Building a Radio with Surface-Mount Components

I recently finished putting together a wonderful little ham radio transceiver from a kit. If you’re imagining a desktop-size Heathkit, think again. This was the latest creation from Steve Weber, KD1JV, who is the guru of a small but fanatically devoted cult of low-power radio enthusiasts. For several years, Steve has been designing some of the best ultra-portable ham transceivers on the market, then releasing limited-edition kits to his followers. These kits generally sell out in a matter of hours when Steve announces them on the group’s mailing list, and I’ve coveted one for quite awhile. Each iteration of the design has added a few more features.

This summer I finally got into the order queue early enough, and a couple of days later a disturbingly small box arrived in the mail. It allegedly contained everything required to build a highly capable HF transceiver covering three amateur radio frequency bands for CW (Morse code) operation. The way Steve packs so much into such a tiny space is to use surface-mount electronic components.

Tiny surface-mount parts are now standard in most of the electronics industry, but they’re designed to be placed and soldered by robots. In the surface-mount world, a 16-pin integrated circuit is no bigger than a peppercorn, and capacitors and resistors are the size of sand grains. Most electronic kit makers have shied away from these components because they believe hobbyists aren’t capable of handling such small parts. Steve and his followers disagree.

Armed with a syringe of solder paste from Cash Olsen, a very nice hot air soldering station, and an Optivisor head-mounted magnifier, I followed the very thorough instructions and was rewarded with a working radio, eventually. The kit itself is brilliantly designed, and Steve’s support for bumbling amateurs like me is astounding.

For an accelerated view of what it’s like to build a complex device from surface-mount components, here’s a time-lapse video of the project:

MTRV2Assembly from Alan Dove on Vimeo.

Once it was built, I discovered that this palm-sized radio is astonishingly good. Signals pop out of the noise with a clear tone, the built-in CW keyer is very easy to program, and a 9-volt battery provides ample power for a few hours of 5-watt operation. There’s no other radio that comes close to the MTR’s combination of portability and capability.

Though anyone will soon be able to order a completely built MTR V2 off the shelf, the experience of building one was great. Now I hope more kit makers start offering surface-mount kits, as I’ve come to prefer working with these components.