Saturday, July 29, 2017

Sticker Shock

CW keys cost too much, or do they?

I read various forums and blogs for the same reason you might be reading this one.  I'm always interested in learning more or trying to answer someone's question in a forum, etc. etc.

A recent forum post went something like... 
"CW straight key prices are so obscenely inflated that I lost interest in learning CW..."

I'll admit that I've been shocked at the prices of some CW keys but to say that because some CW straight key prices are high that would make me lose interest in learning seems a bit non-sequitur.  I'm not going to debate the logic/illogic of not learning CW due to the high cost of straight keys but I would like to explore the current cost of straight keys.  So are CW keys really that expensive?  Let's have a look...

Morse Express offers a good selection of keys and I've had good experience purchasing from them.  At the time of this writing they offer an AMECO straight key for $12.50, the Hi-Mound model 705 for $50 and a Nye Viking Speed-X for $85.  Prices can certainly go up from there... A Begali Spark (available from Begali) is approximately $150 and more custom keys and materials can go up and up and up.

There may be less expensive new straight keys than the AMECO $12.50 model but let's start there.

So from a 1958 radio shack advertisement we see:

1958 Radio Shack ad

The 99 cent "Skillman 'jr' Speed Key" appears to be equivalent to the AMECO AM-K1 advertised at MorseX site.  What is 99c in today's money... about $8.50  So yes by that measure the absolute cheapest key you could buy from Radio shack in 1958 would cost only 75% of what you'd pay today.   What about the next model up, the "Deluxe High Speed Brass Key" is probably equivalent to a Nye Viking Speed-X.  So $2.95 versus $85... Hmmm inflation says the Nye Viking should cost $25 based on that comparison.  Maybe the Speed-X is better made than the 1958 Radio Shack "Deluxe High Speed Brass Key" but probably not 3-4 times better.

My goodness, straight key manufacturers are gouging us aren't they?

So it would seem straight key prices are significantly higher now than in the 1950s  Why is that?

Could it be the cost of manufacturing... 
As quantity of production increases from Q to Q2, the average cost of each unit decreases from C to C1. LRAC is the long run average cost (Source Wikipedia)

There was a far higher demand for keys in the past than at present

So according to this 1958 FCC Report there were 180,738 licensed amateur radio operators in the USA in 1958.  ALL of those operators were required to both learn morse code and were originally restricted to only operate CW until a license upgrade occurred.  Even after that I'd argue (and I'd like to hear from operators from that era) that CW continued to be a far more common mode of communication for hams than phone modes at the time.  

So guess what?  All these operators were purchasing morse code keys.  I don't think the electronic keyer had come into common use at the time so they would be buying straight keys or bugs of some type (not discounting cooties but hey let's admit using a cootie takes a special kind of strange).

Fast forward to the PRESENT:  
  • Morse code is not required to obtain a FCC amateur radio license.
  • There are ~744000 licensed hams but ~373000 are Technician class; so although they might be exercising CW in their limited band portions I think we'd all agree that's highly unlikely.  So that leaves us with 371,000 operators that could be operating CW.  Seems like a big number.
  • My personal anecdotal experience from visiting local Amateur radio clubs tells me that less than 1 in 20 licenced operators regularly use CW and of those the majority use electronic keyers with paddles or operate with a keyboard, rather than using a mechanical key.
  • The SKCC is a club/association for straight key and mechanical key operators.  From what I can tell it is the most popular CW related club at presently.  As of this writing it has 17385 members.  Since all these members are using mechanical keys that's a good gauge of active straight key operators at present.

Current market for straight keys

Ok making a semi-sketchy educated guess out of this combination of my assumption filled math moderated by anecdotal experience and one actual real number; I'm guessing there are 18,000 active mechanical key operators at present in 2017 compared to 180,738 in 1958 (not taking into account other potential buyers straight keys outside of amateur radio).

There is likely less than 10% of the 1958 market for straight keys now.  Add to this that's it's likely easier to obtain a used key today from an auction or ham swap sites that further dilutes sales potential of new straight keys.

So with greater than 90% market erosion we look back up at the cost of manufacturing chart and see why straight keys cost so much now compared to when you were an aspiring novice back in the 1950s.

What is a CW key worth?

I've mentioned this in other articles but
Of every item in your shack, what are you going to actually touch as much as your CW key?  
You will physically interact more with you CW key than any piece of equipment you own.  It's kinda like comfortable shoes.  Sure you can buy a pair of $10 flip flops or you could have $3,000 custom made Italian shoes.  Somewhere in between lies something that's both functional, comfortable and durable.  

The same is true for CW keys.  You could buy the $12.50 AMECO plastic key or a $540 Begali sideswiper.  Both work, but what you can be happy with likely lies somewhere in-between.  Folks will happily spend big bucks for a ham radio microphone to achieve that "full fidelity sound" (in ahem 2.8kHz bandwidth) but they balk at spending over $100 for a CW key.  

Seems to me that keys aren't getting the love they deserve.

So before you decide that you won't learn CW until the price of Morse Code Straight Keys comes down from today's obscene prices, consider what it is you're actually buying and why they just might cost more today than when you were a lad and all automobiles had to be hand cranked.

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations.

Richard, AA4OO


  1. Great post Richard. I've recently created a blog to share my adventures with learning and using CW. The purpose of this blog is to encourage other hams to learn and use CW as well, I mean, it's a blast! Anyways I would say your stat of 1 in 20 hams regularly uses CW and that's very unfortunate. CW ops not only help preserve our CW mode, the also help preserve old traditions like exchanging QSL cards, something else that seems to be going away. Anyways, thanks for the post, I will enjoy getting caught up on your blog. You can find mine here:

    72 - W9ODX

  2. Good post, Richard!

    It's also worth mentioning that a good key can more than last a lifetime. I've gone through a dozen cars in the 30 years that I've owned my Vibroplex paddles, an my J-38 is WWII vintage.

    72/73 de Steve N8NM