A weekend immersed in radio

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Code practice oscillator designed by Bill, W4FSV, of Breadboard Radio.

I didn’t do a lot of operating or DXing, but ham radio was infused in just about every aspect of my weekend, from finishing the SoftRock to the local 2-meter net.

  • Saturday, I used a UHF repeater for the first time ever. Well, it was the first time I talked to anyone on one at least. I’ve always had them programmed into my radios, but they are very rarely used in this area. And that’s a shame.
  • Built a code practice oscillator as part of a workshop our club was supporting. I didn’t really need one, and I’ve had my fill of kit-building for a while, but the oscillator was fun and relaxing to construct. It was designed by Bill, W4FSV, of Breadboard Radio. I’m lacquering the base for it now, and it should be a nice companion to my straight key, which is finished in a similar stain/lacquer. More than likely, I will donate it to the club for outreach purposes, such as the upcoming Mini Maker Faire.
  • Had my very first QSOs on the 2-meter simplex calling frequency of 146.520. This is another one that I always program into my radios, but never hear anyone using it. I was driving to Orangeburg County Saturday after the workshop, and I heard a motorist on I-26 calling for stations. Had a nice QSO too, lasting some 20+ miles. Being able to burn 50 watts on the mobile is really nice.
  • Further refined my SoftRock and did some SDR software comparisons. I’m enjoying SDR# the most, with HDSDR in a close second. I also discovered the SoftRock does not like being powered from my Astron switching power supply. I’m running from a 12V SLA battery now, and it’s working fine. The benefit of the battery is that I don’t have that ground loop spike in the center of my waterfall. Also, the enclosure for the SoftRock arrived.
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This is more like it….

The SoftRock, receiving 40m SSB signals (finally!).

The SoftRock, receiving 40m SSB signals (finally!).

Had a break-through tonight with the SoftRock and now it’s receiving quite well.  Sounds pretty damned good too! Doesn’t look like I’m getting mirrored signals either.

I am getting terrible results with SDR# still, but HDSDR seems to be working fine.

Still not done though. Right now it’s only receiving signals on its second bandpass filters. I removed all the toroids and binocular core inductors tonight, re-wound them, sandpapered the enamel off the magnet wire and did strict continuity tests. Apparently the new dedication to quality control made the difference. Unfortunately, this means I will need to put 10 or so back on. Lots of solder-filled holes to clear. Argh.

So I only re-installed the toroids needed to get me on 40 meters so I could check my progress. I will hopefully wrap up the build tomorrow night, and provided everything is cool, I’ll order an enclosure for it.

 

Making some progress on the SoftRock

It's alive! But just barely.

It’s alive! But just barely. Receiving CW on 40 meters. Click for a larger view.

Electronics tend to work better when chips are installed properly. So I felt like an idiot when I realized one of the ICs on the SoftRock was installed 180 degrees wrong.

Let me back up a nub… I’ve already written a little about the travails of putting the SoftRock RX Ensemble II together. I decided to finish what I thought was a DOA project and last week I wound up all the remaining toroids. I needed to order some spare parts to replace some sketchy resistors, and one of the resistors I managed to crack. I also replaced the flea-sized voltage regulator because I feared it had been fried during rough handling while I tried to clear a solder bridge.

Still, when I connected the SoftRock to my computer, it wasn’t receiving any signals. I was about to throw in the towel today when something in the back of my mind told me to double-check the orientation of all the surface-mount ICs. Sure enough, the only one that didn’t have a clear indicator of pin 1, was in backwards. I had to look up the technical pages on this particular component just to figure out where pin 1 was located (if anyone is wondering, the component is the Fairchild dual D-type positive edge-triggered flip-flop — no, I didn’t just make that up!)

As if by divine providence, there was a spare chip in my bag of loose parts from the kit construction. I believe they include two in case a builder wants to construct the SoftRock for LF bands. Once I wrestled the old chip out, it was a snap to solder the new one back in. I connected the SoftRock to my computer, fired up my K3 and sent a series of dits on 40 meters. Wow! Code was in my waterfall!

