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When people think of ham radio, they usually think of high-frequency (HF) home radio stations. These are the stations that send messages directly to another radio station somewhere else in the world. We’ve talked about a lot of other types of amateur radio stations on MAKE: handheld radio VHF stations that communicate through repeaters and satellites, portable HF stations for hiking, mobile HF stations on bicycles. But this month, we’re back to basics to show how to set up a traditional HF amateur radio station at home. (Remember, to operate this type of radio, you will need a ham radio license.)



Choosing the right equipment is an important part of setting up your radio shack. Here’s a look at the equipment you will need and recommendations of products that I think work best for a beginner home station.

[A] HF radio
The radio is the core of your station. You will need a transceiver, a radio that can both send (transmit) and receive on the amateur radio bands. A 100 Watt, multi-mode, multi-band radio is a good choice for most operators. Multi-mode means that the radio can be used for different modes such as phone (voice), digital, and CW (Morse code) communications. Multi-band means that the radio works on a wide range of frequencies.

There are many good rigs (radios) out there from which to choose. Two starter rigs that I personally like are the Icom IC-718 and the Yaesu FT-450. The Icom IC-718 gives you the right minimal feature set for around $600 new, $300-$500 used. The only critical feature missing is a narrow filter, which you will need if you do a lot of CW operation. You can pick up an aftermarket 500Hz filter for $115 from The Yaesu FT-450 is a newer design with more features, including a sophisticated adjustable filter, as well as coverage of a couple of extra bands. The street price is around $750. Among new radios, this is an excellent value, but since it’s a new design, few used ones are available.

[B] Power supply
Almost all ham transceivers operate from 13.8V DC power. Wall sockets have 120V AC power which means that your station needs a power supply (just like your laptop). Most 100W rigs consume around 23 Amps at maximum output, so a 25 Amp supply will do. I recommend getting a switch-mode supply rather than a linear, since they’re more efficient. The Astron SS-25 is a good choice at $125. For a little extra money you can get the SS-25M which has voltage and current meters on the front panel.

[C] Accessories
Most radios come with a handheld microphone for voice communication, but no CW key for sending Morse code. If you want to do CW, invest in a decent iambic key, like the Bencher BY-1. It costs about $125 new, $50 used. For PSK31, RTTY, and other digital modes, you will need a TNC to interface the radio with your computer (similar to a modem). I recommend the RigBlaster Plug & Play, for around $120.

The most difficult part of assembling a ham radio station is usually putting up the antenna. Even choosing from among the hundreds of possible designs is hard. As with radios, there are many good options. However, unlike radios, the best antenna for your situation will be largely dependent on the physical constraints of your home. That being said, the design I recommend for most people is a non-resonant wire dipole, fed with ladder line, and matched with an antenna tuner. This configuration is cheap, flexible, forgiving, and it can be very efficient. The antenna equipment and materials suggested below are to build this antenna design. If you are unable to build this design at your home there are many other options you can use.

[D] Dipole antenna
A dipole antenna is made out of a long piece of wire. Wireman 501, or any garden-variety 18 AWG (or larger) stranded insulated wire will work fine. See Step 3 for length.

[E] Balun
A 100W 4:1 balun like the LDG RBA-4:1 will do.

[F] Heat shrink tubing

[G]“Dog bone” Insulators (2 or 3)
Dog bone insulators are a non-conductive way to connect two conductive things.

[H] Tuner
You can choose a fully automatic design, like the LDG Z-11 Pro 2 for around $170, or a less expensive manual design, like the MFJ 901B for about $100.

[I] Coaxial cable (coax)
Either RG-58 or RG-8X. See steps 8 and 9 for length.

[J] Ladder line a.k.a. window line
450 ohm window line, e.g. wireman 552. See Step 7 for length.


Soldering iron
Wire cutters
Wire strippers
Embossing heat tool (for heat shrink)

Tool/materials to anchor your antenna to your supports. These will vary based on what you choose to use as supports. See step 6.


The dipole antenna is installed suspended by two supports in an open area. The dipole antenna connects to your radio by way of an antenna tuner (aka transmatch) and balun (a “bal”anced to “un”balanced transformer). Coax and window line are used as feed line to connect everything together.


