Tuesday, November 27, 2018

2018 ~ The Year of SSB Transceivers

Why you should NOT build your own Rig!


There are many proponents of the concept of building your very own homebrew station frequently involving more than a simple CW transceiver. Often the discussion will start off by saying this is how the hobby started, or a true ham is more than an appliance operator. Still others will say that it is through the understanding of the form, fit and function of each and every component will you then and only then appreciate fully our hobby. 

Today I want to explore the many reasons why you should NOT build your own rig. This seems strange coming from me; but I do want to relate some personal experiences that support this argument. 

My published works both formally via mediums such as QRP Quarterly and the GQRP SPRAT and Hot Iron and on my websites, you tube videos and N6QW blog contains about three dozen transceiver projects with about 98% being SSB and the other 2% --you know the other mode CW. 

This sharing of knowledge has frequently generated lots of email and lots of questions. Quite often the questions reflect the real desire to homebrew a rig but too often that the prospective homebrewer lacks the gravitas to pull it off. I respectfully try to answer all questions without being derisive or resorting to comments such as "Stop you won't make it."

I have been keeping a collective of the reasons why these individuals should not attempt building a homebrew rig and this listing may serve as a roadmap of what needs to have the box checked in order to be successful. Basically you can group the reasons into lumps such as 1) Basic electronics knowledge 2) Lack of experience 3) Lack of test gear 4) Unfamiliarity with the new technologies and 5) A large Junk Box


  • Building electronic circuits requires some basic knowledge such as understanding Ohms Law, LC Circuits, DC versus AC circuits, and all important, mathematics beyond addition and subtraction. Resistors in parallel are product over the sum. Now we have multiplication and division. Capacitors in series follow the same construct. Oh and which is the collector, base and emitter pins. Did I also mention you must know how to read schematics; and being able to work with LT Spice is a must!
  • It would be something short of a miracle to successfully build one of my SSB transceivers without having previously built something. A SSB Transceiver is not a first time project! There is much tribal knowledge to building RF circuits without having them oscillate, or be subject to unwanted feedback. Often "newbies" think they can homebrew a crystal filter simply by purchasing 5 crystals and you are done. You may need to buy 30 such crystals and then proceed down the path of "black art" to finally end up with a workable filter. Again a miracle complete with a star on the horizon will not net a good filter without some large experimentation being involved.
  • A person once shared that he built a one transistor CW transmitter and couldn't tell if it worked as the only receiver he had was a crystal set.  He did not own a VOM, did not have a SWR Bridge nor did not know what a RF probe was. Dabbling with electronics today means some basic test gear like a Digital VOM, LC Meter, Digital Storage Oscilloscope, SWR Bridge, Dummy Load and test oscillators. Yes some are big ticket items but inexpensive high quality analog Scopes can be had at very reasonable prices. You also need a linear or high quality switching power supply --forget the WalWarts!
  • I can build a digital VFO with an Arduino, Si5351, and a Color TFT Display for about $20. BUT unless you know how to program the Arduino and how to connect up the Si5351 with Color TFT --all you have done is spent $20. Too many times I get an email --"your code doesn't work and when I hooked up everything nothing shows on the screen". Invariably the person ignored the documentation and simply counted the pins on the Arduino --- D3 is not third pin on the Arduino (it is actually the 6th pin). That follows that D12 is actually the 15th pin. They ignored the many project write ups that discuss the IDE being used and the need for included files. In short they never invested the time to go through the Hello World tutorial or LED On LED Off exercise. Their 1st experience should not be  is a band switching, two VFO sketch -- not for the faint of heart. Purposefully I put splash screens in my code as an irritant so that in time you get tired of seeing Seabee's Can Do which will force the user to change the code. Also noteworthy get used to surface mount parts.
  • I buy parts in bulk and have a large junk box -- you can buy 10 resistors for $1 or 100 for $4. There are many common value resistors that are used over and over. Values like 100 Ohms, 1K Ohms and 10 Ohms. A bit of judicious buying can net a nice junk box. A $20 bill will get you 500 resistors of 5 most common values. The same applies to capacitors -- the two most common values are 10nF and 100nF -- same deal only a bit more expensive as these are typically 100 pieces for $6 or $7. But unless you have been stocking up; buying parts in small quantities will make the project cost an arm and a leg.

