Introduction: KE0OJE'S Ham Radio Go Box
I'm a relatively new Amateur Radio operator, licensed in Sept. 2017, and have recently gotten involved in my county's ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) group. For that purpose, I was looking for an all in one kit that I could just grab on my way out of the house for any emcomm or portable amateur radio situation.
I looked at several different ideas on YouTube, and found one that I really liked the looks of, it's titled "Emcomm/portable dual band ham pack" by user SechoDB.
This kit really interested me because of its size and the protection it offered to the equipment. It's very sturdy, compact, lightweight and waterproof. But I wanted more talk time than the 7.5 Amp hour battery in that kit.
I put a kit together using the same case, a Nanuk 905, that was used in that video but with a 12 Amp hour battery. It worked very well, and I was happy with it. I even made my own video to show it off!:
Then I decided I wanted to add the ability to charge my battery with a solar panel. The problem was, with this compact case I didn't have room left for any additions. So back to the drawing board I went!
Leixen VV-898e Dual Band Radio
UB12120 Sealed Lead Acid Battery
BatPac M4 battery topper from Hardened Power Systems
Anderson Powerpole Pod Mount
UHF Adapter Female SO239 Bulkhead Panel Mount
30 Amp unassembled Anderson Powerpole Connectors
AL-800 10W Telescoping dual Band Radio Antenna
UHF PL259 Male Solder Coax Connectors
Right Angle Coax Connector
Anderson Powerpole Ratcheting Crimper for 15/30/45 Amp Connectors
Apache 2800 Waterproof case from Harbor Freight
1/8" plexiglass cut to fit the inside of the case
RG8U Micro Coax (approximately 1 foot)
10 AWG Red and Black hook up wire (approximately 2 feet of each)
ALLPOWERS 20 Amp Solar Charge Controller
Dokio 80Watts 12 Volts Monocrystalline foldable Solar Panel
Square edge for making everything nice and square during layout
Paper or card stock for making template
1/8" craft plywood for template
1/2", 3/4', and 1 1/4' Drill bits
I used a router table to cut my plexiglass panel after I got my template just right, but if you don't have this available, you can skip the template step and use the process directly on your plexiglass.
Step 1: Chose Case
Choose a case that has plenty of room to fit all the equipment you plan to install. Pay particular attention to the height (or depth, depending on how you look at it) of the case, and choose one that will fit the battery and radio you're planning to use. I can't stress enough how important it is to measure everything, and allow an extra 1/4" to all your dimensions just to make sure you have enough room. You don't want to put any undue pressure on anything by having to force it in an area that doesn't quite have enough space for it. This will shorten the lifespan of any wiring you've kinked, or even eventually crack your plexiglass panel because there's too much pressure being exerted on it.
I chose an Apache 2800 from Harbor Freight because it's sturdy, light weight, and waterproof. It's also much cheaper than any other case I could find with these features.
Step 2: Choose Your Layout
Decide how you want all your equipment to sit within your case. Take as much time with this step as necessary to really get things where you want them. At this point, it's only paper and time that you're using, so make sure you lay it out the way it works best for you to avoid potentially costly do-overs at a later time.
The equipment I needed to find room for on my plexiglass panel includes:
Leixen VV-898e dual band radio. It's incredibly tiny, but has 3 power settings (5, 10 & 25 watts), and I've gotten very good signal reports using it.
UB12120, 12 volt/12 Amp hour battery.
BatPac M4. Battery topper from Hardened Power Systems. This handy little thing offers a nice volt meter and two usb outputs, in addition to a fused port to connect to your radio and an unfused port to charge the battery with.
Anderson Powerpole Pod Mount.
UHF Adapter Female SO239 Bulkhead Panel Mount.
I also wanted a storage space for my solar charge controller to drop into when the lid is closed, as well as to house any jumper cables or other items I might want to carry with me.
I chose to center my battery in the back of the case to help distribute the weight. I'm right handed, so it made sense to place my storage area on the right side of the case where it would be easier to access. That left the area on the left side available for the radio.
