Dave Richards AA7EE

January 21, 2011

In Praise of the 50KW Powerhouse Ham Stations

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 5:46 pm
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During the periods that  I’m active on the bands, I spend most of my time on 7030 or nearby, occasionally scanning down to the bottom of the band at times when there might be a bit of DX to listen to.  Sometimes 40 sounds good, sometimes not so good, but it seems that W6JL is always there, sending very good CW with perfectly readable signal strength. Whatever the condition of the band, W6JL’s signals will be peeling out of the noise, clear as a bell.

Obviously, the title of this post is not factually accurate, but Don”s signal is the closest thing to the ham equivalent of the 50,000 watt powerhouses on the AM broadcast bands at my QTH.  It helps that he’s in Southern California, only a few hundred miles south of me.  He’s not running legal limit power – 550w according to his QRZ entry from his all-homebrew station. Whatever his antenna is, it’s probably pretty high and in the clear. It’s not just his strong signal at my QTH that makes him stand out, it’s the fact that I hear him most every day that I’m listening on 40.  He’s nearly always on, and his QSO’s are not the cookie-cutter type (which I have to confess is my style).  He is so comfortable with CW as a form of communication that he ragchews at consistently decent speeds.  Don sends so much CW so regularly that his signals are the nearest thing to an AM powerhouse broadcast station in my neck of the woods on 40m.

As a QRP op who spends much of my time on or around 7030, I have a strong appreciation for the variety of interesting CW sigs I hear there.  They vary from 599+ to the rather fascinating 319c signals with odd-sounding modulation on the CW note that always makes me wonder just who the signal belongs to and what kind of homebrew concoction it’s coming from. But there’s room for everyone on the ham bands, and there’s nothing like an ever-present signal from a fine operator to show the rest of us what we can aspire to if we keep pushing ourselves with the code. In fact, as I write this, I am hearing him on 7034.

Thanks Don – and for readers of this blog, who is your local powerhouse operator?

Edit: Cam N6GA just e-mailed me with a link to a page that gives interesting information about Don and his homebrew DDS station with a phasing-type direct conversion receiver. You can view it here. Thanks for the info Cam. From the article, it looks as if he is using a 2 element beam on 40 on that tower.  EDIT:  There is an updated version of the page about Don’s station here.


January 26, 2010

The Perfect CW QSO

I’ve started the packing process for my sojourn to Southern California (see previous post) and it looks like this particular move will be the most enjoyable so far.  I’m putting much of my stuff into storage in the Bay Area and moving down to So Cal with a small truckload of belongings.  Because I’m a QRP’er,  there will be no big heavy radio gear, and due to the tall trees at the property I’m moving to,  a roll of dacron antenna rope, a couple of hundred feet of stranded insulated wire and a pulley or two will pack into a small space and should make for a great antenna (with the help of a slingshot to get it up there.)

The ham radio gear at this end may well be some of the last stuff to be packed.  It gives me a good diversion from packing every now and then. Trust me – you don’t want to own 10,000 CD’s – it’s more music than anyone can properly take in during a lifetime, and all those boxes weigh a lot.

So while plonking CD’s into the umpteenth box this afternoon, I heard a very weak but fully copyable CQ on 7030 from KG6SNV. I called him back and we had a brief but very enjoyable QSO.  I gave him a 519 (he gave me a 529), but it was armchair copy.  I don’t have an S-meter on the Norcal 2N2/40 but band noise was probably at about an S4.  His sigs were almost imperceptible at an S1 (and below the band noise) but due to no QSB, no QRM and his excellent sending (his speed and rhythm were perfect for the conditions) copying him was a breeze.

I’m not sure how to put this into words, but any CW operator reading this will be able to identify with these sentiments. There was something very satisfying about receiving a signal so weak that I was able to copy with ease. There was nothing groundbreaking about our QSO; we were only 61 miles apart, in adjoining counties.  Mario was running 10 watts into an indoor vertical at 20 feet (apartment antenna maybe?), and I was running 4 watts to an outdoor vertical also at 20 feet. The thing that made this QSO so much fun was that I was able to take such a weak signal and decode it in my head. For anyone who is either thinking of learning morse code, or who has started and is having trouble becoming fluent, take it from me that your effort will be rewarded many times over if you keep on plugging away. Your brain has an amazing number of built-in algorithms and a lot of  “filtering”, and using it to decode CW signals is fun.  Just think – free DSP!

