a powerhouse. I sometimes record the 6100KHz signal but am quite often foiled in my attempts to catch the penultimate hour of programming, due to RHC’s various foibles. Last night, the carrier appeared on 6100KHz at 4 mins after the hour, followed a further 5 mins later by the audio. My plans to record the 1-hour program in English were thus foiled and by the time it was repeated at 11pm local, I was feeling too sleepy to last the whole hour.

When going to bed, I usually leave The Sproutie on 6100KHz so that I can awake to the sounds of KCBS Pyongyang on the same frequency. It is mainly music, with occasional spoken word in Korean. I hear many of the same tunes during their morning programming, and there is great theater of the mind in hearing their slightly kitschy melodies interspersed with the impassioned-sounding commentary in Korean. I hear the same melodies most mornings, and there is a certain appeal to this somewhat exotic “sameness”. I can imagine the members of the elite in Pyongyang waking up to this kind of “inspirational” programming every morning.

Coffee at the ready, I decided to perform a band scan on 49M with The Sproutie. The idea was to log every station I could hear on the band. The excellent site short-wave.info made it possible to quickly ID most stations, before moving on to the next. I didn’t linger for too long on any one frequency, as the goal was to get an overall idea of band activity, rather than to positively ID every single station heard.

Needless to say, I heard a lot of Chinese :-)  Here’s what The Sproutie and I came up with –

 Freq  Station  Language  UTC
 5830  WTWW  English  1342
 5875  BBC  English  1343
 5915  CRI  Mongolian  1347
 5925  CNR 5  Chinese
 5935  PBS_Xizang  Chinese
 5955  CRI  English  1354
 5975  CNR 8  Korean  1356
 5990  PBS_Qinghai  Tibetan  1358
 6015  North_Korean_Jamming with un-ID’ed station underneath  1401
 6030  CNR 1  Chinese  1404
 6055  Radio Nikkei  Japanese  1405
 6065  CNR 2  Chinese  1406
 6080  CNR 1  Music  1414
 6095  KBS World Radio  English  1415
 6100  KCBS Pyongyang  Korean  1417
 6105  Radio Taiwan International (jammed, but jamming not heard)  Chinese  1418
 6110  PBS Xizang  Tibetan  1420
 6125  CNR 1  Chinese  1422
 6135  North Korean Jamming (w/ music underneath)  1424
 6155  CNR 2  Chinese  1427
 6175  CNR 1  Chinese  1429
 6185  Unidentified station (possibly China Huayi BC. Corp  Music  1431
 6190  PBS Xinjiang  Mongolian
 6195  BBC (jammed, but jamming not heard)  English  1434
 6200  PBS Xizang (or Voice Of Jinling)  Chinese  1436
 6250  North Korean Jamming  1438
 6280  Xi Wang Zhi Sheng (just 100 watts!)  Chinese  1440
 6348  North_Korean_Jamming_with_station_underneath_(presumably_Echo_Of_Hope)  1447

Lots of stations – and loud too, For the majority of the listening session, I had the RF gain on the little Sproutie cranked down to 1/2 or 1 on a 1-10 scale. Another benefit of this band-scan was that I got to fill in a few more calibration points on the dial calibration graph for this coil. The details on this screen grab are a little hard to read but that’s fine, as your calibration graph would be different anyway. Just take a gander at that nice smooth curve though –

Anyway, that’s it. It is now about 9:30am and I am beginning to wish I hadn’t risen so early. However, I blame the cats, and the good side is that I got to take a whirl on 49M before first light. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t use a regenerative receiver for serious SWL’ing. If anyone says that their regen doesn’t cut it for SWL’ing, just tell them that it must be because they didn’t build it properly :-)

The Sproutie and a cuppa coffee kept me company early this morning throughout my sojourn on 49M.

February 26, 2015

A Popcorn QRP Regen Receiver and Lots More Air-Spaced Variable Capacitors

Many of us in the home-brewer community were really disappointed when Todd VE7BPO recently discontinued his popular and very through-provoking site “The QRP/SWL Homebuilder”. An archive of the site is available for download in pdf form and is a great resource. Though not quite the same as having the site, it’s great to have a copy of it for reference. Todd was having some issues with the site. He didn’t take it down due to lack of enthusiasm on his part and by way of proof, he’s back in style, with the new “Popcorn QRP – Scratch Homebrew Component-Level Radio Electronics” blog. It’s great – just like having his old site back. Todd combines circuit analysis and a theoretical approach with a strong leaning towards practical circuits that can be built by the home experimenter. Economy of design and performance are both considered, and from reading the accounts of Todd’s exploits, one suspects he is having a complete blast. If you haven’t visited Todd’s current blog or his previous site before, please note that the intent isn’t to provide the home-builder with complete step-by-step instructions on how to build a series of projects. This is circuit-level stuff, but if you’ve had a little experience at building circuits from schematics, all the circuits presented are tried and tested by our faithful protagonist, VE7BPO aka retired Professor Vasily Ivanenko.

