It’s Alive! Sort of

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Spent the better part of the afternoon getting everything set up, all the cables connected and all that, and it’s finally done! Well, mostly. And everything seems to be working.

Mostly because I still don’t have the digital stuff up and running yet. But the TS-990 is up and running, as is the Palstar tuner, the FM-400DR, and even the MFJ amp. So I’m rather pleased with the progress.

Need to permanently mount the grounding buss, that’s the thing way on the left, a big copper bar sitting on top of 2 red insulators. That’s the grounding system for all of the electronics and that needs to have a permanent home rather than perched on top of the amp. Even got the Vibroplex paddle wired up and figured out how to program the TS-990 to deal with it.

Now I just have to get the Rigblaster put in place and connected. That interfaces between the 990 and the computer to assist with computer control of the transceiver and digital communications again.

I didn’t set up the Kenwood 2000, and I’m not sure if I will yet or not. I was using that mostly to monitor signal quality when doing digital work and I don’t really need it.

And I still need to decide what to do with my big boat anchor vacuum tube amp. I got the solid state amp right after I got the AL-82, and never even used the AL-82. I installed the transformer, installed the tubes, hooked it up, turned it on, made sure everything worked, and then got the ALS-1300 amp and used that instead. Probably should just see if I can sell the thing.

 

Amateur Radio Stuff: Tear Down Day

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This is just part of it. There are about 4 more big boxes of stuff sitting on the floor full of jumpers, parts, connectors, cables… Oh brother… You will note the big ALS tube amp isn’t sitting there. I wasn’t about to lug that beast all the way down to the basement with the other stuff. Just the transformer in that bugger weighs in at around 40+ lbs. It got shoved into a corner where it will hopefully be out of the way.

Well, I finally stopped procrastinating and started tearing down my station. The battered old particle board desk I had most of my gear perched on should have been tossed out ages ago, but I wasn’t sure what to replace it with. MrsGF found an old oak teacher’s desk from about the 1940s era. Huge, very sturdy, lots of drawers and in pretty good condition, so we snagged that and it’s been sitting in the garage for weeks while I kept putting off actually doing anything because I knew it was going to be a huge pain in the neck.

I finally couldn’t put it off any longer. I have to get new desk out of the garage so I have room to park the motorcycle before we get hit with snow. And the old desk, well, I didn’t trust it any more. Frankly, I didn’t trust it much to begin with. Especially with about 200 lbs. of very expensive equipment sitting on it.

So I started disconnecting everything this afternoon. What a mess back there! Cables, coax, grounding wires, USB cables, video cables… Sheesh. And why did I make my jumper coax cables out of LMR-400? It’s so stiff you literally cannot risk moving anything without disconnecting the cables first or you risk breaking the connectors off the equipment. Sigh…

Of course I didn’t label anything. That would be cheating, right? I’m an amateur radio operator. I should know where all that stuff goes by sheer instinct. Or something…

One interesting revelation was the number of wires and cables back there that weren’t actually attached to anything, including coax disappearing into the wall, going to heaven only knows where, wires running down into the basement for some reason, USB cables. I think those things breed like rabbits. I have a whole drawer full of them. And wall warts… Lord, where did they all come from? What equipment do they power?

The interesting thing is going to be trying to put it all back together again into a working station. I can just see myself in a few days holding the RigBlaster and trying to figure out where that USB cable goes – into the computer? Into the transceiver? And what the hell does that little box with the red LEDs on it with the unmarked connectors actually do?

Great fun!

No Amateur Radio Isn’t Dying And It Doesn’t Need To Be “Fixed”

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 6.47.59 AMIf you’re looking for me babbling about farming, gardening, photography or one of the usual topics I go wandering off on, you might want to skip this one. I’m going to jump off the deep end into the “miracle of radio” for a moment here, specifically amateur radio.

One of the most curious things I’ve been seeing is the claim that amateur radio is dying. I hear this claim all the time; on the air from people chatting, at swap meets, and on the AR related blogs and forums on the internet. It is really very curious and at first I wasn’t sure why I kept hearing this when it seemed to be completely untrue.