I’ve had one or two e-mails in the past from folk reading this blog who are learning the code and have taken inspiration from some of the blog posts here. I hope that if you’re on the fence about either beginning to learn, or continuing, that you’ll take heart from reading this.

Incidentally,  I’m no veteran CW op.  My speed lies somewhere in the 10 – 20 wpm range and I have a long way to go with the code, but I’m on course.  I guess a good analogy would be with learning the guitar.  Let’s just say that I’ve taught myself to play 3 chords and can bang out a lot of rock n’ roll songs at this point. I haven’t learned to play like Mark Knopfler or The Edge yet though.

On a side note, it looks like the Fort Tuthill 80M Direct Conversion CW Transceiver Kit is days away from going on sale and I hope to bag one of the kits in this first run of 100. Dan N7VE has just uploaded the assembly manual to the Yahoo Group and this looks like it’s going to be one fun rig to build.

January 14, 2010

The Art and Skill Of Radio-Telegraphy

As anyone who reads this blog or follows my Twitter knows, I have an interest in SDR. At this stage in the game, I would imagine that almost anyone with an interest in radio, whether amateur radio or any other kind of serious listening, would find SDR very compelling.

Ever since Flex sent me a copy of PowerSDR on CD about a year ago, I haven’t been able to get it to work on my PC.  Long story short, it turned out to be a soundcard configuration problem and once I figured that out a few days ago, I’ve been happily playing with PowerSDR in conjunction with my SoftRock Lite II on 40M. While perusing the FlexRadio website for documentation on using PowerSDR, I came across a free download of a fantastic publication called “The Art & Skill Of RadioTelegraphy” by N0HFF. I’m sure that most CW types are well familiar with this 241-page tome, but it’s a new one to me.  It is subtitled  “For those who are interested in telegraphy, for those who would like to learn it, for those who love it, and for those who want to improve their skills in it” and to anyone who is interested in furthering their skills in CW,  it’s a fascinating read.

William Pierpont N0HFF

There is much space given over to the discussion of high speed reading and copying, including interviews with several very accomplished high speed code operators.  When discussing high speed code, Bill Pierpont mentions that as you progress and are able to read and copy at higher speeds, at some point (I believe the range of around 50wpm was quoted) , it becomes impossible to think of code as being made up of separate letters.  At that point, you’re not really consciously even decoding whole words, but listening to the flow and rhythm and just knowing what is being said. The author quotes examples of operators who couldn’t recall individual words or phrases that were used, but knew precisely what information was being conveyed. This is a truly proficient operator; the code has become transparent to him.  It is analogous with the point where you finally get the hang of riding a bicycle.  You no longer concentrate on pedalling and keeping your balance – you just do it relatively effortlessly.

I found that interesting, because even at my much lower speeds in the range of  10-20wpm, I have moments where I experience block and cannot read code. If I relax, my ability to read comes back. This morning while making the first cup of coffee of the day (a wonderful moment!) I was listening to a mini pile-up on 40.  I heard one fairly loud station calling and wanted to know his callsign. I don’t know why, because he wasn’t sending fast, but I had to listen intently to his callsign several times before figuring out that he was W6AUG.  At the very moment that I consciously decoded his callsign, I realized that I had already known who he was. The unconscious part of my brain already knew it was W6AUG.  The only reason I kept consciously trying hard to decode it was because I wasn’t trusting myself.  Interesting stuff, and it backs up a fairly common experience I have; whenever I experience a block in reading or copying code, all I have to do is relax, and the ability to read it comes back.

If you have the slightest interest in morse code and haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend this free download.  Googling “The Art and Skill of Radio-Telegraphy” will give you links to many places you can get it. I got mine by going to the downloads section of the FlexRadio site and searching for “manuals”. It’s at the bottom of that list of downloads. This edition was revised in 2002. As Bill passed away in 2003, this version is probably the most up to date one available.

EDIT – Reader Howard informed me that the link I had to the Flex Radio downloads page was broken. I found the new url, but couldn’t find a link to the download of this book. This one is working as of right now – and if it doesn’t, a quick Google search should locate this book for you.

And now if you’ll excuse me for a moment, it’s time for my second cup of coffee of the day.

December 30, 2009

My Dad – A World War II Veteran

This post is long overdue. About 2 months ago I returned from a trip to the UK to see my Dad, who is in a care home suffering from dementia.   It had been a year since I’d seen him and I had been warned by my brothers to be prepared for a noticeable change in his condition. I don’t get to go back to the UK very often, so with my Dad’s memory not being what it was, time was of the essence.

