Dave Richards AA7EE

November 2, 2016

An Improved Knob for the K2 – plus the KAF2 and KNB2 Options

Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about how the K2 is not going to be available for ever. As a literal statement, it is obviously true. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that with the way that a few of the original leaded components in both the K2 and some of the options, have been replaced by their SMT counterparts, and the fact that the audio DSP option, the KDSP2, has already been discontinued due to unavailability of one of the main parts, I wonder how long it will be before this happens with the K2 itself. Who knows? It could be imminent, or it could still be some years off. I am so attached to my K2 that I would be dismayed if any of the options I wanted were to become unavailable before I had a chance to assemble and install them, so I have been working towards acquiring all the options I might possibly need, which is basically everything except the KPA100 100W PA and KAT100 ATU, and the KDSP2 (already discontinued). I decided that I cannot justify the extra cost of adding the 100W option, especially as having 100W is just not that important to me. As far as the KDSP2 goes, although I was initially a little miffed when it was discontinued, I later realized that I am not so keen on the audio artifacts that this type of audio DSP produces, and that the KAF2 was most likely a better option for me. I purchased the KAF2, KNB2, and the KBT2-X options a couple of months ago and, uncharacteristically for me, let them sit for a while – after a thorough inventory to ensure all parts were present. At the time, I was scratch-building an SST for 20M, and modding a WBR for 30M. With those 2 projects behind me, I began work on 2 of these options.

First though, a quick word about knobs – or to be more precise, the main tuning knob on the K2. Many find the stock tuning knob to be perfectly serviceable the way it is but others (myself included) find it just a little less than ideal. Compared to tuning knobs on most commercial rigs, the one on the K2 has a rather sharp edge, the effects of which can become obvious if you tune a lot by resting one finger against it. Unless your knob has the (now unavailable) finger dimple, this is probably the way you tune.

Reading the Elecraft reflector archives on Nabble, I found a rather useful tip that, at least partially, solves this problem at no cost. A recommendation was to use one of those small, thick rubber bands that are used in the produce section of the market to hold bunches of broccoli together. I found a yellow one at my local Whole Foods that looked rather nifty on the K2. It could have been a slghtly tighter fit on the knob, but it worked, and it did improve the ease and comfort of tuning. Considering that it cost nothing (the gentleman in produce said I could have it), it was well worth trying –


Another solution I’ve been thinking of was purchasing one of the heavy weighted knobs manufactured by Fred N8BX’s company, 73CNC.com. From the various reports, and the video on the product page, it looks as if it provides a very smooth and silky feel to the tuning. I was sorely tempted. The only possible downside I could find to this heavy knob was a comment from Don W3FPR, on the Elecraft reflector archives. He was wondering if the extra weight would put more stress on the encoder shaft, leading to early failure. At the time, there were no reports, and no data, so it was purely speculation. The knob appears to be very well balanced. It is extra weight on the shaft though. In the meantime, another solution presented itself, in the form of more posts in the aforementioned archives, about the suitability of the FT100 knob, which some have used in place of the stock K2 knob. Someone commented that the rubber ring that fits around the FT100 knob also fits around the K2 stock knob and makes the act of tuning much more comfortable.

The FT100 knob and rubber ring are not available from Yaesu parts any more, but I did find an eBay seller in Taiwan who still has some for sale. It’s a bit more money than it was when Yaesu still supplied it but at $20 inc shipping, I thought it was worth a shot. As of this writing, the seller still has some. This rubber ring is Yaesu part # RA0068200. It is a tight fit over the K2 knob and at first, I didn’t think it was going to fit. It does require some stretching, but once you’ve got the ring stretched over the edge of the knob, it’s a fairly simple matter to push and snug it all the way down. Perhaps the color isn’t quite as eye catching as the yellow brocolli band, but it provides a superior tuning experience –

After a week or so of using this rubber ring, I think it’s going to be my long term solution.

Now onto the assembly and installation of the KAF2 audio filter and KNB2 noise blanker options. Here’s the obligatory photo of the packets as received from Elecraft –

The KAF2 audio filter has 3 elements to it – a clock (as in, one that tells the time, and displays it on command on the main display), a low-pass filter for greatly attenuating everything above 3KHz, such as hiss, and the high-frequency components of splatter, and a bandpass filter consisting of 2 cascaded sections that, on it’s narrowest setting, has a -3dB bandwidth of about 80Hz. If you operate exclusively phone, the KAF2 doesn’t have a lot to offer but for CW ops, it looks like it could be very useful. Thank you Erica, for packing the parts into the bag –

I don’t have much to say about the process of assembly. If you’re reasonably experienced at soldering and following instructions, putting these kinds of things  together is a snap. Here’s the finished board –

This is the underside of the board. At the far right-hand side, you can see the 33pF NPO capacitor which forms part of the frequency determining circuit for the clock, with the 32.768KHz crystal. The manual gives guidelines for adjusting the value of that capacitor if the clock gains or loses too much. Mine is only losing about 0.5 seconds/day, so I got lucky the first time –

Another view of that 33pF capacitor –

The CR2032 3V lithium battery will be inserted in the holder on the right edge of the board, so that the clock keeps time when the K2 is switched off –

At the lower left of the board in the next shot, you can see the switch S1, which can be used to switch the KAF2 in or out of circuit once installed. The two blue trimpots just to the left of the battery holder adjust the center frequency of the two cascaded bandpass filter stages –

Installation is fairly straightforward. There are a few components that have to be removed from the main K2 board as part of this process, as with installation of the KNB2. For removal of components, I recommend the use of quality solder braid, for which I use the Soder-Wick brand. Their size #2 seems to works best for most things. Radio Shack solder-braid doesn’t wick solder up very well unless you brush some liquid flux on it before use. The danger with that though, is that you can easily apply too much flux, and end up making your board look a bit messy. Later on in this post, you’ll see where the KAF2 installs in the K2, as well as a video of it in operation but first, let’s assemble the KNB2 noise blanker option. Elecraft employee Dylan did the honors with the packing of my KNB2 –

As with the KAF2, assembly is straightforward with the help of the detailed manual, so I won’t say much about it, other than to show you the completed board –



Here’s the inside of the K2, showing the KAF2 installed on the control board, behind the front panel. You can see the KAF2 board by looking for the microcontroller chip with the white “KAF2” label on it –

– and here’s another view of the inside of the K2, with the KNB2 noise blanker board installed right next to the KSB2 SSB option board. In this next shot, the KNB2 is at center left –

A wider shot of the internals of my K2, showing it’s current state. You can see the boards for the following options beginning at the bottom right, and progressing in a clockwise fashion – K60XV 60M option, K160RX 160M, and separate RX antenna option (with the blue toroids), KNB2 noise blanker option, KSB2 SSB option, and KAF2 audio filter option. To the left of the shot on the inside of the top cover, you can see the underside of the board for the KAT2 internal 20W ATU –

The big question is how well these options work. Here are two videos to show you. First is the video for the KAF2 option –

– and here’s the KNB2 noise blanker in action. Note that I made this video before the KAF2 video, when the yellow rubber band was still on the main tuning knob –

I still have the internal battery option to install but have not yet decided whether to go ahead with it, as I rarely operate portable. I purchased it in order to make sure that I have it, in case I ever change my mind. After using both the KAF2 and KNB2 options a little, I’m satisfied that they were worth the cost, time, and effort to install. The only option that I don’t have which I am still undecided as to whether I want, is the KIO2 serial interface. It’s tempting to order it, just in case, though I have never connected a rig to a computer, or felt the need to. If I did a lot of contest work, it would be useful.

PS – there was a KAF2 video which Jingles the blind cat crashed (again) but, sadly, it didn’t make the cut!