All this is leading up to something, and that something is that our intrepid experimenter recently announced he had been revisiting the subject of regenerative receivers. He had built 4, and was sharing one of them with us on his blog. Happy, happy, joy, joy! Even better, this circuit was the same basic topology that I used in The Sproutie – a  circuit that separated the Q-multiplier and detector into separate stages. It’s an arrangement that is well-behaved and performs well. The regen control, a resisitive component, exhibits no hysteresis, and the addition of an RF preamp means that the circuit doesn’t suffer from common mode hum. If you build it well, it will be frequency-stable too, but that part is up to you :-)

The blog-post is here. It is based on the regen circuit published by Makota 7N3WVM, whose website is a treasure trove of circuits for the home builder. You’ll notice great similarity to the circuit of Nicky’s TRF that first appeared in SPRAT Issue 70 in 1992, and N1BYT’s WBR from QST Aug 2001. What’s really interesting though, is that Mr Ivanenko has added a bipolar transistor (a 2N4401) to the J310 FET infinite impedance detector, to turn it into a hycas (hybrid cascode) pair in order to increase the level of audio from the detector, as well as the reverse isolation, which can never hurt, right? Great idea! His circuit includes a bipolar RF preamp in common base mode to add isolation of the oscillator from the antenna, as well as a little bit of gain, and a 2-transistor preamp after the detector that he has used in other “popcorn” designs. He also makes his argument for continued use of the LM386 as a final audio amp in this post. The description in the 2nd paragraph, of the folklore surrounding regens is mirth-inducing – and spot-on.

I know that at least a few builders are considering making their own Sproutie and if you are still at the planning stage, you might want to think about Todd’s version of the front end. I haven’t tried it (yet) but Todd ain’t no slouch :-)  If I were to incorporate it into my next regen build, my current thinking is to use his front end, and feed it into a one-stage active audio filter using a 5532 op-amp or similar, and then into a nice, low-noise LM380 with it’s fixed amount of 34dB gain. If I ever do this, I can promise you two things –

a) it will be many months, maybe even a year before I do it, because I am very slow at these things and

b) I’ll show you the circuit of my AF stages so you can join it up with Todd’s (ahem, I mean Vasily Ivanenko’s) front end circuit


Todd just revealed 2 encouraging pieces of news –

a) He just ordered some black and red chicken-head knobs for his next project and

b) He has decided to spend another 2 weeks working on regens

If you don’t already follow Popcorn QRP, it’s well worth adding to your RSS reader, bookmarks bar or similar.


The rest of this post may be a little annoying to those who have limited bandwidth connections, though I imagine anyone who is still surfing the internet on a dial-up connection or a very slow mobile connection learned long ago not to come here :-) I recently acquired some more air-spaced variable capacitors and I’d like to share some photos of them with you for no other reason than short-term visual gratification! As always, my preferred brand is Hammarlund. Not only are they of high quality, but I happen to like the way they look as well. They are drop-dead gorgeous.

I’ll start with a piece that was acquired a few months earlier, before the current flurry of buying activity. This is an MCD-50-M and may well end up as the main tuning capacitor of my next regen, unless I happen to find another MCD-35-MX like the one that was used for tuning The Sproutie. MCD means that is is a double-ganged unit (unlike the single-ganged MC units), 50 is the maximum capacity of each section, and the M at the end refers to the fact that the offset rotor plates give it a “midline” capacity characteristic, keeping the rotation vs frequency characteristic reasonably linear. Nickel-plated brass vanes for a good temperature coefficient, and all mounted on a high-Q ceramic base. Perfection! Look at those bright and shining never-been-soldered-to-before terminals –

Leaping forward in time to a couple of weeks ago, this MC-200-M “midget condenser” came into my life sporting an older original box, in almost as good condition as the capacitor itself. I love the graphic design on these older boxes –

