Ham Radio Homebrew
A How-to on Making Your Own Amateur Radio Equipment
Updated January 10, 2013
Author’s note: I originally began this “how-to” around 2003 or so. Since then, while some of the parts I mention below have become obsolete, many now have SMD versions available, which are operationally identical to the listed part. If you are having difficulty finding one of these parts, drop me an email and I’ll see what I can do to help you find it. Thanks for reading.
“Rig here is homebrewed, OM.”
Don’t get excited, we haven’t set up a still, we’re not talking about illegal suds here.
In the world of amateur radio, “homebrew” is the art of building homemade radio equipment. Whether you design and build it “from scratch” in the basement workshop or garage, or construct a kit of parts on the dining room table, homebrewing equipment is not hard to do, and a double whammy of a lot of fun – you get to use the equipment when you’re done building it! I think I have more fun building a piece of equipment and making it work like I want than I do operating.
I know what you’re thinking… “okay, so it’s a lot of fun, but how much will this fun cost?” Not as much as you think! You can spend as little or as much time or money as you want. It’s true. You can build complete working equipment, like simple transmitters or test equipment, for less than $10 in parts. Or, $0 in parts if you “scrounge” them from other equipment.
So, now if I say I “roll my own,” you know I mean I make my own radio equipment, not… that other thing.
Okay, let’s say I’ve convinced you, and you’d like to get started. So how do you start? I found the best place to begin building your own radio equipment was by reading books and collecting circuits from magazine articles of equipment others had built. Not to just copy them, but to learn from them, to educate some of that gray matter upstairs.
Some of the best books I know come from the ARRL (the American Radio Relay League, amateur radio’s national organization). Below, I’ve listed a book or two, and a few magazines and articles that I have found useful.
BTW, these lists are not exhaustive, they’re simply the resources I know and like to use.
- “Experimental Methods In RF Design” by Wes Hayward, W7ZOI, Rick Campbell, KK7B, and Bob Larkin, W7PUA. Published by the ARRL.
- “Solid State Design for the Radio Amateur” by Wes Hayward, W7ZOI, and Doug DeMaw, W1FB. Published by the ARRL, currently out-of-print.
- “W1FB’s Design Notebook” by Doug DeMaw, W1FB. Published by the ARRL, also out-of-print.
- “W1FB’s QRP Notebook” by Doug DeMaw, W1FB, 2nd edition. Published by the ARRL, and out-of-print.
- “Introduction to Radio Frequency Design” by Wes Hayward, W7ZOI. Published by the ARRL, originally by Prentice-Hall.
- “The ARRL Handbook for the Radio Amateur,” any recent edition. Published annually by the ARRL.
- “Handbook of Simplified Solid-State Circuit Design” by John D. Lenk, 2nd edition. Published by Prentice-Hall.
- “The Art of Electronics” by Paul Horowitz and Winfield Hill, 2nd edition. Published by Cambridge University Press.
- “RF Circuit Design” by Chris Bowick. Published by Newnes, originally by H.W. Sams.
- “Communications Receivers” by Ulrich L. Rohde and T.T.N. Bucher. Published by McGraw-Hill. This book has been updated and now lists Jerry Whitaker as coauthor.
- “Single Sideband Systems and Circuits” edited by William E. Sabin and Edgar O. Schoenike, 2nd edition. Published by McGraw-Hill. This book has been updated and retitled, “HF Radio Systems and Circuits.”
- “Electronic Filter Design Handbook” by Arthur B. Williams and Fred J. Taylor, 3rd edition. Published by McGraw-Hill.
- “Electronic Communication” by Robert L. Shrader, 5th edition. Published by McGraw-Hill.
- “Reference Data for Engineers: Radio, Electronics, Computer and Communications,” 7th edition. Published by H.W. Sams.
- ANY book written by Dr. Frederick Terman, most notably “Fundamentals of Radio” and “Radio Engineering.” Terman wrote several textbooks published by McGraw-Hill, as part of their “Electrical And Electronic Engineering Series.”
- QST and QEX, published monthly by the ARRL.
- CQ and CQ-VHF, published monthly by CQ Communications.
- Microwave Journal, published monthly by Horizon House.
- RF Design, published monthly by Intertec/Primedia.
- Applied Microwave and Wireless, publish monthly by Noble.
- Microwaves & RF, published monthly by Penton.
The last four magazines belong to a category called “trade magazines,” intended for RF engineers and technicians. I love trade magazines. You can learn as much from the ads as the articles in these things.
All of these are from QST, the magazine published by the ARRL.
- “A Structured Engineering Approach to the Design and Construction of Electronic Equipment” by Jerry Pittenger, K8RA.
- QST magazine, August 1983, pp. 18-22.
- Still a great design philosophy, one of my favorites.
- “A High Performance Communications Receiver” by Wes Hayward, W7ZOI, and John Lawson, K5IRK.
- QST magazine, November, 1981, pp.11-21.
