A tale of two VFOs

I am always a little surprised at the constant learning experience afforded by this hobby. My assumptions are usually incorrect, but the discovery of what is actually going on is always entertaining and instructive. Consider the story of the two VFOs.

At the end of my last post, I was pretty convinced that my refurbished HG-10 VFO was not going to cut it in my Novice tube station. The station was keying oddly, with transmitter output wandering up and down, although the output from the VFO was steady. At this point, I was keying the VFO and the transmitter simultaneously, using the old two diode trick. I had more ambitious plans about keying, but this comes a bit later on in the story.
About the same time as the discovery of weird transmitter keying (by the way, the T-60 is totally well-behaved when using a crystal instead of the VFO), I happened across an eBay listing, only hours old, for a Knight V-44 VFO in good condition.

This, if I haven’t already mentioned, was the VFO that sparked all this VFO interest. I had seen one at auction that went for a really silly, high bid. That’s when I started looking for HG-10s. Anyway I jumped on the V-44 at its very reasonable price, and sat back waiting for its arrival. During that wait, I got my hands on some V-44 documentation, and studied up.

The v-44 has a self-contained high voltage power supply, and uses a really clever design of putting the power supply at the top of case, with the tuned circuits below, so the heat from the supply won’t add to thermal drift. This gives the cabinet a kind of cool “portrait” rather than “landscape” aspect ratio. It’s rather charming.

Knight V-44 VFO

Knight V-44 VFO

Since it contains a built-in high voltage supply, I knew I would have to re-cap it. I also found it interesting that the manual warns the V-44 not be used on or near grounded surfaces such as a metal table – adding a three-wire plug and a fuse was a must. So the laundry list of repairs was:

  • new filter cap in the HV supply
  • three-wire cord, with chassis ground and an inline fuse.

This was not too tall an order, and while the VFO was still in transit from its former owner I ordered and received the necessary cap from Mouser. I was all set.

The timing of the arrival of the V-44 was about a week before I would be traveling to the upstate QTH (site of the novice station) for about ten days. During this time I would be there on my own, leaving plenty of time for ham radio adventures. So it seemed really important to get the repairs done before this trip. Really, really important.

Of course, there was always the normal myriad of responsibilities: family, work, social… so it seemed that bench time was a scarce commodity during this lead up to the trip. I allowed myself to fall victim to the worst (and possibly most dangerous, but happily not in this case) foible that affects amateurs of any stripe: I rushed the job. Big mistake.

I started with the cord replacement, which was straightforward enough. It involved replacing the old coax output cable, which looked like RG-8x or similar, with skinny
RG-174, which made room for the new 3-wire power cord without needing a new hole in the chassis. Adding the in line fuse was not a problem either, there was enough room in the under chassis to squeeze it all in. The problem arose when I looked for a convenient stud to attach the third grounding wire. There wasn’t any.

Now it’s close to 11:00 PM on a week night, getting near bedtime, but if I could button up this cord replacement, I could take the VFO upstairs, plug it in and just give a listen. I was so close… Okay, no problem, I’ll just drill a 1/8th inch hole in the chassis, put a bolt and nut in, and Bob’s your uncle – chassis grounding. Without giving it much thought, (obviously) I chucked in a bit and started drilling.

These old boat anchors are built tough, no flimsy soft aluminium chassis here – nope this was good heavy gauge steel and it was taking some effort to get through. I was putting some pressure on the bit, and just as some part of my hindbrain was screaming “No, no lighten up your going to pop through…” suddenly the bit popped through. Right into the main tuning tank coil.

In that instant, the thought that I should have put a little wood block in there behind the hole (there was ample room) flashed through my head, way too late to be useful. I think I said “oh, darn” loudly a few times. Maybe that wasn’t exactly what I said.

Carefully modified main tank coil

Carefully modified main tank coil

I surveyed the damage. It was pretty bad, but not cataclysmic. If I had shattered the coil form, it would have been game over, but all I had accomplished was to destroy the windings. This, I thought, could possibly be fixed. I went to bed.

The next day, I pondered my options. Obviously, all I had to do was wind a new coil on the ceramic form, with the same inductance as the one I had destroyed. No problem, I’ve wound lots of coils. I just had to look up the inductance of the main tank coil in the manual. Every coil in the circuit was called out by value in the parts list except the main tank coil. It was just referred to as Knight Kit part number 152014, “coil, oscillator, tank”.

Okay, this wasn’t going to be that easy, but I wasn’t about to admit that I had murdered my beautiful VFO with a power drill. I’ll just count the turns, and compute the inductance.
There then ensued over the next day or so a great deal of careful, methodical turn counting. Of course, with roughly 30 gauge wire, and a chunk of the wire actually missing (bits were cut by the drill and fell off) it was actually impossible to get an accurate count. I even tried taking a macro photo of the damaged coil, and using a photo editor putting little tick marks on the image every ten turns so I wouldn’t lose count. In the end I had an estimate plus or minus 5 turns, not quite close enough for engineering work, as they say.

Okay, plan B occurred to me. The dial calibration instructions called for adjusting two trimmer caps separately, one for 80 meters, and one for 40 meters and up. This meant that the tank coil, which was obviously a fixed inductance, had to resonate the main tuning capacitor plus the each trimmer at two different frequencies, which are known. Since the trimmer caps are identical, I just had to find an inductance that could resonate both frequencies within the range of the trimmers, with the main cap set at the calibration point.
(Footnote here: I mistakenly thought both ranges were calibrated to the same point on the main tuning cap. This is not true. This error may explain some of the new weird behavior I saw later on. But at this point I was feeling awfully clever.)

I then embarked on a course of feverish calculation: inductance by wire diameter by gauge and number of turns, resonant frequency at various values of capacitance – finally I zeroed in on the target value, and I started to wind my new coil.

I use the penny and quarter technique. I laid out 10 pennies in a row, and 8 quarters (I needed 81 turns total). After winding each turn, I moved a penny to a new location on the table, gradually building a new row. When ten pennies were moved, I moved a quarter to represent 10 turns. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s a foolproof method of guaranteeing that you don’t mis-count, and it only costs $2.10.

penny and quarter technique, afer turn 23

penny and quarter technique, afer turn 23

But alas, I did not nail it on the first try. Two thirds of the way through, I was running out of room on the coil, and realized I had used the wrong, too large, wire gauge. Okay, start again with the right gauge, only to run out of room again. Re-compute number of turns for smaller gauge wire and start again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Finally my coil was done, but there was another nagging issue. The original coil had been treated with an application of “coil dope”, a thin varnish. Reading on the web seemed to indicate that using coil dope was a good idea, especially in oscillator circuits, as it minimizes drift by stabilizing the turns of wire against movement or vibration. But where to get some? You can buy it mail order, but it is expensive and I didn’t want to wait. So I looked for recipes of home-brew coil dope and discovered that it is dead easy to make. Smelly, inconvenient, and extraordinarily flammable, but easy.

