Maintenance Tools for Ham Radios

By H. Ward Silver

Maintenance involves taking care of all your ham radio equipment, as well as fabricating any necessary cables or fixtures to put it together. Having these tools on hand allows you to perform almost any electronics maintenance task:

  • Wire cutters: Use a heavy-duty pair to handle big wires and cables, and a very sharp pair of diagonal cutters, or dikes, with pointed ends to handle the small jobs.
  • Soldering iron and gun: You need a small soldering station with adjustable temperature and interchangeable tips. Delicate connectors and printed-circuit boards need a low-temperature, fine-point tip. Heavier wiring jobs take more heat and a bigger tip. A soldering gun should have at least 100 watts of power for antenna and cable soldering. Don’t try to use a soldering gun on small jobs or circuit boards.
  • Terminal crimpers: Use a real crimper, not pliers — they are not expensive. There are lots of YouTube videos showing how to install crimp terminals and do the job right the first time. Also use the right terminal size for the wire you’ll be attaching it to.
  • Head-mounted magnifier: Electronic components are getting smaller by the hour, so do your eyes a favor. Magnifiers are often available at craft stores. You can also find clamp-mounted, swing-arm magnifier/light combinations.
  • Digital multimeter (DMM): Even inexpensive models include diode and transistor checking, a continuity tester, and maybe a capacitance and inductance checker. Some models also include a frequency counter, which can come in handy.

Electronic kit vendors offer inexpensive “learn to solder” kits. If you haven’t soldered before, these are a great way to learn. Most come with an simple soldering iron, too, but you should upgrade to a soldering station as soon as you begin regularly working on electronics.

Electronic components can be damaged by static electricity, such as when a spark jumps from your finger to a doorknob — a phenomenon called ESD (for electrostatic discharge). Inexpensive accessories for controlling ESD at your workplace and draining the static from your skin are available from electronic kit and parts vendors.

You also need to have spare parts on hand. Start by having a spare for all your equipment’s connectors. Look over each piece of gear and note what type of connector is required. When you’re done, head down to the local electronics emporium and pick up one or two of each type. To make up coaxial cables, you need to have a few RF connectors of the common types. UHF, BNC, and N. SMA connectors, common on the newer handheld radios, take special tools to install. You’ll purchase cables with SMA connectors already installed or adapters, as described next.

Power connectors have large pins and sockets or surfaces to carry the necessary current with low resistance. Many audio and data connectors are much smaller. They don’t need to carry large currents so the contacts are smaller and more closely spaced.

You often need adapters when you don’t have just the right cable or a new accessory has a different type of connector. This table shows the most common adapter types. You don’t have to get them all at once, but this list is good to take to a hamfest or to use when you need an extra part to make up a minimum order.

Common Shack Adapters
Adapter Use Common Types
Audio Mono to stereo phone plug (1/4 inch and 1/8 inch), 1/4 inch to 1/8 inch phone plug, right-angle phone plug, phone plug to RCA (phono) jack and vice versa, RCA double female for splices
Data 9-pin to 25-pin D-type, DIN-to-D cables, null modem cables and adapters, 9-pin and 25-pin double male/female (gender benders)
RF Double-female (barrel) adapters for all four types of connectors, BNC plug to UHF jack (SO-239) and vice versa, N plug to UHF jack and vice versa, SMA to UHF adapter or jumper cable

A plug is the connector that goes on the end of a cable. A jack is the connector that’s mounted on equipment. A male connector is one in which the signal contacts are exposed pins (disregard the outer shroud or shell). A female connector has recessed sockets that accept male connector pins.

Along with adapters and spare parts, you should have on hand some common consumable parts:

  • Fuses: Have spares for all the fuse sizes and styles your equipment uses. Never replace a fuse with a higher-value fuse.
  • Electrical tape: Use high-quality tape such as Scotch 33+ for important jobs, such as outdoor connector sealing, and get the cheap stuff for temporary or throwaway jobs.
  • Fasteners: Purchase a parts-cabinet assortment with No. 4 through No. 10 screws, nuts, and lockwashers. Some equipment may require the smaller metric-size fasteners. You need 1/4-inch and 5/16-inch hardware for antennas and masts.

Keep a list of what materials and components that are running low so that when you start shopping online, head for the store, or go to a hamfest or flea market you won’t forget what you need. This also helps you avoid buying unnecessary duplicate items.

Cleaning equipment is an important part of maintenance, and you need the following items:

  • Soft-bristle brushes: Old paintbrushes (small ones) and toothbrushes are great cleaning tools. I also keep a round brush for getting inside tubes and holes.
  • Metal bristle brushes: Light-duty steel and brass brushes clean up oxide and corrosion. Brass brushes don’t scratch metal connectors but do damage plastic knobs or displays. Don’t forget to clean corrosion or grease off a brush after the job.
  • Solvents and sprays: Bottles or cans of lighter fluid, isopropyl alcohol, contact cleaner, and compressed air can be kept on hand. Lighter fluid cleans panels and cabinets gently and quickly, and also removes old adhesive and tape. Always test a solvent on a hidden part of a plastic piece before applying a larger quantity.

If you would like more information about building electronic circuits and working with electronic components, check out Circuitbuilding For Dummies.