21 Things to Do: Find an Elmer

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseAmateur radio can be a complicated hobby. You will, undoubtedly, have questions about the technology, questions about the rules, and questions about operating procedures. An “Elmer” is someone who can help answer those questions and help you avoid some of the pitfalls of the hobby. He or she is a ham that you can go to when you have a question about what rig to buy, when you want to borrow an antenna analyzer, or when you’re having trouble understanding a particular concept. If you haven’t already, you might want to find an Elmer.

The term Elmer first appeared in the March 1971 issue of QST magazine. In that issue, Rod Newkirk, W9BRD, called them “the unsung fathers of Amateur Radio.” He wrote that an Elmer is “the ham who took the most time and trouble to give you a push toward your license.”

Where do you find an Elmer? Well, the first place you might look is the club you just joined. Lots of the “old timers” there are more than happy to help newcomers, and many clubs have “Elmer” programs. Ask for help and ye just may receive.

Nowadays, you might find your Elmer online. There are lots of websites and mailing lists that are geared towards helping people become better amateur radio operators. One mailing list that I am a member of is the HamRadioHelpGroup mailing list.

You probably can get by without an Elmer, but without one, it’s easy to become frustrated and set aside the hobby. One ham I spoke with said, “I did not have an Elmer. I got my license, and within a year, I started a 20 year hiatus. I blame that on not having an Elmer.”

You don’t want that to happen to you. Find an Elmer and take his or her advice. You’ll get a lot more out of the hobby.

21 Things to Do: Buy some tools

21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio LicenseLike any pursuit, to do the job right, you need to have the proper tools. Amateur radio is no exception. To do certain things, you’ll need tools that you may not currently have. Without them, you’ll seriously handcuff yourself when it comes to enjoying amateur radio.

You may already have a set of hand tools. Most homeowners, for example, have a hammer, a set of screwdrivers, a set of wrenches, and some pliers to make common home repairs. All of these tools will be useful for amateur radio work, but you’ll also need some tools specifically designed for working with electronics, including:

  • Needle-nose pliers. Needle nose pliers are possibly the most used tool on the electronics workbench. They allow you to do things that your big, fat fingers just can’t.
  • Diagonal, or flush, cutters. You use diagonal cutters to cut wire and trim soldered leads.
  • Wire strippers. A good pair of wire strippers is essential when making cables or when you have to solder wires to circuit boards.
  • Terminal crimper. You use the crimper to properly attach terminals to wires. Make sure to also purchase a selection of crimp-on terminals.
  • Precision (jeweler’s) screwdrivers. Many of the screws you’ll find in electronics equipment are just too small to use normal-sized screwdrivers. A set of jeweler’s screwdrivers will have a couple of Phillips-head screwdrivers as well as several conventional screwdrivers.
  • Hobbyist knife. This is the type of knife that modellers use. It’s just as handy in electronics work as it is in building models.
  • Digital multimeter. With a digital multimeter (DMM), you can make voltage, current, and resistance measurements. It’s the most basic piece of test equipment you can own, and every ham should have one.
  • Soldering iron or soldering station. Even if you’re not going to be doing a lot of building, you need a soldering iron to make simple repairs and build simple cables. Being able to solder is an essential skill for a radio amateur.
  • De-soldering tool. If you do any soldering, there will undoubtedly be times that you have to de-solder a connection. Buy a spring-loaded “solder sucker” and not a hand-operated desoldering bulb. The spring-loaded units work a lot better.

Other tools that you’ll find useful if you intend to do a lot of building include:

  • Anti-static mat and/or wrist strap. Many electronic components can be damaged by an electrostatic discharge. That’s why you want to use an anti-static mat and/or wrist strap. These drain off static electricity so that you don’t zap your electronics. Amazon, not surprisingly has a wide selection. You can also get them at Radio Shack.
  • Tweezers. You need tweezers if you’re working with very small components, such as surface-mount devices.
  • Table vise. You need a table vise to hold a circuit board while your building or repairing it, or to hold a connector that you’re soldering wires onto.
  • Lighted magnifier or magnifying visor. If you’re north of 40 years old, then you need good lighting and probably some magnification. Some of the parts used today are very small, making the markings hard to read and making them difficult to handle. A magnifying light or magnifying visor makes working on circuits a lot easier.

If you’re really starting from scratch, you might want to consider buying a complete tool kit. Sears (yes, Sears!) sells many different electronics tool kits. Some of the tool kits include a digital multimeter and soldering iron. The nice thing about buying a tool kit is that some kits include a carrying case. Other sources for toolkits include Jameco, Sparkfun, and the Electronic Tool Box.

My own tool set has evolved over the years. I still have some needle-nosed pliers and some diagonal cutters that I acquired over 30 years ago when an electronics manufacturing company that I worked for took them out of service. I got a set of tweezers at some hamfest. The table vise I use is an el cheapo from Harbor Freight. You could do the same, acquiring the tools as you find them, but the problem with that is that they may not be on hand when you need them.