There are some other issues such has having a few good tools including  a temperature controlled soldering iron with a fine tip so you can work with surface mount parts and an electric drill ( Li Po battery powered are nice). A variety of good quality screw drivers and needle nose pliers along with some "nippers" and an Excelite socket set round out the mix.

There are many other tools and techniques like bench vises, metal benders, Drill Presses, CNC mills and 3D Printers round out some ham shops.

Above all is the time investment to learn about the hobby, how to do things (you tube) and you will have to invest in buying reference materials. Typically EMRFD is suggested as a reference document and I can tell you my copy is doing yeoman's service as a bookend. Harder to find is Solid State Design for the Radio Amateur -- more useful. You must set up your computer so you can find stuff. You must also tune into blogs and You tube videos from Charlie ZL2CTM and DuWayne, KV4QB and of course N2CQR's SolderSmoke Blog. That is a big time sinkhole to read all of that stuff.

So why would you even think of homebrewing a rig when you can buy rigs that almost make you feel like you are homebrewing a rig as you do have to do some work to get it on the air -- but that is mostly mechanical stuff.

  • Ashar Farhan's Bitx and uBitx kits get you there ranging in price from $60 to $140. (Mostly assembled & tested)
  • Hans Summers QCX and QSX kits in the same range gets you there for about the same $$$
The value of these two kit suppliers is that they are proven kits and have web reflectors for help. Scratch building a rig and not having in depth knowledge or the proper tools or test gear ties both arms behind your back and there is a high probability of failure.

So don't even think about homebrewing a rig unless you can check off all of the boxes. I have 60+ years doing this and might add -- 60 cumulative years not one year 60 times over. Thus I can build rigs because I can and should add every once in awhile even I end up with smoked parts where a rig once stood.

So if you want to get on the air and make contacts, buy it don't build it. (unless you follow what you need to do).,

73's
Pete N6QW

27 comments:

  1. You haven't put me off Pete I say "have a go but don't give up if it doesn't work first time". 73

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  2. Hi Shane,

    Do you see a bit of reverse psychology at work here... I do. Thanks for your post.

    73's
    Pete N6QW
    Pete

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  3. Good post Pete.

    Tools have never been cheaper. There really is no excuse to not have a shack in a box tool like the Red Pitaya, Analog Discovery or similar, they do not cost all that much and will do everything we need and more for not to many dollars.

    Sure you can do things round about ways with duct tape, zip ties and string, but it is so much easier to look at a wave form on the screen and see what is going on.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your post -- there indeed are many tools now available and many are inexpensive --some get you in the ball park while others tell you the section, row and seat number. I have a 100 MHz DSO and it has a built in frequency counter -- the counter will get you to the ball park but does not have the accuracy out to several digits. Most often you want to know is the circuit on 7 MHz (works FB) but cannot tell me that it is 7.200015 MHz. Which is OK --I have an HP counter for that requirement.

      73's
      Pete N6QW

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  4. Rob

    I believe (and I think Pete would agree) that 'swiss army knife" tools are possibly adequate for many things, but really good at any one thing. My wife is constantly buying me those 'multi-purpose' tools they sell on QVC and I'm constantly telling her thay're 'gimmicks'. I hate to hurt her well intentioned gestures, but I tell her to let me by my own tools.

    One problem with this 'Red' thingy is it can only be one thing at a time. Very often in the lab, you need a good scope, a signal generator and a mult-meter all at the same time. You'd be much better advised to look on EBay for some classic 'boatanchor' test gear from the '70s and '80s which, though big and heavy, is still top-notch yet very affordable. In my RF lab, I have an HP8640B signal generator, a Tektronix 495P spectrum analyzer and a Tek 465B scope. They're instruments I cut my professional engineering teeth on decades ago, yet they can still run with the best performing instruments of today.

    You don't have to spend a lot of money and you don't have to spend it all at once, but DO invest in good test equipment, not gimmicks.

