Posts Tagged ‘joy of homebrew’

Handle for K2

March 19th, 2014


Yaesu MHG-1 hand strap for FT-450 works great on the K2.

Thoughts on QRP

August 22nd, 2013

I recently read an excellent post by W2LJ on non-QRPers’ perceptions of “the frustration of QRP.”  While I’m in 100% agreement with what he writes—essentially to “act loud” when you’re operating QRP—I’m guilty of the very first sin he calls out at the beginning:  advising new hams not to start on HF with [a] QRP [rig].

I stand by this advice.  Here’s why.  The advice is often solicited in the context of saving money by buying a QRP radio (e.g., FT-817, IC-703, KX3, etc) versus a full-power unit (e.g., FT-857, IC-706/IC-7000, KX3+KXPA3, respectively).  Everybody wants to save money, not everyone wants to operate QRP, whether they realize it or not.  It’s a whole heck of a lot easier to crank a 100-watt radio down to 5 watts than it is to crank a 5-watt radio up to 100 watts.  So why does that matter since we’re talking about why people should or shouldn’t start with QRP?  If you operate QRP, look at your log.  You should see a pattern.  Most of your QSOs are on CW or digital and on the “core” HF bands, 40/30/20/17/15 meters.

QRP is not frustrating at all, as long as you operate CW (or digital) into decent antennas on certain bands.  Knowledge and skill indeed trump power.  But, if you are just acquiring knowledge and skill for the first time, a little reserve power doesn’t hurt.  Just my thoughts.

Review: Array of Light (3rd Edition)

July 9th, 2013

My friend Matt, KB9UWU, eggs me on to buy things.  Sometimes I listen.  Sometimes I don’t.  But, eventually he wins me over and I’m usually happy with the purchase (e.g., K3 and Hex beam, although I built the Hex from scratch, which reminds me that I owe the blog a discussion of that).  I like to think that I let Matt be the early adopter and then pick and choose based on his experience.  He convinced me to buy a copy of N6BT’s book Array of Light.  Here’s my review.

If there’s anybody that knows antennas in the amateur community, it’s Tom Schiller, N6BT, the founder of Force12 and now owner of N6BT Next Generation Antennas.  He’s also a member of the very successful Team Vertical contest team, who have revolutionized DXpedition and contest expedition antenna systems by replacing trapped tri-band Yagis like the TH-3jr(s), TA-33jr, and A3S, with arrays of verticals located at the water line.  Schiller’s work has been nothing short of revolutionary so I had high hopes for the book.

My copy, like every other copy, is signed by the author.  It’s a good-quality laser print and has the same spiral binding as the Elecraft manuals.  The book is a loosely-edited collection of articles and clippings that read pretty well in series.  But, it’s bear to skim or go back to find specific things unless you’ve read the whole thing cover-to-cover a couple of times.  But, that’s pretty easy to do because Tom is a good storyteller.  My only other complaint is that there are a couple of places where I think Tom has drunk his own Kool-Aid regarding the efficiency of his antennas, especially “linear loading.”  This is a topic that I need to revisit with a pencil and paper study at some point because there is a lot of misinformation floating around about traps, linear loading, and “multi-monoband” antennas.  It’s not clear to me that anyone has sat down and really examined this in a methodical way.  It was disappointing that he quoted numbers like “greater than 99% efficiency” without going into more detail about the efficiency of a full-size antenna versus the linear-loaded one, etc.  Of course, this is difficult, but it’s something that always makes me a bit skeptical.

Array of Light is worth the price of admission for a couple of reasons—the first is the stories and the second is the antenna designs.  I’m a big proponent of not reinventing the wheel on most of my homebrew projects and this book is sure to provide some proven designs to work with.  Especially if you want a good discussion of practical antennas for DXpeditioning and contesting I think it’s a real winner.

Do you see what I see?

July 7th, 2013


  1. Crystal oscillator for 98.5 MHz.  Check.
  2. TUF-1 and TUF-3 mixers.  Check.
  3. SMT protoboard.  Check.
  4. MMIC amplifiers.  Check.
  5. Larcan TV exciter amp.  Check.

Do you see what I see?  Yes, a 222-MHz transverter is on the horizon.

W3APL/B 903-MHz beacon

May 7th, 2013

Late last Summer, it came to my attention that the 903-MHz W3APL beacon had gone off-line.  The failure was intermittent and seemed to resolve itself after power was reset.  Several efforts to troubleshoot it were undertaken by myself and others, including running it at high duty into a dummy load over a period of days.  I was unable to get the problem to manifest itself on my bench.

