"Homebrewed Insanity"                 

(Or, how necessity combined with low cash flow equaled some wild homemade kludges)


When I started out in my radio hobby, I was a mere pre-teen youngster living on a "fixed income".  No, it wasn't a fat social security or a pension check.  Rather it was a relatively meager allowance graciously offered to me by my mother, in return for doing those little chores around the house, like mowing the lawn and shoveling the snow off of the driveway.  My allowance usually amounted to a couple of bucks a week.  I also had some supplemental income from the money that I'd get on Christmas and my birthday.  Fortunately, I was not one of those kids who, as soon as he had some spare change in his pocket,  would immediately blow it all on a bunch of junk food or comic books.  No, I was a saver. I saved for those bigger frivolous purchases, like a 1/3rd share in a second hand go-kart, which I did more working on than actually riding.  But save I did, for that was the only way that I could afford to buy even the smallest parts to add to my slowly growing stable of radio equipment.  Anytime I wanted to buy another set of crystals, for instance, it was another $5.28 out of the radio fund. But I digress.

During this same time period, I also got a taste for building some of my own "stuff".  This officially started when I got one of those "100-in-1" Electronic kits, which Radio Shack used to carry, as a Christmas present. There were all sorts of circuit plans included in the kit, all of which were designed to teach the basics of electronic theory.  With that kit, I was able to construct a crude field strength meter, (which I used to "peak" my walkie-talkies) a microphone pre-amp,  a chirping "birdie" noisemaker, and a bevy of other interesting projects. I would then duplicate the circuit on a breadboard, using spare parts cannibalized from old radios and other circuits, and use them as necessary. I also started dabbling in the art of modifying radios, by experimenting with my 100 mW  CB base station. I added a crystal switch so that I could change channels,  a battery meter, and installed the aforementioned mic preamp. All of which was designed to "enhance" the capability of my limited gear.

My meager cash flow problem also prevented me from experiencing the most optimal, and feature-packed equipment that was available to the aspiring CB operator.  Even the least featured CB radios were expensive back then, compared to what they can be had for today. The bare minimum, bottom of the barrel, sparse featured 23 channel radios cost close to $100 back then.  I was especially jealous of a few of my friends who had obtained some really nice new radio gear on their parent's nickel.  Conversely, my first full powered 23 channel CB came as a direct result of the culmination of over a half year's worth of allowance savings.  Even at that, it was a simple, low budget "no-frills" radio.  My mother, while overtly opposed to my pursuing higher powered equipment, must have actually felt a little sorry for me.  Knowing full well what I was saving up for, she actually gave me my father's old 5 HP outboard boat motor, and allowed me to sell it and add the proceeds to my "radio fund".  When I had saved up that whopping (for me) $100 in that summer of 1974, I immediately purchased my first radio, which turned out to be a Pace 223.  It was chosen simply because it was the cheapest radio available from the local dealers at the time.  But buying that radio completely drained my radio fund, and I had nothing left with which to buy those necessary little accessories like a power supply (How else was I going to run a mobile rig in the house?), and an antenna. At the rate at which I accumulated money, it would be another 4 or 5 months before I could afford to buy a decent power supply and a cheap base antenna. So what do I do in the meantime?  Time to get building........

