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Amateur radio's hidden curriculum

Picture of radio books

What you need to pass the exam and the practical skills required to be a successful amateur are two quite different things. This month we outline six vital skills for radio amateurs. Mastering them will assist you to fully enjoy amateur radio and further your electronics knowledge. In many cases, possession of these skills is what distinguishes newcomers from experienced hams.


If anyone asked me what was the number one skill required for someone in electronics, I'd reply the ability to solder. Despite the availability of solderless connectors, people who can't solder are severely handicapped. Even if you use all store-bought equipment and antennas, sooner or later you'll need to re-solder a loose microphone or antenna connection.

The main alternative to soldering when making connections is crimping. Crimping has its advantages, but the decision to use crimped connectors should be made on a sounder basis than an inability to solder. Antenna and earth connections should always be well-soldered to reduce the risk of interference due to oxidised connections which can radiate harmonics even when the transmitter is clean.

Picture of soldering tools

A soldering iron of around 20 watts is satisfactory for most electronic work. The main exception to this is when soldering PL259 plugs onto coaxial cable, where a larger iron, variable temperature soldering station or butane torch will be found handy. Larger irons are also useful when soldering onto large metal surfaces, as would be required for some antenna work.

Successful soldering requires you to apply heat to the joint and then let the joint melt the solder. Soldered connections should be made quickly with a clean, hot tip to reduce the risk of overheating components. Putting solder onto the iron's tip, and then trying to let this solder drip onto the connection is not the right way to do it. Applying too much solder is undesirable as it causes unwanted bridges to form between adjacent circuit board tracks or plug connections.

Further information on soldering is provided on numerous electronic beginners websites but the best approach is to get in and give it a go.


Practical ability to use basic test instruments

All amateurs should be able to use a multimeter and an RF power/SWR meter. An ability to use and interpret readings from dip oscillators, impedance bridges, switched attenuators and antenna analysers is essential to the antenna experimenter. Constructors of transmitters and receivers should be able to use RF signal generators, frequency counters, inductance and capacitance meters and (ideally) oscilloscopes.

Picture of multimeter

With few exceptions, the above items can either be bought cheaply (eg multimeter) or constructed in a day or two (eg attenuators, dip oscillators, RF signal generators, noise bridges). Ample constructional information on test equipment will be found in radio handbooks and on the web.


Salvaging stuff

A great skill that can save money and increase the range of projects you can build is the ability to know what's useful and salvage it. Even discarded consumer gear has a great many parts for the builder. Examples include ferrite rods, tuning capacitors, dial mechanisms, capacitors, potentiometers, speakers, hardware, wire and more.

Taking things apart can be relaxing but time consuming. Unless the case is useful, normally remove boards from their enclosure and store the boards in cardboard boxes, only removing components if needed for a project. You should make an effort to find and undo screws to open cabinets, but in some instances there may be none and you may have to resort to more drastic measures to get things apart (see below!).

Salvaging stuff

Electronics on the floor has more ideas and videos on salvaging and using electronic components.

Construct a project from a schematic diagram and make intelligent substitutions

Studying for the exam teaches one how to identify components from a schematic diagram. Students should also have learned about the basic functions of each component, and the purpose of each component in common stages found in transmitters and receivers.

When it comes to making projects, many beginners are unconfident about tackling a project for which a printed circuit board layout is not provided. Yet, many of the most interesting projects (whether appearing in amateur magazines or on people's websites) lack a printed circuit board layout. This is generally because the builder uses alternative forms of construction (eg matrix board, 'ugly construction' and 'paddy board') that are cheaper, quicker and more easily modified than specially-etched printed circuit boards. Also, developing a reproducible circuit board layout requires time that in many cases experimenters would rather spend on developing the next project.

Picture of homebrew gear

Being able to construct a project directly from the schematic diagram is one of the most important skills that the homebrewer can possess. This ability greatly the range of projects that can be built and makes it much easier to customise circuits to suit one's needs.

A good plan for most projects is to try to base circuit layout as much as possible on the schematic diagram. Have the low-level or input stages on the left-hand side of the board, and the high-level or output stages on the right part of the board. Build and test large projects in modular sections to assist fault-finding, modifications and upgrading.

Before cutting the circuit board to size, draw a plan showing the proposed mounting of components on the board. There is nothing more frustrating than cutting a board, and finding that it's 2cm too short! More experienced constructors will have an idea of the size of board needed from a cursory glance at the schematic diagram, and may wish to proceed straight from gathering the parts to cutting the board without drawing a diagram. Here's a simple project idea to get you started.

  Also important is the ability to make intelligent substitutions, especially when building projects developed overseas. This is often not feasible with circuits using rare, special-function integrated circuits. However, substitutions are easier when circuits use discrete components. Constructors should have some idea of the function of each stage and the type of components that are used in it so that they have some idea of suitable substitutes.