When I saw him a year ago, his short term memory was very bad, but his memory of events a long time ago was intact; he couldn’t remember what he’d had for breakfast that morning, but he could remember World War II perfectly. We had all grown up being very familiar with Dad’s war stories.  He was a navigator in an RAF squadron on De Haviland Mosquitos, receiving basic training in Canada and then being stationed in Burma for the duration of the war.

The De Haviland Mosquito was quite an interesting airplane.  It was a fast and lightweight bomber with some combat ability.  The bulk of it was constructed from laminated plywood, which posed some problems when they first got it out to the heat and humidity in Burma. The humidity caused the plywood frame to warp and the glue to dissolve. Dad had some great stories about flying in these planes.  They had used to “hedge-hop” which involved flying low in order to avoid enemy radar.  On one occasion, this particular practice didn’t go so well when a wing was clipped by a telephone wire, damaging it and causing a swift emergency landing.   Dad’s logbook tells some vivid tales.  Practice runs are detailed in blue, while ops that were the “real thing” were written in red.  It made for dramatic reading.

Although my brothers and I grew up listening to Dad recount these stories many times,  it occurred to me that there will come a time when I’m not able to ask him to tell me a story one more time.  So I took a small voice recorder with me to capture these stories once and for all.  I was also interested to see how well Dad remembered his morse code. He had learnt it as part of his basic training and remembered it throughout his adult life.  As a kid, I always knew when Dad was driving into the school parking lot to pick me up, because I’d hear the car horn blaring CQ CQ de G4IFA (my UK callsign).  Dad thought it was hilarious and well, it was pretty funny.  I already had quite a bit of camera gear, including all the batteries and chargers as well as the voice recorder, so I didn’t want to add too much extra equipment.  I ended up fitting a small buzzer and a 9 volt battery into an Altoids tin and putting that in my suitcase, along with a KK-1 Straight Key.  How do you think this came across to airport security personnel?

Well, I went through 6 airports and had some explaining to do in 3 of them. In one case, I had to plug the KK-1 key in to demonstrate that it really was just a morse code buzzer. Add to that the fact that my carry on bag was full of cameras, batteries,  and a digital voice recorder, plus the fact that I was wearing a metal knee brace under my jeans, and you can see that I had a ball in every airport I went through.

After I had been through 5 of the 6 airports, I discovered that this multi-purpose tool which had been sitting at the bottom of my carry-on bag had not been picked up by any of the x-ray gear or hand searches of my bag:

Wow.  I didn’t even know it was sitting at the bottom of my bag.  It had been left over from a radio excursion to the top of Vollmer Peak a few months earlier.

Long story short – after a few tentative practice runs with the diminutive KK-1 straight key, my Dad sent the entire alphabet almost perfectly, only having a little trouble mixing up the letters q and y (a problem I have experienced also.)  Despite the fact that his short term memory is pretty much gone, as is much of his long term memory, he can still remember the morse code he learnt about 70 years ago. Pretty impressive!

My Dad, Henry George Richards, WWII Veteran.

2 generations of CW operators, though only one of us used it to fight the big bad Nazis.

November 20, 2009

The Norcal 2N2/40 CW Transceiver Kit

I’ve been wanting to build a kit for some time now.  I built the Softrock 40 a few months ago as my re-entry into the world of building radio gear. It was my first experience with SMT devices, and it went quite well. However, I really wanted to build a complete transceiver – something I can solder up, stuff into a case, and use to talk to someone on.  It’s been years since I’ve done that.

As a kid I spent countless hours with my nose buried in RadCom, Practical Wireless and various books from the RSGB, staring at the schematics and pictures of all kinds of wonderful homebrew projects.  I built a few too, but spent many more hours just gazing at this stuff.  As an adult, I haven’t changed much, except that we now have the internet, so the opportunities for hours of happy browsing are even more numerous.

I spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with the various QRP CW transceiver kits out there and I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be a kit builder, there are so many good kits available. I looked at the kits from Wilderness Radio – the SST series of rigs (very appealing because of their simplicity),  the Norcal 40A and the Sierra transceiver. Then of course, there is the early 21st century version of Heathkit – Elecraft, and their excellent K1, K2 and KX1 kits. Steve Weber’s PFR3, Weber Dual Bander and MMR-40 from Hendricks kits all received good long looks from me as well. There are some really interesting SDR transceiver kits out there too, but I wanted to build a more traditional little QRP radio this time around.