You make coil dope by dissolving styrofoam packing peanuts in toluene. Toluene is a highly volatile, flammable, toxic and generally nasty solvent use as paint thinner, which can be had at any hardware store in inconveniently enormous quantities. I needed about an ounce, and was only able to find it in a gallon container. At this point, I’m all set with regard to future toluene needs.

The packing peanuts are easy, right? I mean one always has scads of the things from incoming packages in boxes in the basement. Right? Well, we had recently recycled every last one of the little buggers at the local retail shipping store, there was not one to be had on the premises. I had to wait until I got to work the next day to get some at the office. Sensibly, our IT guy has never thrown out a styrofoam peanut since we moved into that office space. You never know when you will need some.

Making the coil dope was done outside, despite the still chilly late winter temperatures, and even at that I nearly passed out from the toluene fumes. But finally, after dissolving an amazing number of peanuts in two ounces of toluene, I was rewarded with a maple-syrup-like consistency, evil-smelling fluid. Voila, coil dope!

Artisanal Coil Dope

Artisanal Coil Dope

Using a cotton swab, I covered the coil in a light coating which dried in seconds, and looked pretty official when it was all done. And I still have 2 ounces – 1.5 milliliters of coil dope left for future endeavors.

Rebuilt main tuning coil

Rebuilt main tuning coil

The finished coil popped right back in place and I quickly soldered back the two connections. I went through the calibration procedure, and everything seemed okay, but the story wasn’t over yet.

I took the VFO on my trip to the upstate QTH on schedule the following weekend, and installed it in the Novice station. It looked good, and I fired it up on 80 meters. I was using the technique where you turn the VFO on (not keyed) and key the transmitter. This gives rise to a phenomenon called “backwave”; if your receiver is not muted you hear the VFO tone behind the sound of your keying. It sounds odd, faintly disturbing, like listening to the receiver with it and your head in a garbage can – but I was determined.

V-44 in Novice Station

V-44 in Novice Station

A little tune up, and a couple of quick CQs. Not hearing any response I headed off to the computer to check Reverse Beacon Network, to see where I was heard. Okay, lots of stations were picking me up on 80 meters, definitely a good start. Next, on to 40.

I tuned everything up on 40, and gave it a go. Lots of good reports on 40. And, lots of good reports on 80. What? Yes, it looks like I was a candidate for the Worked All Bands Simultaneously award. Definitely not a good thing. Subsequent tests with a dummy load showed that I was getting strong sub-harmonic signals that were getting through the output tank in the transmitter. Not a good thing at all.

I knew that the oscillator in the V-44 generates strong harmonics from two fundamental frequencies: a 160 meter band fundamental generates the first harmonic which provides 80 meters, and an 80 meter band fundamental provides harmonics used for 40 meters and up. Something was definitely out of kilter, perhaps output filtering, which looks kind sketchy from the schematic, or maybe my home-brew tank coil resonating someplace it shouldn’t. More research is needed, but for now sadly the V-44 is on the bench.

In light of this revelation, I went back to playing with the HG-10, and in doing so made a remarkable discovery. If you don’t use fancy two-diode keying arrangements, the HG-10 works fine with the Knight T-60. Take away the diodes from the keying circuit, and the funky instability goes away.

The old 2-diode trick for simultaneous keying of the VFO and transmitter

The old 2-diode trick for simultaneous keying of the VFO and transmitter

I know from prior experience that the T-60 is notoriously hard to key with anything other than a plain key that shorts to ground. It has a fairly large dropping resistor in the keying circuit, which has the advantage of presenting a low DC voltage to the key when it is open, removing any shock hazard. The downside of this arrangement is that if there is any significant resistance in the key, the rig won’t key. (I had this happen with a soviet military key, which had 20 ohms resistance internally in some kind of built in filter.) And apparently, the T-60 doesn’t like diodes in its path to ground. With a regular key, the HG-10 drove the T-60 perfectly well, I was mistaken in the assumption that the low drive was at fault.

The HG-10 is now part of the Novice station, and the V-44 is back in the shipping box, awaiting further diagnosis to figure out the weird sub-harmonic behavior. I may re-visit the winding of the tank coil. I may find a “for parts” V-44 and replace my homebrew coil with a real one. But for now the V-44 is sidelined and the humble HG-10 is doing the job.

THe HG-10 takes its place in the Novice Station

THe HG-10 takes its place in the Novice Station

So my Novice station is now VFO enabled, with backwave, using the HG-10, but I really wanted a setup where the VFO was keyed (no backwave), no chirp (a common side effect of a keying the VFO), and a sidetone with receiver muting would be nice. This gave me another idea, involving 21st century microcontroller implementation of 1950’s circuit, but that’s a story for next time. Until then,

73
de N2HTT

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Rockbound no more… almost.

The saga I am about to recount is too involved for a single blog post, so this is part one of two.

After enjoying a month of the SKCC K3Y operating event in January, I was really excited to learn of a new event, only in its second year, that took place the last week of February. The Novice Rig Roundup, a week-long exercise in operating those beloved, chirpy, antique rigs of our childhood, was just too appealing to me to pass up.

Granted, I never had any of those rosy experiences to wax nostalgic about, as I wasn’t licensed until middle age, and then firmly in the solid state era. I never held a Novice license, but I really do like those old tube rigs, and so enthusiastically dived in.

I had decided to operate QRP, using either of the two homebrew MOPA transmitters in my arsenal. I have two QTHs, and one QRP tube rig at each location: the W1TS Simple Transmitter at one, and the QRP Blowtorch at the other. I also have a classic “Novice” transmitter, a Knight T-60, which operates QRO at about 40 watts out; at 60 watts input it definitely would have qualified for use by a 1960’s Novice.

It turns out the third week of February was very busy for me with only a little operating time available, and I managed a total of two (yes, only two) contacts over the entire time. And, one of those was with the T-60, as I abandoned my normal QRP operations for some serious muscle.

The issue, it turns out, is that operating crystal controlled on a single frequency is really hard! It seemed like there were only two possible scenarios:

  • when the crystal frequency was quiet, calling CQ endlessly with no response, or
  • frequency was busy with someone else calling CQ. Work him once and you’re done

Both QSOs I made were with folks who happened to be calling on my crystal frequency. I know that in the good old days, hams would call on their transmitter frequency, and then listen up and down the band for a reply. QSOs were full-duplex, on two frequencies. With modern transceivers, this practice is long gone. We are all used to carrying out our conversations in half duplex on a single frequency, often with narrow bandpass filters engaged. It is possible to reply to a calling station only a few hundred Hertz off, and never get heard – believe me, I know.

So although I had fun, and am looking forward to next years NRR event, I found myself yearning for a VFO. I had at one time an external VFO setup – a Heathkit HW-16 transmitter/receiver, paired with a Heathkit HG-10 VFO. I never really liked using the HW-16 with the VFO. It chirped like crazy; I recall making one QSO with it that I cut short after a few overs because the thing was chirping so badly. Eventually I sold the HW-16, and the VFO with it.

