W4UTI’s Controversial Primer to
How to Become a Ham CW Operator
(Many may disagree this, but this info may be worth about what you pay for it.)
I’m happy to see a number of inquiries about becoming a CW operator on the Ham bands. Most have their “No Code” ticket, and would like to venture into the CW mode. Many of those inquiries swirl around questions concerning, “How do I learn Morse code?” and “What equipment will I need and how much will it cost?” I’ll try to answer those.
If you wonder why I feel I have the experience to write such a thing, check my bio on WWW.QRZ.com
. I am an ol’ Geezer and I have been licensed continually since 1950. I learned CW in the same fashion I’m recommending to you. Does it work? Well, early in 1950 I picked up a copy of QST on a drug store magazine rack. It had an article (and pictures) of two kids, 12 years old, who were licensed as General Class hams. That was the entry level and required sending and receiving 13 words per minute, sitting across the desk from an FCC examiner. Back then, the General and Advanced license exams were with real FCC representative. The written test include drawing diagrams. Well, I was a freshman in college and figured I had the intelligence of the average 12-year-old, so I decided I would go for it. By August 1950 I had received. by mail, my W9LHB license. If I could do it (mentality of a 12-year-old) SO CAN YOU!
The first thing I recommend to you, is to go onto the ARRL website and look for a little publication titled something like, “Operating an Amateur Radio Station.” This is a MUST. Among all the other valuable info in it, you will find “CW abbreviations” and the “Q” signals. You’ll learn about them later, and they are both essential.
If you have absolutely NO ham equipment, you can put a very nice signal with respectable power on the air for less than $300. If you know what to do, you can get a very nice transceiver with 100 watts out at a most attractive price. My personal recommendation would be something like a Kenwood TS-520S. They are usually available in good condition for around $260 plus shipping. Make sure it has the CW filter as well as the SSB filter. The TS-520S has the power to give you great QSO capability (100+ watts) for as long as you are a Ham. Also, it has a built in power supply and excellent keying characteristics. You can leave the “H.SW” in the down/off position and you can use it as a sound machine while you practice your CW. The signal won’t go out. Any Ham who has ever owned one of these will either probably tell you, “I still have it, and always will!” or “I sold it, but I sure wish I had it back. If you tire of it later, you will be able to sell it for about the same as you paid for it. You are going to need a decent rig as you learn CW. See if you can find a Hamfest near you. Look on www.eham.net
classified ads, WWW.QRZ.com
Swapmeet, or WWW.QTH.com
. If you find something that interests you, READ THE AD CAREFULLY. I strongly suggest you communicate with the seller by e-mail, or preferably by telephone. If you buy it on the Internet, be sure to ask for an e-mail, describing the rig, its condition, and features. DON’T BUY AN “AS IS” TRANSCEIVER! For someone new, and/or on a budget, you can’t afford the gamble. E-Bay is another good source, but read the ad very carefully. E-Bay does have a “stand behind the buyer” motto, but it won’t do you any good if the ad doesn’t support your claim. I also like to use PayPal for that same reason. And, if you pay through PayPal, I think they hold your money for a few days to allow you to receive the item, look at it, and hook it up to see if it really is as the ad specified. Do you feel you can trust the seller? If you don’t get a “User’s Manual” with your rig, don’t worry because you can probably download a FREE one from the Internet .
You are also going to need a key. All you need to start with is a simple straight key. At this point don’t go messing with a paddle, or even a bug. To my way of thinking, a straight key, a bug, a cootie, or paddles (single lever or iambic, magnetic or spring) are just fine. DON’T YOU DARE GO TO A KEYBOARD! If you want to use a keyboard, switch to RTTY or PSK31, or some such. You need to learn on a straight key and later you can think about what paddle and keyer you want, if you choose to go that way. There is absolutely NO TRUTH to the story that “the harder you pound the key, the farther your signal will go.” Set your key for close contact spacing and light spring tension so you can operate it cleanly with minimum wrist action. Again, I recommend used equipment. Don’t look for a fancy key. Definitely, stay under $25. When you feel compelled to go to paddles, I strongly recommend the Bencher BY-1. You don’t need the chrome base. The “works” are exactly the same. Some say the MFJ version of the Bencher just isn’t up to Bencher standards. The BY-1 will serve you well for many years. And of course, you will need a keyer. Be careful here. Many of the older rigs (including the TS-520S) can’t be keyed directly with most keyers. Look for a keyer that can key a rig with tubes, or get a little KeyAll. Look on the Internet for “Keyall.”
