GF Builds Something – And It Actually Works!

Now if you’ve been reading this for a while you know there are two things I really, really like – gardening and fiddling with electronics. And when winter rolls in and shuts down gardening, that leaves electronics to occupy my time. Since I am still waiting for parts for the Great Radio Fiasco Project, I was looking for something else to play with and I ran across this on Amazon-

I like playing around with kits, but I hadn’t built one in ages because there aren’t a lot of them out there any more, and the ones that are on the market seem to either be for things I don’t want or need, or are geared for the kids STEM market and are pretty much useless. This one seemed interesting, though. And it was only fourteen bucks, so if it did turn out to be junk, I wouldn’t be out a lot of money. And it I might get an article out of it for the blog.

Let’s talk about kits in general, first. Once upon a time there was a very good reason why kits came about. Before the advent of things like printed circuit boards and semiconductors and all that stuff we take for granted these days, electronic devices like radios, record players, television sets, etc. were built almost entirely by hand, by workers who strung all of the connecting wires, soldered all of the components, etc. Building even a simple radio receiver required placing, by hand, dozens of individual components and hand soldering dozens, even hundreds of connections. Armies of individual skilled assembly people labored for hours at workstations to put these things together. Labor costs money. A lot of money. And eventually technologies like printed circuit boards and robotic assembly systems largely replaced those armies of workers, resulting in the ultra-cheap electronics we have today.

But back then, with labor such a huge part of the cost, someone came up with the idea of eliminating the labor entirely and just selling the parts and some instructions to people and they could build it themselves. The company still made a few bucks, and the buyer of the kit saved a lot of money by replacing factory labor with his/her own. And there were a lot of people willing to do this. Not just to save money but because a lot of people get a great deal of satisfaction from building things.

But as electronics became more complex with people demanding more and more features, designing and producing kits became increasingly expensive. At the same time because of robotic assembly lines and other advances in technology, it became cheaper and cheaper to produce fully assembled and tested electronics. It got to the point where making a kit was often considerably more expensive than just buying the thing outright. There are still kit makers out there, of course. But most of the kits I see these days are for cheap and pretty much useless little gadgets that you’d build and tinker with for a while, then shove it into a box until your children throw it away after you’re dead.

This looked like it might be interesting, though, and it was only $14 bucks, so what the heck. When you buy these cheap kits these days it’s something of a crapshoot. Reading the reviews can help, but with so many fake reviews, and reviews by, well, idiots, really, not even those are very helpful, I’m afraid. (I could probably do a whole column on just how to try to decipher product reviews on Amazon and other online vendors.)

This is what your $14 gets you. Do not despair, my friends. This is actually above average quality for cheap kits like this, and all of the essentials are there. BTW I highly recommend these silicon soldering mats. You can get ’em on Amazon and they not only protect your workbench top, they also resist burns, have compartments to hold small parts and generally keep stuff from getting scattered all over. This one has a magnetized compartment to hold screws.
The instructions were a single sheet of paper and were actually pretty good. If you take the time and read carefully, most of it will make sense. Sort of. There is a website you can go to for further instructions, it says on the sheet, but I found that the website didn’t actually exist. That’s not uncommon with these either. But by carefully reading the instructions, following the diagrams and knowing a bit about electronics, you can get through it. This is most definitely not a kit for a beginner, though.

When it arrived it was about what I expected. Instructions were almost certainly translated from Chinese into English by computer, but unlike a lot that I’ve read, they were actually useful and covered all the important points if you take your time.

Tools

Necessary tools are pretty basic.

Now before you get started you’re going to need some basic tools. If you’ve ever tinkered with electronics before you almost certainly have everything you need to put this sucker together. You’ll need a needle nose pliers with a fine tip to help place components. A tweezers will help too. Some of the components are pretty small. You’ll also need a wire cutter for snipping off the wires on components after they’ve been soldered onto the circuit board. You’ll need solder, of course, and you’re going to need the smallest diameter solder you can probably get. The solder I used was 0.032″ in diameter, 60/40 rosin core. If you use anything bigger than that you’re going to have a lot of problems with solder flowing places where you don’t want it.

