Showing posts sorted by relevance for query kent hand key. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query kent hand key. Sort by date Show all posts

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Review of the Kent Hand Key

The Kent Hand Key (aka Straight Key)

I've had a week to appreciate the Kent Hand Key.  I am in no way an expert on straight keys since the only "straight key" I've used before was my junky, pressed steel, MFJ practice key.

Here is the Kent sitting in front of a MFJ practice key...  Maybe I'm compensating for something...
Viva La Difference
I had used my MFJ practice key on maybe 10 actual on-air conversations.   It wasn't confidence inspiring due to its mushy, wobbly nature.  However I can draw some comparisons.  The MFJ key is closer to an "American" style key where the knob is low down and flat where the operator rests their forearm on the desk and operates via the action of their wrist.  I spoke with proprietor of Morse Express at length when I was ordering my Palm Single Key regarding what type of Straight Key / Hand Key he recommended and his preference was for the European style of key such as the Kent.

This article (What are American and European “styles?”) from the Morse Express website goes into great detail concerning the differences between the European and American sending styles as well as the difference in keys used.  To summarize, having the key low and operating from the wrist was found long ago to cause wrist injury after extended use.  In response to this; side operated keys such as the Vibroplex Bug and "Cootie" side-swiper were introduced.  The Europeans took a different approach by raising the key and operating it from the edge of the desk such that the operator's arm is in free space and the action of the wrist is greatly lessened as it transfers to the arm and shoulder.  The difference in styles requires different motions of the hand and arm.  Some people prefer one over the other and some just like to switch between them as the mood strikes.

I looked at a lot of different straight keys on the web but didn't have the opportunity to try any in person.  I chose the Kent mainly because I wanted the European style and I just liked the way it looked.

I emailed Robert Kent at Kent Engineering and asked him questions about the Kent Hand Key. I wanted to know the age of my key and the type of wood used in the base.

The base is wood, obviously, but I couldn't determine the type.  Even after all these years it's quite fragrant, especially when the bottom cover is removed.  Robert Kent told me they used all manner of woods over the years, basically whatever was available so who knows.  It smells like Walnut to me but I didn't think Walnut was plentiful in England so it's probably something else.  The wood base is weighted internally with two steel bars in a hollowed out section covered by the base plate.  It weighs about 2.2lbs (1kg).

Kent Keys were manufactured in England  from 1983 until around 2006, after which they contracted out the work to a firm in Germany.  As best as I can determine from Robert, keys such as mine with the continuity strap on top were manufactured in England.  Those with the strap on the bottom were kitted or made in Germany as is the current model.  These keys look very similar to the type used to send the SOS on the ill fated Titanic.

Continuity Strap assures a good electrical connection from arm to base
The terminals are wired internally under the base plate to the posts at the rear.  The post have knurled knobs for securing either eyelets or bare wires into holes in the rear of the post.

Name Plate: KENT Preston England PR46BY
My hookup wire is an old lamp cord
The anvil and striker are heavy duty and produce a "clack" in operation duly amplified by the wooden base.  Some reviews on eHam find this a real detractor and if I operated within earshot of my family they would likely not appreciate its music as much as I do.

The Kent CLACKER !!
The business end of the key is solid brass with a brushed finish.  This key is at least a decade old and the finish has held up well.  The arm is SOLID stuff, no bending is going to occur no matter how HAM fisted you are (pun intended).

Yep that's a thick piece 'o brass
The sealed bearings are sturdily secured to the frame.  There is absolutely no side-to-side motion as the key is being used.  Tension is maintained by a spring in the base that pulls down on the rear of the bar.  This keeps the bearings tensioned more evenly than a pusher spring in the front would (from what I read).  All the adjustments use finely pitched screws with knurled knobs.  It can be adjusted to an extremely small gap and tension can be adjusted from a butterfly's wing to longbow pull given the leverage of the spring.  The larger the gap of course the more cacophony the key makes in operation.  As my form keeps changing I find that I keep adjusting it to fit.

 The "Navy Style" knob is a two piece hard rubber monster of a thing.  When my key first arrived, the knob had oxidized with some white discoloration but oils from my hand have turned it dark again. It is very slightly dished on top with a good height for a proper grip. Some people seem to like to replace the bottom section with a poker chip but I don't think I'd want that to be rough edged.

