Three Transistor Short Wave Radio





Introduction: Three Transistor Short Wave Radio

The 60's and 70's were the golden age of electronic kit building. The novice had a great many educational kits to choose from that taught basic skills and electronics theory while assembling a device that could do something useful or entertaining. An advanced builder could use "sweat equity" to inexpensively obtain popular electronic products like HiFi stereo systems, color televisions, CB radios, and automotive test equipment.

Today there are still quite a few electronics kits available for education purposes, but rapidly evolving features and shrinking components ended the consumer electronics kit business. I would have loved to have assembled some of the products that were popular in the 70's, but unfortunately most of the companies that made all those wonderful kits were gone when I began my career. In honor of a great set of educational Radio Shack electronics project kits available during the 60's and 70's, I've redesigned the original Science Fair brand Three Transistor Shortwave Radio (Catalog #28-110) using modern components still available from electronics component re-sellers in the US. All of the components in the updated kit can be found on Amazon. There were many things Radio Shack did extremely well during its prime. For the nostalgic or the enthusiast who would like to build an updated version of this classic radio I've included schematics, parts information, assembly documentation, and pictures of a completed and tested Three Transistor Short Wave Radio based on the original from 1968.

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Step 1: Obtain the Assembly Manual

The Three Transistor Short Wave Radio project described here is based on the Radio Shack pbox kit of the same name, but it has been updated with silicon transistors and passive components and controls that can be obtained from electronics suppliers on Amazon. I've built the updated radio kit described here and believe it works just as well as the original kit did back in 1968. To make it easy to replicate my work, I've provided illustrations and step-by-step assembly documentation based on the original assembly manual from Radio Shack.

To build the radio, you will need the revised assembly manual available here.

I've kept the original branding and publishing style of the Science Fair Three Transistor Shortwave Radio in order to preserve the original look and feel of the documentation set for the builder. But every page has been updated to reflect the changes I've made in order to incorporate modern and available parts.

Step 2: Obtain Components Listed in the Assembly Manual Parts List

Review the parts list and obtain the components indicated. Everything but a few pieces of hardware are available on Amazon or can be obtained directly from the suppliers indicated at the bottom of the parts list.

Below are a few notes regarding the parts used for the radio:

  1. The transistors for the radio can be purchased from Amazon or Radio Shack (assuming they are still in business in your area). I highly recommend the excellent Joe Knows Electronics semiconductor kit. It includes the transistors you need for this radio project and over 150 different types of transistors and diodes for just $22. And it includes a set of documents that are really good reading for the beginner. Check out You will not be sorry.
  2. The resistors for the radio can be purchased from Amazon or Radio Shack. Radio Shack has a good selection of 1/4W resistors in a big 500 piece bundle for about $15.00 if you have a store nearby. Joe Knows Electronics also has a nice 800 piece package of 1% resistors for $12.00 if you don't mind ordering online. Joe's is a really good and well organized kit even if 1% resistors are a bit of tolerance overkill for this radio project.
  3. I strongly recommend ordering NP0 ceramic disk capacitors from Mouser or Digikey as they will far outperform most anything you can get on Amazon. The Joe Knows Electronics capacitor kit is an extremely good buy for every other capacitor at 645 pieces for $13.00. Don't bother with Radio Shack for capacitor kits as they are mostly junk values you will never use.
  4. I purchased several crystal earphones from AmplifiedParts on Amazon and they work great despite the poor reviews. Whatever quality problem they had in the past seems to have been ironed out. The crystal earphone comes with a 1/8" mono phone plug so I added a 1/8" mono phone jack from Radio Shack. The phone jack is also available from various sellers on Amazon.
  5. The variable capacitor (and a lot of other rather old and interesting parts) can be found at Uxcell (via Amazon) which seems an unlikely domain for radio stuff but they do have a lot of radio stuff that's interesting. I've created a diagram of the variable capacitor here that will help you figure out how to wire it in the radio.
  6. The case for the radio I built is a Hammond 1591GSBK ABS Project Box from with a piece of vector breadboard cut to fit on the top and spray painted with high temperature automotive flat red. I like the look of red on black, and the red color of the breadboard matched the red color of the original pbox kit. It's completely up to you how you want to house and color the kit you build.
  7. The knobs I used are Radio Shack knobs I've had in inventory for decades. Use anything you think is cool that will fit on the pot/varicap shafts.
  8. You will need to be creative on how you mount the variable capacitor on the vector board. I used a piece of 1/32" sheet metal cut to size with a Dremel tool grinding wheel and then drilled the holes to mount the variable capacitor with a power drill. Then I bent the end of it 90 degrees to form an L shape.
  9. You will need to be creative on how you mount the tuning knob to the variable capacitor. The shaft on the varicap is only about 1/4" long so you will need something to extend it. I found a plastic cylinder with a hole drilled through it that was about 1" long at my local Ace Hardware store. They have a really nice selection of odd hardware that is very useful.
  10. The 2-position barrier strips are available from Amazon or from Radio Shack in a pack of four. These are a great value at the price so if your local Radio Shack hasn't yet been turned into a Sprint cell phone shop you should definitely buy all of the packs on the peg. I know I did.

