Morse Code Day 2020

It’s that time of year again. Today is Morse Code Day. Celebrated each year on April 27th, Morse Code Day coincides with the birth of Samual F.B. Morse (1791-1872).

Samuel F.B. Morse circa 1840 (Open-source image)
Samuel F.B. Morse (circa 1840)

Morse contributed to the development of the single-wire telegraph and developed the encoding method, which bears his name. But, of course, you probably already knew that.

I’m always amazed that I still use a means of communication that was first used in 1844. CW has been my favorite mode since I learned the code in Navy Radioman school nearly 50 years ago.

So, have a happy Morse Code Day. I hope to hear you on the air today!

73, Craig WB3GCK

A Homebrew Z-Match Transmatch

[This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on my QSL.NET website. Although it’s twenty years old, I still occasionally hear from people who have built similar tuners.]

Antenna tuners (more accurately referred to as “transmatches”) make great homebrew projects; they are reasonably simple to build and, when finished, provide a useful piece of equipment. Every shack should have (at least) one. I built this one a couple of decades ago, and it’s still in use.

WB3GCK Z-Match Tuner - front panel
WB3GCK Z-Match Tuner – front panel

For this project, I decided to try my hand at building a Z-Match tuner from scratch. This type of tuner has been around for a while. While the Z-match can take on several variations, what distinguishes it from other circuits is that it is a resonant circuit that uses a fixed inductor. 

WB3GCK Z-Match Tuner - rear panel
WB3GCK Z-Match Tuner – rear panel

Z-Match tuners became very popular within the QRP community years back, thanks primarily to articles in QRP journals by Charlie Lofgren W6JJZ and the emergence of Z-Match tuners in kit form. Emtech sold its wildly popular ZM-2 kit commercially and the NorCal QRP Club began selling their BLT tuner kit (a W6JJZ design) like hotcakes.

Some Pros and Cons

Why the popularity? Here are some advantages that the Z-match design offers:

  • Matches balanced loads without the use of lossy baluns.
  • Being a parallel resonant circuit, the Z-match can provide some band-pass filtering for your receiver and harmonic attenuation for your transmitter.
  • A well-designed Z-match tuner has a high Q and is more efficient (less lossy) than other types of tuners.
  • The fixed inductor simplifies construction (no taps or rollers needed).
  • Using a toroid inductor and some small poly-film variable capacitors, the Z-match can be built into a very compact package. This sort of thing usually appeals to QRPers.

There is, of course, no free lunch here. Here are some disadvantages of the Z-match design:

  • Tuning is usually very narrow and can be a bit touchy sometimes to tune up
  • The range of impedances that can be matched is not as great as in other designs, such as the “T” configuration.

Design and Construction

I make no claims of originality for anything in my version of the Z-match. I based it on a classic design which was first appeared in SPRAT #84 (see the G3YCC web site for a schematic of the original design). This design, by the way, is similar to the one used in the Emtech ZM-2.

I incorporated a few modifications in my version, based on an article by W6JJZ (“The Z-Match: An Update”, QRP Quarterly, July 1995, pp 10-11). First, instead of the T-200-2 toroid specified in the SPRAT article, I used a T-200-6 core. W6JJZ recommends the Type-6 core over the Type-2 because it provides a higher Q over most of the HF range. The number of turns has to be adjusted for the Type-6 core, due to differences in permeability. Here again, I went with W6JJZ’s suggested turns count. Another reason for choosing the T-200-6 core was that I happened to have one in my junk box. How convenient!

Z-Match Tuner Schematic
Z-Match Tuner Schematic

The coil was wound using some #22 solid hookup wire (from Radio Shack) which I had laying around. The secondary winding is wound between the turns of the primary to ensure tight coupling. I added a toggle switch to ground one side of the secondary winding to accommodate single-ended loads (like a random wire). A piece of styrofoam was glued to the bottom of the enclosure to provide some support for the toroid and to keep it away from metal surfaces.

WB3GCK Z-Match Tuner - Inside view
WB3GCK Z-Match Tuner – Inside view

Another W6JJZ modification I used was the inclusion of a DPDT (center off) toggle switch to provide some flexibility with the input capacitor. Using this switching arrangement, I can select between one section of the capacitor, both sections in parallel, or both sections in parallel with a fixed 470pF mica capacitor. The extra input capacitance can sometimes be helpful on the lower frequencies.