There's other equipment/pieces needed to complete the kit, but these are the items you need to allow for when choosing a layout for the next step.
Step 3: Make a Template for Your Plexiglass Panel
I like my "stuff" to look professional. For this project, that includes the use of a plexiglass panel that houses all my equipment. Some people just remove pieces of the foam that comes with the case, and wedge their equipment inside. That's fine for anything that doesn't generate heat, but radio equipment generates heat.....sometimes a lot of it!
For the best performance, I prefer to leave all the foam out of the case, that allows for maximum airflow to the radio. If you make your template properly, all the equipment fits into the plexiglass perfectly and very snugly, so the foam isn't necessary.
To make my permanent template, I transfer my paper template onto the craft plywood with a pencil, then cut it out with a combination of a tablesaw and bandsaw, but all this can be done with a jigsaw, or even a handsaw.
When cutting the shape of the template into the wood, make sure to cut on the outside of your layout lines. (If you're cutting outside the template, cut on the outside of the line). Then carefully sand down to the line, while periodically checking to see if it fits in the case. You don't want to take too much material off because there's only a very small "lip" available to screw the plexiglass into the case for permanent mounting. If you take off too much wood, you won't be able to secure your plexiglass panel.
To cut out the areas for your equipment, first drill 1/2" holes (I used what's called a Forstner bit, which leaves a perfectly shaped hole, that's square to the face of the plywood) in each corner of the radio, battery, and storage areas. If you're really careful, you can make these holes line up perfectly with your layout lines, but I'm usually not that good! After you've drilled the holes, take your saw and "connect the dots", remembering to cut on the inside of your layout line. (If you're cutting inside the template, cut on the inside of the lines). After all your holes are cut out, you then sand them flush to your layout lines.
This can be a tedious process, but it's well worth the effort when you have a finished product and people ask, "Where'd you buy that?"! To me, the effort you put into this part makes the entire project, so I'm willing to spend the extra time and effort (and frustration sometimes!), to get it right.
While sanding, periodically check the fit of your equipment. Don't rely solely on your layout lines, because things sometimes get messed up during the transfer from the paper template to the plywood template. Sand a little, then check the fit of that piece of equipment. That way you can see exactly what area needs more work, and what area is good.
If you aren't using a router to make your plexiglass panel, you don't need to make a template. Just use these steps on your plexiglass instead of on a piece of plywood.
Step 4: Cutting Your Plexiglass Panel
If you're not using a router, there's no reason to create a template first. Just follow the exact steps listed for the template but use your plexiglass panel instead. Since I have a router table available, I like to make a template first, because I can make little adjustments prior to cutting into my shiny, expensive plexiglass, but it isn't necessary by any means. The other advantage is, I've had a few requests to make plexiglass panels for fellow ham operators, and since I have a template already made, it's a much simpler and quicker process.
I like to attach my template to my plexiglass with double sided tape. This way I'm sure the template isn't going to shift during the entire process. First, I attach the template, then I cut the plexiglass out slightly larger than the template. Then, I drill the corners of all the inside cuts, exactly as described in the previous section for cutting the template. The only difference here is you need to be VERY careful not to drill into your template. It's your "master" copy and you don't want to mess it up at all. After drilling your corner holes, simply "connect the dots" with your jigsaw, scrollsaw or handsaw, just as you did with the template Please pay close attention and don't cut into your template!
At this point, it's time to head to the router table. I use a top mounted bearing guided flush cut bit, which means my template needs to be on the top of my plexiglass. The bearing rides along the template, and the bit cuts exactly where the bearing goes. This is why it's so important not to cut or drill into your template in the previous steps. Please use caution when using a router!
I was very surprised to find the plexiglass had chipped on it's top face. I've cut many pieces of plexiglass on the tablesaw, miter saw, jigsaw, router, as well as drilling with various types and sizes of bits etc, and never had any chipping. I'm not sure if this plexiglass being colored had anything to do with it or not, but it was the first time I've ever had any problems with it, so bear that in mind when you're working with it.