Then came my haul of just a few days ago. I bought them all from the same seller. The boxes are a bit beaten up, but the capacitors are in great condition. First off, here’s the group shot-

Among them were two of these HFA-100-A’s. If you’re as picky as I am, these are not ideal for maximum stability in a VFO or receiver tuning control, as the vanes are only supported at one end. It would be fine as an antenna trimmer where it’s placed in series with the antenna lead, or as a reaction control, in a regen where a variable capacitor is used for this function. I’m not sure what material the vanes are made of in these parts –

In the same vein (vane?), I also scored an HF140. What a great part. It offers two methods of mounting. If I possibly could, I’d use both of them for maximum stability. This variable cap could be mounted underneath a chassis so that the nut on the threaded shaft helps to hold the front panel to the chassis, while the mounting bracket was screwed to the underside of the main chassis for extra rigidity. Rigidity is a very good thing with regens :-)

An MCD-100-M (2 x 100pF).  Nickel-plated brass vanes, a ceramic base (steatite actually), regular plate-spacing, and a “midline” capacity characteristic . Such a beautiful part. What else can I say? The US was once a manufacturing powerhouse –

Also in the haul were 3 x MC-20-S. I used one of these (from another buy) as the fine tuning control in The Sproutie –

Lastly, here’s an MC-50-MX. Single gang with capacitance swing of 10.5 – 53pF, midline capacity characteristic (for reasonably linear rotation-frequency relationship) and extra-wide plate spacing. This would be great for a VFO –


I also very recently acquired this National gear drive with 3 x 250pF variable capacitor attached. My relative lack of knowledge on National products caused me to misjudge. I discovered when it arrived, that the gearbox is a later model that is smaller than the older “classic” National gearbox drives. Also, it doesn’t have an eccentric bushing for driving the micrometer-style dial. I read somewhere that National stopped using the classic dial in their receivers in response to upgraded mil-specs that negated it’s use. It’s in good condition and turns freely, though the grease is old and it would probably benefit from a cleaning and re-greasing. I may well put this one up for sale –

There’s a little bit of surface dust on the plates and shaft but otherwise, it’s clean, and those terminals have never been soldered to. Amazing! –

No cracks in the insulators –

There’s only one detail that would require some attention from a builder, and that is that it looks as if the underside received a thwack at some point – either that, or it’s a manufacturing defect. One of the mounting holes is distorted and would need re-drilling and re-tapping if it is to be used. I think this is a solvable issue –

Another view showing this issue –

Old grease on the gears. If I were to use this, I’d want to clean out and re-lubricate, but that’s par for the course with these old yet still very serviceable gearboxes –


That’s it for now. Hope you didn’t mind me sharing all these pictures with you. As a parting thought, if you’re still planning to construct a regen and haven’t completely decided what to build, remember to take a look at VE7BPO’s Regen #4.



February 17, 2015

Extra Coils For The Sproutie Regen, With Coverage Up To 30MHz

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Broadcast Radio,Ham Radio,QRP — AA7EE @ 3:43 am
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Since completing The Sproutie Regen in it’s basic form in August of last year, I have been spending lots of time listening to it, and also some time winding coils for extra bands. On top of that, I wanted to add some extra thoughts and observations on building it and instead of creating a new blog-post every time I wound a new coil, or found something new (such as the fact that it seems to work quite well all the way up to 30MHz), I have chosen to add to the original blog-post. I have also been editing the post a little while adding new material, the point being to improve it and make it as informative as possible to anyone thinking of building it. Also, if I added a new blog-post for every new piece of information, then potential builders would find it harder to access all the info. This way, if you want to learn about, and maybe build The Sproutie, reading the one original post will always bring you up to date.

Since finishing The Sproutie, I have added coils for 2063 – 2670KHz, which covers the 120M BC band, 49M, 31M, 25M, 19M, 16M BC/17M ham, and an experimental coil that covers ~24-29MHz. The coil box is now full, and a picture of it has been added to the original post. I have also updated the coil tables to include full details. The experimental coil for 24-29MHz was wound out of interest, to see if this receiver would work passably at the higher HF frequencies and indeed, it does seem to. I copied SSB on 24M, as well as SSB  and CW on 10M, and local CB’ers on 27MHz. (EDIT on 2/18/2015 – this afternoon, I copied 10M beacons from K5AB in Texas on 28280KHz and WA2DVU in NJ on 28257KHz) I added no padders or series caps to taylor the coverage to a specific band. I didn’t even add a link winding – plenty of RF was being coupled into the circuit from pin 7 of the octal base without it, though a finalized coil would probably include a small loop to couple as much RF as possible, withut overloading the detector or stopping the oscillator.