The capacitors are poly film variable capacitors (2 sections @ 365pF each), which were originally purchased from Mouser Electronics. Unfortunately, Mouser no longer carries them, and I don’t know of another commercial source. I should have purchased a truckload of them when they were available! Similar capacitors with smaller values are still available if you look around.

The SWR bridge I used is a Dan Tayloe LED SWR indicator from a kit that was offered years ago by the Arizona scQRPions. It uses a resistive bridge circuit with a single LED to indicate a null when the bridge is balanced. For the 50-ohm resistors in the bridge, I substituted 2 100-ohm, 1-watt resistors. The bridge will handle a typical 5-watt QRP rig without flinching and could probably handle a bit more than that.

SWR Bridge Schematic
SWR Bridge Schematic

The whole thing was packaged in an enclosure which measures 3 x 5 x 2 inches. It certainly could have been built into a smaller package, but I had this enclosure on hand and decided to put it to use.

On the Air

To use the Z-Match, adjust the capacitors for a null in the background noise in your transceiver. That will get you close to a match. Then, switch in the SWR bridge, apply some RF, and tweak the capacitors for minimum brightness on the LED. There may be some interaction between the two capacitors, so you might have to go back and forth between them a time or two.

For an initial test, I hooked it up to the famous—in my mind, at least—WB3GCK Downspout Antenna. The little Z-match loaded up the downspout on 40 through 10 meters with no problems. On most bands, I could get the LED indicator to go completely out. On one or two bands, I couldn’t get it completely extinguished but it did give a definite null. Double-checking with a second SWR bridge indicated that the SWR was 1.5:1 or less in this condition. While tuned up on 40 meters, I had a quick QSO with a station near Chicago from here in southeastern Pennsylvania with 3 watts.

Wrap-Up

This little Z-Match tuner was one of my favorite—and most useful—projects. It’s a great accessory for QRP rigs that lack an internal tuner or SWR meter.

73, Craig WB3GCK

©2000-2020 Craig A. LaBarge

Downspout Antenna Maintenance

Like many of you around the world, I’m under a stay-at-home order, due to the pandemic. Taking advantage of my new-found spare time, I decided to take care of some overdue antenna maintenance.

I’ve been using my rainspout as my main antenna at home since 1993. It’s a compromise antenna, but it has given me a way to get on the air from my real estate-challenged home. Normally, I do some routine maintenance on it annually, but I’ve been lax lately. It’s been about two years or more since I’ve cleaned up the connections. This was the perfect time to get caught up.

My normal maintenance routine is to re-do the connections at the downspout. The connections are subject to exposure to the elements on the outside and rainwater coming down the inside. The downspout is on a south-facing side of the house, so the sealant on the connections also takes a beating from the sun. 

Sometimes, my maintenance reminder is when I notice a change in antenna performance. Typically, it’s a change in the tuning. I might notice, for example, problems loading up on one or more bands. This time, it was an increase in noise levels. 

So, I headed out to the downspout and removed the screws I use to make the connection. I had to scrape off enough of the sealant I use to get a screwdriver in there. Next, I took some light sandpaper and sanded around the connection points. A few times over the years, I drilled new holes for the connections. This time, I just needed to clean things up a bit.

I use two ring lugs, jumpered together, to make the connections (see photo). My rationale is that two connections are better than one. If needed, I replace the ring lugs and the screws, but this time, they were still in good shape. I just cleaned them up a bit and reinstalled them. I finished up by resealing everything with a generous amount of Goop® sealant/adhesive

This is the connection to the downspout. Two ring terminals, jumpered together, are used to ensure a good connection. I used a liberal application of Goop sealant to weather-proof the connections. (A second coat was applied after this picture was taken.) You can see some holes from previous connections. (Note to Self: Do some touch up painting on the downspout!)
This is the connection to the downspout. Two ring terminals, jumpered together, are used to ensure a good connection. I used a liberal application of Goop sealant to weather-proof the connections. (A second coat was applied after this picture was taken.) You can see some holes from previous connections. (Note to Self: Do some touch up painting on the downspout!)