I have read that the HG-10 was more prone to chirp when it is powered from the transmitter. There is also a problem with keying the VFO and the transmitter simultaneously, as there is a little key-up instability in the VFO. So I had all of this in mind as I started to look for a VFO for my station.

The Heathkit HG-10s are readily available on eBay – at any given moment there are at least two at auction. I would certainly prefer to find something else, but those HG-10s are out there, and because they are so plentiful, the prices remain relatively low (for eBay, anyway.) While searching the classifieds and eBay, I came across a Knight kit V-44 VFO. This is the companion to my T-60, so naturally I was very interested. After researching the V-44, I was even more interested, as the engineering looked pretty good. Unfortunately, several folks were bidding on that unit, and the price went nuts. It sold for about four times what I was willing to pay, not including hefty shipping. Back to searching for an HG-10.

I quickly found one that looked functional, but not super-good cosmetically, for a reasonable price. While I was waiting for it to arrive, I decided to build a standalone power supply for it, trying to head off the chirping. Also, a standalone supply would allow me to use it with any rig.

Back when Radio Shack was last going out of business and closing stores, I picked up a pair of robust filament transformers on clearance for just a few dollars each. I knew you could use these, back to back, to create a 120v isolation transformer. The HG-10 documentation describes a simple, non-regulated high voltage supply that can be used to power the VFO, based on a single isolation transformer.

HG-10 PSU

HG-10 PSU as described in the manual

The time had come to use those filament transformers; I built the PSU.
It is a simple half-wave rectifier design, with two filter caps. I added a three prong grounded plug, and a bleeder resistor across each filter cap.

PSU under chassis wiring

PSU under chassis wiring

My version of the schematic looks like this:

HG-10 Modified PSU

HG-10 PSU, modified for back to back filament transformers

and I measure about 160vdc at pin 4. The finished unit looks very neat:

Finished HV PSU

Finished HV PSU

Once the HG-10 arrived, it was time to open it up and check it out. Wiring job looked okay, and I could tell that the unit was configured for grid block keying via pin 8 of the octal plug.

hg-10_under_chassis

hg-10_under_chassis

This is a very common configuration for these units, as this was the setup needed to connect an HW-60 or HW-16 transmitter. I wanted cathode keying, since the keying would not be provided by my transmitter. This involved removing a jumper, moving a connection from the octal socket, and changing a resistor. All of this is well documented in the HG-10 manual, which can be found from many sources on the web. Since I was powering my unit from its own PSU, I had to add a dropping resistor ahead of the 0B2 regulator tube – again the manual provided a graph for computing the value needed, and I guesstimated I’d need a 1 watt 1k resistor based on the 160 volts I measured from my PSU.

While researching the HG-10, I came across mention of a problem with 80 meters, and a modification published by Heathkit late in the production of the HG-10. The RF choke supplied for the plate of the output tube is too low a value, resulting in low output and a clipped signal on 80. I checked the output from mine, and sure enough, there is the distorted signal:

Clipped waveform on 80M

Clipped waveform on 80M

While the Heathkit memo suggested replacement with a larger value choke, apparently the folk remedy for the problem is to swap the cathode choke (1 mH, too large) for the plate choke (200 uH, too small). The smaller choke works fine in the cathode circuit. Instant fix, without having to track down hard to find antique parts.

RF Chokes before the mod

RF Chokes before the mod

RF Chokes, interchanged

RF Chokes, interchanged

After making this change, the 80m output looked much better.

Output waveform on 80M after mod

Output waveform on 80M after mod

With all these changes made, and the PSU I was ready to go. A rough measurement of the output from the HG-10 showed about 7v out at 80 meters, and about half that on 40 and above. The unit nominally produces about 5v out, so these seemed about ballpark.

Cathode keying requires simultaneously keying the transmitter and the VFO. The simple way to accomplish this is to place a diode ahead of the connection to each device, above the key. This allows current to flow from each device to ground via the key, but no current can flow between the devices – the diodes block this. You need a voltage drop across the key that is at least as large as the forward drop across the diodes, about 0.7v, but with tube equipment this is not likely to be a problem. I built this interface to split the keying

Tandem keying interface

Tandem keying interface

Finally, hooked the VFO up to my W1TS Simple Transmitter, tuned up and… really low output. Slightly better on 80 than on 40, but not really enough to be useful. The output was just too low.

The following week, I tried it with the T-60. On 80, I was able to tune up the transmitter, but on 40 it was just not stable, the signal would jump up, then drop, then come back. I think there just isn’t enough output from HG-10 to drive any of my transmitters.

So quite a bit of work, a lovely, working VFO, but the wrong one for my purposes. I am still rockbound. But then, an amazing bit of luck which I will tell you about in part 2.

73,
de N2HTT

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Snowy day, new glue.

We’ve had the first snow of 2016, and it was a doozy. “Winter Storm Jonas“, as it was named in the media, was a nor’easter that roared up the east coast dropping record amounts of snow. We got our share, but being north of the storm track, not so much as to be catastrophic. A solid foot and a half of light powder, easily shoveled, no big deal really. Most importantly, even though we had some serious gusts, my new mast survived the storm handily, and my antenna is still in operation. Quite a relief, actually.

Mast still up after Jonas

Mast still up after Jonas

The arrival of the storm did have an impact on how we spent the weekend. Planned travel was cancelled, bread, milk, extra cat and dog food purchased, and we hunkered down to enjoy a quiet snowy weekend. Aside from occasional forays out to clean off the cars and the front steps, we were all left pretty much to our own devices. Ah, blissful unstructured time!

I had been planning to start the construction of my first space charge tube regen – the unexpected down time seemed ideal. Unfortunately, I was not as well prepared as I thought. I’ve decided to build this first version using a wooden “orange crate” construction, with thin slats and solid ends; spaces between the slats will accommodate the tube sockets. I figure this will give me some wiggle room as I lay out the circuits, without the profound emotional commitment demanded by making holes in an expensive aluminum chassis. Earlier in the week I had raided Home Depot to find nice oak slats and boards to build my crate, I was all ready to go.

The first step was to determine length of the end boards by laying out the slats and tube sockets. Oh drat! No sockets! I thought I had sufficient sockets left over from the construction of the W1TS Simple Transmitter, but as it turns out, the ceramic sockets I had left can’t be mounted easily between slats. The fiber kind, with a molded-in metallic ring is the type I need. Not a one remained.

Also, an inventory of variable caps came up short. The nice 150 pF one I had intended to use got drafted into my crystal receiver, and a rummage through my box of variable caps failed to turn up a replacement. I was seriously unprepared.

These shortcomings could be easily be remedied by a trip to eBay or Antique Radio Supply, but that would not help me this weekend. No, no regen this weekend.
There was plenty else to do, shovelling, operating, catching up on correspondence and paperwork, but I really was in the mood to play at the bench a bit as well. As I have been listening with the crystal receiver quite a bit in the evenings, I thought it might be a candidate for some improvements.