Step 1: Understanding a dipole antenna
A dipole antenna is essentially a long piece of wire, split in half (creating two “poles”), and fed with a radio signal at the split point. Dipoles have a natural resonant frequency, which is related to their length, however when used with a tuner, the exact length of the antenna is not that important. Something on the order of 65 feet is ideal for ham use, although anywhere between 30 and 130 feet should be fine, so you can choose a length in this range that fits in your available space.


Step 2: Finding supports for the dipole antenna
There are many different options for where to install your antenna. You can hang it from a tree, between two buildings, suspended above your roof on poles. Outdoors and in the open is better, but in an attic will do.

Ideally, the dipole would be installed horizontally, outdoors, about 65 feet above the ground. But as with length, you can adjust these parameters to fit the constraints of your home and still have a very effective antenna. Try to get the feed point (center) of the antenna as high up as possible, at least 20 or 30 feet above the ground, and away from metal objects. The ends can be inclined up or down from the center, in a “V”, “inverted V”, or “sloper” configuration, and the wire can bend around corners, or hang down in an “inverted U” shape as needed. Trees or buildings can be used as supports, but remember that trees sway in the wind, so you will need to leave enough slack to accommodate the motion, perhaps with a pulley and a weight at one mounting point to keep tension on the line.

WARNING: Do not place the antenna near or above power lines. At some point, your antenna will probably break and fall down, and if it happens to touch a power line, it can electrocute you or anyone else who comes in contact with it or your radio equipment, so don’t take any chances! It should also be kept away from people, especially unwitting passers-by, and animals. Touching the line while someone is transmitting can be dangerous, and the FCC has rules limiting RF exposure for people.

Step 3: Cutting the dipole antenna wire to length
Measure the distance between the supports. Subtract a few feet and cut the dipole antenna wire to that length.


Step 4: Connecting the dipole to the window line
Cut the dipole antenna wire in half at the center and solder the ends to the window line. After stripping the ends of the wire and window line, twist them together before soldering. Protect the connection with heat shrink tubing.

Some setups use an insulator at the feed point of the dipole antenna for extra strength.


Step 5: Connect the dipole to dog bone insulators
Strip away an inch of insulation from each end of the dipole antenna. Cut a 2″ piece of insulation* and slide it 1/2″ toward the end of the wire. Slide a 2″ piece of heat shrink onto the wire. Loop each end of the dipole antenna through a non-conductive “dog bone” insulator then fold the wire back twisting it onto itself. Secure the wire loop by soldering the twisted end. Protect the soldered wire with heat shrink.

*Note the length of your extra piece of insulation may vary depending on the size of your insulator.

Step 6: Suspend the dipole from the supports
Install anchors in the brick at each end. Using a short loop of nylon rope, galvanized steel wire, or antenna wire, connect the other eye of the insulator to the anchors.


Step 7: Connecting the balun
Cut the window line so that you have enough length to reach the window or exterior wall of your shack, making sure that the window line stays several inches away from any metal objects. Strip the ends and connect them to the balun. Connect a piece of coax to the balun and run it into your shack.

Note: You are using window line and coax as feed line. Window line is more efficient than coax, but unlike coax, it needs to be kept several inches away from metal objects, which makes it difficult to use indoors. So your best bet it to use just enough coax to get out the window, and then ladder line the rest of the way to the antenna. Most baluns are waterproof so yours should be happy living outside.

Step 8: Connecting the tuner
The antenna tuner converts the non-resonant dipole into a system that is resonant at the frequency of your choosing. Connect the coax from the balun to the antenna side of the tuner. Connect a piece of coax to the radio side of the tuner.

Step 9: Connecting the radio
Connect the radio the tuner’s coax.

Once you have your station up and running, you may find that your tuner won’t match your antenna on certain bands. This can usually be fixed by adding or removing five or ten feet of ladder line. The only time this may not work is if you are trying to tune a short (e.g. 30 foot) antenna on a low (e.g. 80m or 160m) band.

WARNING: Antennas can attract lightning and static electricity, which can damage your equipment and pose a safety hazard. You can add a surge protector or lightning arrestor to the feed line that will provide some degree of protection. These require you to run a conductor to a ground spike. Another way to protect your equipment from this kind of damage is to disconnect the coax from the tuner when you’re not using it (and, obviously, don’t use the radio during thunderstorms). I recommend doing this even if you have a surge protector.