I jury rigged an antenna connection and tuned to the 10mhz reference signal (aka, the clock) and I could hear it!

Strangely enough, I wasn’t able to hear any other signals up and down the amateur bands. I believe I caught some SSB transmissions, but they were very faint. I believe I need to inspect my work on the inductors and toroids again. I believe the inductor that links the antenna to the rest of the circuits may be shorted or the enamel wasn’t stripped enough from the magnet wire to ensure a good connection. This should be easy enough to fix. I also need to figure out how to deal with the mirror imaging of the signal. This could be attributed to a physical problem on the board, or perhaps a software configuration issue.

More later…

Splinter II kit released

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Fellow club member Bill, W4FSV, has released an update to his original Splinter radio kit. The Splinter II improves upon the original in the following ways (from www.breadboardradio.com):

  • 40 meter DC receiver with improved audio.
  • Sidetone volume is now variable.
  • Higher RF output with cool running final (500-650 mw).
  • New switching transistor allows use of keyers.
  • New VXO is easy to use and pulls HC-49 crystals 5 to 7 kHz

The price of the kit remains the same as the original at $54.95.

Bill has been teasing us with news of this release for a while, and I can certainly see some welcome changes, particularly in now being able to use a keyer, and the variable sidetone volume. The original rig had a very low sidetone, although it could be boosted using his “Toothpick” audio filter kit.

The original Splinter was the first kit I ever tackled, and I learned how to solder while working on it. I went on to build all of Bill’s kits and had a blast in doing so. They are great for beginners and are comprised solely on through-hole components on a nicely-spaced board.

I may build a Splinter II for the heck of it, although I’d really like to get the SoftRock RX II up and going first, and move to another surface-mount project, like one of those scarce Mountain Toppers.

Here are some previous postings I made about my Breadboard Radio kit builds:

SoftRock? More like HardKnocks.

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The SoftRock in its present condition: Almost done, minus 12 toroids and a resistor.

I knew going into the SoftRock RX Ensemble II project that it wasn’t going to be easy. With 15 toroids, a slew of surface mount components and a range of through-hole work, all packed into a 2×4.5-inch board, there is a lot that can go wrong.

My buddy KN4QD has experience with these kits and offered to give me a hand with mine this past weekend. I was grateful, for I didn’t have any of the items needed for surface mount work: a fine-tipped soldering iron, very small diameter solder, a flux pen, solder-wicking braid, fine tweezers, etc. I haven’t built a kit in a year or so, therefore my skills with the volt-ohm meter and iron were very rusty.

Following the instructions on WB5RVZ’s site, we began the build with optimism. We made it through the first two build stages, with the main hang-up occuring when I managed to solder-bridge two of the contacts on the smallest SMT component in the kit: the flea-sized voltage regulator, which has five leads altogether, three of them a hair’s breadth away from each other. After about an hour of heating, wicking and scraping, we managed to clear the bridge, but testing at this stage was showing numbers that were off.

Using a loupe, I examined the problematic voltage regulator and noticed that one of the contacts wasn’t even touching the trace on the board. A blob of solder later, and we were getting the proper testing values on the VOM, and it was off to lunch with an optimistic outlook for the rest of the build.

Stage three of the build involved installing the heart of the board, the tiny Si570 oscillator. No problems there. SMT is beginning to agree with me. We also encountered our first wound component, the binocular core inductor, which involved a bifilar winding of very fine magnet wire, which is apparently encased in enamel that is impervious to heat and acetone.

Chaos reigns during a SoftRock build!

Chaos reigns during a SoftRock build!

Once everything was in place, it was time to connect the board to the computer via USB and see if it was recognized and controllable. Once we installed the proper drivers and software, we connected the board and launched the Si570 programming tool. The program reported a “green light” and oscillator control seemed to be working. Looking good so far, but upon connecting the VOM to test some recommended values, we were seeing numbers that didn’t make sense.