    Joe

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    1. The red pitaya is dual channel oscilloscope and function generator at the same time, which makes it very useful. Add in a couple of DMM's so you can measure current and voltage at the same time and its a shack in a box.

      Its what I use mostly day to day because it is convenient. Its not the best tool out there and its a bit odd to work with at times but its super convenient. And I have another 100meg scope, 60meg function gen and 1gig spectrum analyzer here, but the red pitaya is what i use the most.

      And you are right, its not Brilliant at anything but it is adequate at a lot of things and I think for most homebrew beginners, being able to do a lot of things just good enough is more beneficial.

      Its horses for courses of course, I am no engineer or industry professional so not using Lab grade gear is not a big deal to me.

      Delete
  5. This probably is obvious but I meant to say "NOT really good at any one thing" and "let me BUY my own tools"

    Joe

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    Replies
    1. Hi Joe,

      Many of the "multi-purpose" tools do a very adequate job for go no go testing but as you point out --at times you might need to read out to six digits.

      I keep telling my XYL that I would like "radio related" things for Christmas. As usual I get the SUV --Sox, Underwear and Vitamins. Lucky me.

      Thanks for your posts


      73's
      Pete

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    2. My advice to anyone who,wants to become,an expert radio builder on a budget is to start off with a good quality used scope. With that, you can easily build a very good quality variable lab power supply.Then a signal source. With a cheap si5351 board, you can make a 3 signal source which is ideal for receiver building: one source for the VFO, one for the BFO, and one for an RF input test signal.
      If you're so inclined, a simple direct conversion receiver can be morphed into a credible spectrum analyzer. These days, how far you can go is driven by firmware, so learn to program Arduinos. It can be a real hoot to see your ideas for a useful gadget spring to life, so dive in, enjoy the water and learn.

      Joe

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    3. yes ,but also and for high frequency is cheap and simple too,for example adf4351
      https://www.ebay.com/itm/35M-4-4GHZ-RF-Signal-Source-ADF4351-Phase-locked-loop-Frequency-Synthesizer-oe/183253864368?hash=item2aaac80fb0:g:AeYAAOSw8-xZ2D9G:rk:5:pf:1

      actually there was never cheaper for radio amateurs home made devices ;)

      Delete
    4. Mikele
      I had a quick look at this part. It seems to be primarily applicable at VHF, UHF AND SHF frequencies. At HF and into the low VHF frequencies, the si5351 seems to run circles around it on almost all fronts. Plus, the si5351 has 3 outputs and a ready to go module is only about US $6.

      I do agree that this is the best era ever to be a homebrewer due to the abundance of cheap high functionality parts.

      Joe
      W3JDR

      Delete
  6. Hi Pete
    Just my opinion, Test equipment is critical to home brewing radios. But whether it is the Swiss Army Knife or the Tek scope the equipment is only as good as the person using it. So to bring forward one of Pete's comments, "spend the time to learn", at least basic electronics.
    Understand the circuit you are working on. What it doses, why it does it, and what outside forces might effect it. A trace on a multi-dollar scope is just useless, unless you know what to expect from the device under test in the first place. When looking at a BFO signal that 14 digit googa-phonic frequency counter is dumb as a post unless you know what the frequency should actually be. Are you tuning for Upper sideband? Lower sideband? What is the center freq of the crystal filter? Why is that important?
    Ham radio homebrewing is not for the faint of hart. It take considerable commitment to study, experiment, and learning what that pile of parts could become.
    But when you do put the time and energy into learning this facet of the hobby it can be one of the most satisfying hobbies you can have. The 'joy of oscillation', that first contact on a radio YOU built, the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment can be unmatched.
    I have 30+ years of OJT in electronics, Everything from radio and TV repair to two way radio and telephone systems and integration. Worked in wide scale system design and implementation of two way radio, VoIP and RoIP systems. Been a HAM for 50+ years but until I ran across Pete and Bill's Solder Smoke podcast 5 years ago I had never built a SSB transceiver. Homwbrewing radios is a different bread of cat and a whole new learning curve. It has been (and will continue to be) an exciting learning experience with 5 successful SSB rigs (and several not so successful) under my belt I am just now beginning to understand some to the complex inner working of these radios. So dont expect to be the master rig builder over night. Read! Tinker, experiment. take notes. Build up that junk box. Obtain quality test tools. But become proficient with one before buying another. And learn enough about Arduino code to at least read, follow and sort of understand what is happening and how to at least modify someone else's code.
    Get a blank pad and sharpen that pencil. Decide what it is you want to build. Lay it out on paper, break it down into section. Study each section and read up on what why and how, learn form others experience. Then heat up the soldering iron. But be prepared to fail, probably more than once. But keep on building!!

