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Author Topic: Straight Key Learning Challenge  (Read 2182 times)

Posts: 2

« on: March 28, 2003, 09:09:13 PM »

I'm new to ham radio and am primarily interested in becoming proficient in CW.  I will take the code test in mid-April.  Recently I purchased a Hi-Mound HK-708, a Japanese straight key, but I'm finding myself becoming extremely frustrated by the poor quality of my practice sending quality (my multifunction code oscillator is the excellent K5JHF MCD 3.3).

I also own a Whiterook MK-33 single paddle key, which, as you might surmise, is a heck of a lot easier for a newcomer to operate.  But I'm committed to using a straight key until I master it before moving on to paddles (unless this itself is a stupid idea that needs correcting).  

Like any other endeavor that takes practice, using a straight key takes time—I understand that.  I expect I will succeed, given enough intelligently applied effort.  But I’m wondering if I’m doing something wrong.  When using the straight key, my elbow is just past the edge of the desk; I'm rocking my wrist minimally, and trying not to move the rest of my arm. I've changed the key's settings often, searching for the right balance of low energy wasted (wrist/arm movement) versus positive feedback (non-sloppy signal).  Alas, my code sounds horrible; the timing is just terrible.  I feel as if I’m blindfolded and trying to hit a moving piñata.  And I get tired too fast (in minutes).

Here's hoping some online elmers' answers will help others like me get it right.

73, Alan KD5TFC

Posts: 729


« Reply #1 on: March 29, 2003, 09:02:30 PM »

I'm not sure there IS a secret to this.  A really good straight key, like the venerable J-38 (and not a cheap copy) will maintain its adjustment and will be easier to adapt yourself to.  I have one, but I also have a cheap J-38 copy, probably a Japanese version, that looks almost identical, but sure doesn't perform that way.  

Your position sounds good.  Arm extended, the forearm level on the desk, which means you need to sit properly.  Forget about the key for a moment, move it out of the way, and just sit at the desk with your forearm on the desk.  Pick up a pencil and lay a piece of paper under your fingers and just draw some lines by moving your wrist.  If you feel cramping in your fingers or in your arm, you need to adjust your position.  Get your position right - then fit the key to it.  You will not get it right by putting the key down and then fitting your body to it.  

If the key is on a board or metal plate, the board or plate needs to extend under your arm as well, and not end at your wrist, as that will make you bend more.  And, thanks to modern medicine, we can now put a name to that discomfort - Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.  

Once you have the position, without the key present, then put the key down there.  Most of us who have used straight keys extensively (though I rarely do, due to age and old bones!) found a very close gap was necessary, but that meant the spring tension had to be set to (a) avoid contact bounce, and (b) avoid being so stiff it required more muscle to move the key.   A wide key gap will break your wrist!!  I used to set mine so a typewriter sheet of paper would just fit in there.  Then I adjusted the tension (spring) to remove bounce and lessen the strength required to close the key.  Properly adjusted and used, a good straight key (you will never get it done with a cheap one) will sound as good as a keyer, and will be useful with no discomfort up to around 18 WPM.  But as you age, that will change, darn it!

I'm with you - I recommend avoiding the paddle or any sideswipers, and most definitely avoiding bugs, until you can do good code with the straight key.  I had been a ham for 10 years, mostly on CW, before I ever even SAW a bug in use!  I sure wasn't going to be any speed demon with the straight key, but it was good code at 15 WPM or so.  

Keep the adjustments on the side of the key in mind, too.  If they are too tight, they will bind.  But if they are loose enough that you can wobble the key sideways, even a very tiny bit, they will introduce sloppiness into your sending.  They are, in fact, the first adjustment to make.  Then the gap, then the tension, in that order.

If possible use a tape recorder.  Or your computer recorder or whatever you have available.  Playback good code at 10 WPM or so, maybe less, depending upon what you can copy.  Machine code, or record the W1AW code practice sessions.  Then, with them recorded, play them back one letter at a time.  Try to make your letter sound like that letter, in spacing, rhythm and timing.  And don't be satisfied until it does.  If your arm hurts, you are too tense, have the key in the wrong place, or the gap or tension set wrong, so try it again.  The index finger goes on top of the key.  The thumb on the side of the key knob, and the middle finger on the other side.

It can be done!  Have fun.  


Posts: 2

« Reply #2 on: April 15, 2003, 01:50:13 PM »

Thanks for your advice, W5HTW!

After persevering for a couple of weeks, I'm getting a little better at sending, and not tiring out as fast.  Most importantly, it's become fun!  Perhaps I can send for real next month. . . .

The Hi-Mound works great once you know how it should be set up--only experience (trial and much error) could teach me that.  I've got the contacts barely separated and the return spring tension set at the low end of the scale, but not at the absolute minimum required to separate the contacts, perhaps a 1/8 turn of the screw more resistance than "neutral".  Fiddling with everything allowed me to discover the sweet spot.  Once set up properly, the Hi-Mound has stayed in adjustment.  I like this key; it's solid.


Posts: 347

« Reply #3 on: May 03, 2003, 11:48:18 PM »

Hi Alan,
I just happened to find your note, I learned my CW in the old days, 60's haha, and keep my wrist rigid and let my whole forearm and hand work the key. Later, you'll find you can add some finesse with a tiny bit of wrist movement. There is a blend of the two, in a better sense, don't try to make your wrist do all the work. 73 hth,
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