Ugly Construction

Discussion

We enjoy many ways to build electronic circuits.  For example, you might breadboard on a perforated circuit board, an etched PC board, a  sheet of copper clad board, or even a piece of copper wire. In the hay day of tube electronics, builders used terminal strips and point-to-point wiring within the project chassis. I mostly breadboard using Ugly Construction.

Ugly Construction, "dead bug", or "ground-plane construction" involves building circuits on top of a double or single-sided copper clad board (copper side up for single-sided board). The copper ground-plane provides a low impedance ground and mechanically supports the parts soldered to it. Component leads requiring grounding are soldered directly to the copper surface, while the ungrounded leads of these parts anchor any ungrounded parts connected to them. Isolated sections called stand-offs hold other ungrounded or remotely located parts.

Example stand-offs include high value resistors (10 Megohm or greater), terminal strips, or small copper islands glued onto or cut into the copper ground-plane. Parts such as transistors, IC's or commercial diode ring mixers are generally flipped upside down and anchored by their grounded lead(s). Metal encased parts such as crystals can be grounded by a short wire or directly soldered upside down to the copper board.

DC voltage wires, or decoupling resistors may be supported by soldering 1 lead of a bypass capacitor to the ground plane while the other lead holds the DC voltage carrying part up off the copper board a short distance. I mostly use grounded caps for stand-offs and not 10M resistors.

Shown above a 10 Megohm, half-watt, stand-off resistor anchors the "hot" inductor terminal plus supports the ungrounded trimmer capacitor terminal. The coil's 24 gauge wire provides additional mechanical stability. The signal loss from adding the 10M resistor was about 0.1 volts peak to peak in 1 experiment.

Ugly Construction allows the experimenter total control over the design of a project and in my opinion, its greatest strength is speed. Ugly Construction yields rapid and flexible bread boarding — very appealing for prodigious home builders.

The Origin of the Term "Ugly Construction"

Roger Hayward, KA7EXM and Wes Hayward, W7ZOI coined the term "Ugly Construction" while writing the "Ugly Weekender" published in the August 1981 issue of QST. I asked Wes about this in 2009. The term was a takeoff from the 1958 book entitled The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick.

A big part of the learning of the QST article was Ugly Construction! The term and the bread boarding technique emphasized the fact that there is no correlation between the "prettiness" of a construction project and the way it works. According to Wes, the goal had a couple of corollaries. "First, people like myself who do NOT have the knack for doing pretty projects can still build successful radios. Second, is that we all need to look at our projects after the fact to discover what it is that really makes them work well. In the case of the Ugly Weekender, the thing that makes it fly is that there is a wonderful ground plane with that PC board material".

Indeed, this transceiver functions very well; especially after you temperature compensate the VFO. Wes also built versions for the 30 and 80 meter bands. I have versions on 15, 40 and 80 meters. The transmitter portion is a true QRP classic; both as a Ham radio transmitter and because it promoted "ugly" ground-plane or dead bug bread boarding techniques to the scratch homebrew community.

Classic Ugly Construction

This term emerged in Spring 2010 and describes the archetype popularized by Roger and Wes Hayward. All ungrounded leads not anchored to other parts are attached to the copper ground-plane via high ohm resistors no glued pads or islands cut in the copper board.

In-situ comparisons of a 10 megohm resistor versus islands cut into the ground plane and glued-on Manhattan-style pads demonstrated that the resistor had the lowest capacitance; around 1 pF versus 4 pF or greater for the pads or islands. Click for a high resolution transmitter chain built with 100% Classic Ugly Construction. Click for a crystal oscillator.

Above Classic Ugly Construction using a high ohm stand-off resistor. The top of the 10 megohm resistor is the VCC connection point. It feeds a 150 ohm / 47 uF decoupling network connected to a transistor collector resistor. Bypass capacitors also serve as stand-offs and I prefer thick lead (100 volt or greater) caps for stand-off duty.

Above — The original Ugly Weekender. Photograph used by permission of Roger, KA7EXM.

Above — The original Ugly Weekender.  Now this is Classic Ugly Construction. Please refrain from building this transceiver and adding modern notions such as a PIC microcontroller keyer — that's just wrong!

