Elecraft W1 SWR/Wattmeter Kit

I like building my own radio equipment and I’m always on the lookout for an interesting kit to build that would be useful for my station. What caught my eye about the Elecraft W1 SWR/Wattmeter was the fact that it covers 150mW to 140W power levels, making it equally useful for QRP as well as in a typical 100W HF station.

The kit uses through-hole components and is straightforward to build. The provided instructions are very well done and step you through every part of the assembly process. The trickiest part of the build is the SWR bridge binocular toroid, which can be finicky to wind, but if you take your time it is not a problem.

As with all Elecraft gear it is not the cheapest option out there at $130, which doesn’t include a case. I considered trying to retrofit my own case for the meter, but in the end I purchased the W8FGU case. The case is well made and easy to assemble with various options depending on how you want to arrange the meter’s coax connections and circuit board. I opted for the straight BNC coax connector option. This places the coax connections on the back of the case instead of the sides and works much better for cable management in my station. Instead of purchasing the tilt base option for the case I built a simple wooden base with angle brackets bolted to a piece of lexan. The case is attached to the lexan using super heavy duty velcro squares (for easy removal of the meter) which results in a very stable assembly that doesn’t slide or fall over from the weight of the coax cable connections.

The meter is very simple to use and reads both forward power and SWR simultaneously, each on their own LED strip. Three separate LEDs indicate which scale of power the meter is reading, 0-1.4W, 1.4-14W, and 15-140W. The LEDs are bright and make it very easy to read the meter in any lighting condition. The benefit of the bar-graph style of the meter is especially noticeable when using a manual antenna tuner since the dip on the SWR display when you find a match is much more obvious to the eye than with an equivalent cross-needle meter.

The meter can be powered by a 9V battery or an external 12V power source, and the case includes an external power switch. As is typical for Elecraft equipment, the W1 has a lot of additional functionality built in. The meter has a serial port (via a 3.5mm jack) and the various settings (decay, peak hold, etc.) can be adjusted using a serial terminal or with a piece of software from Elecraft that can also display the meter’s readouts on your computer screen. Overall a great kit.

uBITX QRP Transceiver

Last year I assembled a BITX40 QRP transceiver from a kit and it turned out well. For under $60 it is a surprisingly good 40 meter radio. Now it has a big brother that adds more bands, more power, better performance, more features, and is still incredibly affordable. It’s also easier to build.

The uBITX is much more than just a multi-band BITX40 (the uBITX covers 80-10 meters); the receiver is much more refined and the difference between the two is not subtle at all. The uBITX has much cleaner audio and sounds more like a commercially available radio than the BITX40. It also tunes like one with a proper encoder for tuning instead of a potentiometer. To access the various modes and features of the radio there is a clever menu system that makes use of the encoder’s built-in pushbutton for navigation. Like the BITX40 before it, more advanced firmware (firmware upgrade instructions) has been developed for the radio’s microcontroller and a ton of features have already been added (Rig Control, IF Shift, CW keyer, memories, band limits, WSPR, and many more).

The amount of improvements implemented in the uBITX are especially evident in the assembly process. Where the BITX40 had many individual connections between components and the pre-assembled boards, the uBITX needs only four:  power, antenna, audio, and digital. This makes wiring the uBITX a much simpler process than its predecessor. The one added complexity was aligning the screen with the cases front faceplate since the screen’s header now plugs directly into the main board instead of using a cable.

My uBITX build is similar to that of my BITX40. I used the same style case made of shielded ABS plastic with aluminum end plates (Hammond 1598RDBK) and a top mounted speaker. Due to the additional band capabilities and other upgrades the main board is about a half inch bigger in each dimension. This small change required me to use a different case model from my previous build.

The case’s removable end plates and the socketed board connections make it very easy to assemble & disassemble the radio. I kept the wiring as short and tightly bundled as possible in addition to using small coax for the antenna connection to try to reduce interference. Beyond the standard controls and connections I added a power switch, used a USB panel mount extension to provide easy access for firmware updates & rig control, installed a pushbutton in place of a CW key jack to use as a tune button, and upgraded the volume pot & audio jacks to higher quality versions than those supplied. This also allowed me to use the volume and tuning knobs that I liked. The headphone jack is wired such that it cuts off the speaker when headphones are plugged in.

