Archive for March, 2017

Antennas and Trenches and Shovels, Oh My

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

“You never have enough antennas”



I’ve only been doing this ham radio thing a short while.  But I’ve already stumbled upon one of its veritable truths… hanging a wire antenna isn’t the hard part.

I mean, you spend however much time over however many days gazing up at your trees, estimating heights, and stepping off distances.  Then, after all that planning, you spend more time shooting lines – three of ‘em, one for the feedpoint and two more for each of the legs.  And then you pull up your wire and tie off the three parts.  And once all that’s done, you run back to the shack to see how it works.  Sitting there at the radio, you’ll be nodding your head happily.

A few minutes later you go back outside, look at that feed line strung out across your lawn… and cry a little bit.

First, a little sidebar… last summer I decided to run underground electric to the shed where I keep my motorcycles.  Since the building is about eighty feet from the house I elected to install a sub-panel at the entrance.  Having decided to do it that way, code required a separate, dedicated ground.

Now I was a telephone man back in the day.  Installing ground rods isn’t exactly new to me.  Alas, the tool the Bell System provided us with to achieve that notable task was something called a no-bounce hammer.  Think small sledge with a hollowed out head filled with a sand-like substance to deaden each blow – ergo, the “no-bounce.”  It truly was a great tool for many things.  But mounted atop its short, 15” wooden handle, it didn’t exactly impart a lot of leverage or momentum.

Driving a 5/8” 8-foot ground rod was the devils own work, in other words.  Something telephone men would go to great lengths to avoid.  And so as I stared at the nice new, shiny rod for my DIY shed project, I wondered how I might get it into the ground.  I could just go start pounding away, of course.  But in the intervening years I’ve come to appreciate the benefits of machinery.  Brains over brawn.

My first thought was the obvious one… buy or rent a hammer drill.  That’s what the construction guys use, after all.  Who would know better than them?

Alas, despite being very tempted – who wouldn’t want to own a hammer drill?! – the cheapskate inside me, the very one who insisted this be a DIY project in the first place, quickly overruled that option.

Having dismissed the obvious, I wondered if there was anything else – any sort of tool or device – that might help.

Well, Google and YouTube are your friends.  I did, in fact, come across a little-known technique for driving a ground rod with no tools and little effort, using only a small pail of water.  It was so simple I honestly didn’t think it would work.  But ten minutes later, a stunned but happy me was a believer.  A few months later when I was setting up my first ham shack and needed to drive yet another ground rod, the technique proved just as fast and easy.

It reinforced something I already knew… that we rarely know all the answers.  And that often there is an unconventional solution to the problem we face.

When I hung my first HF antenna – a 40-meter OCF dipole – I had about fifteen feet of ground where the feed line had to be buried.  I used the conventional approach to that effort – mattock and shovel.  Fifteen feet may not sound like much – and it’s not – but digging a 6” deep trench across that length of ground isn’t trivial.  The tools and the technique dictate that you’ll end up moving an astonishing amount of dirt just to get that wire down half a foot.  It took me a couple of hours.

Now, gazing up at my lovely, new second antenna – an 80-meter OCF dipole – and then down at the hundred-odd feet of feed line laying across my lawn, I blanche at the thought of trying to bury it.

I know what I need, of course.  One of these…

It’s never a good sign when the website doesn’t list the price, but instead says to “call.”  Nevertheless, those of you who can afford one should just stop reading now.  This is all you’ll ever need.

For the rest of us, there is something.  Something that takes that hundred-foot trenching project and turns it from a full weekend of back-breaking effort into a vastly easier, 2-3 hour, piece of work.  A couple of Ibuprofens, instead of the whole bottle.


Wilton Trenching Spade – A Tool That Really Works


It’s called the Wilton Thinline Trenching Spade and it’s made by a fellow named Dan Wilton, up in Michigan.  It works on the simple principle of pushing a large, flat blade straight into the ground, then pushing forward and backward a couple times such that the soil separates.  You end up with a very narrow trench – just an inch or so wide – perfect for getting that RG213 or LMR400 eight inches or so into the ground.