Please Note: I have no business relationship with any of the above vendors. Nothing of financial value was exchanged for my recommendation. None of the above vendors provided compensation of any kind during the creation of this project. I will not be compensated in any way if you choose to build this project or purchase components from any vendor I recommend. I simply had a good experience with the vendors I recommend and believe you will too.

Step 3: Review the Schematic to Become Familiar With the Radio Design

The Three Transistor Short Wave Radio is composed of 4 major building blocks:

  1. Tuner - Selects a station from the band of frequencies the radio can receive.
  2. RF Amplifier - Amplifies the audio modulated carrier selected by the Tuner.
  3. AM Detector - Strips off the RF carrier leaving the original audio signal intact.
  4. AF Amplifier - Amplifies the audio signal so it can be heard on the earphone.

Variable capacitor C5 and tuning coil L1 comprise the Tuning section. L1 is a fixed inductor wound according to the Assembly Manual for the frequency band of interest. Stations are selected by rotating the variable capacitor.

The RF Amplifier/AM Detector section is actually a Colpitts Oscillator with an added variable resistor R2 that serves as the regeneration control. Resistors R1 and R4 provide base voltage to Q1 so that it's collector is fixed at approximately 3V. This collector voltage was chosen so that the RF Amplifier/AM Detector will continue to operate properly as the 9V battery reaches the end of it's life. The large values of R1 and R4, and the bootstrap bias configuration they are connected in, were chosen so that the RF Amplifier/AM Detector will have a high input impedance which improves the selectivity and sensitivity of the radio. Capacitors C1 and C6 were included to bypass RF around resistors R1 and R5 respectively which improves the gain of the RF Amplifier circuit. The collector output of Q1 is fed back to the emitter of Q1 through capacitors C2 and C3. Normally this positive feedback would cause the RF Amplifier/AM Detector to continuously oscillate. However the regeneration control provides an adjustable amount of negative feedback at the emitter of Q1 that counteracts the positive feedback. By carefully adjusting the amount of negative feedback on the emitter of Q1, the circuit can be made to provide extremely high gain just before oscillation occurs, and at the same time remove most of the RF Carrier signal and the unwanted image of the audio signal. This behavior is the reason the regenerative radio works so well.

The AF Amplifier is a simple two-stage direct coupled Common Emitter amplifier for driving the crystal earphone. Transistor Q2 provides a gain of approximately 5 and together with R10 and C9 performs additional filtering of the carrier signal. Transistor Q3 provides a gain of approximately 100 (the transistor current gain at .5mA). Capacitor C11 is provided to bypass audio frequencies around resistor R12 and improve the gain of Q3. Together, Q2 and Q3 provide an additional gain of approximately 500 after the RF amplifier. The value of R12 was chosen so that the collector voltage of Q3 would be set at approximately 1/2 battery voltage which ensures that the Detector and AF Amplifier will continue to operate properly as the 9V battery reaches the end of it's life. Capacitor C7 and resistor R6 are wired together as a simple RC Low Pass Filter to prevent RF noise at the RF amplifier from bleeding into the AF amplifier via the battery connections.