If you want to build a simple, but still perfectly usable radio the uBITX is absolutely the way to go. It offers many more features and vastly improved performance over the BITX40 for less than twice the price at $109.

Update – Two Simple Mods (January 2019)

Sources for tons of uBITX mods and upgrades

  • Audio Pop Fix – Solves the issue of getting a blast of audio static from the speaker when switching from receive to transmit. This fix has been incorporated into the new v4 circuit boards (v4 schematic), but since mine is an older v3 board (v3 schematic) I did the mod myself. I followed the guides here, and here and mounted the parts directly to the board similar to the latter example. What I like about this method is that everything fits on the main board so final result is fairly clean. This mod involved drilling a hole in the board and scraping off some of the insulating film on the bottom, as well as exposing a few traces on the top side of the board. The mod works perfectly and looks more tricky than it is if you take your time. Be careful to get the orientation of the transistor correct since different parts have different pin-outs.
  • Increase Mic Gain – The default microphone gain is inadequate for the three different mics that I have tried. I could never drive the transmitter properly with a normal speaking voice. This super simple mod definitely improves the microphone response and is highly recommended if you have poor microphone response, even on the new v4 boards which do not incorporate this mod. There are more complex microphone mods around but this one works well and only involves replacing two resistors.

HobbyPCB Hardrock 50 Amplifier & Auto Tuner Kits

Now that I have a couple of QRP radios, especially the very capable mcHF, I became more interested in amplifier options to boost my power output when the need arises. I also wanted to build the amp myself to add to my collection of kit built equipment. After looking around, I decided to go with the HobbyPCB HARDROCK-50 Amplifier and ATU.

At $300 for the amplifier and another $180 for the tuner this is not the most economical kit, however, this is a very full featured amplifier and the antenna tuner adds a lot of additional functionality. The amplifier can be driven by a PTT signal or a carrier and also features rig interfacing with some QRP radios for automatic band switching. Both the amplifier and tuner can be inline or bypassed. This is a great feature since the tuner can be used with your radio at QRP levels when you don’t need to use the amp. It is also a very wide range tuner, covering roughly a 10:1 SWR range. The tuner board also adds 60 meter band and standalone Watt/SWR meter functionality.

The kits themselves are very well put together with well made boards (pre-populated with surface mount components) and good quality components. The case is super rugged and all of the machining and fit and finish were very well done. I really like that the amp is completely air cooled and should only require a fan under extreme circumstances. The instructions (HR-50, ATU) are also very well put together with lots of pictures and a ton of detail to step you through the assembly, calibration, and operation of the amplifier.

The amplifier section took about 7 hours to build and calibrate. Most of this involves soldering all the components (including all 15 relays) as well as winding and mounting the 14 inductors. The auto-tuner board took another 3 hours to assemble. This board is almost entirely relays (17) and inductors (9). Integrating the two boards together is very straightforward. It’s a testament to the design of these kits that you can build the amplifier as a standalone kit and then add the auto-tuner later and only have to modify one coax connection.

These kits have been around for a few years and various corrections and bugs have been ironed out, so my kits didn’t require any hardware mods and came pre-loaded with the current firmware revisions. The amp’s screen displays the hardware, amp firmware, and ATU firmware versions on boot-up.

Once everything is running the screen displays the current keying mode, the band selected, heatsink temperature, and power supply voltage. When the amp is keyed the LED turns red and the display shows a bargraph of power output as well as the SWR and output power in PEP. To initiate the auto-tuner you press the Key Mode button after keying the amplifier.

In order to integrate the amp with my mcHF I adjusted the full power setting of the radio from 10 watts output to 2-4 watts output depending on the band. This was done to provide the appropriate drive level for 50 watts out of the amplifier. Using this setup I tuned around the bands and found a Belgian station calling CQ on 80 meters and received a good signal report when I responded to him. Not a bad first contact. I look forward to using this amp and tuner more in the future especially with my mcHF since I am no longer limited to QRP operating.

