Friday, March 4, 2016

The N3ZN Iambic CW Paddle

Behold... mechanical beauty 

N3ZN ZN-QRP Iambic Paddle (sporting my new call sign)

I re-entered the amateur radio hobby in the summer of 2015 after a bit of a hiatus.  To get my General license in 1996 a Morse code proficiency test was required.  At that time I had purchased a cheap MFJ practice key and a used version of the ubiquitous Bencher BY-1 paddle.  My Bencher was in reasonable shape but I just never became comfortable with it.  It always felt a bit imprecise to me and I wasn't happy with the width and size of its paddles.

When I came back to the hobby in 2015 as a QRP, CW operator I wanted a key for portable operation so that was my initial focus.  At the time, based on some fellow hams recommendations, I chose the Palm Single key which is an excellent, lightweight key for portable use that travels very easily because it collapses into its own travel case.  However as you can see in the videos in that review it's portable nature tends to make a bit imprecise and wobbly.  It works great for portable use but there are far better choices for a desk key.

I wanted a key suitable as the main station key but also easily travel with to operations where I'd have a desk.  So I didn't want a 4 pound immovable monster.  I wanted something small(ish) but stable and that's a tall order.

I looked at the reviews for keys and paddles and there were lots of good choices.  I narrowed it down to commercially available keys that allowed some customization.  Begali and American Morse both received favorable  reviews.  American Morse makes nice smaller sized keys and Begali makes works of art.  Both offered good choices but at greatly different prices.

Then I looked at N3ZN Keys.  Tony makes some very functional and attractive keys with a variety of build options.  One such option is the spacing across the outside of paddles (OTO).  My Bencher BY-1 paddles have about a 3/4" OTO spacing on the paddles and I have to consciously hold my hand open a bit wider than it naturally wants to be to keep from accidentally touching a paddle.  Tony offers different OTO spacing down to 1/2" which I found to be about perfect.  I also had a chance to physically try one of his QRP sized keys at my friend AA4XX's station and the light touch and precision feel immediately won me over.

So I went through Tony's online catalog and corresponded with him.  I chose a ZN-QRP style key with a red base.  The red paint contains some metallic bits to make it sparkly under bright light, not bass-boat sparkly but tastefully done.

Tony packs his product for shipment double boxed with more peanuts, bubble wrap, and foam than I have ever seen in any single container before.  The packing is truly amazing.  My key package could have been air-dropped (or drone dropped) onto my front walk and it would have suffered no ill effects.

ZN series iambic keys Specs

  • All stainless steel screws
  • Large 10-56 adjustment screws for both magnetic return and contact points ( the straight key uses 8-32 screws and a spring for return)
  • Ball bearing lever return-3 ball bearings per lever arm
  • Magnet lever return individually adjustable
  • Lightweight aluminum 6061-T6 levers for QRQ operation
  • silver contacts 
  • Wired with 1/8" stereo plug
  • Soft non-skid low profile rubber feet mounted with stainless steel screws
  • 30 Day money back guarantee.  If you are not 100% fully satisfied then return item in its original condition and receive a full refund.  (You pay return shipping)
  • carbon fiber fingerpieces- 3 colors
From the first long QSO it was obvious that I finally had a quality key.  The paddles just disappeared under my fingers and became an extension of my hand.  The lightweight aluminum levers combined with the carbon fiber finger pieces results in such a light touch that I kept wondering if I was actually operating the key.

Photo Gallery

This key is just too pretty not to photograph.

Carbon Fiber Finger Pieces 

Ready for Racing

Metallic Paint on top cap and customizable name plate no extra charge

Metallic paint on base, Aluminum levers and fine pitched adjustment screws
Pre-wired connections
"Houston, We have contact" Stainless Steel contact that is

With Silvered contact points
With the Siblings... QRP indeed!

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard N4PBQ (soon to be AA4OO)


  1. Good morning Richard, that is a very nice key and great pictures as well. I have the Begali Contour key and I had to get used to it. I'm not sure if you had this issue when you first started to use a quality key first I found I was sending to many dit's or dah's now and then. The only thing I can put it down to was I was used to the "sloppy" action of the bencher key. By sloppy I don't mean poor quality but seems our keys are less forgiving and feel each movement of the fingers and tries to translate that to code.....well unwanted noise.
    Richard enjoy the key!
    73, Mike

    1. Hello Mike,
      I had the opposite experience. I would tend to accidentally send extra dits or dahs with my old key because the outside to outside spacing of the paddles was wider than my rest spacing between my thumb and index finger. So I had to consciously hold my fingers apart a bit to keep from touching the paddles. Tony's paddles have a few choices for outside to outside paddle spacing and I got one that fits me to a tee so no more accidentally sent dits/dahs.

  2. Richard - Oh my goodness, this is really neat. As you described this I was immediately reminded of my first experience with my brand new Shamino bait casting reel. It used a magnetic anti-backlash system that incorporated Neodymium magnets with variable coupling to the aluminum ring attached to the spool. As the spool accelerated the eddy currents induced in the rotating aluminum ring the "eddy current braking" became dynamic.

    I wonder if there could be an application for eddy current dynamic braking in a paddle??

  3. Richard, Nice overview of the key. I just recently heard of N3ZN Keys. I have two Begali Keys, both Simplex Mono's, but different finish on each. I really like them and thought of getting an iambic key from Begali but now considering the ZN-QRP. Your photos really show off how pretty the key is. I'd get the same red base. Maybe I'll get it one of these days.
    Thanks for your review.
    Daniel - W4ABN