A synthesized source (Analog Devices demo board) was offered by a friend of the Club, however it did not produce the desired output (or any output at all).  It’s not clear whether this was the fault of the synthesizer or the user (me).  The notional plan was to replace the beacon, which consists of a 75-MHz crystal oscillator followed by 12x of multiplication and a small RF power module, with the synthesizer and a new RF power module.  The project languished, as they often do in my hands.  But, two weeks ago I picked up the task again and made some real headway.

Really, the failure had to be one of a couple of things:  1.  Intermittent connection exacerbated by thermal cycling.  2. Oscillator “unlock” due to component aging and thermal cycling. I reasoned that as long as we could eliminate #1, the multiplier chain and amplifier should be fine.  The behavior seemed to point toward #2 or perhaps a combination of #1 and #2.  I came across a forlorn Programmed Test Sources PTS-040 that I had rescued from another group’s surplus heap to put in my lab.  I hadn’t used it in the two years that it was in my possession, so it seemed logical to provide it to the Club on a long-term loan.  The problem was that it didn’t go up to 75-MHz.  So, I cooked up a little multiplier chain.  My “good” HP spectrum analyzer is on-loan to a paying program so I had to make do with the FFT function on the fastest Tektronix portable scope I had in the lab.

My initial effort at the multiplier chain was to build a 2N3904 amplifier that swung way into saturation producing a signal rich in harmonics.  I went straight away for the 903-MHz signal but I couldn’t get a good enough lumped-element filter to eliminate the adjacent harmonics.  So, I tried for the 75-MHz injection.  This demanded a buffer amplifier so I lazily reached for the MMIC drawer in and retrieved one of the plentiful MAR-8s.  Plenty of gain…and, as I would find out in a moment…conditionally stable!  To exercise the eloquent euphemism of Ben, N3UM, the MMIC “burst into song” at about 63 MHz.

Back to the drawing board.  I knew that I had something that would work, so I redesigned the deadbug layout on an SMD protoboard (the kind with all the pads in a grid).  I replaced the discrete 2N3904 and MAR-8 MMIC amps with SGA-4586Z MMICs (which are a little too nice for this service, but I have a ton of them).  Viola!


It’s the little board on the far wall of the diecast box with the SMA connector on the left and two toroids.  37-MHz RF comes in from the PTS-040 through the BNC jack in the wall.  It’s multiplied up to 75 MHz on the new board and piped down to the remaining 12x multiplication and amplification stages before going to the little brick PA in the lower left (not visible).

So far, it sounds good.  I was able to monitor it with my W1GHZ transverter strapped to the IC-290A in my car and using a WA5VJB cheap Yagi tossed in the back seat.  I lost the signal about 5 miles away with that setup, which is really pretty decent all things considered at that frequency, etc, etc.  Nominally, the frequency should be 903.054 MHz.  I found it at about 903.048 MHz on the lash-up.  Brian, ND3F (aka N3IQ/R) reported that he found it at 903.046 MHz with KA3EJJ’s setup.  If you’re in the vicinity of FM19ne and are setup on 902/903, we’d appreciate a report.  The big thing is the long-term stability.  So, we’ll continue to monitor it.

Now…to get back to that 930 on my bench…

More Hexbeam

February 25th, 2013


“What have you done to my play set?”  This gym made a convenient place to string wires, etc.  Two poles in the photo form part of the EWE RX antenna here at K8GU that was hastily erected before the NA Sprint CW.  One of the poles is ty-wrapped to the play set.  Doing my best to keep it klassy and impress the neighbors.


And, we’re up in the air!  The M2 9M2SSB is a little bit out of alignment due to the hex getting tangled in one of the antennas that it was due to replace.  I have already realigned that.  So far, the antenna seems to have useful front-to-back.  Gain is hard to tell since I took down all of the antennas it was to replace.  But, it does seem to work.  I’m suffering from high SWR (above 3) on both 21 and 50 MHz.  G3TXQ warns of interaction between 18 MHz and 50 MHz.  Do not yet know the cause, but I’m looking into it.

Although the antenna is relatively easy to handle, I don’t plan to make a habit of taking it down for work.  Speaking of taking down, the 40m dipole whose center insulator is just visible behind the reflector of the 2-meter beam will be replaced by an as-of-yet-secret antenna.