Step 4: Review the Circuit Board Layout

The Assembly Manual provides a step-by-step checklist for installing and soldering each component to the vector board. As you can see from the opposite side illustration of the vector board, I've used point-to-point wiring with 20 AWG solid hookup wire. Most of the connections can be made with just the component leads. But power, ground, and signal bus leads are best done with lengths of hookup wire. Parasitic capacitance isn't much of an issue for the frequencies this radio will operate at and I've already compensated for most of these in the redesign. When built, the radio is free of unwanted oscillation or noise.

When it comes to wiring, try to be as neat as I've indicated in the assembly manual. You don't have to be the world's best soldering artist but there's no good reason to do the work half-way. Go all out and make your radio look as good as you can.

Step 5: Follow the Steps in the Assembly Manual to Complete the Radio

Before you begin:

Cut the vector board to closely fit inside the top of the Hammond project box. Measure the lengths needed and try to line up the edges along a row of holes if possible. With an Xacto knife, score a line into the vector board deep enough that it can easily be felt with a fingernail. Then carefully break the board apart along the score line.

Using an Xacto knife or low speed power drill, cut the holes for the Hammond mounting screws to line up with the mounting holes in the Hammond project box.

Using an Xacto knife or low speed power drill, cut the holes for the variable capacitor mounting bracket.

Using an Xacto knife or low speed power drill with a reaming bit, cut the holes for the potentiometers R2 and R7, and the hole for the phone jack.

If desired, spray paint the top of the vector board in flat red. Or any other color you wish. The natural vector board finish also looks nice.

After the paint has cured, follow the step-by-step instructions in the assembly manual.

Step 6: Assembly Photos - Mounting the Terminal Strips

After Assembly Step 3, the radio should look something like the photo above.

Step 7: Assembly Photos - Mounting the Radio Controls

After assembly steps 4-6 the radio should look something like the photos above.

Step 8: Assembly Photos - AF Section Completed

After assembly step 35 the radio will look something like the photo above.

Step 9: Assembly Photos - RF Section Completed

After assembly step 49 the radio will look something like the photos above.

Step 10: Assembly Photos - the Completed Three Transistor Short Wave Radio

The L1 coil winding chart explains how many turns of 20AWG insulated wire to use for the frequency band of interest. The terminal strips make it easy to swap the coils as needed during a listening session.

Any radio is only as good as it's antenna and the environment it is in. In my area, everyone has a wireless router, several cell phones, LCD TV's, and many other devices that make lots of electronic noise. A good antenna as described in the Assembly Manual is essential for getting the best performance from this radio project.

After building the radio I've successfully received WWV on 5, 10, 15, and 20 Mhz with good copy. I've picked up all the well-known short wave KW transmitters from around the globe. And I've picked up SSB on 7Mhz and 14Mhz. SSB can be received but the detector is not designed to clearly demodulate it. But if you thought the Probe Droid from Star Wars sounded cool, definitely tune into SSB with this radio.

I'm extremely happy with how the 3 Transistor Short Wave Radio looks and how well it pulls in distant stations

I hope you have as much fun working on this project as I did. Good luck and good listening!

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Please be positive and constructive.




Kit of VHM and AM radio just ordered.


Here is image of it in action with 9 volts not 3 volts!


Very interesting. A small IC like a single OP amp can amplify sound more effectuvely than 3 transistors. In fact IC radio with three transistors in it works like that.

I've received a few requests to see if it's possible to resurrect the old Science Fair Globe Patrol 4-Band BC/SW radio, an example of which can be found at the URL below:

I've determined that it is feasible to construct a receiver using a similar RF design but with the following changes:

1. The tuning section will use different component values in order to make use of the same variable capacitor specified in the Three Transistor Short Wave Radio.

2. The band spread capacitor will be replaced with a 1N4001 diode tuning capacitor. I could not find a volume reseller for the 12pF band spread variable capacitor.

3. The RF transformers are no longer available from any source so I've redesigned these using hand-wound toroid core inductors and 30AWG magnet wire. These aren't all that fun to wind by hand but they work really well.

I really don't like the transformer coupled audio amplifier in the old design. I think it's inefficient and just not all that good. But it is possible to replicate it with transformers still available. I could redesign the AF stage with a direct coupled transistor amplifier. Or just use the well-known LM386 with a gain of 200. If anyone has a strong opinion on that, let me know.