Phew – so many kits to consider, and the problem for an internet “window shopper” like me is that I often spend so much time reading up about things that I can get to the point where I don’t feel the urge to do them any longer. It has something to do with the art of delayed gratification, which I learnt a little too well as a kid.  The good side of it is that it does save me a lot of money.  The bad side is that I spend a lot of time indoors reading about things instead of doing them.

OK, apologies for the digression. There was one other design that caught my attention, and that was K8IQY’s 2N2 series of transceivers.  The design was K8IQY’s response to Wayne Burdick N6KR’s challenge to design a transceiver that used no more than 22 2N2222 transistors.  No PNP transistors, voltage regulators or IC’s were allowed – the 2N2222 was the only active device to be used.  Dayton 1998 was where the judging was held, and Jim Kortge K8IQY took the prize. For about 10 years, a lot of folk built these neat little transceivers manhattan style until the Norcal QRP Club came along to help those of us who still want to build things, but like to have them in the form of a ready-to-assemble kit. The Norcal 2N2/XX series of kits included a double-sided PCB and to many, this was just too good to resist.

The original run of 500 kits looked like they were close to sold by the time I arrived on the scene.  The club had suspended all online ordering (and as of today, I notice that they have decided to suspend all order processing for a year in order to give their volunteers a good break.)  I lucked out and found an amateur on the Yahoo Norcal 2N2 Group who had a spare unbuilt 2N2/40 kit to sell.  40 meters was my preferred band,  so this was an exciting find for me – thanks Cameron!

While waiting for the kit to arrive, I built an RF probe.  I don’t own an oscilloscope, so the next best thing was an RF probe.  This would allow me to test each stage as I proceeded. The instructions are here. I built mine in an old 1/4″ jack plug.  The body was metal so that the probe would be properly shielded.  The test tip was a piece of stiff wire soldered to the end of the plug, with a piece of heat-shrink tubing placed over the joint:

Then I slid the insulation over the whole shebang, screwed on the body of the plug, added some leads, and voila – an RF test probe for around $2:

The kit was well packed and arrived intact.  Cameron, who had bought it from Norcal months earlier, and hadn’t had time to build it, also included all the replacement parts and updates that Norcal sent out.  A view of the entire kit laid out on my deck:

and a close-up  of the update packets that Norcal sent out (ignore the transparent packet of trimmer capacitors – that was part of the original kit):

From finish to end, it took me about 10 days to build this great little radio. I have no idea how many hours I spent on it.  Some days, I worked for a couple of hours, and then went off to meet a friend for the rest of the day, coming back to put in another couple of hours in the evening.  Other days I worked on it while entertaining company at home, and then there were the marathon sessions where I started in the evening and worked until the wee small hours of the morning when sleep got the better of me.  One time I started work at around 8pm and after many hours of toiling away with the soldering iron, realized that it was 6 o’ clock the next morning! Funny how times just melts away when you’re engrossed in a project.

Here’s a view of the board after I had built and tested the power protection, the receive active power decoupler,  receive main audio amplifier,  receive/transmit keying,  receive mute,  receive audio pre-amp,  receive local oscillator,  receive product detector, receive post IF amp crystal filter, and the receive IF amplifier. That sounds like a lot, but some of the stages were literally just a few components:

Same board, same point during the construction, different view:

While we’re at it, here’s a picture of my workbench/operating position. The candle isn’t evidence of any kind of gothic leaning  – I was using it to help strip the enamel from the ends of toroids after I had wound them:

Speaking of toroids, there are a fair number to wind in this project.  Some folk love winding toroids, more seem to dislike the process.  I take what I think of as a more “zen” approach, which is the same approach I take to all kit building. I take my time when I’m building; I don’t feel any rush to get it done and get the project completed.  Part of the enjoyment for me is in building the kit, so I take my time doing it.  While I’m doing it, whatever needs to be done gets done.  Some things are simple, like stuffing resistors into holes and soldering them, while some things, like winding toroids, take more time. While building, I may be listening to the radio – either some CW on 40 meters or my local college station KALX, which comes from the Berkeley campus.  I take frequent coffee breaks, and may also have company over.  The point is that the most detailed laborious task (such as winding a toroid) can be made more enjoyable by becoming engrossed in the process, or at the very least having something interesting playing in the background! The main point of kit building for me is the journey rather than the destination. Having said that, my toroids, though perfectly serviceable and not all bad looking, are still nowhere near as beautiful as K8IQY’s. He uses a #2 crochet hook to pull the wire through the toroid, and also mounts the core in a small vice while winding.  I hold the small toroid cores in my hand while winding and don’t use any other tools to help the process, so I may think about trying Jim’s technique for my next project.