Next, I moved indoors and turned my attention to the ground connections. 

I have a 1/2-inch copper pipe that I use as a ground bus for my station. The pipe runs across the back of my radio desk to an incoming cold water pipe about 6 feet away. I use hose clamps and braided strap to make the connections to it. The 1:1 unun that feeds the wire out to the downspout is also grounded to the pipe with a braided strap and a hose clamp. The pipe itself is connected to the incoming water pipe with hose clamps and a short braided strap.

I couldn’t remember the last time I cleaned up these connections, so, it was time to get busy. I removed the connections to the copper pipe ground bus and cleaned up the pipe with light sandpaper and steel wool. I reinstalled everything, making sure the connections were tight.

Turning on my transceiver, I was pleasantly surprised with the fruits of my efforts. My local noise levels have always been high, and 40M has been the worst lately. The noise was S5 or S6 at times, but now it was down to S1 or S2. The noise on 80M was also an S unit or two lower. 

One of the ground connections at the operating position. The braid strap goes to the ground terminal on my 1:1 unun. The other end of the copper pipe ground bus uses hose clamps and a short piece of braid to connect to the cold water pipe coming into the house.
One of the ground connections at the operating position. The braid strap goes to the ground terminal on my 1:1 unun. The other end of the copper pipe ground bus uses hose clamps and a short piece of braid to connect to the cold water pipe coming into the house.

I wish I had taken care of this maintenance sooner. Next time, I’ll try not to procrastinate.

Stay safe in these difficult times. I’ll see you on the air.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Speaker Wire Delta Loop

Here’s an example of what can happen when you have a hunk of cheap wire and a little too much time on your hands.

Years back, I did a write-up on a simple, random wire antenna made from a 50-foot roll of speaker wire from a local dollar store. I nick-named it the Dollar Store Special. I had a similar roll of wire in my junk box, so I set out to see if I could build another useful portable antenna from it.

This time out, I wanted to build something more elaborate than a random wire. After some sketching with a pencil and paper, I came up with this simple portable delta loop.

There are certainly better ways to construct a delta loop. However, I just wanted to see if I could build a functional antenna using only cheap speaker wire. So, with that in mind, here’s how I did it.

The Design

The antenna I built was inspired by a portable delta loop designed by Doug DeMaw, W1FB. [1] Doug’s multiband delta loop was designed for the 40M band and used a 300-ohm balanced feeder. 

According to Doug’s book, this type of antenna should work well on the fundamental frequency and higher. For the next band below the fundamental, he suggests connecting the feeder wires together and using it like a random wire. I figured I’d just try loading it up as is to see what happens.

Given that I constrained myself to a 50-foot roll of speak wire, I scaled my antenna for the 20M band. Using the formula, 1005 divided by the frequency in megahertz, I calculated a total length of 71 feet (21.6 meters) for the center of the 20M band. That would leave some of the two-conductor wire for an improvised balanced feeder.

Feeding the delta loop in a corner (with the apex of the loop pointing up), gives the antenna vertical polarity with a low take-off angle.[2] As with most antennas, higher is better. However, this antenna is still quite useful at practical heights in the field.

Since a tuner will always be necessary, I expended no effort trying to optimize the design.

Construction

Schematic diagram of the delta loop antenna
Schematic diagram of the delta loop antenna

If you’re a visual person like me, refer to the diagram to help make sense of the directions below.

  1. Measure off 35.5 feet from one end of the speaker wire. Place a small zip-tie around the wire at this point.
  2. Separate the 35.5-foot end of the speaker wire into two separate wires.
  3. Strip and solder the loose ends of the 35.5-foot wires together. Put some electrical tape or shrink tubing over the splice.
  4. Make 3 small loops in the wire, as shown in the diagram. You can see an example in the accompanying photo. These are going to be the attachment points. I used some Goop® adhesive on the zip-ties to help hold things in place.
  5. Finally, install some spade terminals on the ends of the shorter conductors. These will be used to attach the antenna to your tuner or balun.
Example attachment point. This is the feedpoint of the antenna. The two wires to the right are part of the loop antenna, while the wires towards the bottom serve as the balanced feedline. I used some Goop® adhesive on the zip-ties to help hold them in place.
Example attachment point. This is the feedpoint of the antenna. The two wires to the right are part of the loop antenna, while the wires towards the bottom serve as the balanced feedline. I used some Goop® adhesive on the zip-ties to help hold them in place.