Blog posts aren’t much fun without photos so, although I just added this photo to the original post, here’s what my coil box looks like now that it’s full up with coils.  If I wanted to add coils for specific ham bands, as well as the remaining BC bands above 16M (and the 22M band), I daresay I could fill another coil box!

The cigar box full of Sproutie coils. The unmarked one sitting above the 25M coil is experimental, and covers approx 24-29MHz.

If you’re getting a bit fed-up with me talking about this little receiver a full 6 months after I finished building it, take it as evidence that it’s a good ‘un. 6 months after building it, I still think that it was a very worthwhile project, and continue to derive much enjoyment from it.  The sounds of Radio Habana, Cuba fill my apartment on many evenings, and on the same frequency (6100KHz), music from KCBS Pyongyang in the mornings, as well as Radio Australia are my main morning staples. I’ve heard Spanish numbers stations, air-traffic control, coastal stations, military communications, and all sorts of weird and wonderful bleeps and bloops that you expect to hear in the shortwave bands. Before I end this post, allow me to say just one more thing that I have said many, many times before. If you are going to build a regen, make sure you pay careful attention to the physical construction. There, I said it. I promise I won’t mention it again :-)


February 9, 2015

Servicing A National PW-D Micrometer Dial and PW Gear Drive

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about some reduction drives I had acquired, including a classic National micrometer dial and PW gear drive, in nice condition. The PW drive has an output shaft that runs parallel to the front panel. Conversely, the drive in which the output shaft effectively runs straight through is called the NPW. I believe that PW stands for “Precision Worm” (EDIT – probably not – see Dave W9BRD’s comments underneath). The PW drive is the original design, and simpler than its counterpart, having only 2 gears – a worm gear and a main split gear, split for the purpose of counteracting backlash. This particular unit came with a quality variable capacitor attached to it which my capacitance meter measured as 245pF, but which I think was a nominal 225pF unit, based on a look at the 1947 National Radio Products Catalog. The dial and drive turned smoothly and worked well. On closer inspection, one of the ceramic insulators in the variable capacitor was cracked and while I was hoping this wouldn’t adversely affect it’s operation, the crack went all the way through and did indeed affect the physical stability of the unit. Nevertheless, the dial and drive were in great condition and were worth it for the price I paid. I will keep an eye open for a stator from a similar unit to replace this one with the cracked insulator. In the meantime, even though the dial and drive were operating smoothly, I couldn’t help wondering if they could be coaxed into operating even more smoothly. I had never owned one of these before, so didn’t know exactly what to expect from it. It was smooth, except for a slight jerkiness when attempting to make very small adjustments to the tuning with the dial starting from a stationary position. It’s picky, I know, but I was looking for an excuse to teach myself how to take it apart, lubricate, and reassemble it. Here’s the condition I received it in – On removing the 4 screws that secured the top of the drive to the main body, the top came off very easily, to reveal a main split gear coated in old yellow/orange grease. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a picture before removing the grease, but although there must have been a thin film on the pieces of metal that came into contact with each other (it did, after all, still operate smoothly), much of the grease had been pushed to the side of the gear and was sitting there doing nothing, having hardened somewhat over the years. The gentleman who sold it to me gave me the advice, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” but I wanted to clean and re-lubricate it, so I could be sure it was good to go for a few more decades. The other reason was that I wanted to understand how it worked – and not in a “book” way, by looking at diagrams, but by actually taking it apart and seeing how all the parts fit, and work, together. Here’s a rather rough sketch of the PW drive. Hopefully, even my poor drawing will give you an idea of how it works –   There is a great deal of information on servicing these gear boxes, and the National micrometer dial, on this page on the Western Historic Radio Museum website. Look a little over halfway down the page, under the heading “Lubrication and Assembly Of The PW Gear Drive” and underneath that, the section titled “PW-D Micrometer Dial”. This whole page is packed with very useful information on National HRO Receivers, and their restoration. Henry WA7YBS runs the Western Historic Radio Museum website. He ran the “bricks and mortar” Western Historic Radio Museum in Virginia City, NV from 1994 to 2012 and although the museum is no longer, the website is a very valuable source of information about vintage radios. It is a treasure trove. Henry kindly gave me permission to use National’s cut-away photo of this gear drive that I found on his website. It’s a lot more helpful than my drawing –

