Build | Fix | Re-use

How To Build Your Own Private Telephone System

Due to the proliferation of cellular networks, most homes have abandoned their land line telephone plan. The infrastructure is still there though, hidden in our walls. Why let all that copper go to waste? Let’s talk about how inexpensive and easy it is to reclaim this technology, making it useful again in today’s internet connected world.


  • PBX
  • Old phones, modems, answering machines, etc.
  • Voice Over IP gateway
  • Modular telephone cables


Step 1: What is a private branch exchange (PBX)?

You may have run into these at work, at a hotel, or have seen references to them in television shows and film.

“Dial 9 to get an outside line”

“My extension number is 604”

“Let me transfer you to billing”

The magic box that makes all of this possible is a PBX. In large organizations, in order to limit the number of phone lines required (and to keep switching in-house), a private branch exchange system is installed. You can dial out to the larger phone network. People from the larger network can dial the number of the organization and then the extension they want to ring inside the private network. Or an incoming call might ring the secretary’s phone, and they can in-turn transfer your call manually. Another great feature of these systems is the ability to dial other extensions on your network directly, never connecting to the outside network at all!

Until recently, this kind of technology was very expensive and difficult to set up. Ironically (now that most of us do not use our wired telephones) it is now embarrassingly easy and inexpensive to set and use systems that, not too long ago, would cost thousands and require staff to maintain.


Step 2: Collect all of your devices

Along with the ‘Direct from China Ebay Special el-cheapo PBX’, we need some devices to hook up to it. For my network, I collected the following:

  • Cheap Voice over IP gateway (for making and receiving calls over the internet)
  • A basic wall mount touch tone (for the shop)
  • A modern cordless phone with a built in answering machine
  • My restored antique telephones (so pretty!)
  • A Raspberry Pi 2 with an external Fax Modem
  • An acoustic coupler modem from the 1970s (because I’m just that cool)


Step 3: Connect the PBX to the Outside World

For daily use, what actually makes more sense these days is a voice over ip gateway. I have an inexpensive voip gateway connected to the PBX’s principle outside line. This allows people to call the PBX from a traditional telephone number and allows me to make calls around the world at effectively no cost. These boxes have gotten very inexpensive and well integrated into all sorts of nice internet based phone services. Set up of the voip gateway generally involves syncing it with which ever online service you use (with the gateway plugged into power and to your local area network / wifi) and it ‘just works’.

As you can see from the photos, getting the PBX to use the VoIP Gateway is as simple as connecting a short modular cord from the jack on the back of the gateway to the first outside line on the PBX.

You can complicate things by setting up what to do with incoming and outgoing calls in very great detail via your PBX’s settings. However, these cheap PBX’s come default from the factory to route any incoming call to ring all of the extensions, and to allow any extension to dial out on any outside line. I do not have any reason to change this behavior, so set up here was super silly simple.


Step 4: Connect all of your devices

Now connect modular cords between each of your devices to one of the EXT (extension lines).

The EXT lines act like a traditional telephone jack. They provide power, ring, voice, fax, whatever just like a real phone line would.

At this point you can provide power to your PBX and you have just set up your own private telephone system. If you pick up one phone and dial the ext number of one of the other phones, it should ring normally. Congratulations, you now have the coolest (and most over engineered) string and two tin cans intercom system ever!

Note: You absolutely do not need a voip gateway for any of the internal PBX functionality to work. You can dial extensions, transfer calls, party line, and put your significant other on hold all while blissfully disconnected from the outside world. On my PBX I can very easily make every single phone in the house ring from mine. This is perfect at dinner time when you want to let every one know.


Step 5: Applications!

So there is the basic set up. To wrap up, let’s take a moment to talk about a few fun projects that having your own PBX enables.

A red ‘hotline’ phone. If you work from home and have kids, this is a great way to let them know that they can always reach you while you are in your office but with just enough of a ‘it has to be important’ barrier to keep the distraction level down.

A Raspberry Pi virtual fax machine. Even in this internet based world, you still run into situations where you need a fax machine. It is surprisingly easy to set up a Raspberry Pi to send or receive faxes.

A real telephone ringer. Find an old telephone ‘subset’ box to connect to your PBX. Early telephones did not have a ringer inside the phone. They relied on external subset boxes with big brass bells. When a call comes in, hear that jangling ring from the good old days again.

A dial up internet service provider. Here is another one that a Raspberry Pi works great for. With a Raspberry Pi and an external usb modem connected up to one of your PBX EXT lines, you can ‘dial up’ from any of the other EXT lines on your network to your own ISP. It’s a quick “sudo apt-get install pppd”, editing a few lines of config text, and you are there. If you have your PBX set up with VoIP, you could even dial into your ISP from anywhere.

A Bulletin Board Service (BBS). Have any vintage computers in the attic? A PBX can be the simplest way to get them on the internet. Old modems work great over a PBX. An Atari’s 300 baud acoustic coupler, a Commodore 64’s 1200 baud modem, or even the 14.4k modem in a 486 dos box … any old machine that you would have run your BBS on back in the day can be easily set up so that people can dial into it over the internet.


All credit goes to  over at instructables.

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