Deployment

For my initial tests, I used a 28-foot Jackite pole to support the antenna. I only partially-extended the pole, such that the bottom of the antenna was about 4 to 5 feet off the ground. I used some nylon twine and a couple of tent stakes to tie off the two bottom corners.

This is the delta loop set up for my intial testing. The light-colored wires were difficult to photograph, so I enhanced them for visibility.
This is the delta loop set up for my intial testing. The light-colored wires were difficult to photograph, so I enhanced them for visibility.

The setup was somewhat more complicated than most portable antennas I use. It took me about 20 minutes to get it set up, but I suppose that wasn’t too bad for my first time. 

I used a couple of large tent stakes to keep the feedline off the ground. I connected the antenna to my KX3 using a 4:1 balun and a 1-foot piece of coax. 

I used a couple of large tent stakes to keep the balanced feedline portion of the antenna off the ground.
I used a couple of large tent stakes to keep the balanced feedline portion of the antenna off the ground.

Results

I first did a quick check to see what bands the KX3’s internal antenna tuner would handle. I found that I could load it up on every band from 60M through 6M, although I couldn’t get the SWR below 2:1 in the low end of 40M. That’s not surprising for a 20M loop, I suppose. I did have a usuable match between 7.030 and 7.060, where I normally operate.

I was only about 50 yards away from some powerlines, but the loop seemed quiet on receive. 

On 20M, a French station answered my third CQ. I also made contacts with Missouri and wrapped up with yet another French station. 

From the signal report the last station gave me, this antenna appears to do reasonably well with DX on 20M running QRP. It was a chilly and windy day, so I didn’t stay out there to try for contacts on other bands. 

Wrap-Up

Although my initial outing with this antenna was promising, I need to spend some more time using it on bands other than 20M. In any event, it was a fun—and cheap—antenna project.

73, Craig WB3GCK

References:

[1] DeMaw, D. (1991). Technical Bits & Pieces. In W1FB’s QRP Notebook (2nd Edition, pp. 157–161). Newington, CT: QST.
[2] DeMaw, D., & Aurick, L. (1984, October). The Full-Wave Delta Loop at Low Height. QST, 24–26.

Socially-Distant Antenna Testing

With the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been spending a lot of time at home lately. We had some decent weather today, so I went out to do some portable operating while practicing social distancing.

My daughter and son-in-law recently purchased an old farmhouse that they are restoring. The farmhouse is located on a large piece of property with plenty of room for QRP-portable operating. No one was there today, so I had all that acreage to myself. That made the social distancing thing easy. 

I had a portable delta loop antenna that I built a year or two ago but never tested. Today seemed like a good time to try it out. I set the antenna up behind an old barn and operated my KX3 from a camp chair. (I’ll be doing a detailed write-up on this antenna soon.)

My operating position today
My operating position today

I spent some time seeing which bands the KX3 would tune. Once that initial testing was done, I tuned up on 20M and started calling CQ. After the third CQ, I received a call from fellow SKCC member F8FSC in France. We both struggled with fading, but I was thrilled that he heard my meager 5-watt signal.

I bumped my power up to 10 watts to improve my odds. I heard N3PDT calling CQ from Missouri and gave him a call. We exchanged SKCC numbers and chatted for a bit. 

Tuning down the band, I heard F6HKA booming in from France. I sent my callsign once, and he got it the first time. Bert gave me a 549 and said I was peaking at 569. We exchanged SKCC numbers and chatted for about 10 minutes before signing. I’ve worked Bert many times, and it’s always a pleasure.  

It was sunny but somewhat chilly and windy out there today. As I was working Bert, though, it started getting cloudy. I was starting to feel the cold, so I figured it was a good time to pack up and head home.

It felt great to be playing radio outside and not thinking about the pandemic.

Stay safe, everyone.

