Wire Antenna Winder – A 3:1 Geared Carpenter’s Chalk Reel is Perfect

wire antenna winder

This is a standard chalk reel used by carpenters, roofers and other trades. A chalk reel makes an excellent wire antenna winder for outdoor ham radio operators. It’s got a 3:1 gear ratio so it winds back the thin wire very fast. CLICK THE IMAGE NOW to have one delivered to your home. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter – W3ATB

Wire Antenna Winder – Works Well With Thin Wire

I first discovered a wire antenna winder when talking with a fellow ham Hanz Busch, W1JSB back in 2014. Hanz told me how he had a standard chalk reel that contained a wire antenna.

How clever I thought.

I’m the AsktheBuilder.com guy and prior to that worked as a custom builder and remodeler for decades. You can imagine how many chalk reels or chalk boxes have been in my tool belts!

Wire Antenna Winder Works Fast

Years ago chalk reels took lots of turns to get the string back into the box. New chalk reels are geared so the string is sucked back into the winder like a kid slurps spaghetti into his mouth at the dinner table.

My Irwin Speedline chalk reel has a 3:1 gear ratio that allows me to retrieve 60 feet of 26-gauge teflon coated stranded wire back into the box in three or four seconds. This chalk reel is made from plastic and it’s very lightweight.

How Much Wire Will the Reel Hold?

I loaded 60 feet of the thin wire onto the spool inside the reel and still had leftover room on the spool. I estimate you can load about 100 feet of wire onto the spool. If you attempt to put more on, there’s a good chance some of it may not stay in between the sides of the spool.

Look at the photo below showing the excess space on the spool.

Other brands of reels may have a larger internal spool allowing you to load more wire.

Why is the Gearing Important?

You’ll appreciate the gearing speed if you need to break down your outdoor radio station in cold or threatening weather. I saw about 18 months ago that Steve Galchutt, WG0AT, built one so he could scamper down from his SOTA activations when the storm clouds rolled in on top of his Colorado peaks.

wire antenna winder

Here’s the inside of the chalk reel. I loaded about 60 feet of wire to mine. You can see that the inner spool is just about full. I’m sure you can get 100 feet of 26-gauge teflon-coated wire on it, but not much more. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter

What Kind of SWR do you get?

I’m able to achieve a 1:1 SWR with the antenna when I pair it up with my Elecraft KX2 and KX3. Both have the factory-installed Elecraft tuner.

Here’s the list of radios I use outdoors:

  • Elecraft KX3
  • Elecraft KX2
  • HB-1B
  • MFJ 20M Cub
  • and other assorted QRP radios

I discovered you can get a perfect 1:1 SWR match with the Elecraft tuners if the total wire length is 29 feet.

Related Links:

Mendocino Woodlands POTA Activation Using 29-foot Wire Antenna

29-Foot Wire On Top of Mt. Washington

Jumper Cable + Antenna = 29 Feet

Keep in mind that the total length of the antenna extends from the tip of the antenna down to the unun or banana plug you might use. My jumper cable is 3-feet long so I removed insulation from the 26-gauge wire at 26 feet from the end of the wire where I soldered a loop to the chalk reel hook. 26 + 3 = 29

wire antenna winder

Here’s the wire antenna winder in action. The 26-gauge teflon-coated wire extends up 26 feet into a tree. A 3-foot jumper cable is clipped to a bare section of the wire and to a 9:1 unun sitting on the ground. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter


wire antenna winder

This small loop of micro cord allows me to attach the wire antenna winder to a carabiner that’s hangs from a loop from my North Face day pack that I take on my outdoor adventures. It’s important to realize clipping it to my backpack ensures it won’t swing around if it’s windy. In addition, you need strain relief so the antenna doesn’t get disconnected. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter

wire antenna winder

The blue arrow points to a 4 mm section of the wire where I removed the plastic insulation. The alligator clip connects here. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter

All things considered, the chalk reel adds just a tiny amount of weight to your backpack, but the advantage of retracting the wire fast and keeping it clean is a big advantage.


13 thoughts on “Wire Antenna Winder – A 3:1 Geared Carpenter’s Chalk Reel is Perfect

  1. Very nice! Looks like a popular match box on the ground, I think I have one of those. I like the idea and will probably give it a try one day. 26 guage is the heaviest you can use?

    • The 26 gauge wire thickness matches the diameter of the string that came with the reel. I don’t feel there’s any advantage to using a thicker wire. Your mileage may vary – if you decide to go with 24 or 22-gauge, report back how it worked for you. TNX

  2. I see my call didn’t come out correctly Paul Detroit Michigan AA8ozI really like your qrp antenna Winder truck real that’s cool I got to make one I’ll probably order a couple and today. I fly a 1946 ercoupe have a 3-wheel motorcycle and just purchased a Saturn Sky convertible Roadster.

  3. Pingback: Cheap HF Antenna | W3ATB

  4. Hi Tim,

    After all of these years, I’m back into HAM Radio after a long hiatus and decided to look you up today to see if you stayed in HAM radio. I’d say you definitely did, and that you found a passion in it!

    I’m mostly doing DMR right now, but it has me looking at getting into HF. I have some antenna challenges living in an HOA, but you know my camouflage skills: I have an 8 ft tall Tram 1480 on a 10 ft pole attached to the corner of my house that has been there for probably 10+ years. To this day, if anyone has seen it, there have been no complaints. It’s painted “Navy Fighter Gray” and is hiding in plain sight. Makes me wonder if I can do the same with an MFJ- 2389. But I’m not sure if I want to risk losing both in the process.

    Anyway, it’s exciting for me to see you enjoying the hobby I introduced you to just so we could have radios on the ski hill. And don’t be surprised if I pop back in someday to buy one of your antenna’s. It intrigues me. But I haven’t fully committed to HF yet. DMR is where the action is for me right now.

    73! – K9NSP

    • Wow, voice from the past! Just in the past three days, your name came up with Dan Murray. He and I are on a one-week hiking adventure in southern Utah. I was doing HF radio yesterday from Cedar Breaks National Monument.

      I can see why you’re attracted to DMR. For me, I’m deep into QRP outdoor radio. I’m also starting to enjoy some contesting to help get my CW speed up.

      I think you’d really enjoy HF. What a thrill to connect with someone thousands of miles away using the power of a nightlight.

      Hope all is well with you Theresa, and your daughter. Her name escapes me!

      • That’s okay, for the life of me I can’t remember who Dan Murray is. But it may come to me. I’ve had five surgeries in as many years and that’s the anesthesia talking. One of my Doctors told me that it stays in your body for up to two years, so maybe my memory will improve with time.

        Sydney is my daughter, she’s 17 and change now. It’s been that long. And there’s no ‘h’ in Teresa, but that’s okay too. Everybody does that.

        Enjoy UT, it’s truly beautiful there. And that goes double for where you are. It’s so awesome that the student has surpassed the teacher. And in ways that the teacher has yet to even embrace. You may get to teach me someday. I’ve been a General for as long as I can remember and have yet to key a mic on HF. I’ve been playing with WebSDR, so the bug is there. But DMR is so satisfying and crisp and clear that I don’t know if I want to go the HF way.

        As for the rest of the story, public comments aren’t the place for it. My life has changed dramatically in the time that has passed since we last spoke. You have my email, feel free to reach out if you wish.

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