Homebrewing: A Lost Art?

A Packeteers Guide to Homebrewing


omebrewing is not an easy endeavor for Ham Radio amateurs today. Time is the problem. And there is so much equipment available commercially, whether new or used, that it hardly seems worth it to build anything. Yet there are good reasons to take on a construction, or a software development, project.

You can't really say it is for reasons of saving money since anyone's time, when factored in, may triple the price of a commercial counterpart. So why bother? The answer has to be personal satisfaction and "professional" development. Even if a project results in only partial success, useful knowledge will always be gained. This knowledge can be used in future projects, making your chances of success better with each attempted endeavor! You can also now share your experiences with other amateurs who are venturing into homebrewing. And they in turn, may assist you in your efforts.

Packeteers have a special opportunity since they can consider a software project to be a homebrew venture! For many, this is the simplest and least costly way to become a "homebrewer." Software ideas, and sometimes even actual code, are readily available, making it quite economical to get started and encorporate details that might otherwise take precious time to develop.

A Few Suggested Guidelines

On the hardware side, here are some general guidelines that I have used over the years. (See if you can spot the software analogies where they might apply...) Photo above is a glimpse of my "shop." Many hours were/are spent here :)

  • Scope out the Project: Realistically appraise the amount of time it is going to take you to complete this project. (You may want to increase that amount by 20-30%.) Don't forget the time to obtain all the needed parts. And remember, it takes longer to build something when it is not completed in a single time block, that is, when you have to leave the project for several days at a time between sessions. (Time study people probably know the correct term for this phenomenon.)

  • Set up a Plan, or a Time Line: This is essentially a schedule when you will consistently set aside the time to work on the project, i.e., every Sunday evening... You may also want to break the project down into subgroups or phases which represent similiar kinds of work; like planning, checking, soldering, live testing, etc. If you are really ambitious, you might set start and end dates with intervening milestones. But this is for the truly compulsive :)

  • Choose a Location: Work on your project in the same place if possible. Also, set aside a box or containter of some sort, with a cover, to store the entire project. If you have to leave it for any period of time, this will help keep the loose parts all together, or if you have to move to a new location, this will greatly simplify the move. Containers will also prove very handy if you happen to be working on more than one project at once.

  • Assemble the "Best" Tools: Although this is an obvious point, your chances of success are greatly enhanced when you have the appropriate tools at hand, not always the most expensive, just the best tools for the job. If you don't have a variable heat solder gun, for example, and if you do happen to have a variac, you can run the gun through the variac to adjust the heat to exactly where you need it. If you have "tired" eyes like mine, be sure to have magnifiers handy to help you see those tiny joints and parts. I also like to have as much light as possible in the work area. (There are some lamps that surround magnifiers with high intensity light sources. These work very well for printed circuit boards.)

  • Label as Much as You Can: I can't emphasize this "trick" enough! Include in the project box a notebook, or papers, on which you will keep track of where you are in the construction. Also, on the project itself, label as much as is convenient as well as any loose parts, especially capacitors, which are usually very poorly marked and are easily separated from their original packages rendering them almost useless! (If you don't want to buy labels, use clear tape with small bits of paper.)

  • Pace Yourself: Since you are breaking the project down into steps and phases anyway, don't hurry in any given session. More mistakes are made when you are rushing to cram too much into a short time slot. In fact, it is better to slow down and only do one kind of activity per time slot, such as checking the existing circuitry for faults, or examining the board for solder bridges, or soldering the next chip, and its associated components, into place. Don't move to the next phase until you are absolutely sure about the previous one. And if the work becomes tedious, take frequent breaks especially if your eyes begin to get fatigued.

  • Seek Help: There are so many hams around with a wealth of knowledge who are more than ready to share what they know. They probably have been down the path you have chosen and can give you lots of hints in your current project. Find books or publications that will give you general guidelines for homebrewing. The ARRL has a very complete "library" of excellent publications. And finally, the internet is a great source of information for all manner of projects!

  • Building from Kits: Kits are a great way to introduce yourself to the world of homebrewing! Kits represent a compromise between price and time. You will probably pay more for your kit than if you assembled the parts from scratch yourself, but you will most definitely save quite a bit of procurement time which translates back into money "earned." Additionally, kits usually have excellent assembly documentation, including online help and/or email resources, where you may go for detailed construction hints. Since Heathkit went away, the premier supplier of Ham Radio kits, a resurgence of new suppliers is gradually appearing on the scene. Just be sure to check them out before you buy, i.e., referrals if you can find them. Once you have built equipment from a few kits, you can move on to the more challenging aspects of building from scratch, and maybe even consider designing your own radio gear...

There is really nothing like homebrewing. When you see that new piece of equipment go "on-the-air" or that new piece of code in action, the feeling you get is truly "priceless." Whether it be a big HF antenna system, or a tiny audio filter, homebrewing can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the world of Amateur Radio! And remember, if you built it yourself, you are entitled to the "bragging rights!"

(Courtesy KBNorton Computer Services)