Shack Upgrade

For years, my “ham shack” has been equipment crowded on top of a crate surrounded by other crates and boxes. It was neither attractive or effective.

Can you find the radios? The VHF/UHF rig on the floor would be stacked on the dresser for the weekly Monday night ARES/RACES net.

Ham shack before

There isn’t a lot of space in the corner, so I spent quite a while looking for the right table or desk. I settled on a 24 x 36 inch hardwood table that looks like it belongs in a classroom. A deeper table would work better for radio gear, but this one fit the space, was reasonably attractive, and affordable ($172).

On Saturday, my new table arrived and the cleanup and reorganization commenced. The old crate is now a bookshelf next to the desk.

Ham shack after

With California’s “shelter in place” coronavirus order, the shack is doing double duty as a home office. The big monitor and keyboard are from work.

Ham shack desk

The power supply (adjusted to 15 V) and 100 W RF amp are under the monitor stand. Stereo speakers for the receiver (not the computer) are on top of the stand. I wrote about the speakers and audio amp in an earlier blog post. The dummy load (see this post) is behind the monitor. Farther to the right are the Elecraft KX3 and PX3 on an over/under stand from the North Georgia QRP Club. At the far right is a Yaesu FT-8900R VHF/UHF rig mounted in a Tac-Comm case. That can be quickly disconnected from power (PowerPoles) and the antenna (BNC) to be taken mobile or portable.

The monitor stand is a “Thank You” gift from when I worked at HP. I’d helped out some folks in another division, so they sent me one of the monitor stands they made in their sheet metal shop. It is a beauty, thick aluminum, with stiffening ridges along the front and back edges, and nicely painted in official HP instrument dove grey.

Time to quit rearranging stuff and get on the air!

USMC Antenna Handbook

If you’ve been looking for a practical, free introduction to antennas, the US Marine Core Antenna Handbook (MCRP 8-10B.11, 2016) is a good place to start. The book is especially good for simple HF antennas that can be put up at home or in the field.

USMC Antenna Handbook

The PDF is 193 pages. The main section of text is 160 pages, with a very good 20 page glossary at the back.

If you enjoy learning about antennas from this handbook, your next step should be the ARRL Antenna Book. If you’re not ready to shell out $65 for the 1024 page 24th edition of that book, check your local library. Older editions are less comprehensive, but they still have lots of great info. My 12th edition from 1970 is still useful. Antenna physics has not changed over time, just our understanding of it.

Let’s go over some of the sections of the USMC Antenna Handbook to see the strong and weak points.

Radio Waves, Propagation, and Noise

These sections are very good, especially about HF propagation. It could cover VHF/UHF multipath a bit better. Repeaters are not mentioned. Those are common in amateur radio, but apparently not in the Marine Corps. Serious VHF/UHF amateurs dig into other kinds of propagation not covered here, like tropospheric ducting, meteor scatter, moonbounce, aircraft scatter, and so on. Those are advanced topics, so it is reasonable to not cover them here.

Transmission Lines

This is not my favorite section, but the mistakes here are very common in popular explanations of transmission lines. Unbalanced vs balanced is not a helpful way to think of transmission lines. All kinds of transmission lines carry a mix of differential (balanced) currents and common-mode (unbalanced) currents. Also, it talks about baluns as balanced-to-unbalanced transformers, but they are most useful as common-mode chokes. Still, this is a fairly standard introduction to the subject.

HF Antenna Selection

Very good section, with lots of ideas for how to actually get wire into the air for horizontal dipole or vertical ground plane antennas. You won’t find coverage of ham favorites like the G5RV, off-center fed dipole, Carolina windom, or even the end-fed half-wave. The antennas covered here are all simple and proven.

This chapter does discuss NVIS (near vertical incidence skywave) propagation, something that is fairly recent in amateur practice. The first QST article on NVIS was in 1995 and it has only become popular in the last 10-15 years.

There is one interesting antenna that is new to me, the vertical half-rhombic. This requires a fair amount of space, up to 1000 feet, but is unidirectional and only needs one support.

VHF and UHF Antenna Selection

This section is a bit less useful because it relies on specific military antennas instead of describing types of antennas. For example, the OE-254 is a bow-tie vertical dipole, a low-Q, high-bandwidth antenna, but they just call it an OE-254.