Here’s the board with the receive chain finished and fully operational. The controls are temporarily wired in for testing purposes. In the center of the board, instead of T6, there is a jumper wire.  This is because on 40 meters the RF receive amp isn’t used:

Wow.  Exciting! There are two crystal filters in this radio – a 4 pole (the main crystal filter) and a 2 pole filter just after the IF amp. The bandwidth of 500Hz sounds just about right.  I have not used a lot of narrow filters in my life, but compared to the 300Hz filter I have installed on my FT-817 (which is a little too narrow for everyday use) this one sounds like a good width for regular CW use.

By the way, in these pictures, the radio is sitting on a schematic of the actual radio being built.  As suggested in the excellent assembly instructions available on the Norcal website, I printed a large version of the circuit diagram to use as a reference while building.  It makes a pretty backdrop for pictures of the 2N2/40 as well.

Here’s the finished board with the temporary wiring for all controls removed, ready for installing in the case:

I’m breezing through the construction in this blog, but a look at Norcal’s assembly instructions will show you that there is a fair amount of work involved in putting together this transceiver. It’s definitely not for beginners, but if you’re good at soldering and have some circuit building experience, it’s not hard. You’ve just got to put in the time. After you’ve built each section, the instructions show you how to make a few measurements to verify that the stage is working as intended.  Don’t skip these tests.  The peace of mind you get from knowing that everything you’ve completed so far is working is well worth the time.

Here’s the board mounted in the case with all the controls attached. Is this thing beautiful or what?

I think it looks decidedly less pretty when fully ensconced in the case, but that’s only because I love looking at components and circuit boards:

A head-on view of the front panel, showing the lettering:

I was keen to see how stable the fully free-running VFO would be.  I haven’t made any measurements but as expected, the VFO does drift quite a bit in the first few minutes after initial switch-on.  If your main experience is with commercial radios controlled by PLL or DDS synthesized VFO’s, you’ll have to get used to the fact that you shouldn’t be switching the radio on and transmitting almost immediately.  I had intended to run some tests to determine the minimum amount of time I should leave the radio on before operating, but since finishing it, I’ve left it switched on nearly all the time.  It uses such little current (measured at around 135ma) that it’s convenient for me to leave it on, so if I wake up in the middle of the night (a regular occurrence) I can listen to the radio and immediately respond to any stations I might hear calling. I will say this – when the radio has settled down to a stable internal temperature, it is easily stable enough for serious CW operating.

The night I finished the radio, I went to sleep, woke up just before 3am, put the earbuds in and worked JM7OLW.  He gave me a 419 with the 4 watts from the 2N2/40.  Not a stellar report, but my first confirmed contact – and it was with Japan!

The sidetone is a little loud for me, so I’ll be adjusting the value of resistor R14 to reduce the monitored transmitted signal to a more comfortable level. The other change I’m going to make will be to add a digital frequency display (probably the KD1JV Digital Frequency Dial.) With these two changes made, the 2N2/40 will be a very serviceable TX/RX for everyday use in the shack.

A few more thoughts on this radio.  If you’ve come from a position of operating mainly commercially built rigs, you’ll probably go through a short period of adjustment when getting used to this radio (or many other similar types of designs.)  As previously mentioned, it has a free-running VFO,  so it needs to be switched on a while before you plan to operate.  It doesn’t have any AGC, so you may need to be a bit more nimble with the AF gain control from time to time to compensate.  The radio does need to be powered by a well regulated power supply, as it has no regulator of it’s own (due to the original design criteria.) Another difference I noticed was the inability to switch to a wider receive bandwidth.  As this is a CW only rig, you may not see the need to be able to set the receive filter something wider than 500Hz. I spend a lot of time at home, and often leave the radio monitoring 7030.  When doing so with my FT-817, I tune to about 7029 and leave the filter in SSB mode.  That way, I can hear anyone calling from about 7029 to a little over 7031KHz. On hearing a call,  I can then zero beat the other station and switch to a narrower filter if necessary before replying. I am not able to do this with the 2N2/40 and feel that I may be missing out on the occasional QSO because of it.

All this being said, it isn’t fair to perform these types of comparisons, as the 2N2 was designed to meet a strict set of criteria for the Dayton 1998 contest, the main one being that the only active device to be used should be the 2N2222, and no more than 22 of them. No “complex” active devices, such as IC’s or voltage regulators could be used either.