The base plate is sturdy metal, covered with green felt/blaze.  The screws secure the rubber feet and plate to the base.  Removing the plate gains access to the wiring and screws securing the components and bar holding the spring.

Alright, I'm admittedly no expert in these things but I have to say that I'm very pleased with this key.  All my contacts this week have been made using this key and it's beginning to feel like an extension of my arm.  I'm very pleased.  The only negatives I can find with it is the racket it makes in operation but with headphones on or the sidetone turned up it's of no concern to me and for some reason I'm growing to like the noise.  If you operate in a room adjacent to family members it may cause some consternation.  Also of concern is it's size and the operating style requires you to have it near the edge of your desk, so if you're not willing to dedicate that space it wouldn't be right for you.  It is also larger than my KX3 radio so I certainly wouldn't classify this as a "portable" key however I'd have no concerns over its durability for transport.  You could probably throw it in your trunk and take a long trip without any wear for the worse on the Kent.

I do plan to eventually try some other keys.  Junker's seem to be popular choices as well as Nye's.  I briefly tried a friend's Vibroplex Bug and don't feel that it's a good choice for a new CW operator (at least for me).  I've also tried using my Palm Single as a side-swiper and that's not natural to me either.

Lastly here's a video I already posted of a QSO I made using the Kent Hand Key.  It will allow you to hear its "clacking" albeit at a slow speed.

That's all for now.

So Lower your Power and Raise your Expectations


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

Sunday, January 1, 2017

In the Navy... You can sail the seven seas...

Navy Flame Proof 26003A key

In my journey with amateur radio using CW and mostly low powered operations (QRP) I've slowly been accumulating and learning to use different kinds of Morse Code keys.

Navy Flame Proof (front adjustment screw is from my Nye Viking key)

But first...

Before I talk about the Navy Flame Proof let me go backwards a bit and discuss CW keys in general and why there are so many types of keys.

Broadly defined, I think most Hams lump CW keys into two categories... paddles and mechanical keys. Paddles are used with an electronic keyer that produces the actual DIT-DAH Morse Code elements where the operator is only responsible for initiating a Morse element, not controlling the duration.  Conversely, mechanical keys rely upon the operator to correctly time the length of the elements.  In the case of a "Bug" style key, the mechanical key automatically times the duration of DITS but the operator is responsible for the timing of the DAHs.

I would venture to guess that nearly all contesters use paddles because paddles (either dual or single) require less effort and are less fatiguing to use than a mechanical key.  It also seems that the majority of QRQ operators use paddles, likely for the same reason.  

But for whatever reason I'm a bit anachronistic and I usually prefer to use mechanical keys.

I started with a cheap, Philco plastic straight key hooked up to a MFJ practice oscillator.  It worked, and I made CW contacts using that key (not the practice oscillator).  I'm sure a lot of code has been sent over the years by amateurs  with such a key but no one would call a Philco a precision instrument.  I knew I wanted another straight key besides the Philco.  But unless you can visit a ham with a large CW key collection you're at a bit of disadvantage deciding what kind of key you'd like.  

CW keys are devices you have to interact with before you know if you'll enjoy them

You can read descriptions and watch videos, but using a CW key is a totally hands-on sorta thing. You might like the looks of a key but if it doesn't feel good eventually you'll set it on the shelf.  I find it fascinating how different simple mechanical switches can feel under my hand.  We are created in all shapes and sizes and with different preferences. No one is going to determine the "best key" for someone else when it comes to a device that is physically touched and manipulated tens of thousands of times over the course of its use.

OK... let me get back on topic

Alrighty then, so based on that segue it seems that reading a review and watching a video about a CW key is nearly useless. But I'm all about fruitless activity so here goes...

The Navy Flame Proof key was originally manufactured by several suppliers, the Navy 26003A Flame Proof key was manufactured to meet the Table of Equipment needs for ships and planes. During the last three decades of production (ending in 1988), J.H. Bunnell & Co. was the sole source of the Flame Proof key. Bunnell Flame Proofs have "CJB-26003A" stamped on them. Other letters indicate different manufacturers.  The "Flame Proof" designation is because the contacts are sealed inside the key where any potential sparking is confined.

There have been different types of Flame Proof keys manufactured through the years but the 26003A specification was the last design of the series.  My key was manufactured by J.H. Bunnell & Co. but I don't know the vintage.  It seems to have been in service with the Navy because it has a very worn ship stamp on the bottom of the key and the knob itself has seen quite a bit of handling.  There are a lot of NOS (new old stock) keys out there that were never in service are are basically "new".  I haven't had the chance to use one of those so my review is based on this used service key.