The National PW Gearbox, before about 1945, when the housing was made of cast metal. Photo courtesy of Charles Hentsch and Henry WA7YBS at http://www.radioblvd.com

I won’t go into a lot of written detail on how to disassemble, lubricate, and reassemble the drive and micrometer dial, as I learned it all from the National HRO page on Henry’s site. I would simply be repeating what is written there. With a gearbox and dial that is already operating fairly smoothly, it is possible to simply work a little extra grease into the parts to add to what is already there. I could have easily done that but once I get started with these things, I like to take them to completion.  I began by spraying WD-40 on the main gear and using a toothbrush to remove the old grease, but I ended up completely removing the worm gear, washers, spring and ball race from the housing, and removing every last trace of the old grease with a combination of an old toothbrush, WD-40 and lots of soapy water. Might as well start afresh. Here’s the partially disassembled gear drive, cleaned of all the old grease. The worm gear is no longer engaged with the main split gear. If it were, the 2 sets of gears in this photo would be much more closely aligned. I have also removed the variable capacitor from the insulated output shaft – I can be quite thick about some things. I knew what backlash was, and also knew that (obviously) an anti-backlash gear was some kind of arrangement that virtually eliminated it. However, I didn’t understand how it worked until I opened this gear box up and saw how it all fitted together for myself. This is why I recommend that you take things apart, play with them, and look at them. That way, you’ll understand how they work and will be able to fix them when they go wrong – Here’s the gear housing, elliptic bearing hub, and worm gear with the washers, spring and ball race assembled on it. Oh, and the end plate. I don’t know what it’s called, so I’m going to call it an end plate – A close-up of the worm gear assembly – The elliptic bearing hub is not actually elliptic. It is just that the hole through which the shaft of the worm gear passes, is off-center to the hub, so that the inner number dial on the micrometer dial is driven in an eccentric fashion. You can see that here – In this shot you can see the conical thrust bearing that is part of the casting of the gearbox in pre-1945 models – A couple more gratuitous shots. I am very taken with the types of mechanics and engineering you find in old radios – and this is in such good condition. It’s hard to believe that it’s around 70 years old. In these next 2 shots, you can see one of the springs that tensions the 2 sides of the split gear, and gives it the anti-backlash action – Henry indicates on his site that he uses Lubriplate 130-A as his main light grease. I was having trouble finding anyone who would sell me a single 14oz container (the smallest available). They all wanted to sell me a 6-pack, whether it was a bricks and mortar supplier, or an online one. Various outlets promised to be back in stock of the individual containers in a few weeks, but I wanted my grease sooner than that. A bit of online research indicated that Mobil 1 synthetic grease was a good (and newer) replacement and was in stock at a local auto parts store. Score! I have since found several restorers of vintage radios who use this grease, a fact which gave me extra confidence. A small pipette/syringe of the type used to administer medicines to cats and dogs, as well as a toothpick, and the judicious use of fingers, proved useful in applying it – Grease was applied (sparingly) to every point where there was metal on metal moving contact.  It was applied to the conical thrust bearing, the worm gear, the inside of the elliptic bearing hub, and the outside of the elliptic hub, where the micrometer dial would make contact. With a toothpick and a great deal of care, I also managed to get grease inside the ball race which of course, is very important. After applying it to the main gear, I put the washers, spring and ball race back on the worm gear, and reassembled the unit, setting the anti-backlash gears to about 1 1/2 teeth of offset, rotated the main gear through several revolutions, and cleaned the excess grease from the sides of the main gear. Once that grease has been pushed off to the side – it’s never coming back. Here’s what the main gear looked like after the excess was cleaned off – Next, the micrometer dial was disassembled and fully cleaned, with the usual generous amounts of WD-40 for degreasing, and lots of soapy water – I really enjoy taking photos of these beautiful pieces of engineering.  I hope it shows how taken I am with them. You’ll notice that the 2 springs that hold the (inner) number dial to the (outer) index dial have a slightly longer “loop” at one end than the other.  The springs fit best when the sides with the longer loop end are connected to the (inner) number dial. You’ll find that out by doing it. The 3 machine screws are for fixing the knob to the index dial. Close-up showing the springs that hold the index dial to the number dial – Sparingly grease the inside of the number dial only, where the toothed edge is. There is no need to grease the index dial. When reassembling, you want to line up the 2 dials so that the machine screws are aligned with the corresponding holes in the number dial, so that you can then screw the knob back on. When in this position, the number 250 should be displaying in the top number slot. You should be able to position the number dial so that 250 is showing. You can rock it back and forth and feel it gently click into place. The number 250 needs to be perfectly centered in the top window before proceeding. If it’s not centered or doesn’t look right in any way, try again. I actually had to remove and reattach the springs before I could get the  number dial to gently but firmly click into place and show the number 250 centrally in the top window. This is what the dial will look like from the back. Notice how the 3 machine screws are aligned with the holes. This only happens when the dial is indicating half-scale (250) – Now, rotate the tuning shaft on the gear box so that the main split gear is set halfway. There are end stops on the main gearbox that make contact with 2 lugs cast into the lid to prevent the main gear from turning more than 180 degrees. In the following photo (which also appeared earlier in this post), you can see the 2 end stops on the left-hand side of the main gear wheel. This is the correct position for when the dial indicates half-scale (250) – For comparison, this picture of an un-greased gearbox shows the gear set to one extreme of travel. Notice one of the end stops at the top of the gear wheel (on the right of the gear) – and notice the 2 “lugs” on the underside of the lid that make contact with the end stops – Slip the micrometer dial onto the shaft and the elliptic hub. It should slip on fairly easily. If it doesn’t, something is wrong. Do not proceed until the micrometer dial easily slips onto the elliptic hub. I fastened the dial onto the shaft with the set screw(s) in the knob, turned it back and forth a number of times and then, because I am particular about these things, disassembled it again and removed all excess grease with my finger. This is what it looked like before reassembly – The fully serviced dial and gearbox operate very smoothly, and should continue doing so for many years. Even better, I now know how to do this. I can pick up more dials and gear drives like this in the future, confident in the knowledge that if they are not operating properly, I can get them to work again. They are very elegantly engineered, with a small number of parts working together to make a very smooth tuning mechanism. They really don’t make ’em like they used to. Oh – and another quick plug for Radio Blvd.  It really is a great site for fans of vintage radios and their restoration. If you enjoy, and get use out of the site, I encourage you to make a small donation to help keep it online. There are links on the site.