November 1, 2016

Some New Tools and Construction Aids

I’ve added a few new tools and construction aids to the shack here recently and would like to pass the info on to you, in case it is of any help. The first is nothing out of the ordinary, but I’ll include it here, if for no other reason than the excellent instructions that were included. Daiso Japan recently opened a store close by. They are, as you might guess, a Japanese chain. The best way I can think of to describe them, if you’re not already familiar, is as a cheap and cheerful general goods store – a kind of Japanese version of a dollar or 99 cents store, or if you’re a Brit, a pound store. Most, if not all, of the merchandise does cost more than a dollar, though the prices are low. The lowest common price point I saw was $1.50, which is what I paid for this set of 6 jewelers screwdrivers (2 Phillips, and 4 slotted), packaged in a nice plastic case, complete with the essential instructions on how to use them, with a diagram and the directions to “hold” and “turn by finger” 🙂 I already have 2 sets of screwdrivers like this, purchased from Radio Shack years ago but for $1.50, I couldn’t pass this set up –

Here’s a set of 8 ceramic-tipped alignment tools that have been doing the rounds recently. Being ceramic, the tips are brittle, but they allow you to adjust trimmer capacitors and inductor slugs without affecting the resonant frequency of the circuit which they are a part of. I got mine from eBay for $11.99 inc free shipping (try doing a search for “ceramic screwdriver set”), but KB6QVI got a set from Banggood for $6.90 inc shipping. He used the Chinese version of the site, as opposed to a version for any other country, in order to get this low price, by the way. I look forward to getting much use from these –

As packed. There were 4 on the other side too.

As packed. There were 4 on the other side too.

The ceramic tips mean that you can adjust trimmer capacitors and inductor slugs without affecting the resonant frequency of the tuned circuit. The set contains 6 tools with slotted tips of widths ranging from 0.9mm to 2.5mm, and 2 tools with Phillips tips.

The next tool is something that I have wanted for a while. The knurled nuts that hold 3.5mm phone jacks to panels can be a bit awkward to tighten effectively, without damaging the nut and/or the panel. Online research indicated that there have been tools for this purpose in the past, but I was unable to locate a current source. However, I did find one that was very close in size, except that the 2 prongs were just a little too wide. 20 minutes of gentle and careful work with a fine file, and it fits like a champ. The tool is manufactured by Xicon, and is known as a Knurled Nut Driver. The Xicon part # is 382-0006. The Mouser part # is the same, which is where I got mine from –

After some careful work with a file, the tool fitted the nut on a standard 3.5mm phone jack perfectly. It is going to be very useful –

Finally, W1REX, Rex, of QRPMe fame, has come out with a variant on his Manhattan pads that I now consider indispensable, the MeSQUARES. Rex’s MeSQUARES and MePADS are the pre-made pads that I have used for most of the construction projects on this blog that haven’t employed a PCB. A few of the users of these very useful Manhattan pads voiced a desire for some pads that were smaller, for construction in tighter spaces, and for use with SMD. Reg obliged, and produced STIX. They are like his MeSQUARES, only smaller. The first folk to get a glimpse of them were those who attended the G-QRP Rishworth convention this year, and my small packet from Rex turned up a week or so after their debut at Rishworth. These photos show a panel of STIX squares alongside some regular MeSQUARES (not a full sheet), and a ruler for scale –

One of these days, I’ll probably try some scratch-building using SMD, and these little squares will be perfect. In the meantime, they will also be very useful for achieving higher component density with regular leaded parts –

Thank you Rex!



October 15, 2016

Comparing the Weak Signal Performance of a WBR Regen with a K2

The WBR seems to get a bit of a bad rap with some people for it’s sensitivity. A comment on the last post from a reader called Simon, reminded me that some WBR builders have experienced poor sensitivity. Based on my experience, this design does seem to be fairly deaf on AM, but the sensitivity on SSB/CW is fine. I think there are two reasons why some builders experience low sensitivity –

1) They follow the schematic from the original QST article, and do not include an audio pre-amp immediately before the LM386. In this case, the receiver is not necessarily insensitive – it’s just that the low audio is limiting what you can hear.

2) The value of Z1, the inductance between the coil tap and ground, is not high enough. In the original WBR design by N1BYT, this inductance was a 1-inch length of #20 solid copper wire. I followed this direction with my first WBR (for 40M) and it worked well. The WBR was tackled as a group build in the QRP-tech Yahoo Group, as I have mentioned in this blog before, and some builders experienced low sensitivity. The fix was to replace the 1-inch length of wire with an inductor wound on a toroid. Builders in the group found the optimum value of inductance to be somewhere between about 0.2uH and 1uH. I went lower with my 30M WBR, and found that a value of 0.03uH  (3 turns on a T37-6) worked well.

Of the above 2 reasons, my suspicion is that 1) is the main one for most builders.

We regen fans do get a bit braggy about the performance of our sets. I could never make the claim that my regens perform as well as a superhet, for several reasons. Obviously, the strong signal handling of regens is pretty poor, and the bandwidth is wide. When a regen is adjusted close to the point of oscillation, the nose of the response curve becomes quite narrow, but the skirts are still broad. Also, it’s a small difference, but the fact that a regen listening to SSB or CW hears on both sides of the oscillator, as opposed to a superhet, which only hears on one side of the LO, gives the regen an immediate 3dB disadvantage. Basically, for a given signal, a regen is listening to twice as much bandwidth as it needs to (a doubling of power is an increase of 3dB). It’s not a big difference, but it is there.

Having said all that, I am constantly surprised by how much my regens do hear. I remember one evening, a few years ago, when the Russian K beacon was coming through very, very weakly on 7039.3KHz on my K2. I was amazed to discover that I could also hear it on my WBR. Admittedly, I had to strain to copy it on the WBR, and the fact that it was sending the same letter over and over again – and I knew in advance which letter it was, all helped. However, the fact that it was marginal copy on the K2, combined with the fact that I could copy it at all on my WBR (albeit even more marginally) was an eye-opener.

With all that in mind, here’s a 3 minute video of my K2 and 30M WBR side by side, both tuned to the same weak signal, as I swap the same antenna between both receivers. Hope you enjoy it. PS – no cats in this one!

October 10, 2016

A WBR Regen On The 30M Amateur Band

Occasionally, I drag out old projects from their resting and display positions on my shelf, plug ’em in, and give ’em a whirl. It’s fun to watch as past home-brew rigs come back to life, and relive the feelings of wonder, as a handful of parts that I soldered together actually receive signals and in some cases, transmit them too. For me, the most wondrous times in building are those initial moments when a new receiver begins to pluck signals out of thin air. Those times of wonderment are often stretched out over a period of time, as a new receiver build progresses. I usually start with the AF stage of a receiver, and build backwards. The moment when I touch the input of the AF amp, and hear a mixture of hum and a general cacophony of broadcast stations isn’t so much a moment of wonder, as one of satisfaction that I can put that stage behind me and get on with building the real part of the receiver. Wherever the point is when RF is being converted to AF, and you’re hearing general atmospheric noise, it’s a magic time for me. It only gets better as subsequent stages are added, and the receiver begins to hone in on a very specific part of the RF spectrum. Mind you, there is something quite wonderful about hearing general atmospheric noise – it feels like an audio window into a wider world around us. I love that!

This is a preamble to the resurrection of the WBR that I built for the 31M broadcast band. Although I was initially happy with it, over time, I had to admit to myself that it seemed a bit deaf. Why was that? The original WBR that I built for the 40M amateur band was sensitive enough. Then I remembered that on the few occasions I had used to it to listen to 41M SW broadcast stations, it had also seemed a bit deaf. Perhaps it was just something about this design that doesn’t do well on AM? With that in mind, I decided to see how my 31M WBR performed on the 30M amateur band.