Navy Knob grip

The first thing you may note is the "grip" on the key (see the above photo).  This key has what is referred to as a "Navy knob".  That means it has a tall-rounded knob where you grip it.  This makes it distinct from J-38 style keys that are low to the desk.  You can mount this key directly to your desk to reduce the height but it is still going to present a taller grip than a typical American style key.  My preference is for tall keys because I operate "European Style" where my arm is not resting on the table.  I find it less fatiguing. This article at Morse Express has a good description of the differences in European and American style keys and operation.

Kent Hand (left)  Navy Flame Proof 26003A (right)

You can also see my Kent Hand Key in photo above next to the 26003A.  It has a different shape to the knob and the disc underneath is different as well.  The difference in the two knob shapes results in a markedly different feel to gripping the key.  My first interaction with the 26003A was uncomfortable.  I was gripping it as I would the Kent and it hurt my thumb, but within an hour of use I'd adjusted my grip and the key became quite comfortable.

You'll note that my key has a non-stock gap adjustment screw in the front and no plastic cover for the terminals (partly why I got it so cheaply).  When it arrived it had a standard slotted 8-32 screw in that position but I wanted to be able to easily adjust it so I borrowed a knurled 8-32 screw and nut from my Nye Viking key (which I've never grown fond of) and put it in service.   J.H. Bunnell & Co. still has parts and I plan to order the matching screw and nut if I keep this key on the desk.

The Kent is a rather traditional straight key (albeit Euro style) with the contact in front of the bearings, whereas the Navy Flame Proof has the contacts behind the bearings.  Both the difference in leverage and travel to the contact gives it a different feel than the Kent.


So, the difference in grip, knob height and gap from my Kent combines to make the 26003A feel like a very different key.  Without trying I naturally send about 2 wpm faster on this key than my Kent.  When I try to go fast with my Kent things go awry but I can comfortably operate this key at 19 wpm.  A 3rd class radioman in the Navy passed a 20 wpm test so I'm confident that this key can be used faster than I'm operating it.

Ready - Set - Action !

In use, the Navy Flame Proof is quiet.  The contacts are inside the metal body and the only real noise is the arm striking the gap setting front screw.  Some folks seem to find that noisy and offer various recommendations for quieting that gap screw.  I've mounted my key to an inexpensive award plaque (under $3) and it's resting on thin shelf lining.  Compared to my Kent Hand Key which sounds like a woodpecker in action this key is downright silent.

The following video was made during last night's ARRL straight key night event and you can see how I use the key during a QSO.


So should you get one?  Absolutely! There's a strong market on e$ay for these keys so if you don't like it you can easily find it a new home.  These keys tend to auction from as little as $36 up to $150.  The average auction price at present seems to be in the $90 range.  I kept bidding low on different auctions and eventually picked this one up one for $41 including shipping, so if you're patient you can give it a try for about the cost of a J-38.

If you've not gripped a "Navy knob" previously give your hand some time to find a comfortable hold, you may also want to experiment with different base heights.  I've had mine on a couple different scrap wood bases to try different heights and presently I like this 1/2" base but I might find a piece of steel to attach it to get it down low.

So get a bit of salt air in your shack with a Navy Flame Proof key.


That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard AA4OO

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Go straight on Jan 1, 2017 with the Navy

ARRL Straight Key Night is January 1 starting 0000 UTC

I have a new straight key for the upcoming ARRL Straight Key Night...

Navy Flameproof Key in need of some TLC

A recent low-bid, on a famous auction site, netted me this Navy Flameproof key.  A mismatched screw and nut from my Nye Viking key is serving  as the closure spacing adjustment until I get a replacement screw and nut specific to the Flameproof from JH Bunnell Co.  I've been using it on the air and it has a distinctly different feel from my other straight keys.  There's a lot going on inside that little enclosure.

I will have this key as well as my Kent Hand Key on-the-air during this year's straight key night driving my 1977 TenTec Century 21 CW rig

Kent Hand Key in front of TenTec C21

ARRL Straight Key Night

Straight Key Night (aka SKN) occurs on the first day of each year (beginning at 0000 UTC) and runs for 24 hours.  In addition to dusting off your straight key, it has sort of become a tradition to drag out all the vintage equipment you can muster and get it on-the-air.  