But then I realized what was going on. Amateur radio isn’t dying, of course. What’s happening is that their idea of what amateur radio should be is dying. Amateur radio is changing, evolving, and they don’t like it. No sir, not at all. And they don’t want to accept that fact. So they take advantage of any little quirk, any little upsetting of the apple cart, any disruption, and through a convoluted thought process that makes the mind boggle, turn it into support for their idea that the entire hobby and everyone involved in it (except for them, of course) is going to hell in a hand basket.

Screen Shot 2017-11-16 at 6.39.55 AMPerhaps the biggest change was when the FCC dropped the need to know morse code in order to get a license. While most accepted this, and even were in favor of it, a significant number of AROs rose up in righteous anger over it.

Other things happened. The tests were changed, study guides began appearing on-line that were easy to use, even free. There were changes to the licensing structure. There were claims that the tests were “dumbed down”. I’ve heard people claim that modern licensees don’t actually “know” anything, all they did was memorize the answers to the questions in the question pool.

Uh, excuse me? Really? You didn’t memorize anything when you took your test, eh? You did, what, exactly? Spent years experimenting and doing the math to develop Ohm’s Law all by yourself? Besides, if someone has the ability to memorize all 700 or so of the questions in the pool for the Extra exam, they probably deserve to get the license.

Some of this nonsense has calmed down as none of the dire predictions that the Good Ole Boys made have come true, but they’re still out there, are still claiming that anyone who was licensed after the no-code license came into effects is an idiot, etc. etc. etc. There are some forums out there where if one of us no-coders dares to stick our head up, we will quickly be insulted, trolled and harassed.

The licensing system had to change, though. Morse code, or CW as we call it, is a lot of fun. Tens of thousands of AROs gleefully still use it, and it shows no sign of dying. But the fact of the matter is that being required to know CW to get your amateur radio license is about as useful as being required to know how to ride a horse in order to get a driver’s license for a car.  Yes, there are those who argue that when “all else fails” CW is the only way you’ll be able to communicate. But if you look at the forms of communications that are actually used during real emergencies, what is being used is SSB voice, FM voice, and, increasingly, digital voice and data. Not CW.

Then there are other “signs” that amateur radio is dying. Supposedly amateur radio isn’t growing, according to a lot of people I’ve talked to. I find that rather odd because we have more licensed amateur radio operators than ever before, and that number is increasing almost every year. Granted, it isn’t increasing by much, but amateur radio is a very technical hobby and it definitely is not for everyone. It requires a fairly extensive knowledge of electronics, mathematics, propagation, antenna design, FCC regulations, operating practices, etc. It requires a fairly hefty investment in equipment as well. So it appeals to a very limited number of people in the first place. If you are technically inclined, if you enjoy playing with electronics and gadgets and occasionally cranking up the old soldering iron and setting off the smoke detectors in your home with flaming resistors, exploding capacitors, etc. there are a hell of a lot easier and less expensive ways to do it than amateur radio, and which don’t require you to have to pass a test and pay a fee to do what you want to do.

Frankly, it’s amazing that we have the number of licensed operators that we have, not that the number is so small.

Here is an observation: I have amateur radio magazines going back to the early 1900s, and if you read the editorials and letters columns, you’ll quickly find that amateur radio has been “dying” since about, oh, 1920. And for pretty much the same reasons being given today: rogue operators, idiots, dumbing down the tests, changes in technology “destroying” the hobby (you should read some of the arguments about how SSB was going to destroy amateur radio when it first became popular)

There are a lot of people out there who simply do not like change. Oh, they won’t admit it, but it’s true. And this isn’t just in the amateur radio community of course. There are people who will not accept change even if those changes badly need to take place, even if those changes offer significant improvements. They will grasp at anything to try to rationalize their feelings.

Are there things about amateur radio I don’t like, things that I believe should be changed, or things that look like they will be changed but which I feel should remain the same? Of course there are. But I don’t have any influence over what will happen, and in the long run none of those things will have any real effect on my enjoyment of the hobby.

So no, amateur radio isn’t dying. All things considered, it is reasonably healthy and it seems it will remain so. It doesn’t need to be “fixed”. Yes, there are some things that could be tweaked, perhaps should be changed. But overall, amateur seems to be doing rather well.