The existing receiver was already covering 9400 – 10000KHz, and a gentle adjustment of the trimcap in the tank circuit raised the frequency so that it was covering the 10100 – 10150KHz amateur band. The only other adjustment to be made was to limit the coverage to the 50KHz width of the amateur band, as it had previously been set up for the much wider 31M broadcast band. This can be accomplished by adjusting the range of voltages that are applied to the varactor diode, which usually involves nothing more complex than a judiciously placed resistor or two. I placed a 68K resistor between the bottom of the tuning pot and the trimpot, and changed the value of the trimpot from 5K to 10K –

The trimpot is used to set the lower edge of the band coverage, and the 10K value didn’t give me much adjustment range. I managed to get things set the way I wanted them, but suggest the values in parentheses, of 56K for the fixed resistor and 22K for the trimpot, as ones that would give more room for adjustment. If you’re building this from scratch, it might be worth looking into the use of 1N4001’s for the varactors. They’re cheaper and more widely available, and although they don’t give as wide a capacitance range as most varactor diodes, not much is needed when you just want to cover a 50KHz-wide band. You’ll probably need different values for the fixed resistor (if you even need a fixed resistor) and the trimpot. I’d start with no fixed resistor, a 5K trimpot, and go from there, if you do decide to experiment with a different part for the tuning diode.

The resulting receiver works well on the 30M band, with good sensitivity. Indeed, sensitivity is rarely an issue with regens – their main weaknesses are poor strong signal handling, and lack of selectivity. I have not yet heard a signal on my K2 that I couldn’t also copy on the WBR. This confirms my growing suspicion that this design just doesn’t cut it for AM, though it performs well on SSB/CW.

Another feature of this particular WBR version is the circuit of the LM386 AF amp, which provides enough gain to easily drive a speaker, and seems to have less noise than other high-gain configurations of this chip. I’ve heard from folk who built the WBR as described in the original QST article, and have been told that it has low audio. If you’re going to use that circuit, I strongly recommend that you include a preamp stage, as detailed in this post. Even better would be to use the circuit of the 31M WBR which, as well as including a preamp, also has the higher gain and lower noise LM386 amp stage.

If you’re into experimenting, Joel KB6QVI just bought some MD8002A audio chips from eBay. He reports that they have high gain (just like the LM386 in it’s souped-up circuit configurations) but, unlike that chip, is low noise. Like the LM386, it is intended for battery operation, so has low quiescent current. I’m thinking this chip could be a great substitute (not direct pin-for-pin though) for the 386 in many of our favorite well-known simple ham projects. Just a thought 🙂

I’m really happy with how the WBR performs on 30M. It would make a neat receiver for a simple QRP transmitter running from a 10.106MHz crystal. Here are 3 videos. The first one is probably more informative, though the third one includes 2 of my cats 🙂 I do tend to say some of the same things in all the videos, so apologies for the repetition, though I keep it more brief in the first one. If you’re only going to watch one video, watch this first one –

There was a lot of local noise during the recording of this next video. On top of that, I had not set the regen control properly. The set was well into oscillation, making it sound “hissier” than necessary. It also broadens out the response somewhat –

Once again, with this video, I had the regen control set too far into oscillation, widening the response and creating a bit more hiss than necessary. Really, if you’ve watched the other two, the only reason to watch this one is if you want to see some kitty action (2 of my gals feature in this one, beginning at around the 2 minute mark –

That’s the WBR on 30M, and I’m really happy with how it performs there.


October 5, 2016

An End Fed Halfwave Antenna for Portable Ops

I’m a very casual operator, and an even more casual portable operator. My main reason for not putting much effort into portable operation is that when I go out into nature, I want to enjoy my surroundings and not be distracted by radios. It sounds like an excuse, but it’s true. I spend quite a lot of time hunched over the bench and over my radios at home so when I go out, I don’t want to do the same. I’m more the kind of guy who builds small rigs, then operates them from the comfort of my own home. However, I had to take the SST out at least once simply to prove that I can!

The antenna needed to be compact and lightweight, as did the method of matching it. I just didn’t feel like carrying lots of boxes and interconnecting cables up the hill, and having to fiddle with them all once up there. An end-fed halfwave, often referred to by the acronym EFHW, seemed to be a good choice, as it only requires a support at the far end. I saw photos that Steve WG0AT had posted on Facebook of his little EFHW, with the matching unit built into a dental floss container, for a light and compact solution. I wanted an antenna that small and lightweight! Steve referenced a blog post by TJ W0EA, in which TJ detailed an EFHW matching unit he had made, based on the one in his Par End Fedz antenna. This little matching unit, that transforms the high impedance present at the end of a half-wave length of wire into the much lower impedance of 50 ohm coax, consists of a wideband transformer wound on a ferrite core, and a 150pF fixed capacitor. That’s it. Simple and compact!

What to put it in, was the big question. I spent several weeks looking in stores for suitable small containers, and finally decided on a Carmex lip-balm tube. Here it is with the lip-balm removed –

The remaining tube still has a corkscrew-like central element that needs removing –

It is a fairly simple matter to grasp  the corkscrew with a pair of long and slim needle-nose pliers, and push it until it pops out. You can discard the corkscrew, as it is not needed. The 2 parts on the left of the next picture, the snap-on lid and the main cylinder, are what you want –

The following pictures should show you how it all goes together. A plastic cable tie prevents the RG174 from pulling out of the bottom, and a generous squodge of hot glue keeps the toroid in check. If you have a dual temperature glue gun, use the hotter setting –

This matching unit is designed to work with a half-wavelength wire. Some folk build it so that they can change the wire length for different bands. I decided to make this a permanent 20M antenna, so started with about 36 feet, and continued to trim it down until the center frequency was close to 14060, at which point the SWR was 1.1:1. Not bad! I’ll state the obvious by reminding you that any antenna does need to be reasonably clear of nearby objects, particularly anything conductive, in order to make meaningful measurements. Laying it on the ground isn’t going to cut it – you need to suspend one end up in the air and have the antenna clear of obstructions. This is what my final EFHW looked like, all bundled up and ready for the trail, with a 10 foot length of RG174 –

Interestingly, a few days later, I checked the SWR again, only to find that although the center frequency was the same, the SWR at that point was higher, at about 1.4:1. The only thing that had changed was that the first time I measured the SWR, I was powering my MFJ SWR Analyzer from a “wall wart” transformer while the second time, it was powered from internal batteries. I’m thinking that the first time around, the AC wiring in the house was providing a bigger counterpoise and helping to lower the SWR at resonance. It might be interesting to try connecting a counterpoise wire at the rig to see if it reduces SWR any, but I did like the added simplicity of no counterpoise.

How does it work? I bundled the SST, antenna, small sealed lead acid battery, paddle from QRP Guys, and a few other things into my backpack, and cycled up to Vollmer Peak, a local high spot in the Berkeley Hills. I left rather late, had lunch on the way, and by the time I got up to the top, spent about 30 minutes eating trail mix and looking at the view, before realizing that I didn’t have much time. I didn’t get the antenna very high in the tree, and sat on the ground, listening, finishing off the trail mix, and putting out a few CQ’s before heading back down the hill. End result = no QSO’s, but I did get spots on the Reverse Beacon Network from Colorado, Arizona, and Alberta. The antenna works – it’s the operator who performs better in a cozy indoor shack 🙂

There is really only one more thing to try with my SST, and that is, as I mentioned in this post, to add extra filtering between the TX mixer and the buffer/driver. I think that a lot of harmonic energy is making it to the final and being amplified, before being filtered out by the LPF in the antenna lead. Better to nip all those naughty harmonics earlier in the process, I think. If I do any more work on it, that will be the focus.