The cleaned and lubricated National micrometer dial and PW gear drive, waiting for a replacement variable capacitor unit (spot the errant cat hair on the front of the tuning knob!)

February 7, 2015

N0WVA’s One-FET Regen Optimized For SSB/CW Sounds Great!

Since I began posting about regens, it has been gratifying to hear from fellow regen builders, and quite interesting and inspiring to communicate with other hams who are also taken by their charms. The Sproutie has proved to be a great little receiver and it’s a pretty straightforward circuit, but it’s not exactly a minimalist design. Some hams are so intrigued by the regen’s ability to deliver an impressive amount of gain and selectivity in just one stage, that they focus on building a station with an absolute minimum number of parts. Doug N0WVA has the goal of building a complete (and usable) station with just 2 active devices, and he’s halfway there, having come up with a regen receiver that works well on SSB and CW, contains just one active device, and has a total of just 9 parts including the coil. Better still – it works well. Doug writes, “I’ve been building regens since the 90’s and always wondered why the tube versions always ran circles around the solid state rigs that I had been building. Seems like it always took two transistors to equal what one triode could do as far as recovered audio. Well, I think I might have figured it out. You really can get all that and more from just one FET. Actually, I’d say now that a two tube Doerle will not be able to touch this one transistor rig for serviceability. My intentions are to have only two active devices for an entire CW station. It’s not difficult to get a half watt or so from one device, and even be able to slide around the band a bit via VXO. So the main problem was a decent receiver. Well, I now have that problem solved. All the SS (solid state) regens I had been building had a source resistor and cap. This is to supply self negative bias to the gate. It works, but audio suffers because of the use of a small bypass capacitance at audio frequencies. Larger electrolytics here cause howl when oscillating. By taking the source to ground you can then inject the negative bias through the 1 meg gate leak and set your optimum operating point with a 10k pot. However, this adds to the total parts count. I found that by using a green LED in the source worked almost as well, and bypassed all the audio to ground as well.  Also, since the receiver was to be optimized for CW, I wanted minimal pulling, even on strong stations. To do this we must keep the tank coupling very light. That way the capacitive changes in the junction of the FET has minimal effect on the tank. Finally, another plus for SS regens is the need for much less feedback to achieve regeneration. A properly built SS regen should need no more than 1 turn for a tickler. Much more than this and you get wild instability and a heavier loaded tank. One experiment I did was to try different coil forms and see which ones took less tickler feedback. I found that pill bottles were about the best form for low loss, as I could use just one turn spaced well away from the tank. Even better was a pill bottle with slots cut out of it for less loss, but the wire would try to crush the form. I am using a 1k to 8ohm transformer from Radio Shack to couple into Radio Shack phones, which are a bit more sensitive than other cheap headphones I have used. This results in audio that is loud enough to be highly usable, probably where you would normally run the volume on a regular receiver. The dial drive is a ball bearing vernier integrated into a gear reduction capacitor. The NPO trimmer is a band set. All capacitance is kept to a minimum. I find the less plates on a variable capacitor the better for keeping drift down. The regen control is actually a homemade tickler variometer inside the tank form.  This eliminates the need for a choke and throttle capacitor. I will attach some photos and schematic. Hopefully you will find them interesting. I still need to get the transmitter together and get this on the air. Having just two transistors for a complete CW station will be a blast I think.” Doug made the shaft of his variometer from the plastic barrel of a syringe. I have a number of syringe/pipettes here that I use for giving medicines to my cats and am thinking one of them would be useful for this purpose. Of course, anything cylindrical could be used for a shaft. Doug’s schematic was a fairly low-res scan, so I redrew it. Here’s my re-draw of the schematic of Doug’s one-FET regen –