Military VHF/UHF antennas need to work over a wide range of frequencies, but amateurs can use antennas optimized for the small number of bands that we are allowed to use. The most common single- and dual-band ham antennas are not described here, designs like collinear phased verticals, Yagi-Uda beams, haloes, Moxon beams, J-poles, and so on.

Field Repair and Expedients

Read this before ARRL Field Day! Here are some suggestions of what to do when an antenna insulator breaks.

Improvised insulators crop

Antenna Farms

Some really good advice on choosing antenna sites, useful even if you are just putting up one antenna. I don’t think I’ve seen this covered in detail in any other book. A lot of hams will end up with at least two antennas, one for HF and one for VHF/UHF, so this is a worthwhile read. We won’t normally be considering security measures like barbed wire and automatic weapons, so you can skip to the Technical Considerations section.

And that’s all! Enjoy learning about antennas.

BaoFeng HTs and Spurious Emissons

The January edition of QST has some disturbing data about dirty transmitters in BaoFeng HTs.

Amateurs are responsible for their transmitters being clean, but most of us don’t have the test equipment to check that. Also, manufacturers must meet the FCC regulations for every transmitter sold.

The ARRL Lab set up at hamfests and tested the HTs that hams had with them. Over four years, only 5% to 9% of BaoFeng HTs passed the test. Alinco, Icom, Kenwood, and Yaesu had 100% pass rates. Wouxon improved from 83% to 100% over the years.

QST 2020 01 HT Testing

From “Technical Correspondence”, QST, January 2020, pages 60-62. This chart is on page 61. QST is available online to ARRL members. This is a link to the article online.

The FCC rules for spurious emissions are in 47 CFR § 97.307 – Emission standards.

What if you already own a BaoFeng, like me?

Run low power. This will reduce the amount of power in the spurious emissions. Reducing the power from 5 W to 0.5 W should reduce the spurious emissions by 10 dB. The spurs still won’t be 40 dB below the carrier, but they will be lower in terms of absolute power. It can’t hurt. It will make your battery last longer, too.

What if you want an inexpensive HT?

Instead of a $50 BaoFeng, save up a bit more for a $75 Yaesu FT-4XR. From my research, this is the only HT under $100 from a major radioo vendor.

The FT-4XR uses the same chipset as the BaoFeng, so it has roughly the same feature set. But it has a clean transmitter and better interference rejection in the receiver. It also has ham-specific firmware, like automatic repeater offsets. That should make it easier to use.

The FT-4XR also uses the same antenna connector as BaoFeng, so aftermarket Nagoya antennas might fit. I would probably try the Nagoya NA-771 for $17, which might fit. I’ve heard recommendations for the Diamond SRJ77CA ($27).

I linked to DX Engineering’s page above, but the FT-4XR is available at similar prices from Ham Radio Outlet, Gigaparts, and other ham stores. Amazon has it at a higher price ($83), oddly.

BaoFeng UV 5R Yaesu FT 4XE

How did this happen?

It appears that the BaoFeng radios were designed for the much more lenient Part 90 emission regulations and do not meet the amateur radio regulations.

An article by AD5GG compares BaoFeng UV-5R emissions to Part 90 (private land mobile) and Part 97 (amateur) regulations. The BaoFeng meets the weaker Part 90 limits, where spurious emissions are not to exceed -20 dBc (dBc is relative to carrier). Part 97 limits spurious emissions to -40 dBc, 100X lower than the Part 90 limit.

Designing for the Part 97 limits requires additional low-pass filtering on the output. The new parts may only be pennies, but it would require a new board design. Maybe new versions of the BaoFeng HTs will be designed to the stricter standards, but I’ll have to see proof of that. The UV-5R is up to the third generation, at least, and still not compliant.

How to get an Amateur Radio License

What are the steps for getting your first amateur radio license?

Start by taking an online test for the Technician license. It is easy and free. You will probably do better than you expect. After the test, note the areas that you need to study. hamexam.org is my favorite online test site. You only need a C (75% correct) to pass.