Fashion + Technology
Diana was a contestant on Project Runway season 2, graduated from RISD, and currently lives in New York City.

  • sergio_101

    thanks for the great article…

    just a quick note.. the radio pictured (elecraft k2) is a great radio, but since you have to build it from parts, it might not be a good beginner radio..

    but it’s great to see that radio on a non ham site..

    if anyone has any questions on how to get started, drop me a line..

    de kb8qpt

  • mpechner

    I’ll start by saying that I only operate portable.

    For the station, I recommend the following: ft-857 (I own), ft-897, ic-7000. These make great first radios and are portable. The ic718 and ft450 are more luggables for portable use. Although I love the K2 being displayed. It is on my list of kits to build.

    I am also glad to see Diana uses Anderson power poles. A good place to see products is here

    For the power supply, another to consider is the Alinco DM-330MV, $170. It is at the high end for a 30W switching power supply. The voltage can be adjust between 5V and 18V. If you have an older radio, there is a birdy knob. And it has the cigar adapter and spring clip power connectors on front as well as the connector on back for the main radio cable. Great little bench supply in a pinch. For size, the gamma in the picture or a Powerworx SS-30DV, $119.

    Where I disagree with Diana is the rigblaster plug and play. It depends on your having a good sound card in your computer. For $100 Tigertronics signallink USB. It has a great sound card and I have used it for psk31, aprs and packet. My rigblaster just sits. It did not like the sound card in my Dell laptop or Asus eee. Plus with the signal link, a soldering iron, a 16pin cpu socket and a Ethernet cable and you can create a new cable for another radio. I have mini din 6 for my ft-857 and ft-8800 and a 4 pin jack for my Yeasu vx-5. The rig blaster requires you buy and entire new unit for each radio.

    For CW, the blue key shown is great. It is from He has great stuff. Including a wonderful altoid sized case for those project that deserve better than the flimsy tin. I do love altoid tins. I have a drawer of them ready for the next project. Plus if you use a CAT cable to connect your radio to the computer, there is plenty of software to decode CW for you.

    I also disagree on Diana’s antenna notes. Length is important. A bad match and the tuner will not be able to match. Or your 100W rig is only effectively putting out a few watts and the tuner is a 90watt room heater. If you are going to play like that. Aim for a specific frequency on the dipole. 20M & 40M work. 20M is about 16.5ft for each half of the dipole. And put it up at least 33ft. Also for this type of antenna, ALWAYS have a Watt/SWR meter to see your effect power out and the reflected power. A good one good for home and portable use is the MFJ-822. It covers from 1.8Mhz up to 200mhz and up to 300W. Depending on the issues, you might clip the ladder line, or you might clip the dipole wire in the trees. Plus for about $100 there are many premade dipoles already almost tuned. If you are making your own find a friend with a antenna analyzer.

    If you do buy a manual tuner, get someone to correctly explain how it functions. The interaction of those 2 or 3 knobs is tricky at first. Plus you will need to manually turn your power to 5W and switch to AM or CW mode and watch the SWR/Watt meter.

    Every ham will have his or hers strong opinion on what defines a decent HF setup.

    Let’s leave it that there are many articles and books on each topic covered in this article. Check your library or the ARRL website at

    Learning what others have done and deciding what is best for you is part of the fun of Amateur Radio.

    • otterson

      I’m still a fan of linear power supplies… They’re heavy, and not too efficient, but they are so simple you can fix them yourself. And there’s no RFI.

      I’m not so sure about that little blue balun, though. That might be fine for low power (5 watts!) under good SWR. I’m thinking a 1:1 balun wound on a 2-inch toroid would have lower loss.

      The antenna Diana is describing is often called a “doublet”. 110 feet is a good starting length and it will get you on 80 meters and up. Consider an insulator in the middle, and a pulley and counterweight on one end. This will make it last a lot longer, especially in the Winter. Wireman has a nice kit “Wireman’s Flat Top” with everything but the pulley and counterweight in it.

      Diana, please consider writing for QST.

      Nice article!

      • Diana Eng

        Good eye! The balun pictured is indeed a QRP (low-power) homebrew one. I also have a 100W LDG RBA-4:1, but it in use at my club station, N2YCR, so I couldn’t photograph it.

