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.
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.