The chipping was so severe that I couldn't stand the look of it, so I decided to just flip it over and have a mirror image of my original design layout. It looks great and it wasn't that hard for me to get used to the storage area being on the left side.
My intention was to screw the plexiglass panel to the case, but I found it was completely unnecessary. My panel fit so snugly that there's no way it's budging, so I totally skipped the step of drilling and screwing the panel to the case. Depending on your situation, you may need to screw yours down, so keep that in mind.
Step 5: Connecting the Coax for the Antenna
Now that the top plate is ready, it's time to hook everything up and get on the air!
Before going any further, make sure the radio actually powers on and you can talk on it. With this particular radio, it's as simple as taking it out to your car and plugging it into the cigarette lighter. With a maximum output of 25w, the cigarette lighter is perfectly capable of providing enough power, and this is how the radio comes set up to be run.
Once you've determined the radio works, we can make our antenna jumper coax cable, connecting the radio to the SO-239 panel mount. This configuration requires approximately 9" of cable. I prefer to use the RG-8 mini because it's so flexible and it's much cheaper.
Strip off the outer jacket, fold the outer wire strands down out of the way, and hold up the PL-259 connector to the coax. Strip the dielectric down to the top ring of the connector, leaving the center strands bare. Slide the sleeve up to the top of the outer jacket and fold the outer wire strands over the sleeve. I usually clip them off right at the top of the threads, but this is just a personal preference.
Dip the whole center connector into some paste flux, then wipe off the excess. It doesn't hurt to leave it on, but it can make ugly burn marks. You really just want to make sure there's plenty on the center strands to help pull the solder down to make your nice solder joint.
Heat up your center strands with your solder gun, being careful not to melt the dielectric. When it's hot enough, touch your solder to the strands, and it will wick down into the joint. I like to take my time with this step, so as not to create a bulky ball of solder on the tip of the connector.
Once you've assembled your PL-259 on both ends of your coax jumper, screw them onto the back of the radio and the underside of the antenna panel mount. You can use a small amount of thread lock here if you'd like, although I haven't found it necessary. I do like to thread lock the SO-239 panel mount, because I find that screwing the antenna onto and off of it tends to loosen the threads on the underside of the panel, right where it's inconvenient to access!
The antenna connection is done. time to move onto the power!
Step 6: Connecting Power to the Battery
I like to use Anderson PowerPoles for my power needs. They make really secure connectors, and they're becoming more of an industry standard, so you're more likely to run into accessories that include them.
You'll need a crimper made specifically for these connectors, there's just no way to cheat and use another tool for this purpose. The crimper I bought cost about $30, so it didn't break the bank.
When you buy unassembled Anderson PowerPole connectors, you will get the silver connectors, the red and black housing units, and sometimes they will come with a little bar that clicks into place, securing the 2 colors together. This particular set of connectors did not include the bar, but I've found the molded in dovetail to be very secure on it's own. These connectors come in 15-30 amp, and 45 amp versions. (They actually make much larger ones too, but they aren't relevant to this project). You obviously want to size the connectors appropriately to the project and the wire that you're using. I'm using the 15-30amp connectors here, and they fit perfectly with my 12 gauge wire.
I strip approximately 5mm off the ends of my 12 gauge wire, and slip the connector onto the bare end. Making sure the "hook" on the connector is facing down toward the ground, slide the wire and connector into the crimper, until it hits the back of the stopper. This is the only crimper I have that actually uses a stopper, and it puzzled me at first, until I made the first crimp. It's very obvious why you need the stopper, once you've used it because you can totally distort the hook on the end of the connector if you don't position it correctly in the crimper.
Squeeze the crimper until you hear it click, then release it. It's a ratcheting crimper, so it delivers exactly the proper amount of force for the size connector you're using. Don't try to squeeze it more than necessary as you'll distort the connector and waste it.