BITX40 QRP Transceiver

The BITX40 is an interesting project. It is an inexpensive ($59) QRP 40 meter band SSB (LSB only) transceiver that comes as a semi-preassembled kit. The main boards are built and tested by the manufacturer in India and the end user only has to mount the boards in a case and wire the power, controls, and antenna connections. The radio itself is controlled by an Arduino microcontroller using a version of the Raduino firmware and a digital synthesizer chip provides frequency stability. Due to its simple design it is easily modified and there are dozens of mods on the internet that can be performed to add features. My ham radio club did a group build project of this radio and we had over 20 members put together their own BITX40.

One of the most convenient features of this kit is that the main boards make use of connectors to simplify construction. This also makes the radio very easy to disassemble since nearly all of the wiring can be unplugged. The kit comes with all the parts you need (other than a case, speaker, and knobs), however, I made a few changes. I had a couple of 6mm shaft knobs that I wanted to use that did not fit the potentiometers that were supplied. I also wanted to implement a couple of the simplest and most useful mods. I ordered the following parts from Mouser:

The pushbuttons are useful due to the features added in the modified Raduino firmware. With the new firmware installed, the white pushbutton serves as a Menu button that provides access to the additional features included in the firmware (Multiple VFOs, RIT, Split, USB, CW, frequency calibration, scanning features, and many others). One of the interesting things about the firmware is that if you have it installed and do not add any buttons or other mods, it still behaves like the default firmware. Only when you perform the appropriate mods does the additional functionality become accessible.

Another mod I performed allows the red pushbutton to serve as a Tune button. When pressed the radio automatically switches to CW mode, keys the transmitter, and generates a tone to allow tuneup of an antenna tuner. This functionality actually requires 3 separate mods (PTT Sense, CW Carrier, and TX-RX) which are detailed in the updated firmware’s documentation. They involve soldering a couple of resistors to specific locations on the board as well as a transistor across the PTT line and wiring from these components to the Arduino’s IO points. In order to maintain my ability to easily disassemble the radio by removing the case’s front and rear panels, I used a 2 pin header to create my own connectors for plugging and unplugging some of the additional wires that were added for these mods. The final modification involved soldering a 100pF capacitor in parallel with the inductor L7. This helps suppress the 2nd harmonic to levels that are acceptable to the FCC.

For the speaker I drilled some holes in the top of the case to let the sound out and mounted the speaker.  I left the wires long so that it is easy to remove the top of the case and lay it to the side without having to unplug the speaker cable from the main board. Using a speaker is highly recommended for this radio instead of using headphones. This is due to the fact that the BITX40 has no AGC (although there are mods to add one) and consequently the audio from strong stations is drastically louder than weaker ones. This difference in volume could easily hurt your ears if you were wearing headphones.

An electret microphone element is provided with the kit and I wired it up with a pushbutton in a small enclosure to work as a hand mic. I secured the mic element and the shielded cable using hot glue. This arrangement required me to wire the mic and PTT lines to the same 1/8″ stereo jack on the front panel, even though they have separate connections to the main board. As basic as this setup is it functions well and I have had good audio reports on the contacts I have made using it.

The best word to describe using the BITX40 is funky. After years of using modern complex transceivers, the BITX is almost shocking for how simple it is. You tune around and adjust the volume, that’s about it. Nevertheless it works, as long as you abide by QRP operating procedure:  find the strongest station on the band and weight for them to call CQ or QRZ. It’s pretty impressive how simple this radio is and how little you really need to make contacts.

I put a fair amount of effort to construct this radio carefully, however, some of my ham club’s members who built their own ended up with a spaghetti of wires and their radios still functioned fine. Because all of the complex circuitry is pre-assembled and tested, the hardest part of this project is already done. That is a key part to this being a great project because it allows people of all skill levels to build something and be virtually guaranteed that at the end they will have a working radio. In my club we had people who had never soldered before build this radio (with plenty of guidance) and they were all smiles when we powered up their creation the first time. The combination of affordability and functionality make the BITX40 an amazing piece of technology and a fantastic addition to ham radio.

