Catching Up: CQ World Wide CW, 2016

Having started a new job in October that’s keeping me quite busy, I’ve resolved to care less about the timeliness and length of posts, and to prioritize getting them down.

To that end, here’s a brief recollection on the CQWW CW Competition that I participated in back in November. One of the largest international contests of the year, this was certainly a hopping time on the air. I participated using my repaired ATS-4, at around 3W, and there were a good many stations I could hear but not contact. Nevertheless, I ended up with 17 contacts over 11 countries and 7 CQ Zones. My best DX was ED8X in the Canary Islands – a little over 4000 miles away, for better than 1300 miles/Watt. What a day

I wracked up a host of ATNO’s (All Time New Ones, or new countries in the log), including: Curacao, Dominica, Bermuda, the Canary Islands, the Cayman Islands, Bonaire, French Guiana, Turks and Caicos, and Peru.


I’ll be back on the air for CQWW 2017. Hear you on the air!


BITX40 Module & ARRL SSB Sweepstakes 2016

A few weeks ago, I participated in the ARRL Fall Sweepstakes SSB Contest, and succeeded in making my first voice contacts from home. It’s incredible what you can do with 5 Watts and a simple antenna!

Over the course of about an hour on Saturday night and another hour after work on Sunday, I made fourteen total contacts all across the US, including Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Manitoba Canada, Maryland/DC, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Ontario Canada, Texas, and Virginia. Several stations clearly had to reach way down into the muck to pull me out of the noise, which was very much appreciated.

Part of the exchange for the SSB Sweepstakes is a “precedence,” which is based on your power level, among other things. I was handing out “Q’s,” which denotes a QRP power level of 5W or less. A couple stations, after a minute or more of trying to pull me out of the noise and finally getting it, “OH, QRP, that explains it…”

I worked the entirety of  my contest activity through a new rig in my shack, one of the new BIX40 modules out of India. Afshar Farhan, originator of the BITX Transceiver, has recently rallied together some resources to start producing a “kit” version of that radio for the 40m band. I say kit only lightly, since the main board (which is mostly SMD components) comes fully assembled and tested, and you merely need to solder on the provided external controls (tuning and volume pots, speaker/headphone connectors, etc.) It only took about 20 minutes from unboxing the package to having everything installed. But there was an issue lurking on the horizon…

I’ll save that story for another post though. Hear you on the air!

QSLing, Physically and Digitally

With my first foray’s into HF in the past few months, I’ve been diligently trying to track all of my contacts, and confirm the ones that are special to me. To that end, I’ve been pursuing the age-old art of sending QSL cards and the new-age art of electronic QSLing.

For my everyday logging, I’ve mostly been using the DXLab suite of software, which includes a fairly full featured logger, as well as rig control capability, DX cluster access, licensee address lookup, PSK modem, and many other features. And its free! For the couple of contests I’ve taken part in (the CA QSO Party, and the AZ and PA QSO Parties), I’ve used N1MM+, which makes entering contest exchanges snappy and straightforward. Also free! Once the contests are done, I’ve been exporting the contest contacts as an ADIF (amateur data interchange format) file and importing them into DXLabs.

The N1mm+ interface – simple, clean, and easy to step through without taking your hands off the keyboard.

DXLabs also makes uploading contacts directly to both ARRL’s Logbook of the World and, two of the most popular digital QSLing services. While the LOTW setup is a little onerous, now that I’ve gone through the process of getting the TQSL verification software setup and confirmed on my computer, uploading logs and confirmations to LOTW is as simple as clicking one button. And for the number of confirmations I’ve received through both services, the setup effort has been totally worth it.

The top three buttons on DXKeeper’s LoTW QSL window take care of all of my Logbook of the World needs.

That said, not everyone is interested in being a part of the digital QSLing services. It seems many more hams on HF still pursue the older style of confirming confirmations with QSL cards. I too am diving in the the world of physical QSL cards, and I must say, there’s something delightful about having a physical bit of ephemora to hang on the way, to prove that my handful of watts of RF reached out across the country.

On the sending end of the equation, I designed a basic QSL card from scratch in Illustrator. It includes all the basic information to confirm a contact (callsigns, date, UTC time, band, mode and RST), as well as some fun supplementary information (my rig, antenna, and power for each QSO). It’s not fancy, just to-the-point and designed to be printed on my greyscale printer at home. I purchased a small pack of nice cardstock to print these off as necessary, four to a page.