Thanks to Ian MW0IAN (great callsign) for clueing me in to this PDF on the G0KYA EFHW.


September 21, 2016

Greater Harmonic Suppression and a Narrower RX Filter for the SST20

My scratch-build of the Wilderness Radio SST20 has been a great success. I’m not a very active operator but I’ve had 18 QSO’s on it so far, running it into a horizontal loaded dipole (a Buddipole) at 25 feet. The furthest was Hawaii at about 2350 miles distant, followed closely by Midland, PA at about 2200 miles away, as the crow flies. I previously thought the output power was 2.25W, but it looks as if it’s closer to 1.5W. I’ll explain why in this post.

Ever since completing it, I had been having uncertainties about the low-pass filter on the output. I understand that spurious emission requirements had used to be a little more lax for QRP transmitters, specifying that for transmitters under 5W, spurious emissions needed to be greater than 30dB below the level of the fundamental emission. This is no longer the case, as the requirement is the same for all HF transmitters in the amateur service, and is found in 97.307 –

“(d) For transmitters installed after January 1, 2003, the mean power of any spurious emission from a station transmitter or external RF power amplifier transmitting on a frequency below 30 MHz must be at least 43 dB below the mean power of the fundamental emission.”

Although I am not set up to make spectrum measurements on transmitters, a very rough test using the S-meter of my K2 indicated that my SST was emitting a 2nd harmonic that, at best, was only a few S-points below that of the main signal, It looked very much as if I wasn’t even fulfilling the older requirement of a minimum of 30dB suppression of spurious emissions. Digging around on the internet a bit, I found this paper on the GQRP site, giving practical values for low-pass filters for 50 ohm systems for all the HF amateur bands that I thought should satisfy current requirements. The suggested LPF for 20M was this –

As well as greatly improving harmonic suppression over the original SST filter, the use of this LPF in the receive path also improves image rejection as the image, with this receiver, is on the high side of the VXO.


Fitting it into the same space that the previous 2-stage LPF had occupied was a tough call, but I managed it. I did have to break one of my own rules of decorum, and allow one of the toroids to be slanted slightly, so that the layout looked less uniform (Oh, the horror!) but I was happy that it fitted into the space at all. The yellow T37-6 toroids of the new LPF are easily visible in this close-up view –

The first thing I noticed was that despite careful peaking of C28 (at the output of the TX mixer), the output power as measured on my OHR WM-2 wattmeter was now only 1.5W. Given that the 28MHz harmonic was previously very possibly only 2 or 3 S-units down on the main emission, I’m thinking that a significant portion of the 2.25W I was measuring at the output before was 2nd harmonic energy (and perhaps some unwanted TX mixer products too). The good news was that listening to the 28MHz 2nd harmonic on my K2 now revealed it to not even register S1, when the fundamental at 14Mhz was S9 +40dB! That is an excellent result, and one that falls well within FCC requirements. I observed a very similar result with the VXO signal at 18MHz. My K2 doesn’t cover the unwanted TX mixer product frequency of 21.932MHz (VXO freq + 3.932) – at least not with full sensitivity, and I don’t have a general coverage receiver with an S-meter unfortunately, so I can’t check the level of that unwanted emission.

The levels of the harmonics emitted from the antenna jack now easily comply with FCC Part 97. Due to the previous harmonic level I measured, I’m thinking that a significant level of 2nd harmonic is being delivered to the input of the PA and being amplified, before then being attenuated by the LPF. It would be preferable for that harmonic to be filtered out before the PA stage, and I may take a look at doing this in the future. In his SST40, JN3DMJ added an extra stage to the bandpass filter after the TX mixer to increase the level of spurious attenuation. You can see it here, under the heading “Upgrading of the filters”. With a better BPF in place, it may be possible to get an honest 2 – 2.5W from the final, with all of that power consisting of 14MHz energy.

As if to confirm to me that all was well, the little rig gave me a brief daytime QSO with KD3CA in Midland, PA – 2200 miles away. Not bad for 1.5W into a detuned dipole with an SWR of nearly 6:1!

The other thing that I took a look at was the crystal filter on the receiver. I had used the values of C6, C7, C8 and C9 suggested by Rich K7SZ on QRP-L for a wider response than even the values given in the manual for a wider filter. The stock values give a particularly narrow filter, and not all users will want that. I changed the values to those given in the manual as a mod for greater width. Does the way I’m explaining it make sense? I was going from extra wide to moderately wide, so to speak. Here are AF response curves taken by measuring the AF response of the entire rig at the headphone jack. The program used was Spectrogram.

Using K7SZ’ “extra wide” values of C6, C9 = 47pF, and C7, C8 = 120pF (the red vertical marker is at 400Hz – the sidetone I use) –

and using the “stock mod values” from the manual, for “regular wide response” – C6,C9 = 68pF and C7,C8 = 180pF (the red line represents an aggregate of all the peak values taken over a 16 second period, while the blue line is a response in one instant in time) –

Not sure if I’ll decide to go narrower with the filter, or leave it as it is. I need to experience a few more contest weekends before making any further decisions 🙂

On an entirely different tack, I have been using a new camera for the one photo in this post, and all the photos in the previous post about my SST build. It’s much lighter, and more compact than the camera I used for the photos in all the other posts on this blog. I’m still trying to decide whether the image quality is up to par for me. It’s a different lens, with a slightly wider focal length, a different sensor, and I’m using different software to process the images. I am not quite yet used to using this particular lens in order to “see” my subject the way I want, and so there are a lot of factors in deciding whether it’s going to cut the mustard for use in this blog. However, it’s a great and relatively inconspicuous camera for carrying around with me. Occasionally, I like to do what one might call street and candid photography, and it excels at that. This is one of the things I do when I’m not slaving over a hot soldering iron –

But, for the most part, I prefer taking photos of radios. They are very relaxed and compliant subjects, and don’t give me a hard time when I point a camera at them, unlike some members of the general public (gee, I wonder why they would do that).

I’ll get back on topic and talk about radio in the next post, I promise. In the meantime, as I am getting the “neither here nor there” figure of 1.5W of power out of my SST20, I turned the drive down to 1W, to make it a nice, even figure. I am looking forward to sending “PWR 1W” during QSO’s!

September 9, 2016

A Scratch-Build of N6KR and Wilderness Radio’s SST for 20M

Note – all links in this post open in a new browser window. It would be a good idea to clear your cache from time to time, to make sure your browser loads the latest version of this post. As an example, I just found an error on the schematic, and uploaded a newer, correct diagram.

I’ve been wanting to build an SST for a few years now. It’s a plucky little rig, with a lot of character. Designed by Wayne N6KR in the late 90’s, appearing as a full article in QRPp, and a kit sold by Wilderness Radio, it ignited the imaginations of a whole generation of builders for it’s combination of simplicity, performance, and willingness to accept modifications cheerfully. The review from Adventure Radio Society was quite positive. It is a VXO-based QRP CW transceiver, with a simple superhet receiver (SST = Simple Superhet Transceiver), and a TX that puts out up to 3W, depending on your choice of transistor in the final (it can be dialed down for battery-powered outings). It has very fast, clean QSK – so fast, in fact, that it feels as if I can hear the band all the time I’m sending (W6JL would approve). You actually listen to your own signal as you’re sending – there is no separately generated sidetone. The sidetone level does vary with the volume control, as opposed to being a fixed volume, but I only find this to be an issue when I have the AF gain all the way up, in which case I either quickly adjust the volume knob, or partially pull the earbuds away from my ears while sending. By the way, the sidetone on this little rig sounds really nice. It’s a feature which helps to make operating the SST an enjoyable experience.