Schematic of N0WVA’s single-FET regen. It is a monobander on 75/80M.

I don’t think Doug mentioned the type of FET he was using, so I assume the usual suspects (J310, MPF102) would be fine here. He also doesn’t include coil winding details on the schematic but you should be able to get a rough idea from the photos and besides – if you’re hardy enough to give this receiver a go, you’ll want to figure out the exact values of inductance and capacitance for yourself. It’s good for the soul  :-) These two online calculators should help – Resonant Frequency Calculator Coil Inductance Calculator (NOTE – Doug provides more details in the comments section at the end of this post) It occurred to me that a good pair of balanced armature headphones (the type referred to as sound-powered headphones and liked by crystal set enthusiasts) could work well. He replied that he had tried a pair of 2000 ohm headphones and they were rather loud, so he would probably need to incorporate a volume control if he used them. Just imagine that – a pair of headphones being too loud when the only thing separating them from the antenna is a single transistor – and with ham signals too, as opposed to big broadcast signals! Here are some pictures of what Doug’s single-FET regen looks like –

N0WVA’s single-FET regen. View from above. Photo courtesy of N0WVA.

In this side-view, you can see Doug’s home-made variometer tickler, with the syringe body that he used for the control shaft –

Side-view of N0WVA’s one-FET regen, showing the home-made variometer tickler, and control shaft. Photo courtesy of N0WVA.

N0WVA’s one-FET regen. Photo courtesy of N0WVA.

N0WVA’s one-FET regen. Photo courtesy of N0WVA.

View from the other side of N0WVA’s one-FET regen. Photo courtesy of N0WVA.

The front of N0WVA’s one-FET regen, along with the RS headphones that give good sensitivity. Photo courtesy of N0WVA.

Doug made a video of his receiver in action. He says it was a little difficult, as he had to use one hand to hold the headphone to the microphone for recording, while tuning with the other hand. If you can, while watching this, have another window open so you can see the schematic and remind yourself that the stable and well-resolved SSB signals you are hearing are coming from that simple circuit. Great stuff –

Original Video – More videos at TinyPic

I can’t wait to see the 1-transistor transmitter he pairs this great little receiver up with. Thank you Doug, for allowing me to share this info on your regen receiver. This is what ham radio is all about.

February 3, 2015

N2HTT Builds His First Receiver – A WBR Regen!