To date, I’ve sent out about a dozen physical QSL cards. Some went to folks in states I’d like to confirm who aren’t on LOTW. Some went to my first contacts on the various HF Bands, or my first CW contact ever, and so on. Some just went to interesting people who I had nice conversations with. Out of those dozen or so cards that have gone out (with self-addressed stamped envelopes enclosed), I’ve gotten five back. And they’re all great!

Now I’m looking for a way to display these cards, and hopefully more that I’ll acquire in the future.

Hear you on the air!


For more information on QSLing, past and present, some resources I recommend are:

First 30m Contact, and a Stateside Update

This past weekend, late in the evening, as I was fiddling around with the ATS-4 seeing how the bands were doing, I ran across a particularly strong CW signal on 10.116 MHz, near the bottom of the 30m band. It turned out to be the end of a QSO between KA7OGK and W5IP, the latter of whom was coming in 5-by-8 here in Chicago. When they wrapped up their conversation, I through out a quick call to W5IP, and she came back! I could tell that Carroll (whose name I’d gleaned from the earlier conversation) was heading out, as our exchange was much more perfunctory than conversational. But it allowed me to put my first 30m contact (as well as my first Texas station, as it turns out).

And with that, I’ve now made a contact on every band I currently have access to – 80m, 40m, 30m, 20m, and 15m! So far 40m and 20m have proved to be my workhorse bands, but some late-night exploration makes me think I should be paying more attention to 80m later in the evening.

With the new 30m Texas contact, and one with a nice Louisiana ham this morning (WB5WDC, retired petroleum engineer who used to work not far from Chicago in Crystal Lake), my total number of states worked is up to 10: Arizona, California, Colorado, Louisiana, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia:

WAS Map 10-26.png

Until I can put a longer or more-vertical Antenna in the air, I don’t think I’ll be chasing foreign counties for a little while, but Worked-All-States seems like an achievable short-term goal. Of course, of the 10 states I’ve worked, I only have confirmation from California and Pennsylvania, so there’s a way to go yet. But I’m having a great time acquiring my own “All Time New One” states.

Hear you on the air!


California QSO Party 2016 and First 15m and 20m Contacts

Having put up a basic wire antenna last week, I thought I might as well give it a spin over the weekend to see how well it might receive on the various bands I have access to. This being the weekend of the California QSO party, I figured there would be lots of big signals on the air to try to hear.

Much like when I first put the QST-49er on the air, I had much higher expectations for  reception that for anybody else hearing me, but I was to be proved wrong. Using the ATS-4, my power output is about 3W on 80m, 40m, 30m, and 20m, and about 2W on 15m. I figured I would find the strongest calling stations that I could and use them as a gauge of where I was receive in signals from.

Much to my delight, the CW portions of both the 20m and 15m bands seemed to be filled with California stations calling “CQ CQP” (California QSO Party). Some of them S7, a couple over S9 even with my simple antenna. With no AGC, some signals were strong enough as to require me taking the earbuds partially out of my ears. With propagation and the antenna seeming to cooperate, I quickly looked up with CQP exchange (serial number and state) and responded to some of the CQs.

And do you know what? Not one, not two, but twenty-four different stations came back to my little QRP signal. Twenty Four! In the span of a Saturday afternoon (and one more Sunday morning) I increased my lifetime QSO count by almost %500, including my first 15m contact (K6LRN), my first 20m contact, and my first CA contact (both N6CK in Poway, CA). Here’s a map of as many contacts as I could grab Lat/Long data for, all up and down California:


One of Eric Guth’s guests on the QSO Today podcast (and I can’t for the life of me find who) expressed that the joy of radio sport for him was that he got a little spark of joy every time he made a new contact, and that contesting gave him that feeling hundreds of times in a row. While I didn’t hit hundreds of times, I certainly felt the rush of making contest contacts, fighting to be heard with other stations, the victorious feeling of finally being heard, the reward of persistence…. I could get into this radio sport thing.

If that’s going to be an area of interest, I’ll need to practice a little more on my reception speed, especially when it comes to numbers. For this contest, I would often listen to the California station go through two or three other contacts to try to pick out the serial number he was on and his county before I’d make a call myself. My receive speed just isn’t high enough to go into a contact from scratch. But I’m grateful to all the ops who were willing to slow down and repeat themselves when asked. It made me feel very welcome as a new op.

In any case, my claimed score for this one was 1224 points, distributed like so:


I suspect my actual score will be much less than that. I know I botched a couple numbers early on, and even gave out the wrong number once (oh the shame). But even if I only get one point in the log, that’s good enough for a first time out.

Hear you in the air, and in the contest!