Hexbeam Photos

February 12th, 2013


Construction project:  G3TXQ hex beam built from scratch.  K4KIO directions with K8GU modifications (and reverse-engineered square coaxial center post).  Details to follow once I determine it works to my satisfaction.

The Elecraft Effect

February 9th, 2013

Heard this on the radio the other day on my way to work.  Does it explain, at least in part, the popularity of Elecraft products?

In other news, the blog has been silent for a while, but that doesn’t mean things haven’t been happening.  I have a couple of challenging projects that have been taking up the usual blogging time.  Stay tuned!

K8GU/5 Field Day 1B1Op Battery

July 1st, 2012

I found myself in Santa Fe, NM, for Field Day this year to attend a conference. As I have shared before, I have mixed feelings about Field Day, but this was a genuinely good time.  I first checked ARRL’s Field Day finder map and the local club’s web site for activity.  Zilch. So, I remembered staying at the Fort Marcy Hotel Suites on several previous visits to Santa Fe.  These condos are up on a hill overlooking town.  Across the street is Hillside Park, with a couple of scraggly trees that might be suitable for antennas.

Instead of bringing the “usual” portable station, I brought a Small Wonder Labs SW-40, a K1EL K12 memory keyer (assembled especially for this trip), Palm Mini paddles, a 40-meter dipole, and a AA battery pack.  The whole station took up less space in my luggage than my notebook computer and set up in 15 minutes.  I got the dipole center about 4-5 meters off the ground and the ends sloped down to about 2-3 meters high…just enough to allow cars and small trucks to pass under them in the parking lot.  Apologies for the photographs…they were taken with my cell phone (which is a regular old “dumb” phone).

The SW-40 did not appear to be transmitting correctly when I first hooked everything up.  So, I pulled the cover off (packing a Leatherman tool is another good reason to check a bag) and wiggled some wires around until it fired up.  Not an auspicious sign.

But, I did manage to operate for about an hour and make 12 or 15 QSOs.  They’re logged in a notebook, but I haven’t looked at it since making the contacts.  Virtually every QSO was a struggle.  Low power (1.5 watts), wrong band (20 meters would have been better), a low antenna, and the fact that I hadn’t used the SW-40 for any QSOs in over 10 years, conspired to make thing difficult.  Most operators pulled me right out once I was in the clear and zero beat (which I think was a serious challenge with the slightly drifty and definitely touchy SW-40).

My final QSO was with my old radio club from my college days, W8FT.  The operator was my good friend Bill, AD8P, who worked hard to pull me out once he got my call right.  After I packed up, I noticed that I had a missed call on my phone…sure enough it was from Bill.  So, I gave him a call and we talked for a couple of minutes.  “When he answered the phone, he said, `New Mexico?!?!  I told Kelsey (N8ET) that’s what I had copied.’”  We had a nice chat as I hiked back down the hillside into town and he pulled into his driveway after his FD shift.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so delighted with a Field Day effort of so few QSOs (except maybe my first Field Day, which was much more work for about twice the number of QSOs).  Including the walk from my hotel to the park, setup, tear-down, and operating, I think the whole exercise took about 3 hours, and was tremendously FUN.

A Portable Vertical Antenna

March 23rd, 2012

With the loss of my preferred frequent flyer status, airlines tightening their checked luggage allowances, and the addition of another traveler to the family, I’ve been contemplating a new portable antenna that is easier to pack than my usual DK9SQ mast and dipoles.  I don’t do high-priced reduced-size antennas if at all possible since portable installations usually have other efficiency-reducing problems.  Multi-element antennas take up additional space and have feeding and installation complications that are unnecessary for the casual DX operator.  So, that leaves us to choose between a vertical and a dipole.

A few words about efficiency:  Dipoles have a distinct efficiency advantage over verticals in almost every practical installation for 40 meters and up, except when the vertical is physically placed in or over salt water.  Radiation efficiency tends to be dominated by near-field conditions, pattern is dominated by stuff that’s farther away.  This is why vertical dipoles work so well for long-haul DX when placed within a few wavelengths of salt water.  They don’t need the near-field efficiency enhancement as much as base-fed verticals, but they still leverage salt water for developing their far-field radiation pattern, especially at low angles required for long-haul communication.

I’m a casual DX operator, not a DXpeditioner, so I never operate on 160 or 80 meters.   That is, considering the discussion above, why I have been using dipoles with the DK9SQ.  But, verticals have a distinct advantage over dipoles in the sense that they are self-supporting.  I decided to build a vertical because: 1) my next DX trip would include time near a beach and 2) I wanted to be able to bring my own support as I had with the DK9SQ.

