Front Panel Assembly
March 20, 2022
This morning I completed the Front Panel Board, the second board of the Elecraft K2 HF Transceiver Kit build that I began at the start of the year. After completing the Control Board on January 17, I took a complete month off working on other weekend projects before starting the Front Panel on February 21. I did state from the get go that I was going to take my time with this, my most ambitious kit build, and I’m staying true to my word.
The Front Panel Board is where all of the user controls are mounted. These include the large rotary encoder/tuning knob, the numeric keypad and pushbuttons, and five variable resistors. This section also includes the graphical LED status bar display and the LCD main display.
Assembly of the front panel starts by soldering the sixteen tactile push button switches to the printed circuit board. For a proper and neat professional appearance, it’s essential that all of the switches be mounted at a precise uniform distance from the surface of the board.
Elecraft provides a nifty switch spacing tool in the kit which is essentially a thin narrow bit of PCB material that is placed under each switch which is then pushed flush to the spacing tool. This clever method worked exceptionally well for me.
After the switches are mounted, the board is populated with the usual components – resistors, capacitors, diodes and transistors. The front panel board has four ICs including the large 40 pin U1 which is mounted on the bottom side of the board and behind the display.
The front panel board also has a good bit of hardware to be attached including the eight-pin microphone jack and several spacers. Up to this point the instruction manual has been absolutely excellent in providing detailed easy to follow accurate directions.
However, I did encounter some difficulty when it came to mounting the main display components which consists of two backlight LEDs, their spacers, a white cardboard reflector, a frosted plastic diffuser, and the 40 pin LCD.
As I discussed in my previous post, the Elecraft K2 is a fabulous kit, but it’s a rather old kit, first prototyped a quarter century ago – in 1997! Understandably in the time since its introduction, some components become ‘unobtainium’ as the years go by. Vendors come and go and with advancing technology, manufacturers discontinue production of now archaic through-hole components with today’s increasing popularity of SMD architecture.
Thus, when one buys a K2 kit today, it will come with several pages of errata that must be carefully consulted and reviewed. Builders in 2022 will find themselves crossing out sections, sometimes whole pages, of the original manual, and adding notes about the replacement modern components packaged with their kit.
This was the case with the display assembly. I was instructed to cross out most of the directions pertaining to the installation of the display on pages 27 and 28 of the manual and to follow the alternative directions provided as errata.
The revised directions call for the builder to first insert the leads of a pair of rectangular LEDs through plastic spacers and solder the LEDs flush to the board to the left and the right side of where the LCD will be mounted.
Between the two LEDs, the builder places a white cardboard backlight reflector and then mounts a frosted plastic diffuser by placing it over the the two LEDs on the left and the right side. The diffuser has an indent on each side to accomondate the LEDs.
I found this all went precisely as described until I came to the step that instructed me to place the LCD flush on top of the diffuser and then solder the 20 pins of the LCD to the associated pads on the PCB.
None of the LCD pins were long enough to go through the holes in the pads on the board. If pressed flush to the diffuser the LCD pins just barely touched the pads.
I carefully checked the instructions and my work. I was certain I mounted the LEDs correctly and flush to the board with their spacers, and the cut outs on the bottom side of the plastic diffuser neatly accommodated the LEDs perfectly.
Realizing that proper positioning of the LCD would be critical for the PCB to properly fit in the front panel and knowing that not getting the spacing correct would also give the finished radio a sloppy appearance, I reached out to Elecraft for help via their website.
I dreaded the prospect of having to de-solder 20 pins and run the risk of damaging the LCD if I needed to remove it after it was soldered in place. I wanted to get as much information as I could before proceeding.
I received an email reply from Dave at Elecraft who is their K2 support guy within a couple of days. Dave stated that it was ‘perfectly normal’ for the LCD pins to just touch the top pads on the PCB and that they do not need to protrude through the holes. He said that his last K2 build was like this and suggested that I carefully solder the 20 pins from the topside, but to make sure the LCD is level and parallel to the board.
I did as Dave recommended, carefully aligning the LCD so it was level and evenly spaced above the board. I started by soldering each of the corner pins and confirming the LCDs position after each solder joint. Once done, I applied solder to the pads on the bottom of the board to let it flow through the hole to help ensure solid contact.
However, after I soldered just under half of the LCD pins, I realized I had left out the cardboard reflector. D’oh! There was no way I could slide the stiff cardboard under the pins at this point and I didn’t want to have to de-solder so many pins, so I came up with a workaround.
I took a piece of white copier paper and cut a rectangle to the same size as the cardboard reflector. Cutting the paper in half, I was able to slip both halves between the gap in the pins on the bottom of the LCD and position them in proper place. I held them in place with a bit of cellophane tape.
From here on out the rest of the front panel assembly went smoothly. Again I encountered the need to reference the errata for the main encoder knob as Elecraft includes a different unit than the one referenced in the original instruction manual. The encoder in my kit required me to solder a few parts into an auxiliary board to which the encoder was attached. The auxiliary board is then attached to the back of the front panel board.
The last step was to mount the completed front panel board inside of the front panel. Before doing so, the manual lists about 30 resistance checks for the board. Each test point checked out as specified to ground – excellent!
I was very pleased that after I carefully mounted the board the front panel looked perfect. All of the push buttons were a proper and uniform height through the holes on the panel. All knobs, including the main encoder dial, were also correctly mounted and turned with ease. Best of all the main display LCD that caused me so much grief, looked perfect under the front bezel.
Next up – the RF Board. Stay tuned….