Never operated CW but want to start? Here’s a collection of tips to take advantage of and pitfalls to avoid.
Learn the Alphabet the Right Way
Use the Farnsworth method
The Farnsworth method, which is the commonly recommended way to learn to receive, involves listening to fast characters with lots of space between the characters.
When learning the characters, learn them at a speed at which you are not able to count individual dits and dahs. Shoot for 20 wpm character speed or greater and 5 wpm spacing. Decrease the spacing as you copy better.
A variety of programs, apps, and websites exist to help you on your code learning expedition. Here are a few to try out:
- Morse Mania (Android, free to $2.99)
- This app is a letter training app. As you learn them, it gives you new letters to learn. There is a paid version of the app which gives you access to learning prosigns, abbreviations, and custom levels.
- Morse Machine (Android, $0.99)
- Another letter training app which also gives you new letters to learn as you get more correct. It includes a section for learning prosigns and abbreviations.
- Morse Trainer (Android, free)
- Once you’ve learned the alphabet and want to learn to head copy, Morse Trainer comes in handy. There are several modes which can send you common words, callsigns, random groups, and mock QSOs. I enjoy working with this app while commuting to work since I can listen to it without interacting with the phone.
Those are the programs that I use, so I feel comfortable recommending them. A more comprehensive list can be found here.
Practice briefly; practice often
Try for 10 minutes a couple times a day and try to practice more days than not. Counterintuitively, marathon code sessions aren’t helpful. Once you gain more experience with the code, you will be able to practice longer but when you’re first starting out, practice until your brain is tired then take a break.
Sometimes breaks are good. Knowledge solidifies after you’ve slept on it. Recall may be harder after having slept, but the struggle through recalling the information is ultimately what causes higher quality learning. Don’t go too long without practicing, however. You will need to recall your newly learned code soon after you first encounter it for it to stick.
Learn by ear, not by sight
The code is auditory, so learning the characters visually is counterproductive, even detrimental. Just don’t do it!
If you have a paper copy of the code, go shred it, burn it, bury it. Preferably all three.
Associate the sound with the letter
When learning the code, picture the letter in your head when you hear it. Listen to one letter multiple times, picturing the letter each time in your mind’s chalkboard or typewriter page. When you think you have the sound of the character associated with the picture of the letter, move to active practice where you have to differentiate the new letter from the ones you’ve already learned.
If you learn the letter using a mental trick, i.e., associating the letter “F” with Eddy Grant’s song “Electric Avenue” or the number “4” with Darude’s “Sandstorm”, you’re going to have a hard time getting those songs out of your head every time someone sends you those characters over the air. You’ve not associated the pattern with the character, but with something entirely different which will get in the way of your code copying.
Thankfully, I unlearned these mistakes quickly as I didn’t burn them into my brain long. Other operators I know are still trying to unlearn these bad habits so that they can operate efficiently. Start right by associating the sound with the letter and nothing else.
Make/Find/Buy a key and an oscillator
A key is a switch that radio operators use to send Morse code. A code oscillator is a nice buzzer, simply put. These tools help you to send code to yourself so that you can practice the characters that you’ve been listening to.
I happened to have been given a Speed-X key by an elmer of mine in my local club, but not everyone is so fortunate. If you would rather not spend a bunch of money, building a functional, even enjoyable key, is possible.
Oscillators are cheap to build and can serve as a great first soldering project. Many radios, such as the QCX, have ways of turning off the radio frequency emitting portion of the circuit, allowing for off air practice. If your radio doesn’t have this function, consider getting a dummy load and practicing this way. You won’t regret having a dummy load; it is a nice piece of gear that I have found useful on more than one occasion.
Send clean code
Once you have learned a letter enough to recognize it, try to replicate what you are hearing by sending it with your key and oscillator. Some radios, such as the QCX, can tell you what characters you’re sending it. This can help you clean up your code.
Record yourself sending
Your self perception can be deceiving, either positively or negatively. After recording yourself, you may find that you’re sending cleanly and this may build your confidence enough to get on the air. Conversely, your sending may be a bit rough. If you can’t understand yourself, chances are the operator on the other end of the circuit will have a hard time as well.
Work on your timing. Some recommend sending while running a metronome. I have never tried this, but I can see how it could work. After all, many code operators claim that musicians send better code.
Once You Know the Alphabet, Get on the Air
Operate in order to progress
From my experience, my knowledge of the alphabet solidified and deepened once I started to operate in earnest. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make sure that you know the code before operating, but don’t let that hold you back either. If you can recognize the letters eight out of ten times, then you’re ready! Go call CQ and see who comes back. When someone comes back, answer them!
Make a goal
When working on a skill, it’s a good idea to have something to work towards. However, a goal such as “operate more” or “operate better” is never obtainable because it is too vague.
Try forming a goal that is more concrete and measurable such as “Achieve Centurion through the SKCC” or “Work all States” or “Earn 100 SOTA points”. For extra accountability, add a deadline, such as “Work 100 stations in three months”.
A longer term goal could be motivating as well as long as it is reasonable. For instance, I have the long term goal of learning to ragchew at 20 wpm. In order to get there, I have set intermediate goals such as “practice 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week”. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get to 20 wpm, but I do know that if I keep honing the blade, I’ll be sharp enough to accomplish the goal.
Join a club
Ham radio is more fun when shared with others and all kinds of clubs are available for ham radio operators. Some focus on operating with specific types of equipment like manual keys or QRP equipment, while others focus on operating outdoors or making contacts on specific bands. Try a few out and find out what suits you; there’s a group for everyone.
The Long Island CW Club is great for those who are just beginning to learn the code and for those who are continuing to gain skills. I know that I would have a much longer slog up the learning curve if it hadn’t been for the “Demystifying the QSO” class with Jim, W6JIM. With his help, I discovered that I was sending back confusing words that made me hard to copy. He helped me clean up my act and become a more efficient and clearly communicating operator, which ultimately has helped me enjoy contacting other hams so much more. Since then, I have moved from this class to the “Head Copy” class with Howard, WB2UZE. While I have only attended a few sessions as of this writing, he has some clearly developed and proven ideas on how to get others to this higher plane of operating.
The Straight Key Century Club is a wonderful proving ground where we newer operators can get operating tips and ragchew practice from operators, especially on the SKCC sked page. The more that I contact the same people, the more we have deeper conversations. For me, this helps me with where I want to go with my CW journey: to become conversational at 20 wpm.
The QRP-ARCI is a deep well of information that relates to operating and homebrewing. The quarterly magazine that the group puts out is a testament to how much we can all learn from one another. The message boards of this group are a great place to ask questions. Whenever I have some inquiry, I find that many operators are happy to share their thoughts with you. On one occasion, a ham offered to give me a phone call so we could discuss the finer points of head copy and I learned a great deal from him.
More Advice and Inspiration
Yesterday, I was doing some reading and came across an article in QST that caught my interest. The ARRL publishes the names of people who have received their Certificate of Code Proficiency periodically in the club magazine. As I read, I recognized the callsign of one of my fellow Long Island CW clubmates, KN4ZMA, Sean.…
It has been a long time coming — perhaps too long — but I finally made Centurion through the SKCC. Some six months ago, I started making contacts through the club, making a few on one day, then going a day or two, perhaps a week or two, before getting on the radio again. Inspiration…
Since getting my C through the Straight Key Century Club, I thought I would branch out a bit. My first foray into contesting was modest but rewarding. The Holiday Homebrew Sprint, organized by the QRP-ARCI, benefitted those who operated homebrew rigs and those who operated portable setups. While I didn’t manage to go outside since…