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The Amateur Amateur: I Think My Kit Is Missing a Piece

04/28/2013

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor

Some years ago, my wife Nancy and I dabbled in putting together electronic kits. Our efforts weren’t entirely successful, so we drifted on to other interests. Recently, an opportunity to return to kit building presented itself, and once again I found myself squinting at small electronic components, soldering iron in hand. Here’s how it came along.

The ARES group in neighboring St Charles County uses a two-tone alert system when they have a call-out. A set of tones is sent over their repeater, activating alarms on decoder boxes that the ARES members have put together.

These particular decoders were the brainchild of Jeff Young, KB3HF, and Bill Grimsbo, N0PNP. Jeff is our District Emergency Coordinator and Bill is the Emergency Coordinator for St Charles County. The two of them came up with a design, ordered parts and wrote instructions on how to put together the boxes. St Charles County ARES members purchased the kits and assembled them, usually in group sessions overseen by Bill and Jeff. From all reports, the system works quite well.

Last August, Jeff gave a demonstration of the tone-alert system at a meeting of the St Louis County ARES group, the team to which I belong. We thought that the tone-alert system was so cool that we just had set up one for ourselves. We wanted to build our own kits, program our repeater and eagerly wait for the decoders to alert us to deploy!

Jeff was amenable to supplying the parts at cost and guiding us through the assembly process. It took a while to get the components and arrange for a place where we could have a dozen soldering irons going at once. But our patience paid off, and this month we finally held our first kit building session at the MARA (Monsanto Amateur Radio Association) club house trailer.

It had been a long time since I’d tried to build anything electronic, but I thought I still grasped the basics. Nevertheless, I was a bit nervous as the session began. I couldn’t come up with all of the tools that we were supposed to bring. There would be spares on hand, but right away I discovered that I’d forgotten to bring a screwdriver, the simplest item on the list. And that was just the first of my faux pas.

Jeff and Bill arrived and started setting up what looked to me like a professional workshop. Everything was high-tech, shiny, well lit and magnified. My own feeble array of tools looked like I’d picked them up in a third-world flea market.

Fortunately, Roland Kramer, W0RL, sat down next to me. He was well equipped and willing to share his tools. I had brought my own ohmmeter so that I could identify the resistors myself, but of course, I couldn’t figure out how to read it (it’s been a long time).

I started a mental list of new tools to buy: An easier-to-read meter.

The first item: We opened our kits and began reading the instructions. I have to admit that I got a slower start than most everyone else. I’d forgotten how daunting it was when I put together my first kit. And unlike riding a bicycle, none of what I’d learned had stuck with me.

I didn’t want to look completely stupid, so I kept watching Roland out the corner of my eye to see what he was doing. That approach actually worked reasonably well, especially when I had trouble understanding the written instructions.

When it was time to solder, I picked up my gas powered iron and Bill immediately said, “No, that’s not going to get hot enough. Use mine.” His iron was a formidable device with heat control, some newfangled tip-cleaning stuff and who knows what else. I was afraid to touch it. I let Bob Ernst, KC0NRK, go first. He was sitting across the table from me and didn’t have the necessary tools either. Roland, of course, did.

Second item on the new-tools list: A better soldering iron.

At least I had brought the correct solder. Not everyone had. One point for me.

Naturally, Bill was also handling his iron, but it didn’t take the three of us very long before we choreographed a nice dance for its usage. I got to where I quite liked that gizmo. It certainly worked better than any soldering iron I had ever owned.

Bill was assembling a kit for someone who had not managed to make it to the session. He worked at warp speed, while the rest of us muddled along; he was finished long before we were. That left just Bob and I using the soldering iron, and we quickly rewrote the music and were in sync again.

There were some hiccups, as you might imagine. Almost everyone said, “I think mine is missing a piece,” but for the most part, they had not looked through the components carefully enough or had misidentified something. In my case, though, I actually did have one surplus resistor while another was missing. But, Bill and Jeff -- having done these sessions before -- had plenty of spare parts on hand.

As I worked, I thought of a third item for my growing list: Better wire strippers.

The kits included plastic cases, but we had to drill the holes for the switches, plugs and lights ourselves. Bill and Jeff had provided templates for us to tape onto the boxes so that we would know where to drill. This time I was ready. I had my Craftsman portable drill with a freshly charged battery in it. I position it carefully, pulled the trigger...

And the battery died.

Item number four: A new battery for the drill.

Oh, and I didn’t have all of the drill bits that I needed, either.

Roland, ever prepared, had all of the right bits and an ancient Craftsman drill that ran off of household current. It worked just fine and we all got to share it.

I wasn't even halfway done with my kit when people started packing up their tools and leaving. That was discouraging. Was I really that slow? The only thing that kept me from feeling completely incompetent was the fact that Bob and Roland weren’t much further along than I was.

Eventually, though, ours was the last table where anyone was still working. I began to fear that was the bad luck table, or worse, that I was the person who had jinxed it.

Hours passed. I was rapidly becoming fatigued and wasn’t sure that I’d ever finish my kit. It was getting harder for me to handle or even see the tiny components. I think that what kept me going was the vague notion that I was almost finished. I kept on believing that even as I got more tired and clumsy.

Finally, Bob took his assembled kit over to Jeff for testing. I knew that I wasn’t far behind Bob. But, unfortunately, he returned to the table, frowning at his kit. Something was wrong with it.

Sighing, I flipped over to the next page of my instructions. “Test the unit before inserting microchips,” it said. Had I finally reached the end? I pried myself out of my chair and staggered over to Jeff. He glanced at it and immediately said, “You made the same error that Bob did.” My heart sank. Had Bob and I been copying each other’s mistakes? I wasn’t sure how much longer I could last.

I must have looked pretty ragged, because Jeff decided to fix my box himself. It had taken me six hours to get the kit assembled. Jeff took it apart, adjusted it and reassembled it in about a minute. He ran the test, the alert siren sounded and I perked up. My decoder worked! I was finished!

Whoa. Not so fast. Something didn’t pass the test. It turned out that I had failed to install one resistor. How had that happened?

No sweat. I could take care of that at home.

After a meal and a good night’s rest.

EPILOGUE:

I purchased all of the tools I listed above, including a Weller WES51 soldering iron, just like Bill’s. I love it.

Jeff was just appointed the Missouri ARES Section Emergency Coordinator and Bill moved up to the vacated District Emergency Coordinator position. I’m sure that they will perform their new duties admirably. They certainly showed a lot of patience and fortitude at that kit-building session.

I found out that many of the folks who had left the session long before me had not finished at all. They just had to leave because they had other commitments. So I guess Bob, Roland and I weren’t at a cursed table at all.

I inserted the missing resistor into my box, but broke a couple of wires in the process. I replaced them, along with a switch, but I couldn’t get my unit to work properly. After consulting with Bill, Jeff and the instructions, I found that I’d made some wiring mistakes.

My decoder now works fine. Except for one feature, which I still need to fix.

Maybe I’ll call Roland.

Editor’s note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He’s been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column’s name -- “The Amateur Amateur” -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related website. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.



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