Prepping: Ham Radio Weekend! (1 of 2)

My late friend and colleague, Don Stoner (W6TNS, sk) had a marvelous saying about ham radio.  “Ham Radio is the King of Hobbies….”

There was a good deal of truth to that.  Few realize, for example,  that King Hussein of Jordan was a very active ham and if you snoop around YouTube, you can find things like this conversation between the King (on the ground in Amman, Jordan) talking to another famous ham – Owen Garriott on the Space Shuttle Columbia:

People tend not to give the hobby its due.  But, it really does offer something for everyone.

This weekend is “Winter Field Day” for thousands of hams around the country.  Which means after I get my chores done this morning, I will go to battery power (with solar) and rake up a few contacts in the log book.

Ham radio is about the best “all-round” educational tool in the world.  All this STEM talk is so…old school for hams.  Been there, invented that.

While I snoozed through a lot of my high school classes, ham radio kept me competitive in many ways that now, drooling distance from 70, I’m still thankful for.

For instance:  Bored with Geography in high school, it became an intensely personal subject when I talked to McMurdo Station down in the Antarctic on the 20-meter band.  “Where did you guys say you were?”  Yes, I worked Barry Goldwater, too.  Heady stuff for a kid.  Got me thinking more about politics, too.  You can get an earful of politics on 75-meter sideband roundtables any night of the week.

If you’d like to participate in emergency and disaster preparedness, there’s the ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) which drops in when places ‘Rico get hit with devastating storms and flooding.  Today’s Winter Field day is a dry-run – with scoring.

Ham radio is miles beyond cell phones when it comes to remote area coverage.  My son, KF7OCD, has made something of a splash for himself by talking to other hams while in “unusual situations.”  Like under canopy when skydiving.  Hop and Pop at 15,000 and call CQ on 2-meters on the way down… G2 made other points with dad for setting up comms from an ice cave he’d dug into Mount Washington up in the Cascades a winter, or so back.

Then there’s the “original digital language” – Morse Code.  You don’t need to learn “the code” anymore, but it’s extremely useful at times.  You can “copy a message in your head” just based on the dots and dashes (dits and dahs if you prefer) and that’s a lot of fun.  See SKCC and FISTS for more.

I keep up my code speed in the area of 30-35 WPM (or pass contest info at 40+ with enough coffee in me) because Morse code is one of the few ways a mostly paralyzed person can communicate after a serious accident or a stroke. When you get up to our age, thoughts like that pass through the mind. Can you imagine a worse fate that having an alive “in your head” but having a body that only minimally responds?

Fear of being in that position, which I hear isn’t too uncommon for stroke victims) scares the hell out of me.  Just like a col-location for the Internet keeps commercial websites up by having two different fiber runs coming into the co-lo center by landing fiber at either end of the building, so too, have two open comms channels out of your brain is hopefully something you’ll never need.  But, what IF?

Another interesting group is the fox hunters.  One team hides a transmitter (who knows where?) and other teams set off using radio direction-finding equipment to tune ’em in to discovery.  First one to find the hidden station is declared the winner.

DX’ing is fun, too.  That is, talking the mostest and farthest away…  Think you can’t possibly talk further than half the Earth’s diameter?  Think again!  Welcome to the world of “long path” where you can (though its rare) talk a thousand miles away by sending a radio signal 24,000 miles – the other way around Eaqrth.

Right next to that is the EME crowd.  Earth-Moon-Earth folks.  They take pleasure in moon rise because that’s when they can lock an AZ-El (azimuth/elevation) tracking array onto the Moon and just is like a big passive radio reflector.

I assume you know about talking to  spacecraft.  Talk to one and it’s a thrill.  Nowadays?  Old hat.

Then again, so is chewing the fat (called “rag chewing”) with other hams.  75-meters at night offers something for everyone:  One group will nail down some politics while a few kilohertz away, another group will be arguing the fine points of DX antenna design.  Best bourbons might be just up the band from there…

No longer officially required, a lot of us old-timers still keep station logs, too.  It’s a way you can look back and who you talked to (and about what) and you can make notes on equipment, or code speed….

There are antenna designers and modelers – done a bit of that around here.  But,  lately, I have been enjoying my role as “The Electronic Detective” .  I love to restore older equipment,  Steampunk to Dieselpunk vintage.. That’s when single sideband was just emerging.

Among legendary restorers, I admire the hell out of Howard Mills’ work, though I think he does gear made by Collins Radio only…at least that’s the impression I get. My interest is vintage Hallicrafters equipment.  Some like R.L. Drake gear and others?  Well, which brand and how far back to you want to go?

By the way, check out the Collins Collectors Association, too.  Excellent into to equipment grading.

Which gets us to exactly the beginning of this weekend’s ham radio article.

