No more excuses: Learning CW

Discussion in 'Straight Keys - CW Enthusiasts' started by AG7BF, Oct 10, 2016.

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  1. AG7BF

    AG7BF Ham Member QRZ Page

    So, I'm looking for your real life experiences.

    ARRL has a list of programs to learn code with here.

    I've tried "Just Learn Morse Code" and "G4FONs Morse Training Program."

    Not much luck. Tried an app on my phone. A bit better, but sometimes the dits and dahs run together, so not great.

    Hams around here swear by

    I'd rather not spend money, but if I need to I need to.

    What have you used, and what worked or didn't work?

    Also, what sort of key should I start with on a budget? Seems like most people recommend starting with a straight key. What about starting with a sideswiper? I'm not sold on iambic anyway because I don't like the fact that you need electronics to make it work.

    I'm not willing to spend much more than $100 on my first key (because that'll take 2 1/2 months to save for).
    AF6GA and GM0EAH like this.
  2. KA9JLM

    KA9JLM Ham Member QRZ Page

    If you get a memory keyer you can use it for code practice.

    I like paddles when the water gets deep.

  3. AG7BF

    AG7BF Ham Member QRZ Page

    I'm giving LWCO a try, and I've signed up for the January/February CW Academy Course.
    AI6DR and KB2SMS like this.
  4. KC3RN

    KC3RN Ham Member QRZ Page

    First, search YouTube. There are a number of interesting (and helpful) videos and lesson there, and it costs you nothing.

    Next, I would highly recommend you start with a straight key. Sideswipers are a pain, and actually difficult for a beginner to keep stable. Paddles and an electronic keyer are fun, but you'll be tempted to send faster than you can copy, so save those for later. Lastly, AVOID bugs (semi automatic keys) at all costs. Even experienced ops have trouble with them. 75% of the bug operators I work are almost un-copyable.......

    Personally, my favorite straight key is an old Speed-X J-37. It's just like a J-38 but without the shorting bar. I picked it up earlier this year at a local hamfest for $30. I also have an old Ham Key combo that has both paddles and a straight key. The straight key is cool, but I like the action on the Speed-X a bit better.

    Check you local hamfests, swap & shops, etc. Also, keys come up on QRZ, QTH, and eHam all the time. I had some good luck on eBay as well. You can usually find a knock-off J-38 there for around $20. They're note the best key in the world, but can be made very serviceable if you're patient with the adjustments. I have one that I picked up back in the 70's, and it works and feels pretty good. It actually feels closer to my Speed-X than the Ham Key does.

    Here's an interesting eBay listing. It's a Speed-X J-37 like mine, with a CPO attached. The price is reasonable, and it's probably going to be helpful for you:
    KK4NSF likes this.
  5. N2EY

    N2EY Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Here goes anyway:

    Way back in the 1960s it took me about two months to go from zero to about 7 wpm. I did it by listening to other hams on the air - no tapes, records or computer. There are better ways now and you can probably get to 5 wpm or so in a month to 6 weeks, if you practice every day.

    In a few months after getting my Novice I was ready for 13 wpm, and in about a year, 20 wpm. And that was just the beginning.

    Dr. George Sheehan frequently said that "Each of us is an experiment of one". He meant that while there are general rules to learning new things, each of us has to experiment to find out what works best for him or her. For most things, there is no single "best" way for everyone. This is particularly true when it comes to learning skills.

    That said, here are 12 tips to learning Morse Code:

    1) It used to be that there were two main reasons for radio amateurs to learn Morse Code. The first was to actually use it on the air, while the second was to pass the license tests. The second reason has disappeared in the USA and several other countries.

    So it's important to understand what your goal really is: to become an Amateur Radio Operator who is skilled in Morse Code. That means learning a set of skills, not just the one or two skills needed to pass a one-time test.

    That skillset cannot be learned by reading a book, watching a video, using other modes to talk about them on the air, or participating in online forums. While those things help, they are not the core. The needed skillset can only be learned by doing, and it takes time, practice, and an active involvement on your part. This is what makes learning skills so different from "book learning" - and why some folks find it so hard to learn skills. You have to be actively involved - it doesn't happen passively.

    2) Set up a place to study Morse Code. This doesn't mean it's the only place you study code, just that it's optimized for learning it. A good solid desk or table with no distractions, lots of room to write, good lighting, and a good chair. Source(s) of code (computer, HF receiver, tapes, CDs, etc.), key and oscillator. Headphones are a good idea. I recommend starting out with a straight key, you may decide to go straight to paddles and a keyer. Regardless of what key you decide to use, it needs a good solid base and needs to be adjusted properly.