    • Diana Eng

      Thank you for sharing your recommendations. I also have an FT-857, but I like to use the lighter FT-817 for portable work these days. The 857 plus battery is a heavy load for me.

      It is a common misconception that dipoles only work well on their resonant frequency. But when cut to a reasonable length, fed properly (i.e. with balanced line), and used with a good quality tuner, a dipole can be a very efficient radiator on a variety of frequencies. I have set up several dipoles like this, of varying lengths. I have had no problems matching or driving them, and their performance has been comparable to resonant antennas. I know many others have had similar experiences as well.

      • mpechner

        Do you use a power/swr meter?
        Considering most LDG tuners will handle 10:1 SWR mismatch, that allows a lot of leeway. But just because you can match impedance, does not mean most of the power isn’t being absorbed by the tuner.

        I like to put the swr meter on the antenna side of the tuner to see how bad the mismatch is. If I know I am putting out 60W from the radio and the swr meter only shows 10W. I call it a bad mismatch.

        What is your home setup?
        What is your antenna?
        What does an antenna analyzer say the resonant frequency is?
        What bands do you operate?

        Antenna’s are like economics. There are some basic rules. Everyone has an opinion or a theory. Every once in a while you are right.

        • Dave Clausen

          Measuring loss in an antenna tuner is a complicated process. The authoritative source on this subject is Steve Witt, AI1H. He wrote a series of articles for QST years ago titled “How to evaluate your antenna tuner”, and has written some follow-ups since then. If you are a member of the ARRL, you can find the articles in the QST archives section of their website. The process does involve an SWR meter, but it’s not as simple as just taking a direct reading at the antenna port.

          The ARRL lab uses Steve’s technique when evaluating tuners for the product reviews in QST. They measure loss on bands from 160m through 10m, with antenna impedances ranging from 3 to 800 ohms (SWR up to 16:1). I’m looking at a 2004 roundup review of four 100W tuners at the moment (sadly also restricted to ARRL member eyes only), and all of the units have losses of less than 10% in most cases. This amount of loss is completely negligible in terms of real-world performance. Only when pushed to the limits of their capabilities do you see losses in the 20-40% range. Even that is quite impressive when you consider what they’re doing, for example taking a dipole cut for 40m and letting you use it on the 160m band.

          So if you want to go outside and trim your dipole to get the last 10% out of it, great. Ham radio is all about experimenting and having fun doing what you like. But if you just want to get on the air, personally I wouldn’t worry too much about losses in the tuner. Hit the “tune” button (or better yet, twist the knobs yourself), and if it matches, go for it.

  • Michael Black

    When I was a kid and first got my ham license in 1972, it was still called the “Amateur Experimental Service” here in Canada. I had little interest in operating, it was the building that pulled me in. You can actually build and experiment with transmitters, something terribly limited without a license, and amateur radio is the only radio service that allows for building and experimenting of transmitting equipment.

    I can’t for the life of me figure out why you keep running these posts about amateur radio when they are all about buying commercial equipment, and operating. The one point where amateur radio and
    “Make” intersects is in building, yet you treat the hobby like it’s all about operating commercial equ9ipment, with maybe a bit of
    chance to “build” minor things like antennas and gadgets.

    This isn’t about whether or not amateur radio has become
    a hobby of consumers, it’s about a magazine that’s supposed to be about building, and yet it ignores that part of amateur radio.
    There is no intersection point unless you deal with amateur radio as experimental and a hobby of builders. To deal with the operating side of amateur radio here, you might as well have
    posts about how to drive a car, or reviews of those cars. A little incidental building is on par with putting your own radio in the car, while amateur radio lets you build the “whole car” and at one point it was pretty normal for the beginner to build at least some of their ham station.

    Amateur radio predates the dawn of licensing. When radio began, it was a laboratory parlor trick, it took people willing to experiment to take it out of the labs and to find applications for it. A lot of those people were amateur in that they had no background in the field. They played with radio because it was new and novel, and helped to develop it. It was only when some started using radio for “practical” purposes, ship to shore radio especially in emergencies for instance, that governments felt there was a need
    to regulate. The problem was made worse because nobody knew much, so they all thought the only frequencies useful were below about where the AM broadcast band begins today, which left very little frequency spectrum and all the transmitters were pretty wide.