Should the above deter you from building this radio? If you specifically want a radio for backpacking and portable operations, there are others that are better suited.  If you’ll be using this at home though, it is a very worthwhile project with plenty of room in the case for you to add your own extras if you wish, such as keyers or frequency displays. I built it because the original design concept caught my imagination, and the changes that Jim has made to the design in the years since haven’t caused it to stray too far from the original idea.

September 21, 2009

CW As A Second Language

Filed under: Uncategorized — AA7EE @ 1:54 am
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In this blog I’ve documented my recent commitment to, and preoccupation with CW.  As I mentioned before, this is the first time in my amateur “career” (which began in 1978) that I have made a protracted effort toward being active on CW.  I’ve only been at it for about 2 1/2 months but I’ve made definite progress.  I wouldn’t say that at any point it was hard, but for the first couple of months I had to consciously apply myself. CW felt a bit unnatural and there were times when I had to “force” myself to copy it. I’ve made attempts to become more fluent in CW before, but they were so half-hearted and brief in their nature that they don’t really qualify to be even called attempts. For some reason, I persevered this time.

I had a fun morning on 40m today.  I got out of bed just before 5am local time and called CQ on 7030.  As a station who is running just 5 watts to a Buddistick vertical 20 feet above ground, I don’t usually expect a reply when I call CQ.  This time however, JA1KIH came back to me and gave me a 569! An hour later, I worked DS5USH in South Korea. That QSO wasn’t quite as easy, but he gave me a 439 and I have never had a QSO with South Korea before, so that was fun. I then spent a happy hour or so listening to the pile-up on 7005 generated by T2G on Tuvalu, as well as 8J2MC/2 in the Phillippines, and  a Russian station – all on 40M.  It was a good morning.

It was then that it occurred to me that I hadn’t felt like I had had to “force” myself to think in terms of morse code in order to be able to copy the stations. I still had to concentrate of course, but the effort felt more natural and was enjoyable.

I think I’ve turned the corner. Now would any of those employers that are advertising positions on Craigslist as needing bilingual applicants consider someone who speaks English and Morse code?

August 14, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 10, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

July 24, 2009

My First SKCC QSO and 5 Watts to VK Land on 40M

One of the first things I did after completing assembly of my new KK1 straight key (my first straight key in about 15 years) was to apply for membership in the Straight Key Century Club.  There are a number of organizations designed to encourage the use of morse code amongst radio amateurs of which SKCC is one.  As the code is no longer used commercially in the developed world, and we as amateurs are the last large organized group of people to be using it, I think it’s very important that we not only preserve, but also encourage the growth of morse code usage. It is the original digital mode.

There are quite a few folk who claim that morse code is obsolete.  To back up their point of view, they cite facts such as the existence of more recent digital modes, many of which have an even greater SNR (signal to noise ratio) advantage over voice modes than CW does. Add to that the fact that morse code is no longer used commercially* (at least in the developed world) and the argument seems compelling on the surface.

I’m not about to attempt to construct an argument against the newer digital modes.   They each have their advantages and particular uses.  If you need to bounce a signal off the moon (and radio amateurs just get that strong urge to do that sometimes,) then JT65, with it’s ability to copy very weak signals, would be a fine choice.  If you want to ragchew, with it’s slow bit rate, JT65 would be a bad choice (unless you want to ragchew via the moon and have LOTS of time on your hands and the patience of Job).  You’d be much better off with Olivia or PSK-31.  I’ve been playing with WSPR recently and am quite taken with it’s ability with weak signals; I have decoded signals as weak as 30dB below the noise level with it! Truly astounding.

Thing is, just as the more modern digital modes have their specific uses, so does morse code transmitted by CW, which is pretty much the only way we radio amateurs transmit code (unless you’re talking about a repeater identification on FM). What if you’re hiking and camping and want to make contact with a minimum of equipment? Your low power signal won’t go as far if you’re using a voice mode, and all the extra gear necessary to generate and decode digital modes like PSK-31 and Olivia takes extra space. What could be simpler than a small light CW transceiver and a small morse key? It’s this combination of simplicity and effectiveness that makes CW so appealing to me (and to many others.)