73, Craig WB3GCK

Doublets I Have Known and Loved

In a recent post, I covered some (very) basic information about the venerable doublet antenna. This time around, I’ll cover some practical examples. These are antennas I have used and one unique design I know of.

Doublet Fed with TV Twinlead

My go-to portable antenna for several years was a simple doublet fed with 25 feet of that cheap, brown TV twin-lead. For the radiating elements, I used some #22 stranded hookup wire.

I first built the antenna as a 40M dipole fed with RG-174 coax. After a while, I wanted to cover multiple bands, so I removed the coax and replaced it with the twin-lead. I used a small piece of fiberglass perf board for the center insulator.

I have often used my homebrew Z-match tuner to load it up, although a 4:1 balun and a short run of coax to my rig’s internal tuner works fine, too. The whole antenna weighs next to nothing, and fits in a sandwich-sized Ziplock® bag.

Nothing fancy but it works great.

This is the center connector for my 66-foot doublet. The feedline is the old, cheap TV twin-lead.
This is the center connector for my 66-foot doublet. The feedline is the old, cheap TV twin-lead.

Up and Outer

The Up and Outer is simply a doublet with one vertical leg and one horizontal leg. I had done some experimenting with this old-time antenna and decided to build one to use while on vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 

I planned to support the vertical leg with a 28-foot Jackite pole, so I made a simple modification to a 44-foot doublet I had on the shelf. I spliced 6 feet of additional wire to each of the elements down to 28 feet each, and I was in business. Like my 40M doublet, the Up and Outer is fed with TV twin-lead and uses a perf board center insulator.

This antenna always goes with me on our annual Outer Banks vacation. I’ve used it from numerous beach rental houses, and it’s perfect for use on a second story deck. I used it last summer with great results, connecting it directly to my KX3. And, if I need to, I can use it as a normal horizontal doublet.

Appalachian Trail (AT) Dipole

This design is the brainchild of my friend, Ed Breneiser WA3WSJ, and goes back about 20 years. Rich Arland K7SZ, wrote about it in his QRP column in QST [1] back in 2001 and devoted a few pages to it in one of his books [2].

In simplest terms, it’s a 40M doublet made from #26 copper-clad stealth wire. Ed used a 3/4-inch PVC end cap for the center insulator (see photo). After soldering wires to an SO-239 socket and routing the wires through the end cap, the inside of the end cap is potted with epoxy. This makes it pretty much bomb-proof. 

The antenna is fed with 300-ohm ladder line, which is soldered to a PL-259 UHF connector. The PL-259 probably causes a slight imbalance, but in the field, you’ll never notice it. You can also feed it with coax and use it as a normal 40M dipole. Pretty cool, huh? 

When I built mine, I went with some #22 stranded hookup wire I had on hand. Although I departed from Ed’s design a bit, this doublet has been a reliable portable antenna over the years. 

My version of the WA3WSJ AT Dipole. The discoloration on the PVC end cap is from a mishap I had while potting it with epoxy. On the right is a PL-259 connector used with 300-ohm ladder line. As you can probably tell, this antenna has seen years of heavy use.
My version of the WA3WSJ AT Dipole. The discoloration on the PVC end cap is from a mishap I had while potting it with epoxy. On the right is a PL-259 connector used with 300-ohm ladder line. As you can probably tell, this antenna has seen years of heavy use.

WV0H Park Doublet

Myron WV0H designed a unique doublet that he dubbed The WVØH Park Portable DoubletHe uses two 50-foot pieces of wire to create a 60-foot doublet fed with a built-in open-wire feeder. I won’t attempt to offer a detailed description here; Myron’s blog post provides all the details you need to build one. Go check it out.

While I’ve never used Myron’s unique antenna, I can vouch that it works. I worked Myron a few years back while he was out in a park with his doublet. I can attest that it puts out a great QRP signal.

Wrap-Up

Well, that’s about it. If you need a reliable, easy-to-build, multi-band antenna, give the time-tested doublet a try.