QRP’ers loved their SST’s. There was a lively discussion about the minimalist rig on QRP-L, with builders reporting back on the frequency coverage and performance of their builds, with details of mods they were trying. The kit came with a light gauge unfinished aluminum enclosure. The raw-finish aluminum was a blank slate which invited many different creative solutions to the age-old question of how to show off your project. Some folk endowed theirs with professional-looking paint jobs, while others used dymo labels, or simply scrawled right onto the panel with a Sharpie® for that authentic home-brew look. All approaches worked admirably well. I saw one SST that had been painted with a US flag, and looked great. Some of them were taken out on the trail many times, and showed many knocks and scratches on the case which, of course, just made ’em look better still.


SST Kit Version – Image from Wilderness Radio


SST Kit Version – Image from Wilderness Radio

JN3-bong;y modified his SST with 2 varacters for extra frequency coverage. He also added a speaker, and a spot button. Click on this photo to go to his site, and read more about his SST.

Koichi JN3DMJ modified his kit version of the SST40 with 2 varacters for extra frequency coverage. He also added a speaker, a spot button, and expanded the LPF for better filtering of the transmitted signal. Click on this photo to go to his site, and read more about his SST. He says that this SST is his favorite rig. He has made over 1300 QSO’s on it so far. Thank you for the permission to reproduce this photo and link to your site Koichi.

Recently, I decided it was time to build my own SST, only to find that I had missed the boat on a kit, as Wilderness Radio had discontinued it at some point in the recent past. I called QRP Bob on the phone, hoping that there would perhaps still be a board and/or enclosure available, but I was out of luck. In fact, it meant that I was in luck, as I would have to scratch-build one, and that’s a good thing.

There is plenty of documentation for this rig online. The initial write-up was in the Spring 1997 edition of QRPp, available from Chuck K7QO here. Note that the preceding link is a PDF of all 4 volumes from that year. The entire QRPp archive is also on Chuck’s site and accessible from the main page. Ken WA4MNT has a copy of the manual for the Wilderness SST kit on his site. Other essential documentation is the mods and information collected from QRP-L messages from 1997-2004, from Ken Larsen AL7FS, here as an HTML file, here as a text file, or here as a .doc file.

Mine differed just slightly from the original. Here’s my hand-drawn version of the schematic, reproduced here with kind permission of N6KR. Don’t rely just on the following schematic, as my drawing is a bit goofy. Best to refer to the original circuit diagram in the manual, and use mine to see how it differs –


Note – I do not recommend using the LPF comprised by C34, C35, C36, L2 and L3. Although it just met FCC specs at the time of release, it is very unlikely to provide enough filtering for this rig to meet current FCC rules regarding suppression of spurious emissions. For more satisfactory filtering, see my post here.

Component designations (e.g. C27, R11 etc) are the same as in the schematic in the Wilderness Radio manual. There are 3 parts in the above schematic that do not have such designations – they were added by me (the series capacitor and resistor from pin 5 of U3 to ground, and the 1N5817 diode in series with the 10-16V DC supply line).

Differences between the stock SST and mine are –

1)  Inclusion of a series  diode in the supply line for polarity protection. I did consider using a P-channel MOSFET so as to avoid the voltage drop, but decided to go with a Schottky barrier diode. Some diodes of this type have a big enough reverse leakage current such that they are not effective in this role, but not so the 1N5817. It’s forward voltage drop is about 0.34V in transmit. I still don’t like losing that much, but it’s an improvement on the higher drop of a regular silicon diode.

2) The use of trimcaps in the RX and TX oscillators in order to place the received signal in the center of the passband, and to put the TX signal on the same frequency as the RX signal. I’m still about 20Hz off due, I think, to touchy trimcaps, but it’s close enough – until I get the urge to tweak and adjust again 🙂

3) The use of 68pF capacitors for C19 and C20 instead of the 100pF values specified. With 100pF feedback caps, my VXO wouldn’t oscillate, so I swapped them for 68pF ones, and it sprang into life (thanks to LA3PNA for the help on that). It may well also have oscillated with 82pF caps, and that is an option if you want your frequency coverage to be a little lower.

4) An MRF237 was used for the final instead of a 2N3553. This substitution was suggested in the manual for higher output power, as the MRF237 has higher gain. If you want a cheaper and more modern alternative to the 2N3553, I’m thinking that a BD139 should work as a direct replacement. Joel KB6QVI just told me that W8DIZ has the 2SC5706 at 10 for $4, and I’m wondering how it would work in this application.

5) A Zobel network was added to the output of the LM386. Mine was unstable at high volume settings. A series capacitor and resistor from pin 5 to ground is very commonly used in these circuits, and the inclusion of these 2 parts tamed my instability immediately.

6) Alternate values of the capacitors in the crystal filter were used to widen out the response. The original values were reported to be giving a particularly narrow bandwidth of around 200 – 300Hz at the -6dB points. I wanted something a bit wider. There were several suggestions in the QRP-L archived discussions. K7SZ tried widening his SST20 out with the help of these suggestions, but it still wasn’t wide enough for him. He suggested the use of 47pF for C6 and C9, and 120pF for C7 and C8, which is what I used. Thanks Rich. A few builders went further, and implemented the ABX (adjustable bandwidth crystal filter) mod that was used in the Wilderness Radio version of the NorCal Sierra. EDIT – K7SZ notes in his ARRL book “Low Power Communication” that his mod brought the center frequency of the filter down too low for him on his SST30, so he ended up going back to the stock values. I have found that using the values of C7/C8 = 120pF and C6/C9 =  47pF that Rich suggested on QRP-L for his SST20, I set the sidetone at 400Hz ( a new thing of mine – I’m experimenting with lower than normal sidetone pitch), and the center of the filter passband was still about 20Hz lower, which I guess is pretty close. If you like higher sidetones though, you may be better off with one of the 2 sets of stock values in the SST manual. SECOND EDIT – I plan to tighten the response of the filter, by using the alternate values quoted in the manual. After using the SST for a while, I think my version is a little wide.

Although the SST didn’t come with a keyer, many users added their own, the Wilderness KC1 keyer and frequency readout being popular. At the time of writing, this is still available – the only kit that Wilderness still supplies. I decided that I wanted to build a keyer onto the same board as an integral part of my SST. I didn’t need much in the way of special features, my only 2 requirements of a keyer for this rig being that it will operate in iambic mode B, and that it has a speed pot – a feature I think of as essential. Changing speed on the fly during a QSO is tricky if the option is accessible only via menus, but a piece of cake if all you have to do is reach out and twist a knob. Perhaps I didn’t look hard enough, but the only freeware I found didn’t support a speed pot. I remembered how well the N0XAS Super PicoKeyer that Dar W9HZC had given me had worked, and a light went on in my head. Dale sells spare chips for his PicoKeyer Plus at $6 each. I purchased 4, used one in this rig, and saved the others for future projects. The manual on Dale’s site will give you the info on all the features of this keyer, and how to access them. The surrounding circuitry is simple (the genius is in the coding), so it was easy to incorporate into the SST –

The on-board keyer used a replacement PicoKeyer-Plus chip from Dale N0XAS

The on-board keyer used a replacement PicoKeyer-Plus chip from Dale N0XAS

The keyer uses a piezo transducer to announce the responses to command inputs made via the CMD pushbutton and the paddle. It would be possible to feed this audio into the AF amp of the SST so that it can be heard in the earphones, but I elected to fit a small piezo transducer on the edge of the board. I had intended to punch a small hole in the side of the case to make it easy to hear, but this appeared not to be necessary. Note that in the schematic, I have called it a piezo “buzzer”. It is actually a transducer, but allow me to explain. There are piezo buzzers available to which you apply a voltage, and the unit rewards you with a loud piercing tone, generated by an internal oscillator. Some of the units available are called piezo buzzers, but they don’t contain the audio oscillator – just a transducer, which is often sharply resonant at a specific audio frequency, to enhance the volume of the emitted tone. I bought a 5-pack of so-called “piezo buzzers” on eBay. They looked too small to contain an internal oscillator and I was correct – they consisted of just the transducer, which was exactly what was needed.

