21 Things to Do: Go to Field Day

Field Day, held on the last full weekend in June, is the quintessential amateur radio event. It includes elements of just about everything that makes amateur radio the great hobby that it is, and you should make every effort to participate in Field Day the first year that you’re licensed.

Field Day got its start in 1933 as an emergency-communication exercise. Ham radio operators dragged their equipment out into a field somewhere and operated using emergency power sources. The aim was to see how prepared amateur radio operators were to respond to an emergency and to learn how to do it better.

2008 OMARC Field Day

Tents often serve as shelters for Field Day stations. Photo courtesy of Ken Barber, W2DTC.

Emergency communications preparedness is still the primary purpose of Field Day. Amateur radio operators tune up their gasoline-powered generators and test their solar panels to ensure that they will be ready in case of an emergency. And, by hauling out into the field all manner of radio equipment, we find out what radios will work best in that operating environment.

Of course, the only way to tell how well your equipment will work is to actually operate it. That’s where the contest part of Field Day comes in. Stations score points by making contacts with other stations, and those with the most points win. Other things being equal, the stations that work the best will make the most contacts and score high in the contest.

Many Field Day stations have multiple transmitters, and when you have multiple transmitters, you need multiple antennas. Setting up a multiple-transmitter operation can be a lot of work. That’s why Field Day is often a club activity. For some clubs, it’s the biggest event of the year. In addition to all the technical activities, clubs use Field Day as a social event. There’s food and drink and reminiscing about Field Days gone by. For some hams, that’s more fun than actually operating.

Finally, because Field Day is such a big event, the ARRL encourages us all to use the event to reach out to the public, elected officials, and served agencies, such as county emergency management and the Red Cross, and educate them about amateur radio. Unlike many contests, where you only score points when you make contacts, you score Field Day points for holding your operation in a public place, handing out brochures to interested parties, and having the mayor come and visit your Field Day site.

How to participate
By participating in Field Day, you’ll learn more about amateur radio in a single day than you will doing just about anything else. If you’re a club member, ask how you can help out organizing  your club’s Field Day event. That’s sure to win you points, and it will make your Field Day experience that much more fun and educational.

If you’re not a club member, or if you’ll be out of town that particular weekend, you can find a Field Day site closeby, by going to the ARRL Field Day Locator. The clubs that are listed there are sure to welcome you, especially if you arrive early and help them set up.

I hope I’ve persuaded you to participate in the next Field Day. You’ll not only learn a lot, but you’ll have a lot of fun. Don’t forget to take some sun screen and mosquito repellent!

21 Things to Do: Participate in a contest

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseHuman beings are competitive by nature, and since amateur radio operators are human, they find ways to compete with one another. Almost every weekend—and some weekdays, too—there’s some kind of amateur radio contest. They are a lot of fun, and all classes of amateur radio operators can participate.

Most contests have some kind of theme. For example, nearly every state has what’s called a QSO party. During a state’s QSO party, stations outside the state get points for contacting as many stations in as many counties inside the state, while stations in the state get points for contacting stations outside the state as well as inside the state.  There are also QRP contests, where all stations must operate with low power and DX contests, where the goal is to work stations outside your own country.

Most of these contests take place on the HF bands, but even as a Technician you can participate in these contests if you know Morse Code. If you haven’t yet cracked the code, you can still participate in the contests that take place on the 10m band and above. Another way to participate is to be one of the operators in a multi-operator setup. As long as one of the operators with a General Class or Extra Class license acts as the control operator, you can operate in those portions of the bands where you don’t have privileges.

I prefer operating in the smaller contests, such as the state QSO parties, to operating in the big contests, such as the CQ Worldwide DX contest or the ARRL Sweepstakes. There are a lot fewer stations competing and the bands are a lot less crowded. Sometimes with even a modest effort, you can earn an award. It’s also easier to compete in a smaller contest with a modest station—like the one I have—than it is to compete with the big guns in the major contests.

One way to get started might with the ARRL’s Rookie Roundup. This contest was designed to get newcomers involved in contesting. It takes place three times per year in April, August, and December, and lasts for six hours. Rookies score points for all their contacts, while “old timers” only score points by contacting “rookies.”

I hope you’ll give contesting a try. They’re a lot of fun and a big part of the amateur radio hobby.