I've constructed and tested a rough prototype for the broadcast band which seems to work well. It tunes 550Khz through 1.6Mhz. The diode "varactor" band spread seems to work really well for tuning above and below the center frequency. It's range is currently +/- 45Khz at 1Mhz. A photo of the prototype is shown below.

When I get the design into a state in which someone else can build it, I'll publish an article on it.


Nice project. I remember getting a Radio Shack kit when I was young and found myself years later wishing I knew what happened to it. I'm pretty sure I was picking up air traffic control communications at the time. I recently tried to make a shortwave/VHF radio following instructions from a Youtube video, but I haven't been able to get it to work. Not sure what I did wrong but the instructions were not very clear. I would love to try your design, but can you tell me if it would work with powered speakers instead of the crystal headset, or would that feed back power into the circuit? How could I prevent that? I like the idea in the other design of using a 9v battery in order to be able to use regular headphones or plug into a computer to make recordings. Thanks for any suggestions!


The output of the 3 Transistor SW Radio is designed to drive a high impedance crystal earphone, but it is possible to attach an external amplifier to drive a speaker. As long as the external amplifier input impedance is around 20K Ohms, there should be no problem driving a speaker or set of dynamic headphones.

If you would like to build your own amplifier, download the LM386 IC data sheet from TI at:

Construct the "Amplifier with Gain = 20" on Page 6 excluding the 10K volume control. Attach Pin 3 of the LM386 to the earphone output connected to Q3 and the amplifier ground to the earphone ground. The amplifier can be powered from the same 9V battery used to power the radio.

The input impedance of the LM386 is 50K Ohm which is perfect for the output of the radio.

Thanks for the kind comments and I'm glad you liked the article.

Let me know how things go for you should you decide to build the radio.

Thanks again!


Thanks for the reply and advice. I'm currently collecting the parts list from Mouser. It's been a bit of work narrowing each part down to the right specs from the thousands of results you get from each part search, but I'm fairly confident in my choices up until the Mylar Capacitor. They seem to be calling it by a different name. Will this one work?:

Also, I'm assuming the voltage rating on the capacitors and resistors is not so critical. Am I correct in that assumption? I'm finding parts ranging from 1kV to 500V. I'm trying to stay at the smaller end, and away from AC ratings. Is that good enough? Thank you again sir.


You are absolutely correct that voltage ratings in this project are not critical. For capacitors in general, lower voltage means smaller size. A 50V rating with 5% or 10% tolerance Polyester Film (Mouser 647-QYX1H104JTP) will work just fine. I should probably have used the correct name for the capacitor dielectric material. Mistake on my part I think.

In this project the voltages are very low so anything above 15V will last.

Most common coupling capacitors today start at around 50V and go up from there. I find that the 50V variety are pretty cheap and are small enough to fit the layout.

Aluminum electrolytic filter capacitors, however, can be rated all the way down to 4V which are typically only used for 3V power in digital circuits. Electrolytics with 16V, 25V or 50V ratings will work just fine.

Resistors can be 1/4W or 1/2W and are large enough to easily work with on a breadboard. Current consumption is very low so even 1/8W will work but those are tiny and their leads are fragile.


Thanks again for the info. Sorry to keep bugging you, but I now have everything sitting in the cart on Mouser except for the 140pF Variable Capacitor. I'm not clear on if I need to find something labeled exactly 140pF (which Mouser doesn't have) or if I can get anything that has 140 in the range? For example: 10pF to 150pF, or 12pF to 180pF. Once I get that out of the way I'll be ordering and starting the build as soon as everything is shipped. Thanks so much for all your help!


Not bugging me at all. Glad to be of some small assistance to you.

I would recommend the variable capacitor from Uxcell ( available from their web site or on Amazon. Last time I checked neither Mouser or Digikey carried these.

The Uxcell part number is a13091000ux0626. It's $6 for two plus shipping. I've ordered quite a few items from Uxcell and their shipping is very quick for items in stock. Items they have to order internationally take longer. The variable capacitors I ordered took only a few days. The only challenge is extending the capacitor shaft so that a suitable knob can be attached. I usually look for something in the junk box that can be made to work.

The description states 20pF - 126pF but in my measurements the capacitance is a little higher than published and there is a trimmer on the back that can be used to increase capacitance by 10pF. I didn't have to use the trimmer. It worked great out of the box.