Low Budget Tools and Parts For The Budget Builder

The uBITX is now out, QRP Labs QCX is on the market, and the BITX40 is still a fantastic kit- Hams all around the world are preparing burn some solder and get on the air!

If the BITX40 has taught me anything it’s that you don’t need anything fancy to get your radio on the air, but you do need some tools that you can rely on. If you’re like me, you need to do it on a budget.

In this post, I’m going to show you some recommendations for low budget tools that I’ve been using for a while now, and some tips for building on a budget.

Soldering



Clearly there is some soldering involved in building radio kits, but it’s not difficult and the worst thing that can happen is that you melt a bit of insulation. Go over to The Mighty Ohm and read their series Soldering Is Easy. Then, buy a soldering iron. My personal favorite is this guy on the left.

It’s a fantastic starter kit, and all you need to complete your kit is a soldering stand and a third hand helper (see below). I made my soldering stand, and you can too. It just needs to hold the iron safely. You don’t need anything fancy. When the little bit of solder it comes with runs out, grab a roll of Kester solder and have enough to last a nice long time.

I run my iron at around 300c for most jobs, turning it up only when I need to heat up a larger object for soldering, or even solder-brazing. The tips are of good quality, especially for such a low budget tools.

Multi-Tool


I’m probably going to get some heat for recommending a multi-tool, but hear me out.

“But Multi-tools are terrible!” Many inexpensive multi-tools are useless if not outright dangerous. We’ve all owned those crappy multi-tools you can hardly open the blade on, are bulky and heavy, or are designed with the blades facing outward when using the pliers, hurting your hands when you squeeze. The Gerber Suspension is NONE of those things!!

I’m absolutely in love with my Gerber Suspension. Yes, the Real Tools are better- but I’ve used my Gerber Suspension to do everything from stripping wires to building antennae and working on my cars, and even working on computers and electronics- including my BITX40 and QRP Labs U3S!

Every geek needs a multi-tool, and this is the one I recommend. These low budget tools are affordable, light enough to keep handy, and high quality so that you’ll actually want to use it.

Third Hand


There’s nothing worse than trying to do three things at once- holding a wire, solder, and your soldering iron at the same time trying to tin the wire or soldering a wire to a potentiometer. You need a third hand!

This low budget tool is it. Strip the wire, put in the third hand, and tin it. Put the object you’re soldering to in it next, tin it too, and then connect the two and add some heat. Voila. Get a third hand. It’ll save you so much time and frustration, and they’re very inexpensive. You can even get ones with lighted magnifiers and a soldering holder. Nifty, right?

 

Wire Cutters


I went without these Hakko wire cutters for a long time, and I wish I’d spent the few dollars on these a long time ago. They are much handier than the pair of toe nail clippers I was using previously!

The cuts are much better using the Hakko flush cutter tool, and I don’t feel like a total idiot using toe nail clippers to trim wires and thru-hole component leads. Things are a vital piece of kit, so be sure to grab a pair on your next stroll through Amazon.

 

Hot Glue


You might be able to raid your wife’s or kids craft box for these. If not, pick up a high temperature (NOT the lower temperature!) hot glue gun and some glue sticks for it. I’ve found so many uses for mine that I hardly know when to start. I’ve used mine to do everything from building a microphone for my BITX40 to building a dipole center that is weatherproof even in heavy rains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scraps


When you’re trying to build up a radio kit, an antenna tuner or you’re trying your hand at home brewing a radio, scraps are vital. Here are a few of the things that I look for when I’m at garage sales, second hand stores, or even Goodwill. They don’t quite qualify as a low budget tool but I think you’ll agree that it’s a great way to save cash on parts, and gives a chance to be creative too!

CRT Televisions

People can’t GIVE these away these days, but some of them are very nice and have high quality electronics in them. Before throwing out my old 30″ CRT TV, I removed the back cover and ripped out all the circuit boards and speakers. What are old TV’s except radio receivers with a big tube, and they’re rife with great parts, cabling, heat sinks, and wiring, right? Google “disassemble CRT TV Safely” for information on tearing these down safely. If the TV has been used recently, it could seriously SHOCK AND INJURE YOU TO DEATH.

Ancient CB Radios

Old CB radios often have quality parts in them, and are usually very inexpensive. I picked up an old GMC branded CB for $1, and it’s yielded some nice switch/potentiometer combos and knobs, as well as a chassis that may be usable for other projects. Try to get the microphones with them if you can, those are useful as well.

