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Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Fixing the Tuning Problem in the High-School Direct Conversion Receiver (with video)

Here is the problem: 

For the capacitive element in the LC circuit we have essentially two 660 pF caps in series.  This results in a total capacitance of 330 pf.  I measured 362 pF.  

To get a resonant frequency of 7.0 MHz with 362 pF we need 1.428 uH.

To get 1.428 uH on the PTO coil form we need about 21 turns of wire. 

21 turns on our coil form yields 1.440 uH and resonates with 362 pf at 6.9708 MHz

That’s pretty close to what we need, but the problem arises when we screw in the brass tuning screw.   This reduces the inductance and raises the frequency.  Putting the screw all the way in reduces the inductance to 1.138 uH resulting in a resonant frequency of 7.8414 MHz.  So with a coil this large (that we must use if we want to tune down to 7.0 MHz) we end up with a tuning range that is far too large.  We only need 7.0 to 7.3.   In effect, this means that we end up using only a small portion of the tuning range:  We can turn the screw approximately 34 times, but only 6 turns keep us within the range of 7 to 7.3 MHz (the 40 meter band).  There is about 50 kHz per turn of the dial.  This makes tuning difficult.  It becomes more difficult to separate stations and tune them in.  It would be better if we could tune across the band using more turns of the dial.  At least 15 turns of the dial would be nice:  That would mean about 20 kHz per turn.  But how can we do this? 

Possible solution #1:  Steel screw with tighter pitch on the turns.

Just using a steel screw slows the tuning rate down.  In a normal PTO we increase the inductance (and reduce the frequency) by gradually introducing a ferrous material that increases the inductance of the coil, pushing the frequency of oscillation down.  But our brass screw is non-ferrous.  This means that putting it into the core does not change the permeability of the coil.  The permeability of brass is the same as that of air.

What does happen,  however, is that introducing the brass screw into the coil causes currents to flow in the screw.  These are called eddy currents.  In effect they become shorted secondary coils.  And they have the effect of lowering the inductance of the coil – this is why the frequency of the oscillator increases as we screw in the brass screw.

When you use a steel screw you get both effects: As you screw it in, eddy currents flow in the screw, reducing the inductance and increasing the frequency of oscillation.  But you are also introducing ferrous material – this pushes in the opposite direction, increasing induction and lowering the frequency of oscillation.  I think the eddy current effect dominates, but the increase in permeability pushes in the opposite direction.  This means that with a steel screw you have to use more turns to cover the same frequency range.  And that is what we want. 

For example, using the same coil, with screw of the same thread pitch (the same nuts), with both screws ten turns in, one turn of the brass screw moved the inductance .014 uH.  The same single turn of the steel screw only moved the inductance .005 uH.  So just because of metallurgy, the steel screw will lead to a lower (better) tuning rate.  I used a Hillman 45479 screw that is steel with a Zinc (anti-corrosive) coating. https://www.amazon.com/Hillman-Group-45479-Phillips-Machine/dp/B00JDU0PZI   and be sure to get the correct nuts: https://www.amazon.com/Hard-Find-Fastener-014973241704-Piece-100/dp/B00L1L76E0/ref=sr_1_4?crid=UOPEF2HLAD75&keywords=1%2F4-28+nut&qid=1678881552&s=hi&sprefix=1%2F4-28+hex+nuts%2Ctools%2C71&sr=1-4

But there is more:  steel screws are also available with tighter (#28) thread pitches. The Hillman 45479 uses this tighter thread pitch.   This too means that more turns are needed to move through the same tuning range.  Again, that is what we want. 

I found that using a steel screw with #28 thread pitch allowed for the coverage of the 40 meter band in approximately 11 turns of the dial.  That is much better than what we got with the brass screw:  About 27 kHz per turn instead of the 50 kHz per turn that we got with brass.  But it is not quite good enough.   It would be better if we could use the entire range of that PTO coil form.

Solution Two:  Add a fixed inductor in series with the PTO coil. 

After some noodling, I decided to split up the inductor:  A portion of it would remain fixed, the other portion would continue to be tunable.

I estimated that I was starting out with a coil of about 1.428 uH.  So I just put a 1 uH choke in series with the variable inductor and reduced the variable coil to about .428 uH (about 9 coil turns).  This worked, but it worked a bit too well!  It would not tune the entire 40 meter band.  So I figured I needed less fixed inductance and more variable inductance.  I found an air-cored coil in my junk box and cut it so that it measured about .650 uH.  I added turns to the variable coil, going to a total of 15 turns.  This REALLY worked well and yielded the 26 or 27 turns to tune across 40 meters that you can see in the video.