You see, my first single sideband transmitter, age 14 was a Johnson Pacemaker. It was the cat’s meow.  My buddy The Major was enjoying his  Heathkit DX-60 transmitter, but I had a job at the public library and every penny I made went into equipment.The DX-60 was an AM transmitter.  Those of us early into single sideband called that “Ancient Modulation.”

When The Major built a Heathkit SB-300 receiver, however, he had me way out-classed on the receiver side.  I had reworked a vintage (1930’s) Hallicrafters S-20R.  With a Q-Multiplier and endless tweaks it was competitive on the two lowest bands that were popular; 40 and 80/75 meters.

At least it was good until that SB-300 up the street showed me up, time after time.  Working as much time as I could and scrimping, it wasn’t much longer until I landed a deal on a National NC-300 and went to work on the front end of it and hotted-up the AGC (automatic gain control) and the product detector (used for hearing code and sideband) so it sounded great.

Boyhood rivalries never stop.  He advanced to a 2-element cubical quad for 15-meters.  I smoked me.  Not to be outdone, I responded with a linear amplifier.  You can build gain into an antenna or you can build it with an amplifier to bump up the signal you’re sending out.  (The amplifier route doesn’t help on the receiver side – and I was still not hearing everything The Major did.

The Major went the academic route in his career. As a student at Seattle University, he had access to the complete Collins S-Line atop Campion Tower.  It would be a year or two later that I would gain access to some legendary ham stations on military bases in Alaska.

But, this is how competitiveness works in ham radio.  Like the brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) you’ll find in Aircraft Clubs (of a certain manufacturer), or Porsche or Corvette clubs.  Competition?  Hell yeah.  But dear friends so the competitiveness remains highly respectful in an  information-sharing way.

I remained in Seattle, where thanks to being the youngest First Class Commercial ticket holder in the country for a while (barely age 16), I was able to stack cash as a broadcast engineer.  From there?  A military defense contractor paid me fabulous money because I understood how L-plan frequency division multiplexing (essentially stacked SSB voice channels) worked on microwave gear.  That company that made a fair bit of the DEW and BMEWS gear was called Lenkurt.  Later acquired by Western Electric.

Ham radio, and the engineers that arose from the hobby are where terms like TDM (time domain multiplexing) and FDM (frequency domain multiplexing) came from.  Most people have never heard of such things, but it how many voice channels can more on one carrier or wire-pair.

This was the heyday of vacuum tubes and in no time, that Johnson Pacemaker in the basement ham shack/bedroom of my folks home was mated with a series of Big linear amplifiers.  I was “worldwide” by then.  Pick a country and I could get a message there.  Voice or Morse, didn’t much matter, and still doesn’t.  Being a radio operator is a skill that anyone can develop and its something you can take real pride in.

Still, it was never enough.  Another broadcast pal, Dick who lives in Montlake Terrace at the time, had a 4-1000A (coffee pot sized tube, eh?) and a 4,000 volt, 1-amp power supply.  On single sideband, he had more “talk power” than rock station KJR where he worked for a while.

By the way, I’m surprised sometimes at the number of countries I’ve talked to that have gone through name changes.  Surprising thing to see over time.

Thanks to my multiple eye surgeries, working on the tiniest surface mount technology (SMT) equipment is off the docket.  BUT, back in December, this Johnson Pacemaker came up on eBay and I just had to have it.

Shipping resulted in some bumps that I wasn’t able to completely bang out (any more banging and I was worried about the case weld breaking) so I ordered up the correct color of paint and got to work on the cabinet first.  Obvious dent but less than half of what it had been…

If someone were to ask, I’d have to say “Patina.  What do you expect on a 70-pound, 58-year old piece of equipment?”

The Art of Radio Restoration

I’ve been writing (another) book in slow-motion for several years with a working title “The Art of Ham Radio Repair and Restoration.” 

Understand that countless number of young people today give lots of lip service to recycling.  But when it comes down to actually fixing things, well, that takes effort and tools and some know-how.  Old mentors are skeptical of haters and know-it-alls, too.   And that, in a nutshell, is why earlier this week, I was bemoaning the serious end of surplus stores.  Inventiveness is being lost.

Tomorrow, I’ll run through some of the actuial steps in restoring a classic old transmitter because it’s  fun in the same vein as people who restore classic cars.  A grand artform, that.  Clearly it’s something Millennials don’t fully comprehend.  Nitrous in a Riceburner  Seriously?  Maybe if it was an early 240-Z, but you follow what I’m getting at?   How about a chassis-up restoration of a mid 50’s Mopar beat with a big-block Hemi?

With FedEx stepping up for the damages – mostly covered by insurance – my cost basis for the restoration was quite low. Been a time-sink, but at least (in theory) I’m retired.

Little did I know how much work this project would morph into.  It turned out to be one of those rare cases that all restorers run into eventually:  You think the restoration will be a simple three or four item fix list but then my, oh my, suddenly the problems  cascade…One discovered fault leads to another and first thing you know, chassis-up is what you end up skirting.