  • National Contesting Journal (http://www.ncjweb.com/). The National Contest Journal is published six times per year (Jan/Feb, Mar/Apr, May/Jun, Jul/Aug, Sep/Oct and Nov/Dec) and is dedicated to covering the competitive contesting aspects of amateur radio. Each issue is loaded with information of interest to contesters (and DXers, too!); from casual observer to hardcore competitor, from little pistol to big gun.
  • WA7BNM Contest Calendar (http://www.hornucopia.com/contestcal/). This site provides detailed information about amateur radio contests throughout the world, including their scheduled dates/times, rules summaries, log submission information and links to the official rules as published by the contest sponsors.

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.

21 Things to Do: Upgrade to General

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseAs soon as you pass the Tech test, you should start studying for your General Class license.   While there are certainly many fun and useful things you can do as a Technician, there are several reasons that you will have more fun as a General Class amateur radio operator.

One reason to upgrade right away is that you’re in study mode already. There’s no need to get back in the habit of studying and getting used to taking tests again. While the General Class test is more difficult than the Tech test, there are lots of good resources, both in print and on the Internet, to help you pass. These include my No-Nonsense General Class License Study Guide (http://www.kb6nu.com/tech-manual/).

Another reason upgrade to General Class is that it will make you a better ham. Seriously. Even if you memorize the answers to all of the questions in the question pool, you’re bound to learn something. That knowledge could come in handy when you want to put up a new antenna, buy a new radio, or determine the best band to use for a particular communication.

Perhaps the best reason to upgrade to General is that it gives you more privileges on the HF bands. While talking on the local repeater may be fun, let’s face it, there are only so many folks to talk to. By getting on the HF bands, you’ll be able to talk to thousands of hams all around the world, not just around the corner. That’s why many hams, including me, think that the shortwave (HF) bands are where the magic happens. As a General Class operator, you’ll get access to all the HF bands, including 20m, and you get to operate phone on them as well as CW.

Operating the HF bands literally expands your horizons. You get to meet hams from all over the world, not just around the corner. If you haven’t yet operated on the HF bands, you don’t know what you’re missing. To get a taste of HF operation, ask a ham with an HF station if you can visit him sometime and watch him operate. Chances are he’ll let you make a few contacts of your own. You may also get the opportunity to operate an HF station during Field Day or if your club has its own club station.

Another thing that you can do as a General Class licensee is become a Volunteer Examiner (VE). Becoming a Volunteer Examiner and helping others get involved in amateur radio is a great way of giving back.

A General Class license will let you do more and have more fun with amateur radio. If you haven’t yet taken the Technician test, you should be aware that you can take both the Tech and the General (and even the Extra) Class tests at the same test session. If you prepare for both tests, you could walk out of your first test session with a General Class license and skip the Technician Class altogether.

21 Things to Do: Learn Morse Code

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseBefore you even start reading this chapter, I’ll warn you that I’m a big fan of Morse Code (often referred to as CW, or “continuous wave”). So big, in fact, that it’s safe to say that I use Morse Code to make 95% of my contacts.

I am not, however, one of those guys that thinks you’re not a “real ham” if you didn’t pass some kind of code test. In fact, I think that eliminating the code test was a good thing for ham radio. The code test kept a lot of good people out of the hobby.

Having said that, I think there are lots of good reasons you should learn Morse Code. Please keep an open mind as I list them:

  1. Tradition. Operating CW is an amateur radio tradition. When amateur radio began, CW was the only mode. When you learn and operate CW, you’re following a very long line of hams who have operated CW.
  2. Effectiveness. Talk to a CW operator, and it’s likely that he’ll chew your ear off about how  CW is a more effective mode than voice. While the difference is probably not as much as the CW operator would like you to believe, the difference is real. When conditions are poor, you’ll be able to make CW contacts and not voice contacts.
  3. DXing. That being the case, CW operators have an advantage when it comes to contacting DX stations because their signals will get through when voice signals are unreadable. Also, if you consider that there are more voice operators than CW operators, you’ll have a better chance of contacting a much-wanted DX station because there will be fewer operators trying to contact him using CW than there will be using voice.
  4. Contesting. In most contests, you get more points for a CW contact than you do for a voice contact. Sometimes the bonus is 100%, sometimes only 50%. In either case, doesn’t it make sense to know CW if you want to be a contester? You’ll score more points for the same number of contacts.
  5. Simplicity/Efficiency. The equipment you need to operate CW is a lot simpler than the equipment needed to operate voice modes. And, because CW is more efficient, you can, in general, use a lot less power to make contacts with CW  than you need to make contacts using voice modes. This has spawned a whole sub-group of hams called QRPers, who delight in using very minimal equipment to make contacts.
    Using CW also saves bandwidth. The bandwidth of a CW signal is approximately 200 Hz, while the bandwidth of a single-sideband (SSB) voice signal is about 3 kHz. That is to say that the voice signal is 15 times wider than the CW signal. Another way to say this is that for a given amount of bandwidth, you can fit 15 times more CW signals than you can SSB signals.
  6. It’s just plain fun. Once you learn CW and start using it, it can be a lot of fun. Like any activity that requires some skill, mastering that skill can be a source of pride. Not to sound too vain about it, but I enjoy the praise I get from my fellow hams when I can display my CW operating skills.

How to Learn Morse Code
In the old days if you wanted to learn Morse Code, you went out and bought a vinyl record or maybe a cassette tape that had precrecorded lessons on them. Another approach—the approach I used—was to tune in a Morse Code signal and start to associate the patterns of dits and dahs to characters of the alphabet. Both methods had drawbacks.

Today, things are a lot easier. Not only are there free resources available, I think they are much more effective in teaching people code than the old LPs or cassette tapes. Here are the three resources that I recommend:

  1. G4FON Koch CW Trainer. Ray Goff, G4FON, has perhaps written the most popular CW training program. It runs on the PC, and is completely free! The program uses the Koch method.  The idea is that you learn to receive at the speed you would like to eventually achieve, but you learn only one character at a time. This method works very well for lots of people.
  2. K7QO Code Course. The K7QO Code Course takes a different approach. This set of .mp3 files comes on a CD-ROM and teaches you the code letter by letter. It starts out sending the letters slowly, then ramps up. The nice thing about this course is that you can use it on any device  that is capable of playing .mp3 files. To obtain a copy of the CD-ROM, send $1 per copy and a self-addressed envelope to FISTS, PO Box 47, Hadley MI 48440.
  3. Learn CW Online. LCWO uses the Koch method to teach Morse Code. Because it runs in your browser, you can use this website no matter what computer you happen to be using.

Whatever method you choose, I hope you’ll consider learning the code. See you on the CW bands!

21 Things to Do: Buying your first radio

Baofeng UV-5R

This Baofeng UV-5R is made in China and costs less than $75 here in the U.S.

We all remember our first radio. I got my license back in the day when separate transmitters and receivers were more common than transceivers are today. So, my first radio was a combination of a Hammarlund HQ-101 receiver and a Heathkit DX-60B transmitter. With this combination, I was able to operate CW and AM on the 80m, 40m, 20m, 15m, and 10m bands. Of course, because I was only a Novice, I wasn’t allowed on 20m at all, and could only operate CW on the other bands.

Today, it’s more common for one’s first radio to be a VHF or VHF/UHF FM transceiver. Now that some Chinese companies have entered the amateur radio market, you can buy a handheld VHF/UHF transceiver, like the Baofeng UV-5R, shown at right, for less than $75 in the U.S. A handheld transceiver makes a good first radio, but remember that it is just your first radio. If you never buy a second (or a third or a fourth), you won’t be able to take advantage of what our great hobby offers.

The ARRL has actually done a much better job of advising new hams about buying a first radio than I can do here. So, let me point you to the ARRL Web page, “Buying Your First Radio.” On this page, there are links to several PDF files that will help you choose your first radio.

The first publication you’ll see there is the 24-page brochure, Choosing a Ham Radio. Reading this publication will get you thinking about what kind of operating you want to do, which is really the first step in choosing the right radio for you. Next, it describes features found in modern radios, and you’ll gain a good understanding of how that affects your choice of radio.

Choosing a Ham Radio also contains a lot of information about HF, or shortwave, radios. While you may start out on the VHF and UHF bands, I would encourage you to think about getting on HF, even before you upgrade to General. For me, anyway, the magic of radio is on the shortwave bands, and at the very least, you owe it to yourself to try it.