Attached to the antenna (new diode)

Attached to the antenna (new diode)

I have been using alligator clip leads for the antenna, ground, and headphone connections, and this is less than ideal. The signals would suddenly disappear as I jogged one lead or another – very makeshift. And I really have been listening to broadcast AM with this radio. You can actually DX broadcast AM with it – I heard WFED AM (1500 kHz) from Washington DC quite clearly the other evening. It’s sort of ironic, I never listen to broadcast AM with any of the “real” radios I own, but I am delighted to sit through auto parts store commercials when they are captured with just a coil and a diode.

Anyway, some improvements were definitely in order, and I just recently came into possession of an interesting new glue, that seemed to be ideal for the tasks at hand. In conversation a while back, my sister-in-law mentioned this new glue that she had heard about, but not tried yet. It is cured with UV light, sets in about 4 seconds, and has very high bond strength. It was one of those “as seen on TV” things; we don’t watch the right TV apparently, I had never heard of it, other than the stuff the dentist uses to make those costly repairs in your mouth.

She had bought some on Amazon. Intrigued, I asked for a link on Amazon, and she responded by saying she’d drop the glue off with me – I could try it and let her know how well it worked. Sounded good to me.

There are several varieties of this glue on Amazon, varying in price from about $10 – $20 for small tube, say about 100 ml, and an LED UV light used to set the glue. I think the brand I got was one of the $10 varieties. [Looks like the price has gone up a bit at the time of this writing]

Reading the package, I came away with a somewhat mixed impression, as the glue was described as “safe and non-toxic” but the instructions suggested gloves and goggles for handling, and a quick call to 911 before abandoning all hope should you accidentally ingest the stuff or get it in your eye. I decided to take the route of full protective gear, and I threw in a pair of UV goggles for good measure; I’m completely paranoid about cataracts.

The first task I tackled was to mount an SO-239 socket on the back of the receiver’s base board, thus eliminating one set of dodgy alligator clip leads. This would be tricky, because the edges of the board are not finished square, but have a very nice rounded edge. Not a good platform for traditional glue, because of the lack of contact area. I suspect that before UV glue, I would have tried hot glue, and the joint would have been

  • messy
  • not very strong, and would pop off the first time I connected a cable.

This is exactly the kind of challenge that UV glue excels at. It has almost no “sticktion” – you can’t put a dab down, place parts together, and let go. They will simply fall apart. But if you can hold the parts in place and hit it with the UV light, 3 to 4 seconds later, the stuff is rock hard. No tackiness at all. And perfectly clear. The glue is a fairly stiff gel, pretty much stays where you put it, but it will start to run under its own weight after a few seconds. It works best were you can use it to fill a void, by applying several applications and curing each one.

I laid down a bead of glue, held the connector in place, and zapped it. Wow, instantly rock hard. I filled the voids and zapped again. Immediately I had a connector that would stand up to attaching and removing the antenna cable, no problem. Pretty amazing. The glue cures clear and glossy, and is very hard to see, but it does fluoresce brightly under the UV light, so you can see clearly where it is.

SO-239 attached with UV glue. (Glue is fluorescing)

SO-239 attached with UV glue. (Glue is fluorescing)

Next, I wanted to add a socket for the 1/4 inch mono plug on the end of my high-Z headphones. I had scavenged such a socket from a ham fest special I am parting-out, but it was the kind that mounts in a 3/8 inch panel hole. No panel, what to do?

I made a little mini-panel out of single-sided PCB material, soldered to make an “L” shape with a second piece. Using the UV glue, I cemented the bottom of the “L” to the underside of the board, and then filled in the voids on both the top and bottom with additional glue passes. Again, rock solid, and luckily so, as considerable force is necessary to plug in or remove the phones. Another instant success.

Front panel attched with UV glue (Fluorescing)

Front panel attached with UV glue (Fluorescing)

By this point I had dispensed with the gloves. This stuff is easy to control using the applicator squeeze bottle; unless you expect to really have to tussle with the job at hand the gloves probably aren’t all the necessary. But I’m standing by the UV goggles – you can’t be too careful when your eyes are concerned.

So now with antenna screwed on, and headphones plugged in, everything was nice and solid and the rig was working FB. For some reason today, the strongest station I could hear was a French language call-in show. Quebec maybe? Endless hours of entertainment. But I was still not quite satisfied…

No more alligator clips. (Well, only one.)

No more alligator clips. (Well, only one.)

The receiver was working at top form, but it seemed to be lacking something. An aesthetic improvement perhaps? Armed with this amazing glue, I faced the rampant desire to glue more stuff to this radio.

My wife maintains an art studio on our property, she is primarily a painter, but creates puppet shows, writes and illustrates children’s books, and often creates small assemblages and sculptural works. Suffice it to say that her studio contains a wealth of odds and ends, and she is very generous with her materials when it comes to decorating radio projects. I think she feels that they are under-decorated in general, and will do what she can to correct that unfortunate state.

I asked for, and was graciously granted, two “frozen charlottes” from her collection. These small doll figurines date from the Victorian era, and were very popular toys for children. There are lots of internet material on them, you can look it up. Several years ago, when we first set up her studio, I had found a huge bunch of them from Germany on eBay, and given them to her as a “studio warming” gift. We might have the definitive collection in the northeast.

I thought that two charlottes, representing the etherial spirits, fixed at either end of the coil tube would not only be attractive, but enhance the operation of the receiver.

Frozen charlotte, guarding the entrance to the coil.

Frozen charlotte, guarding the entrance to the coil.

Unfortunately, I did not make quantitative, before and after measurements of signal strength, so this report needs to be considered anecdotal at best – however I swear those French-speaking callers were at least a half S-unit stronger after applying the figures. And I love the way it looks.

Crystal set, decorated.

Crystal set, decorated.

Get this glue away from me, before I really hurt myself.

73,
de N2HTT

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A complete digression.

Happy New Year.

Now that the holidays have passed and time has started to free up a bit, I’ve found my way back to the bench and started to resume experiments on a space charge tube regen, And while I actually have some interesting progress to report on that front, I’ve been sidetracked into completing a completely unrelated project by yet another random sequence of events.

This one started, as they often do, with an eBay purchase. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I will sometimes bid on a lot of several crystals, if there are at least a few I can identify as being on useful ham frequencies. If the average price per crystal is attractive I’ll go for it.

Out of band FT-243’s are also useful because the holders can be filled with modern HC49/U or similar crystals. I sometimes find crystals at frequencies just below the ham bands. These can (in theory, I have never actually attempted it) be ground down to raise their frequencies a few hundred Hertz, to values that fall in-band.

Of course, I get a lot of fairly useless stuff as well. There may be a few interesting holders, or items that might have antique interest, but for the most part the rest is of no use and collects in a bin on a shelf in the basement.

