Tips on Building Amateur Radio Kits

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Building ham radio equipment is one way to get your equipment, but it may not be the best for everyone.

Kit building can be a good way to provide yourself with a ham radio rig. It’s not for everyone, however, and you should think over the following points before you commit yourself. 

Price: When you buy a kit, you aren’t necessarily saving money. Unless you’re willing to pay for the fun of construction and are fairly sure it will be fun for you, you may want to consider buying used equipment (either factory made or originally built from a kit by somebody else). Both stores and private individuals trade and sell a lot of secondhand gear, and you have access to this market by mail through advertisements in radio magazines. (Try QST, published monthly by the American Radio Relay League.) Dealers who advertise used equipment in QST sometimes offer both free trial and a guarantee period on mail-order sales. Don’t hesitate to telephone and discuss terms such as discounts for cash payments, etc . . . a three-minute toll call can pay for itself.

Labor: For a single-sideband transceiver such as the Heath SB-102, figure two or three hours per night for a month or so to build the kit. Your speed depends on your aptitude and experience . . . but, if you’re smart, you’ll proceed very slowly and carefully with the construction. If you’re not the patient type, buy a piece of used gear somebody else has built.

Again, remember that all those hours you’re putting in aren’t necessarily saving you money. My transceiver kit cost $385 plus postage, and the finished product is available secondhand from reputable dealers for $375 plus postage with 10 days’ free trial and 30 days’ guarantee. Even lower prices can be found on the unguaranteed private resale market. Over 100 hours of my labor, then, was worth about -$10.00.

Space: You’ll need a large, well-lit workbench or dining-room table for several weeks. When you’re not working, the area should be inaccessible to small children, animals and pernicious house guests.

Tools: You need about $20.00 worth of hand tools to construct a kit, plus a “dummy load “- $11.00 and up – to test a transmitter (since you must not put a signal into an antenna until you’re licensed). Many kits also require a multimeter or vacuum tube voltmeter for final alignment or adjustment. Since Heath’s advertisements don’t necessarily tell you whether or not this is the case, you may wish to write first and ask what instruments are required for the kit you think you want.

Hassle: Heath seems to bend over backward to give you patient, personal help with your construction problems. They take your word for it when parts are defective and send replacements at their expense. You do, however, still have the hassle of writing or phoning (or else getting the necessary items locally and paying for them out of your own pocket, to avoid delays).

Photo by Unsplash/Maximilian Hofer

How to Build a Ham Radio

[1] Read the instruction manual before you unpack the parts. Be compulsive about checking off and systematically storing all the items the lists call for. Parallel strips of masking tape – laid sticky side out on pieces of cardboard – are good to hold, in order, tiny electronic components. Muffin tins or empty egg cartons provide handy storage for small hardware. Keep the parts where they won’t be disturbed and where you can find things easily several weeks later.

[2] Before you begin to build, read the whole manual to get an overall picture of what you’re about to do. Don’t get ahead of yourself on assembly steps or try to come up with your own “better way” to put the thing together. Be an absolute slave to the instructions. If possible, get another person to check your work (either by sub-assembly or as you finish each page of the directions).

[3] Don’t work on the kit when you’re tired, sleepy, drunk, stoned or distracted . . . and don’t set unreasonable goals for yourself. Since you’re checking off assembly steps one at a time, you can almost always quit on a minute’s notice when fatigue or boredom begin to get to you (and a good bit of kit building is boring).

[4] Use a small soldering “pencil” of 25-40 watts instead of a conventional “iron” or “gun”. High-powered devices, especially in the hands of a beginner, will literally burn up this work. The Weller Model WP-25 is satisfactory, and so is the Ungar Model 777 “handle” with a screw-in combined heating element and tip (preferably the standard 27-watt unit). Either one costs under $6.00 and should be bought at a local radio supply or hardware store where you can obtain replacement tips in the future. Avoid items of this type in the $2.00 or $3.00 price range . . . they seem to burn out quickly.

[5] If you don’t already know how, learn to solder with the help of the instructions which come with the kit. Don’t tackle the real work until you’ve practiced and can join scrap wires with some confidence. On the other hand, don’t be freaked out by the fact that your solder joints are ugly. If soldering seems like a cumbersome way to connect wires, that’s because it is.

[6] Good-quality hand tools pay off. Beware of “bargains” from drugstores, Radio Shack or Lafayette stores. I suggest Craftsman tools from Sears, the Stanley line from your neighborhood hardware store or the $20.00 kit builder’s tool set sold by Heath. You need a small pair of needle nosed pliers, a diagonal side-cutter, a wire stripper, a good 1/8 inch screwdriver and a gimmick called a “soldering aid” which looks like a dentist’s probe. In addition, get a small (1 inch or so) adjustable wrench and use it – not the pliers – for the large nuts which hold control shafts in place.

[7] Before you plug your masterpiece into line voltage, be sure you perform all the checking steps called for in the instructions. If these measures require a voltmeter or other test equipment and you can’t borrow or buy what you need, look in the local Yellow Pages under “Radio Communication Equipment & Systems–Repairing”, and have the checks performed (at your expense) by a professional. And don’t go to an ordinary TV serviceman: You want a specialist who’s licensed by the FCC to work on transmitters.

If your Yellow Pages have no such listing, check with the local sheriff to see who adjusts his radios or find out who performs this service for any commercial radio station in your area. Or send the gear back to Heath where – for a price – the company’s staff will carry out the procedures.

[8] If, after you finish all the construction and checking steps, your kit doesn’t work properly, carefully follow the trouble-shooting instructions in the manual. If you still can’t make the equipment work, send it back to Heath for repair (at a price) according to the packing and shipping instructions with the kit. Local help with alignment and adjustment is OK, but Heath will probably be less hassle for major repairs. (The company won’t charge a fee for this service if the problem isn’t due to your goof.)

[9] Do not work on your equipment while it’s plugged in unless you’re slavishly following the instructions and all the accompanying safety rules. You truly can kill yourself. Also be sure there’s no way, ever, that others (especially children) can have access to dangerous voltages. Again, follow the instructions in the manual.

[10] Use a dummy load – $10.95 plus postage from Heath – for transmitter tests and adjustments. Do not put a signal into an antenna until you are licensed.