Elecraft T1 QRP Autotuner Kit

img_0841In the months since I completed my mcHF SDR transceiver kit, I have thought about building a QRP antenna tuner to go along with it. After some investigating I came across the Elecraft T1 which is available assembled or as a kit and can handle 10W of continuous power. While I have never owned any Elecraft gear, they have a very good reputation and several people in my ham radio club swear by their equipment. The kit looked like a fun project and a perfect match for my QRP gear so I decided to order one.

img_0842The kit took about a 4.5 hours to complete. The included instructions are very detailed and do a good job of emphasizing critical parts of the build. The biggest issues arise in regard to several components that need to be mounted in a very specific way in order for the case to fit properly. The circuit boards are fairly tightly packed, but anyone with good soldering experience should have no problem assembling this kit.

img_0844img_0843The finished product is very compact and incredibly simple to operate. I really appreciate that the instructions are printed on the front label in case you forget. So far I have used it to tune a couple different antennas of various designs and it performs very well. It finds matches quickly and the relays aren’t annoyingly loud like some autotuners. I look forward to getting a lot of use out of this and my mcHF.

mcHF SDR Transceiver Kit

A huge part of the history of ham radio involves people building their own equipment. In fact that is how things started since at the beginnings of radio no commercial hardware was available. Over the years various companies and organizations have sold transceiver kits, but in recent years most of these have consisted of basic morse code only or single frequency single side band devices intended for digital communications. With the increased development of software defined radio (SDR), however, this is changing. Earlier this year I came across the mcHF SDR transceiver project and decided to purchase one of the kits. Unlike other basic transceiver kits the mcHF is a full featured radio with 80M-10M coverage, multi-mode support, variable bandwidth filtering, DSP (noise reduction, notch filtering, etc.), sound card interface, rig control, and band scope / waterfall capability. Not bad for a $388 kit.

mcHF (1)mcHF (2)The project was originated by Chris, M0NKA in the UK about 2 years ago and the design has gone through a number of revisions resulting in the current v0.5, which is what I purchased. One of the major reasons I was willing to undertake this project was that the kit offered by Chris includes the circuit boards already populated with about 95% of the surface-mount parts, including all of the tricky to solder chips and super tiny resistors and capacitors. The only remaining parts to install are larger, and therefore easier to solder, surface-mount parts and standard through-hole components. The builder also has to hand wind several toroid inductors and transformers. You also have to provide your own final power amplifier MOSFETs, shielding plate between the boards, and case for the radio. These requirements go along with the way this kit is sold, which is to say bare bones. The kit includes zero instructions. The builder is responsible for sorting through the mcHF downloads page, the mcHF Yahoo group, and the Github Wiki to find the details regarding how to wind the toroids and transformers as well as details on any recommended mods and instructions for how to use the radio.

Since this project is open source, both the hardware and firmware have undergone considerable development. In fact, from the time I started building the board to when when I completed the project a large firmware update was released which revised the main screen and menu layout as well as added a number of fixes and features, including the ability to control the transceiver via the USB port and detect the transceiver as a sound card device with a PC.

mcHF (3)The mcHF consists of two circuit boards called the UI board and the RF board. I built the UI board first, and then built the power supply section of the RF board so that I could power up and test the UI board. Chris has a very helpful document on the mcHF webpage that steps through the process of installing the bootloader and uploading firmware to the CPU on the UI board. So after only about 4 hours of work I had a functional UI board.

mcHF (7)Next I completed the remainder of the RF board, which was fairly time consuming since winding toroids and transformers is a tedious operation. Documentation exists for how to wind the transformers, however, the only information regarding the toroids is on the RF board schematic which details how many windings each core requires. Extra attention should be paid to stripping the enamel wire used for the toroids and transformers. Even though I diligently sanded off the outer coating and thought that I had solid solder connections to the board, I did not do a good enough job on two of the toroids which prevented the radio’s operation on the 80M band. After desoldering and re-sanding the wires I achieved a good electrical connection and consequently 80M functionality.

mcHF (10)mcHF (11)This portion of kit construction is somewhat confusing because there are a ton of possible mods for the various transformers that can improve performance of the final power amplifier. I decided to build mine in the default configuration which results in a solid 5W output on 80M-12M and about 4W on 10M. When modified, users report 10 or more watts of power output. The only modification I made was with regard to the SWR bridge where RG-178 coax is used in place of a single winding of enamel wire. Construction details for many of these mods are available in a document on the Yahoo group produced by Clint, KA7OEI who has done considerable work on both the hardware and software of the mcHF.