This particular lot contained a curious item: a sealed detector crystal for a crystal receiver set.

The mysterious Philmore Fixed Crystal DETECTOR

The mysterious Philmore Fixed Crystal DETECTOR

These holders contained a hunk of galena and a cat’s whisker (short, stiff, wire probe) sitting on a “hot spot” on the galena, potted in a plastic holder to permanently secure the detecting action needed in a crystal set. This was a modern convenience compared to the tricky business of finding a “hot spot” that would detect. The really cool thing about these crystal receivers is that they produce audio with no additional input power. All the energy necessary to produce the audio is captured by the wire antenna.

It was a curious artifact, and I put it on a shelf on my operating desk, as a radio good luck talisman; but everytime I spied that crystal dector sitting on the desk, I wondered to myself whether it still worked. I would not have gotten much past the wondering stage were it not for the fact that I happen to have a pair of high-impedance headphones – a critical component in any crystal receiver experiment.

High Impedance Headphones

High Impedance Headphones

These phones were given to me by my elmer, W2WTV Gordon (sadly a silent key now for many years). I recall visiting him one Saturday while he was cleaning up in his shack, and him handing these phones to me, saying gruffly “Here take these, you might want to build a crystal radio someday.” I held on to them ever since, not knowing when if ever I would want to build a crystal radio, but they just seemed like something you shouldn’t part with, because they’d be difficult to get a hold of if the need ever arose. I measured the DC resistance of these to be about 2200 Ohms.

So almost against my will, I started to research crystal radio designs. Some of these babies can get very elaborate, after all at one point they were state of the art. There are dozens of designs out there, and I started to filter through them. Patterns began to emerge.

I decided on a variation of the simple “oatmeal box” receiver. Easy to build, it requires a big air wound transformer (hence the oatmeal box) connected to the antenna, a resistor, a variable capacitor, a diode detector, and high-impedance phones.

I was all set, I had all that stuff on hand. I decided to go a little uptown from the oatmeal box, and wound my coil on a piece of 2 inch PVC pipe. Also, I used one of those cheap, ecologically responsible bamboo cutting boards for a base. I think these things are great for any “bread board” project, the small ones cost about five dollars in the produce department of the local supermarket. Easy to drill, and good looking. What’s not to like?

This past weekend, I got to work. Not that there weren’t about twenty more pressing things I should have been doing, but by this point my curiousity about the detector was approaching obsession. First step: recompute the number of turns needed on my piece of pipe, by reverse engineering the oatmeal box design.

Using an online air wound coil calculator, I estimated the inductance of the oatmeal box secondary to be about 500 microHenries, and then calculated the number of turns I would need on the pipe for the same inductance. Using 28 AWG gauge wire, it worked out to be about 100 turns. Sitting down to binge watch old PBS shows, I started winding.

I won’t bore you with the details of winding the coil. I know a lot of guys don’t like winding toroids – this was far, far worse than any toroid. 28 gauge wire is impossible to handle. It was a nightmare. Finally I got the coil done, and measured the inductance. More than twice the calculated value. This thing wasn’t going to resonate any where near the AM broadcast band.

Re-purposing some nice 18 AWG gauge enameled copper wire liberated from my wife’s studio, I wound a second coil of 60 turns, tapped as indicated in the design. Much better experience all around. I don’t recommend using teeny wire for this kind of project.

Taking much more time than it should have, I laid out the components on the cutting board. I didn’t have the specified 47 kOhm resistor, so I used a 51 kOhm instead. Nothing about this design struck me as being all that critical, so I figured close was good enough. With everything wired up, I brought my creation up to the shack, and hooked to my antenna.

Attached to the antenna (new diode)

Attached to the antenna (new diode)

The antenna is a 135 foot doublet, fed with ladder line, with a bunch of stuff between the wire and the shack, like a big balun and an automatic tuner. But since rf does demonstrably get in through this pathway, I figured it might work for the crystal receiver. I hooked the center pin of th PL-259 connector to the top of my coil, and the shell to the ground side. Hooked up the phones, and spun the dial….

Profound silence.

I tried all the taps. No good.

Okay, back to the design docs.

Schematic for my version.

Schematic for my version.

After carefully reviewing the small schematic for the rig I realized I had flipped the sense of the secondary. Could phase matter? Well, just to be sure I switched two soldered connections, and now my construction exactly matched the schematic. Back to the shack, hooked up the alligator clips, and…. nada.

Okay, well it could be the phones – I had never tried them in any other circumstances. Or, it could be my antique crystal detector. I popped the old unit off, and stretched a brand new 1N34 diode across the posts. Connections hastily reconnected, tuned the cap on one tap, then the next… wait, what was that? Yes, faintly, distantly, but unmistakably – salsa music!

I ran downstairs and got my son to come up and listen. He put on the phones, concentrated for a moment, and said “Sounds like a Spanish language station?”

Yes! Success! A soft, vague whisper, but reception nevertheless! My receiver works, and the question answered: the antique crystal detector is a curio only, dead as a doornail.

A little further experimentation reveals that the phase of the coils does matter – switching the antenna and ground connections completely killed the signal. Playing with the receiver late in the evening, I was able to hear four or five distinct stations, but none as strong as my Spanish station, which turns out to be WEPN, ESPN Deportes on 1050 kHz AM in New York.

Switching between taps improves selectivity and reduces sensitivity as fewer turns are selected. I probably could get better reception with a good earth ground and a more direct connection to the wire, but those experiments will wait for some other time. For the time being, I am at peace with crystal radios.

Now about the space charge tube regen receiver. I have found an interesting design that I think will adapt nicely to space charge tubes, and I have prototyped the input RF amp with encouraging results. But this will be the subject of another post. Until then

73
de N2HTT

Posted in Ham Radio | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A key repair.

Back at the beginning of November I happened to be in the local Barnes & Noble bookstore on a Sunday afternoon, when I noticed signage for the “Mini Maker Faire” event B&N was holding the following weekend. My initial reaction was: “not that interesting”. I had attended the big Maker Faire at the Hall of Science last year, it was fine, very focussed on 3D printing and robotic oriented stuff. For me, not worth a repeat visit.

But then, as I was leaving the store, I saw the phrase “signing up new presenters every day” on the announcement board. That piqued my interest: would they want a demonstration of a ham radio “maker” project?

Left to my own devices, I would have left the store still pondering this question, but for my wife’s prodding to go ask a manager. I did, and they were interested. In fact, the store personnel I spoke to mentioned that although they had reached out to local schools looking for presentations, they had gotten very little response. I got a call the following Monday from the store manager, made my pitch, and was put on the schedule for the following weekend.

The next thing to do was to reach out to my local radio club, PCARA, and see if there was any interest in participating in the presentation and supplying collateral material about Amateur Radio, and our club. I got an enthusiastic response, and checking back with the folks at B&N got permission to display and hand out ham radio materials – I thought this was pretty generous of them.