K6WRU license blur

Now that you know what to study, get a study buddy, get some study materials, or best, both. The No Nonsense Technician-Class License Study Guide by Dan Romanchik (KB6NU) is free as a PDF and is exactly what it says. Study the sections where you are having trouble and keep taking practice tests until you are happy with your scores. Download it from the KB6NU study guide page.

Take a break from your studying to find a license test session. That will give you a deadline. Use the ARRL license exam session search to find a session.

There might be a fee for the exam, up to $15. You can take tests for all of the license levels at one session, so go ahead and take the test for General. You might pass!

After that, find a mentor to help you get on the air. In amateur radio, we call these people an “Elmer”. Use the ARRL club search page to find one near you. On the Web, try the Amateur Radio Elmers Facebook group.

Choosing a radio? That is a different post.

Simple Base for Morse Code Key

I wanted to mount my Morse code key on a base so Scouts could use it at Jamboree on the Air (JOTA) this coming October. A $15 walnut “display base” from Amazon was just the right thing for that. Now we can set up a “Send your name in Morse code!” station.

Flameproof key 3

The key is a CTE-26003A “Navy Flameproof” that I bought when I was first licensed, back in the early 1970’s. I’ve never used it and it was never mounted on a base. It looks brand new. The “CTE” manufacturer code is for “Telephonics”, which matches the name on the key.

flameproof key manufacturer

A few hams offer nice bases for sale, but they were either too big or I was too cheap. This black crackle finish metal base is designed specifically for the Navy flameproof key and is reasonably priced at $30, but it is huge and weighs three pounds. Not quite was I was looking for. I also found some very nice exotic hardwood bases. Those were lovely, but I was looking for something more utilitarian.

I spotted the Plymor Solid Walnut Rectangular Wood Display Base with Ogee Edge on Amazon and chose the 6 x 4 inch size as the best match for the key. I picked up some #6 screws and fiber washers, plus some vinyl feet to keep it from scooting around on the desk.

flameproof key parts

The official Navy name for the key is “KEY SIGNALLING SEARCHLIGHT TOTALLY ENCLOSED TYPE 26003A” (spelling is original). Maybe some of the signaling searchlights were acetylene, so they needed a flameproof key. It is a very nice straight key considering that it was designed for very slow Morse code.

After I collected all the parts, I found a very similar wood straight key base project. That one uses lead shot to weight the wooden base, then felt on the bottom.

Plastic Pipe Roof Antenna Support

I noticed a clever antenna mount on another ham’s roof, so I built one myself. Putting my VHF/UHF antenna at the highest point of the roof has really improved my ability to copy some of the far-flung participants in our weekly ARES/RACES net.

plastic pipe antenna mount close-up

A cradle built from two-inch ABS DWV (drain, waste, and vent) pipe sits across the ridge of the roof. Legs two feet long go down on each side and a two-foot section is a vertical antenna mast.

My antenna is a Diamond X50NA, same as the X50A, but with a weatherproof Type N connector. I did additional weatherproofing with 3M Temflex 2155 rubber splicing tape and Scotch Super 33+ electrical tape.

I had spotted an antenna mounted like this and contacted the ham at that address. Rolf Klibo, N6NFI, replied with an article he’d written for the SPARK newsletter describing the mount. With that, I was off to the hardware store.

I used two-inch ABS DWV (drain, waste, and vent) pipe in two-foot sections. I cut up two of them to make the four pipe sections that go along the ridge of the roof.

The X50NA mounting hardware fits masts up to 2 3/8 inch, which is why I used two inch pipe. For coax strain relief, I used a conduit hanger that fit. Zip ties attach a loop of coax to the hanger so the full weight of the feed line isn’t pulling on the connector. That can rip the coax right out of the connector, or harder to diagnose, pull just one of the shield or center connector loose.

Antenna mount 3 Antenna mount 4

For a commercial version, I’d look at the Rohn NPPK, a steel frame that fits over the roof peak. It is designed to have a rubber mat underneath and four 18 pound concrete blocks holding it down. I’m sure it is far more secure than my DIY plastic pipe mount.

Rig on a Board Update 1

The “rig on a board” is working well. I’m a little worried about it scratching the central console, so the next version should have a cloth surface there. I’ll probably use a thinner board with some carpet or corduroy covering it.