You need a soldering iron, of course. Just about any hobbyist soldering pencil will work if it has a fine enough tip. I have a Weller variable temp soldering iron that I’ve had for years now. I like variable temperature soldering equipment because it lets me adjust the temperature to suit the type of solder I’m using, the size of the components, etc. They’re more expensive than a hobbyist soldering pencil, but not that much more expensive. This one isn’t in production any more, I think, but you can get a variable temp soldering iron for about $100 or less. A lot less if you shop around. Unless you use a soldering iron a lot, don’t spend a lot on one. What’s most important is that it has interchangeable tips so you can change the size of the tip to suit the work you’re doing. With this kit I used a very small spade shaped tip because I was working in rather tight quarters on this kit.

You’re going to need two more things. One is absolutely essential, the other highly recommended but not absolutely necessary.

If you do any kind of work on circuit boards you absolutely need something like this to hold it and let you get at the parts from different angles.

You need something to hold the circuit board while you’re putting everything together. You’re going to be holding your soldering iron in one hand, solder in the other, holding a part in place with your third hand, and holding the circuit board with your fourth hand… Hm? What? You only have two hands? Yeah, so do I, which is why you need something like this. It’s a Panavise circuit board holder and while it isn’t ridiculously expensive, at around $60 – $70, it isn’t exactly pocket change either. I do a lot of work on circuit boards so something like this is absolutely necessary for me. If you’re just slapping a kit together, you can get away with something a lot cheaper or even cobble something together on your own out of alligator clips and stiff wire.

The other item that is very nice to have but not absolutely essential is a light on an articulated arm so you can aim it where you need it, with a built in magnifier. A lot of the components are very small, and a lot of circuit boards are very tightly packed, and even if you have good eyesight it can be a real strain to work on some of this stuff without some kind of magnification and good lighting. A light like this on an articulated arm with a built in magnifier can be had for about, oh, $40 or so.

It may look complicated but it really isn’t. Just take your time, double check parts placement before soldering and read the instructions.

Now, on to the clock itself. Putting it all together isn’t extraordinarily difficult, but it is a bit fiddly. There are a lot of solder joints to make. There’s a 28 pin IC socket, two 8 pin IC sockets, 16 resistors, assorted capacitors, a few transistors, a surface mount LED and several other goodies that all have to be fitted onto that board and soldered.

A few words about soldering: I’m not going to try to teach you soldering here. I’ve heard people claim that soldering is an art. It isn’t. Soldering is basic physics. It is the application of heat to a connector causing the solder and flux to flow and adhere to the connectors to form an electrically conductive connection between two or more components. Anyone can learn to solder, but it takes some knowledge and a lot of practice to do it properly. If you don’t know how to solder, or are just learning, this kit probably isn’t the place to practice. There are a lot of solder joints, spaced very close together, and it’s easy to end up with solder bridges, spatter and other problems. So if you’re new to this I’d recommend you try something more simple. Run a search for “solder training kit” over on Amazon or look at the other electronics suppliers out there and you can find more kits that are designed to teach you how to solder.

Ooo, tiny!

Some of the parts in this kit are very tiny and can be difficult to deal with, like soldering headers to a very, very tiny circuit board with an SMD chip on it that has to plug into one of the sockets. And the LED on the board is surface mount. Don’t let that scare you.

I’ve been soldering for, well, probably for longer than a lot of you reading this have been alive, so I zipped through that pretty quickly.

Anyway, the whole kit is very well designed, certainly above average for this kind of thing. The circuit board itself is beautifully made, with outlines and labels printed on the board itself showing the position of the components. All things considered, this is one of the better kits I’ve seen.

Almost fully assembled. It went together quite well.

There were no missing parts, the instructions were decent, everything was well made. It is definitely a winner all the way around.

Even better, it worked the first time I powered it up! It requires about 5V DC and is intended to run off USB, but I just hooked it up to my variable DC power supply, turned on the power and away it went. It’s a really nice little clock, too. It has a photocell to adjust the brightness of the display depending on ambient conditions, a thermistor that lets it sense the temperature (the display cycles between time and temperature), has an alarm and it talks! Well, I’m not sure about the talking part because I haven’t hooked the speaker up yet. It comes with a clear plastic case that I haven’t put together yet. Eventually I’ll probably put together a power supply for it because I don’t want to have to run it off a computer’s USB port. I should have a 5V wallwart kicking around that would do the job.

Disclaimer: I do not get paid for reviewing products. I do not get special deals, free equipment, components or anything else. All the tools, equipment, parts, and everything you see here or I write about were purchased by me at full retail prices.

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?

IMG_0040
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,

IMG_0018
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.