The project I had to demonstrate was a pretty good fit for a ham radio “maker” project.

DFR front panel

DFR front panel

Called the Digital Fist Recorder, it is an Arduino based device that records and plays back CW sent with a straight key, cootie key, or bug, exactly as sent – thus exactly reproducing the “fist” or sending style of operator.

DFR under the hood (arduino stack on left, keying circuit on right)

DFR under the hood (arduino stack on left, keying circuit on right)

I had written an article on the project for QST Magazine, which had just come out in the November issue, so the timing was perfect.

In the presentation (done at three sessions from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon), I touched on

  • some background on amateur radio
  • the history and use of morse code in radio
  • a demonstration of the DFR, complete with a key that audience members could try out
  • a discussion of the “maker” aspects of ham radio, showing kits and scratch built projects

The presentations went well, I gave out several handouts and lots of interest was generated.

CW Demonstration, B&N Maker Faire (photo by M. Pritchard, NM9J)

CW Demonstration, B&N Maker Faire (photo by M. Pritchard, NM9J)

As part of the demonstration, I knew I would have people wanting to try out the Morse code key, so part of my preparations included selecting a key that would stand up to being used by folks not familiar with the art of radio telegraphy. I have a lot of keys, and I am rather fond of all of them, so I put particular effort into selecting a key that would be robust enough to withstand any unintentional abuse. After much deliberation, I chose my D-117/K5 “Chinese Army Key”.

Chinese K5 key

Chinese K5 key

It is very heavy, solid steel with hard brass and steel contacts. While not my favorite for daily use, one gets the impression that you can bang the hell out of it without complaint.

It performed marvelously, survived without a scratch, and acquitted itself well in the hands of several young kids who learned to send their first names in Morse Code.
And it reminded me of another Chinese key that I own, one that I liked very much, that had met its demise at my own hand about three years ago.

The other key was a K4. This key was manufactured for the PLA in the 1960’s, and was readily available on eBay and at Morse Express for very reasonable prices. In recent years the original source of the surplus keys has dried up, but they are still made at the same plant in Changshu, and are still available today but at much higher prices.

The key featured a very heavy cast iron base, shrouded in a highly chromed steel jacket. A steel lever, supported by robust posts, pivoted on jeweled pivot bearings, and featured large silver contacts. It has a very good feel, and stayed put on the desk.

I liked this key so much that I was using it in the November CW Sweepstakes three years ago when, while rearranging things on the operating desk, I knocked it off. The key hit the ground lever first, and shattered the bakelite pedestal that supports the lever. I couldn’t bear to discard the parts, so I just put them away in a box at the time. Playing with the K5 made me nostalgic for the K4, checking current eBay prices for the key made me consider a repair job.

Examining the parts of the broken K-4, it was apparent that the breaks were clean and tight-fitting. Not too much shattered material had been lost in the break. The key was a likely candidate for a glue repair.

Broken bakelite pedestal

Broken bakelite pedestal

I wanted a glue that would have extremely high cured strength, and some ability to fill in the broken areas. A two-part epoxy seemed to me to be the most likely candidate.

The epoxy should have a very high cure strength, and since the key had been broken for three years, I didn’t think a rapid curing glue was needed. I went searching the adhesive department of our local Home Depot, pondering over the many two-part epoxies available, comparing cured strength, cure time and color to select the most appropriate.

As it turned out I didn’t find a slow cure epoxy that would work; the only one they had was opaque white in color, definitely not a good choice. Second runner-up was Gorilla Glue two-part epoxy, with a 5 minute cure time, which is clear and boasted the highest cured strength. The short cure time was not an advantage in this case, as it meant that all the positioning and clamping had to be done quickly.

On the same visit, while cruising the tools section, I found a new item that I can’t recommend highly enough – DeWalt now makes tiny trigger style clamps, for only about $5 each. These are perfect for clamping small repairs, and I picked up two to supplement the other small clamps in my armamentarium.

I knew that the success of the repair depended on absolute flatness of the glued bakelite block, and good end-to-end compression of the break while the glue set. To achieve this, I used clamps at 90 degrees to each other – two to hold the base flat, and one to compress the glue joint. I needed a flat surface to clamp to. As it turns out, I recently bought at a thrift store a picture frame fashioned from two thick blocks of plate-glass. I intend to use this for some crystal grinding experiments, but in the mean time it made the perfect support for the glue job.

Preparing to clamp glue job

Preparing to clamp glue job

To avoid the embarrassment of gluing my repaired bakelite part forever to the glass block, I covered the block in plastic cling wrap. I figured that even if the plastic wrap clung to the glued joint, it would be easy to pick off. Or at least easier to pick off than the thick glass block.

The last concern I had was the inevitable bit of glue that squeezes out of the joint and sits on the surface, creating a bead that follows the path of the break. A little research suggested that using acetone or mineral spirits once the join was clamped would remove the bead. I had acetone on hand, and am pleased to report that this trick worked perfectly.

The epoxy user's friend

The epoxy user’s friend

The procedure was:

  • wrap the glass block with clingy plastic
  • pre-position the broken bits and clamps
  • mix the glue and apply
  • clamp the joint – starting with one end of the piece down to the block, then all the parts together, then the other end to the block. This involved a little fiddling to get it all snug
  • with acetone on a paper towel, clean up the glue bead
  • leave the whole thing to think about it for at least 24 hours
Glue job at 23 hours 59 minutes... wait for it..

Glue job at 23 hours 59 minutes… wait for it..

That last step is the hardest, but you really need to allow the epoxy to rest undisturbed for a good while to reach full cure strength. Anyway, the key had been on the disabled list for three years, so what was the rush?

After the curing time was over, the bakelite base came off the block easily, and it was no problem to pick off the clingy plastic. I then re-assembed the key, and had to deal with the matter of the conical spring.

Unfortunately, the original conical spring was lost. Whether I lost track of it when the accident occurred, or it got away during captivity in storage is not clear, but it is definitely gone. A quick check of internet sources for conical springs shows that:

  • you can get any spring dimensions and springiness you want from spring suppliers
  • they won’t sell you less that 25 or so minimum order

Not wanting to invest that kind of money in a world class conical spring collection, I looked to other venues. Morse Express sells replacement springs for Nye-Viking keys; I ordered a couple and although they are very nice, they are much too small for the K4.

I then took a look on eBay for either springs, or busted keys with the springs still attached. I found an auction for three springs that were a bit larger. These turned out to be usable (it’s what you see in the photo), but I am keeping my eye out for other possibilities in the future.

The K4 key, after repair

The K4 key, after repair

All in all, the repair was a great success. The key handles just as it did before the disaster, and I’m really pleased to get it back in service.

73
de N2HTT

Posted in Arduino, Ham Radio | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

New Wire

Almost exactly three years ago, super storm Sandy made landfall in our neighborhood, with devastating results. While we did not suffer much damage compared to many others, we were without power for fourteen days (a record for us) and a tree struck the front of our house, doing serious damage. Among other things, my antenna system was completely erased.