Amateur Radio Stuff: What’s Going On

It’s been quite a while since I mentioned mentioned amateur radio, but that’s been because of a lack of time, not a lack of interest. Things back in the radio room are about to get — interesting, as they say. I’m facing a situation that every amateur radio operator does sooner or later, having to tear down everything.

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It’s even worse than this looks here. There are two more desks crammed into that room, an old drafting table, three book cases, a work table… It’s bad.

The radio room is, to put it bluntly, a mess. There is equipment piled everywhere, test gear shoved onto book cases or in drawers, amplifiers and radios laying on the floor, piles of printouts of manuals, booklets, stacks of mystery electronics in those anti-static bags, drawers full of connectors and parts, coax jumpers, meters, microphones, tools three full sized computers, three printers, all my Raspberry Pi stuff. There are cables and wires snaking along behind the desks, running into holes in the floor. The operating position is too cramped and awkward. The old drafting table my solid state amp is parked on it is too tall and too small, the desk the radios are on is in poor condition. The list goes on and on.

So everything is going to get torn down, moved out of the room. The room is going to get a good cleaning, etc. Then I start trying to put everything back together.

What sparked this is that MrsGF found a huge old teacher’s desk, made out of solid oak, for $50 at St. Vinnie’s. MrsGF already has one of these and I’d been looking for one for a while. The finish isn’t very good and it has it’s share of scratches and scars, but it is rock solid, lots of big drawers, and is long, wide and deep. That is going to get moved in, some of the old, particle board crap I’ve been using is going to go away before it collapses under the weight of the equipment, and then I can start trying to put everything back together again.

If I can remember how to do it… Meters, jumpers, wires, coax. You’d think I’d know enough to label all that stuff, right? I mean I have a label maker laying right there. But no, of course I didn’t. Sigh…

Anyway, Monday is the day when I start all of this. It’s taken me three years to accumulate this mess and put together that rat’s nest of wiring behind the desks, so this could take a while…

 

Antenna Adventure and Stuff

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Like most amateur radio operators I tend to accumulate a lot of stuff. I’ll find something and think ‘oh, that might be useful some day’ or ‘wow, that’s a good price I should get that because I’ll use it some day’. You know the kind of thing. The end result is I have more PL-259 connectors than I’ll ever use in my lifetime, spools of coax cable, rope, miscellaneous spools of wire, bits of this and that, oddball electronics, rather intimidating looking radios, test equipment and tools…

Making things worse is I’m fascinated with antennas and how radio waves propagate, so I have stuff used to make antennas, and even complete antenna systems that I’ve picked up along the way. Including the one in the photo, a Gap Titan DX vertical antenna that’s been laying in a box upstairs since I got it about three or more years ago.

It was intended to replace the Comet 250 vertical I’ve had since I first got my license. Now the Comet works. Sort of.  It’s dirt simple to put up, being little more than 21 foot long aluminum pole that bolts to a pipe hammered into the ground. But let’s face it, it isn’t really a very good antenna, especially at lower frequencies. It was intended to be a stop gap measure, something I could use to get on the air quickly and easily, with the intention of eventually replacing it with something else.

I eventually put up an OCFD that’s my primary antenna, but I kept the Comet up more for reasons of nostalgia than because it worked, which it pretty much didn’t. Oh, I made some contacts using it, but the intention was always to replace it with something better like the Gap Titan, or a vertical from DX Engineering that I picked up around the same time.

Eldest son showed up yesterday and said the Comet was coming down and we’re going to put that Gap Titan. Period. Okay… We worked out in the driveway during the hottest day of the year so far, gulping down water, sweating through our clothes, and finally got it put together. Mostly. It isn’t that difficult to assemble. The instructions are phrased a bit oddly, but if you take your time and pay attention to the diagrams it isn’t hard. And this is about as far as we got because now we are at the point where we have to put the counterpoise together, and that can’t really be done until it’s up because the counterpoise consists of four long aluminum rods about four feet long that are linked together with copper wire and goes around the bottom section of the antenna.