I don’t want to seem like an obsessive survivalist type, but the fact that a very simple CW transceiver running on battery power can get a message out to the other side of the globe under the right propagation conditions is reason enough for me to want to keep morse code, and the CW mode of transmission, alive and thriving. Talking about the right propagation conditions, we are experiencing a deep solar minimum right now and even so, my 5 watt signal to a vertical dipole was copied by VK4TJ 11,500 km away on 40 meters last night! That’s a thing of beauty to me, and thank you John for listening for my signal.

Anyway, after signing up for, and receiving my SKCC number, I started listening and calling CQ on the SKCC elmer frequency of 7114 KHz.  No replies, but it was still a little early, and there were no signals on the band.  I came back a few hours later and called CQ a few more times.  Around 11:40pm local time, I heard a loud and very brief dit. It’s the kind of thing I sometimes do if I accidentally touch the key.  I knew that meant there was someone with a strong signal on frequency.  At that point, I can’t remember whether I then called CQ and he came back to me, or whether he called CQ and I replied, but either way, Paul N6EV became my first CW QSO as an SKCC member.  Paul (SKCC #3358) is an SKCC elmer who monitors 7114 on a regular basis and enjoys sending slow CW to help folk like me get some practice in on-air QSO’s. We QSO’ed for a few minutes short of an hour before QSB took us out.

It was my longest CW QSO ever, and the length of it gave me a chance to really get more comfortable. John, VK4TJ,  was also on frequency and commented on the SKCC sked page that he could copy both of us, even when we couldn’t copy each other. Paul and I were only about 560Km apart, wheras John was about 11,500 Km from both of us;  such is the interesting nature of radio propagation.

I stayed up for a couple more hours, heard some scuffling outside, and stepped out onto my first floor balcony to see a group of 5 raccoons staring at me from just a few feet away.

It was a magical night.

5 watts to this Buddipole got me a 559 QSO with N6EV in Southern California on 40 meters.  VK4TJ copied both sides of the QSO.  5 watts and a Buddipole on 40 meters to VK land.  Very exciting!

5 watts to this Buddipole got me a 559 report from N6EV in Southern California on 40 meters. VK4TJ copied both sides of the QSO. 5 watts and a Buddipole on 40 meters and I was copied in VK land. Very exciting! By the way - in this picture, the Buddipole is resonant on 20 meters. When on 30m and 40m it also has a loading coil.

*Ships still use lamps to communicate via morse code when maintaining radio silence.

July 22, 2009

The KK1 Straight Key From American Morse Equipment

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 3:15 pm
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A couple of days ago, this turned up in the mail:

Almost as exciting as getting Lego for my birthday as a kid - a package containing the KK1 Straight Key kit from Doug at American Morse Equipment.

Almost as exciting as getting Lego for my birthday as a kid - a package containing the KK1 Straight Key kit from Doug at American Morse Equipment.

Now, you have to understand how exciting this was for me. I’m trying to find an analogy here.  Mmm….the first time I made out with a girl? Well, I’m not THAT much of a nerd, but close.  For a start, I haven’t owned a straight key in about 15 years, and the ones I owned in the past weren’t of very high quality.  My last key was a cheap practice key, and I only had a few on-air QSO’s with it. So…….this was going to be my first decent straight key.  Secondly, seeing this key in the flesh is a bit like seeing your favorite celebrity in person. You’ve seen them in magazines and on TV, and you can’t quite believe that they are really in front of you.  Well, I haven’t seen the KK1 on TV, but I’ve seen it plenty in magazines and online and have been considering it for a while now.  I was thinking that for the main station key, perhaps I need something a little larger and heavier, but my ham budget is limited.  Doug Hauff, the chief bottle washer at American Morse Equipment told me that it didn’t need to be held down while operating, so I thought that perhaps this little key was going to be substantial enough to be the main key while using my FT-817 at home, as well as while on portable operations.

Ordering is a breeze.  You click the appropriate button on Doug’s website, pay by Paypal, Paypal send you an acknowledgement of your payment, and that’s it. A couple of days later the above package turned up in my mailbox.

Here’s what I got when I opened the packet:

IMG_7280On opening the outer plastic pack, here’s a look at what’s inside:

IMG_7286I like the fact that instead of including an assembly manual, Doug points you to his website, which has a downloadable pdf file with complete assembly instructions. This is really the way to go.

Before doing anything, I spent a good 15 minutes looking the parts over, and in particular, marveling at how well machined the aluminum base, operating lever and other parts were.  It’s a pleasure to look at well made parts like this, so I did.  I had a good look at everything before proceeding.

