The $4 Special Antenna
by Joe Tyburczy, W1GFH
(Used with his kind permission)
Sure, you can find "all-band wire antennas" for sale in the back pages of Ham magazines costing $150 or more. But beware: Marconi spins in his grave every time a ham buys an aerial instead of building it. The plain and simple truth is that wire antennas for the HF bands were intended to be hand-made and not store-bought.
Untold generations of intrepid Radio Hams have fashioned their own equipment out of spit and bailing wire. Do you think the spark-gap dudes of the 1920's just went out and bought ready-built G5RV's from HRO or AES? No way! They slapped together aerials out of bedsprings, chewing gum, and frozen cow poop. For them, every day was Field Day. I think that home-built antennas should be awarded 10 db of "honorary gain" simply by virtue of their ingenuity. And in this world of microprocessor controlled micro-rigs, constructing one may be your only chance to build something and actually see it work on the air. Think about it.
RadioWorks, Alpha-Delta, MFJ, B&W, Van Gordon,
W9INN, and W7FG...nothing wrong with the wire antennas they sell. But
buying one is no substitute for "rolling your own". Don't be overawed by
their advertising rhetoric. You can make an antenna every bit as good as
theirs, and even better in many
Just Do It
Don't be intimidated by SWR, either. Your rig will not blow up and kill you. Most modern rigs will politely refuse to transmit into a really bad match. A perfect 1:1 SWR is for sissies, anyway. All *real* hams have conducted perfectly good QSO's at 3:1 (or more) at some time or another. You may be surprised to know that the vast majority of hams didn't fret about SWR until after WWII when coax cable and SWR meters ("SWR Bridges" as they were first known) became available on the commercial market. Before that time, you simply cut your antenna to frequency, loaded the transmitter final for best output according to the plate current meter, and that was that.
I am a big fan of "balanced line" (twinlead, open wire line, etc.) vs. coax. By using balanced line and a tuner you can have one, single-element antenna that works well on all bands. You can't do that as easily with coax. The basic "W1GFH $4 SPECIAL" shown below is a variation on the type of versatile skyhook I've been using for years.
Now at this point, some of you may be looking at the
diagram and muttering, "Jeez Joe, that's just a dipole fed with twinlead
and used with a tuner". Well of course it is. Virtually all antennas are
"di-poles" (i.e. "two sides") in some form or another. This one just
happens to be made from low-cost
I won't go into the theory here, but trust me:
balanced feedline, properly used, does not "leak" RF and is less lossy
than coax. I've tried the commercial 450-ohm ladder line, but prefer
300-ohm TV twinlead, and the cheaper the better. Radio Shack TV twinlead
is ideal. Home Depot has some good stuff, too. Forget all the obsessive
junk about standing waves, impedance and velocity factor. What you really
need to concentrate on is getting an interesting set of antenna
Back during the disco era when I first got on the
air, I got a pair of really cool antique pyrex antenna insulators
from a flea market table in Derry, NH for 25 cents each. They looked like
the kind Hiram Percy Maxim used in 1910, and seemed able to pull in exotic
DX all by themselves. The other day I found out that Radio Shack wants $5
apiece for insulators made from some kind of white plastic crap. So I
improvised my own by sawing up pieces of an acrylic adjusting rod from a
discarded miniblind. I think Hiram would've been proud of
Hang the center of the antenna from a tree limb, or
use a support as pictured. The exact height of the antenna's feedpoint is
not crucial. The higher, the better. 20 feet might be considered the
minimum. 60 feet is ideal. However, in the real world, 30-50 feet is
For the antenna wire itself, virtually anything will
work, but something close to #18 stranded/insulated is ideal. My favorite
stealth antenna material is magnet wire. You can dig this out of an old
transformer or even a busted loudspeaker's coil. This ultra-thin stuff is
truly INVISIBLE to neighbors and wives alike, and it'll handle 100 watts,
no sweat. If you need to keep a low profile, try it as a long longwire,
end-fed from your tuner's "wire" terminal. (Be sure and ground everything
in the shack like crazy) No trees in your yard? Use a sock filled with
sand for a weight and hurl the far end of the wire onto a NEIGHBORS roof
or tree. (I would advise doing this at night. If you are caught, claim you
are "trying out an old FARMERS ALMANAC recipe to keep bats away". People
universally hate bats, and love farmers) If you can't possibly scheme to
get your wire more than a dozen feet off the ground, try flinging a few
hundred feet of the magnet wire all around the yard in a big loop (find
out measurements in the ARRL Handbook or Google "80 meter loop antenna").