73, Craig WB3GCK

References:
[1] Arland, R. (2001, July). QRP Power – Antenna Time. QST, p. 100.
[2] Arland, Richard K7SZ, Low Power Communication – The Art and Science of QRP, The American Radio Relay League, 2nd Edition, 2004, Chapter 6, pp. 6-36, 6-37

The Doublet – Revisiting a Classic Antenna

I was recently going through my stash of portable wire antennas and came across one of my old favorites—the doublet. I don’t see too many references to this type of antenna these days, but the doublet provides a great portable antenna option.

What is it?

The doublet, simply put, is just a dipole. The difference is that you feed it with a balanced feeder, rather than coax. 

Hams have been using doublets for many years. The earliest reference I could find in the ARRL QST archives was from September of 1929.[1] In this write-up, Clair Foster W6HM describes a 40M doublet fed with twisted wire lamp cord used for receiving. 

Advantages of the Doublet

The balanced feeder provides some advantages. Depending on how it’s constructed, it can withstand higher SWR with lower losses than coax. Because of the low losses at high SWR, you can use the doublet as a multi-band antenna. 

As a portable antenna, it’s hard to beat, especially as an inverted vee. Use a tree branch or telescopic pole to hoist up the center, tie off the ends, and you’re in business. [2]

Some Disadvantages

This multi-band capability comes with some disadvantages, though. Fortunately, none of them are insurmountable.

First, you’ll need a transmatch that can handle balanced feedlines. Typical commercially-available feedlines have either 300 or 450-ohm characteristic impedances. For open-wire feedlines, the impedance can sometimes be 600 ohms or more.  

I’ve had success using a homebrew Z-match tuner. Companies like Pacific Antenna and QRP Guys sell Z-match tuner kits that will handle balanced lines. They offer tuners that are small and light enough for QRP-portable use. 

You can also use a balun to transition from the balanced feedline to 50-ohm coax. While this isn’t an optimum approach, it works. Textbooks often recommend a 4:1 balun, and that’s a good starting point. If you go this route, I recommend keeping the coax as short as practical. If you run into matching problems on some bands, try another balun ratio (e.g., 1:1), or change the length of your feedline. 

The second drawback is that you need to be careful of how you route balanced lines. You need to avoid getting it too close to metal or laying it on the ground. Both can upset the line’s balance. This can cause it to radiate or introduce losses. If you have excess line, don’t coil it up. Operating outdoors, I found these restrictions aren’t very difficult to work around; you just need to be mindful of them. 

Construction

Building the doublet is pretty simple. Many folks suggest making the doublet a half-wavelength long at the lowest band you intend to use. I’ve built one for 40M and it worked well on 40M and higher. Depending on your tuner, it may also be usable on the next lower band.

L. B. Cebik W4RNL (SK) popularized the 44-foot doublet for 40M-10M. According to Cebik’s analysis, this length produces a more consistent radiation pattern across the bands. 

Doublet diagram. One rule-of-thumb suggests avoiding combinations of feedline electrical length (L1) and one leg of the radiator (L2) that are odd multiples of an eighth-wavelength.
Doublet diagram. One rule-of-thumb suggests avoiding combinations of feedline electrical length (L1) and one leg of the radiator (L2) that are odd multiples of an eighth-wavelength.

Regardless of the size of the doublet, you should try to avoid certain feedline lengths. One rule-of-thumb suggests avoiding combinations of feedline electrical length plus one leg of the radiator that are odd multiples of an eighth-wavelength. [3] If you run into matching problems, you can try adjusting the length of either the feedline or the radiating elements.

Feedline Options

You have several options here:

  • Commercial 450-ohm or 300-ohm ladder line. These are commonly available, and they work great. 
  • Homebrew open-wire feeders. This is the most efficient option. If you do some Internet searching, you’re likely to find lots of ways to build open-wire feeders. SOTABEAMS has a great example on their website.
  • TV twin-lead. I’ve used the cheap, brown stuff quite a bit for portable doublets. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find these days. If you come across it somewhere, stock up!
  • Lamp cord or speaker wire. This works and I’ve seen folks use it for portable antennas. However, it can be lossy, compared to window line or open-wire feeders.

More Later

If you want more technical details on this antenna, information abounds on the Internet and in antenna books. In particular, Cebik wrote some great articles that are worth searching for. 

In a future post, I’ll cover some practical examples that I have come across or used in the field.

