Saturday, October 30, 2010

Homebrew Straight Key

 I first became interested in radio in the 1990's.  Back then I had a table top shortwave receiver with which I discovered the amateur bands.  I was intrigued with the many Morse Code signals I could hear, some slow and some fast but all of them unintelligible to me.  I had no idea how the amateur operators could make sense out of the endless stream of beeps flying around the ether but I knew I wanted to be a part of that someday.

In the back of a CQ magazine was a tiny two inch add displaying telegraph keys for sale.  There was two keys pictured in black and white.  As I have mentioned before woodworking is a hobby of mine so I chose the key that I liked the best of the two and went to work estimating dimensions as well as I could from that little add.  I don't recall any of the details from the add except that the keys appeared to be made of brass.

At that time I knew as little about telegraph keys as I did the code itself so I had to engineer the electrical parts and the mechanics of the key on my own.  Screwed to the bottom surface of the lever is s thin strip of brass that runs the length of the lever to complete the circuit when the lever is depressed closing the contacts. The trunnion is simply a piece of hardwood dowel I turned on the lathe until it fit smoothly into bronze bushings. The wood is various species of tropical hardwood with the lever and trunnion supports being made from Honduran Mahogany.  The knob I made from American Walnut salvaged from a local church that was being remodeled.  That piece of walnut is easily over 100 years old. The key functions fine and I will put it on the air for the first time during the November SKCC Week End Sprint which happens to be the 2010 Craftsman's key Sprint.

If anyone recognizes the design I would love to know who was making and selling the keys I saw years ago in that CQ magazine that inspired me down the road to amateur radio and Morse Code radiotelegraphy.   

Thursday, October 28, 2010


It's that time of year again.  I have officially begun my indoor winter training.  I can still get in some outdoor rides on the weekends but the days are getting shorter and soon it will be nearly dark as I get off work.  If I must ride indoors the rollers are my favorite way to cycle.  The sensation of riding the bicycle is very real even though the scenery is rather boring.  By shifting down to lower gears and cranking up the rpm's I have no trouble breaking a sweat and maintaining a moderate cardiovascular workout. 
There is an additional benefit to spinning on the rollers as opposed to locking the bike into a fixed position on a trainer.  Because there is no forward momentum to help keep the bike upright things feel very twitchy.  You have no choice but to concentrate on a smooth and deliberate cadence.  These traits are essential when riding in close proximity to other cyclists like in a pace line for example.
Riding a bicycle on rollers also demonstrates some interesting physics.  A rubber band stretches from one of the rear rollers to the the front one.  This drives the front wheel to rotate in time with the rear wheel.  The centrifugal force alone of the two wheels spinning is enough to maintain balance on the bike.  Only after learing to ride on rollers can you fully appreciate how much forward momentum adds to the stability and ease of pedaling a bicycle.

After my spin I performed some light weight bearing exercises.  Because I am just now restarting my regular routine I only lift about a third of my usual weight.  I will increase the poundage over the next few weeks as my body adjusts to the new stresses.  Cycling by itself is great for fitness but only part of the overall picture.  Weight bearing exercises are essential for keeping bones strong and slowing the inevitable loss of muscle mass as we age.  For me the iron game is a welcome diversion to blow off some steam during the dark and cold winter months.  I track my incremental gains in the weight room just like my ride statistics and these little benchmarks provide the incentive to keep at it.

I've worked hard the last few years on my diet by eating more vegetables and fruit.  We switched over to whole wheat pastas and brown rice many years ago and now I simply don't care for the white bleached stuff.  Learning to control my portion sizes at the dinner table was the toughest obstacle for me to overcome.  In my twenties and thirties I could easily put away 5 or 6 tacos or half a pizza.  Today I can eat three tacos and leave the kitchen satisfied. 
Now I'm less than a month away from my 40th birthday and I feel great physically and mentally.  I've expended alot of time and effort in this but I can't imagine living my life any different.   

Sunday, October 24, 2010


 It was a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon and I was enjoying a respite on the patio smoking some Peterson "Old Dublin" English style blend when the inspiration came to take some some photographs of my homemade briarwood pipe.