Loops can perform satisfactorily at low heights. And remember, don't fuss
too much about SWR. A little mismatch is good for you and builds
The ends of the antenna will be "hot" with RF, so it's a good idea to keep them out of reach of people and pets, say, at least 10 feet above ground. However the antenna will still function if you bring the ends down closer to the ground.
Love Your Tuner
An antenna tuner with a balanced output (internal or external balun) is a must. Using one is a simple matter of adjusting capacitance and inductance for the lowest SWR on a given frequency. Always begin your adjustments at low power, increasing to full power only when you have a reasonable match. At first, you may think it's inconvenient and old-fashioned to manually tune your antenna every time you change frequency, but you soon discover the unique satisfaction of tweaking the variable caps and watching the reflected power dip lower as the received signals grow a bit louder in your receiver. It's "real radio".
My first tuner was a 1980's wood-grain cabinet style
MFJ-941 I got at a swap meet for $15 a long time ago and featured an
internal balun and connections for balanced lines on the back. Make sure
YOUR tuner is an outboard manual type antenna tuner such as this, and not
an "automatic" or internal tuner that is a pushbutton feature on many
modern rigs. Because they must use small, light-duty components, these
built-in tuners are typically limited to handling mis-matches of 10:1. The
mis-matches YOUR feedline will be seeing can be as high as 100:1. But
don't worry. The he-man sized coils and air-variable caps in a typical
outboard tuner will handle it just
Don't believe the folklore about MFJ tuners being
junk. It's true, they are cheaply made and their Quality Control is
spotty, but the majority of them work perfectly OK if they aren't abused.
So do old Dentron's, Drake, Vectronics, Nye Viking, etc. A link-coupled
balanced tuner arrangement like the Johnson Matchbox would be even better,
but use what you have. Or make one. Ham radio (unlike some other hobbies)
isn't a competition to see who can own the best or most expensive gear.
The idea is to get on the air with what you have or
can afford, enjoy your self making contacts, and as time and money
permits, try something
I had a 65ft. per leg version of this antenna working in Massachusetts, and it'd tune up on all bands 80-10. At my Burbank, California QTH, I used a 35 ft. per leg version, and it tuned up on 40-10. By the way, you'll notice it's an inverted vee --- a real advantage if you don't have room for a full-sized dipole in your yard. If you still don't have room, bend and angle the legs to fit the space you've got. Antennas gently bent into Z-shapes still work fine!
The uncut feedline comes straight in thru a clever window sash arrangement first used by hams in the 1920's. (See drawing below) Alternately, you can attach the wires to feed-through bushings (which can be anything from two steel bolts...to a pair of banana jacks end-to-end) set into holes in the wood sash or a glass pane (or a plexiglass panel). 300 ohm twinlead only needs about 2" separation from metal objects in its path. Unlike coax, its "gotta be free" -- don't coil it up, kink it, bury it, or lay it on the ground. Gently brushing against tree limbs or tied to non-conductive surfaces like wood or plastic is OK. The 100 watt output of most transceivers makes TV twinlead a safe and practical choice, but a number of hams have used it successfully with power ranges up to 1KW PEP. You can obtain or construct an external 4:1 balun to make the transition from your twinlead feedline to a short length of coax, then bring the coax into the house via a single feedthrough hole if you'd like.