No, Dan Wilton doesn’t have a slick storefront or a fancy website.

What he does have is a tool that works.  Dan apparently works in the wire installation business, so it’s no surprise where he got his inspiration.

The tool has a broad cutting footprint.  And its large, rounded step works great for placing the bottom of your work boot – unlike a lot of similar, smaller implements your boot won’t keep sliding off.

Once pressed a few inches in the tool has enough “bite” to hold itself and your weight.  At that point you simply stand upon it and rock sideways back and forth a few times, letting the rounded cutting edge blade through soil.

No, it’s not perfect.  How well, how easily, and how quickly it works will depend very much on your soil.  If you hit a rock, or a very large root, there’s no magic to getting through them.  My experience, here in Virginia’s northern Piedmont, was that I could typically get three or four “clean” cuts before hitting one with a rock.  When that happens, you simply have to work patiently through the obstruction.  It certainly takes more time than those clean cuts, but usually not too long.

Once your trench is finished, you simply drop your wire down into the hole – I used a foot-long wooden dowel to gently press it to the bottom – and then use your boot to press the two lips of raised soil and grass back together.  When you’re done you can hardly tell there was a trench there.

A side benefit is that the whole process is much cleaner.  Using a mattock and shovel (or even a trenching machine) and you’ll soon have dirt everywhere and on everything.  And when you’re finished the dirt scar running along the ground will take months to heal.

Since the Wilton tool doesn’t actually excavate any dirt, you don’t have those issues.

Having finished my own 100’ bit of trench work, I’m a believer.  The Wilton Trenching Spade really does work.

I will offer a word of caution… there are other trenching spades out there.  Before discovering Dan Wilton’s brainchild, I saw a YouTube video that prompted me to buy this Kenyon spade.

You can see it in the picture here below next to the Wilton tool.


The Wilton Trenching Spade vs. the Kenyon


Unfortunately, it didn’t work.  It simply would not cut through the soil.  When you compare it to the Wilton spade, you can see why – the flat cutting surface of the Kenyon must push through the soil, whereas the rounded cutting surface of the Wilton will actually cut through the soil when rotated sideways.  The difference in effort is dramatic.

I did find a use for the Kenyon… used in a brute force fashion, it works tolerably well for breaking through rocks.

Here’s the thing.  It’s easy to convince yourself that this latest antenna and its needs-to-be-buried-feed-line is a one-off thing.  Just get this one last wire up and operational and you’ll be good to go.  Right?

Only, it’s never that way.  You might as well admit it.  You’re never going to be done.  There’s always going to be another antenna.

So you might as well go ahead and get the stuff you need to do it.  If you can afford that gas-powered trenching saw, by all means get it.  But if, like most of us, that seems like a bridge just a little too far, get the Wilton Thinline Trenching Spade.

Highly recommended.



Plenty Deep Enough



Trench Cuts are Clean and Minimally Disruptive







Reasonable Effort Gets It Done



The Heavy, Sharp, Curved Blade is the Secret








* I have no affiliation with Dan Wilton or his products.  Simply a very satisfied customer.










Recollections of a Rookie: The 2017 Virginia QSO Party

Monday, March 20th, 2017

Five minutes in and I’m already surprised.  I kind of went into it thinking 40m would just light up.  Not so much.  Activity emerges slowly, like individual stars at twilight. That isn’t the big problem, though.  The big problem is that I can only hear half of each of those contacts!  I can hear the Indiana or New York or Ohio end just fine – and the exchange makes it clear these are VaQSO Party contacts.  But the Virginia side is a murmuring, incoherent burble, surfing along the noise.

 So much for NVIS and short-skip.  I’m already regretting what I did with my antennas.

Tuning up and down the band.  Fourteen minutes in I finally stumble across a strong, readable Virginia signal.  It’s Arno W4AKO!  And he’s already up to number 14!  Wow.  Something about separating the wheat from the chaff…

With my first, virgin contact in the log, I settle in.  The buzz of anticipation is over.  This is going to be a lot harder than I thought.

Up and down forty.  Running to one end, then the other, like a disconsolate motorcyclist off his meds.  Over the next hour I make three more contacts.  Embarrassing.