This build looked great when it started (as they all do 🙂 ). A nice, clean board, with nothing but potential. As projects progress, I tend to become more anxious that in a single unconsidered moment during a late night soldering session, the iron will slip, the odor of burning plastic will waft into my nostrils, and all the hard work will be undone in a careless fraction of a second. In truth, there aren’t that many errors that can’t be corrected, but this early shot of the board was the best it ever looked! As with all my projects, all the Manhattan pads were MePADS (for IC’s) and MeSQUARES (for everything else) from Rex at QRPMe

If you compare the above photo to later pictures, you’ll notice that I ended up changing the layout of the front panel controls.

In the next picture, the AF amp and the VXO have been constructed, as well as the 8V regulated supply line. Temporary DC and headphone jacks were also connected, so the circuit can be plugged in to see if it works. The shielded cable that connects to the tuning pot was installed, but left longer than needed to allow for the final install in the enclosure. Not too much of the circuit had been built at this point, but it was already possible to test the voltages at the input and output of the regulator, as well as ensuring that the LM386 made a nice, loud noise when the input terminals were touched with a screwdriver (a highly controlled and accurate test 🙂 ) The VXO was tuned in on a nearby receiver and tested for frequency coverage. With the 20M version, the VXO is in the 18MHz range, and by subtracting the IF of 3.932MHz from the highest and lowest frequencies it oscillates at, you can estimate the final coverage of the SST, and make adjustments at this stage if you wish. The discussions on QRP-L (which are linked earlier) contain a lot of info on tailoring the coverage, so I won’t repeat it all here, but your options involve using different varactors, connecting a second crystal in parallel with the VXO crystal, using different values of rubbering inductor, and adjusting the value of R5. I won’t explain how these all affect the frequency coverage and stability, as this is discussed at length in the QRP-L archive and also, to a certain extent, in the manual. There is plenty of homework reading to be done if you are thinking of building this rig!

Here’s another view, with the VXO in the foreground –

Suddenly, the product detector and BFO burst onto the scene. In the next shot, the 3.932MHz BFO crystal is the one closest to the camera, with the trimcap for centering the passband just behind it. I used 60pF trimmers, as that is what I had the greatest quantity of. Something a little smaller might have made the adjustment less touchy though. I’ll leave you to experiment, if you want to. Things are getting pretty exciting at this point, because when you a touch a wire or metal screwdriver screwdriver to pin 1 of the product detector IC U2, you hear honest-to-goodness atmospheric noise – a distinctly different sound from what you hear when touching the input of the AF amp IC. It’s instructive, not to mention really cool, to hear this progression in the sounds you hear, as you touch the inputs of stages closer and closer to the antenna, as the build progresses. If you have a signal generator, you can inject that into the circuit, and look at the output on a ‘scope. Don’t despair if you don’t have a full stable of test gear though – it’s important not to underestimate the power of touching and listening. Once you’ve done it a few times, you get used to knowing what sorts of things you should be hearing. See the curved red power wire that supplies 8V regulated to the BFO/product detector? You’ll notice in later photos that it was replaced with a different-shaped wire. It’s rarely possible to get everything right the first time you construct something, so one-off builds like this tend to morph somewhat as they progress. It’s OK to change things as you go along –

The next stage to construct was the crystal filter. Do you notice how, on the board for the kit version of the SST, the crystals for the filter were lined up with the short edges parallel to each other, so that the filter takes up a significant length of one side of the board? You usually see filters with the long edges of the crystals lined up parallel to each other. I don’t know why Wayne did it this way, but it did occur to me that with this physical configuration, the input and output of the filter are further apart than they would be with the more conventional placement pattern. Perhaps this was an attempt to decrease the possibility of filter blow-by? It seemed like a good idea, so I replicated it in my Manhattan copy. The crystals in the filter are not yet grounded in this next shot –

As far as matching the 3 crystals for the filter, I placed them into an oscillator circuit, and measured the frequency of oscillation. My cheap Chinese stand-alone frequency counter only had a resolution of 100Hz, but then I remembered that my K2 had a built-in counter with a 10Hz resolution, so I used that. I needed 5 x 3.932MHz crystals total – 3 for the filter, and the other 2 for the oscillators in the TX mixer and the BFO/product detector, so I picked the 5 that were closest in frequency. Out of that group of 5, I took the 3 closest and used them for the filter, while the other 2 were used for the local oscillators (but not the VXO, which required an 18MHz crystal).

To verify that the receiver is working, you’ll need to also build the antenna LPF, consisting of L1, L2, and associated parts. Without it, you won’t be able to peak the antenna input trimcap C1. Notice that if you touch the input of the crystal filter, the noise from the phones sounds much more restricted than when you touch the output of the filter. In fact, you can work your way back through the filter, with the rushing atmospheric noise becoming more and more restricted-sounding as you touch each stage of the filter with your metal screwdriver. These quick checks help to confirm that your project is pretty much on track. Adding the receive mixer means that the receiver is complete. After peaking C1 for maximum band noise, you should be able to receive off-air signals. Congratulations! If you substituted a trimcap for C10, you can also adjust it to place the received signal in the center of the passband, an adjustment that will depend on what pitch of sidetone you like to listen to.

My receiver didn’t work particularly well at first – I was getting very low audio out of it. One or two posts in the QRP-L archive made the same observation. I was beginning to talk myself into believing that the design was deficient in the audio department, and resolving to substitute a different audio chain, when I discovered that the coax which delivered the output of the VXO to the input of the RX mixer wasn’t properly soldered at the output of the VXO, resulting in low drive to the RX mixer. Re-soldering the joint solved the problem, and I can happily report that the audio output is more than adequate to drive a quality set of earbuds or a pair of reasonably sensitive headphones. If you attempt to drive a speaker, you will find that the level is only adequate for monitoring whether a frequency has activity or not, in a quiet room. That’s fine, as this was designed as a trail-friendly rig, with low current consumption in mind, and it certainly achieves that. VK3HN mentioned to me the idea of adding a lower noise AF chain designed to drive a speaker, and retaining the original AF output stage, feeding the inputs of both in parallel. The advantage of this would be that you’d retain the AGC action provided by the LED.

See the VXO in this next shot, with it’s 18MHz crystal? It has a total of just 10 parts, including the tuning potentiometer. I know that it represents old, well-established technology, but I feel that it still has it’s place in ham home-brew. Only 10 parts, and yet it has great stability and signal purity too. As long as you can deal with the fairly limited frequency range, a VXO is still a great choice as the frequency control in a simple rig –

This is always the point, when building a transceiver, where I slow down and spend some time playing with the receiver. I was dead chuffed, as we Brits say, that I had successfully built a little superhet receiver with a narrow crystal filter, that was sensitive, and sounded good.