Once both of your wires have the connectors on them, turn your attention to the red and black housings. There is a front and a back on these housings....refer to the pictures for clarification. Just remember to always position the red housing on the left, as you're looking at the front of it, then slide the black housing onto the dovetail on the right side. This is the industry standard way of positioning these housings, so you'll always be able to connect to any other Anderson PowerPole connector. Once you've got the housings connected properly, you can insert the wires into the back. Make sure the hook on the wire connector is pointed down, and slide it into the back of the housing until it clicks. That's it, you've assembled your PowerPole connector!
In the case of the Pod Mount, the housings are already positioned for you, all you have to do is push the wires in until they click. Add a couple of spade connectors to the other end of the wires, and connect these to the wires coming out of the radio, observing the proper polarity.
All of your connections have now been made underneath the plexiglass panel! You can put the panel in place on your case, and if you haven't already, make a PowerPole jumper to attach your battery to the Pod Mount to power your radio. Once you've done this, you're ready to use your Go Box!
Step 7: Using Your Go Box
Attach one side of the PowerPole jumper you just made to the "fused" side of the BatPac, and the other side to whichever set of connectors you attached the radio to on the Pod Mount, I used the top set. This applies power to your radio.
Attach your antenna to the panel mount, and screw it down tightly. You can now power your radio on and begin setting up your preferred frequencies!
If you purchased the Leixen vv-898e, here's a little cheat sheet for adding repeaters to your radio. The manual is better than some Chinese radios I've seen, but it can be tedious to flip through the pages until the procedure is ingrained in your memory, so I made a cheat sheet that I keep with my Go Box, along with a list of my programmed frequencies, as well as the original manual.
"A/B toggles between upper and lower number banks (larger and smaller). Need to be on the larger numbers for programming.
V/M toggles between VFO and Channel number (memory) modes, needs to be in VFO for programming.
Enter Frequency on mic keypad
Click M to enter Menu Mode, and use channel up button (either on radio or on keypad, to get to Menu number 5.
Click M again, and it goes to channel number.
Choose which memory channel number to store that frequency in.
Click M to lock the choice in. Before it switches out of menu mode, toggle up to menu 8, which is decode type.
Click M again to enter the decode type.
Click M to lock in the choice.
Toggle up to menu 10, encode type, and click M to enter.
Click M to lock in the choice.
Go to Menu 11 to set tone.
Click M again to enter and set the PL tone.
Click M to lock in the choice.
Then go to menu 35 for repeater offset, click M then enter the offset with the channel up and down buttons.
Click M to lock in the choice.
Go to menu 36, click M to set negative or positive offset (also has “Sing” for simplex), make selection with Channel up or down keys,
Click M to lock in the choice.
Allow a few seconds to exit Menu Mode."
Hope that helps someone!
Step 8: Adding the Solar Charge Controller
I wanted to add the capability to charge my Go Box with a solar panel, in the event I might need to use the box in a prolonged ARES activation. I chose the ALLPowers 20 amp solar charge controller because it was reasonably priced and had great reviews on Amazon. I paired this with the Dokio 80 Watt folding solar panel.
Adding the charge controller to the box was a simple matter of making a few extra PowerPole jumper cables, cutting the lid foam and velcro-ing the controller to the lid. The key to using this (or any solar charge controller) is to ALWAYS hook the controller up to the battery first! The controller has to have a storage system ready prior to attaching the solar panel, otherwise you could destroy your controller if the energy has nowhere to flow to.
Make sure you hook your controller up to the unfused side of your BatPac. This is the side you charge your battery with, whether it's through the use of solar or a regular float/trickle charger.
You can use the Go Box while it is charging, and I have used it while charging through a float charger. I haven't used it while charging with the solar panel yet, but I can't think of a reason it would be any different.
Step 9: Conclusion
I hope you've enjoyed my very first Instructable on making an amateur radio Go Box! If you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer them. If you have any suggestions for improving any future Instructables I might write, please let me know. Thanks very much for reading.