A New Random-Wire Antenna and First 80m Contact

Sometimes the simplest of radio work pay the biggest dividends. Last week, after a few weeks of hemming and hawing about it, I finally committed to putting up a longer wire antenna that allowed the possibility of using multiple bands. The 40m dipole I put up at the end of August has proved to be fine as a receiving antenna, but it suffers two key limitations. First, it’s obviously a single-band antenna (though I may try it on 15m as well). And second, situated as it is between two apartment buildings, I think I’m wasting most of my energy heating up the bricks rather than propogating energy out into the world. It’s also only ~10′ off the ground.

The new antenna helps with all of these issues. It’s simply a ~58′ piece of 22-gauge speaker wire strung from the office window out to a tree that sits in the apartment’s back its highest, the wire is maybe 20 feet up. While it’s a little visible in the alley if you’re looking for it, it blends in with the surrounding tan brick enough that I don’t think it’ll be noticed. I dropped a ~16′ piece of the same wire out the window to act as a counterpoise.

No, I swear, there’s an antenna running right through the center of this picture.

Like any random-wire, this one needs a tuner to be useful. I first tried using the ZM-2 tuner I got last Christmas. I sadly think I have a short in one of the variable caps in that tuner, which makes it non-functional for now. The MFJ-949e tuner did the trick though – I attached the long wire directly to the “WIRE” banana jack on the back, and the counterpoise to the grounding lug. The antenna tunes up better than 1.2:1 on 80m, 40m, 30m, 20m, and 15m. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an efficient antenna, just that it won’t unduly stress my transmitters.

When I tuned the antenna the first time, I made myself a cheat sheet of the capacitor and inductor settings that gave me the lowest SWR on each band. I then taped this cheat sheet to the top of the tuner. This gives me a place to start when I need to retune for a particular band.

The same evening that I put the antenna up, I did a tune-through of the CW portions of 15m, 20m, 30m, and 80m. It’s really the first time I’ve been able to hear anything on a band beside 40m, so I figured a little exploration was due. I came across an S7 signal at 3.545 MHz calling CQ, and just for grins, I gave him a call. And he came back to me! Arthur, N8ART in Columbus Ohio, running an older rig into a dipole, if my copy was right. 

Columbus is a little under 300m from my QTH in Chicago, so this was probably a single-hop contact, or really NVIS. But it represents my first contact outside of 40m, which is terribly exiting! The new antenna is already proving its worth.

This was also my first contact with a new transceiver, an ATS-4 which I snagged as a “tech-special” (i.e. broken) from and repaired. That process deserves its own write-up. I’m also using a second-hand Ham Key I picked up at Radio Expo 2016 in Belvidiere, an event that also deserves its own post. But really, I’m just too excited about the contact on a new band to try to keep these posts strictly sequential.

Hear you on the air, maybe on 80m!



Laser-Cut Faceplate for the QST Forty-9er

Thanks to the folks at the Maker Lab at the Harold Washington library in downtown Chicago, I’ve now got a nice clean faceplate for the QST Forty-9er with DDS VFO that I built a few months back. Here’s the final result up front:


 The panel is just a piece of clear 1/16″ plexiglass that the Maker Lab had on hand, which conveniently is the right width to slot into the grooves in the existing case. The hardest part of the design was taking accurate measurements of the positions of the three holes in the plate, for the Forty-9er’s key and audio lines and the Arduino Nano’s USB port. In truth, I mis-measured the hieght of the USB port, but switching to a slightly higher standoff and adhering the K2ZIA board down with adhesive pads, everything lined up fine.

The process of laying out the design for the laser cutter is very straightforward. The desired shape is simply laid out in Inkscape, a free photoshop-like program. If you use two colors in the image, you can differentiate between the lines to be vector cut (i.e. cut all the way through the material, for an outline or a hole) and the areas to be raster-engraved (lightly etched for a frosted appearance). You can even do vector engraving, where a clean line is cut partway through the material. I set up the machine to vector-cut the outline and holes, raster the letters, and lighting vector-engrave around the letters for extra readability.

The laser cutting process has some trial and error in it; while the lab has some recommended settings, they’re more like guidelines than guaranteed routes to success. It took a couple tries to get the raster settings right to appropriately etch the plastic enough to be visible, without being too deep.

Thanks to the great staff and resources at the Maker Lab, I’ve now got a very presentable front on the rig, and for only a dollar!

Hear you on the air!


A Year in Review

One year ago today, I picked up an oscilloscope from Craigslist, wrote my first blog post, and officially decided to get myself back into amateur radio. And what a year it’s been!

