21 Things to Do: Build a kit

While most amateur radio operators today buy their equipment rather than building it, a well-rounded amateur radio operator should have basic electronics construction skills. This includes knowing how to read a schematic diagram, being able to identify the different types of electronic components, and how to solder.

Building a kit is a good way to acquire these skills. Building a simple kit will teach you all of these skills, and once you’ve successfully completed the kit, you may even have something that’s useful.

What kit should you build?
Kits are available from many different companies. Really too many to list here. Googling “electronic kit” turns up more than 12 million results!

What I can do here is to tell you about a couple of the kits we’ve built during our club construction nights. Each time we’ve done this, we have had 20 or more builders, and by the time it was ready to go home, everyone of them had his or her kit working. Usually, there are some people who’ve never even soldered before, but that didn’t stop them from successfully completing their kit.

PicoKeyer Plus

The PicoKeyer Plus makes a good first kit. It has less than 20 components, and once complete, is a useful addition to your shack.

The first kit we built was the N0XAS PicoKeyer. N0XAS no longer produces this particular kit, but he’s replaced it with one that’s even better – the PicoKeyer Plus (www.hamgadgets.com). The reason that I chose this kit is that it is inexpensive (less that $20), has fewer than 15 components, and a very good manual that includes step-by-step assembly instructions.

A keyer is a device that is used to key a transmitter when operating Morse Code. The PicoKeyer allows you to set the speed at which you send code and has memories that allow you to automatically send frequently sent messages. If you’re just learning Morse Code, you can use the PicoKeyer as a code practice oscillator.

Another kit that we built is the Sure PS-LP11111 5~16 VDC Linear DC Voltage Power Supply. This kit can be purchased from Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/5-16-Linear-Voltage-Power-Supply/dp/B005FMTCWA) for about ten bucks. This kit has less than 20 components, and when you’re done with it, you can use with wall wart transformer to supply DC voltages for other projects. The downside to building this particular kit as your first construction project is that the instructions are very sparse. If you decide to build this kit, be sure to have someone who can help you should you have any trouble with it.

Building your kit
Here’s what the PicoKeyer manual has to say about building their kit:

With just a little care and practice, even a first time kit builder can complete the project in a relatively short time.  You will need to gather a few tools and supplies together before beginning to assemble your kit.  Here’s what you will need:

  • A clean, level, static-free work area with good lighting.  Wooden workbenches are fine.  If you are working on a kitchen table, be sure to spread out some newspaper or something else to keep solder splatters and sharp wire ends from damaging the table top.
  • A soldering iron.  A small, low-wattage (25-35 Watt) pencil type iron is ideal.  Avoid larger, pistol-grip types.  You can find inexpensive irons at your local Radio Shack.  You will need a fine tip intended for electronics.  Be sure to use an iron rest or holder to keep the iron from damaging your work surface.  If you plan to assemble more kits, I recommend investing in a good quality, temperature controlled soldering station such as the Weller WES or WLC series.  You’ll be glad you did!  Follow the iron manufacturer’s instructions for tinning the tip, and keep a damp sponge handy to keep the tip clean.
  • Solder suitable for electronics work.  Use a good quality, small diameter rosin core solder intended for electronic assembly.  DO NOT use acid core solder!
  • Small needle-nose pliers and a pair of small diagonal wire cutters.  The smaller you have, the better off you will be.  Again, you can find hand tools intended for electronics work at Radio Shack and other suppliers such as Techni-Tool, Jensen, Mouser and Sears.
  • A clamp or small vise to hold the work is a good idea.  I use a PanaVise, but you can also construct a board holder out of scrap wood and rubber bands.  If you use a regular bench vise, use gentle pressure and something to cushion the vise jaws.
  • A pencil to check off each step as you finish it.

You can do it
You really can do this, and the skills you learn will make you a better amateur radio operator. Not only that you’ll be surprised at how much fun building your own gear can be. At our club’s first build night, we had a young woman who was building her first kit. I will always remember her squeal of delight when we inserted the battery and her keyer came to life. There are very few things like that feeling.

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  1. I’d like to try this, but a little afraid.

    I see some affordable QRP CW kits out there. Are there any for phone/voice? Or are they much more complicated and expensive?

  2. Dan KB6NU says:

    Don’t be afraid of building that keyer kit. Just jump right in. If you have any problems with it, you can call me. Seriously.

    There are some QRP rigs for sideband work, but they are more complicated and expensive. QRPKits.com has several. Their 20m SSB transceiver kit costs $180. A 40m CW/SSB kit costs $225. That’s why it’s best to start out with a simpler CW kit.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that working QRP SSB is more difficult than working CW. That is to say, you’ll make more contacts working CW at 5W than you will working SSB at 5W PEP.

  3. David - KD2BMU says:

    I am really thinking about getting this kit. I am really interested in learning CW. The BSA now has a Morse Code Interpreter patch and as a Scouter, I thought that would be pretty neat to show around Scout functions. I also plan to get my son into ham radio and learn CW.

  4. Ben KK4ARJ says:

    Thanks for this. I have a license I’ve not put to good use, though I’m going to this summer. Your articles are encouraging. My 7 yo is interested in electronics, so me building a kit with him as a spectator would be neat for both. Posts like this encourage me to try. With an inexpensive kit, the only thing to fear is ruining the kit and having to start again. :-)

  5. Ronny Risinger says:

    What are your thoughts on having kids build a wireless FM transmitter kit? I deal with high school kids and think that they would enjoy the immediate result and have fun soldering it all together.

    I also recall a QST article about a man that took a Colpitts Oscillator circuit into schools and had them transmit CW from the parking lot to be heard inside the school. His oscillator was put onto a wooden board so kids could see how each component was linked. That would make it easy to discuss functionality. I’ve always wanted to do that one, too. I guess I need to find that article. As I said, dealing with high school kids, they want to see immediate results. If you can show them some fun up front, the ones that are really destined to be engineers or hams will stay around for a while.

    Let me know your recommendations for QRP CW kits, too. I recall lots of talk about a MightyMic (?) Can you tell I don’t build a lot of kits? Hence, my interest in this thread.

    I’m always looking for some easy, hands-on projects for my kids.


    Ronny, KC5EES
    Trustee, K5LBJ
    LBJ High School ARC
    Austin, TX

    • Dan KB6NU says:

      I think that, with your guidance, an FM transmitter would make a great project.

      As far as a QRP transceiver kit goes, you can’t get much simpler than the DCxx kits from qrpkits.com or the Rock-Mite from Small Wonder Labs. They are very similar in that they both feature a crystal-controlled transmitter and direct conversion receiver. The DCxx kits cost $30, while the Rock-Mites cost $29.

      One nice feature of the Rock-Mites is that there are no toroids to wind, although it does look like it has one surface-mount part to install. There are no surface-mount parts on the DCxx kits, but there are three toroids to wind.

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