What should you expect on SKN?

Last year I heard old tube rigs with a power supply issues causing chirp to rival the loveliest song bird and shaky FISTS that required full concentration to decipher.  I had a grand time hearing paddle-only operators trying to regain the knack for using their straight keys, and I could almost smell the dust burning off the tubes of those old rigs that hadn't been fired up in a year.

When you send your CQ also send SKN if you'd like.  This is not a contest and there are no awards for the most contacts, so have some good ragchews and get to know the fellow on the other side of the key.  Enjoy the slow(er) pace of working straight key stations and settle in for interesting QSOs.

Although you'll hear a lot of vintage equipment, that is certainly not required to get on the air. If you don't have a straight key you might just have a clothespin and some screws...

SKN times...

Don't forget SKN begins at 0000 UTC which means for those of you on the East coast of the US SKN starts 7pm December 31st and for those of you on the left coast it begins at 4pm, So you can get a few hours in before the bell tolls 2017 for your time zone.  

SKN runs for 24 hours, but don't put away your straight key just because it's over.  Join in the fun with the SKCC all year 'round.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations...

Richard, AA4OO  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rock 'N Radio -- QRP Style

Operating QRP
Can mean operating from a "Quiet Restful Place"

I had the day off today and it was a beautiful morning.  I decided to spend part of it at Lake Wheeler Park in Raleigh, NC operating QRP from a stone bench under a tall oak tree.
rock 'n radio
I was operating the Elecraft KX3 from its internal AA batteries for the two hours I was there running 5 watts and it worked well.  I had brought an external battery but didn't need to connect it.

I threw a line over a tree using a throwing weight.  I hit my mark the first time, untied the weight, tied on the end of the antenna, and hoisted the 31 foot end-fed up exactly where I wanted it with the feed point a couple of feet off the ground.
31 feet of wire end-fed by a 9:1 balun.
A kite string winder holds the throwing line
A metal stake with a bit of rope anchors the balun and the other end of the rope

Another view of the end-fed with 9:1 balun, stake and coax
The 20 feet of coax serves as the counterpoise so hookups couldn't be simpler.  The KX3 simply has the coax attached to one side and the morse key and headphones in the other.
QRP operating position
The morning was very pleasant, if a bit windy, clear with a temperature of 55 F.

The KX3 will match the end-fed wire on about any band other than 160m but on 80m you could likely throw the radio farther than the signal travels.  The KX3 auto tuner is pretty amazing and I believe it could tune a piano if you hooked it up correctly.

I worked stations on 20m, 40m and 30m.

I called CQ on the 20m QRP calling frequency (14.060) and had a brief QSO with a lot of QSB (fading).  I didn't hear much activity that early in the morning on 20m so I dropped down to 40m and worked the QRP calling frequency (7.030) and had my call answered right away.  After that QSO another station jumped in there calling for a specific station so I moved on.  40m was busy.  Every time I thought I'd found an open frequency someone would jump back in or if I called QRL? I'd get an R R.

So I went up to 30m, and had a very nice long ragchew that lasted nearly an hour.  The internal AA batteries on the KX3 were getting a workout operating at 5w for that entire time but I never saw the transmit wattage drop below 5w and when I finished up the internal batteries still showed 9.8 V  The cutoff is 8.5 V so there was plenty of juice left.  I may just stop carrying the external battery on these brief jaunts.

My long ragchew was with a station in GA about 400 miles away and he gave me a report of 599 so I was thrilled with 30m this morning. Coincidentally, this end-fed antenna, balun, coax-counterpoise combo is nearly resonant on 30m and I've had some of my best reports when operating this portable antenna on 30m. 

Key wise, I was using the Palm Single Paddle.  It is a great little key when you don't have a table to operate from and you don't want to strap something to your leg.  I get strange enough looks from passer-by's without them wondering why I have some mechanism strapped to my thigh and the Palm Single is very inconspicuous.

The Palm key has a clip-on, magnetic base which I use to temporarily attach it to my clipboard when I'm not sending.  When I'm ready to send I simply pull it off the clipboard and hold it in my left hand. As I noted in an earlier review of the Palm Single Paddle it can be used as a straight key if you turn it on its side.  The long ragchew I had on 30m was with a gentlemen who sent me his SKCC number in the first exchange so I quickly turned off the electronic keyer in the KX3's and turned the Palm Single on its side.  That station sent me a nice compliment on my straight key FIST; so the little Palm Single key can serve duty as a paddle into a keyer or (in a pinch) as a straight key.  I far prefer to use my Kent Hand Key if I'm operating manual key but it's too big to bring along for portable operations and I can't quite picture myself trying to hold onto the giant Kent Hand Key with one hand whilst operating it with the other like I can the Palm Single.