Buying Used Gear
One approach to getting your first radio is to buy used gear. In general, I would advise against doing this for your first radio. One reason not to buy a used radio is that you’re often just buying someone else’s problems, especially if you’re not in a position to evaluate the condition of a radio. Another reason is that an older radio will not have all the features and could be more difficult to operate than a newer radio.

Having said that, used equipment is not always a bad deal. You might, for example, be able to purchase an older radio from someone you trust, like your Elmer (see Chapter 1) or a fellow club member. When you purchase a radio from someone you trust, not only are you more certain that it will work properly, but you’ll have someone to go to with questions or to consult with if there are problems.

Not only that, if you ask nicely, the ham might even let you use the radio for a while before actually purchasing it. I know that I’ve lent equipment to new hams in the past. Sometimes they decide to buy the radio. Other times, they’ve decided to purchase a new radio. In either case, they were able to make their decision based on experiences they had with an actual radio.

Finally, don’t worry about making the perfect choice. First off, there’s no perfect choice, and second, you can always sell the radio and buy something else. Chances are you’ll be able to sell it for not too much less than what you paid for it, and you’ll have gained a whole lot of experience.

21 Things to Do: Go to a hamfest


You can often buy stuff like power cords and connectors at bargain prices at a hamfest.

When I was a kid in Michigan, we used to call a ham radio swap meet a “swap and shop.” Nowadays, they’re mostly known by the term “hamfest.” Whatever name you know them by, they’re both educational and a lot of fun.

There are a lot of reasons to go to a hamfest, including:

  • You get to see a lot of ham radio gear in one place.
  • You might be able to get a good deal on some used (or new) equipment.
  • You might find something that will be fun to play with.
  • You get to meet hams face-to-face that you’ve only talked to on the air.

You never know what you’ll find at a hamfest. If it’s a decent-sized hamfest, chances are you’ll find equipment ranging from radios made in the 1950s with vacuum tubes to modern computer-controlled transceivers. If nothing else, you’ll get an education on the wide range of amateur radio equipment that’s out there.

Can you get a good deal on a radio? Possibly, although these days so much stuff is sold on EBay and via the online ham classifieds on QRZ.Com, eHam.Net, and other sites, that getting a real “steal” is getting harder and harder. One thing is for sure, if you’re a new ham and don’t really know how to evaluate a particular piece of equipment, get your Elmer to look over a purchase before you hand over your money. What may look like a bargain, may end up costing more than a new radio.

What you can often get a good deal on are small parts, such as connectors, power cords, speakers, etc. You never know when you’ll need a 1/4-in. phone plug to put on the end of a set of headphones. A friend of mine jokes that at every hamfest he always buys a handful of different connectors. Hamfests are good places to stock up on these types of things.

You’ll find more than used equipment at a hamfest, though. Many dealers will bring new equipment to a hamfest, especially if it’s one of the big hamfests. This is your chance to look at a number of different radios that you may have only been able to look at in catalogs and compare different models. In addition, dealers often offer “hamfest prices,” so you may be able to get that radio at a slight discount.

Hamfests are also good places to connect with other hams. Quite often, you’ll meet guys that you’ve only talked to on the air. It’s a lot of fun to connect a name and callsign with a face. Sometimes, different ham groups, such as ARES/RACES groups or QRP clubs, will set up a table to promote their group. You can use this opportunity to find out more about these groups and their activities.

To find a hamfest near you, go to the ARRL Hamfests and Conventions Calendar page.

21 Things to Do: Subscribe to mailing lists, blogs, and podcasts

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseWhen you’re just starting out in amateur radio, you want to learn as much as you can about the hobby. One way to do this is to find an Elmer (see chapter 1). In this age of the Internet, another great way to do this is to join ham radio mailing lists and subscribe to ham radio podcasts. These resources give you access to hundreds, if not thousands, of Elmers.

One mailing list that I always suggest to new hams is the HamRadioHelpGroup. The purpose of this group is to help “those who are interested in getting started in Amateur Radio or upgrading their license.” This mailing list has a good mix of beginners and experts, and most questions are answered quickly and correctly. One thing that I really like about this group is that the moderators do a good job of keeping the discussions on track, and will squelch them when they stray off topic or threaten to turn into flame wars.