Not only was I a saver when it came to money, I was also a pack-rat when it came to parts. I kept everything.  I had old electric toys from when I was a little kid, old broadcast radios that my parents didn't want anymore, and some fellow radio people took pity on me and would drop off some trinket of electronic flotsam for me to strip for potentially useful parts.  If nothing else, I learned how to skillfully solder from all the practice that I got from stripping the parts from those cast off pieces.  Since I knew I wouldn't be buying a power supply any time soon, and another 5 months would have to crawl by before Christmas came around again, I decided to see what I could do to build a supply from all my squirreled away parts.  Among my parts collection were various power transformers from both train and road race sets. In fact, I had used one of them to power my 1 watt Midland Walkie-Talkie.  So I figured that 12 volts was 12 volts, and I proceeded to hook up my BRAND NEW RADIO (!) to this kludge of a power supply. The radio came to life and the channel display lit up fairly brightly. But there was a noticeable A.C. hum in the receive audio, and when I keyed the transmitter, the lights dimmed dramatically. This certainly wouldn't be acceptable for my needs. I needed a transformer with more amperage. Well, as luck would have it, I also had one of those big honkin' Lionel train transformers, with the twin bat handle lever controls straddling either end, and also weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 lbs. I felt that this transformer would do the trick, but there was a problem. Lionel trains ran on A.C. voltages, and I needed D.C.. The solution to this hurdle came from another parts bin candidate, a broken "wall wart" A.C.-D.C. power converter for an old cassette tape recorder. The transformer was bad, but I scavenged the rectifier diodes and the filter cap, and attached the circuit to the Lionel transformer. This time when I powered up the radio, the hum was barely detectable. I adjusted the voltage slowly up to 14V. The big test came when I keyed the transmitter. This time the lights dimmed (It was still, after all, unregulated), but not nearly as much.  So far I had been transmitting into a #47 bulb dummy load, and it glowed brighter as well, indicating greater transmit power (Something I wanted at all cost). But my jubilation was short-lived, as the radio suddenly went dark, and I started to smell something burning. I quickly unplugged the transformer, and hoped and prayed that I hadn't fried the radio.  Fortunately, it wasn't the radio (this time).  But it turned out that the rectifier diodes from that old wall-wart, were not strong enough for the current demand of the radio, and had shorted out.  Since I had no replacements in the junk box, which were any stronger, I was forced to scrape my remaining pennies and run to Radio Shack to buy a set of 3 amp diodes.  Once the diode replacements were in place, the power supply was again fired up and this time it held, and I was ready to rock.  I used this home made supply for the first month that I used the radio. That ended one day, when the voltage got  bumped up a bit too far resulting in the transmit driver and final transistors popping open, effectively killing my transmit power. I attempted to fix the radio, by replacing the blown transistors, but I was only able to restore the transmit power level to about a 1/2 watt. A kindly local ham took pity on me (Thanks to some intervention from Blue Bandit) and replaced the final transistor with a stronger device and aligned it back to its former glory. I then found a deal on a regulated 1.5 amp supply from a neighbor, which I then used until I sold the radio a few months later.

On the other end of the radio system, my antenna story was much the same.  I found myself with a radio, and nothing that I could use for an antenna. Somewhere along the line, one of those really crummy Radio Shack 18" center-loaded gutter mount mobile antennas fell into my possession.  I originally had intentions of using that antenna for my base, and I went ahead and mounted it to the soffit outside of my bedroom, and ran a length of coax cable to it.  But the receive was practically dead, my walkie-talkie actually performed much better with its self-contained antenna inside the house. The biggest problem was that I had no metal to mount the mobile antenna to, plus that antenna was a very poor radiator at only 18" in length.   I didn't know all that much about antenna theory at the time, but I did know that a quarter wave length was about 9'.  About a year prior, when I was testing a friend's Heathkit Lunchbox CB, I had pieced together an approximately 9' section of antenna out of broken off sections of car radio antenna.  There was a nearby drive-thru car wash and antennas were always being broken off, which provided a fairly continual source of material for the potential antenna homebrewer.  I used to trash pick those sections and combine them together with some judicious soldering, in order to make antennas for my hobby pursuits.  I still had the old 9' section of antenna, and it was resurrected as a potential candidate for my new radio's station antenna.  But I had to figure out a way to mount it all.  By chance, I found that one of the sections of the car radio antenna fit rather snuggly inside the threaded section of the spring base on the 18" gutter mount.  But the 9 foot length of the antenna was too long and heavy for the spring to support in free air. I had to devise a method to support it.  So I took a 5 foot long piece of 2"X2" wooden stake, and drove it into the ground outside of my bedroom window (Luckily I lived in a single story house), mounted the gutter mount bracket to it, and shoved the 9 foot car antenna kludge into that.  I then secured the upper section of it to the house by way of some twine to prevent it from bending over.  To complete the installation, I attached a section of 14 gauge wire from the ground side of the mount and ran it to the outdoor water faucet for a ground.  I then borrowed an SWR meter from one of my CB radio neighbors (I couldn't afford one of my own yet), and checked it out.  Surprisingly, the SWR was about 1.6:1, which was not all that bad considering what this antenna was made from.  Satisfied for the moment (And the moment never lasted long in those days), I used this antenna system for a few weeks.  But the performance shortfalls of this home-made antenna system soon became painfully apparent as I was falling short in the signal department compared with some of my other up and coming peers.  Since I was always looking to make improvements, I tried raising the antenna by attaching another section of 2X2 pole to the original, and raised the whole antenna up by about 5 feet.  I had to extend the wire which was attached to the ground as well.  When I rechecked SWR, it was now over 4:1. This made little sense to me at the time, since very little changed other than height. In retrospect, I believe that the problem stemmed from extending the ground wire, which coincidently ended up being close to 9 feet originally which, when combined with the vertical radiator, essentially formed a dipole. When I raised the antenna and extended the "ground" wire, the dipole dimensions were changed and consequently, the SWR went sky-high. 