Then we realized that where we wanted to put it, where the Comet is now, isn’t going to actually work because we’d badly underestimated the size of the counterpoise. The Comet, being little more than a big stick with a can on the end containing the matching coils, takes up almost no room at all, and is bolted to a piece of pipe hammered into the ground. It has no counterpoise, no radials, nothing. Just a big stick, like I said. This, though, was going to require a space of about 8 feet across.

I wanted to keep it low to the ground despite the fact that would not help it’s performance. That would mean we wouldn’t have to guy it, it would be easy to take it down if necessary, and it would be easy to adjust. We considered putting it in different parts of the yard, and that would have worked, but that counterpoise would always be awkward to deal with and almost certainly someone would run a lawnmower or something into it. And we’d have to make a new feed line and bury it, and while I probably have about a thousand feet of coax laying around the house, none of it is rated for in-ground use so I’d have to get more, and we’d have to dig a trench and, well, this was starting to look like more work than we really wanted to get involved with.

And then there was the safety aspect of the whole thing. I rarely put more than 30 watts into the Comet, using it mostly for low power digital communications like PSK. Besides, the Comet can only handle about 200 watts anyway before the coils will melt down or something. The Gap, on the other hand is rated for a full 1,500 watts output, and I often use amplifiers putting out 600 – 1,500 watts when conditions warrant it. So getting it higher up would be advisable just in case some goof ball decided to grab the antenna just as I key a mic and dump 1,500 watts into the thing. You can get some nasty burns from RF at those frequencies and power levels.

So eldest son decided the best thing to do was go up. Keep it in the same location, but up above the roof of the garage where it would be out of the way and where it would probably work better anyway. But that meant we had to put up guy lines to keep it from falling over, so he’d have to go buy… No, you don’t, I told him, and rummaged around in my boxes and came up with a complete guying kit, including a few hundred feet of nonconductive line, tie downs and other goodies. And then he said well, it would be nice if we could put in a tip over mount so we can lower it down in case of storms and stuff so I should look into that. And, well, a trip to the famous “box o’ stuff” (well, actually many boxes) turned up a tip over mount originally intended for a DX Engineering antenna that would work… Sometimes it pays to hang onto all that stuff. So all we really had to buy was some sturdy pipe or something to get it about 10 feet up so it would clear the garage roof, and he went off with the truck in search of that.

Now I have absolutely no idea how he’s planning on doing this. As MrsGF pointed out, he’s the genius in the family and it’s best to just leave him alone and let him do it because he’s generally right. So we’ll see what’ll happen.

If we get a chance to actually do it. It looks like more storms are on the way, and working on antennas with thunder storms in the area is generally considered a bad thing to do.

Amateur Radio Tools and Test Equipment Part Three: Test Equipment

(Note: This rather quickly turned into an article about stuff you don’t need and why you don’t need it, rather than about stuff you do need. So it goes…)

Now there is a whole slew of test equipment some people claim you need. And you go out and spend your hard earned money on it and find that well, no, you didn’t actually need it. The fact of the matter is that unless you’re really into electronics development work, need to diagnose and repair some rather expensive and complicated equipment, you don’t really need much more than a volt/ohm meter and a couple of other items. And this is coming from someone who admits he has a — a problem, shall we say, when it comes to tools and test equipment. Basically I see a new tool or piece of test equipment my eyes glaze over, I start to shiver uncontrollably, instinctively reach for my credit card…

What do you really need? Well, at the top of the list is a decent volt/ohm meter of some sort. Usually abbreviated as VOM or DVM for the digital versions, or multi-meters. It’s pretty much an essential tool. But which one do you get? They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all kinds of different options, and prices that range from little more than pocket change to “OMG who the hell can afford that”.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a VOM, but you don’t want to get one of the bargain basement varieties out of the $2 bin at the lumber yard either. For the average electronics hobbyist you can get a perfectly good VOM for around $30 – $40. I wouldn’t spend more than $150 or so on one for one unless I was, oh, repairing equipment on a professional basis or something like that.

Which one do you get? Well, if you’re me — all of them… Okay, that’s an exaggeration butScreen Shot 2017-03-18 at 7.43.09 AM
the fact is that I have about a dozen of the dopey things laying around, from small pocket models smaller than a deck of cards to bench top models and even rack mounted units. Including one of these over there on the right. I don’t think I have it any more and it never worked in the first place and I have no idea where the thing even came from because I don’t remember buying it. (I think people break into my house not to take things, but to leave me things so they don’t have to pay recycling fees…) And it wasn’t even a VOM come to think of it but some kind of frequency counter or something…

Never mind, let’s get on with this.