Photograph used by permission of Roger, KA7EXM.

Ugly Construction Variants

The most popular Ugly Construction variant is called Manhattan style. Manhattan or "paddy board" construction uses small square or round pads cut or stamped from PC board that are glued copper side up onto a large copper clad board also placed copper side up. The small pads or "islands"  serve to anchor ungrounded components. Components soldered to the pads such as transistors or ICs are generally not positioned upside down like in Classic Ugly Construction. Many Manhattan style builders use IC sockets as well. These hobbyists sometimes build beautiful looking layouts Manhattan is a wonderful bread boarding technique. Google for more information. The best Manhattan construction and copper board chassis bashing I've seen comes from Dave, AA7EE. Click for a blog describing his version of the WBR regenerative receiver. Linked with the permission of Dave, AA7EE.

Another interesting variant is used by Dick Pattinson, VE7GC. The circuit board is placed copper side up and holes are drilled and countersunk so that the holes are isolated from the ground plane. Ungrounded components are connected underneath the main board through the countersunk holes. There are many such variations. Each Ugly Construction variant has advantages and disadvantages.

On this website, stand-offs are created by cutting a few lines into the copper board with a small, motorized hobbyist cutting tool; with high megohm value resistors, and occasionally by a small Manhattan style pad or 2. Manhattan pads are great for supporting components needing solid anchoring such as a trimmer capacitor or potentiometer.

Classic Ugly Construction dominates circuits breadboarded after May 2010.

The motor tool may also be used to grind off the copper underneath where VFO toroidal inductors will lie, so that the inductor Q is not effected by the being glued onto a copper surface. In audio projects, I may also grind off the copper around the copper board mounting bolts so that they are isolated from the chassis and do not provide multiple grounds and create the potential for ground loops.

Is Ugly Construction Less Reproducible than Manhattan?

I've received well over 1000 emails about Ugly Construction since launching the site in 1998. Some feel that circuits made with Manhattan pads are more reproducible than Classic Ugly Construction builds. This might be true, but to my knowledge nobody has performed a comparison trial.

The important question is why would this happen?  I've read/heard opinions that the stray L and C from the long component leads associated with Ugly Construction might wreck circuit reproducibility, but respectfully disagree from DC to HF. In microwave breadboards, we fabricate lumped element inductors and capacitors (i.e. precisely dimensioned Manhattan pads) right into the PC board — Manhattan pads glued all around a breadboard may potentially exhibit much more stray L and C than a few component leads in an Ugly build. Also, wise Ugly builders keep their lead lengths short where it counts: for example, RF bypass + ground and at the input/output of a BJT or FET that offers gain into UHF.

I conjecture human error probably inflicts more problems for Ugly Construction builders Manhattan building, with its slower pace might trigger less mistakes by newbies. Still, too, Manhattan builders tend to make prettier, squared and aligned circuits and it's easier to spot trouble plus they look nicer in photographs and some builders carefully document and photograph their builds for others to admire and strictly copy. I've see Manhattan build photos where every resistor tolerance band pointed in the same direction — wow!  I think it might be difficult to put such a 'work of art' into an RF-tight metal box for much-sought isolation.

Further, in Ugly Construction upside down parts might wreak havoc on the "spatially challenged" builder. Who knows?  I'm comforted knowing that kit sellers who provide a screened printed circuit board with explicit instructions, still must provide major email support to mitigate build errors. To err in an ugly fashion is human?

Whatever variant of construction you choose, it's sure to be a winner!


Further Discussion

Wire

Non-stranded (solid core) copper wire such as the 22 AWG 3-color package sold by Radio Shack seems a good choice for hook up wire. With non-stranded wire, you do not have to worry about little stay wire hairs causing shorts and it's easier to wrap around components leads. I use red for wires that carry positive voltage, green for grounding and black for wires that carry AC signals short distances. In addition, RG-174 or shielded wire is used to carry AC signals for distances greater than 10 cm, and for connecting stages requiring 50 ohm input or output impedances such as diode ring mixers or low-pass filters.