The Palm Single Paddle works great in portable operating positions
I made a silly little video of my trip to the park...

So enjoy some nice fall weather if you still have it and have a Rock 'N Radio adventure.
What could be finer than to be in Carolina in the Mooo-oor-ning

Enjoying the last nice days of our Fall... birds singing and morse code beeping
That's all for now...

So Lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard N4PBQ

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Get a grip

The Navy Knob exposed

One of the more popular CW straight keys in the venerable Navy Flame Proof.  You grip this key using its Navy style knob.  The "navy style" is tallish and rounded on top, usually with a skirt underneath.  I demonstrate the "grip" used for the Navy style key in an earlier post.

But what's this old knob made from?  Compressed horse hair and tar?

Navy Flame Proof Key contains "fillers" in the bakelite material
As I photographed the key I noticed that up-close the knob of my old service key appears to contain fibrous material and it got me wondering about what material they used to make these knobs...

This knob is made of Bakelite

Bakelite is interesting stuff.  It was one of the first commercially successful "plastics" developed by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York in 1907.  Leo incorporated "filler" materials in bakelite to give it strength.  

All sorts of ground up stuff went into bakelite including asbestos.  

So maybe my "Flame Proof" key really IS flame proof...

Bakelite factory

On the other "hand",  here's the Kent Hand Key knob for comparison...

Kent Hand Key up-close-and-personal

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard AA4OO

Thursday, December 15, 2016

QSO fun with a C21

It doesn't get much simpler

After dinner tonight I headed up to the shack to make a couple of QSOs.  I felt nostalgic and powered up the old TenTec Century 21 rather than one of my modern radios.  

My Vibroplex Bug and Kent Hand key are connected in series and I plugged into the straight key input on the back of the C21. I tuned as near to 3550 kHz as I could determine from the somewhat vague VFO dial and listened for a clear frequency.  I adjusted the output until I was producing somewhere around 10 watts to my lovely, no-tune OCF Dipole.  This old radio doesn't have a tuner so it's nice to use an antenna that is resonant on the bands the I use.

I turned on my camera, sent my call out once and was immediately answered by Dick (WB3AVF) up in Pennsylvania.  Turns out he was using a Standard Vibroplex bug that is very similar to mine.  It was my first contact with WB3AVF and we had a nice chat.

Fired up the 1977 TenTec Century 21 for a couple of old-fashioned QSOs

Switching the keys around

Dick and I had a couple exchanges and then he switched from his Vibroplex bug to a straight key so I followed suit on my next exchange, using my ever so clackety-clackety Kent Hand Key.

Vibroplex Bug and Kent Hand Key... both date to long before I became a Ham

The joys of an old radio

If you watch the video you'll note me chasing around the caller with the TenTec's audio offset knob.  I wasn't changing frequency with the VFO, I was trying to keep his signal in the audio bandpass sweet spot on the C21.  Unfortunately, my offset knob has become extremely touchy; as you can see in the video.  When I barely touch it, it will jump by a 100 Hz so it's fiddly to use.  I need to open up the rig again and find the out of spec components.  Maybe a Christmas project but I'm kinda hoping I get a new transceiver kit to build this year.  I keep planning to work on the C21 but other projects get in the way.

You can hear that the VFO drifts a bit as it warms up. That was the first QSO after turning on the radio so you'll hear after every exchange that Dick's station had dropped in frequency a bit and I was compensating with the offset knob.  He probably had to chase me about 300 Hz during out QSO while the components stabilized.

This C21 is from 1977 and uses a direct conversion receiver allowing you to hear the same station on both sides of the zero beat.  That makes for interesting zero beating...  I normally tune from a higher frequency to lower while keeping the offset set to the high side of the zero beat, about 600 Hz.  That way as I approach a signal and it's pitch decreases from high to around 600Hz I know that I'm on the correct side of the pass band.  If QRM becomes bad during the QSO I'll use the offset knob to jump to the other side of the zero beat and often that gets me away from an interfering station by moving their received "pitch" out my audio passband.  It's more complicated to explain than demonstrate.  I didn't do that during this QSO but, trust me it works well unless the band is really crowded.