The kind you do need is your basic VOM, something like one of these over there on the left. IMG_0020The Fluke is the one that lives on my workbench and that I use the most often these days. The Radio Shack model… Well, heck, I probably have a dozen RS meters because when I was a technician out in the field things happened… Oh, brother, did things happen. And RS stores were just about everywhere and the stuff was cheap and reasonably good.

Anyway, something like that Fluke will set you back about $150. The RS model is a lot less. Think I paid about $40 for that one something like 15 years ago. It seems about as accurate and useful as the Fluke, so why did I buy the Fluke? Well, it’s — it’s so shiny

They both do pretty much the same things for the most part. Both have replaceable probes/leads. And yes, you need that. You do not want a meter that has the leads wired directly into the meter. Accidents happen – melted probes, broken, frayed wires, melted wires… Stuff happens. (You did remember to unplug the equipment and discharge those high voltage caps, right? Hmm?)

Another piece of test gear that is pretty much essential for the amateur radio operator is something called a dummy load. No, this is not a truckload of ventriloquists dummies. Nor is it a load of politicians. It’s a sort of, oh, let’s call it a radio black hole.

When you’re testing and/or working on a transmitter, you have to actually transmit with it. And you need to hook the output of your transmitter up to something that can suck up the power or it can either damage your transmitter or send potentially illegal radio transmissions out into the air and enormously irritating the FCC. Or your neighbor who suddenly finds all of the electronics in his/her house going wonky.

A dummy load is really just a big, heavy duty resistor or resistors that absorb the power being dumped out by your transmitter and converting it to heat. Nothing magic, just basic physics. You can probably build your own if you like. There are tons of examples out there. Or you can buy one. Ones that can handle under 100 watts of power are out there for well under $100, some down in the $30 range.

If you fiddle around with amplifiers like I do, you’re going to need something that can handle a lot more power because those big HF amplifiers can potentially put out well over 1,500 watts. One of the cheapest methods of dealing with it was the so-called “cantenna” which was basically a paint can with a big honking (that’s a technical term, honking, you know, like ginormous, or widget, or doodad) resistor sitting in a gallon of transformer oil used to cool it. They’re still on the market and they do work pretty well. You can pick them up for under $100.

If you don’t like messing around with all that oil and stuff, you can get fan cooled dummy IMG_0027loads that can handle higher power, but you’ll pay for it. Something like the Palstar over on the right will set you back around $375 or so. A bit less if you can find one used. I think MFJ makes one as well.

Which one do you need? Well, as much as I like the DL2K I’m the first to admit that you don’t need one unless you do a lot of fiddling around with high power amplifiers. At the time I picked this one up I was doing just that and it was very, very useful. But most people don’t mess around with amplifiers that often and you can get away with something a hell of a lot cheaper. Even if you do use amplifiers, one of the “cantenna” type dummy loads will probably work just fine for you at a quarter of the cost.

That’s the thing with some of this equipment. It’s very handy to have around, and IMG_0017sometimes you absolutely have to have it. But you’re going to use it so rarely that you wonder if it’s worth the cost. It’s like this thing, my antenna analyzer over there on the left. It is a genuinely useful gadget for analyzing the performance of antennas, feed lines, helping determine antenna lengths for specific frequencies, etc. but how often do you really need one?

They aren’t exactly cheap. A good one will set you back about $300 or more. And while they are very useful indeed, I hesitate to recommend you buy one because chances are good you don’t really need one. I picked it up because I love messing around with antennas. I have three antennas in actual use at the moment and have about five more I want to put together and set up or am planning on building and experimenting with once the weather gets a bit better. So for someone like me having one of these makes sense. But even I don’t use it all that often. In fact, as often as not I lend the thing to other amateur radio operators who are setting up antennas so they don’t have to go to the expense of buying something they’re only going to use once or twice.