However you get your tools, make sure that you do get them or have access to them. If you can’t make a cable or perform a simple repair because you don’t have the tool to do it, it will be frustrating at the very least, and it could be expensive if you have to pay for a new cable or pay someone to make a repair for you.


21 Things to Do: Build an Antenna

Building an antenna is something that you should do within a month or two of getting your license. There are many reasons for this, including:

  • Building an antenna will help you learn how antennas really work.
  • Building an antenna is cheaper than buying them.
  • If you’re using a handheld with the standard “rubber ducky” antenna, you can build an antenna that will increase the range of your handheld.
  • It’s fun!

Building a 2m quarter-wave ground-plane antenna
The first antenna that you should consider building is the quarter-wave ground-plane antenna for the 2m band. They are very easy to build and will perform better than the antennas that come with most handhelds.

The quarter-wavelength, ground plane antenna is made up of one vertical element, called the driven element, and four radials. The radials make up the ground plane. An easy way to make this antenna is to use an SO-239 coax connector. The driven element is soldered directly to the center conductor, while the four radials are connected to the four holes in the connector’s flange. See the figure at right.

2m ground plane antenna

A simple 2m antenna can be made with an SO-239 connector and four short pieces of stiff wire.

Now, let’s calculate how long the elements should be. Since the wavelength of a radio wave is equal to 300/f (MHz), one quarter wavelength will be equal to 75/f (MHz). At 146 MHz, therefore, the length of the driven element is:

75/146 = .51 m

In practice, we have to make one more adjustment. Because a radio wave travels more slowly in a wire than it does in free space, the wavelength will actually be about 5% less in a wire than in free space. So, we multiply the wavelength in free space by .95 to get the length of the driven element:

.51m x .95 = .49m = 19.25 inches

The radials should be about 5% longer than the driven element. This isn’t really very critical, so if you make them 20.25 inches long, the antenna will work just fine.

You should make the elements out of a stiff wire. 12 AWG copper wire will work for experimentation purposes. Welding rod might be better for a more permanent antenna.

You need to solder the 19.25-in. driven element to the solder cup of the center conductor of the SO-239 connector. Attach the radials to the holes in the flange of the SO-239 connector with nuts and bolts. You can also use these nuts and bolts to mount the antenna to some kind of bracket. Bend the radials out to a 45-degree angle, connect a coax cable to it, and start having fun!

For more information
For more information on how to build and what  you can do with the quarter-wavelength, ground-plane antenna:

21 Things to Do: Join a club

Thanks to everyone who contributed ideas for my upcoming book, 21 Things to Do After Getting Your Amateur Radio License. I am going to post chapters here as I write them.  Here’s the first chapter. Please feel free to comment on this chapter.

Join a club

One of the very first things you should do after you get your first amateur radio license is to join a club. There are many reasons why this is a good idea, but perhaps the biggest reason is that amateur radio is more fun when shared with others. The whole point of amateur radio is to make contacts with other amateur radio operators. By joining a club, you start making face-to-face contacts.

All of the other reasons for joining a club stem from this idea of sharing the hobby with other amateur radio operators. For example, you can think of the other members of the club as a vast reservoir of knowledge that you can tap.

Want some advice on what radio to buy? Ask a club members. Need some help installing an antenna? Ask a club member. Have a question about the best place to buy feedline or connectors? Ask a club member. I think you get the idea.

Clubs conduct a variety of activities that you’ll find both interesting and useful. Many clubs, for example, have speakers at their monthly meetings that discuss some aspect of amateur radio. By attending these meetings, you’ll not only learn about the topic, but have someone that you can contact should you decide to pursue that topic further.

Clubs also hold classes and administer license examinations. Being a member of the club will make it easier for you to take advantage of the classes and help you upgrade your license more easily.

Another benefit that some clubs offer is the use of a club station. This station may allow use to use equipment or operate modes that would be impossible to do at your home station. Our club station, for example, has a three-element Yagi antenna up about 70 feet. There’s no way that I could install such an antenna system at my home. Using the club station, though, allows me to experience using this antenna system and learn all about how they work and how well they work.

Being a club member can even help you get a good deal on used equipment. Club members often offer their used gear to other club members at a lower price than they would ask if they listed them online or taking them to hamfests. Not only do you get a lower price, but it’s less likely that there will be a problem with your purchase, and if there is, you know exactly where to find the seller.

Finding a club
If you don’t know of any clubs in your area, go to http://www.arrl.org/find-a-club. Type your zip code into the appropriate box, and soon you’ll get a list of clubs in your area.

The listings will show what services the clubs offer, their specialties, and if the club has a website, the website address. This information should give you an idea of how active the club is and what kinds of things the club members are interested in.

If there are several clubs in your area, visit them all before deciding to join one. Just like people, clubs have their own personalities, and you may find that you fit better with one club rather than another. For example, some clubs emphasize emergency communications and public service. If you’re not really interested in those activities, that club may not be for you.

Whichever club you choose, go to the meetings and participate in their activities. One thing is certain. You won’t get anything out of a club, if you never show up.