    3) Avoid gimmicks such as CodeQuick and printed charts with dots and dashes on them. Often such systems were designed to help a person learn just enough code to pass the 5 wpm test, but resulted in bad habits that had to be unlearned for practical operating. Morse Code as used on radio is sounds, not printing on a chart or little phrases. They may work for some people, but, in general, I advise against them.

    Learning to receive consists of nothing more than learning to associate a certain sound pattern with a certain letter or number. There are only about 41 of them to learn. If you could learn to recognize 41 words in a foreign language, you can almost certainly learn Morse Code.

    4) Set aside at least a half-hour EVERY DAY for code practice. Can be a couple of ten- or fifteen minute sessions, but they should add up to at least a half hour every day. That means every single day, not just weekends, holidays, etc. If you can do more than a half-hour some days, great! Do it! But more on one day does not give you an excuse to miss the next day.

    Yes, you may miss a day here and there, because life happens. The trick is to keep such missed days to the absolute minimum.

    5) If you can enlist a buddy to learn the code with, or find a class, do it! But do NOT use the class or the buddy as an excuse to miss practice or slow down your learning. The buddy and/or class are a supplement to your study, not the center of it.

    6) Download and read "The Art And Skill of Radiotelegraphy". It's free and available from several websites. “Zen and the Art of Radiotelegraphy” is also good. Search out other code-oriented websites, articles, etc. and read what they have to say. But always remember they're not a substitute for practice.

    7) Practice both sending and receiving each and every day. Most of your practice time should be spent receiving, but the two help each other. Practice receiving by writing it down and by copying "in your head". I find a pencil and block printing works best for me.

    8) A combination of the Koch method and Farnsworth spacing is probably optimum for most people. Read up on them, understand and use them – but remember they are tools, not magic. They can make learning the code easier but they will not make it automatic.

    9) Discontinue ANYTHING that impairs your ability to concentrate, focus, and learn new stuff. Only doctor-prescribed medications are exempt from this rule; beer is not exempt. Eat right, get enough sleep and enough physical exercise.

    10) Put away your microphones, stay off the voice radios - all of them. Besides the automated Morse Code generators, listen to hams actually using code on the air. Copy down what they send. Have Morse Code playing in the background while you do other things (but don’t count that as practice time). Learn how hams actually use code. When you get to the point where you can send and receive code, even slowly, get on the air and start making QSOs. Get involved in CW contesting, rag chewing, DX chasing, etc. Remember that you are learning Morse Code to be a Radio Operator, not just to pass a test.

    11) If your HF rig doesn't have a sharp filter (400-500 Hz), get one and install it. Read the manual about how to use the rig on CW; often the default settings are optimized for SSB. Best operation usually requires turning off the AGC, turning the RF gain down and the AF gain up. The S-meter and AGC won't work under those conditions but that's no big loss; they’re not essentials.

    12) Keep at it. There may be times when it seems as if you are making no progress, and times when you make rapid progress. What matters is that you keep practicing every day. Nobody was born knowing the skills you're trying to learn.


    A bit of work? Sure it is, but well worth it, because all those steps make learning the code easier. And the work is trivial compared to what you can do with the skills once they're learned.

    But a person has to be willing to do what's required. And they have to actually do those things.

    Good luck!

    73 de Jim, N2EY
    G4LJW, KC3GZJ, KU4X and 4 others like this.
  6. AG7BF

    AG7BF Ham Member QRZ Page

    Very helpful. I think my rig may have a filter, but I'm not sure. I've read through the CW instructions several times (since I used CW mode to tune my antenna). The rig is a TS-120S, so filter options are limited.

    I've only been on the air on HF for a few days, so I'm not going to give up SSB while learning code, but I'll probably be able to study code for a half hour at work when the HF rig isn't even available to me.
  7. AG7BF

    AG7BF Ham Member QRZ Page

    The classic oval key here was actually one I'd settled on as a contender when I was browsing yesterday:

    What do you think?

    Also these:

    I tend to trust classic military stuff since peoples' lives actually depended on it.
  8. KC3RN

    KC3RN Ham Member QRZ Page

    That's a J-37. It's the same key that's in the eBay listing. I recommend it.

    The tall knob is very clumsy. I don't find them comfortable at all. I have a similar knob on a homebrew key I made. Personally, I'd go for the J-37 Speed-X......
    N2EY likes this.
  9. AG7BF

    AG7BF Ham Member QRZ Page

    Thanks! I think I'll just save for the new J-37 unless I see an offer I can't refuse before that.
  10. KA9JLM

    KA9JLM Ham Member QRZ Page

    Don't do like I did, Learn to send 25 wpm good and could only copy at 20 wpm. :(

    That is embarrassing on the air when Steve replies at my send speed.
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2016

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