Sandy 10/29/2012

Sandy 10/29/2012

It wasn’t a big commercial antenna or tower or anything like that. I have always used simple wire antennas, supported in various ways. At the time of the storm, I had a mast attached to the second story of our house, supporting the apex of a doublet hung in a sloper configuration, and fed with 450 ohm window line. Pretty effective, and very cheap.

The mast was composed of those four foot fiberglass mast sections you can find on eBay. I think I had six or seven sections of the stuff hooked together, which starting from the second story of the house gave me about 35 – 40 feet at the apex. The mast was attached with brackets to the clapboard side wall of a dormer extension.

These mast pieces were never intended to be used to construct a tall mast. My understanding is that their intended purpose is to be used, one or two pieces together, to support camoflage netting. You know, when they hide airplanes under a lot of fake foliage. And I can attest to the fact that they don’t work very well for tall masts. I once tried to make a 40 foot mast out of the stuff, and attempting to get it vertical was a complete failure – rather like trying to stand a stack of cooked ziti on end. Al dente, of course.

Anyway, in the aftermath of Sandy I had nothing left but a pile of mast pieces and some tangled wire. In the days that followed, I scavenged the still usable bits, and put up a shorter version of the same arrangement, minus one piece I think. This second incarnation was liberally reinforced with Gorilla tape, and was splinted with four pieces bamboo around one particularly dodgy joint. (We had a lot of cut bamboo on the property, but that is another story for some other time.) The slightly crooked, splinted, shorter mast proudly adorned our house for about two years. You can guess that we don’t live with an HOA. My wife. God bless her, is very tolerant and allowed me to continue to persue my radio interests with this abomination attached to the house, but I must admit that even I would occasionally look up and mutter “got to do something about that antenna…” Oddly enough, when I looked for some pictures of the splinted version I couldn’t find any. I guess we didn’t think it was that photogenic.

In any event, last winter, which was very severe, finaly brought the matter to a head. After a particularly bad storm later in the season, the top of the thing snapped off. Ironically, it was the join above the bamboo splints that failed. I took it down again removed another section, and refreshed the duct tape. It was abundantly clear at that point something had to be done.

Sad remains of old mast

Sad remains of old mast

Over the summer, I started shopping for a new mast. No point in waiting, get it done while the weather is good. I dithered about comparing lots of different masts on the internet. It didn’t need to be very tall, since it would be attached to the house, but I wanted something very sturdy; a telescoping mast would be fine, but it couldn’t be one of those lightweight portable jobs. No kite poles for me, it had to have some gravitas.

I finally settled on an MFJ-1904HD mast, which is apparently designed to hold five element 80 meter monobanders and the like. I found a pretty good deal on the mast, (including free shipping, which surprised me. I was afraid of the shipping on somehing like this.)

The mast arrived surprising quickly. Next step: wire. I have always bought my wire from The Wireman, and I highly recommend them. I decided to replace what I had up with all new materials, so I bought sufficient wire and window line to redo the whole thing. After I placed the order, I realized I hadn’t ordered quite enough wire, and called them. They adjusted the order without any fuss. Is is a delightful business to deal with.

With wire and mast on board, I waited for a weekend when we would be home based to do the work. On the first such weekend, I climbed to the sunroom roof, only to discover that the brackets on the existing mast were woefully too small for my new, robust mast. Back to the internet, to find bigger brackets. This proved tough – in the end I found only one bracket, made by Rohn, which could handle the diameter of my new, robust mast. I ordered them. They were backordered. We were out of town for a few weekends.

Finally, today, the new antenna went up.

The weather was glorious, a perfect October day. And my younger son was available to help with the roof work, a major plus.

Installation crew hard at work

Installation crew hard at work

I tried to plan out all the steps of the job: things had to be done in the correct order since I intended to use the mounting hardware and antenna center insulator from the old doublet in the new antenna. Here was the breakdown:

  • lower the ends of the old antenna
  • remove the center of the old antenna from the old mast
  • take down the old mast. This was the most nerve wracking part.
  • remove the old brackets
  • caulk the mounting holes
  • assemble the new antenna, which included
  • measure two halves of the wire doublet
  • assemble the center insulator with wire and window line
  • drill the new mast for mounting the new antenna
  • measure and install the new brackets
  • install the new mast, collapsed
  • mount the antenna on the new mast
  • extend the new mast
  • attach the ends of the new antenna to the support ropes at either end
  • raise the new antenna

As simple as that.

Carfully organized tools and materials

Carfully organized tools and materials

Remarkably, all this went totally smoothly. Nobody got so much as a splinter – I cannot express my gratitude sufficiently. And for some reason, this project did not require the usual three trips to the hardware store.

The new wire antenna is a 135 foot doublet, fed by window line. While not exactly resonant on any ham band, it loads easily on all the bands with a tuner. It is a popular configuration, if you Google it you will find dozens of write ups on it.

I measured my wire (two 67 foot lengths) by putting two tent stakes into the ground 11 feet appart, and making six turns around the stakes, plus a foot or so. Then I wrapped the wire around rectangles of corrugated cardboard to keep it out of trouble until deployed.

Hard to see wire staked out for measurement

Hard to see wire staked out for measurement

The center insulator is a device called a Ladder-Loc, which is designed to support the window line and reduce stress on the the wire-to-feedline connections. The one I have has been in use for over four years – it is a little faded from exposure, but in fine shape and back in service.

When I reconnected the wire ends to the support ropes and pulled them up, I realized something interesting – the old antenna had been much shorter than 135 feet. I thought what I had was a 135 foot doublet, but it turned out to be about 90 feet. I dimly remember doing a lot of calculations to come up with a good doublet length because I thought 135 would not fit in my lot. Apparently I was wrong, and am absent minded, but to good effect.

The new mast

The new mast

I didn’t make the final connections back to the shack until the sun had set. The new antenna loads easily on all bands, and despite the prediction of a geomagnetic storm this evening, 80 and 40 meters sounded lively. I’m totally thrilled that this job is done, and not a flake of snow has fallen yet this season. I’m looking forward to a winter of sitting snug in my shack, playing radio with a beautiful piece of wire up in the air.
73,
de N2HTT

Posted in Ham Radio | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

J-38 Madness

As I mentioned last post, the SKCC Weekend Sprintathon for October was all about keys. I heard all kinds of keys on the air during that contest, and many of them were J-38 keys. The J-38 is the quintessential, all American made, military surplus key that every ham cut his/her teeth on in his/her first station. They were cheap, plenitful, worked pretty well, and looked kinda cool with all that mysterious extra unnecessary hardware on the plastic baseplate. Everyone had one. Except me.

I was certainly aware of these keys out there, but not having been a ham in the golden age of WW II surplus (I’m the right age to have been a teenaged ham in the 1960’s, but didn’t get a license until much, much later) I didn’t come across any for a dollar at the army surplus store or anything like that. I think my first key came from MFJ, and was actually a paddle.