In retrospect, letting go of a band that isn’t working seems obvious.  But it’s harder than it sounds.  Forty, for me, has always been the heavy hitter.  The one HF band that works when all the others have gone squirrely.   And all that got reinforced in the weeks leading up when I studied John KX4O’s Cabrillo stats from previous years’ VaQSO Parties.  I marked up a sheet of paper with which bands are open and “fat” on an hour-by-hour basis.  I figure propagation might be a little worse than last year, given where we are in the sunspot cycle, but the general characteristics should be about the same.  That paper now stares back at me from where I have it pinned at eye level.  Eighty comes and goes.  Twenty comes and goes.  Forty?  Forty is just simply always there.  Old reliable.

So, yeah, letting go is hard.

But if 40 has gone all drunk and messy, 80 is just the opposite… bright and clear-eyed!  Virginia stations dotted all over the band.  And so I bend to it and go to work.

It’s still slow.  But it’s steady.  After a few hours I’m ready to draw another conclusion… Search and Pounce is fine when working DX.  But it’s like a sniper carefully working a shot.  It’s laborious and slow and takes lots of patience.  It’s decidedly not the way to rack up points in a hurry.

This is my first contest, so it’s a work in progress.  Or, rather, I should say I’m the work in progress!  But I’m already getting an inkling.  My mind stretches back a couple months to when I was reading Contact Sport, J. K. George’s account of the 2014 World Radiosport Team Championship.  The boys and girls in that contest didn’t wander the bands, searching for quarry.  They set themselves up as bait and let the airwaves come to them.

I’ll pause here and confess.  There are elements to this Ham Radio thing that are fraught, at least for some of us.  Hearing, interpreting, and remembering call signs on the fly isn’t a skill I was born with (am I the only one who, for the first couple of months, kept a written-down copy of my own call sign there in front of me, lest I forgot?!).  Nor were phonetics – neither the standard ones nor the non-standard ones, much less the off-the-wall ones – any part of my lexicon before I started down the road with this hobby.

When I’m working DX, I can be that sniper.  I can take my time.  I can listen to however many contacts I need in order to get his call sign right, to get his cadence.  I can do a quick lookup on QRZ if I want.  I can move up five or down ten or wherever the nearest clear frequency is and tune up to within a gnat’s eyelash, before moving back.  I can get positioned just so before lifting my rod and casting the line.

And yet you can’t do all that and not forget, not appreciate, that that guy or gal on the other end has no such benefit.  What you might take two minutes to prepare for, thoughtfully and deliberately, he has but a couple of seconds… usually intermixed with a bunch of competing stations!  In a heartbeat he has to parse that babel of voices, interpret the phonetics, and pull something out of the morass of signals.

I listen to the radio and shake my head at the poise and presence that so many of you display.  I only hope that one day I can become half as competent.

All of which is to say, being on the receiving end of one of those dreaded pileups was something I had never experienced.  And so it’s with no little trepidation that I first venture out.

“CQ, CQ, CQ.  Virginia QSO Party.  This is Kilo-Four-Yankee-Whiskey-Zulu.  K-4-Y-W-Zed.  Listening.”


Again.  And again nothing.

One more time.  Once more, a fruitless pause.

And it’s not long before I conclude that I’ve done my duty.  It’s with a sense of quiet relief that I reach for the VFO knob.

I’m halfway up the band when I turn back to the computer.  Placing three fingers on the trackpad of the Mac, I swipe to the adjoining desktop.  The one with John’s spotting network up in my browser.  I’ve been watching it periodically since I began.

And now I’m staring at it in disbelief.  My own call sign sits there, beaming back at me.

Crikey!  It’s one thing to bail on your own.  But when someone has gone to the effort to spot you it creates… I dunno… kind of an obligation?

Spinning back to 3.829, I sigh with relief.  It’s still clear.  I begin once again.  “CQ, CQ, CQ…”

The words are hardly out of my mouth.  And here they come.

There’s a pregnant pause with the first one as I suddenly realize that our exchanges are reversed.  But then I’m into it and working them and after a few of ‘em I see, like most things, there’s a rhythm to it.  You just find that and go.