    Speaking of building. You have only 5 weeks to go Pete. You gonna put those last 3 rigs on the air by years end??

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  7. Hi Jim,

    Firstly thanks for your wise comments and input. There is no substitute for front end "noodling".

    Just let me say that one of your five transceiver projects has inspired me to think "out of the box" and there will be at least one of the three on the air before the end of the year.

    BTW this particular blog post seems to have stirred a bit of thought in the ham community yet no photos or you tube video, or circuit diagrams were used, harmed or altered in any way to present my thoughts. I also believe much like Dilbert --radio genes may be required for successful homebrewing.

    73's
    Pete, N6QW

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  8. Pete: We are going to have to call our lawyers at Dewey Cheetam and Howe! We have been contacted by an attorney representing IAOPA -- the International Appliance Operators' Protective Association. They are alleging that your blog post has caused "serious psychological harm" and a "measurable" (at least 3 db!) reduction in self esteem among their members. They are thinking of hitting you with a cease or desist order. Or they might insist that you give free classes (with participation trophies) to everyone harmed by your "cruel" post. But I see a possible way out; We were almost simultaneously contacted by a lawyer from an outfit called YEAKENICO (figure it out!) -- they want to put you on their payroll! They will pay you BIG BUCKS to continue to churn out blog posts like this -- "the scarier the better" is how they put it. I see the possibility of a DEAL (another one!) between IAOPA and YAEKENICO. We will have to ask DC&H for advise on how to proceed. 73 Bill

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  9. Hi Bill,

    Bummer no one has contacted me about any deal... Wonder how much they would pay -- I need another antenna. It is all about "The Art of The Deal" isn't it? Is this like taking a high government office solely to further your business interests?

    But the facts are clear unless you have done the homework you will fail. Our hobby is not only participative, it also interactive, that being interacting with your gear. Woefully I refer back to Podcast #207 and the individual who asked of you --Well when your rig breaks down what are you going to do "Send It Back to India"? The thought never occurred to him that YOU could fix any problem!

    Most appliance operators have only the send back option; but even then unless they have some knowledge, tools and skills they could no way fix their appliance box. Shipping to Bellevue, WA, Cerritos CA, Aptos CA and Austin TX --is expensive and you will be off the air for some time. This BTW is by design --if you are off the air you need a 2nd rig. Those with an ICOM 7610 will have a 7300 at the ready. I have neither.


    This seems to contradict the thesis of my post --don't build it; buy it. But that position is taken because of those who do undertake building a rig and want to jump to the last page and simply skip over everything leading up to that point will fail big time. So even buying an appliance still requires some research. Listen on the air to those whom will share that in the last 18 months they have had five rigs all from different sources. There has to be some issues there. For the off shore manufacturers they are counting on that cognitive dissonance amongst the appliance ham community often stoked by the 75% ad content in well known publications from Newington CT. It is good for business.

    I can be had for a 55 foot crank up tower, 4 element Step IR and a LDMOS amp.

    Happy Holidays,

    Pete N6QW

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  10. Great posts, guys! The learning process of building your own radio is part of the fun. Although there can be much frustration, that is all washed away when you make your first contact with a radio that you have personally built. Even if it is just a Bitx/Ubitx board that you have assembled in an appropriate case. I wouldn't be a Ham today if it wasn't for people like Pete and Bill showing how homebrewing can be one of the best parts of the hobby. Keep up the good work and for the naysayers out there, if your not willing to put forth the effort to learn, take Pete's advise and just buy a radio.....