But at some point, the momentum needs to be capitalized on before it is all gone, and so the build proceeded, with the addition of the transmit mixer. I also added the keying line (the green wires around the edge of the board) so that I could key the TX to see if it worked. If it did, then all that would be required would be to amplify the output of the TX mixer with the driver/buffer, and the PA. We were really getting close at this point! You’ll notice that there is a “channel” of space separating the crystal filter from the rest of the circuit. I did this for two reasons – firstly, as I thought it couldn’t hurt to physically separate the filter a little, to help prevent filter blow-by. Secondly, if there was excessive blow-by, it would give me enough space to erect a screen made from PCB material. C39, the 470uF AGC capacitor, is not present in this shot, nor in the later overhead notated view. I was planning on mounting it off the board, on the inside front panel, but eventually decided to mount it on the board. It ended up occupying the space between the AF amp and the edge of the board –

If you look carefully at these pictures, you may notice one or two components changing position slightly. As the build progresses, I will occasionally move a part or two in order to refine and improve the layout. I’m not going to point out which parts this applies to, as I don’t show these photos with the intention that you follow the layout closely. I started out by following the layout of the stages on the board from the SST manual but as the build progressed, realized I’d be able to move the position of the driver/buffer, thereby freeing up space for the on-board keyer, in one of the back corners of the board. Here’s another view of the board in the same state as in the above photo, with the receiver fully built, as well as the TX mixer. If you have a scope, you can measure the output of the VXO, which should be between 200 and 500mV RMS (that’s 0.565 – 1.414V peak – peak). You can also adjust C28 to peak the signal that will drive the buffer –

This was really the point at which I felt that I was home free. The TX/RX switching was working well, and the rig was putting out a small signal on the operating frequency in the 20M band. All that was left was to amplify it – and even if that didn’t work, I still had a cool little receiver and let’s face it – receivers are cooler than transmitters 🙂

The next shot shows the rig fully built, with the exception of the keyer, with the board temporarily mounted in an enclosure. I ended up changing the layout of the front panel controls, which necessitated the use of another enclosure. In both cases, I used the LMB Heeger 143 enclosure in plain aluminum finish (they also have it in black and grey). I used an MRF237 instead of the 2N3553 in the PA, in order to provide a bit more output, and you can see that transistor, wearing it’s heatsink. To the right of the PA transistor is the orange top of R12, the drive control, and to the right of that is the LT1252 driver/buffer stage. The RF input to the LT1252 is carried by a single wire underneath the board. There are only 2 wires under the board – the one just mentioned, and a length of RG174 coax connecting the output of the VXO to the input of the RX mixer –

A view of the completed board, with the N0XAS keyer in the rear left-hand corner (which is actually the rear right-hand corner, if you are looking at the board from the front panel end). I mounted the keyer chip in a machined socket. I run as many of the control cables as possible underneath, and drill holes in the board for them to enter. I think it looks neater that way –

This next view shows the layout. I got carried away and labeled a few too many parts. The side of the board that faces the front panel is the left edge. As with the previous overhead anotated view, C39, the AGC capacitor, is not shown here, though it did end up being mounted on the board. Remember those SMD SA602’s I was giving away for the price of postage a while back (courtesy of KV7L)? I hadn’t used any myself, until now. 3 of them are in this little rig –

Time to get this thing in a case. The LMB Heeger 143 is an ongoing favorite of mine. It measures 4″ x 4″ x 2″ high, and has 2 small lugs at the front and back of the cover that engage with the front and back panels to prevent them from being pushed in. This feature adds rigidity and stoutness. One of the things I don’t like about most clamshell cases is that the front and back panels can be flexed; not so with this model. It comes in grey and a sort of black wrinkle finish, if you don’t want the raw aluminum. All the pots are Alpha brand. The 3 small ones were $1.29 each from Tayda. The larger tuning pot is also an Alpha part, but is very slightly smoother in action, and I wanted to optimize the experience of tuning this rig. It is Alpha part # RV16AF-10-20R1-B10K-LA (I got it from Mouser).  There is a small dummy load plugged into the back in this next shot, because I was having fun using the rig as a code practice oscillator 🙂

This SST is quite a triumph for me, as it is the most complex project I have built so far with Rex’s MeSQUARES and MePADS.

The piezo transducer for the keyer was fixed to the edge of the board with a small spot of hot glue (on the high temperature setting of the hot glue gun, as it flows better) –

The keyer CMD pushbutton was a 22 cent cheapie from Tayda. These types are available with plastic and metal shafts. The ones with the metal shafts have a slightly smoother, more positive action. Get those ones. 4 vinyl bumpers from the local hardware store keep the SST from slip-sliding on my desk –

This enclosure is higher than the kit version, at 2″ high. I wasn’t initially planning on such a high case but the advantages are that it supports a larger tuning knob and, as you can see from the next shot, there is room for an internal battery pack, speaker, ATU or other add-on –

Here’s a view of the SST-20 upside-down and from the rear. From left to right – RF gain (rarely used), Antenna, DC power, and paddle –

I have a couple of spare covers for this enclosure, from projects that didn’t go as planned, and am thinking that it would be possible to have different covers with different accessories built in. For instance, one cover could have a speaker and extra AF amplifier, for operation at home. Another cover could contain a battery pack, for portable ops –

The red and yellow knobs look a bit garish, and I’m still getting used to them, but the thinking is that yellow = audio (AF gain and headphones), while red = keyer (speed pot and CMD button). It was also a way of using the cheap knobs I got from Tayda for 49¢ each 🙂

So how does it perform? Well, in 2 words – very well. I don’t operate a lot, but I do spend a lot of time listening. I’ve had 6 QSO’s so far with a horizontal loaded dipole (a Buddipole) at 25 feet above ground at my home QTH. 3 of them were with stations in Colorado, about 900 miles distant, one with KE5AKL who was doing a SOTA activation in NM, also 900 miles from me, and one with a mobile station in Hooks, Texas, who was running 25W. He was 1600 miles away as the crow flies. The other was with a local station. The receiver is as sensitive as you’d need a receiver to be, and there’s a good amount of opposite sideband suppression. I haven’t measured it, but you only hear the opposite side of the signal weakly when tuning through a very strong station. The RF gain only needs to be backed down when in the presence of very strong stations, as the use of an SA602 in the front end can cause it to crumble under such circumstances. I haven’t needed to use it yet, and from what I’ve read, it doesn’t need to be used very often – hence the reason it is on the back panel. My frequency coverage, with an MV209 varacter, is approximately 14055 – 14064KHz, a swing of 9KHz, which is about as much as you’d want when tuning with a 1-turn pot. Many users mounted a switch on the front panel to switch in another varacter (usually an MVAM108, which was also supplied with the kit) to extend the coverage downwards. With the MRF237 in the final, my WM-2 wattmeter indicates an output power of about 2.25W with 11.61V at the input to the rig (11.27V after the polarity protection diode). When supplied with 13.8V from a PSU, the power output was about 2.8W. I didn’t measure the current consumption on transmit, but on receive it is between 26 and 27mA. This is low, but somewhat higher than the 15-16mA quoted in the manual. The keyer consumes <1mA, so that isn’t the reason for the difference.

The AGC LED is a rather unique feature. I’ll let you read up about it in the manual but for the addition of a few extra parts, it will save your ears from the worst ravages of sudden loud signals – and the LED is fun to watch too 🙂 Most red LED’s have a forward voltage drop of about 1.7 – 1.8V. If you want to raise the AGC threshold, look for a red LED with a higher Vf – some of them go as high as 2.2V.

Although all the parts for this little rig are still available, a few of them are a bit harder to find than others. I purchased the LT1252 from Digi-Key – they have them in both through-hole and SMD versions. Chuck K7QO tipped me off to a supplier on eBay who was selling them in 10 packs. I couldn’t resist purchasing a pack. Thanks Chuck 🙂 W8DIZ has the MPN3700 PIN diodes, though see the next paragraph for a worthy substitute.  There are several different choices for the PA transistor. 2N3553’s and MRF237’s were available on eBay when I was looking. Try to buy legitimate parts from a reputable supplier (my gut feelings seem to serve me well in this regard). I’m thinking that a BD139 would work in this position too. All the crystals are still available from Digi-Key. The part numbers are the same as in the SST manual, with the exception of X1-X5 for the 30M version. The manual quotes the Digi-Key part # as X007-ND. It is, in fact, CTX007-ND. Perhaps it changed. It has, after all, been 19 years since the kit was introduced!