Rig on a board 1

A wider board, maybe 10-12 inches, would leave plenty of room for the mic.

The wood for the prototype is 11/16 x 7 (measured), about 20 inches long, cut close to the middle. I used a regular door hinge. It has a little bit of play, but not too bad. A piano (continuous) hinge might be a better choice, especially if I use a wider board.

While I’m mounting things, an external speaker would help. I’ve plugged in one that I use with my Lowe HF-150 shortwave receiver and that improved the audio.

Hmm, 1/2 (or 5/8) x 12 (or 10) x 20 seems like a job for some scrap plywood. Just need to find some scrap carpet.

Rig on a Board Prototype

This is a first cut at a removable mount for my VHF/UHF rig. Until now, the radio has been sitting on the passenger seat, but that is far from ideal. So I put together something simple that holds the rig steady and puts the display and controls at a better angle.

One end of the hinged board goes between the seat and the center console. The other end holds the radio. The power cable is dressed with a velcro tie behind the radio.

Rig on a board 4

I grabbed a scrap board (I think it is pre-painted house siding), sawed it into two chunks, installed a hinge in the middle, and mounted the radio bracket on one side. I screwed down a velcro cable wrap to keep the excess power cable from flopping around.

Rig on a board 2

So far, I like it a lot. I need to figure out a bracket to hang the hand mic, though.

Rig on a board 3

I’ll probably modify this a bit more before rebuilding it with a nicer piece of wood. I was thinking of securing it to the seat back with a strap, but it seems pretty secure as it is.

Using a Mobile Antenna as a Temporary Base Antenna

For our July Fourth Safety Watch this year, I used my dual-band mobile antenna on a ground plane mount on a camera tripod. I’d purchased a Nagoya GPK-01 NMO Ground Plane Kit ($28) to test my NMO mobile antenna, because my mag mount seemed flaky.

As I was drifting off to sleep one night, I thought that the 1/4-20 screw on my camera tripod might fit the holes on the ground plane kit. It did, so now I have a robust, free-standing, dual-band antenna for em-comm use.

IMG 4753

The antenna is a Comet SBB-5NMO with 3 dB of gain on 2 m. Not a flamethrower, but a solid antenna when used with a good ground plane.

The radials unscrew from the mount, so the ground plane kit packs up small.

IMG 4750

Our station was up on a hill, so we had great line of sight to the whole valley. We ran a mobile rig (Yaesu FT-8900R) at 50 W from a battery, so we had a great signal. We could also hear the other stations clearly, so our station was net control.

IMG 4748

The only thing I’ll change next time is to use 1/4-20 wingnuts instead of regular nuts. I might paint them orange, too. I was sure that I would drop a nut in the grass and never find it.

And yes, that is a classic Gitzo Reporter aluminum tripod. If needed, I could extend the center column to get the radials above eye level.

Voile Ski Straps

Better than bungee cords! I purchased a few of these, thinking they might work for strapping my fiberglass radio mast to posts and stuff. They are great. Stretchy, adjustable, and super easy to fasten and unfasten. After I tighten a strap, just releasing the tension almost always catches a hole on the buckle to secure it. Lovely design.

Here is one of the two I used to strap my mast to a railing on top of Mt. Umunhum for a SOTA activation. My shortest straps are red and 15 inches long.

Voile 1

Earlier, I used a longer blue one (20 inches) and two of the red ones, linked, to strap the same mast to a walkway post for ARRL Field Day.

Voile 2

A red strap held the balun to the top of the mast to take stress off the connectors.

Voile 3

I started with this variety pack of three sizes ($16.50 at Amazon), then stuck with the same color scheme for ordering more.

I’ll be taking these on every field radio outing. That means I’ll have swap them back and forth between my emcomm go bag and my SOTA gear. I think I can manage that.

Whip Antenna Support for KX3

A Nite Ize Gear Tie seems to do a decent job of supporting the MFJ-1820T 20 m whip antenna on my Elecraft KX3. I first tried forming it into a bipod, but then got the idea of attaching it to the SideKX endplates. Success!

KX3 gear tie 1

I’m using a Nite Ize Gear Tie 12 inch because I had one. The fatter one didn’t really fit through the handles.