In addition to the HamRadioHelpGroup, you might also want to join a more targeted mailing list. For example, if you’re interested in learning Morse Code (hint, hint), you might join the SolidCpyCW list. If you just bought a Yaesu FT-60 hand-held transceiver, you might want to join the FT-60 list. Chances are that no matter what your interest, there’s probably a mailing list to discuss that interest.

I’m subscribed to a lot of amateur radio mailing lists and could probably spend most of my day just reading and replying to them. In order to get the most out of them, without them taking away from my on-air time, I only read those threads that I am really interested in, and even then, I quit reading them once they have started to drift off-topic. I also un-subscribe myself from lists that cover topics that I’m no longer interested in.

Blogs, podcasts and videos
In addition to getting on a few mailing lists, you might want to read a few blogs and subscribe to podcasts. These are also great sources of information about amateur radio. I blog about amateur radio at www.kb6nu.com, and lots of hams find it a good source of information. You can find a list of other ham radio blogs that I’d recommend on my home page.

Podcasts are also a good source of information. One podcast that you might want to check out is the Practical Amateur Radio Podcast (www.myamateurradio.com). Since 2008, Jerry, KD0BIK, has been producing PARP, and currently has more than 50 different episodes online. For other podcasts, consult the list on Jerry’s home page.

Finally, there are literally thousands of amateur radio videos on the net. On YouTube alone, there are approximately 32,000 of them. The American Radio Relay League has its own channel, but perhaps the most popular amateur radio video channel is the K7AGE channel. K7AGE has more than 6,200 subscribers and his videos have garnered more than 2.1 million views!

Whatever source or sources of information you select, remember to not let them take up too much of your time. Ham radio is about more than just reading, listening, or watching. It’s about doing!

21 Things to Do: Learn the Lingo

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseLike many subcultures, amateur radio has a lingo all its own. Tune into a conversation on 40m phone, and you might hear something like this:

W8ABC, this is K0XYZ. You’re 5 by 9 here, but there’s a lot of QR-Mary.

K0XYZ, this is W8ABC. QSL, Fred. Thanks for the report. I’ll say 73 on this one.

Fine business, Joe. Catch you later. K0XYZ clear.

The first thing you’ll notice are the Q-signals. Q-signals are three-letter codes that are used mostly when communicating with Morse Code, but their use has become common in voice operation as well. They were originally developed for use by maritime radio operators, but they were also adopted by airborne radio operators, and, of course, by amateur radio operators.

When operating Morse Code, a Q-code takes the place of an entire phrase. So, for example, if I send “QTH ANN ARBOR MI,” what I mean is, “My location is Ann Arbor, Michigan.” Appending a question mark, makes the Q-code a question. “QTH?” would mean, “What’s your location.”

A complete list of Q-signals used in amateur radio can be found at http://www.qsl.net/w5www/qcode.html. Many of these are not frequently used, though, even when operating Morse Code. In addition to QTH mentioned above, some of the most commonly used Q-signals are:

  • QRL – I am busy or the frequency is busy. One sends QRL? before calling CQ to determine if a particular frequency is in use.
  • QRM – You are being interfered with.
  • QRN – I am receiving a lot of atmospherice noise.
  • QRP – Lower power. QRP is often used as an adjective. A low-power transceiver, for example, might be called a “QRP rig.”
  • QRS – Send slower.
  • QRT – Stop sending. QRT is often used as a verb. “I am going to QRT” means that you plan to go off the air.
  • QRZ? – This Q-signal is almost always used with a question mark. It means who is calling me?
  • QSB – Your signal is fading in and out. QSB, QRN, and QRM are often used as nouns to mean fading, noise, and interference, respectively.
  • QSO – I can communicate directly with [a particular station]. This Q-signal is also often used as a noun. “I had a QSO with Joe on 40m last night” means that I contacted Joe on the 40m band last night.

Hams also use phonetic alphabets when operating voice communications. In the example above, K0XYZ notes that there is a lot of “QR-Mary,” Mary being the phonetic way to say the letter “M.” We use phonetics because many letters sound alike, especially over a noisy radio channel.

The ARRL recommends that amateurs use the NATO phonetic alphabet (http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/NATO_phonetic_alphabet) as most amateurs around the world will recognize them. It was developed in the 1950s, and was designed to be intelligible and pronounceable by all the NATO allies.