And boy is it fast!  An elation takes hold as I realize how quickly my contact and multiplier counts are growing.  This is the best thing since sliced bread!

It doesn’t last long.  A dozen or fifteen contacts and it’s over.  But not before I’ve experienced a little bit of magic.  Something I won’t soon forget.

Speaking of John’s spotting site… it was invaluable.  You’re sitting there with only one band working and all the stations you can hear are already in your log.   Sure, you’ll find the odd new one when it shows up by tuning up and down.  But it’s world’s easier when you see it show up on the spotting network.

MacLoggerDX, my logging software, worked fine.  One of the first things you learn is that determining if a station is a dupe is such a critical part to all this.  I can’t imagine doing it without software!

Most of the day Saturday I’ve gone back and forth between the desktop where I have MacLoggerDX up full-screen – and running my normal DX cluster – and the adjacent desktop where I have John’s spotting site.  Manually copying the call signs from the spotting network back to MacLoggerDX is a bit of a pain.  Too much swiping back and forth.  Too much getting half the call sign and having to go back to get the rest.  So late in the day I reverse that… I light up John’s spotting network as the telnet cluster within MacLoggerDX.

Much better!  Now it’s mostly Virginia stations showing up in the band map.  Now I can just click on them to populate the call sign box to see if they are a dupe.  And spotting them takes only a single click, versus filling out several fields on the web form.  I leave it like this for the rest of the weekend.

I discover radio contesting is a physically demanding sport.  Who knew?!  No surprise, really.  A lot of sitting and not a lot of moving.  Not all that different from a long motorcycle ride in that respect.  Late in the afternoon, my neck and shoulders sore, I start getting up more often.  Bringing in a load of wood for the woodstove helps.  As does walking the half-mile to get the mail.  And at the end of the day, Ibuprofen is your friend.

Saturday ends quietly.  I toast the day – my Spartan results rather a contrast to the rich experience I’ve enjoyed – with a big bowl of ice cream.  And then I head off to bed.

Sunday is a mix.  I wake up excited to get back at it.  Dreaming of more of those pileups and my score ratcheting up like Rapunzel’s hair.

But the bands remain diffident.  Eight O’Clock is lonely.  And 40m still has the flu.  It will prove a little better than yesterday.  But that’s not saying much.  Mostly it’s a day to stay on 80, with brief excursions elsewhere.

I rue not having 2 meters.  I’ve got the KX3 that can do that via the full-length J-pole outside my window.  But there’s a problem with the FTDI cable Elecraft shipped with it and I’m still waiting for the replacement.  Until they send that I’ve got no CAT control.  Probably wouldn’t much matter anyway.  Three watts out is fine for hitting our local repeater.  Maybe not so much for making it to Skyline Drive.  Still, there’s a twinge of regret every time I see one of those spots show up.  And I’m guessing it might be a key to band-hopping… something I still need to learn more about.

Speaking of Skyline Drive… I don’t hear Andy K1RA or Jason KJ4EOO the entire weekend.

There are some other big stations, though.  W4VA is ubiquitous, and I can’t help but smile every time I come across them.  And in one of my contacts the fellow asks me if I’m a member of the Fauquier Amateur Radio Association.  It’s with a sense of pride that I reply “Indeed, I am!”

K1RO out of New Hampshire had just the best signal all weekend.  He was something of an epiphany for me… emphasizing that an out-of-state station can often be in a fantastic situation to play a QSO party.  The propagation woes that bedeviled most of us in-state guys, and poked veritable holes in all the NVIS theories (kidding), was his strength.  Not that he didn’t leverage it with lots and lots of operating expertise – he surely did.  But he also made me realize that looking beyond your state’s borders for a QSO party can be handsomely rewarded.

Finally, I’ll just say that I marveled at many of you guys.  One of the interesting things about the exchange is that your pal on the other end knows instantly where you are; and you know exactly where s/he is.  I would just shake my head at some of the scores I heard.  No excuses.  No worrying about band conditions.  Just making it work.

My hat’s off to you.


What I wrote….


What I should have written….