N1GY- The simple Approach to Ham Radio

Tools and Test Kits for Amateur Radio

Some Talks I have done for The Tech Net

           Just recently, I was rereading an article from QST, published back in 1978. While that may seem to make the information dated, the topic is as important today as it was then. The subject is tools. Many people try to use the same tools that they have in their toolbox for working on cars or around the house. While some items make the transition ok, others are best left in the garage. Here then is the list, along with some comments. 
           1.         Soldering IRON. Please note I said IRON, not GUN. The soldering iron should be 40 watt or thereabouts. This is big enough to handle larger gauges of wire, but will not melt solder pads off the printed circuit board if you are careful.
            2.         Soldering GUN. Here is where the big gun type is good. Soldering coax connectors properly needs lots of heat, delivered quickly to the connector shell without needing so much time that the coax dielectric melts also. Get at least 140 watts and preferably a dual heat gun. Get a good one, not an Asian cheapie knockoff. Do not use the gun on circuit boards and the like. That would be like using a cannon to hunt squirrels.
           3.         Needle nose pliers. Buy smaller not bigger. Get the ones with a side cutter built in. Check the alignment of the jaws by looking sideways at a light source through the jaws when closed. If light shows through the jaws, components may slide through too. 
           4.         Cutters. Also known as "Dykes" short for diagonal cutters. Again buy smaller rather than bigger and check jaw alignment before purchase.
            5.         Strippers. Your "dykes" can double as strippers with some practice on your part. The exception is when dealing with Teflon covered wire. The heavier, tougher covering needs a dedicated stripper. I personally use wire strippers rather than dykes to strip most wire just because the tool is more controllable.
            6.         Screwdrivers. We all dream of having every screwdriver size and model. The interchangeable tip type works well, but if you use one type or size often, get a separate tool in that size. Generally, you need a small, medium and large Phillips type, and similar flat bladed sizes. A good addition is a small set of Jeweler's screwdrivers for those very small screws in mike connectors and the like.
            7.         Electric Drill. When the original article was written, battery operated drills barely existed. Today they are the norm. The main thing is to ensure that the chuck will accept a bit as small as a Number 60. Try to find a 3/8" capable chuck that will do the small drill bit also. That way you can also use the drill to run bigger bits like Multibits and the like.
            8.         Drill bits, buy a good set. Also get a Multibit. This tapered bit is perfect for drilling several different size holes in aluminum or sheet goods like plastic. Expensive, but you won't want to be without one once you have used one. 
           9.         Reamer and rat tail files. Once you start drilling holes in aluminum, you learn about burrs and sharp edges. Nuff said! 
           10.       Nibbling tool. This is a relatively inexpensive tool that allows you to cut any shape hole in aluminum. Very handy for those components that require a key way or special shape hole to prevent rotation. Also handy for mounting meters and the like in a panel or cabinet. Also can replace the need for chassis punches if used carefully.            
        11. Tools from around the house. These include a hammer, hacksaw, ruler, scriber, pencil, and pocket knife. Use the last one carefully; the finger you save may be your own.
            12.       Solder Sucker. If you do any amount of homebrewing or kit building, you know about mistakes. When you need to remove solder from a joint on a circuit board that bridges the wrong pad, you have a couple of options. Solder wick, either purchased as a commercial product or made from a scrap of braid from coax is one. Used properly, it works well. Used improperly, it just spreads the solder around even more. The other option is a spring operated solder sucker or bulb type solder remover. Not too expensive, the spring type is a little easier to use.                    
13. Nut Drivers. You can find an inexpensive set at most discount stores. They will make a big difference when working in tight places.
            14.       Tools from the garage. Here are some of the exceptions that do make the transition from the mechanics bench. Channelock Pliers, Adjustable Wrench, Vise-Grips(the smaller sizes), emery cloth.
            15.       Electrical Tape. Buy good quality vinyl tape.
            16.       Heat shrink tubing. Easy to find at most hamfests and electronics shops. Buy an assortment at first, then replace the type and size you use the most. 
             That's the basic toolkit, if you plan on using it, I suggest reading the ARRL Hand-book section on Construction Techniques. The "Handbook" has become the go-to source for many amateurs and quite a few professionals as well.           Many thanks to Jim Bartlett, WB9VAV, for the original article. I don't know if Jim is still with us, the call sign is not. There are several Jim Bartlett's listed as hams, however, so Jim, if you are listening, thanks again.
             Basic Test Kit