OK, back to construction for a moment. Here's a variation of the $4 Special that uses center and end insulators made out of plexiglass sheet. But you can improvise yours out of an old DVD, sawed-up PVC pipe, a plastic Coke bottle...or anything you'd like.
If you want to be adventurous, try using 110VAC lamp
cord ("zip" cord) as a feedline. Yeah, it'll work as a crude balanced
line, believe it or not. Impedance varies, but is usually "close enough"
to work. And that reminds me...
Today's new hams have been cheated out of the
constructive experience of being harangued and berated by crabby old
"Elmers" preaching about how they did things in the "good old days", so I
am taking it upon myself to provide you with a taste of it
There is very little experimentation among hams
these days, and most stations are cookie-cutter duplicates of one another:
same antenna, same Japanese transceiver, same 599 QSO. This is not the ham
radio tradition of old. In the 1930's and 40's you might find one ham
using twisted bell wire as a feedline. Another might be using bare
electric fence wire on ceramic standoffs nailed to wooden planks. Another
might be using copper tubing. Or pieces of metal roofing. Or auto ignition
cable. Or tin cans soldered together. If you looked at their stations
you'd discover a wealth of marvelous invention, idiosyncratic design, and
an incredible ability to press available objects and materials into
service. During the 1960's, groups of hams would get together to swill
cases of beer and then make antennas out of the discarded cans by
soldering them together, end-to-end. Improvise. Experiment. Take notes of what works and
what doesn't. This is what ham radio is all
When you put up your antenna is
also crucial. I must mention here the importance of what many early hams
called "antenna weather". That is, snow, sleet, freezing rain, or
combination of all the above. It has been proven time and time again that
any antenna installed in conditions better than abysmal will not function
worth a darn. Or, put another way, it takes bad weather to put up a decent
antenna. Dark and cold New England winter days are ideal for this
activity. Any antenna erected on such a day will inevitably produce
Many of you will recognize
THE $4 SPECIAL'S design as the venerable "double zepp" aerial, a
variation of the "end-fed Zepp" -- the skyhook responsible for the
dramatic Hindenberg tragedy in Lakehusst, NJ. It seems the blimp's radio
op decided to work a little DX while waiting for landing clearance. He
sent out a few CQ"s. Unknown to him, the ladder line had twisted in
the breeze, shorting the bare conductors. A brilliant spark flared
up, and.....well, that's another story
To see an "end-fed Zepp" version of the $4 Special, just look below.
Alas, I never had a 100 foot tower to hang this
antenna from. The one in Mass. was up 50 ft. and worked what I considered
terrific DX. The one I have now is only up 30 ft. and gets good to average
results. It won't outdo a Yagi at 100 feet. Very few things
But for $4....who can
Since writing this article in
1998, I've gotten a lot of
Some are new to antenna tuners. There's no mystery, using one is very simple. It's a matter of adjusting capacitance and inductance for the lowest SWR on a given frequency. There is a quick tutorial at:
Others are curious about the end-fed Zepp. I suggest you go to L.Cebik's fine page on this subject for an explanation of the practicalities of such an antenna:
If you are a beginner, you'd do
well to read all of Mr. Cebik's antenna articles. They are a wealth
of practical knowledge.
Many want to know about feedline
lengths. Is there any 'ideal' length? Yes and no. Some feedline lengths
will present an extremely high impedance to the tuner on certain bands.
Each installation is different, but here are some rough guidelines that
Start by trying a feedline
listed in the lengths below. It may take some trimming or adding of
feedline to work well on the range of bands you want to cover.
If Ant is 120 ft per leg it will
cover 160 thru 10 meters.
If Ant is 65 ft per leg it will
cover 80 thru 10 meters.
If Ant is 33 ft per leg it will
cover 40 thru 10 meters.
Many thanks to Joe, W1GFH for allowing us to share his project...N4UJW