Save Money on Ham Radio Equipment

In this New Directions Radio column, the author shares suggestions for how beginner ham radio operators on a limited budget can get the equipment they need.
July/August 1983
Copthorne Macdonald began writing for MOTHER in 1973 and is the inventor of slow-scan television.


[Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 1983, and may not reflect current trends, pricing, technology, or other time-sensitive information.] 

Low-Cost Rigs

The first challenge that any would-be radio amateur faces, of course, is passing that awesome government exam on Morse code and radio theory. And the second obstacle is simply acquiring the transmitting and receiving equipment needed to put a station on the air. However, for many folks, today's economic climate has made the second hurdle as big as—or bigger than—the first!

Over the past 25 years, a more or less "standard" solution to the hardware problem has evolved. It's the route usually taken by hams who intend to use the "long distance" HF (high frequency) amateur bands. Such a person often buys a "100-watt output, multi-band, single sideband transceiver." To reduce all that jargon to plain English, I'm talking about a combined transmitter/receiver covering most (and sometimes all) of the ham bands between 1.8 and 30 MHz. These units have a power output to the antenna of 100 watts, and permit both voice (SSB) and Morse code (CW) transmission and reception. There are many manufacturers, both Japanese and domestic, producing such rigs. And while the size, appearance, and features of the units vary from model to model, their performance on the air is remarkably similar. Unfortunately, when bought new, the transceivers cost from about $500 to almost $2,000, with the majority falling in the $600 to $1,000 range. (Ads for these setups can be found in all of the ham radio magazines, if you're interested.)

Used Ham Radio Equipment

Now $600 is a lot of money—too much for many people to spend on their first ham rigs. Happily, there are alternatives to these expensive units. For starters, consider used equipment. Almost all of today's new "gear" is solid state, and designed to operate from a 12-volt DC power source: either a storage battery or a 20-amp 12-volt regulated power supply. On the other hand, older multi-band transceivers (while also designed to deliver a full 100 watts of output) use vacuum tubes instead of transistors, and their associated power supplies plug into 115 volts AC. Used rigs of this type are often priced from $200 to $500 (even classics such as the Drake TR-4 and the Collins KWM-2, which were considered tops in their day). Better still, these tube-type units transmit and receive every bit as well as solid-state transceivers, and if you have 115-volt AC power available, they should prove quite satisfactory. Amateur Electronic Supply specializes in used equipment and may just be able to help you get on the air.

Another source of used equipment could be a nearby radio fan who has recently "upgraded" his or her station. Most medium-sized towns have ham radio clubs, and a visit to the one nearest you might help you locate such a resource person. Just find the club, go to a meeting, and let your equipment needs be known. To obtain the addresses of ham clubs in your area, check with local chambers of commerce or write to the national ham organization: the American Radio Relay League. (Remember, too, that most clubs offer courses to help you pass those tough license exams!)

Low-Power Rigs

You can also cut your ham radio "startup" expenses by buying a new unit that has fewer features and a lower level of performance than the standard multi-band 100-watt transceiver. Such a rig may be designed to cover fewer bands, transmit only in Morse code, or produce a lower power output, and (because of its limited capability) will cost less.

You may remember the Heathkit HW-8 that I reviewed in an earlier article. The completed code-only assemble it-yourself unit covers four bands (3.5, 7, 14, and 21 MHz) and has a power output of about 2.5 watts. Since it sells for less than $190, the HW-8 may strike some folks as a satisfactory compromise between price and performance.

If rigs in this QRP (low-power) class appeal to you—and if you have some previous experience in electronic construction—then you should investigate the code-only kits sold by Circuit Board Specialists and Radiokit. Most of the packages from Circuit Board Specialists are based on construction articles that have appeared in QST magazine. Complete parts kits to make one- and two-band receivers are available for $50 or $60, while simple crystal-controlled transmitters may run as little as $20. (However, Circuit Board's brochure, which is free, isn't very detailed and you may have to refer back to the original QST articles to make your choice.) Radiokit, on the other hand, markets several low-power code-only transmitters and receivers in the $60 to $100 range, as well as an excellent stock of individual parts for the ham builder (and the firm's catalog costs a mere 50¢).

The low-power/low-cost category also includes CB equipment converted to ham bands. The most common (and best documented) of these CB conversions switches the unit's transmission from AM phone in the citizen's band to FM phone in the 10-meter (28 MHz) amateur band. An excellent book on the subject is The 10-Meter FM Handbook by Bob Heil (K9EID).

Some New Alternative Rigs

While many hams do enjoy QRP operation, some newcomers find the low power units frustrating. The signal from a 2-watt transmitter is much weaker than that from a 100-watt transmitter (a full 17 decibels weaker, technically speaking). Recently, however, Dentron came out with a line of 25-watt rigs—which is only 6 decibels less than 100 watts—at very inexpensive prices. For example, Dentron's STATION ONE code-only 25-watt transceiver is priced at $199.95. It covers the 3.5-, 7-, and 21-MHz bands (the ones that Novice Class operators are allowed to use), and comes complete with code key, headset, 3-band dipole antenna, and license study materials. The rig is designed to get its power from a 12-volt storage battery, but an AC power supply adapter is available as an accessory if you need one.

As another alternative, the Dentron MLX Mini Transceiver embodies a different set of prices and feature trade-offs than does the STATION ONE. For instance, while the MLX power level is also 25 watts, this unit provides SSB voice transmission in addition to CW. The major design sacrifice here is the limiting of the rig's coverage to one amateur band. (When you order, you can choose any one of the bands from 1.8 to 50 MHz.)

So take heart, all you New Directions Radio hams who are forced to operate on a limited budget: You can obtain your transmitting and receiving equipment at bargain prices if you're willing to make a few concessions and shop around!

Peace, Cop Macdonald (VEIBFL) 

Copthorne Macdonald, who has been writing for MOTHER since 1973, is the inventor of slow-scan television, a method of amateur radio transmission that allows ham operators to both hear and see each other during short wave broadcasts.  

New Directions Radio is an international network of radio amateurs concerned with those ways of using ham radio (and related modes of communicating) that promote our own growth as individuals, and that we perceive as helping to create a more aware, more caring, and more responsible human society. We encourage all who share these interests to work with us. A current schedule of on-the-air activities is included in each issue of the bimonthly New Directions Roundtable Newsletter, published by Art Mourad (WB2POB) as a service to the rest of us.