              Last time, we talked about tools for the Ham Operator. Now, lets talk about a basic test kit. That is, what instruments the amateur operator should have available to him or her for use in maintaining and or repairing an amateur station. The basic list isn't very long, but there are a few necessities, a couple of nice to haves, and many luxuries.
             First and foremost, the amateur operator needs a VOM or DVM. That is an instrument that belongs in every ham's toolbox. You need it to check continuity, voltages, current (with suitable shunt circuitry), resistance, etc, etc.  A multimeter gets used very frequently, so get the best that you can afford. Pay particular attention to the probes that come with it. They should be equipped with handles long enough to keep your fingers well away from the circuit you are testing. They should have flexible wire running to the instrument and the connection to the plug at the instrument end should be strong. There is nothing good about trying to make a test measurement only to find that you have to stop and solder the test probe back onto the plug. Cost varies from less than $5 to more than $200. Get the best you can afford. The ARRL Handbook has plenty of ideas for simple devices you can build and use to expand the capabilities of the DVM. See Chapter 26, Test Procedures and Projects.
            The second major instrument is an SWR or power meter. Again these come in many flavors, from very basic and inexpensive to very complex and expensive. They also come in varying degrees of accuracy from wishful thinking to spot on. Some require you to push a button to read reflected power or SWR; others come with two meters combined on a single dial to read both forward and reflected power at once. These are known as "cross-needle" displays. Still others will display SWR and/or power digitally. A fancier and more expensive group of instruments are called antenna analyzers. These give much more information but again depending on the quality, the accuracy ranges from good to wishful thinking. Some SWR meters are capable of being left in line. That is, connected between the transmitter and the antenna so that every time you key the mike, you can read the SWR or forward power. While this is great for "Golly Gee Whiz Martha, lookit all them dials a quiverin'", it is actually unnecessary. Put it in line to take the measurement of SWR, adjust the antenna to make the SWR acceptable and remove it and plug the antenna directly into the radio or tuner as necessary.Please note, an SWR meter calibrated for HF will not tell you the correct answer if you use it on 144 MHz. Nor will one set for 144 MHz tell you the SWR of a 440 MHz antenna. Match the meter to the band. Radio Shack still sells SWR meters for CB. Unless you are a QRPer this meter will not work for hams at all. Besides it's accuracy falls into the wishful thinking category.
            The above, a good Multimeter and a good SWR meter are what I call necessities in the ham shack. The antenna analyzer type of instrument falls into the category of nice to have, but only if you really need it. For most average hams the list stops here. The next category is either nice to have if you do a lot of homebrewing or kit building, or necessary if you hope to do your own repair work on your rigs or someone else's.
            The Frequency Counter is a handy piece of equipment. You can check to see that your transmitter is actually putting out the frequency it says it is. Again the cost is related to the accuracy of the instrument. Prices start at about $90 dollars and can run upwards of $300. Nice to have but not a unit you need to use every day.
            An Oscilloscope is another device that is handy, particularly if you build a lot of kits or homebrew your radios. They come in analog or digital format and today are even available as software driven programs for a computer. Costs vary widely, but be prepared for sticker shock with most. New ones will cost more than most high end HF radios. Used scopes are available at every hamfest but you kind of have to know what you are doing before you take on refurbishing a scope so go slowly. Scopes contain lethal voltages within. Treat a scope like a full gallon amplifier. GENTLY! 
           Signal Generators are handy for testing the accuracy of your receiver. However, the cost/benefit ratio would indicate that unless you really do a lot of repair or construction work, you really won't use it that much.            Spectrum analyzers are similar to oscilloscopes in that both provide a visual indication of an electrical signal. However, where scopes measure that signal against time, Spectrum Analyzers measure it against frequency. The training required to properly use a spectrum analyzer and the cost, several thousands of dollars, relegate the Spectrum Analyzer to the professional shop and the very few hams who have a need for such a device in the home environment. 
‚Äč           That pretty much covers the test gear subject for tonight. Anyone looking for more information would be advised to get a copy of the ARRL Handbook and read on. The ARRL covers the subject in detail.  The average amateur operator gets along perfectly well with just a DVM or Multimeter and a good SWR/Power meter. With most modern rigs, if it shows signs of difficulty, it probably needs to go to the repair shop. Before it goes there, however, use the above mentioned devices to make sure that it isn't just a bad antenna or coax or low or no power getting to the radio. Check the fuse before you pack up the radio! Check the coax before you reach for the phone!