Radio Receivers/Amplifiers/VCR’s

We’re talking about the kind that used to sit in your parents entertainment cabinet connected to 6 foot tall speakers, playing the latest Kenny Rogers/Dolly Parton duet or playing ET on VHS. Clock Radios are fair game too, as they’ll have handy variable capacitors (varicons)  worthwhile for QRP.

I wouldn’t raid electrolytic capacitors from any of these items, but the rest is fair game and will come in handy when you need a part and don’t want to order it up from Digikey or Mouser and spend $8 shipping for a $1 part.

I hope you’ve found this post useful. Comment and tell us what you’re favorite tools are!

3 comments

5 pings

    • Slim on December 14, 2017 at 5:40 AM
    • Reply

    May I make a suggestion and offer some advice to all the people considering building kits like the UBitx and Bitx40.

    As an aged cynic I truly wish that people would realise their limitations technically BEFORE diving into BITX, UBITX, QCX and similar builds.

    I know we all have to start somewhere (back in my day it tended to be pre-selectors or TRF receivers based on a single EF50 valve) but to avoid severe disappointment may I suggest that people take an honest look at their abilities before descending into and spending a lot of money on technology they don’t understand and are quite likely to screw up either building or operating

    Try some simpler projects first of all.
    Something like the QRPGuys Lidia receiver or similar simpler kits for example.

    Also READ and LEARN and carry on reading and learning.FOREVER!

    Many of the Elmers out there have 20, 30, 40 or more years under their belt in the electronics game which is WHY they can help. (I’ve been in the game for over 50 years and I am STILL learning)

    Admittedly there’s a lot of on line support for these kits but that doesn’t help if you still don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing to get your project functioning correctly.

    This applies especially with patching the Arduino sketches code to add functions to things like the raduino in the Bitx.

    Building is the greatest fun of this hobby but eventually, if everything you build fails because you don’t understand why you’ll become very disenchanted and kick it all into touch.

    Enjoy the hobby but endeavour to learn why you’re doing what you do.

    73 Slim G4IPZ

  1. Good article which did two things for me.

    First I have not built anything in years and the article prompted me to get back into it.

    Second, the information helped me grab some of the tools I am going to need to get started again.

    In addition, Slim G4IPZ pointed out that starting at the bottom is the way to go, I already had my eye on the Lidia Receiver as an entry point back into this phase of the hobby!

  2. Hakko’s CHP-170 flush cutter is their version of the old standby, the Xcelite 170m. Hakko’s has the advantage of being cheaper, but both are good tools; don’t rush out to buy a Hakko if you already have an Xcelite. The Xcelite cutter has also shown up with the Weller brand; Xcelite, Weller, and Crescent are all owned by the same company, Apex Tools.

    If you need a tool like that right now, Home Depot sells the Crescent version of the 170m (same tool with an orange plastic handle instead of blue) in a pair with a nice mini needlenose plier. The pair sells for about $14 and is stocked in most of their stores. https://www.homedepot.com/p/Crescent-4-in-Shear-Cutter-Plier-Set-2-Piece-S2KS5N/206872615

    One cheap tool that you failed to mention is a multimeter. You’ll want one for checking for continuity and shorts, to check circuit voltages, and to check resistors if you’re having trouble reading the bands. The ones that Harbor Freight gives away from time to time, or that you can buy for about $3 at hamfests from hams who diligently collect the giveaways and resell them, are good enough to get you started.

    Once you have done some building with these inexpensive tools, hams will naturally think about what tools to add next. One of the best steps up is a soldering iron or station with closed loop temperature control. It will let you work faster because the tip temperature recovers more quickly, which is a time saver if you build a big kit with a lot of parts. A quality soldering station will also offer a variety of tips, which is good if you want to expand into surface mount building. But a good one will cost in the neighborhood of $100, so get some experience with building and make sure it’s for you before making an investment on that scale.

    That Gerber tool looks really good! I’m thinking about getting one of those to make the centerpiece of my field repair kit; it would reduce the size and bulk a lot compared to carrying a bunch of single-purpose tools. A repair kit can be the difference between a successful day of outdoor operation and one where you come home defeated by a simple equipment failure. Other field essentials: a butane-powered soldering iron (and don’t forget solder!), a pair of flush cutters (see above), a bit of hookup wire, and a cheap multimeter.

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