Later, I tweaked it a bit more:  With 15 turns of #22 wire on the variable inductor, a steel screw tuned from .791 uH (screw out) to .662 uH (screw in).  I put one additional turn on the fixed inductor, making it .749 uH, or about 8 turns of #22 (wound tighter on a cardboard tube from a coat hanger than was the coil on the variable inductor).   With these coils I could tune from 6.9772 to 7.386 MHz.  That's a bit more than we need but this allows us to keep the tuning away from the ends of the coil where tuning is more likely to become non-linear.  I am able to go from 7.0 to 7.3 MHz in 23 turns of the dial.  And the tuning is quite linear:  The first turn from 7.0 MHz moves the frequency 12 kHz.   At the mid-point of 7.150 MHz, one turn of the dial moves the frequency 12 kHz.   At the high end, going down from 7.3 MHz, one turn of the dial moved the frequency 11 kHz.  That, for me, is VERY linear tuning.  You probably will have to adjust the coils a bit (just squeezing the turns together or spreading them apart) to get the tuning range where you want it.    

YMMV – Keep it simple!

Like they used to say in the commercials:  Your Mileage May Vary.  There are many ways of doing this.  The objective is smooth tuning across the 40 meter band.  I think that by varying the pitch of the variable coil turns you could get a more linear tuning response (please let us know if you have any luck).  You might also be able to get similar results by changing the amount of capacitance in the feedback network (which is also the frequency determining element in this simple Colpitts oscillator).   But remember that simplicity and a low parts count were also our objectives in this.  This mod adds only 1 part (the fixed inductor), requires the removal of some turns from the main tuning cap, and perhaps the replacement of the brass screw with a steel #28 screw and nuts.  

We might present to the student this problem and our search for a solution.  This would be a good example of how homebrewers work to make their rigs better and easier to use.  It illustrates well the design dilemmas that can come up, and how amateurs like us can come up with solutions. 


  1. si5351 and an arduino

    1. A Colpitts oscillator tuned with a variable inductor or variable capacitor works, too. The Si5351 is technology. The Colpitts is art. The former is prosaic certainty. The latter is poetic adventure. One is mundane and humdrum, while the other squints toward heaven.

    2. Indeed, we are squinting! Thanks Todd

  2. This is an example of what my engineer father called "iterative enhancement": design, try, modify, try, and repeat until the boss makes you pinch it off. One important difference between an amateur homebrewer and a professional engineer is that there's no boss.

  3. I hope to make this point when talking to the students: This is one of the beauties of homebrew ham radio. You can experiment. You can try things. No one is looking over your shoulder, calculating costs, pushing you to go quickly with the cheapest solution. Sometimes you will go with a solution that is not -- in the business sense or even in the electronic sense -- "the best." But you will go with it because you just like the circuit, or find the approach more authentically homebrew. I far prefer an 80% perfect homebrew rig to a 100% perfect commercial product. Heck, my cell phone is 100% perfect. But I didn't build it. I have as much affection for it as I have for our microwave oven! (NONE!) 73 Bill

  4. It would seem the PTO has the same linearity issues: around 10kHz/turn at low end of band and increasing towards 13 at the 'top'. I'm wondering if the extra series coil should be considered as a 'padder' and adjusted in similar manner to 'trim' it? Or if a trimmer capacitor can work across the fixed (split)capacitance here? or could that introduce too much complex cogitation? I know it stretches my thinkery. :)

  5. Dex: It is not quite linear in tuning, but it is close enough for a simple receiver like this. One way to further linearize it might be to increase (or decrease) the pitch of the turns on the variable inductor. That might make things a bit more linear. But I drew a "ruler" style freq readout that shows the amount of the screw that has gone into the core. It looks fairly linear already. 73 Bill

  6. Hey Bill, great project to get the kids involved in. I too want to make one as a project to teach mu grandkids about this radio hobby of ours. I have scanned through most if not all of the posts for the DC receiver but have not come across the info where the STL file is for the 3D printed PTO former, can you point me in the right direction please. 73 Mike VK3XL (eXtra Large)

    1. I found it..... I had a listen to one of your early blogposts about PTOs and you mentioned Farhan's Daylight again Transceiver. In Farhan's post there is a link to the STL files (2).

  7. Mike: I'm glad you found it. We made some mods to the file, I think. You may want to ask Dean KK4DAS about this. His e-mail on QRZ.com
    I was going to look for you but you beat me to it!
    73 Bill


Designer: Douglas Bowman | Dimodifikasi oleh Abdul Munir Original Posting Rounders 3 Column