Friday, May 27, 2016

Let your fingers do the talking...

Let them play different instruments

Keys left to right
Nye Viking, Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Original Bug, N3ZN ZN-QRP paddle, Palm Single paddle
My collection of keys has grown over the past few months and I find that I like each for their particular qualities.

Keys from left to right

The Nye Viking is somewhere between a traditional J-38 low style American key and a tall European style.  At first I couldn't get any sort of coordination with it even after a couple hours of practice and it stayed in the closet for a few months.  Eventually I wanted to leave a key hooked up to the old Century/21 so I didn't have to move the output of my external keyer so the Viking came back out.  I've finally become accustomed to it and am even beginning to enjoy it as much as the Kent.  I'm amazed at how different two straight keys can be.

The Kent Hand key continues to be my favorite key for straight key operation.  The Kent is operated using your entire arm off the desk and when I send using it above 15wpm I get the entire desk shaking with the motion.  My desk light starts casting dancing shadows across the equipment from the vibration and with the clacking of the key and the blare of the sidetone the world of CW becomes visceral.

The Vibroplex Bug remains at the center of the collection because I have some strange affinity for the quirky bug.  I use it on every QSO where I hear another bug operator or with SKCC operators that are sending faster than 17wpm.  It has a non-cosmetic, yet effective, weight added from an old steel spacer to slow it down to a range of 21wpm to 16wpm and some dental floss around the DIT contact spring to reduce the potential bounce which results in scratchy sounding DITS.

The N3ZN ZN-QRP paddle is a work of art and when I'm working higher speed CW it's my go-to key.  The carbon fiber finger pieces and lightweight clickety action always puts a smile on my face.  I keep it connected to the external Ham Keyer which has a handy knob to for quickly adjusting keyer speed.

The Palm Single to the right is magnetically mounted to a steel base a friend made for me. I pull it off the base when I go portable as it's my go-to key for all my portable operations.  But when I'm at the home station I leave it hooked up to the keyer input on the Ten-Tec Eagle because the Eagle's keyer is only Iambic-B mode and I just can't get used to "B-Mode".  Using a single, non-iambic paddle eliminates the weird timing of the B iambic mode.  I really should learn mode-B since it seems to be standard on Ten-Tec and Kenwood radios. 

The 3 stars in the center are the Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Original Bug and the N3ZN paddle

The 3 keys in the middle (Kent Hand key, Vibroplex Bug and N3ZN paddle) remain hooked up to the Ham Keyer and I move the output of that keyer to whichever rig I'm primarily using at the time.  That keyer uses Iambic-Mode-A which I'm comfortable with and it debounces the scratchiness of the Bug.  I hook the output of the keyer up to either the PTT line on the Eagle or the secondary key input on the KX3.  When using the C21 I just use the Nye straight key.

Debouncing a Vibroplex Bug

Side story on the Bug... If you get a Vibroplex bug and hook it up to the PTT line of your radio you may find that you're missing DITS or that the output sounds broken or scratchy.  The PTT line of many radios is not "buffered" meaning it is reacting to every contact closure.  On a bug, the DIT contact is actually bouncing potentially hundreds of times a second since the contact force is so light and doesn't make a clean closure.  Many keyers will filter out those multiple contacts or bounces.  My old HAM KEYER weight control actually serves as a DIT weight control for the manual keys as well so it's ideal for use with the bug.

KE6EE offered me this nice explanation of what was going on:
The more usual term for the process of dealing with problems of contact closure is "debouncing." Google and you will find lots of interesting visuals and explanations.

The actual start and finish of contact closures and openings in switches, relays and keys, is not a simple off-and-on process but a series of "bounces." Dit contact closures on a bug are likely to be very bouncy. 

Bug dit contact design and bug maintenance and adjustment are critical for minimizing bounce. Ops with Vibroplex-style dit contacts often put a piece of rubber or plastic foam in the U-shaped dit contact spring. The Begali bug uses a unique pointed and spring-loaded dit contact. Many bug ops, from my observations on the air, do not adjust their dit weight properly to minimize a scratchy sound.

Transmitter keying circuits are usually "debounced" in various ways, the simplest perhaps being to put a capacitor across the key contact circuit. A PTT circuit doesn't need to be debounced so it isn't. Keyers often have debounce circuits designed to be used with straight keys and bugs.

Try different keys

So if you are getting into CW try some different keys.  I think you'll be surprised by the differences and find that your mood or situation will dictate the use of one key over another.   Morse keys on the used market aren't expensive if you shop carefully so you can build quite a collection.  They also tend to hold their value if you find that you've obtained a key or two that you just can't grok.

My ever changing station sporting a spiffy new chair

 That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard, AA4OO


  1. Have you tried a sideswiper key? I bought a Kent, and have home brewed three more for fun (they're so simple).

  2. Have you tried a Sideswiper key? Tricky at first to learn, but really fun too. I'd been a ham for 35 years before I even heard of it! Homebrewed several, then bought a Kent.

    1. Hello Wes. I've tried using my Palm Single as a sideswiper and I agree it's very tricky. I'm still mastering the bug (if that's possible). After the bug I think I'll homebrew a sideswiper out of an old saw blade and give it a shot.