From General to Rock Mite

Once I achieved my General license and put the /AG behind my call, I figured I was finally ready to dig into building something. It’s going to be great! I’ve heard tons of stories from the old hams of building a kit radio in the 60s and 70s as children. I totally got this! Let’s warm up the soldering iron! But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. One must have something to solder to make use of a warm soldering iron. Ah yes, back to checking out the kit websites to see what they have… In truth that was starting to get a little old.

Sidebar: Let me take a minute to dig into why my problem is with these websites. The reality of it is that the majority of the websites that are selling kits and have all this great information on them are poor at best. I’m a bit snobby I suppose having grown up building websites, studying what makes a good website and even the psychology of it all. In truth, most of these sites could be found in a “What not to do” section of a class on web design, either for the graphic design elements or for the code in the background or just posting on the front page that the “contact us” doesn’t work so just email us here. I know these guys are working with limited skills with low margins, but that’s why Tindie exists. Mentally, I find it tempting to put my tail between my legs and run. Okay, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I feel better now.

My Requirements

I found a wide variety of kits available. These kits are spread across nearly as many websites. All the kits are described in a different format using terms I only barely grasp at this point in my journey. This made it really hard to even know what kit to look at. I had two major requirements going in and I soon found out, as simple as they seemed, they needed revision or at least notable definition.

  1. Keep it Cheap Stupid (aka, If I totally bomb in putting it together, will I ever talk my wife into a similar investment? )
  2. Be Usable (I didn’t really know what this meant for me, but I intended to figure it out.)

Rock Mite They Said

Rock Mite
Rock Mite ][
Lots of people recommended the Rock Mite to me as a “great first kit”. I looked at it a few times as it managed to hit requirement #1, but eventually it got through my head that this was a total fail on #2. I figure it is a “great first kit” if you’ve not built stuff like that before, which I had. In other words, this is a skill builder radio, not a usable tool.

First, because it is “rock bound”. It took listening to several episodes of Solder Smoke to realize what this meant. For those trailing along behind me, it basically means you will almost never be able to use it, you may not even know if it is working. More technically, the “rock” in both the term “rock bound” and “rock mite” refers to a crystal oscillator. Modern (and I use that word loosely here) radios have this thing called a VFO or Variable Frequency Oscillator that allows them to move from one frequency to another to explore the band. If your only oscillator is locked to a single frequency like a physical crystal is, then you’re stuck on that frequency. You have to wait for someone else to show up on that same frequency. This might make sense if you were doing a class and everyone could work each other since they’d all be on the same frequency and I understand if you choose the correct frequency the band is likely to be often active, but this is a big limitation.

Second, because it is “QRP”. Here’s another term that took a little time to truly understand the ramifications of. QRP means low power under 5 watts, in the case of the Rock Mite, 0.5 Watts. Chances are if you’ve looked at making stuff with radios you’ve run into the term QRP and maybe even been warned about it. What took me more time to understand is what the true limitations of QRP are. Sure, QRP can go relatively far, but generally speaking making contacts with low power is a challenge. When a new ham starts talking about building a kit for their first radio, they’ll probably hear, “I don’t advise that. You’ll only be frustrated.” The more I’ve listened to and read what QRP Hams are saying I’ve come to see why this makes a lot of sense. Also, most of the notable distance contacts made via QRP are done by CW.

Sidebar Again: Once I realized the physics behind QRP and the bandwidth of a signal, it totally made sense that SSB would work horribly. I’ve come to think of it like a flashlight. CW is a flashlight with the light all focused on a single point, nice and bright on that one spot. SSB (Single Side Band) is a flashlight with a flood focus, being certain that light is spread over a wide area. If you want that light to go far, you’ve gotta focus it into a small beam. CW uses only a small amount of bandwidth which allows all the power in the radio to focus on pushing that small bandwidth. When you go with SSB you are spreading that same amount of power out over a wider bandwidth which dramatically reduces the “oomph” the signal has to go the distance. I hope that makes sense, if not tell or correct me in the comments. I don’t think I’ve even heard QRP talked about with AM or FM in the picture because they more than double what would be SSB bandwidth, but that Baefung UV-5R I have does FM of 5 Watts and usually can hit the repeaters around town so I’d guess HF FM QRP transmissions wouldn’t make it much further.

Third, because it is CW only. Morse Code is neat, but it does take time to learn and I don’t have the skill at the moment. I taught myself the Dvorak Keyboard layout so I assume learning CW would be a similar experience; however, In the interest of getting on the air sooner, I was looking for something on which I could use phone or digital modes. As I already explained, phone modes by QRP are extra challenging. In other words, low cost means QRP and QRP means CW if you expect to do anything.

So the only thing going for the Rock Mite at this point is that it is cheap.

Rising from the Ashes of Failure

So, after looking at kits like the Rock Mite, I ended up with, as my friends who took Spanish in high school would say, “no bueno”. I’m not sure what that means, but it usually involves tacos. Basically, this ain’t gonna work. Some anonymous person on the Internet once told me, “Don’t waste your failure”. Time to find the boot straps!

So what can be learned in this failure?

  • A VFO is a must if I’m ever going to find a contact before I bore completely and declare the mission a bust.
  • Low cost transceiver kits are going to be QRP.
  • There is a very good reason QRP almost always means CW.
  • If I’m going to effectively use a low cost transceiver, it is going to be using morse code.
  • If my priority is to get on the air, I need to stop now and just fork over the cash for a real transceiver. (Okay, that’s not really my thing, but for many this is the proper choice.)

It is also worth noting that it was about this time I began to realize that once I was assembling a kit, certain tools would be needed to properly test my creations to find failures in them. Things like an Oscilloscope and a Frequency Counter would be needed to see what was going on within the circuit, but that’s a problem for another day.

What new questions do I need to ask?

  • What do I want to do with this transceiver?
  • Am I willing to learn morse code before I get on the air?
  • Will QRP frustrate me enough to lose my interest?
  • Can I find a kit that I am reasonably likely to get on the air without more tools than I have?
  • Can I gain access to tools like oscilloscopes and frequency counters?
  • Are all kits just toys meant to be used a few times and then on to the next kit?
  • If I ask more questions will they answer themselves?

At this stage I’m skipping over the whole Antenna question. I’m assuming I could build a relatively sufficient antenna. Having watched a lot of YouTube videos on this subject, I’m pretty sure I’m an expert at building dipole antennas. No chance of any problems, yeah, that’s another problem for another day.

Time to head back to the whiteboard and revise my expectations (again). I’m reminded of my mother and grandmother who often said, “Do and undo keeps fools busy”, as they vigorously yanked out their knitting projects.

If you’ve made it this far, surely you’ve had some thoughts, corrections, questions. Please leave a comment to tell me what I’m missing. I’d be grateful.

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