What You Need to Build a Ham Radio Station - dummies

What You Need to Build a Ham Radio Station

By H. Ward Silver

Often referred to as a radio shack, the phrase conjures visions more worthy of a mad scientist’s lab than of a modern ham station. Your radio shack, however, is simply the place you keep your radio and ham equipment. The days of bulbous vacuum tubes, jumping meters, and two-handed control knobs are largely in the past.

For some hams, their entire station consists of a handheld radio or two. Other hams operate on the go in a vehicle. Cars make perfectly good places for stations, but most hams have a spot somewhere at home that they claim for a ham radio.

Here’s what you can find in a typical ham’s “shack”:

  • The radio: The offspring of the separate receiver and transmitter of yore, the modern radio transceiver, or rig, combines both devices in a single compact package about the size of a large satellite TV receiver. Like its ancestors, the rig has a large tuning knob that controls the frequency, but state-of-the-art displays and computer screens replace the dials and meters. Newer SDR equipment uses a PC or tablet for controls and displays.
  • Computer: Most hams today have at least one computer in the shack. Computers now control many radio functions, including keeping records of contacts. Modern digital signals simply wouldn’t be possible without them. Hams often use more than one computer at a time to perform different functions. Accessories and gadgets using Arduino and Raspberry Pi processors are quite common.
  • Mobile/base radio: For operating through local repeater stations, hams may use a handheld radio, but in their stations, they use a more-capable rig. These units, about the size of hardcover books, can be used as either mobile or base stations.
  • Microphones, keys, and headphones: Depending on the station owner’s preferences, you’ll see a couple (or more) of these important gadgets, the radio’s original user interface. Microphones and keys range from imposing and chrome-plated to miniaturized and hidden. The old Bakelite headphones, or cans, are also a distant memory, replaced by lightweight, comfortable, hi-fi designs.
  • Antennas: In the shack, you’ll find switches and controllers for antennas that live outside. A ham station tends to sprout antennas ranging from thin whips the size of pencils to wire antennas stretched through the trees and supersized directional beam antennas held high in the air on steel towers.
  • Cables and feed lines: Look behind, around, or under the equipment and you find wires. Lots of them. The radio signals pipe through fat, round black cables called coaxial, or coax. Power is supplied by colored wires not terribly different in size from house wiring.

The modern ham station is as far removed from the homebrewed lashups in a backyard shed as a late-model Tesla roadster is from a Model T.

Where did the phrase radio shack come from? Back in the early days of radio, the equipment was highly experimental and all home-built, requiring a nearby workshop. In addition, the first transmitters used a noisy spark to generate radio waves. The voltages were high, and the equipment was often a work in progress, so the radio hobbyists often found themselves banished from the house proper. For these reasons, many early stations were built in a garage or tool shed.