- A 5-band, SSB receiver construction project, variations of this article also have appeared in a number of annual ARRL Handbooks.
- “The Principles and Building of SSB Gear” by Doug DeMaw, W1FB (SK).
- A 5-part article that appeared in QST magazine:
- Part 1: September, 1985, pp.17-19
- Part 2: October, 1985, pp. 27-30
- Part 3: November, 1985, pp. 16-19 and 43
- Part 4: December, 1985, pp. 37-40
- Part 5: January, 1986, pp. 29-32
This intermediate-level series is aimed at those who want to build SSB equipment and learn how it operates.
- “Some QRP Transmitter Design Tips” by Doug DeMaw, W1FB (SK).
- QST magazine, February 1988, pp.30-32.
- Full QSK is beneficial and easy to achieve without relays at low power levels.
- “An Optimized QRP Transceiver for 7 MHz” by Roy Lewallen, W7EL.
- QST magazine, August, 1980, pp.14-19.
- This rig is a classic circuit, and has also appeared in a number of ARRL Handbooks. Roy also produces a terrific antenna modeling software package called
- . Check it out.
- “A QRP SSB/CW Transceiver for 14 MHz” by Wes Hayward, W7ZOI.
- A 2-part article that appeared in QST magazine:
- Part 1: December, 1989, pp. 18-21
- Part 2: January, 1990, pp. 28-31
Exotic circuitry and hard-to-find components aren’t necessary if you want to build excellent performance into a homebrew SSB/CW transceiver: Careful design is the key.
- “The QRP Three-Bander” by Zack Lau, W1VT (formerly KH6CP).
- QST magazine, October, 1989, pp. 25-30.
- Another favorite of mine, from an ARRL Lab Engineer.
- “High-Performance Direct-Conversion Receivers” by Rick Campbell, KK7B.
- QST magazine, August, 1992, pp. 19-28.
- IMHO, a ground-breaking article that single-handedly brought DC receivers back into vogue for QRP homebuilders.
- “High-Performance, Single-Signal Direct-Conversion Receivers” by Rick Campbell, KK7B.
- QST magazine, January, 1993, pp. 32-40.
- You could consider this Part 2 of Rick’s preceeding article.
For ARRL members, these articles may be found as PDF files at the ARRL.
What’s next? Well,while you’re educating your brain, you’ll want to educate your manual dexterity by learning how to solder and use tools for building electronic equipment. No reason to wait until you’re a pro, just jump right in and build something.
Let’s see, a soldering iron (or a temperature-controlled soldering station if you can swing it) and some solder, a set of good hand tools, a work table and plenty of light is a must to start. And you’ll need at least one piece of basic test equipment. I think a good DMM (digital multimeter) is essential. Later on, after you’re more experienced, I’d recommend getting a decent oscilloscope. Everything else you can build if you like.
MORE ON SOLDER
You’ve heard that 60/40 solder is the optimum solder for electronic soldering work. But what does that mean? 60/40 refers to the mixture of Tin (Sn) and Lead (Pb). So, 60/40 solder is 60% tin and 40% lead. And it’s just fine for electronic soldering. But with 60/40 solder. there is a short period of time where the solder is between states, not quite a solid or a liquid. It’s an in-between “plastic” state.
So, I prefer to use 63/37 solder, or “eutectic” solder. “Eutectic” means that there is very little if any “plastic” state when the solder melts. This means the 63/37 solder goes nearly instantly into a liquid from a solid. This also means I can solder just a bit faster. And it ALSO means, if I make a mistake, it’s just a bit harder to fix.
As far as hand tools are concerned, I recommend getting the best you can afford. If you take care of them, they’ll last nearly a lifetime. I personally favor tools designed for electrical or electronic work, from either Klein hand tools or Xcelite by Cooper Tools. Both of these brands are excellent. I currently use quite a bit of Klein tools because they’re readily available at most Home Depot stores. Greenlee also makes some excellent tools.
What hand tools will you need? I think the absolute basics are:
- 4″ diagonal cutters, flush cutting type
- 6″ diagonal cutters
- 4″ and 6″ needle nosed pliers
- #0, 1 and 2 Phillips screwdrivers
- 1/4″, 3/8″ flat blade screwdrivers
- A set of nut drivers, 1/8″ to 1/2″
- Wire strippers
- A set of combination wrenches, 3/16″ to 5/8″
- A ratchet wrench and socket set, 3/16″ to 3/4″
- An electric drill and set of high speed drill bits, 1/64″ to 1/2″
- A hacksaw with an 18 TPI metal cutting blade
- A set of files for metal that includes a rattail, half round and a double cutting flat
- A nibbling tool
You’ll find that a small vise will be very useful, too.
With these tools, you can cut and strip wires, poke holes and cut on metal, and turn fasteners. As you gain more experience building, you’ll no doubt want some of the more specialized hand and powered tools available in the world. But much creating and repairing can be done with just the tools on this list. Also, unless you need them for repairing manufactured equipment you may already own, you won’t need metric tools, good ol’ American SAE will do just fine.