This pipe I made about 12 years ago from genuine Mediterranean briarwood.  One of my many interests is wood working and I have found that I often use my woodworking tools to fabricate items used in other hobbies.  Because I have always been a pipe smoker one day I thought I can make a pipe so I found a supplier of pipe making materials and jumped right in.

At the hardware store I purchased some standard high speed steel spade bits used mainly in construction for drilling holes through 2 x 4 studs for wiring and plumbing.  I used my Dremel rotary tool to slowly grind the rounded profile of a bowl into the spade bit careful to not heat up the steel enough to cause it to lose it's temper.  On a second spade bit I grounded a chamfer which you can see once mounted in the drill press cut a perfect chamfer on the inside edge at the top of the bowl.  Other than the drill press work the majority of time was spent slowly shaping the pipe using the Dremel with an abrasive drum sander.  I am a pipe "holder" and not a "clencher".  I like to hold my pipe and only put it to my mouth when puffing.  For this reason I like a big heavy pipe.  Living in Ohio and being an outdoor smoker only means that a good portion of the year it's cold.  On cool windy days a pipe will burn fast and get very hot.  I intentionally made this pipe a nice rounded shape that fills my hand and has thick walls that slowly absorb the heat from buring tobacco.

I finished the pipe naturally using only a Carnuba/beeswax coating and lots of buffing using a cotton polishing wheel attached to the Dremel.  The color of the briar has darkened much over the years to the the nice deep orange color shown in these photos taken in direct sunlight.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Last night I set up my QRP station on the kitchen table.  I enjoy operating from this centralized location rather than the basement for a change.  It's easier to interact with the family and I'm closer to the fridge.  I have a hole in the floor through which I can pass the main coax cable from the 40 meter end fed.  When I am done I drop the coax back down and coil the excess where the cable enters the house near the basement shack.

Another piece of gear I recently obtained for my QRP setup is a 28 amp-hour Absorbed Glass Matt battery.  This is a sealed lead acid battery engineered for deep cycle use.  Because it is sealed it is safe for use and recharging indoors.  The battery is a little large for my intended purpose but I wanted a power source I could use for extended periods of operation without always having to worry about recharging. 
I wired up an in line fuse to the rig's power cable and connected a coax jumper from the rig to a dummy load.  I connected my Bushwhacker paddle and gave it a try.  The keyer module I installed the night before worked perfectly however I had to switch the leads around on the paddle.  The dots and dashes were reversed.  This is not a big deal because the input of the K-5 Logikeyer in the main shack is reversible whereas the basic keyer circuit of the MFJ-412 is not.

I wanted to do more QRP operating this summer but life got in the way as usual and looking at my mini log I noticed that I had not made a contact with the MFJ since June.  I've been reading about other's successful QRP operations on ham radio blogs and thought it high time to get back on the air using the MFJ transceiver.  After verifying the usual 1.3 SWR on the antenna system I sent out some CQs.  Shortly I got a response from AD1R, Dave from Halifax, MA about 625 miles away.  My next call netted KG0RD, Tim in Omaha, NE 690.4 miles in the other direction.  My last contact of the evening turned out to be the big surprise that smashed my QRP distance record from back in April.  Tuning around I stumbled upon KG7RS calling CQ.  I answered the call and he responded with QRZ?  That was a hopeful sign for at least he knew I was there.  I sent my call again three times and then heard my call sign sent back to me from the other station.  John, KG7RS from Mesa, Arizona and I established contact at 03:19 UTC on approximately 7.105 MHz.  The distance between us an astounding 1,661.4 miles.  A wireless link made using the little 5 watt radio pictured above running on a 12 volt battery and made possible by the amazing properties of the ionosphere.  

I beat my old record set using the MFJ 9040 by 670 miles.  I'm sure the increased solar flux we have been experiencing thanks to the sunspots has much to do with my success and that of other QRPer's I have been reading about having fun doing more with less in amateur radio.  