I emptied the parts into the lid of a Quaker Oats box.  The lid has a small lip that prevents small washers, screws, springs etc from escaping. Lots of things you could use here.  An egg carton would work also:


I eat a lot of oatmeal, so it’s nice to find a use for the lid before I toss it.  I’m thinking I should get back into building crystal sets so that I can use the cylindrical card oatmeal containers for winding coils on.

Although some owners spend quite a bit of time polishing and buffing the aluminum base and brass parts of the key, as well as performing other customizations, such as fixing a knob to the paddle, the only thing you do need to do before assembly is to deburr the clevis (it’s the two vertical “posts” sticking up out of the aluminum base).  I used a fine file; you can also use fine sandpaper or a small pocket knife.  Only a light touch is required here, so go easy on it; it doesn’t take much.

I won’t say much about the assembly. The instructions are detailed and straightforward to follow. Anything in the instructions that doesn’t make immediate sense to you will most likely become apparent after looking at the pieces and the photos in the instructions. I only had one slight uncertainty during the assembly process, and that was the following instruction:

“Locate the 4-40 x 1/2 ground end machine screw. There are two ½ inch screws, the smaller is the 4-40; you can easily see the ground end.”

The other 1/2 inch screw, according to the parts list, is a 6-32 x 1/2.  Well, the problem I had was that both my 1/2 inch screws looked exactly the same.  The pitch was the same and the ends both looked the same.  Although the ends of both my screws were ground a little,  but as this screw is going to be used as the electrical contact for the key, I think that perhaps the end was supposed to be ground smoother than it actually was. Anyway, the thread on the screw fit the thread in the hole easily, so I went ahead with the assembly, deciding that if I had problems further down the road, I would contact Doug for a replacement part.

I had one extra part – an extra #0/1 washer.  No problem.  I’d rather have one part too many than one too few.

The assembly didn’t take long, at the end of which, I had this:

The finished KK1 Straight Key

The finished KK1 Straight Key

Yours could look even more beautiful if you want to polish the main parts.  It looks perfectly nice to me the way it is, so for the time being, it stays the way it is. Maybe one day I’ll find myself with a little time on my hands and a can of brass polish to hand.

One more thing before it could be used – a cord and plug.  I found an audio connecting cable that had come from Radio Shack and hadn’t been used in a long time.  It had a molded 1/8″ jack on each end.  I cut it in half, and used one half to make a cord for this key, along with heat-shrink tubing.

Here’s the finished item:

The KK1 Straight Key from American Morse Equipment - A solid little key.

The KK1 Straight Key from American Morse Equipment - A solid little key.

I have never used a straight key that was this small before, and was pleasantly surprised.  For the size (approx 1.5″ x 3″ x 1.375″ tall), it is quite heavy, and it definitely stayed put on my wooden desk top while I was keying it.  It’s not very apparent from these pictures, but the key comes with 4 clear rubber “bumpers” that you stick to the bottom of the base, and these do a splendid job of keeping the key in place while you’re pumping brass.  I also tried it on a tile countertop with no problems, so if you have any concerns about the possibility of a small key scooting all over the place while you’re trying to key your transmitter, I don’t think that’s going to happen with the KK1.

I did at first find it a little unusual using a straight key with a paddle instead of a knob.  Some have attached their own knobs; I will most likely keep my key the way it is.  I seem to be getting used to it.  Having not used a straight key in 15 years, I was disappointed to find that I need to work on my sending in order to develop a more natural rhythm. At first, I wondered if a larger key with a knob would help.  It may, but I think that lack of practice is the bigger factor here.

This key was fun to assemble and will be a pleasure to own.  For $36 plus shipping you have a straight key that can be used as the main key in your station as well as an excellent key for portable ops too. It’s well made and looks great.  I can’t keep my eyes off it. Kudos to Doug Hauff W6AME, and his company American Morse Equipment.

Now please excuse me while I go make a cup of tea and come back to the computer to apply for my FISTS and SKCC memberships!

This news just in: I just heard from Doug that he has turned the 6-32 x 1/2 inch screw into a 4-40 and eliminated the end grind, so I did have the correct part. He just hadn’t made the change in the documentation.  You can grind this screw yourself with a piece of sandpaper if you wish; my key is working fine using the screw as supplied.

More news just in: I’ve been using this key for almost a week now and have gotten fully used to using it.  I’m pleasantly surprised at how such a modestly sized key not only feels solid and stable on my desk, but also feels natural for sending code.  Any shortcomings in my sending are due to operator error, and not to the key. I wholeheartedly recommend this key.  Great value for money!

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