    So rules came in, and it was decided that a place to play with technology was useful, so amateur radio became a formal radio service.

    You can’t talk about the technological side of amateur radio without mentioning Howard Armstrong, who was a ham but also invented the three most important forms of receivers, regenerative (which incidentally showed the ability to use tubes for transmitting), superheterodyne (which is still used in virtually all receivers today) and superregenerative (which was a variant of the regenerative receiver and overcome some of its problems, but
    added some others, it had less of a lasting effect but had importance for some years). He had all three receivers in place by 1922. His practical work on wideband FM came later.

    Amateurs were relegated to “useless” frequencies, and proved they were useful, which meant a whole lot more spectrum came into use.
    Yes, that was about operating, but you had to build your own equipment since there was little commercial ham equipment at the time, and you had to be somewhat capable to have a good enough station to span the Atlantic in December of 1921.

    Forty years later, it wasn’t operators that build the first amateur
    radio satellite, it was builders. They proved not only the value of smaller satellites and showed that non-goverment and non-military could build them, but it hitching a ride on an existing flight, showed the notion that a rocket could be used to launch multiple satellites. Back then, the difficulty in getting a launch was in getting people to see the value, now, it becomes hard to get a launch because all kinds of satellit4s need a launch.

    Amateur radio is the birthplace of radio controlled vehicles. Because the license allowed building and experimentation, and was fairly open ended, it allowed someone to say “hey, why don’t we build a model plane, and control it from the ground”. You didn’t need permission, you didn’t need a special license, you got that when you passed the test and got your ham license.

    For a long time, if you wanted to do remote control you had to get a ham license, it was only later that licenses were issued for the hobby of radio control, and of course then it was just an “0perating permit” you couldn’t build transmitters.

    Amateur radio has bad better magazines than “Make” when it came to building, far more technical articles and an expectation that the reader knows what’s going on or is willing to learn. A great big history of making do, so you’d better explain in the articles what’s what so the reader can use what they have or can get, rather than being forced to follow the instructions exactly because they are merely building what amounts to a kit, follow the instructions and don’t fall off the path.

    Another interesting thing about amateur radio was that it was never popular. It was a “fringe” element. You had to pass a test because you were being given tremendous potential, no other radio service allows such open-ended sets of rules. You felt you were somewhere because you’d passed the test and even if you were 12 years old most would welcome you on that basis. You could enter the world of adults before you were an adult, no special exceptions made.

    Michael VE2BVW

    • Diana Eng

      Amateur radio is many things to many people. One of my goals in writing these articles for Make Magazine is to introduce new people to amateur radio. We are not a technical magazine like QEX. Like many of the readers of Make Magazine, I do not have a technical engineering background (I am a fashion designer). But I feel like amateur radio is a great hobby that inspires me to explore electronics and learn about radio waves. I hope that my readers will be inspired to do the same.

      I do show how to build projects like making a collapsible fabric Yagi antenna, making a multiband EFHWA, and making a light bulb detector to “see” radio waves. A lot of my articles are QRP related since many of the operators make their own gear. But for many people just operating can be a challenge (especially when it comes to working satellites). My tutorials have all of the things I wish I knew when I was getting started. And I feel like operating a radio is a DIY activity, otherwise you would just use your cell phone or the internet.

      • mpechner

        I agree. Make is about generating interest. Almost all the articles are more for getting you off the couch and into the workshop. Something as simple as a bristle bot or a led throwie is a real jumping point for what can be done to those simple projects.

        Even if you start with all commercial gear, you get to move to home brew and kits if you like.

        Some people have the commercial radio. But, their antenna farm becomes all things they build.

        In the picture of the equipment Diana shows, she has a home made baluun and the Elecraft K2. The Elecraft K2 is is great radio that is a really intense through hole kit to build. The K2 is for those who really want to say they built their radio. For the price of a totally maxed out K2, you can buy a top end all mode all band mobile like the Icom ic-7000.

        I have built 2 swr meters, multiple frequency cpounters, rf meter, lc meter, psk31 transceiver, psk31 modem.

        I even just finished my first design. An APRS terminal using an arduino and a argent data open tracker.

