Sunday, March 16, 2014

Moving Into the Shack

As you might be aware the winter in central and eastern North America has been long, cold and snowy. This makes it difficult to put antenna designs into effect. At this point I am getting tired of modelling antennas. Unfortunately that's all I can do. Well, not quite. Surprising as it sometimes seems to me there is more to this hobby than antennas.

Which brings me to this article's topic -- moving into the new shack -- just for a change of pace.

I have been gradually working towards finishing my basement shack over this winter. Progress had to be gradual since I've been busy at many things, not least of which is the antenna articles I've written over the preceding months. Now that the end is near I was able to finally move back into the shack and set it up as a more permanent area for radio operation. The critical finishing pieces were the door, trim and (very important) the floor.

Once that was done all I had to do was put in an operating desk and reinstall all the equipment. The room was designed as a shack when the house was constructed in 1993 so it has all the necessary infrastructure, including dedicated electrical circuits and two 240 VAC outlets for amplifiers. It sat mostly neglected when I decided to not continue with the hobby. Now, 21 years later, I've finally moved in.

Rather than go back to a simple desk I have restored the custom operating desk that I built 30 years ago. It was used in my first station (1984 to 1992) since moving to Ottawa from VE4. I supplied the basic design parameters to my old friend and excellent amateur woodworker VE3NVM, from which he came up with a construction template. With his help and workshop the desk quickly came together.

Here it is in my new shack, already celebrated with some contacts, including one new QRP country: 5H.

The tabletop measures 84"x30", so it is an imposing presence in the modest-sized 120 ft² room. Made from plywood and seasoned maple it can not only support a lot of equipment, it is perfectly safe to stand on. The only equipment it didn't support was my old Collins 30S1 amplifier, which was meant to stand on the floor. Notice how the KX3 is dwarfed by space meant to hold an older generation of transceivers and accessories.

Let me take you through the design parameters I came up with all those decades ago so that you can get a sense of what I was attempting to accomplish with this desk. The effort I expended is more than most hams would bother with, yet the concepts are equally applicable to the selection and assembly of "off-the-shelf" products.
  • Surface height is measured to fit my body. When seated in a chair, with its height set so my thighs (femur) are parallel to the ground, the desk height is such that grabbing the paddles and sending CW is almost effortless. Almost every commercial desk has a higher surface. This can lead to fatigue, especially during a weekend-long contest. One reason the surface is only ¾" thick is to provide sufficient leg clearance despite the comparatively low height. Maple is used to brace the surface due to this choice, yet still support a lot of heavy equipment.
  • The lower shelf is for power supplies and other equipment which do not require operator interaction other than being turned on and off. The power bar (bottom right) is used to power them all on with one switch. Right now there is just the 4 ampere DC supply to power the KX3, and the AC power supply for the laptop. Back in the day that shelf was crowded. Its height and placement is designed to not get in the way of your feet. For SSB I had a foot switch on the floor beneath the power supply shelf.
  • The rigs I used most often went into the lower bays of the upper shelf unit. I chose an antenna switch that permitted the coax cables to exit straight back. This saves space and has a clean appearance, but at the cost of some difficulty in attaching and removing those cables. The B&W switch is, regrettably, intermittent. This is a design flaw and not due to ordinary wear and tear. Worse, the unit is sealed and difficult to repair.
  • The middle deck was used to hold VHF transceivers, pre-amps and amplifiers, plus an assortment of measuring devices. All I have there now is an SWR/watt meter. In the centre is a slot that held the logbook, countries list and other paper resources. All of that is now done with software.
  • The upper shelf was for everything else, such as a world globe and spotlight lamp.
  • On the right side is a longer open area which I used to work on equipment. It had its own power bar and lamp. When I bought my first PC in 1991 (a speedy 16 MHz) it went in this space. Thus began my obsession with antenna modelling, starting with the DOS-based of ELNEC. Even simple models could take many minutes to run on that PC.
There is one terrible lack in this otherwise functional operating desk. Do you see it? There is no place to install a flat screen PC monitor. This ought to be easy to remedy. Some of the upper shelf space will be covered by the monitor, but since today's equipment is smaller that shouldn't be a problem. Then I'll be able to put a keyboard up front and make it easy to arrange things as in any modern PC-centred ham shack.

Since this desk (less the upper shelf unit) was the centrepiece of my upstairs home office for the past 20 years I had to replace it, and fast. My new office desk is a bizarre hybrid of an old, small Ikea desk and odds and ends from Home Depot. I worked quickly this weekend to both rebuild the shack operating desk and construct and install a new office desk. Now I am not only on the air with my old and trusty operating desk but also ready to get down to work Monday morning.

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