The offset knob works on both sides of the signal due to the direct conversion receiver in the C21


Band conditions on 80m were nice tonight.  I was outputting around 10w and Reverse Beacon network showed that I had good coverage to the North which my antenna favors.
I saw decent RBN spotter reports even though I was using low power and my antenna is compromised for 80m use since it is only 25 feet above ground at it's apex and slopes down to 10 feet AGL on the long end of the OCF.

You can see that one report was as high as 34 db over noise and 9 reports were 20+ db over noise range, so not too shabby for the poor solar cycle and low power.  There were some faint static crashes, which are frequent on 80m especially in the summer but they weren't bad tonight.  

I really enjoy the 80m band in the winter for ragchewing in the evenings. Other than QRN it's much lower band noise for me and not as busy as 40m.  I can use my older radio without trying to dodge QRM from close packed stations.

Right after the first QSO was over I was called from different station, also in PA, and that operator was also named Dick.  So it was an evening of QSO coincidences.   

Make some calls and see how many QSO coincidences you enounter.

Ah.. the sounds of a 1977 QSO... 

I hope you make it to the Kent Straight key clacking toward the end

I'm glad I had the camera rolling when WB3AVF answered my call.  I enjoy listening to a two-way Vibroplex bug QSO.  I know the copy is a bit rough in a couple of places since I had not warmed up prior to the QSO. I normally need 15 minutes or so of time with my bug to smooth out my sending, and that didn't happen tonight.  If I can make the time, I'll add a transcript. Or if someone wants to send me a transcript of this QSO I'll give them full credit and include it here.

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations... (and use old crufty radios)

Richard, AA4OO

I've added a video detailing operation of a Century 21...

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Art and Skill of Radio Telegraphy

Working on my FIST and learning about Telegraphy

I received a Kent Hand Key from an auction.  It is a European or English style of key which means it's knob is taller than I'm accustomed and requires that you set it at the end of your desk and use your entire arm suspended from the shoulder to work it rather than rest your elbow/forearm on the desk and work it with your wrist alone.  This style is quite new to me.  

I'm incorrect in the video... new Kent Hand Keys DO have a continuity strap,
but it's on the bottom of the lever.

Right after hooking it up I practiced for a minute or two and then made 3 contacts up in the SKCC region (7.055MHz) and I recognized that I was sending poorly... or more poorly than is my custom.  To a large degree I just didn't know how to operate this style of key.  

I'll review the Kent Key after I've had some time to work with it.   In the meantime I did some web searches for how to properly operate an English style key and one recommendation pointed to the following website/book...

Written by N0HFF William G. Pierpont is available as a PDF download.

Here is a quote that is emblematic of the content...
"The telegraph code is simply a means of communication, and communication is transferring ideas from one person to another in the form of words and sentences."
If you are learning Morse Code or wishing to improve your "intelligibility" in both copying and sending I'd recommend this thoughtfully written resource:

Here is a link to the PDF: 

The Art and Skill of Radio Telegraphy

So lower your power and raise your expectations


Friday, November 27, 2015

Don't Bug OUT when hearing a Vibroplex semi-automatic key

Vibroplex Bug Morse Keys 

Since starting to work CW on-air a few months back I became familiar with the sound of other operators using Vibroplex Bug telegraph keys.  I have been curious to try one of these semi-automatic keys even though I know that they are not recommended for new operators.
Vibroplex Original Semi-automatic Bug
The Bug uses a sprung pendulum to automatically send DITS.  The action of moving the lever to the right starts the pendulum in motion and it creates evenly timed DITS automatically.  DAHS are created by manual timing moving the key to the left.  Using the key requires quite a bit more practice that using a straight key or paddles. 
The Vibroplex semi-automatic Bug is considered a manual key by the SKCC (Straight Key Century Club) so it counts in SKCC contacts.
Used Bugs in decent working condition can often be had for under $70.  This one was advertised as being "un-used new in box".  Indeed, when I received it, it still had the shipping bumpers on the main spring and still had shipping grease.  The glue on the nameplate had deteriorated and come loose and there was significant oxidation on the parts.  This bug is a few decades old but that doesn't matter because Vibroplex bugs haven't changed much in design since 1907.  The history of their creator, Horace Martin is interesting.  He created the bug to help deal with his own degraded sending ability due to long hours operating a straight key as a renowned telegrapher.
Horace was a professional telegrapher so he designed the bug for professionals who sent at speeds well above what is normally used in amateur radio.  The slowest speed this bug can send DITS without modification is about 25wpm and goes well above 40wpm.