That brings me to this thing, another piece of test equipment you probably don’t need but really, really want, the oscilloscope. Look, I know you want one. You really, really do. It has all those fun IMG_0019buttons and knobs and that fancy display and it’s just so cool. But do you need one? Probably not. I’ve had this thing for like three years now. How often have I actually used it for anything serious? Twice. Twice in three years. Sheesh…

This isn’t the first ‘scope I’ve owned, either. I’ve had various “old school” CRT based models of various vintages over the years, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve almost never used any of them. They look really, really cool sitting there on the workbench. Sometimes I’ll turn it on and smile at it, pet it, scratch it behind the ears, tell it that it’s a good ‘scope and give it a treat, then turn it off and go back to whatever I was doing. But actually use it? But owning an oscilloscope seems to be, oh, like some sort of right of passage for a lot of amateur radio people. Having one of these sitting on the workbench means you’re “serious” about it, not just fiddling around.

That’s the problem with a lot of the test gear out there. It’s often something you’ll only use once or twice, and that’s it. So is it worth investing hundreds of dollars in something you’re going to use once in ten years?

Unless you’re really into circuit design, equipment repair, experimentation, development work, etc. most of the fancy test gear you see out there isn’t going to be very useful.

How often are you going to need a spectrum analyzer? Probably never unless you’re repairing a lot of equipment. Or a function generator? I’ve got one of those as well. I’ve never used it. At least that one didn’t cost me a fortune because I built it myself.

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy the stuff, but make sure you really need it and can afford it before you pull out the credit card. You might also be able to find a super cheap version of the test equipment that isn’t very sophisticated or even isn’t very good, like some of the cheap oscilloscope kits out there, but which will work well enough for what you need it for.

You can often borrow the stuff from a local amateur radio or electronics hobbyist if you can find one. We’re typically friendly people and once we know you aren’t going to go running off into the night and selling off our stuff on eBay or something, we’re generally more than willing to lend you stuff.

 

Amateur Radio Tools & Test Equipment Part Two: Soldering and Power

Ha! You thought I was going to get bored with this and there wouldn’t be a part two, didn’t you? Well there is a part two, so let’s get on with this, shall we?

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Can you say “horrible mess” boys and girls?

Almost any kind of fiddling around with electronics of any sort is going to require soldering sooner or later. Soldering is the joining of two or more bits of metal together via the application of heat and solder, a metal which has a lower melting point than the two bits of metal being joined. The solder serves two purposes: First it physically joins the two parts together. Second, it provides electrical continuity, a path for electricity to flow. It requires the use of a heat source, i.e. a soldering iron or pencil, and the solder itself.

Solder is usually an alloy of lead and other metals, or one of the newer lead free solders that generally include antimony, copper, silver, zinc and/or other metals to replace the lead. Silver solder, a mixture of silver and copper, is widely used in reflow and wave soldering, and often for hand soldering as well. Because of the health issues related to lead, many manufacturers are moving to the use of lead free solder. Lead based solder is still widely available and is still legal, but I would not be surprised if it is phased out entirely in the fairly near future.(1)

Now I’m not going to launch into a tutorial on how to solder. There are hundreds of the things floating around out there on electronics web sites, YouTube, etc. Some of them actually know what they’re talking about. I’m going to talk about the equipment you need to actually do it. And the first item is a soldering iron.

A soldering iron or soldering gun or soldering pencil is the essential tool. It is the device

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I’d love to see someone try to solder SMD chips with this puppy.

that actually generates the heat that is required to melt the solder. Oh, look, there’s a soldering iron over there on the right. The big can thing is, by the way, a blow torch. My, isn’t it a handsome thing, all 19th century looking and steampunky and all that.

Well it is a soldering iron, but not exactly the kind we’re interested in, now is it? I think we’re interested in something a bit more modern and which won’t burn down the house if you actually try using it the way this one could. So let’s look at this one instead, shall we?

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The very first soldering kit I bought was essentially this exact same set from Radio Shack back around 1970

This is a cheap Radio Shack soldering pencil from a hobbyist soldering kit that I picked up for… Well, I forget what I paid for it but it was under $30. And with Radio Shack going bankrupt (yes, again) if there are any RS stores in your area you might want to run out and see what kind of deals you can pick up. It came with a clip on heat sink, needle nose pliers, side cutters and a few other goodies. RS has been selling this same basic kit for something like 40 years. The soldering pencil is cheaply made and often doesn’t last very long, but if you’re just looking for a cheap way to solder a few joints this will get the job done.