        So even inf people start with commcial, many do build some part of their gear from kit or scratch at some point.

    • otterson

      **Edwin** Armstrong! Not Howard Armstrong. Edwin Armstrong was a radio pioneer, and a ham — in the pre-FCC days… He also had a 2 call (like Diana does) as W2XMN, but that was for early FM broadcasting, not amateur.

      Howard Armstrong was a musician.

    • Phillip Torrone

      @ Michael VE2BVW – i think you added a lot of valuable historic information and personal stories, but the overall tone reminds me of many of the things i have seen/heard first hand in the ham community that don’t support or encourage anyone from getting interested in ham any more.

      these are *great* articles and i’ve personally met more people who wanted to get interested in ham specifically because of the articles and diana’s work.

      since you have a lot of information and specific things you’d like to see, write up an article and send it to us at make – this is likely one of the few places with this many eyeballs that will run articles about ham topics, send it on in!

  • Shadyman

    Great article :)

    RE: Switching-mode power supply… A desktop power supply will not work. They have way too much electrical noise, and trying to draw more power than it can supply is likely to hurt your radio. (they’re also 12V instead of 13.8)

  • sergio_101

    it might be a cool idea to have an article on building a small single band qrp radio.. it can run on an old UPS battery, and lots of clubs sell kits super cheap..

    that would be a good, cheap, maker way to get into it..

    de kb8qpt

    • Diana Eng

      I am planning to do this for an article that is coming up soon. Stay tuned!

  • StanZ

    Great article, but there is one little nit. The Rigblaster and similar hardware are not TNCs. Inexpensive sound card interface hardware has replaced the expensive TNC for digital interface.

    Also, I concur with the previous remarks about the size of the dipole. It is important to cut the dipole to the size of the band being used. Otherwise, why not just use the old-fashioned, end-fed longwire antenna and hope your tuner can tune it.

  • 9w2pju

    do we need the 4:1 balun for this g5rv antenna ?
    the ladder line should be lay vertically or not ?

  • Jean

    To Michael VE2BVW;

    How in the world do you want people to make their own equipment if there are less and less electronic stores? I now go to Addison here in Montreal and have trouble finding a replacement transistor?

    Back in the 70 there were many places where you could get an electronic piece like a transistor by going to your local Radio Shack. You also might consider the fact that electronics nowadays is pretty much Integrated. Yes, you can still build stuff but much of it is prefabricated modular designs in which you petty much plug things in.

    Get a grip OM; times have changed and unfortunately yes, we live in an Instant gratification society.

    I hear your pain and I still long to those long hours of pleasure we had trying to figure out why the 6KD6 failed to bias properly.

    Nevertheless In today’s world we should be happy that some of the kids at least take the time to be curious enough to dwelve into Ham Radio. Even if it is just to set up a “commercially made station”.

    Maybe, unlike us “old farts” this is the entry point into which they might become more curious about learning what is going on inside their radios and asking us to explain to them our knowledge.

    Times have changed and yes, as someone has suggested, instead of bashing on this YL’s contribution, you might start your own articles on building stuff. Then, maybe then, someone might actually build something!

    73 and take care.

  • Les

    I am planning on getting the FT 450D, hoping the internal antenna tuner will work with whatever I can get by with for a stealthy antenna. I was considering my gutter, just feeding a wire from it (like an end-fed dipole) to the radio and grounding to a pipe radiator.
    Another option is a tall tree I have a monofiliment in; but doing a sloping dipole (center fed with ladder line?) will be tough since it gets within 10 feet of the gutter.
    Wondered your thoughts on this; seems like your site is the most understandable to me.

  • Patrick

    Fantastic Help

  • Allen Cole

    Diana, please keep writing about your adventures with antennas in particular. As a city dweller, you face the same problems as so many of us do, particularly with antenna restrictions. Your fabric yagi was in inspiration. I look forward to seeing more of what your ingenuity produces. 73/Allen (N4JRI)

  • Kirk

    Girl you ROCK! Loved the article and even though this is just a scratch on the surface I am glad to see you do it. Lets hope it makes a whole bunch of young people get itchy about amateur radio. We need to invigorate a younger crowd so amateur radio does not go the way of the dinosaur.

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