Antennas and Trenches and Shovels, Oh My

“You never have enough antennas”

– K1HTV

 

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…  http://www.eztrench.com/trenchers/groundsaw-ez9000/

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.

http://wiltonthinlinetrenchingspade.blogspot.com/

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiEusHCqP7SAhUm8IMKHfsFC84QuAIIIjAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DOoIP6AZBrvM&usg=AFQjCNHIhQwC1HizwPGxZAB2ReAiGbfKHQ&sig2=ztNOcPKo8zvP9Uhl-QptXw

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwiEusHCqP7SAhUm8IMKHfsFC84QuAIIJTAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3Dd4tAzhspYXo&usg=AFQjCNFfgCoFyBJlBuYDLj0v8yRIq_84bQ&sig2=lHBiT0CsUftcTE9CryBOtw

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.

http://www.lewiscontractorsales.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Screen=PROD&Store_Code=PAL&Product_Code=T23399&Category_Code=shovels

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

 

 

 

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Reasonable Effort Gets It Done

 

 

The Heavy, Sharp, Curved Blade is the Secret

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to “Antennas and Trenches and Shovels, Oh My”

  1. Bob says:

    I just ordered the Wilton spade. Thanks for the recommendation! Very helpful as I was about to buy a flat-bottom spade. I’ve got a lot of low voltage wire to bury in Idaho and this looks like just the thing.

  2. Jeff says:

    Glad it was helpful, Bob. Good luck with getting those wires in the ground!

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