The whole setup is pretty cheap. $25 for the antenna and $6 for two gear ties. It isn’t as efficient as a 20 m dipole, but it is kind of cute.

23cm PC Board Yagi

I wanted a bit more “oomph” from my 1W 1.2 GHz HT, so I purchased a PC board Yagi to get another 6 dB.

I have a Yaesu FT-911 1.2 GHz HT. It is a 1990’s rig gifted me by the wife of a Silent Key at my work. It is a sweet handheld, but with limited power.

WA5VJB makes a variety of PC board antennas. The 1.2 GHz 3-element Yagi is $6, which was hard to resist. He also makes other nice microwave antennas: log-periodics, patch arrays, wheels, vivaldis, etc.

I went to HSC Electronic Supply and picked up a PC mount BNC and a right-angle BNC by navigating this aisle.

23cm yagi 2

I found a short, stiff BNC cable from this bin.

23cm yagi 3

I soldered on the BNC chassis connector and epoxied it to the antenna. The PC board is beat up because I’ve been carrying it around in my backpack for ARRL Field Day. It was pristine when I got it. Nice design, the feedline attaches at the edge of the board, then there is a stripline to the driven element. The reflector element is on the back side of the board. You can just barely see it in this photo. The shield of the coax attaches to a thru-hole pad that goes to the stripline on the other side of the board. That is hidden by the connector in this photo.

23cm yagi 1

And now I have a 1.2 GHz “flamethrower” HT.

23cm yagi 4

I need to find something to stiffen that bit of coax so I don’t have to use my hand to stabilize it. Other that than, pretty sweet.

Speakers for my Elecraft KX3

Want speakers for your rig? No need to wait. For about the cost of a tank of gas, you could be sitting back and enjoying armchair copy.

The internal speaker in my KX3 is good but not great, plus the rig has stereo effects which you can’t hear through the single speaker. The headphone jack provides 100 mW per channel, which is not enough to drive speakers to a reasonable listening level.

This is my under $35 setup for an external audio amp and stereo speakers. Of course it would work for any other rig.

The KX3 has stereo output, so this is a 15 Watt per channel stereo amp that runs off 12 V, plus a pair of simple 3 inch speakers. The amp is mounted on top of one of the speakers with 2 inch wide velcro. The power lead has Anderson PowerPoles, so it plugs into the rest of my station power bus.

IMG 0221

Let’s walk through the parts list. You can choose your own speakers, of course. I was looking for some vintage Radio Shack Optimus Pro-X44AV speakers on eBay, but ran out of time before JOTA last October. I have one of those speakers on my Lowe HF-150 Europa.

The Pyle speakers are compact, inexpensive, and sound fine. I’m sure there are lots of other small speakers that work.

Item Cost
Pyle Home PCB3BK 3-Inch Cube Speakers, Pair 21.38
DROK Audio Amplifier (TDA7297 15W+15W) 8.50
Velcro 2″ by 4″ strips (optional) 2.77
Belkin Rockstar Headphone Splitter (optional) 10.99
Speaker/power wire had it
Anderson PowerPoles had it

The DROK stereo amp varies in price on Amazon, sometimes around $8, sometimes around $11. It is built around a TDA 7297 integrated amplifier. It works with a DC power supply from 6.5 V to 18 V, perfect for ham use. In small quantities, the IC is under $4. Add in the heat sink, board, pot, and connectors, and even $12 is a fair price. It is a pretty cute little amp, really.

A separate volume control for the speakers is handy. I can turn those up or down as I’m in, or not in, the “shack” (our bedroom).

The blue “power on” LED is very bright, so it is normally taped over with some black photo darkroom masking tape. I removed that for these photos.

stereo speakers and audio amp

I also use a headphone splitter so I can leave everything plugged in—my headphones (Yamaha CM500), the amp for the speakers, and the USB audio A/D device (not plugged in for this photo).

Belkin Rockstar Headphone Splitter

Here is the velcro that I used to mount the amp on top of a speaker. I have extra for other stuff that needs stuck down. The next candidate is my MFJ UTC clock. After that, who knows? I have plenty of velcro left.

two inch wide adhesive Velcro

Finally, here is the whole grand setup in the shack. Such as it is.