We touched up some solder joints, checked and re-checked our work, but continued to come up with numbers that were way off from those in the build manual.

As a result of those early tests, confidence is low as I continue to plow through the build. I fear that I may have damaged the tiny voltage regulator when we were trying to clear the solder bridge. While we did work with a grounded wrist strap, there could be ESD damage to one of the ICs, perhaps there is a solder joint on one of the SMT capacitors that isn’t making solid contact, perhaps one of the components was simply bad. There are even reports that there have been bad batches of the Si570 chip. There are just so many factors.

My goal with this kit was threefold. One to have fun building a kit, two, to gain experience with SMT soldering, and three, to have an SDR receiver on my shack computer. For now, at least two of the three goals have been met — although at $67 a pop, it was an expensive lesson in SMT work. I certainly hope it works in the end, but I’m not holding my breath.

Going Mobile, Part II

I decided to buy a mobile rig on a whim last week after a Yaesu FT-8800 showed up on a local ham swap board. I’m now the owner of this used rig, complete with box, manuals, all the original mounting hardware, programming cable, separation kit, two antenna mounts (one a magmount, the other an NMO) and a dual-band antenna.

The rig itself is practically brand-new. I hooked it up to a 12V SLA battery and gave it a test drive on some local repeaters. Everything looked and sounded pretty good. Now I just need to explore some installation options for my Focus hatchback. At least I’ve finally located the grommet in the firewall through which I will be able to run my power cable. I’m thinking I will just attach the radio’s main chassis to a piece of board using the included mounting bracket, and sit the rig either in the rear cargo area or the rear passenger footwell, then install the rig’s faceplate in the front with a gooseneck and seat-bolt mount. I often have to transport an elderly family member, along with her wheelchair, so it will be nice having the flexibility to remove the main radio unit easily if the need arises.

What’s so great about a J-pole?

Building a roll-up J-pole antenna with ladder line.

Building a roll-up J-pole antenna with ladder line.

Our club hosted a workshop this past weekend to teach folks how to build a “roll-up” style J-pole antenna for handheld radios.  Our workshops are typically sparsely attended affairs, but somehow we received more than 20 pre-registrations for this antenna workshop. I didn’t know quite a few of them, as they are either very new hams or not club members.

I was surprised at the level of enthusiasm for what I consider to be a handy, but ultimately boring antenna. I have one of the dual-band Arrow J-poles for 2m and 70cm. It’s a rugged antenna, can handle nearly legal-limit power and costs less than $40. Arrow even makes a club project pack for $300, than contains enough parts to build 10 of these suckers.

There’s not much that can be said about the J-pole. It’s an omnidirectional antenna — actually a variation of the dipole, with a single half-wave radiator and a quarter wave tuning stub. They are easy to build if you have a spare piece of ladder line and some coax. Any ham should be able to construct one without much fuss, particularly those Amateur Extras and Generals. Plans for the J-pole abound, and the antenna itself was even lampooned in the April issue of QST this year, in what ultimately became a functional design known as the “Q-Pole.”

As antennas go, the J-pole has no gain over a dipole. It’s functional for hitting the local repeaters and for some simplex work.

Anyway, I shot some images for the club website of these new hams having a good bit of fun on a beautiful Saturday morning out in the wilds of Calhoun County. They will be able to take their new antennas and do some public service work, or stash it in their go-bags.

New kit build: The K1EL Winkeyer USB

wkusb_fJust a couple quick thoughts on the K1EL Winkeyer kit. I didn’t break out the camera last night to document the build because 1) this is a very easy kit to build and if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, and 2) since I started the build around 10:30 p.m. and finished the assembly around midnight, I was too tired to fool with dragging the lights and background out.