As an example, let's take the keying stage in a low power CW transmitter. It may require an esoteric PNP transistor that is unavailable locally. Inspection of the circuit reveals that the stage is a transistor switch that applies voltage to the collector of the final output transistor when the key is held down. Depending on the current drawn by the final, a low to medium power PNP transistor is called for. As the keying stage is not handling RF, an audio transistor such as the BD140 would be a workable substitute.

Computer and internet literacy

Computers occupy an important place in most amateur's lives. Whether used as a terminal for digital modes, logging, DX spotting designing antennas, morse practice, or research tool, a computer is indispensable for many radio activities.

Amateurs should possess the following computer skills:

* Ability to use an operating system (including use of a mouse, minimising/maximising windows, switching between applications, saving and retrieving files)
* Ability to use common Windows-based software
* Ability to send and receive e-mail messages
* Ability to read and post on newsgroups
* Ability to use an internet browser (including the use of search engines)
These general skills will serve well for most people. However, many specialist facets of amateur radio require additional computing abilities. Examples include:

* Controlling equipment with computers. Programming knowledge and the ability to construct proper interfaces between the computer's input/output ports and the equipment to be controlled is required. Typical applications of computer control include repeaters, antenna rotators for satellite tracking, Morse CQ callers, etc. Microcontrollers (eg BASIC Stamp, Arduino and PICs) are now common. Athough not the cheapest, I recommend Arduino as being both veratile and easy to learn.

* Modifying ex-commercial VHF/UHF equipment. Modern equipment uses programmable EPROMS instead of expensive crystals to set the operating frequency. Converting these sets requires an ability to program EPROMS to allow operation on amateur frequencies.

* Creating webpages and videos. You will need to know how to write a webpage, use File Transfer Protocol (FTP) to transfer it to your service provider's machine and inform search engines of its existence. Knowing HyperText Mark-up Language (HTML) is a bonus, but not essential, given the large number of webpage editors around. If you want pictures on your page, you must know how to use a (computer) scanner and convert between different image file formats. And to make videos for YouTube, familiarity with Windows Movie Maker or similar is essential to edit videos.

* Circuit simulation, computer-aided drafting, satellite tracking, digital modes and logging. To get your computer to perform these functions requires special software for each task. The 'user-friendliness' of such software varies enormously, from intuitive to hostile. I use Digipan for PSK31, MMSSTV for SSTV and WSPR for WSPR. See various specialist websites or email lists for user reports on various programs.

Morse proficiency

Morse knowledge remains a desirable even if it's no longer an amateur exam requirement. It can be handy for identifying repeaters and beacons on VHF and its utility as an additional mode, especially when signals are weak. Also, Morse transmitters are much simpler and cheaper to build than transmitters for any other digital or voice mode.

Picture of Morse key

Learners should aim to be competent in the following to be considered proficient:

* At least 15 to 20 words per minute receiving speed
* An ability to receive Morse without needing to write it down, using paper only to note important details
* Being able to send off the top of one's head (ie not requiring a written message to send, as provided in the exam)
* A knowledge of commonly used on-air abbreviations

All active Morse operators have the above skills. There is a huge difference between the Morse taught to prepare people for the old 5 and 10wpm Morse exams and the mode as used on the air by experienced operators. It is unfortunate that people frequently obtain a jaundiced view of the latter based on their learning and exam experiences. Morse at 5 wpm is indeed a slow, clumsy and tortuous mode. However, 20 wpm sent and received in one's head, with appropriate use of abbreviations, is many times faster and fully practical for communications purposes.


Operating skills and general knowledge

Passing the regulations exam is a good start, but is not sufficient on its own. There are many skills that are best learned by listening to good operators on the air and reading the operating section of the ARRL Handbook. Articles on this website may also help.

Have at least a vague idea of what's happening on the bands. This way you won't be caught unawares when asked to give a number for a contest that you didn't know about. Using web forums or Facebook groups, reading magazines and listening to the weekly club or national society news transmission are usually sufficient.

Gain a broad knowledge of bandplans and the frequencies allocated to each licence class. This is so that you do not cause interference to other modes by operating in the wrong part of the band, or worse, breach your licence conditions by transmitting outside your allocations. All required information on these topics appears on national society websites.

You may be asked questions on amateur activity and clubs in your area. Make it your business to familiarise yourself with local groups, on-air nets, coming hamfests and examiners near you. Most of the required information is provided in magazines, news bulletins and websites.

Worth knowing is your grid locater square. Knowing your square to four characters is acceptable to give out in contests, but if there is a need to calculate distances, knowing all six characters will be necessary. Grid squares are seldom used on HF SSB or VHF FM, but are commonly used by VHF and UHF SSB operators.


Disclosure: I receive a small commission from items purchased through links on this site.
Items were chosen for likely usefulness and a satisfaction rating of 4/5 or better.



Passing the amateur exam is a great start, but is only the beginning. Learning several of the practical skills mentioned above will assist you to become an experienced amateur better equipped to enjoy what amateur radio has to offer.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Amateur Radio April 2000 with updates made in 2017.


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