The next stop for me was building a kit or two. I liked kits quite a bit, still do. Everything you need in one package.
My very first kit was a crystal radio kit my father bought for me when I was about 12 years old. That was neat. Listening to distant broadcast stations in bed at night was great… for awhile. After that small success, I thought I could tackle something more advanced so I purchased a Heathkit HR-10B amateur radio receiver. Those kits from Heathkit were great, they came with all the parts and a book of instructions written so well, you couldn’t hardly mess up. I built this receiver in about a week of idle time, but was a bit disappointed when I turned on the power. All I heard was a bunch of garbled voices. Darn, where did I mess up? I took the radio to the local Heathkit store where I bought it and told the service man there what my problem was. He checked it out, and said “except for a few cold solder joints, it works fine.” Huh??
It was then that I discovered what “BFO” meant on the front panel.
Later, as I gained experience, I tried scratch-building projects from magazine articles, so collecting electronic parts became an activity. I did this for each project as I built them. The first projects I attempted to build this way were messy to say the least. And they usually didn’t work. But I kept swinging, and after a couple of successful projects, repeating the parts mining activity became tiresome. So I made a list and built up a supply of commonly used and available parts.
Nowadays, I build kits or whip up projects of my own design. Oddly enough, most of the parts I use in my own designs come from my list. Go figure. 😉
And here’s the list (* denotes a “must have” IMHO):
- General purpose bipolar transistors: 2N2222A*, 2N3904*, 2N3906*, 2N4401, 2N4403.
- FETs: 2N4416, J310, MPF102*.
- RF transistors: 2N3866*, 2N5179*, 2N3553, 2N3053. 2N5109 and 2N918 are useful as well. 2SC1969 is a good one for a bit more RF oomph.
- Other transistors: 2N3055 for power supply pass transistor and other low-frequency applications where a bit of current is needed..
- The “QRP” ICs: LM386*, MC1350*, NE/SA602*. Sooo many projects use these, it’s worth having a few.
- Linear ICs: LF353*, 555’s*, 741’s*, 5532.
- Regulators: 7805 through 7824, 7905 through 7924, and complimentary 78Lxx and 79Lxx versions.
- Diodes: 1N34*, 1N914*, 1N4002, 1N4007* (higher PRV).
- Special Purpose Diodes: HP 5082-2835, a few selected 1/2 or 1 watt Zeners are good to have (5-35 volt range), MPN3404 PIN diodes, and MVAM108 tuning diodes.
- Resistors: 1/4 and 1/2 watt selection from Radio Shack*. I usually purchase a few each of the 100 assorted packs, plus packs of 51, 100, 1k, and 10k.
- Capacitors: Again, assortment packs from Radio Shack*. Look for small value (1pF-500pF) disc ceramics, various values of electrolytics, and packs of .1, .01, and .001 uF ceramics or monolithics for RF bypassing, etc., and 1, 2.2, 4.7uF electrolytics for audio coupling. I also like tantalums for critical audio applications, but they tend to be a bit more expensive.
- Other parts: very small quantities of toggle switches, rotary switches, LEDs, panel mount audio and RF connectors (mostly N and BNC… I dislike so-called UHF connectors, but use them when the application isn’t critical. And I don’t like RCA phono connectors for RF), knobs, PCB material.
- Wire and cable: various colors stranded #22*, #18 for hook-up, RG58*, RG174, #20 through #30 enameled wire* for inductors.
- Toroid cores: I use T37 and T50 sizes the most. Powdered iron mixes: 2, 6, 12. Ferrite mixes: 43, 61, 67. Ferrite beads, 43 mix.
As you can see, many items on this list are general-purpose electronic devices and parts. I think that’s good, availability is greater for GP parts. If a component fails or I need a part, a GP device is usually available locally. But that’s not to say I don’t like some of the more exotic devices in the world.
For example, I usually don’t keep any of the MiniCircuits mixers, MMICs, etc., in stock, but I do like them in projects. Great company, they have all kinds of fun RF items at pretty reasonable prices. You can find these in small quantities from various distributors.
A few years ago, I started stocking some surface-mount components, 0603 and larger. And I have received some of the free SMD prototyping kits offered from time to time from Phillips, and I periodically “beg” for free samples from the other semiconductor manufacturers as well. Why not? The worst response I can get is “No.”
Okay, is that it? No, of course not. For more advanced homebrew pursuits, I use the following software programs:
Antenna Modeling Software from Roy Lewallen, W7EL
Some others you can find are Serenade SV, a circuit design suite of programs, and Eagle Lite PCB Editor, for designing printed circuit board layouts.
Some version (demo or feature-limited) of each of these Windows programs is available for download for FREE! Some of the books I listed above also come with software that’s pretty good, including Smith Chart programs, filter design programs, etc.
There, that should get you started. Have fun and don’t get frustrated. If you run into a problem or have a question, drop me an email.