Friday, October 22, 2010

MFJ-412 Iambic Keyer Module

This latest addition to my MFJ 9040 CW QRP transceiver adds an electronic keyer with speed adjustable over a 3 to 66 word per minute range.  The board simply plugs into the rig occupying the rear left corner of the chassis.  The only modification required was to elongate the screw hole in the keyer's board a little so it lined up better with the stud already in place on the main board.  I will function test the keyer soon and hope to put the little rig on the air this weekend.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Race Report

Yesterday I received an email from my friend Isaac containing this picture and a description of his first mountain bike race.  I like racing stories and even better if I know the guy telling the tale.  Congratulations to Isaac for taking that first big step and entering the competition.  One can go out and ride hard during training but nothing compares to pulling out all the stops and pitting yourself against fellow cyclists in a race.  Even thought It's been 15 years since I last rode competitively I still remember the experience like it was last month.  Emotions encountered during a race can run the gamut from the highest highs to utter despair.  I believe this is why we do it.  The sense of accomplishment is very fulfilling and of course addictive.  So without further ado here is Isaac's report:  

"Just thought I'd give you a race report from a few weeks back at Mohican. I ended up entering the novice senior class and was the only person on a single speed!(Novice ran two concurrent laps on the short loop for a total of 12 miles from the start at mohican adventures) I got there extra early and got warmed up. I was a bit nervous but stationed myself at the front of the starting line on the far inside. I got a great start and was second onto the path leading into the trailhead. Unfortunately I was out of gears and my heart rate was through the roof from the mile sprint into the woods. I ended up getting passed and maintained a solid 7th place after mile 2 on the short loop. The rock gardens however would end my day as I flatted out on the rear end and struggled getting my tube out and back in only to lead to another pinch flat because I didn't put enough air in. Frustrated and dejected I rode the rest of the loop out and rode back to the car only to enjoy some Great Lakes draft courtesy of OMBA.
Even though my first race didn't go as well as expected, I had a blast and realize I need to change my training and bike set up if I want to be competitive. I love my single speed for just going and banging out some miles but I think a 1x9 or even 1x10 with a front suspension fork would probably be beneficial."

I told Isaac don't feel bad.  During one race at a place called Duncan Falls in south-east Ohio I ran out of water and food and experienced the dreaded "bonk".  I literally could not pedal any more and collapsed onto the forest floor in exhaustion.  Eventually I got up and pedaled out to the finish line.  Luckily the race organizers kept some spaghetti hot and a cold beer at the ready.  Somebody has to be last and it was me that day. 

Monday, October 18, 2010

Recumbent Ride

HP Velotechnik Street Machine GTe

On Sunday I experienced what very well may be my last short sleeve jersey ride of the season.  Temperatures ranged between 68 and 70 degrees according to my on board diagnostics.  The sky was a brilliant deep blue and contrasted nicely with the golden yellows and reds of autumn.  A steady breeze was present from the north-west but not much of a hindrance on the bent.  

My route was the southern two-thirds of the Richland County B & O Trail running from Lexington to Butler, Ohio.  Traffic was not as busy as I expected for a pleasant fall day which was fine by me.  I saw quite a few road bikers toiling away in their own private hells.  Must not have been any races nearby.  A noteworthy encounter was with a younger couple about my age who were riding low tadpole trikes.  The tadpole design (two wheels in front and a single trailing wheel) is the most performance oriented type of three wheeled recumbent.  This is the kind of bike I would like to add to my collection some day.  They were both fit and healthy looking people.  It's nice to see other young people embracing the recumbent way.  They were all smiles as we passed and I gave them a quick thumb up and a wave.