Even before that WES weekend, I would occasionally look for a cheap J-38 on eBay from time to time, but gone are the days when these things could be bought for a couple of bucks – I have seen them command totally out of line prices of eBay, and this fact has for the most part kept me safe. But on that fateful Saturday night of the WES, sitting up in bed with a tablet perusing my favorite eBay searches, I came across a new listing that would have serious consequences.

The listing was for a “new in box, sealed in wax, J-38 key”. New in box keys are not that unusual, you see lots of them on eBay, but they go for really high prices. Covered in wax was very unusual though. Also, the listings (there were two) had a really attractive Buy It Now price for a new key. I bit. It was a little impulsive, since the contents of the sealed box was not visible, but hey. J-38 was on the way.

Sealed in wax for freshness

Sealed in wax for freshness

The auction did have photos of another key which the seller said was the same as the sealed units. This other key was definitely not new, and was the “all white metal” variety of the J-38. I know this because I immediately started researching J-38 keys, and found a wonderful resource if you are interested in the history of these keys. Take a look at Scott Hill, N6IX’s excellent page on J-38 keys. A link from his main page promises “more than you ever wanted to know about J-38 keys“, and I found it fascinating reading.

One interesting fact was that the J-38 was manufactured by many different companies, to the same specifications under government contract. I guess this was done to avoid single-source problems during the war years. It means that there are several common varieties of J-38, all slightly different — different manufactures used different materials, and finished the keys in different ways.

A few days later my sealed box arrived. I set up to photograph it as I opened it, rather like an archeolgical dig. I had no idea what the package would reveal. The cardboard key box was wrapped in cloth tape, and covered in a thick layer of sticky wax. Thoughts of every B-movie featuring Egyptian tombs flashed through my mind. Dimly seen through the wax cover was a label that promised a J-38 key, a good sign

Wax covered label

Wax covered label

I tried to gently tease the package open, but the cloth tape was not yielding to gentle. Unfortunately, the tape was applied across the box end, obscuring a lot of the label, but if you look closely at the bottom you can see the manufacturer given as American Radio Hardware.

American Radio Hardware, seen dimly through the wax

American Radio Hardware, seen dimly through the wax

ARH keys are a common variety of J-38, found almost as often as the Lionel J-38. Yes, Lionel, the toy train company, made a boatload of J-38s during WW II. We will revisit this fact in a bit.

Anyway I was excited – I had seen pictures of the ARH keys and I like them a bit better than the more common Lionel variety. I continued to saw away at the box, a little less gently now. Finally, an end came open, and I found the key wrapped in what I would describe as butcher paper. There appeared to be oil or grease on the key, and staining the paper. Here is what it looked like unwrapped:

Finally out of the box

Finally out of the box

It didn’t look new to me, but in very good condition. There were some markings on the lever, and the gap adjustment screw was bent. Overall though, it was a pretty nice key.

It is of the variety that Scott K6IX describes as an all white metal key, containing no brass parts. The conformation is that of the ARH key, but the typical ARH key has brass parts as well as “white” metal. The interesting thing is that if it was new, the box would be evidence that ARH made at least some of the all white metal keys. However, I don’t think it was new. Perhaps whoever packed the key so carefully and sealed it in wax, maybe to bring it home as a souvenir after overseas service, grabbed a key and any box handy and paired them up. Who knows?

I sent an email to the eBay seller, asking for any information they might have about origins of the key. To my surprise, I got a reply almost immediately. The seller’s father had been in the Navy and had a number of WW II items, but beyond that nothing else was known. So whether the key is a white metal key made by ARH remains indeterminate.

I cleaned the key up using good old Brasso, and stuck 4 low profile feet on the plastic base. The base was warped slightly, (this is common with these keys) and wobbled a bit; the rubber feet cured the problem. The key has a very nice feel, and looks good, even with the bent adjustment screw. It’s a keeper

The white metal J-38 key

The white metal J-38 key

Ah, but now the fit was on me. Scott’s web page contained sage advice about how to clean up these old keys, and I decided to try for a Lionel key on the cheap. I watched for the most disgustingly dirty, but complete Lionel key I could find on eBay and bid on it, planning to transform it into a beauty with a little elbow grease. Before long, a Lionel key was on the way…

Lionel J-38 as received

Lionel J-38 as received

The key arrived in good shape, but pretty gritty.

Gritty close-up

Gritty close-up

Following Scott’s advice, and having a Saturday afternoon with nothing much else planned, I got started with my key cleaning event Friday night. Here are the steps:

  • Soak all the parts in household ammonia solution overnight. I collected the parts in groups, so I could figure out how they went back together. Also, I separated the white metal parts from the brass ones, not wanting any weird galvanic thing happening to them while soaking. I had visions of all the brass bits disappearing overnight or something like that. I have a bunch of these all-plastic ice cream jars (the family consumes a bunch of this stuff, good ice cream, great jars) that were ideal for the task. As Scott predicted, the white metal parts turned black overnight, but this is expected and not harmful.
  • Initial polish with Brasso. This removed the residue from the soaking.
  • Polish the parts again with Flitz Blue. You can find it on Amazon. This stuff is amazing. You can even use it on the painted parts, diluted.

Speaking of parts, there are many more that you would think for a simple looking key. The left side parts:

Left side bits

Left side bits

The center parts

The center bits

The center bits

The right side parts

The right side bits

The right side bits

The white metal parts

The white metal bits

The white metal bits

And the weird connective tissue parts. These are mostly insulating washers, critical to the functioning of the key.

Tiny weird bits

Tiny weird bits

Those little wire bits that look like broken ends from mechanical pencil leads are parts too. The are pins that orient the terminal posts so that the holes line up with the markings on the base. No kidding. Only the Lionel keys have them. It was a miracle that I didn’t lose any, and they made re-assembling the key an exquisite experience.

All put together, the Lionel key looked great cleaned up:

Lionel J-38 reassembled, no base

Lionel J-38 reassembled, no base

but it suffered from a pretty bad warping of the base plate and was quite wobbly. While it meant forgoing the extraneous hardware bits, I mounted the key on a block of pretty hardwood (also an eBay purchase), mounted low profile rubber feet, and am rewarded with a very nice looking final product:

Lionel J-38 - final product

Lionel J-38 – final product

Those extraneous bits? These keys were used to train new operators, by wiring the keys in series with the instructor’s key and oscillator. Headphones were wired in series with the keys, and the shorting bar allowed the trainee to listen on the headphones while not sending. The eyelet was used with a cord to tether the headphones to the key, so they wouldn’t wander off at the end of the training session.

Having refurbished two of these keys, I will definitely enjoy using them. They feel good and impart a sense of history, especially hooked up to boat anchor rig. My obsession with J-38s is starting to wane – the doctor says that in two or three weeks it will all pass, and I can have access to my eBay account back again.

73,
de N2HTT

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