First off, I don’t intend to use the WK anytime soon, as I’m still a straight-key-5-WPM tyro. But I want to get to the point where this becomes an integral part of the shack when/if I ever decide to participate in a CW contest.

As far as ham stuff goes, it’s hard to beat the value and utility of the WK kit. I understand they used to be cheaper, but at $79, you get a well-spaced, well-labeled circuit board, along with a really nice enclosure. The quality of the components seems to be high also. I can think of many radio gadgets that do a lot less and cost a lot more.

Thanks to my recent kit builds, I felt well-prepared to construct the WK. I laid out all the parts in a tray to begin, and sorted the resistors using a VOM to check the values since I don’t trust my eyes. The parts come expertly packed in a compartmented bags, so there weren’t loose ICs rattling around with heavier parts and vice versa.

I decided to use a lower power setting on my soldering iron this time (20 watts) and I found that to be a comfortable temperature for working on kits like this. The solder seemed to flow in a more predictable, controlled fashion and the handle of the iron didn’t get hot. I was struck by how nicely spaced out the pads are on the PCB. I only intended to solder in the resistors, but I was moving along at such a nice pace that before I knew it, the entire kit was built.

Before mounting the gadget in the enclosure, I performed the recommended testing (install the serial driver, plug in the board, wait for Windows to recognize it). The pre-flight check went OK, so I dropped in the ICs, reconnected to the computer and received the satisfying dit-dah-dit “R” start-up chime. The board fit perfectly in the enclosure too.

A few moments later I configured N1MM and Ham Radio Deluxe and everything seemed to check out fine. I will perform the final test tonight after I build a few cables to connect the rig and paddles.

This kit is genuinely useful and belongs in the shack of any CW enthusiast. Mechanized Morse for the masses!

Breadboard Radio kits: The ‘Matchstick’ and the ‘Sawdust’

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The ‘Sawdust’ 40-meter regenerative receiver, left, and the ‘Matchstick” 40-meter QRP antenna tuner, both from Breadboard Radio.

Here I am, back at it with the kit building… Last week I tackled a Breadboard Radio classic, the Sawdust 40-meter regenerative receiver, and one of Bill, W4FSV’s newest offerings, the Matchstick QRP tuner.

First the Matchstick:

Building on the success of his original rig, the 40-meter CW-only Splinter (Read my account of that build), Bill has crafted a nifty little antenna tuner that can be quickly constructed in an evening with minimal skill. There isn’t a lot to say about the build. It’s simple. The only issues I encountered involved mounting the coax jacks because the components were a very tight fit onto the board. Slightly crimping the ends of the mounting hardware with a pair of pliers made them slide into place nicely.

The Matchstick is pretty simple: Send a carrier and turn the tuning knob until the LED is at its dimmest or off.

The Matchstick is pretty simple: Send a carrier and turn the tuning knob until the LED is at its dimmest or off.

This kit has a simple toroid. I’d never wound a toroid prior to this assembly and I found it straightforward enough. I used a knife edge to scrape the enamel off the magnet wire leads that were ultimately soldered onto the circuit board.

Using the Matchstick is dead simple. Attach it inline with your rig and antenna like any other tuner. Key up and turn the Matchstick’s tuning knob until the SWR LED reaches its dimmest level. Since I was running my rig on a somewhat resonant antenna, I was able to tune until the LED went off completely. Straightforward enough. Be advised, the Matchstick only works on the 40 meter band and it isn’t suggested for use with balanced feed lines.

Moving on to the Sawdust:

This one is a little trickier. Perhaps it was my own poor decision to begin my Sawdust build at 10:30 p.m. Saturday after I’d already had a long day that started early. Plus, I’d only slept about two hours the night before having arrived back in town from a road trip. So I was already bleary-eyed when I began the process of winding the more complex toroid on this little receiver.