Electrical details tomorrow.  But the first step on the radio was to remove the front panel and that was held on by retaining nuts.  To get at those?  Every knob had to come off and since we’re doing a limited restoration, might as well clean the knobs up as we go..

You’ll nlotice that there is a hole in many of these knobs where a white pointer is supposed to live.  Rarium and Unobtainium.  But, scouring the Internet, I found that Amazon carries.”DEUTSCH 114017 SEALING PLUGS (10 pieces) ” for about $7-bucks.  Those ought to come in by mail today.

With this done and the knobs getting the first layer of dirt removed, it was time to move on to the front panel itself.

Remember, this transmitter rolled out of an American factory run by E.F. Johnson Company in about 1959-1961, so call it 58 years old.

I got to the point that every restorer comes to on a project:  Do we go “whole hog” on it or, do we fix it “good enough?”

If this were an automobile restoration, it would be the place where the decision would be made on whether to “go down to the frame” or just make it road-worthy. 20-meters-worthy, in this case.  If it was a furniture restoration, the question would be whether to dip strip or sand the existing finish off?

An old ham radio presents the same problems as a classic car, or furniture, but with wires and, oh yeah, potentially fatal voltages if you don’t have your stuff-together.

If the case hadn’t been banged up so much (or my repairs more worthy) perhaps the expense of sending the panel out for a stripping and re-do including fresh silk screening (logo, letters and such) might be justified.  But the radio has enough faults down at the design level that it could really never compete with other classics in my collection; the Hallicrafters HT-37, the HT-32, or the Gonset GSB-100.  All had better spurious specs and spectral purity means more these days than when the design was newly minted. (Janis Carson, AB2RA’s site) rips the old Johnson apart on technical grounds, over here, and  she’s right…most all of his criticisms are justified.  But look at W0UI (Woody’s) Pacemaker restorations over hereEsoteric electronica?

No, this project is just to get the matching exciter for my Johnson Thunderbolt Amplifier outlined a while back on the air and yeah, I may add a tunable trap, or two, to reduce spurious emissions (“spurs”).  The Thunderbolt and the Pacemaker will live in my evolving personal radio museum mated with a Drake 2B/2BQ.

So, not sending the front panel out for a “cherry” rework, is the point. Sort of like “How far would you go restoring a classic Hudson or mid 50’s, but nothing special, Chevy?

After about 10 minutes of testing several automotive products we have on hand for just such events, Meguiare’s Ultimate Polish worked well-enough.  There’s a balancing act when you go after an old painted surface.  Too much and you can ruin it.  So do a very small test section first so as to not make a total mess if there’s too much abrasive (compound) in whatever you’re rubbing on  the paint to bring up a bit of shine.

Silk screened lettering can disappear mighty quickly, which means elbow grease is something to apply with caution. Lazy suits me just fine…or, so you’d notice.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at some of the electrical issues.  For today, just a gentle overview of how “making” and “restoring” are likely to be some of the best uses of your time.  Problem solving galore!  Logic, materials, appreciation for the old.

You will develop some manual dexterity, still-more problem solving, scrounging skills, sweat. tool collecting, and – with any luck – one of these days this old “boat anchor radio” will get back on the air. And old car will return the the road….

Take restoring an old car as a similar template.  Sometimes they sit for months at a time with nothing seeming to be going on.  But the mind of the restorer is always whittling down the problems that come up. And sometimes you just wait for the right part to pop up.  Like fishing, in that sense.

As you’ll see tomorrow, problems cropped up all over the place with this piece…

If I were a young person today?  I’d be collecting early computer gear ()VIC-20 anyone?) and begin laying down an investment grade collection while young.  Old is not necessarily bad…and in today’s latest and greatest  (from China), I think its important for Americans to keep in touch with our past.

Whether it comes from the big three in Detroit, or the radio folks at5 Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or the R.L. Drake Company up in Miamisburg, Ohio.

Write when you make something…

11 thoughts on “Prepping: Ham Radio Weekend! (1 of 2)”

  1. George I sort of fell into Ham radio. While working at Crane Naval Base in Indiana a fellow coworker was moving back to Cleaveland OH. He ran out of room in his vehicle so he gave me a Hallicrafters SX-122A receiver. I moved back to Weatherford Tx and installed a Gap Titan DX antenna ontop of a fold up/down tower. I must have assembled the antenna the wrong way for the SWR’s are horrible. The only thing I have ever heard is the 10 Mhz clock out of Denver.

    I purchased a ham transceiver, but the only thing I ever picked up was the 10 Mhz clock. So KG5jbs has had a license for over 2 years and has not talked once to another ham on the radio. The radio is inside a 55 gallon lined barrel inside a sea shipping container with a bunch of other electronic equipment for EMP protection.