If you’re going to do any kind of serious electronics work, though, you’re going to need something like this over here on the right. That’s my Weller variable temperature soldering station with a digital readout for the temperature. It is a lot more money than the RS special, going for around $140 or so,

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The Weller has been going strong for 5 years now

but I’ve had this one for about 5 years now and it’s still going strong and works quite well.

Two things you want to look for – a variety of different tips for different soldering jobs, and variable temperature. You need different tips for different types of soldering, from needle sharp tips for small components to spade type tips for desoldering. And the temperature control is, I feel anyway, essential. Different formulas of solder have different melting points. You want it hot enough to adequately melt the solder while at the same time not too hot to avoid damaging the equipment you’re working on.

A couple of other things before we move on here. You see a couple of other items in that photo, a thing that looks like a rather odd syringe, and a golden ball full of what looks like hair.

The ball thing is actually a tip cleaner. The ball holds steel wool. The hot tip is rammed into the steel wool, cleaning it of accumulated solder, flux, etc. Some kind of tip cleaner is essential. A dirty soldering tip does not conduct heat well, and heat is what it’s all about. The cleaner the tip, the better.

The blue and chrome gadget is what is generally called a solder sucker, a tool for removing rather than applying solder.

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Desoldering wick or braid

I find that I’m often using my soldering equipment for removing solder rather than applying it. You’ll find you have to desolder components from a circuit board before you can make a repair or modification. The only way to do that is by melting the existing solder and removing it somehow.

The sucker works by applying a vacuum which sucks up the solder. There are different types. Some use rubber squeeze balls, some use a piston powered pump like this one, others, much more expensive, have electric vacuum pumps. The other way is to use solder wick or braid. This is a metal braid, usually coated with some kind of flux to attract liquid solder better. The braid is pushed down onto the cold solder with the tip of the soldering iron when then heats everything up and the braid absorbs the liquified solder.

If you do a lot of desoldering, you might want to get an actual desoldering system. But for most of us good old desoldering wick or a solder sucker is good enough.

Let’s move on to one final item in this discussion about soldering, and that’s this puppy, IMG_0030the ubiquitous soldering gun. These things are designed to apply a lot of heat to large objects, quickly, and as such they are virtually useless for most electronic soldering jobs. They’re too big, too awkward, apply too much heat. Using one of these on a circuit board is sort of like using a 12 gauge shotgun to hunt mice. You can do it, sure, but there isn’t going to be anything left of your quarry when you’re done.

But there are times you need something like this. Especially if you’re trying to solder PL-259 connectors. Your average soldering pencil just doesn’t supply enough heat quickly enough. By the time you’ve heated the connector up enough to solder it, you’ll discover you’ve also melted about two inches of the insulation on the coax as well.

Now there are other things I haven’t touched on that are related to soldering, but which I’m not going to get into. Like SMD. SMD stands for Surface Mount Device. Discrete components (even entire IC chips) are now often mounted not via good old fashioned through-hole connections, but on solder pads on the surface of the board. While this is great for robotic assembly systems, it’s not good for people who want to try to repair the blasted things or have to otherwise work with SMD technology. Dealing with resistors, capacitors, diodes and other components that are about the size of a quarter of a grain of rice and mounted on the surface of a board on solder pads, well, it isn’t exactly a great deal of fun. Working with SMD can be done, but it takes practice, a steady hand, and a pretty good magnifying lens, preferably with a built in light.

Then there is the question of fumes. There is no denying the fact that some of the fumes given off by solders and fluxes when heated are not healthy for you to breathe. Even some of the plastics that the components are made from can give off fumes that are toxic. If you’re just soldering a joint or two it isn’t bad, but if you’re doing a lot of it, you’re going to want to look into a good venting system or a fume extraction device of some sort.

Now let’s look at power.

Power. As in electrical power of course. You need it.