One of my favorite pastimes while riding the recumbent on rail trails is studying the faces of oncoming cyclists as we draw near and pass.  There is always a few chuckles to be had.  Here is a few of the more common expressions.
  1. Irritable Spouse.  -Usually a woman trailing behind her man who is not easing off the pace for his significant other.  You guys know the look- I don't have to explain it.   
  2. The Roadie.  -Male or Female dressed in the full kit with an intense scowl of determination visible even with the helmet and shades.  If I'm feeling friendly I'll give a quick nod.  Sometimes they respond in kind but most of the time they seem to be in their own world.
  3. Wonder and awe usually accompanied by the word "cooool" as a young boy or girl sees a recumbent and it's rider for the first time.  I always cringe as the pint sized riders inevitably drift towards my lane as they gawk.
  4. The Bent Rider.  -Recumbent cyclists come in all shapes and sizes but what is strikingly similar in every encounter is the friendly smile or nod passed between riders in the know.
I spend equal time on my upright bikes as well as the recumbent so I know what a couple of hours in the saddle feels like.  And I can hack it but some days I like to just kick back in that molded form fitting seat, and just take it all in. 

Ride Time:  1:46
Distance:  25 miles
Average Speed:  14 mph
Max Speed:  19.8 mph

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

October SKCC Week End Sprint

Saturday 10/10/10 The The Straight Key Century Club held it's October edition of the Week End Sprint.  This is the opportunity I have been waiting for to give the new NT9K Pro-Pump club key a thorough and proper breaking in.  As I mentioned in a previous post the Pro-Pump shares characteristics in common with some northern European straight keys.  I think the Scandinavians were on to something when they built these massive long lever hand keys. 

I have the key placed on a small side table to the left of my operating position.  The shorter table lets my arm hang down more naturally to my side and I send grasping the knob alone.  I don't rest any part of my arm or wrist on the table or arm of my chair.  What I can report with certainty is that even after three hours of generating Morse Code one dot and dash at a time this key is user friendly.  I was a bit skeptical at first of the "arm off the table style" of sending but now after using this key in both easy ragchews and marathon cw sessions (for me anyway) during the WES I am all but a convert.  I'm not going to write a thesis on leverage and pivot points or discuss the merits of placing electrical contacts in front of or behind the fulcrum, but simply state I love this key.  Strings of dots like the letter H .... and the number 5 ..... just flow from the key in precision machine gun fashion.  I have been experimenting with the tension adjustment of the lever's coil spring.  The range is huge and I have not yet settled on a specific tension.  Until recently I had the key set stiffer but I noticed during the sprint as my sessions grew longer I found myself backing off the tension for a lighter feel.  Sending with a straight key for long periods is something that has to be experienced and the individual has to flush out the technique that produces the best sounding code without straining the appendages.  

Following is my log from the sprint.  A new personal best in the books for me.  I contacted 56 stations in 23 different states and  logged one contact each with France and British Columbia.  I've added a third color to the log to show some 80 meter (3.5 MHz) contacts I made on Saturday night.  Around midnight the action on 40 meters died down and I figured everybody must have migrated down to 80 meters.  Sure enough with a press of the band switch the receiver came alive with the music of Morse.  I punched the tune control and the auto tuner's relays clattered to life.  Eventually a match was established and I set out in search and pounce mode successfully bagging some contacts on a third band. Knowing there would be some losses due to sending a signal to a non-resonant wire I bumped up the power to 100 watts from my normal 50 watt setting.  Evidently some signal was radiating because nobody asked for a repeat and 7 out 9 stations reported 599 back to me.  (SKCC events are unique in the fact that operators make an attempt to send a meaningful signal report unlike the big contests where 599 is the default report regardless of the perceived  signal strength.)  

Red  14 MHz  (20 meters)
Blue  7 MHz  (40 meters)
    Green  3.5 MHz  (80 meters)