    I suppose I will buy a Maxcon OCF- 3K80 and inline choke dipole antenna in March. I figure I can not screw up a dipole antenna.

    • Before you give up on the gap, unplug both ends of the coax cable from the radio gear up to the antenna. Make sure (with an ohm meter) that you have continuity as follows.

      1. From tip at one end to tip at the other.
      2. From the shiled at one end to the shield at the other.
      3. And there should be an open circuit (infinite resistance, or very close to it) from the outer shield to the inner tip both ends (one will prove it out though).

      Judging by your description, I would not be surprised to learn that you have an issue either in the coax, or when the antenna was assembled, it wasn’t put together right. A check from the center of the coax connector at the antenna (if it has one) to the vertical (radiating element) should show very very low resistance.

      Get back to me on this – Ure “consulting electronics detective” takes all cases, no matter how obsc ure!

      • Also – be sure to pick the right band for the time of day – critical when sunspots have disappeared!
        Mid day, you should hear stuff on the 20-meter ham band. Then by afternoon, getting on toward sunset, 40-meters will get busier (some scattered daytime traffic +/- 50 KHz from 7,200.
        And then once dark, the 75/80 meter band should come to life.
        While the GAP is OK on the higher bands, NOTHING can compete with a big, full sized dipole. The Maxcon I have been flying for several years went up because I was tired of my CCD antenna (not made anymore)
        There is NOTHING like a directional antenna, though and the Beverage antenna is 300-feet plus in length. Though they are terrible on transmit (being low to the ground) they are AWESOME on receive. I still have to get my other part put up, but it’s great!
        Again, let us know what you find.

  2. Congratulations on your restorations and skills! I’ve thought about HAM(though I’m a vegetarian), yet I’ve not yet found a need to communicate that really mattered. Obviously, others do, and I respect that, but I have phones and internet available and people rarely contact me, nor I them. I can’t imagine spending hours just talking or listening. I think the deep understanding of signals and their processing/propagation is valuable, and I use that understanding in other fields. I’m still trying to justify the HAM thing. I remember a bit of Morse from high school days, but again, we each have varying needs to communicate, and mine are very low. Perhaps when I actually have “spare” time.

      • Good point, and a reason to have a receiver and maybe a full rig or two. The license requires a time commitment, though not that much. The club aspect is something else, and I just don’t feel the desire to bond with a bunch of other techie types.

        I’ll bump up comms priorities a bit, but it’s still far behind food, water, shelter, heat and transportation.

  3. George

    “If someone were to ask, I’d have to say “Patina.”

    If that dent keeps bugging you do what the body shop guys do.
    Weld a short piece of 3/16 rod to the center of the dent and use a slide hammer to pull it out. then work the dent with a dolly and penning hammer. OR, just fill it full of bondo and paint the cabinet.

    Good luck!

  4. I had my fill of restoring old tube gear in my younger ‘broadcast engineer’ days. Magnecord R-R tape recorder amps. Phenolic tube sockets toasted and crumbly got replaced with porcelain ceramic sockets. Who knew that wiring had to be routed the SAME WAY along chassis corners for shielding and noise suppression?? I was drawing physical diagrams of wire routing and components before taking anything apart! Been there… done that… enough.

    I am blown away by the out-of-the-box performance of my new Icom 7300 SDR transceiver. I don’t have the nostalgia gene for the old tube rigs…. except as hand warmers in winter climates. My 155′ longwire has reached all the way to my antipode in South Africa at greyline… my sunset, his sunrise…. don’t ask if it was long- or short-path. They are about equal for radio propagation purposes.

    Next antenna project is a Buckmaster Off-Center-Fed dipole (multiband) for 80-6 meters. I’m busy clearing green vines waterfalling over the fence from the jungle in the next lot over. The OCF antenna will be suspended on poles 20-30 ft above the fence line. With the fence underneath as a ground reflector, I expect great NVIS performance out of the antenna for our interisland nets at 200-300 miles propagation. Tree people removed the 150′ canopy of tall trees in the next lot now, so I have good sky exposure for propagation now.

    • George, I had a Heath kit DX60 and a Johnson Viking Pacemaker. I love what you are doing with these old rigs. I have collected so many boat anchors, they are all lined up waiting for me to build my work bench and ham shack at the mountain retreat. First on my list is a Hammarlund HQ170 I picked up on the QRZ swapmeet. Then there is my Kenwood TL922 that I want to put the Kessler mods into.

      I just have to get people to stop calling me to come work. I need more free time. And, I have a lot now.

      Bottom line George, If it does not have tubes and glows in the dark, It ain’t got no soul.

      • I would LOVE to find a TL922…so if you want to bounce up to a QRO or build your own 10 kw (capable, ahem…) amp from all those Bcst parts…you know who to email!

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