But then another stroke of good luck (for me) happened. Steve, one of our locals, had just burned up his 5/8th wave antenna, by running too much power through it.  Since I went up to help him take it down, he gave me the antenna for parts, which I graciously took. When I got it home, I then drilled out the rivets in the base of the antenna, removed the burnt out matching transformer, and ran the connecting wire straight to the radiator section. I then shortened the vertical section to 9' essentially turning the 5/8th wave antenna into a 1/4 wave.  I mounted that contraption on top of a now 10' section of 2X2 wooden pole. I figured that I now had a bona-fide 1/4 wave ground plane so I anxiously anticipated a significant signal jump.  But a check of the SWR now showed about a 5:1 reading, and I couldn't understand why it wasn't better.  I tried raising and lowering the vertical section, but I could not make the match much better.  Frustrated in my failure, I opted to run the way it was, as it seemed to work somewhat ok.  But the high SWR may have contributed to the final and driver transistor popping out of my radio.  It would have been helpful then, if I had known that a simple direct fed 1/4 wave GP antenna required a radial droop of 45 degrees to present a 50 ohm impedance.  But I would eventually learn that lesson the hard way.

A few months later, and I had a new (to me) radio, the Lafayette Comstat 25, as well as (finally!) a commercially made 1/2 wave antenna (thanks to Dead Soldier). I was now finally operating some respectable equipment, but my low budget constraints continued to impede my ability to improve and accessorize my station.  Consequently, I was still forced to homebrew many more accessories. Things like a VFO, a BFO, a Reverb, a horizontal wire dipole, a 2 tube amplifier, and yet another power supply. A few years later,  I built my first frequency counter, from a Radio Shack kit,  and I built a digital frequency display and PLL controller, rather than spend what something like that was worth commercially.  Eventually, I would become gainfully employed, and could afford more expensive equipment.  But surprisingly, I didn't go crazy like a kid in a candy store, opting to only buy what I absolutely needed, and still opting to homebrew or horse trade for much of my equipment.  I guess once you get accustomed to doing things that way, it's a hard habit to break.  Now some 30+ years later and many things have gone full circle.  Thanks to my new neighborhood's antenna restrictions, I'm back to running a Mickey-mouse homebrewed CB antenna (At least the mount for it), and due to the increased expenses of going from two incomes down to one, discretionary spending is at a minimum (Hmmm, let's see, should we buy a new washing machine, or a fancy radio.......). Looks like it's time to homebrew again. I'm still working on making a 40 meter dipole.  One thing that is a lot different now is time. I had all the time in the world to devote to my hobbies when I was young.  Now I have far too many demands vying for my time.  Now if I could only homebrew a clone of myself to handle those annoying little "honey-dos", and I could be free to pursue my hobbies again........... Yea, I'll get right on that one, once I find some time.