7.054  K0LUW  Nebraska
7.050  W0YZZ  Missouri
7.120  KB1ODO  Vermont
7.120  N0UMP  Missouri
7.117  KA3LOC  Kansas
7.109  WA0BGV  Missouri
7.117  AJ4SB  Florida
7.051  W7GVE  Arizona
7.113  WA5VQM  Texas
7.113  NV5F  Texas
7.113  VE7LAJ  British Columbia
7.113  N5RDN  Texas
7.120  AC0PR  North Dakota
7.112  KG0PP  Colorado
3.555  W9HLY  Indiana
3.552  K0LUW  Nebraska
3.552  W9IXV  Indiana
3.553  W3NP  West Virginia
3.558  W9LW  Indiana
3.558  NE0S  Missouri
3.558  WD0ECO  Missouri
3.553  WA0BGV  Missouri
3.555  K8WSN  Michigan
7.112  WI0S  Minnesota
7.055  WQ9Z  Illinois
7.053  KX9DX  Illinois
7.058  K0LWV  Missouri
7.056  W4CU  Florida
7.055  W4HAY  Tennessee
14.048  WA0YEI  Texas
14.059  F6HKA  France
14.051  W4CU  Florida
14.053  W6LFB  Texas
14.052  W5ZR  Louisiana
14.050  W7GVE  Arizona
14.052  NZ1D  Florida
14.052  KG2G  Florida
14.052  NG7Z  Washington
7.100  KB2RAW  New York
14.053  W5APS  Texas
7.055  K8JD  Michigan
7.114  W9DLN  Wisconsin
7.111  N3MVX  Pennsylvania
7.117  K2XS  New York
7.113  W3NP  Pennsylvania
7.115  W1DV  New York
7.056  KD2JC  New Jersey
7.113  NE0S  Missouri
7.113  K2VT  New Jersey
7.113  WB2SGS  New York
7.113  K8HW  Michigan
7.113  AI4UN  Georgia
14.055  KK5J  Oklahoma
7.117  AB2BJ  New Jersey
7.116  K8WSN  Michigan
7.051  W9HLY  Indiana

Band conditions were favorable throughout the 24 hour sprint period at KD8JHJ.  There was several other contests going on at the same time but it was easy enough to seek out the CQ WES calls or find a spot to call and run.  I did switch off between the straight key and the Vibroplex bug as usual.  If I hear the signature sound of a semi-auto key I like to answer back using my bug.  The Vibroplex is also great for sending long strings of CQ's.  If the responding station is keying with a straight key I switch to the straight key and match the others speed.  This morning I checked the scores at the SKCC website and I am ranked 25th out of 109 participants. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

All the World's a Stage

Whenever I hear live music I am always inspired and can't go too long without picking up one of my guitars.  Here is a picture of my Alvarez Artist.  This acoustic is an old friend I have kept around for fifteen years now.  I'm not a performer by any means I just like to strum a few chords now and then.  Back in high school a friend of mine Harry Avila taught me my first three chords.  His dad led a touring group called "The Singing Avila's".  Later in the Air Force I had a Sargent who taught me a great deal about guitar playing.  Martin Hobbs was from Kentucky and he had played in cover bands prior to his enlistment in the service.  Martin and his wife would host backyard cookouts and parties giving us young guys from the barracks a place to hang out.  Sooner or later out would come the guitars and we would have a blast playing easy three-chorders like most of the Eagles catalog.

Being a loner and involved in many other activities I never got really good at playing or actively searched out other musicians to play with.  I grab the instrument when I'm in the mood.  Playing for me is relaxing almost hypnotic.  Music has been ingrained in the human spirit for ages and I think it is very cool to tap into that energy once in a while.  Although I do have some electrified equipment I tend to enjoy the acoustic guitars and other more earthy instruments like African hand drums and Native American wood flute.  I have a little experience multi-tracking with a Tascam digital recording console.  It can be time consuming but it is very rewarding to build a piece of music one layer at a time.  My recordings are just basic one man jams centered around a simple chord progression.  Exercises in redundancy as my wife would say.

Since I have become an amateur radio operator the music has taken a back seat.   The Morse Code key has become my instrument of choice.  Every time I get on the air it's another performance with me and my keys.  Sending Morse Code messages back and forth by radio is allot like trading licks with another guitar player.  A sort of dueling banjos of the airwaves.  The active part or playing the key and then sitting back and copying the incoming signals seems to satisfy my musical itch.  I like to tell people that in ham radio the phrase "All the world's a stage" is indeed true.    