Even though this design is now quite old, I think it is still very relevant. An experienced home-brewer can build this into a fairly small case, and take it on the trail with a simple tuner and, say, an EFHW, for a compact and effective portable set-up. All of the parts are still available, though it would be great to see a partial redesign, utilizing more modern and widely available parts. I’m thinking of a redesign of the buffer/driver and PA stages. BS170’s are cheap, and 3 of them in parallel, in class E, could provide close to the full QRP gallon. The original SST had room in the case for a 9V lithium battery, and could be dialed down to lower output powers to help battery life. Nowadays, newer battery technologies make more power available in a light and small package, so running 4 or 5W while portable with a small rig like this is practical. Kenjia JH1PJL used an NPN transistor in his driver, instead of the LT1252 IC. He also used a 1N4004 instead of the MPN3700 PIN diode (you can see pictures of his SST scratch-build here). In fact, all the diodes in the 1N4001 – 1N4007 series have the relatively slow recovery time of 30µS, giving them PIN characteristics. Any of them should work fine in place of the MPN3700. If a 1N4000-series diode is good enough for RF switching in the Elecraft K2 (the 1N4007), then it’s good enough for us!

Here’s a brief video of it in action, with a surprise appearance by Jingles the blind kitty. I fed her just before starting the video, and forgot that her routine after eating is to jump up on the desk to relax and digest her meal for a few minutes. I’ll work on producing a slightly better video, though videos are not my strong point. Apologies for the slightly crackly audio. It’s a combination of operator error and a camera that was designed primarily for stills, and not video –

The yellow knob was making me uncomfortable. It has since been replaced with a black one, and I am feeling much calmer now 🙂

10 minutes later, and the red knob has now been changed for a solid and dependable black knob also. I finally feel that I know where I am in the world again 🙂

For the near future, the next tasks are to –
a) add an extra stage to the LPF between the antenna and the rig for greater harmonic suppression  and
b) tighten up the crystal filter a bit. I have decided that it’s just a little too wide 🙂

Both the above were done here.


Note – as of early Oct 2016, I received this very informative message from Walt K3ASW –

I have an actual SST20, with several mods.

If you’d like more VXO range, try adding a small value NP0 or C0G from the crystal-RFC junction to ground. Mine has a 3 pF and I get about 14042-14064. However, the VXO voltage to the two mixers (RX, TX) drops by about 1/4 to 1/3 over the lower 2-3 kHz. Also, I have a 1u8 RFC in series with the 5u6 below the crystal.

Currently, it has the K8IQY filter mod, but I’m likely to change that per my crystal measurements and modelling (via W7ZOI’s GPLA).

I added a JFET amplifier (MPF-102) between the crystal filter and product detector ‘602. This reduced the RX noise level quite a bit and I don’t have to run the AF gain as high. This simple circuit is from NA5N’s little handbook he published some years ago. If one does this mod, a dual JFET keying switch needs to be added between the 602
‘product detect and LM386; otherwise, the sidetone is way too loud. (My first version of the JFET switch circuit didn’t work, so I’ll have to try again. It is a tight fit! – on the   Wilderness Radio PWB  version.)

I’d also noticed the output of the TX mixer needs another filter section. I’m trying to figure out how to shoehorn it in on the existing PWB. (You won’t have that problem with your HB layout.)

I’ve worked quite a bit of DX on mine over the years. When I lived in a condo (before 2000), the antenna was a `98 foot horizontal loop in the attic above the fourth floor and I regularly worked into EU from here in MD.

Hope you like yours; it’s a neat little rig.

73 Walt K3ASW

– and a few days later. Walt sent these extra SST tips –

A couple other simple mods: Add a 0.033 or 0.039uF between the product detector pins 4 and 5; this reduces some of the high frequency noise. Also, a 10 or 15 uF from the phone jack + to ground will reduce the noise a bit more (22uF is too much – its starts attenuating the desired signal). The latter is a RC low pass filter for audio; the R is the AF gain control.
73 Walt K3ASW
Thanks for the helpful tips Walt!

February 10, 2016

The Muppet-Style Construction of John N8RVE

I have been meaning to write a post featuring the inspiring construction work of John N8RVE for almost a year now but sadly, am only able to think about one thing at a time, and The Sproutie MK II took up a lot of space in my head last year. Then, after finishing that, my one-track mind switched off from home-brewing and blogging activities completely. I am still unable to contemplate any more construction projects, and think that I may have done everything I set out to do with home-brewing, at least for a while.

In the meantime, there are a couple of things I’ve been wanting you to know about, and one of them is the excellent approach that John takes with his projects. John and I first became acquainted when he built a Rugster direct conversion receiver, and a WBR. Then I saw his build of a broadcast band regen, and that classic QRP design, Dave Benson’s SW+40, and really started to take notice.

John uses a form of construction that has been championed by Chuck Adams K7QO, in his QRP-Tech group on Yahoo Groups. Chuck calls it Muppet Construction and it refers to the practice of using an etched PCB, but soldering the components directly to the copper traces, thereby negating the need to drill holes in the board for component leads. It makes the process of creating the board easier, as there are no holes to drill. Also, after the circuit has been constructed, it is easier to look at the component side of the board and figure out what is connected to what – a process that is much harder with conventional through-hole PCB’s.

Back in January of last year, John finished construction of a broadcast band regen receiver, based on a design by Rick Andersen KE3IJ. Here is his very nicely etched “Muppet” PCB –


BCB Regen Receiver (Photo courtesy of John N8RVE)

The board partway through construction –


BCB Regen Receiver (Photo courtesy of John N8RVE)

And the completed regen (note the use of a rubber pinch wheel to achieve slow-motion tuning –


BCB Regen Receiver (Photo courtesy of N8RVE)

John’s next project really caught my attention. It is the classic QRP design, Dave Benson’s SW40+. Dave has retired, and the SW40+ is no longer available as a kit (perhaps sometime in the future it will be again?) I’m sure there are many folk who would love to build a SW40+ but lament the lack of availability of a kit. Luckily, the kit manual, including schematic, is freely available online so the obvious answer is to build your own, which is exactly what John did. You could build it Ugly-style, Manhattan-style or, as John chose, Muppet-style. Here is his fully populated board –


SW40+ (Photo courtesy of N8RVE)

Doesn’t this just look fantastic? This is very inspiring John!


SW40+ (Photo courtesy of N8RVE)

Then, using the same technique, John built a HiMite 20. The HiMite 15 and 20 were next-generation QRP transceivers based on the Rockmites and, like the SW series of rigs, were the brainchild of Dave Benson. This is John’s version of the HiMite 20. When he first e-mailed me with news of this project, he was having some problems with the receiver. I’m not sure if he was able to solve the issues, but I think it looks great –


HiMite 20 (Photo courtesy of N8RVE)

Just before his muppet construction odyssey began, John built a WBR, but ended up giving it to a friend who liked it. What to do? Build another one! This one is for the 31M broadcast band. John has had some issues with the volume level though otherwise, it is working OK –


WBR Receiver (Photo courtesy of N8RVE)

One of the great things about developing the ability to scratch-build (as opposed to assembling projects from kits) is that you can pretty build anything you want, as long as you have the schematic. You can build it using any one of a number of techniques – Ugly Construction, Manhattan, Muppet, or any combination that you wish. You could even design your own PCB and take the drastic measure of drilling holes in it for component leads 🙂

Thank you for sharing the details of some of your projects with us John, and I hope they inspire some readers the way they did me!


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 abcfab 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.

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