Finally, a lot of the lingo we use in amateur radio is a holdover from the days when all amateur radio communication was in Morse Code. An interesting example of this is the use of the term “fine business,” or FB in Morse Code.

Fine business can mean “OK” as in, “FB, Joe. I copied all of that last transmission.” It can also mean “good” or “excellent.” In Morse Code, one might send “THE KX-1 IS A FB RIG JOE.”

Finally, when amateur radio operators end a contact, they often say “seventy three” or “seven three.” In this context, “seventy three” means “best regards.” The origin of this term is as old as amateur radio.

Before the Internet made long-distance communications so cheap, amateur radio was often used to send messages across the U.S. and around the world. Many common messages were codified to make sending them quicker. For example, if you wanted to wish your Aunt Harriet in Poughkeepsie a happy birthday, you’d get hold of an amateur radio operator. Instead of sending the text, “Greetings on your birthday and best wishes for many more to come,” he would simply send “FORTY SIX.”

SEVENTY THREE is short for “best regards.” So, when we sign off with that number, we’re wishing the ham on the other end of the QSO a fond farewell. If you’re particularly fond of the ham on the other end, you might say “EIGHTY EIGHT.” Be careful, though, “EIGHTY EIGHT” is short for “love and kisses.”

21 Things to Do: Set up a shack

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseSetting up a “shack” is an essential part of the ham radio experience. For most amateurs, their shack is a combination workshop and operating position. Another way to think about it is the place where you can go to get away from the hustle and bustle of every day life and immerse yourself in your ham radio hobby.

How did we come to use the term “radio shack”? Well, according to Rod, AC6V, the first radio shacks were found aboard ships in the early 1900s. He says, “At the time, wireless equipment aboard ships was generally housed above the bridge in a wooden structure that was called the ‘radio shack’”. For many commercial stations, the radio equipment was housed in a shack at the base of the antennas.

An early radio shack can be seen below. This is the shack of amateur radio station 8BNY circa 1922. As you can see, there’s not much in the way of amenities.

Early Radio Shack

This 1922 photo shows the "shack" of amateur radio station 8BNY.

Setting up your own shack
When you set up your own shack, there’s no need to be as ascetic as our forefathers shown above. In fact, I’d advise you to make your shack as comfortable and as convenient as possible. The reason for this is that the more comfortable and convenient it is for you, the more you’ll enjoy it, and the more you’ll want to use it.

The first thing to think about is where in your house, condo, or apartment you will be setting up your shack. Lucky hams have a spare room that they can use for their shacks. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t so lucky. Mine, for example is in my basement. The good thing about that location is that I have plenty of space. The bad thing is that it can get quite cold down there in the winter. All locations are going to have plusses and minuses, so weigh them carefully before getting started.

Richards, K8JHR, is a recently-licensed ham who has given a lot of thought to how to set up a shack. He recently wrote about his experiences and posted the article to the HamRadioHelpGroup, a Yahoo Group for hams looking for help and willing to help. I thought so much of the article, that I published it here on my blog. Here are some of the more important points:

  • Have plenty of AC outlets.
  • Buy a big desk that can accommodate lots of radios and station accessories.
  • Plan ahead for routing LOTS of wires, cables, and connectors. Think about how you’re going to run these cables into and out of your house.
  • Buy a really good, substantial, large swivel desk chair.
  • Locate your shack as close to the ground as possible.
  • Build shelf-risers that give you more vertical space.
  • Include space for bookshelves and maybe a filing cabinet.
  • Make sure your shack is well-lit.
  • Buy a big clock that shows Zulu or UTC time.
  • Get a bulletin board for displaying cool QSL cards, certificates, and for posting the odd note.

Another thing to consider when setting up your shack is how to ground your station. Ben, N2IHK, suggests reading W8JI’s Web page on ground systems (http://www.w8ji.com/ground_systems.htm). Remember, a good RF ground is not the same as the AC power ground!

Another good reference on setting up an amateur radio station is The ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications. This book includes a chapter on station layout and accessories. I’ve found that the earlier handbooks are better in this regard than the latest editions. For example, my 1986 edition of the Handbook includes diagrams on how to build an operating desk, including vertical risers. The 2005 edition does not have those plans.

A good shack will make you a better amateur radio operator. You should give it as much thought, or even more, than you give to buying your first radio.