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Drilling the Capacitance Hat Hub

This is a series of photographs I took last year while I was drilling the holes in the capacitance hat hub pieces.  I had no idea back then I would be blogging about my amateur radio projects but I did want to document my endeavors so I always kept the camera handy.  The picture below I took with the timer and tripod while I was actually running the drill.  The tip of the bit had just broke through the aluminum. 

I picked up the drill press vice from Harbor Freight for about $15.00 nothing fancy but does what it's supposed to and holds the workpiece secure.  I bought this tool specifically for this project but it now rests permanently on the drill press table.  The vice is a handy shop accessory that I use often and wonder how I ever got along without.

Yesterday I stopped at the hardware store and obtained some more stainless hardware and I am now set to begin the assembly of the antenna mast sections.  A quick call to McMaster-Carr secured a spool of #16 magnet wire and some 2" heat shrink tubing that will ultimately cover the loading coil once that part is completed.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Top Loaded 40 Meter Antenna Project by KD8JHJ

This is a project I started shortly after receiving my amateur radio license.  After doing some research on shortened vertical antennas for high frequency I learned that placing a loading coil at the top of a vertical radiator along with a capacitance hat is the way to get the most performance out of a shortened vertical.

Why a shortened vertical?  The reasons I have settled on this design are portability and ruggedness.  This antenna's modular construction allows for the mast and capacitance hat to be broken down for easy transport.  The components are robust and sturdy allowing for many assemblies and tear downs.  The design, by Dick Stroud, W9SR was published in the 2008 ARRL Handbook.  Since I can't show the diagram from the text as it is copyrighted material I will simply post along photographically in the blog as I complete the stages of the project.

Overall height of the radiator will be approximately 15 feet.  The Antenna lower portion is two six foot sections of aluminum tubing.  A two or three foot piece of aluminum tubing of a slightly narrower diameter will sleeve into the two main sections and I will fasten them with stainless steel bolts and wing nuts so I can easily pull the bolts without tools.  At the upper end a similarly sleeved section of fiberglass tubing will isolate the top mast and main mast and also provide a form for the winding of the loading coil.  Above the loading coil is the top mast, a 2' 6" piece of aluminum tubing that the machined hub of the capacitance hat attaches to.  This hub is the center piece of the design (Pun intended!) and I am very proud of my handiwork.  I turned the two pieces of 1/2" aluminum from blanks I ordered from McMaster-Carr using my lathe.  All the hole drilling was accomplished using my bench top drill press.  To cut the large center holes through the two plates I used  a hardened steel hole cutter chucked up in the drill press.  Six 4' 6" solid 3/16" aluminum rods fit into the sockets around the outside of the hub and are locked in place by two set screws.  The hub is located about six inches above the loading coil and held fast by three machine screws.  The hub can be moved up and down to adjust the antenna's resonance slightly.

The aluminum and fiberglass tubing I purchased from Texas Towers.  Because they supply the commercial antenna manufacturers I knew the quality of the materials would be good.  As advertised all of the narrower tubing slides precisely into the larger sections.  Very nice and no slop whatsoever.  The stainless steel hardware for the hub assembly I obtained at the local hardware store.  Expensive yes but if I am going to spend my time making something and putting my call sign on it I want the best materials I can get.         

Capacitance Hat Hub Assembly

This project has been a work in progress for too long and maybe If I commit by blogging about it I will get busy and see it through.  If I get back to work now I should have no problem having it tuned up and ready for Field Day next summer.  In following posts I will detail my plans for an elevated radial system and my ideas for antenna deployment.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sheryl Crow -- Charleston, WV

To celebrate my wife's birthday we took a little road trip to Charleston, West Virginia to see Sheryl and her new band who are touring in support of her latest CD "100 Miles From Memphis".  The new sound has a classy soulful edge that I have quickly grown to like.  Being used to the old band and generally disliking change I wasn't sure if I was going to like this new arrangement.  Once again Sheryl has surrounded herself with a very talented group of musicians and proven that she can still kick out the hits.

LeeAnn enjoyed her birthday present and I have to say I had a pretty good time myself and even got a picture with Sheryl after the show. 

(Photos by LeeAnn)