Your Health

Please consider the following safety comments:

  1. For regular soldering, ensure ventilation of your room flux fumes can be harmful. Open your shop window and/or use a small fan to improve fresh air intake;
  2. Whenever possible, perform high wattage soldering outdoors;
  3. When grinding paths on copper clad boards, wear a small particulate respirator, gloves, plus ear and eye protection and most importantly; do it outside for yours and your family's health;
  4. Wash your hands after soldering and handling freshly cut, fiberglass dust laden copper clad boards.

Soldering Irons

For soldering copper clad boards together, AC grounds on tube guitar amp chassis and performing antenna work, I currently use a Weller SP 80L (80 watt) soldering iron. It is heavy and unwieldy, so you have to be very careful when its plugged in. These high wattage soldering irons produce lots of smoke.



Shown above is an 80 watt "heat torch". My main soldering irons are typically in the 30-35 watt range. Consider keeping at least 1 back up soldering iron, as you never know when a soldering iron is going to burn up. My current 35 watt iron is shown below. These Weller irons have a built in lamp which lights when they are plugged in; a very nice feature. I also keep a small stock of new soldering iron tips.



Copper Clad Board

Some builders ask about sources for copper clad board. I personally use boards made by MG Chemicals as they have dealers in my city and are reasonably priced and good quality. Try the search words copper clad board plus your country name in your favorite web search engine. A few links follow, but as I have only used boards sold locally, I can't comment about the online companies.

  1. MG Chemicals Worldwide distributer index
  2. Electronic Goldmine  Online store
  3. Circuit Specialists  Online store

Miscellaneous

Shown below is a schematic and the Ugly Constructed version of it.

Above. The schematic of an adapted sine wave audio frequency oscillator taken with permission from EMRFD , Figure 12.4. EMRFD is the main reference for this web site. The original schematic author was Wes, W7ZOI


Above. I built this circuit from start to scope in about 25 minutes. This was a scrap, pre-used board with a positive voltage path and a potentiometer holder already on it  When miniaturization is not your goal, construction is much easier and faster. I re-use parts and  boards to save money. You may remove entire stages from 1 board and solder them onto another.


Above. Note how the 10K output potentiometer holder is soldered to the main copper clad board. The grounded 10K resistor is used to anchor the 22K resistors connected to IC pins 2 and 3 and can be seen in the foreground.

Shown above is another project. Entire control panels can be built from copper clad board for prototype circuits. In this board are numerous cut paths, 7 potentiometers, 3 jacks and a switch. Do not build an LC VFO over double sided copper clad board; lest it become "a capacitor" and affect your frequency stability.

Shown above is a CD4013B  D Flip-Flop soldered "dead bug" style. Pins 4, 6,7, 8 and 10 are grounded to the copper surface; well anchoring this part. Using proper static precautions, I have never had a CMOS device failure using Ugly Construction and also save the price of an IC socket.

Above — a method to anchor op-amps using a split (negative and positive) power supply. Pins 4 and 8 are soldered to the copper board via a 10 megohm resistor. A 0.1 uF ceramic bypass capacitor is also connected to these pins. The resistor leads were left a little long to allow easy connection of the power supply wires. I write each pin's polarity on the board to avoid wiring mistakes.

Shown above is another use for copper clad board; heat sinks. In this case, 2 scraps are epoxy glued to 2N3904 and 2N3906 transistors.


Flux pen

A flux pen like this one from MG chemicals is a handy item for the QRP workshop. They are great for applying liquid flux to allow easy and precise soldering of SMT components. Also sometimes when adding components to ground in already built up circuit boards, it can be difficult to get your soldering iron down at a low angle for proper heat transfer. Some flux can help solder a part to the copper ground plane in these situations.


Shown above are the basic tools used to cut copper clad board. A felt pen marker, small square and a set of straight aviation shears. If you press one end of the copper board into the side of your bench and keep pressure on the handle of the aviation shears with your thigh, it is possible to make long, straight cuts. The board will flex and move out of the way as you cut. Your leg provides the force to advance the aviation shears.


The motorized grinding/cutting tool used to carve out small pathways in copper clad board.


Steel wool used to clean up copper clad board before construction. A box like this will last for years.

For 15 years, I've used this 9 mm cutter to scrape the enamel insulation off the magnet wire wound on toroidal inductors.