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Mike N2HTT. He was building a WBR Regen, and had encountered a problem – the pesky thing didn’t work. That is indeed, quite a problem.  Luckily for me, he quickly discovered that the reason was an incorrectly wired JFET, before I had a chance to confuse him with my impaired troubleshooting skills :-)

He got his WBR up and running in short order and after casing it up and actually labeling the controls (only very serious home-brewers label their front panels!), reports that it is working well. He’s tickled pink, because it’s the first receiver he’s built – and I’m tickled pink because he’s tickled pink, if that makes any kind of sense. There is a real magic that springs from hearing sounds come out of a speaker or headphones connected to a receiver you built yourself – even more so if you scratch-built it, as Mike did with his WBR. You can read the story of his WBR build here, and this post contains a link to a YouTube video of his WBR. I like how he describes the setbacks he encountered along the way, and how he dealt with them. In fact, looking further at his blog, I realized this was a common theme. Mike doesn’t just tell you what he did, and post a few photos; he effectively describes the odyssey of his life as a ham who is embarking on the task of assembling a station he built himself.  This style of narrative shines through in the 3 posts describing his building of a 2 tube W1TS transmitter for 40M. You can find them here – Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Look at this lovely transmitter. It’s a classic home-brew project – it’s got an aluminum chassis, a tube, and a crystal in an FT-243 holder!

N2HTT’s version of the W1TS transmitter. Photo courtesy of N2HTT.

Mike was also featured in Soldersmoke for his Michigan Mighty Mite Build, as part of Bill Meara’s Mighty-Mite Madness, not once, but twice – here and here.

So Mike has got it going on. He’s building things, he’s making them work, and he’s telling us the stories of how he got them to work.

Here’s his WBR, in all it’s cased up glory. Read about it here, and here. There will be a 3rd post too, in which perhaps we’ll see pictures of his other WBR which he put on 80M. Yes, that’s right – Mike didn’t just build one WBR – he built two, thanks to the incorrectly wired JFET (you can read how this story unfolds in his blog).

N2HTt’s WBR Regen Receiver. Photo courtesy of N2HTT

Check out Mike N2HTT’s blog here. Way to go Mike, and thank you for sharing details of your personal journey towards a 100% home-brew station!




January 27, 2015

Aaron N9SKN’s Sproutie Regen Receiver

I was quite excited when Aaron N9SKN told me he was building a Sproutie. Sometime earlier, I had discovered his website, billed as the “Home Of The 500mA Sidetone Oscillator/Shack Heater” I was searching for information on building HF receivers, and came across Aaron’s build of W7ZOI and K5IRK’s Progressive Receiver, as described in the Nov 1981 issue of QST, and the ARRL handbook for several years. Look at the pictures of the boards that Aaron made for the project in this article. Good stuff!

Aaron’s Sproutie build must have been a breeze for him in comparison. What a beaut. I’m wondering what material he made the front panel from. Is that garolite or something similar, or is it foam-core board? He did a great job of cutting the oval hole for the speaker. I like the “oxblood” color of the phenolic tube bases too – the same color as the Doc Marten’s I wore as a young man :-)


“The Sproutie” as built by Aaron N9SKN. Photo courtesy of N9SKN

Aaron already had a Cardwell 2 x 35pF tuning capacitor in his “junk” box. It was still unused, which is why I put quote marks around the word “junk”. I am often amazed at the number of these lovely old vintage parts that have yet to be used in a project – it’s a great thing for us home-brewers. You can see it in this rear view of the receiver. Note the aluminum plate he installed behind the front panel to minimize hand capacitance effects. I’m looking at those leads from the tube base and the variable capacitors to the circuit board, and wondering if he gets any microphony effects –

Rear view of N9SKN’s “Sproutie”. Photo courtesy of N9SKN

A view of the underside, showing that oval speaker –

The underside of N9SKN’s “Sproutie”. Photo courtesy of N9SKN

Aaron is a hardier soul than me, as he made his own Manhattan pads. Here’s a view of his RF board –

The RF board in N9SKN’s “Sproutie”. Photo courtesy of N9SKN

Nice job Aaron. He posted 5 videos of his Sproutie in action too. Here’s one of them, showing his Sproutie in action on the 25M band. You can find the other videos of his Sproutie on his YouTube channel –

One of the enjoyable things about sharing pictures and descriptions of my activities in this blog, is hearing from builders like N9SKN. It’s great to know there are other people out there building things. I am occasionally tempted to spend my money on a commercially-made HF receiver instead, but I wouldn’t have anywhere near as much fun. Thanks very much for sharing details of your Sproutie build Aaron!

PS – Allow me to rave about Aaron one more time. He scratch-built a K8IQY 2N2/20 Manhattan-style. Major respect!

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