Kit Building 101
Posted on behalf of PRA member Brad (AB4BA)...
First and foremost, you need some basic equipment on your workbench to kit build. This is a starter list of equipment needed to enjoy and be successful in kit building. Most of the items can be obtained at amazon.com but there are a few exceptions. This list is by no means inclusive and there are many other items and brands which can be added as your interest and experience grows.
X-tronic Model 30200, a 60 watt soldering iron with variable temperature control and a 10 minute sleep timer. There are multiple X-tronic models available at amazon.com
Hakko FX888-D Soldering Station is another good choice. More expensive, Amazon of course.
Solderfun 10x 900m-T by Tecke, fine solder tips for more exacting work, available at Amazon
Hakko 599B solder tip cleaner at Amazon, very useful to keep solder tip clean.
Solder wick, various brands, for those mistakes we all make. “Sorry honey about the mess, I’ll clean it up with solder wick”
Magnifying lens, preferably self supported. Brightech LightView Pro Flex Magnifying Lamp at Amazon is one option. Multiple other options are available and it depends on your personal preference. This is a must to avoid soldering mistakes which leads to evil smoke genies. Other options are surgical/dental loupes the but cost may be significant.
Good lighting is an obvious must. The parts are small and the labels on them are smaller.
Quadhands deluxe workbench. This is a heavy metal platform with magnetic clamps to hold your project while soldering difficult areas. I don’t use the clamps much, but when you need them they are priceless. Available at amazon
Microcutter at amazon. To trim your excesses.
Kester 24-6337-8800 rosin core/no clean solder, 0.031” diameter. 63/37 solder is BETTER than standard 60/40 solder, it flows into the joint smoother and reduced cold solder issues. Lead free solder is an option, but not easy to use. Amazon.
Ifixit Pro Tech toolkit. Wow, what a wonderful set of tools. A little pricey, but good quality tools last a lifetime. Available at ifixit.com
AstroAl Digital multimeter TRMS 6000. A multimeter is a must for kit making. It allows measuring dc/ac voltages, continuity testing, etc. You WILL need one. Fluke makes the best DMM but prices tend to be higher. The AstroAl is a good combination of features and price, available at Amazon.
Banggood Multi function tester TC-1. A very inexpensive device to test your capacitors/resistors, etc. to confirm their values. Not essential but very useful. Available at banggood.com
Greekcreit DIY Frequency counter at banggood.com. You can buy it built or as a kit. It allows frequency output measurements. Definitely not essential but it was useful to calibrate my
Oscilliscope, many options available. This allows multiple measurements for calibrating your
kits. This is for the mature HAM who knows how to use it. I consider an oscilloscope optional in kit building. It is nice to have and for those that understand what “determine AC current by measuring voltage drop across a shunt resistor” means, this is for you. I personally to not own one…..yet.
OK that’s it for the basic equipment. If you skip the ifixit toolkit and the oscilloscope, the cost of entry is around $250. You could drop the Quadhands to be under $200.
Now, what to build. Just about everything in ham radio can be built…or modified. Mods on existing equipment can add significant functionality. Kits include receivers, transceivers, dummy loads, antennas,CW keyers, RF filters, test equipment and the list goes on and on. Most kits are in the QRP or less than 10 watt range. They are generally easier to build and costs are less. Many kits are in the $20-$60 range.
There are several websites selling quality kits. My advice is to start simple with say an EASY Series Kit from Pacific Antenna. Learn the basics of soldering and what the various components look like before tackling an Elecraft transceiver. Be prepared to see evil smoke genies, it’s part of the fun.
Here is a short list of quality kit makers.
QRP Guys-cool QRP antennas are a good first project. Learn to wind a torrid.
Pacific Antennas-Easy Series kits might be a good starting point
4 state QRP Group-multiple kits, Cricket 40 might be a good first kit
Midnight Design Solutions-home of the Phaser. More complex kit, but all the parts well labeled and instructions are excellent. I learned a lot from building the Phaser, including all the four letter names for smoke genies.
QRP labs-good kits, but definitely for the more experienced builder
Elecraft-expensive, excellent quality, much more complex. The W1 power meter was a fun kit.
mouser.com Not for kits, but for smoke genie repairs
http://qrparci.org/links/qrp-kits-bits-and-supplies This has several links for kit makers.
Stay away from the cheap Ebay kits. The instructions are poor and the components are marginal. Frustration awaits the unwary.
Finally, the internet and youtube are your friends. Learn basic soldering skills or how to wind a torrid. It also has cat videos.
PSA Wash your hands after kit building. Consuming lead will turn you into a politician.
Since I've been dabbling in electronics (and kits) since I was 5, I thought I'd toss in a couple thoughts on Brad's fine piece...
I've been really happy with my Chinese 898D+ soldering station the past few years. Compatible with the Hakko tips, which I really like, and it can be found for under $50. Note there are many manufacturers of this thing so there can be some minor variations. The hot air gun can be useful for soldering SMD parts with solder paste, but mostly I use it for heat shrink.
Solder wick is a must but it's just about useless without flux. The nasty, sticky, rosin flux works best with wick. For general flux use, I much prefer the pens. I also highly recommend grabbing some ChipQuik. When you need to de-solder a multi-pin part, ChipQuik is the only viable option without destroying the part and quite possibly the board. It's a special very low-temp bismuth-based solder that stays melted a long time, allowing you time to remove the part. Simply amazing stuff. I've de-soldered 40 pin DIP packages with it.
For magnification, I'm a huge fan of the headband magnifiers jewelers use. Inexpensive, and work great over glasses. I've also got an Andonstar Digital Microscope which is helpful at times but also $$. Brad couldn't be more right on lighting too. I use a couple of 12VDC gooseneck LED desk lamps at my electronics station, in addition to plenty of overhead lighting.
63/37 solder is eutectic, a fancy term that means it melts and solidifies at a very specific temp. Definitely good stuff. 60/40 works better for soldering thicker wires like coax braid, 8 gauge and bigger power cords, etc. And yeah, stay far away from that lead-free stuff. It's a nightmare.
Don't skimp on test equipment. With more and more electronics running at 3.3V and even 1.8V, an accurate DMM is an absolute must. Key specs to look for in a meter are +/- 0.5% (or better) accuracy on DC voltage, DC current, and resistance, 6,000 or higher count, auto-ranging and true RMS. EEVblog maintains a spreadsheet comparison of meters that will make your eyes pop out. My current DMM is the Unit-Trend UT61E and I'm quite happy with it. For a ham, I'd also highly suggest an LCR Meter since we frequently deal with inductors and capacitors. The DER DE-5000 Handheld LCR Meter is my go to instrument here.
Oscilloscopes are nice, and when you need one, you really need one, but honestly, I don't use mine more than a couple times a year. Keep an eye on Craigslist and eBay for old-school tube scope bargains. My circa 1970 20MHz dual channel is nearly as old as me and cost under $100 30 years ago when I bought it. Yeah, I drool at the fancy new digital scopes from time to time but I've not yet been motivated enough to throw my allowance at one.
Thanks again Brad for putting this together. Good stuff!
AB0L (Formerly N0KAI)
Kenwood TM-V71A, Kenwood TS-590S, Icom ID-4100A, Yaseu FT-891, TYT MD-UV380, TYT MD-380, Kenwood TH-D7A, BTECH UV-5X3, µBITX V5, µBITX V4, QRPGuys 40/30/20m DSB Digital Transceiver
Thanks Jeff, great additions from an experienced builder. I just ordered some ChipQuik.