When you are learning CW, you are really learning a new language, in a way. Don’t look at it as a chore. It’s really kinda fun to learn, if you go about it in the proper way. CW is a language of sound. SO YOU MUST NOT LEARN YOUR CW BY LOOKING AT THE LETTERS ON A PAGE. For example, and “A” is NOT a “dot and a dash.” It is “didah.” “I” is not two dots, or dot-dot. It’s “didit.” Unless you do it by sound, you will just have to “unlearn” it and go back and start over with the “sound.”
Learn the easy way. The first day, start out with e, i, s, h. Dit, Didit, Dididit, and Didididit. You can use the “sidetone” feature of your transceiver to practice with. Practice sending them with your straight key and make the “dahs” about three times as long as the “dits.” Look. . .you can send words. . .”see, his” and then next, add T, M, and O. Dah, Dadah, and Dadadah. You can make sentences. . .”I see Tom” “I hit Tom” “Tom hit me”. There is a ‘bad word” hidden in there somewhere, but let’s not get into that. Next day you can add A, N, W, and G. Next come K, R, D, and U. Hey, with a little practice, you now know 15 characters. That’s more than half the alphabet. Practice them daily so you are familiar with the way they sound. Then keep adding letters and then numbers until you really know them all.
Now for some more fun. Stick enough wire into the center of the antenna connector on your rig so you can hear signals. Then tune to 40 meters (7.0 - 7.3). You aren’t going to transmit, but you sure can listen. Look between 7.030 and 7.050. That’s where others go to help new CW ops and where new CW ops can find others to talk to. Remember, don’t turn the finals on. Find someone sending slow CW. Don’t worry when you can’t get everything they send. Just listen for the letters you recognize and as you hear one, write it down. You need to practice the “writing down” because that’s what you have to do to pass a CW test, and that’s what you will do when you start making QSOs (contacts). Someday, you will be able to just sit back, put your feet on your desk, and listen to everything he’s saying without writing ANYTHING down.
Some things to remember. NEVER send “73s” when signing off. 73 means “Best regards” so 73s means “Best regardses” and it means you are new to CW. I don’t use a period (.) For punctuation. I use the old system of an “X” for ending a sentence. . .shorter and easier to send. Use the abbreviations you find in the ARRL booklet and it’s good to be nice but think “brief.” You answer a CQ, and after he sends to you, YOU DO NOT SEND “ Roger solid copy. Thank you for my report of RST 579 579. Your signal from Hopscotch, Nevada is RST 589 RST589. My location here is West Bunion, Iowa ? West Bunion, Iowa X My rig here is a Kenwood TS-520S running about 100 watts output to a folded dipole antenna. My name is John. So back to you now Jim. How do you copy?” You should send something like “R Jim TNX RPT X U R 589 589 IN WEST BUNION ? WEST BUNION IOWA X Rig hr Knwd TS520S w 100w out to a folded dipole X HOW NOW JIM? K” Use the substitutions, such as “es” for “and.” ( “K” is the invitation to the other ham to transmit.) And the abbreviations, “fer, knw, sn, tnx, fb” etc. It sure speeds things up.
Okay, when you can copy at least 10 words per minute, it’s about time to think about getting the transceiver on the air. Don’t get on if you can’t handle at least 10 wpm. Most experienced ops like to help new CW ops, but they expect the new ops to at least know the alphabet. Never send faster than you can receive. “Acquire” 3 insulators, some rope, enough 52 ohm coax to reach where you want to put the center of your antenna (Don’t get the expensive coax like RG-8U. You don’t need it.), and about 70 feet of antenna wire. I don’t know what’s available now, but we used to buy “Copper Weld” (steel wire with a copper coating covered with some kind of enamel. Use this material to make a center fed dipole. If you don’t know how, or can’t find the dimensions on the Internet, e-mail me. My address is on my bio at QRZ.com. You should have a picture and bio on there by now. It’s free! The impedance of the antenna will be close enough for the transmitter, if you did your measuring right. Height is not critical. Generally speaking, the higher, the better.
BEFORE YOU TRANSMIT, LISTEN! When the frequency seems clear, send “QRL?” (Listen - nothing heard?) Send QRL? again. Listen! Be sure to send the question mark after each QRL. With the question mark, you are asking, “Is this frequency busy?” Without the question mark, you are SAYING, “This frequency is busy.” If you are just wanting to talk with someone, NEVER use “QRZ?”. That’s asking “Who is calling me?” Obviously, no one is already calling you. . .you just showed up. When you want to talk to someone (anyone) send “CQ” three times, then “de your call.” Like this CQ CQ CQ de W9LHB, and then stop and listen. If you get no answer, try it again. Sometimes you must throw a lot of cast before you catch any fish.
Okay, that should be enough to get you started. Good luck and have fun. Nice people are on CW and we will welcome you to the crowd. You just don’t know how much fun you’re going to have.
I’m looking forward to having a QSO with you.
Karl - W4UTI