The toroid actually consists of three windings. One is 24 turns of wire to put the rig in the 7 mhz range. On the same toroid, we then have the five-turn “tickler coil” to provide regeneration. A third three-turn wind couples the toroid to the antenna. That’s a good bit of intricate winding onto a rather small magnet. My first attempt at the 24-turn winding went OK, until I realized I had the wire winding in the wrong direction around the magnet. Dang! Fortunately there was enough wire included in the kit to do it over.

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A tickler coil makes for one sexy toroid!

Instead of scraping the enamel off the leads, I decided to use a butane lighter to char the enamel off, then hit it with fine grit sandpaper. This method worked great. I made an effort to tin the leads as well and somehow got the whole thing mounted and soldered in without much fuss.

I moved on to the rest of the components, starting with capacitors. I was on my last cap when I realized it was a “102” rather than a “104” cap. I checked my work and realized I’d soldered in the 104 cap in the wrong place. It was the first component I placed on the board and it was in a tricky place. I would need to desolder it, and I’ve never really done that before. A lot of profanity, a lot of heat and a lot of work with needle-nose pliers, and I had the part free.

I was down to my final two resistors. One was brown-black-orange and the other was brown-black-green. The problem is, I’m red-green color blind and they both looked virtually the same to me. By now it’s nearly 2 a.m. and my wife, who typically helps me sort resistors, was fast asleep. Unfortunately I didn’t have a VOM handy to test the resistors. I’ve since acquired one, since it was needed to test the toroid before final assembly. The final resistors would need to wait until morning.

At some point during this build the tip of my brand-new soldering iron degraded into a blunt instrument, rather than the nice pointed tip I’d enjoyed through the previous kit builds. I believe a combination of over-use of the sponge and dragging the tip across cardboard to remove excess solder probably ruined it. For some reason I’ve never been able to tin the tip of this iron without the solder beading up in a big glob, which even the sponge won’t remove. I’ll be taking KB6NU’s advice from now on and using a wire pad. Once I buy some new tips…

So once I had this thing together it was time to align it. There are about three methods to accomplish this, but I opted to use my FT-817 to send a CW tone at 7.040 and try to spot the Sawdust’s center frequency to the 817. I think I was somewhat successful, as I can tune around and hear CW. During my tweaking, I was able to pick up an AM station with varying degrees of clarity.

So, three kits down and hopefully more to come. Something from Elecraft perhaps?

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The QRPp kit station at present. From left, the Matchstick, the Splinter, my Ameco key, and the Sawdust regen receiver.

Building the Breadboard Radio “Splinter” – Part IV, The End

The Splinter, finished in "TARDIS Blue" and ready to start making contacts.

The Splinter, finished in “TARDIS Blue” and ready to start making contacts.

Sadly, I’ve reached the end of the Splinter project. As of last week, I had finished the circuit board and aligned the receiver and transmitter to the best of my abilities. The only work left was painting, mounting and application of decals.

As luck would have it, painting the unit turned out to be the hardest part, at least for me. I have very hit or miss luck with spray paint, and this time was no different. I sanded the baseboard with two levels of fine grit paper and applied glossy blue spray paint. I over-applied a bit, particularly on the top, so once that coat dried, I sanded the rough spots out and applied another thin coat.

That’s when the issues began. The new coats of spray were reacting with the old coats, but ONLY on the top of the board. The only way I can describe the effect is it resembled dried, cracked earth. More sandpaper, more spraying, more cracking. Dammit!

I eventually stepped back to a very rough grit sandpaper and stripped the paint off, reverting to the bare wood on the top. That received two thin coats and dried overnight. Everything was fine this morning and this evening I finished the build by mounting the radio onto the board.

Decal application is one of those arcane arts I picked  up from my stepdad when I was a little kid building Star Trek ships and model rockets. I remember watching him cut out decals, soak them in warm water and slide them off with precision. I didn’t have any issues with the ones in this kit, although I could have trimmed them closer. Oh well.

Here are front and back views:

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I definitely look forward to building the companion kits to this one, including the “Toothpick” CW filter, and the “Sawdust” receiver.