Although not technically a mod, I did add a resistor that is regarded as “optional” on the UI board schematic. This resistor provides power for when an electret microphone is used. Since I would be modifying an Icom HM-36 I had lying around to work with the mcHF, I needed to install this resistor in order for the microphone to function. For this I used a standard 1/4W resistor since I had on of the correct value in my junk box and just soldered it to the surface mount pads. In order to avoid shorting with nearby components I carefully shaped the resistor’s leads and used electrical tape to insulate between the parts.

mcHF (5)mcHF (6)After completing construction of the boards, I turned my attention to completing the radio as a whole. The first step of this was to construct the shield plate between the boards. For this I used a thin mcHF (12)sheet of aluminum that I hand cut, drilled and nibbled according to a pattern available on the mcHF website. I then test fit and assembled the board and shield sandwich to check for proper clearance. When I was satisfied I completed the assembly using 5mm standoffs.

mcHF (19)mcHF (17)If you look around the web you will see a lot of people who have built the mcHF using the same case. This case is sold by Artur, SP3OSJ from Poland for about $63. If you email him at asnieg@epf.pl he will give you the details for how to order. The case comes with all of the knobs and buttons as well as a small piece of acrylic to protect the LCD display. The front panel is pre-machined, however, the endplates are left to the builder to complete. I also had to file some of the button holes to allow smooth operation and I had to sand the acrylic to fit the opening in the case.

mcHF (8)mcHF (9)Since the case serves as the heatsink for the power supply circuitry as well as the final amplifier transistors, a good mechanical connection between the components and the case is necessary. To mcHF (13)mcHF (14)accomplish this I soldered brass #4-40 nuts to the heatsink fin on power supply and amplifier components. I then drilled holes in the case to match where these nuts line up when the case is mcHF (15)assembled. When bolts are inserted and tightened, the electrical components are pulled tight to the wall of the case. In order to achieve a properly aligned connection, I had to grind away a small amount of material where the final amp transistors contact the case (note the hole I drilled in the wrong location due to my inability to follow the old rule of measure twice drill once). The last step in construction was labeling the buttons and ports, which I did using vinyl self-adhesive labels and my laser printer.

The final adjustment before testing the transmitter involves setting the proper bias for the final amplifier and then setting the transmitter gain for each band of operation. Documentation for these adjustments is on the Github Wiki. Basically you set the bias in one of the mcHF’s menu settings while keying the transmitter with no audio present as you watch the current draw of the radio. The transmitter gain is also a menu setting. These adjustments can be accomplished with an ammeter and a RF power meter.

mcHF (16)Finally, after about 20 hours of work I put my mcHF on the air. After adjusting my microphone gain I made a contact on 40M SSB. I then plugged the transceiver into my PC and fired up WJST-X. Following the guide on the Github Wiki I was able to get rig control working and made a half dozen contacts using JT65 on the 30M band using nothing but the mcHF and my laptop. The next day I checked into my local 10M SSB net and received good signal and audio reports from the other regulars who are familiar with my voice.

Overall I have to say that I am incredibly happy with the mcHF kit. It has been a great learning experience and the radio itself is an incredibly capable and configurable device that offers a lot of bang for your buck. I plan to use the mcHF quite a bit in the future and look forward to any future firmware updates. I also hope that this kit leads to other similar kits in the future that can help get more hams back to building equipment.

I highly recommend this kit for anyone with some electronics experience. While the documentation has not been collected into one easily digestible package, the kit itself is actually very straightforward to put together and I was able to get it on the air with only a cheap multi-meter and an RF power meter. It is also an incredible bargain for such full featured radio; I spent under $500 total for the kit, case and other ancillary parts (not including the microphone) which is not bad at all when you compare this to what is available commercially.