KX3 station with speakers

SOTA at Philmont

There are thirteen summits inside Philmont Scout Ranch that are listed in the Summits on the Air (SOTA) amateur radio program. There are another three within the Valle Vidal region to the north of the ranch. Only two of these sixteen peaks have been activated by SOTA operators, Baldy Mountain and Shaefers Peak.

SOTA is an award scheme for radio amateurs that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas. I think it is a great match for Scouting, combining the outdoors, technology, and world fellowship. Grab a radio, hike to the top of a mountain, and talk to people.

Here is a map of the Philmont South Country, which has most of the SOTA summits.

Philmont SOTA South

Starting at the north and moving south, these are the SOTA summits. If the summit does not have an official name, SOTA uses the altitude. An unnamed summit that is 8820 feet tall will be “Point 8820”.

Philmont Region Summit Name SOTA Reference Number of Activations
Valle Vidal Little Costilla Peak W5N/CM-001 0
Valle Vidal Ash Mountain South W5N/CM-005 0
Valle Vidal Point 11100 W5N/CM-007 0
North Country Baldy Mountain W5N/CM-002 2
North Country Point 8820 W5N/CM-023 0
South Country Point 8988 W5N/CM-018 0
South Country Phillips Mount W5N/CM-004 0
South Country Bear Mountain W5N/CM-011 0
South Country Schaefers Peak W5N/CM-016 3
South Country Black Mountain W5N/CM-010 0
South Country Garcia Peak W5N/CM-009 0
South Country Point 8881 W5N/CM-021 0
South Country Mesa Urraca W5N/CM-026 0
South Country Train Peak W5N/CM-013 0
South Country Burn Peak W5N/CM-014 0
South Country Lookout Peak W5N/CM-015 0

I used CalTopo.com to make maps with the Philmont boundaries and the SOTA peaks overlaid. CalTopo is a fantastic, free tool for making custom maps. For a modest subscription ($20/year), you can unlock more features. But the free version is still very useful.

The PDF maps are geospatial PDFs, so you can use them with a mapping app like Avenza Maps (free).

  • Map of all of Philmont with SOTA peaks, in PDF, JPEG, and on CalTopo.
  • Map of the Valle Vidal with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.
  • Map of Philmont North Country with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.
  • Map of Philmont South Country with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.

I don’t have a ride this year, but I want to go back to Philmont, with a radio!

Short Podcasts for the Beginning Ham

Since 2011, Onno (VK6FLAB) has been producing weekly podcasts for beginning Australian amateur radio operators. The podcasts are short, from one to three minutes long. I’m no longer a beginner, but I really enjoy the podcasts. They are full of curiosity, advice, and encouragement. They make me want to get on the air.

The first series of podcasts, What use is an F-call? ran from 2011 through June 2015. These were about operating with with the Australian Foundation Licence, the entry-level license there.

The second series, Foundations of Amateur Radio, is still for Foundation Licence holders, but has a name that makes a bit more sense to non-Australian hams.

Each podcast has a text transcription, which helps with handicapped accessibility. Those are available on the website and I can see them in my iOS Podcasts app.

There are a few terms unique to Australia and amateur radio there, so I’ve compiled a short glossary.

  • The ACMA is the government agency that issues amateur radio licenses.
  • An F-call is an Australian call sign with a four-letter suffix starting with “F”, like “VK6FLAB”. All Foundation Licence holders have F-calls.
  • The Foundation Licence is the entry level amateur radio license. Unlike the US Technician license, it allows operating on HF bands (80, 40, 15, and 10) with voice and Morse at 10 Watts. It does not permit data modes, homebuilt transmitters, or automatically controlled transmitters. Other license classes are Standard and Advanced.
  • Holden is the Australian arm of General Motors, so a “Holden vs Ford discussion” is like a Chevy vs Ford discussion.
  • The LCD (Licence Conditions Determination) is the set of rules and regulations for amateur radio operators.
  • The WIA (Wireless Institute of Australia) is the national association for amateur radio, similar to the ARRL in the US.

Whenever I start one of Onno’s podcasts, I listen to three or four. I’ve listened to over eighty so far and I think I’ll be sad when I finish the backlog and have to wait a whole week for the next one.