73, Craig WB3GCK

References:
[1] Foster, C. W6HM (1929, September). Experimenters’ Corner: The “Doublet” for Receiving. QST, p. 39.
[2] DeMaw, D. W1FB (1991). Technical Bits & Pieces. In W1FB’s QRP Notebook (2nd Ed., pp. 157–161). Newington, CT: QST.
[3] Heys, John D., G3BDQ (1989). Center-fed antennas using tuned feedlines. In Practical Wire Antennas. Bedford, UK: Radio Society of Great Britain, p 7.

Dollar Store Special

[NOTE: This is an updated version of an old article from my QSL.NET website. In the interest of full disclosure: My local dollar store no longer sells the speaker wire I used. While it’ll probably cost you a few more bucks to build one, it’ll still be a cheap antenna. Although the original article has been on my website for 15 years, I still get the occasional email from folks who have built one.]

I love rummaging through our local dollar store. One of the biggest bargains in our local dollar store is speaker wire. You can get 50 feet of two-conductor speaker wire for a buck. Not too shabby. I always keep a bunch of the stuff on hand for antenna experimentation. 

Diagram of the Dollar Store Special. See the text for other counterpoise options.
Diagram of the Dollar Store Special. See the text for other counterpoise/radial options.

Using a single 50-foot roll of dollar store speaker wire, I made a simple 50-foot random wire antenna with counterpoise wires to cover the 40, 30 and 20-meter bands. I stashed the whole kit in a zip-lock sandwich bag and always keep it on hand as a backup antenna system whenever I operate in the field. With a simple antenna tuner of some sort, this will get you on the air in a pinch, should your primary antenna fail. 

This is the 20 AWG speaker wire I used. Sadly, my local dollar store no longer carries it. I wish I had bought a ton of it while it was available.
This is the 20 AWG speaker wire I used. Sadly, my local dollar store no longer carries it. I wish I had stocked up while it was available.

Here’s all you have to do:

  1. Separate the conductors so that you now have two separate 50-foot wires.
  2. For the radiator, take one of the 50-foot wires and crimp a small ring lug to one end—right over the insulation. This gives you someplace to tie a line to hoist it up. On the other end, just strip off a half-inch or so of the insulation. You can leave it bare or add whatever kind of connector you want; whatever works best with your tuner.
  3. For the counterpoise wires, take the remaining 50-foot wire and cut it so that you have a 33-foot wire and a 17-foot wire. If you only want to work 40 and 20 meters, you can stop right here. You now have counterpoise wires for both of these bands.
  4. To provide a counterpoise wire for 30 meters, take the 33-foot wire from Step #3 and cut it so that you now have a 23-foot wire and a 10-foot wire. Strip off about 1/2-inch of insulation from one end of the 23-foot wire. Install a quick-disconnect connector of some sort on the other end, so that you can join the 23-foot and 10-foot wire sections together. The idea here is that, with the two wires connected, you have a 33-foot counterpoise wire for 40 meters. With the two sections separated, you now have a 23-foot counterpoise wire for 30 meters.
I used a ring terminal to terminate the 50-foot wire. Note that the terminal is crimped over the wire's insulation. The metal ring terminal is electrically-isolated from the antenna wire.
I used a ring terminal to terminate the 50-foot wire. Note that the terminal is crimped over the wire’s insulation. The metal ring terminal is electrically-isolated from the antenna wire.
This is the quick-disconnect connector I used on the original version of the counterpoise wire.
This is the quick-disconnect connector I used on the original version of the counterpoise wire. I used some Goop® adhesive to provide some strain relief.

[Note: If you only plan to operate with the radials laying on the ground, cutting them to resonance isn’t too important. You can simplify things a bit by going with just the 33 and 16-foot wires. I think two 25-foot wires would be sufficient, as well. Three 16.6-ft radials is another option to consider. Feel free to experiment here and see what works for you.]

In operation, just hoist one end of the 50-foot radiator up in a tree or other suitable support. Connect the other end to the hot side of your tuner. Connect the 33-foot and 17-foot counterpoise wires to the ground connection on your tuner and lay them out on the ground. When you want to work 30 meters, just disconnect the quick-disconnect on the longer counterpoise wire. Pretty simple, eh? Any type of simple L-tuner should work fine for this. 