    73 de AC9JQ

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  11. Biggest investment required is, I believe, neither tools northe right design. It's time. Precious commodity. If you decide to build a transceiver, you need lots of it. Time to find a good design or create one of your own. Time to get the parts. Time to build it. Time to debug it. Time for the software. Time for testing. So it goes. You can reduce time reqd with money. Buy test gear rather than build it. Buy parts in one off qty rather than order from China in bigger qty. So it goes. Biggest issue - the time you invest comes at the cost of something else, like family or work, so balance is all important. Well, that's my (discounted) 10 cents worth of thinking. Me? I just love the design and build process, and at times, I get stuck in a hotel room over a weekend on the job where, gosh darn it, there's nothing else to do but write some software for my latest project. Then, when I get home, I can balance that with family time. Well, that's my theory

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    1. Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your post. There is a very important thought in your posting … BALANCE. There has to be a balance in all that we do. I had four kids and much of my time was either spent earning a living to support them or spending time with the family. But I did carve out a bit of time for the hobby. Often that meant getting up early in the morning to check 20M or rearranging my schedule to fit in all of the pieces. There is a positive side to limited time --- you have to make the best of it. We waste much time and when you do time management many of the obstacles can be overcome. Spending a lot of time fitting in the pieces often results in a much better rig. Why does everything have to be done instantly?

      To share a somewhat unrelated story about time management. When I was a senior in college I had a girlfriend. I quickly realized that to see a lot of her and not fail out I needed to do something different. Well I looked at how I spent my time. That semester I made the Dean's List and yet spent a lot of time with the girl friend. I was really mad at myself as I saw I could have had a lot more fun in college and the issue was I wasted a lot of time.


      Keep on building.

      73's
      Pete N6QW

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  12. Regarding the remark "Well when your rig breaks down what are you going to do "Send It Back to India"?"

    I was having lunch recently with someone who works for one of the big brand names. (You know YEAKENICO). He was lamenting that some of the very expensive radios of recent years have custom "chipery" inside and they are unobtainium now.
    That big dollar radio can't be sent back to anywhere...

    Think about that should you consider lambasting the homebrew radios.
    - de G4WIF

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  13. Pete! Great post, waiting for the bookend follow-up. Having listened to the Soldersmokes backwards to about 130 now I know you’ve already covered the encouragement part there, but please lay out that minimalist approach to successfully building an SSB transceiver. Ya know, pick a stage, noodle it out, including how you can test it with what ya got, or what you might build or buy to get that stage going and test it. But at least for me, if you can’t build something you don’t understand, you never get started. I’ve learned a lot by copying circuits, measuring when they work and learning more about the circuit when it fails. What do they say, a man’s reach should exceed this grasp��? And you learn more from failure than success? Keep up the good work, and maybe do a post on how much you can do without a scope, like maybe a QRP Labs vfo, a qrp guys attenuator, a 15 dollar wideband noise sourcce and an SDR or dongle with HF?

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    1. Hi OM,

      Actually I have done what you said --several years ago in the publication Called QRP Quarterly. I along with KK6FUT (now AI6YR) wrote a two part article called Let's Build Something. The article started with a Direct Conversion Receiver which was transitioned to a receiver with a homebrew Crystal Filter and then morphed into a SSB transceiver. Virtually all of the circuits in the DCR and Rx ended up in the Transceiver. You wasted nothing

      Accompanying the two articles were several you tube videos including a three part video on how to home construct a Double Balanced Mixer. There was a deliberate attempt to use nothing but common bipolar transistors and easily obtainable standard resistors and capacitors. I know of at least 100 of these radios being under construction. Our project did not have the charm and allure of the Bitx but it was a solid radio that actually could be replicated.


      Subsequently I wrote a third article where I converted much of the radio to surface mount. So the information has been presented with the specific intent of having an individual with a modest amount of technical knowledge and skill successfully homebrew a SSB transceiver.


      Two of the LBS transceivers were showcased at Dayton several years ago. Send me an email to n6qwham@gmail.com and I will be happy to send you the two articles. You should also search this blog for the Simpleceiver. This is another SSB transceiver that goes into excruciating detail on how to build a SSB transceiver.

      Sorry but a scope --even an old analog 20 MHz is almost mandatory.