In the last year, I have:

Here’s to another year on the air and at the bench!


K3NG Arduino-Based CW Keyer and Homebrew Paddles

Last weekend, I built a little morse-code keyer and a small set of iambic paddles. As I try to continue trying to improve my more code sending and reception, I’ve been running into the limits of what I can accomplish with a traditional straight key. The paddle not only allows for faster sending with perfect spacing, but the back-and-forth motion of he paddles is much easier on the wrist than the up-and-down pressing of the straight key.

While I was tempted to roll my own Arduino keyer code from scratch, the sheer number of features available in the K3NG Keyer Code made that a much simpler starting point. Frankly, I can’t think of any keyer-related function that the K3NG code doesn’t do, and I’m only actually using a small portion of its capabilities. I’m using it as a generic ultimatic-style keyer with sidetone and a potentiometer for speed control. Among the features left by the wayside (for now, at least) are:

  • USB and PS/2 Keyboard support
  • An LBCD display
  • Recordable memories
  • Beacon/Hellschreiber/QRSS Sending
  • Sending practice
  • Callsign receive practice
  • CW Decoder
  • So much more….

Simplifying the K3NG circuit considerably left me with the following schematic:


The unit and its batteries are contained entirely within a 1-gang plastic junction box, an idea shameless stolen from an old W6KWF project. The power source from the project is just 4 AA batteries in series. The power switch for the unit is built into the potentiometer – pulling it out turns the unit on, pushing it in turns it off. The little 1.5″ speaker came from one of the old AM radios I pulled apart, I think. The remainder of the electronics are just point-to-point wired on a piece of perfboard, which rests on top of the battery pack.


I considered adding an power indicator LED, until I noticed that the power LED on the Arduino Pro Mini itself is clearly visibly through the plastic of the box. Looks nice!


The speaker-enable pushbutton was a last-minute add, when I realized that I wouldn’t want to hear both sidetone from a rig and from the keyer. It’s just a SPST latching button. The K3NG software has an option for turning off the sidetone in software, but I opted for just a hard cut-out switch.

I’ve yet to make a contact with the new keyer, but it’s proved useful as a code-practice machine if nothing else. And it should be interoperable with any future radios that accept a straight key, so I think it’ll be a part of my shack to stay. I do wish there was a way to adjust the programming without pulling the box apart, but at only two screws, I think that bit of difficulty is a good trade for a cleaner presentation.

Of course, for the keyer to be useful, it needs a set of paddles to go with it. Mine took about an hour to make from start to finish. It’s just four pieces of scrap copper-clad glued and soldered together. Two pieces of single-sided copper clad, copper-side-in, form the paddles.  A 1/4″ bolt with two nylon lock-nuts forms the center-contact -rotating the upper lock-nut changes the spacing between the paddles and the contact, which allows for some adjustment in the feel of the paddles. A small raised piece of copper clad keeps the paddles elevated off of the base. The 1/8″ stereo cable is soldered to this last small piece of copper clad.

This actually works pretty well for such a quick project, though it became obvious pretty quickly that it needs some kind of base or strap to hold it steady when operating. That can be the next project.

Hear you on the air!


Hamfester’s Hamfest 2016

About a month ago, I attended the Hamfester’s Hamfest in Peotone, IL, south of Chicago. Sponsored by the Hamfesters club out of Crestwood, IL, we had a lovely day for it, if only a little muggy.

Hamfester’s had the most vibrant flea-market area of any of the fests I’ve been to so far. No lack of boat-anchor rigs to be sure, but also some newer ones for sale (an FT817, A TS450, a couple ICOM base stations). Lots of CW keys, and no lack of miscellany, but the “clear out the shack properly” contingent was definitely in full swing. They’re the ones who have new and interesting things, or spare rigs they don’t need, or tools.

50 bucks for an old tube receiver. Wonder if it works?

There are several sellers that I’ve seen two or three times now – I’d be willing to bet they acquired either surplus hardware or an estate-sale or two, and now just want to be rid of all the parts. There’s one table that I make a point of picking through. It’s literally just a giant pile, but I’d found a couple little treasures in there…

The Big Pile!

As I’ve previously mentioned, I didn’t come home with a huge haul from this swapmeet, but I did snag an unbuilt Scout Regen receiver kit that I put together. I also got a nice 30V adjustable, 500mA regulated current-limitted power supply from Elenco, in a nice case with leads, for 15 bucks. And a dual variable-cap from The Big Pile.


See you at the Fest!