Please note that I wouldn’t recommend using this wire for a permanent outdoor antenna. It’s not suited for that kind of use. But for temporary outdoor use, it’ll do just fine. Besides, if the wire goes bad, you can always replace the whole thing for a dollar! 

73, Craig WB3GCK

©2005-2020 Craig LaBarge WB3GCK

Checklists for Portable Operations

Nothing can bring a portable radio outing to a screeching halt faster than forgetting to pack a critical item—an adapter, a cable, or heaven forbid, a radio. Been there, done that. My solution is a detailed checklist for such occasions.

At some point in my life, I became an obsessive checklist maker. Back when I was still working for a living, I relied heavily on checklists for my daily to-do list, things I needed to prepare for meetings, and the like. I naturally carried that habit over into my ham radio hobby.

Ham Radio Checklists

I keep a variety of checklists handy for different types of operating. A few of my standard checklists are:

  • Hiking
  • Bike-portable
  • Stationary-mobile operating from my truck
  • Operating from the camper

I also keep some checklists for some special events:

  • Field Day
  • Our annual summer vacation

For those one-off, ad hoc events, I sit down in advance to prepare a special checklist of things I need to take. 

I know all this sounds like a no-brainer, but I wasn’t blessed with the greatest of memories. When I try to take a shortcut around this process, the risk of forgetting an important item goes way up.

Preparing the Checklist

When developing a checklist, I do a mental walk-through of my setup in the field. I simply try to visualize setting up and make a detailed list of the things I’ll need. This method works for simple setups. For more complex set-ups, I sketch it out on paper and make my checklist from that.

An even better approach is to assemble the equipment at home. Then you can do a detailed inventory of your equipment to form your checklist.

When I prepare a checklist, I first list out the containers (backpack, box, bag, etc.) that I’ll be using to carry the equipment. Next, I list out everything that needs to be in those containers. I indent these items on the checklist below the container.

As items are packed in a container, I check them off. Then, as the containers are loaded into my truck, they are checked off. 

I also keep a list of things I need to do before the event. I call this my pre-flight checklist. I use this list to make sure batteries are charged, my truck’s GPS is programmed, and the like. 

The Mechanics

For years, I created my lists using a word processor. When it was time to pack, I just printed them out. That works fine, but I now use a paperless method.

I now use an application called Evernote to keep my checklists. My checklists are stored in the cloud, so I can access them from any of my computers and even my cellphone. I can check off items on my phone as I’m packing. After the event, I just go in and un-check the items, and the checklist is ready to go for the next outing.

A portion of a checklist as it looks in the Evernote app on my cellphone
A portion of a checklist as it looks in the Evernote app on my cellphone

You can get a basic Evernote account for free. There are paid options for folks (like me) who need additional capabilities and features.

Some “Pro Tips”

Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years:

  • Don’t be too quick to check off an item. If you check off an item before it is physically in the container or loaded into your vehicle, you’ll eventually run into problems. Don’t ask me how I know this; just trust me on this one.
  • After an event, take a few minutes to update your checklist, if needed. Was there something you wish you had brought or should have left at home? Some of my frequently-used checklists have been evolving for decades. 

Wrap-up

So there you have it. I know this is a somewhat mundane topic, but checklists have saved my bacon on several occasions. 

73, Craig WB3GCK

Winter Field Day 2020

With family coming in this weekend, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to participate in this year’s Winter Field Day. I did, however, manage to get out for a couple of hours at the start of the contest.

It was raining cats and dogs when I arrived at Black Rock Sanctuary, one of my favorite operating spots. I had my usual stationary-mobile set up ready to go a few minutes before the starting time. 

My antenna bundled up for a rainy Winter Field Day.
My antenna bundled up for a rainy Winter Field Day.

I mostly operated CW on 40M and 20M, but I did manage a couple of rare—for me, at least—SSB contacts on 40M. I ended up with 20 contacts in my log. There were quite a few familiar callsigns from previous Winter Field Days. 

It was getting hard to find new CW stations to work, so I decided to head out and get some errands done. I hope everyone who stuck it out had a fun—and warm—Winter Field Day.

73, Craig WB3GCK