10 Ham Radio Station Equipment Tips

By H. Ward Silver

Putting together your first ham radio station can be exciting, confusing, and challenging all at the same time! Here, you will find tips and tricks to help you build and use a station that grows with your needs and helps you operate effectively and confidently. The tips might save you some expense, too!

Be flexible

Don’t assume that you’ll be doing the same activities on the air forever. Here are a few tips on flexibility:

  • Avoid using specialized gear except where it’s required for a specific type of operating or function.
  • Use a computer and software for things that are likely to change, like operating on the digital modes.
  • Don’t neglect grounding and bonding — build this in as the first step. It’s harder to do later and having it in place makes it easy to change the equipment layout.
  • Try a different layout to see if something works better — you’re allowed to change your mind! You might find a new arrangement to be more comfortable or convenient.
  • Leave some budget for “surprises,” like a special cable or a power distribution box. You never know what a new interest or operating style will bring.

Study other stations

Browse the web for articles and videos that show how other stations are put together and operated. Make note of any particularly good ideas. Don’t be intimidated by big stations, because they started out as small stations!

Don’t hesitate to contact the station owners with questions; they welcome your attention and interest. Take advantage of opportunities to visit local stations, too.

Learn about those extra functions

You paid for all those nifty features and controls — learn how they work and put them to work for you. Here are some common examples:

  • MON: Short for Monitor, this button is usually close to a handheld transceiver’s PTT switch. It opens the squelch so you can listen for a weak station without changing the usual squelch level.
  • Memory write: You should practice transferring your VFO settings to a memory channel. On VHF/UHF this is good practice for public service operating. On HF, you can use this when chasing a DXpedition or making a schedule. Learn how to do this without referring to the manual.
  • Noise blankers and noise reduction: Turning these on and off is easy but did you know they are adjustable? Controlling the sensitivity and level of these functions customizes them for the noise at your location. You should also be skilled at adjusting the radio’s RF gain and AGC for HF operation. Know where the preamp and attenuator controls are, too.
  • Adjustable filters: Since most new radios use DSP, filters are smoothly adjustable, can be offset above and below your operating frequency, and different settings stored for later use. After you become skilled at using these functions, you’ll wonder how you lived without them!
  • Voice and Morse messages: Many radios can store messages and play them back. If you are operating in a contest or special event, this ability is very handy. Some radios can record audio off the air, too. While you’re at it, learn how to use your radio’s internal Morse keyer.
  • Custom setups: Your radio may be able to save its operating configuration on a memory card or internally. This allows you to create custom setups for casual operating, public service nets, contesting, mobile operating, and so forth. It sure saves a lot of button pressing!

Shop for used-equipment bargains

If you have a knowledgeable friend who can help you avoid worn-out and inadequate gear, buying used equipment is a great way to get started. Purchasing used gear from a dealer who offers a warranty is also a good option. Saving money now leaves you more cash for exploring new modes and bands later.

Caveat emptor: You can easily encounter obsolete or poorly functioning equipment when you’re shopping for used gear. If you’re in doubt, if you can’t check it out, or if the deal seems too good to be true, pass it up.

Build something yourself

Using equipment that you build yourself is a thrill. Start small by building accessory projects such as audio switches, filters, and keyers. Building things yourself can save you some money, too. Don’t be afraid to get out the drill and soldering iron. You can find lots of kits, web articles, magazines, and books of projects to get you started.

Optimize your signal

Make sure you are using your microphone, keyer, and sound card properly. Get together with a friend and configure your audio so that it’s clear, clean, and “sounds like you.” Note how the ALC and power output meters act when you have things set properly. For FM voice, find out what microphone orientation and voice level sound best. Have your friend listen to adjacent channels and frequencies — splattering or over-deviation waste power and aggravate others.

On the digital modes, check your audio settings, both receive and transmit. On receive, your audio level should be well above the minimum noise level but not so high that a strong signal exceeds the maximum input range of decoder. On transmit, have that helpful friend be sure you don’t overdrive the audio circuits and create spurious signals.

When using an SSB transceiver for digital modes like PSK, RTTY, or one of the WSJT family, the ALC system, including speech processing, should be off. If you can’t turn ALC completely off, set your audio level so that the ALC meter shows no activity during transmissions. ALC changes the signal level, distorting the modulation and making it harder to decode.

Save cash by building your own cables

You need lots of cables and connectors in your station. At a cost of roughly $5 or more for each premade cable, you can quickly spend as much on connecting your equipment as you can on purchasing a major accessory. Learn how to install your own connectors on cables, and you’ll save many, many dollars over the course of your ham career. Plus, you’ll be better able to troubleshoot and make repairs.

Build step by step

After you have the basics of your station in place, upgrade your equipment in steps so that you can always hear a little farther than you can transmit. Don’t be an alligator (all mouth, no ears). Plan with a goal in mind so that your ham radio dollars and hours all work to further that goal. Remember that the biggest bang for your ham radio buck is often improving the antenna!

Find the weakest link

Every station has a weak link. Always be on the lookout for a probable point of failure or of loss of quality. On the airwaves, you’ll encounter stations with a multibucks radio but a cheap, garage-sale microphone that results in muffled or distorted audio. Use quality gear, and keep heavily used equipment well maintained.

Make yourself comfortable

You’re going to spend a lot of hours in front of your radio, so take care of yourself, too. Start with a comfortable chair. Excellent chairs are often available in used-office-furniture stores at substantial discounts. Also make sure that you have adequate lighting and that the operating desk is at a comfortable height. The dollars you spend will pay dividends every time you go on the air.