My remaining requirements were now simple:

  1. A vertical antenna that requires no additional supports.  Guying is OK.
  2. The antenna must be full-size (quarter wavelength) on 40 meters and above.
  3. Experience has shown that multi-band operation is desirable, but instant band switching is not necessary.
  4. The longest piece must fit inside my suitcase (20 in / 50.8 cm maximum length).
  5. Field assembly and repair with only a Leatherman tool.
  6. Minimum cost, minimum weight, minimum volume, minimum installation time.

And this is what I came up with:

There are 21 aluminum sections, most with a “swaged” (actually, a poor-man’s swage to be described in a moment) end and a slit end.  They are shown here bundled perfectly inside a section of cardboard shipping tube.  An 18 x 2.5 x 0.125-inch aluminum plate serves as the base.  I used DX Engineering resin support blocks to insulate vertical from the base.  A point could be fashioned on the bottom of the base and a foot plate attached to push into soft soil, but that has not been done.

Most sections fit together using overlapping joiner pieces that I previously referred to as “poor-man’s swaging.”  I’m not sure that it’s actually a savings over paying a local shop to swage the ends for you when time is considered in addition to material, but I cut telescoping pieces six inches long and fastened them three inches deep in one end of a 17-inch section of tubing with two offset and orthogonally-placed aluminum pop rivets for a total length of 20 inches.  This geometry not only fits in my suitcase, but results in a very small amount of wasted material as well.

The other end of each piece is slit about 2 inches and they mate with an all-stainless steel hose clamp.  The first 10 feet of the antenna are 0.75-inch 6063-T832 tubing followed by telescoping sizes down to 0.375-inch at the very top.  The transition pieces are a full 20 inches long and are slit on both ends.  The full-size antenna will stand in a light breeze, but guying is a good idea.  Guy rings are fashioned out of flat washers drilled in three places.

Tune-up is easy…the more radials you use, the less critical their length.  After about 8 or 10, you’re in the clear here.  I never attached enough to prevent them from affecting the tuning.  If you only plan to have a couple of radials, go ahead and cut them to 1/4 wavelength (even though ground proximity will detune them).  Then, set the length of the antenna using the required number of 17-inch sections (the 234/f formula is surprisingly close) with the last section being a variable length for fine tuning.

I’ve intentionally left out most of the details of the antenna itself because I don’t expect anyone duplicate it exactly.  But, here are a few notes for anyone considering building one themselves:

  1. There are lots of parts vendors out there.  McMaster-Carr and DX Engineering will get you there in one order from each.  There is a surprising amount of overlap in their inventories.  Get the hose clamps from McMaster…even if you get stainless-stainless (stainless band, stainless screw), they are about 1/3 of the DXE price.  On the other hand, the resin support blocks are cheaper from DXE.
  2. I carry a compact antenna analyzer (Autek Research VA-1) with me.  Field tune-up is a snap and it runs on a single transistor battery.  It’s about 1/4 the size and weight of an MFJ-259 and good enough for amateur work.  Oh, and I bought mine used for a fraction of the MFJ.
  3. A tubing cutter is fine if you only have a half-dozen or so cuts.  But, if you have a chop saw or need an excuse to buy a chop saw, it will make cutting the tubing far easier.  My hands were raw for a few days after cutting the tubing by hand.  I’m sure the antenna performs better on account of it, though.
  4. Find a friend with a metal-cutting bandsaw to slit the ends of your tubes.  I went through a half pack (McMaster mega-size pack) of cut-off wheels for my rotary tool doing my slits.
  5. McMaster only sells the aluminum plate in 36-inch pieces.  If you don’t have the aforementioned chop saw, an angle grinder with a cut-off disk does a surprisingly good job.
  6. I pack a combination-screwdriver that has hex drivers that fit the hose clamps and #6 nuts.  Even though the antenna can be erected with only a Leatherman tool doesn’t mean it has to be.
  7. The small parts box shown in the top picture holds all of the parts for the antenna—it was 2 USD at Home Depot.
  8. The final and most critical component is a clip-lead that can be used to attach various nearby metal structures to your ground plane.  I have used it to make a temporary radial out of excess tubing sections on 12 meters as well.

That’s it.  The antenna goes up in a few minutes, especially if not used at full length.  I used it successfully last week as OA5/K8GU, which will be detailed in a future post.