As a beginning CW operator you will generally be well below that speed in your copy skills and likely your sending speed as well.  But when experienced hams work you with a bug they will slow their DAHS down to your speed, however without special added weights there's not much they can do to slow down their DITS to your speed.  This gives their FIST a unique sound.  The DAHS are sent slowly but the DITS are zinging by.  When you first hear this style your brain will not know how to interpret what you hear but give it some time and you will learn to copy them.

You can slow the Bug down by adding weight to the end of the pendulum.  An inexpensive method is to wrap the weight with some solder.  I've wrapped mine to bring it down to about 22wpm.
Wrap the pendulum weight with solder to slow it a bit
Here is a little video letting you hear a bit of the cadence of the bug.  Now I just received this thing today and I practiced with it for about 30 minutes before making this video so I'm no bug operator for sure but it will give you some idea of the bug "swing"...

Here is a video running through the keys to see if learning a Vibroplex messes up my ability to use a paddle with an electronic keyer

The Vibroplex Bug next to a Kent Hand Key.

Manual Morse Code Keys

So don't "bug out" when you hear one of these on the air.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard - N4PBQ

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Making your old Morse straight key look the part

Vintage Wiring

In honor of the upcoming SKN I wanted to spruce up my Kent Hand key by replacing the ratty cable that I'd hastily made back in 2015 by hacking a cheap, old electric guitar cable with something more suitable to the Kent's grande and imposing nature.

I also wanted a vintage look.  I've always liked the look of old fabric covered wires, although not their dubious safety record.  But alas, modern times and a desire in some quarters for a "retro-look" for antique lighting gives us cotton covered, dual conductor, twisted wire.  The actual stranded wire core is covered by teflon covering for proper insulation.

Cotton covered wire to suit the key

Making your cable

Fabric covered wire is available from a number of sellers and provides a vintage look for your old CW straight key.  There appear to be mainly two different types of fabric covered wires, Rayon and Cotton.  The Rayon covered wires look "shiny" due to the synthetic material, they also are likely sturdier.  Cotton covered wires are not shiny and get a bit fuzzy with handling.  I went with Cotton covered wire but I'm sure Rayon would be fine too.

You can't just use wire cutters or a wire stripper on the cloth covered wires.  That just makes a fabric "blob" (ask me how I know).  I used a very sharp knife to cut the fabric around the insulation where I was going to strip, then used a wire stripper on the teflon covered portion of the wire.  Also note that cloth fabric will fray when it's been cut so use some heat shrink tubing to neaten it up, or if you really want to get fancy; lash the fraying bit with some thread for a half inch or so and tie it off.  I'm not patient enough to do that so I used heat shrink tubing.  I used another piece of larger heat shrink around both conductors further up the wire to keep them from unwinding.

If you use Rayon covered wire be careful with the heat gun when you shrink the tubing, as the Rayon probably has a low melting temperature.

Lastly, since the new cable is un-shielded, keep lengths reasonably short so as not to become RF conductors in the shack.

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations.

Richard AA4OO

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Listening to your own FIST is humbling

The only thing to fear is... well... FEAR 

I have been tossing my CW signals onto the airwaves for a bit over a month now after re-learning the code and getting a QRP radio.  My first on-air CW QSO was 2015-07-29 with my elmer Paul Stroud AA4XX.

I thought it was time to record some actual QSOs as I'm learning to use my Kent Hand Key.  So I threw out my call this morning on 7.055MHz and this is what happened...

This QSO was a-typical in that the calling station cut me off mid-sentance because he wanted to work another station that had just jumped in on our frequency.  I thought he was warning the other one off but instead he sent me QRX in the middle of my transmission telling me he'd talk to me later.  I haven't had a station do that before.  Normally operators are quite polite but this fellow has been a Ham longer than I've been alive so what do I know...