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Very soon your house wiring will look like this

Now with most devices you just plug the thing into a wall socket and turn it on. But sometimes things are that simple. Once you get into amateur radio and/or electronics, you will quickly find out that different devices have different power requirements. Odd ball voltages, weird batteries that no one carries, and odd power connector plugs. Sometimes very odd power plugs.

Now a lot of amateur radio equipment runs on 12 volt DC. My Kenwood TS-2000 transceiver requires 12V, my antenna tuner runs on 12V, my big dummy load runs on 12V.

And to complicate things a bit more, 12V doesn’t actually mean 12V. For reasons I won’t get into here (you do have that google thing, right?) most 12V devices actually want around 14V, and if you try to feed them less than that some very strange things can happen.

Now if you do have 12V equipment you want to run, what do you do? Go out and get

IMG_0026

Typical 12V power supply on a very dirty work bench

yourself a car battery or something? Well, you could if you really wanted to. It would work. For a while. But you’re going to need a 12V power supply similar to this one over on the left. This particular one has a handy Amp meter that tells you how many amps the device(s) connected to it are drawing, and a meter showing the actual voltage the power supply is producing. This particular power supply allows you to adjust the voltage up to about 16V if you need it for some reason.

You can get power supplies with all kinds of bells and whistles on them, but you don’t really need most of them. You can get switching power supplies, transformer power supplies… Generally the switching power supplies are a lot lighter, but they have more electronics in them that can screw up. Transformer based power supplies generally work well, but can use significantly more electricity than switching supplies. Which one you choose depends on what your preferences are, budget, etc. Before you buy one go check out the reviews on eham.net or other sources first.

Once you do get a power supply, the question of how to get that power to the equipment that needs it comes up. Most 12V power supplies only have one or two supply points on them, and generally they aren’t the most convenient things in the world to use. You basically shove a couple of wires into holes and have to tighten down screws to make the actual connection. It’s awkward, and if you have more than one piece of equipment and only one power supply, you’re going to wear those screws out pretty fast switching things around. So I use one of these for 12V power.IMG_0028

This particular unit is a Rig Runner from West Mountain Radio. It’s basically just a power strip, but for 12V rather than 120V. The main line from the 12V power supply is plugged into the outlets on the far left, and the other connectors then distribute that power. Each of the outlets is fused for various amperage requirements. If you’ve never seen that kind of connector before, don’t worry, I’ll come to them in a minute.

Now power strips like this are available from a variety of companies. MFJ makes them, as does West Mountain. Or you can make your own easily enough.

Now let’s talk about those connectors. If you haven’t seen those before, they’re called IMG_0029Anderson Power Pole connectors, and they’ve become something of a standard method of connecting power to devices in the amateur radio community. ARES has declare them to be the universal power connector out in the EmCom world, and I have to admit they make life a hell of a lot easier. No more stripping wires, fiddling with electrical tape and all that nonsense. Just install them on the ends of your power leads and you’re good to go.

The drawback is that while they’re simple to use, they do require a special crimping tool to install them on the ends of your wires. A good one like the one in the photo there can set you back a hefty chunk of money.

But if you’ve ever had to fiddle around in the cold under the dash of a car trying to strip insulation off wires, wrap wires with electrical tape, well, that kind of thing gets old fast.

Let’s talk about 240 volt for a moment. The only reason you might need 240V in your shack is if you’re going to be running a 1,500 watt output amplifier. If you want to fire up a big old tube amp and pump enough energy into your antenna to melt the vinyl siding on the neighbor’s house, hey, who am I to tell you not to? But do you really need it? No.

If you really need to put out more power, a 500 – 600 watt amplifier will generally run pretty well on 120V. A lot of the high output amps can be rewired to run on 120v, although at reduced output. So no, you don’t really need 240 volt in your shack.

 


  1. I am not going to get involved in the heated argument of lead versus lead-free solder. While many claim that lead-free solder works just as well, is just as reliable, and is just as easy to use as the lead type, there are probably an equal number of people who will claim the lead-free solders are utter garbage. I switched to using lead-free solder for plumbing something like thirty years ago and I’ve never had any problems with it. While I still use lead based solder for electronics, that is due to the fact I have about fifty spools of the stuff laying around the house.