      Thanks for your post.

      73's
      Pete N6QW

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  14. Pete
    I am trying to promote home-brewing at my local radio club, but after helping with the intermediate licence course training, I'm coming to the conclusion that it's going to be an uphill task. A component of the intermediate licence involves a series of practicals and one of these involves building a small project. Ha ha I thought, a captive audience, but alas no. There were different approaches to the task, most just wanted to get the thing built so their progress sheet could be ticked and initialled, while others built theirs with an emphasis on how it looked. Unfortunately,no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get anyone interested in how their pixies and direct conversion receivers worked. Without a deep interest to learn about the electronic side of our hobby, I believe home-brewing is pretty pointless.
    73 Steve M0KOV
    (Proud member of Bill's three scratch bitx group

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    1. Hi Steve,

      I think the issue too is that when Im started out back in the dark ages --while you could scrounge or buy components -- finished rigs were either too expensive or just not available. So if you wanted to get on the air --you had to build the gear. Now it is check the box and flash the plastic.

      Thanks for your post.

      73's
      Pete N6QW

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  15. 2E0CHK adds his 2 cents worth....
    I don't know any of this is true. Pete rattles on with all the things You must do and must know. He knows because he's got sixty years experience, yet when you hear him narrate his story, he began with none of this.
    So you don't need any of his experience or wisdom, or tools or test equipment to begin.

    Yet when you listen to how and when these radio gods got started they were kids of 11 years old with nothing but the drive to learn AND TRY.

    Alot of talk about the BITX as a kit etc yet to listen to how its designer, Asher Farhan, got going with nothing but a pair of nail scissors and something else [listen to his QSO Today Podcast], illustrates that it doesn't matter how primitive your tools, skills, or resources, it is the will to try that matters.

    Everyone, as a generalisation, begins at the beginning and has no idea. Those that don't are fortunate or cursed, depending on your point of view [Pete has commented about a young radio amateur he spoke to who had a $20,000 station but never knew the joys of building his own 6l6 cw station for $10. Pete saw this as a curse to the young lad.]

    Bill comments that he built, aged 15, a Direct Conversion Receiver that never worked. Half a life time later he can now see why it didn't work - because he never stopped trying and learning. Now he knows what he did not know when he was 15 years old.

    Keep it simple stupid. The lowest bar to entry is a great place to start, and no idea of what your doing or why is no barrier if you can follow directions. Experience is what you get after doing the thing you need experience for. Pete could not end up with his wisdom, know-how and experience without having begun - with nothing.
    You've everything to gain and very little to loose.
    So begin.

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    1. Hi Alex,'

      Thanks for your post --yes I was 11 years old when I smoked a few Raytheon CK722 Germanium Transistors -- circa 1954. But today that learning process does take some time but the huge leverage is the Internet where a search on Google can place a lot of info at your disposal.


      The problem is no one wants to take the time to read and digest the info. Regrettably the first action is to heat up the soldering iron.


      The bulk of my experience is the analog world and now today one must step up to the digital side. Imagine my learning curve --but as you say try, test and smoke some parts.


      73's
      Pete N6QW

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  16. Hi Pete,

    You forgot the to also mention the danger of burning yourself with a soldering iron and the potential traumatic physiological damage that a person may suffer if they attempt to make a SSB transceiver and FAIL (on the first attempt).

    If at first you don't succeed never try again - better still never try in the first place and so never experience failure.

    73 de Peter VK2EMU

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    1. Hi Peter,

      At last count I have soldered my fingers together over 1000 times.

      What I did suggest is that while it is cool to want to build something you must also invest in the learning and must start with some basic tools.

      Just yesterday I received an inquiry about a project that is detailed on my website (excruciating detail). After a) answering the question and then b) stating the answer is on the website just like I suggested be read before starting.

      The response back was -- guess I should have read the webpage first.

      That is the issue --we want to jump to the last page and forget about the prior two hundred pages.

      73's
      Pete, N6QW

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2018 ~ The Year of SSB Transceivers

What it takes to build a SSB Transceiver? I could flippantly answer the question by saying a lot of luck, lots of parts (and/or lots of...