Listen to a recording of your live transmissions

It's humbling to listen to a recording of oneself sending CW and try to figure out what you said
To be fair, listening to my FIST on this video is a bit worse than it should be because the clicking of the key is so prominent in the audio.  The camera was just a couple inches away from the key and the clicking overwhelms the side-tone from the speaker that is farther away.  But I believe recording your actual QSOs is a good habit so that you can review your FIST objectively.  Everything sounds good in your head when your sending but the recording is honest.
Full Disclosure: Those of you who can copy CW will hear me report my power as 12W.  I admit that is NOT QRP power.  It's certainly nothing compared to the 300w the calling station was using but it's not QRP 5w or less.   
I wanted the video to have a good strong station coming back to me to make it easier to hear their audio. Often when I run QRP power I only get low power stations to return to me and you would have been hearing a bunch of noise.  Some operators don't want to dig the QRP signal out, so I'll sometimes run more than 5w when I talk in this SKCC region to make it easier on the station copying.  12 watts is the maximum power this radio can generate without an external amp.
So Lower your Power and Raise your Expectations (unless you're recording a video)


Friday, February 19, 2016

1 Watt and a Wire... in the Attic

You can't always get what you want, but you try sometimes...

Recently I've dialed my normal 5 watts down to 1watt (one watt, singular) for all my contacts.  To throw some water on the fire I've decided to use my attic antenna which weaves all around my metal ductwork and electrical wiring.   Mostly this was to prove a point to myself but it may be enlightening to deed restricted hams that they can use a qrp radio and an attic antenna successfully.

Key lineup... Palm Single (paddle), Vibroplex Bug (circa 1970s), Kent Hand key

It only seems pointless until you try

Calling CQ with 1w QRPp into a poor attic antenna isn't as pointless as it would seem.  I didn't have to wait long when calling CQ before I got an answer most of the time.  

Now am I going to bust a pileup with 1 watt ?  Possibly not but I think that my assumptions about both how much power I need and how big an antenna I need are usually out of proportion with reality.

1 mighty watt

My assumptions are often incorrect

I made QSOs on 30m, 20m, 17m and 10m this morning all at 1 watt.  The solar conditions report was not really fantastic, especially for 10m.  Yet 1 watt through the attic antenna bagged the only DX I heard on 10m.  I had a couple of other multiple exchange contacts on 20m, 17m and one good old fashioned 25 minute long ragchew on 30m where I received a 599 report for my one watt from Bob (NR8M) in Ohio.  Admittedly, Bob was booming in and we had good propagation to each other.


The recording below was number 4 or 5 this morning.  I wanted to post this one because I was working another QRP station in Arkansas (K5EDM) and we did NOT have great propagation to each other.  He was running 5w while I was running 1w so it was QRP to QRPp.  In the video you can see that I'm using some of the KX3's tricks to pull the signal up because there was a lot of QSB and noise (note the GEOMAGNETIC FIELD UNSETTLED in the solar report).  

I had the volume maxed and was using the RF gain control mostly.  I eventually had to turn on the preamp which really washed me in noise but I dropped the RF gain more and eventually switched in the APF (audio peaking filter) which performed magic on this contact.  Often I find that APF doesn't help but this time it made a big difference.

That's all for now

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard N4PBQ

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hard fought SKCC QSO using the Ten-Tec Century/21

Sometimes you need to move your QSO

My ever changing station configuration
Left to right - Elecraft KX3, Ten-Tec Century/21 with Ten-Tec Eagle on top, the MFJ 493 keyer on the right
4 keys - Navy Flameproof, Kent Hand Key, Vibroplex Bug, N3ZN QRP paddle
The Elecraft AF1 audio filter is sitting unused in front of the Century/21
After starting our QSO the ARRL QST program started right on top of us causing QRM that forced us to move to another frequency
My old Ten-Tec Century/21 is a lot of fun to use and its direct conversion receiver makes CW sound beautiful. But the frequency dial is fairly imprecise so when I asked the station to QSY up 1kHz finding him again was a bit of a challenge.  When I heard him I had to zero-beat him again to make sure I was on the correct side of the direct conversion receivers passband.

Enjoy the QSO and the QRM dodging...

Shooting this video

This video was a bit harder to shoot than what I normally do.  I usually place my camera to one side but I wanted to use my fisheye lens and shoot the QSO from above.  

While shooting I was straddling the tripod with the camera right in front of my face so I was reaching around the tripod to use my keys and get to my keyboard for logging.  It was a bit awkward, and in the video you'll see me bump the VFO while trying to operate the radio because I couldn't really see what I was doing.  It's always fun to add a level of difficulty while making these videos.

That's all for now...

So lower your power and raise your expectations

Richard AA4OO