The $50 Ham: Checking Out The Local Repeater Scene

So far in this series, we’ve covered the absolute basics of getting on the air as a radio amateur – getting licensed, and getting a transceiver. Both have been very low-cost exercises, at least in terms of wallet impact. Passing the test is only a matter of spending the time to study and perhaps shelling out a nominal fee, and a handy-talkie transceiver for the 2-meter and 70-centimeter ham bands can be had for well under $50. If you’re playing along at home, you haven’t really invested much yet.

The total won’t go up much this week, if at all. This time we’re going to talk about what to actually do with your new privileges. The first step for most Technician-class amateur radio operators is checking out the local repeaters, most of which are set up exactly for the bands that Techs have access to. We’ll cover what exactly repeaters are, what they’re used for, and how to go about keying up for the first time to talk to your fellow hams.

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The $50 Ham: Entry-Level Transceivers For Technicians

Last week , I covered the ridiculously low barriers to entry to amateur radio, both in terms of financial outlay and the process of studying for and passing the FCC examination. You’ve had seven days, so I assume that you’ve taken the plunge and are a freshly minted amateur radio operator. The next big question may be: Now what?

We briefly mentioned the image that ham radio is a rich old person’s hobby, and that reputation is somewhat deserved. For ham gear, there really is no upper limit on what you can spend. Glossy brochures and slick web pages hawk transceiver bristling with knobs and switches and loaded with the latest features, all of which will probably be obsolete within a few years when the Next Big Thing comes along and manufacturers respond with new, must-have models – looking at you, ICOM IC-7300. It’s no different than any other technology market, and enough people fall for that marketing to make it a going concern.

But thankfully, while there is no apparent ceiling on what you can spend on ham gear, there certainly is a floor, and it can be very, very low. Our $50 budget can go quite a long way to getting a new Technician on the air, if you’re willing to make some compromises and can forego the latest and greatest for a while.

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The $50 Ham: Getting Your Ticket Punched

Today we start a new series dedicated to amateur radio for cheapskates. Ham radio has a reputation as a “rich old guy” hobby, a reputation that it probably deserves to some degree. Pick up a glossy catalog from DX Engineering or cruise their website, and you’ll see that getting into the latest and greatest gear is not an exercise for the financially challenged. And thus the image persists of the recent retiree, long past the expense and time required to raise a family and suddenly with time on his hands, gleefully adding just one more piece of expensive gear to an already well-appointed ham shack to “chew the rag” with his “OMs”.

Not a $50 ham. W9EVT’s shack. Source: QRZ.com

As I pointed out a few years back in “My Beef With Ham Radio”, I’m an inactive ham. My main reason for not practicing is that I’m not a fan of talking to strangers, but there’s a financial component to my reticence as well – it’s hard to spend a lot of money on gear when you don’t have a lot to talk about. I suspect that there are a lot of would-be hams out there who are turned off from the hobby by its perceived expense, and perhaps a few like me who are on the mic-shy side.

This series is aimed at dispelling the myth that one needs buckets of money to be a ham, and that jawboning is the only thing one does on the air. Each installment will feature a project that will move you further along your ham journey that can be completed for no more than $50 or so. Wherever possible, I’ll be building the project or testing the activity myself so I can pursue my own goal of actually using my license for a change.

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Ham Antenna Fits Almost Anywhere

[G3OJV] knows the pain of trying to operate a ham radio transmitter on a small lot. His recent video shows how to put up a workable basic HF antenna in a small backyard. The center of the system is a 49:1 unun. An unun is like a balun, but while a balun goes from balanced line to an unbalanced antenna, the unun has both sides unbalanced. You can see his explanation in the video below.

The tiny hand-size box costs well under $40 or $50 and covers the whole HF band at up to 200 W. The video shows the inside of the box which, as you’d expect, is a toroid with a few turns of wire.

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Ham Radio SSB Transceiver Fits In Pocket

Talking about this Chinese ham radio transceiver requires a veritable flurry of acronyms: HF, SSB, QRP, and SDR to start with. [Paul] does a nice job of unboxing the rig and checking it out. The radio is a clone of a German project and provides a low-power radio with a rechargeable battery. You can see his video about the gear below.

SSB is an odd choice for low power operation, although we wonder if you couldn’t feed digital data in using a mode like PSK31 that has good performance at low power. There are several variations of the radio available and they cost generally less than $200 — sometimes quite a bit less.

There isn’t much on the front of the radio. There are a few buttons, a rotary encoder, and an LCD along with a speaker and microphone built-in. There are ports for power to run the radio if you want to not use the battery and a separate port for battery charging. There are also ports for a key, external microphone and speakers, and audio connections that look like they’d work for digital modes. According to commenters, the radio doesn’t have an internal charging circuit, so you have to be careful what you plug into the charging port.

Looking inside, the radio looks surprisingly well made. Towards the end of the video, you can see the radio make some contacts, too. Looks like fun. This is a bit pricey for [Dan Maloney’s] $50 Ham series, but not by much. You might borrow an antenna idea from him, at least. If you prefer something more analog, grab seven transistors and build this SSB transceiver.

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This Ham Radio Is Unsafe At Any Frequency

When we were kids we rode bicycles without pads and helmets. We drank sugary drinks. We played with chemistry sets and power tools. We also built things that directly used AC line current. [Mike] remembers and built one, presumably more to discuss the safety precautions around things that can shock you and not entice you to duplicate it. He calls it The Retro QRP Widowmaker, if that’s any kind of a hint. (Video of this unsafe transmitter also embedded below.)

The design showed up from time to time in old electronic magazines. Built on an open board and with no ground wire, the radio didn’t need a complex power supply. This wasn’t limited to transmitters, either. Some TVs and radios had a “hot chassis.” That’s why we were taught to touch an unknown chassis with the back of your hand first. A shock will contract your muscles and that will pull your arm away instead of making you grab the electrically active part.

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Getting On The Air With A 10-Minute-ish Ham Transmitter

Artificially constrained designs can be among the most challenging projects to build, and the most interesting to consider. The amateur radio world is no stranger to this, with homebrew radio designs that set some sort of line in the sand. Such designs usually end up being delightfully minimalist and deeply instructive of first principles, which is one reason we like them so much.

For a perfect example of this design philosophy, take a look at [VK3YE]’s twist on the classic “10-Minute Transmitter”. (Video, embedded below.)

The design dates back to at least the 1980s, when [G4RAW] laid down the challenge to whip up a working transmitter from junk bin parts and make a contact within 15 minutes — ten for the build and five for working the bands. [VK3YE] used the “oner” — one-transistor — design for his 10-minute transmitter, but invested some additional time into adding a low-pass filter to keep his signal clean, and a power amplifier to boost the output a bit.

Even with the elaborations, the design is very simple and easy to understand. Construction is the standard “ugly style” that hams favor for quick builds like this. There are no parts that would be terribly hard to find, and everything fits into a small metal box. The video below shows the design and build, along with some experiments with WebSDR receivers to check out range both with and without the power amplifier.

Seeing these kinds of builds really puts us in the mood for some low-power action. Could something like this pop up in “The $50 Ham” series? Quite possibly yes.

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