Learning Morse Code (CW)

Overview

From time to time I get asked about learning Morse Code, a.k.a. CW. Here’s some resources to get you started down your journey to one of the original modes for Ham Radio. To be frank I struggle with CW and have for some time, but still find it a fun if occasional challenge. This page is intended only as an introduction as there are many many choices for CW gear which are largely a matter of personal taste and technical need.

First off let’s define some terms:

  • Straight key: essentially a spring loaded pair of contacts, ie. a simple switch. As long as you touch it, the contacts are made. Usually just called a straight key.
  • Paddle key: a pair of the above, organized such that they rest between your thumb and forefinger. Usually just called a paddle key.
  • Bug: a single pair of contacts with mechanical assistance and operated like a paddle. You make the dash, it makes the dots via a mechanism. Usually called a Bug.
  • Side Swiper: a single pair of contacts without mechanical assistance and operated like a paddle. Also called a Cootie.
  • Code practice oscillator: plugs into a straight key, sometimes a paddle key, just makes noise so you can hear your practice out loud. Usually called a CPO.
  • Keyer: a device that usually translates paddle key input into short and long contact closures for use with a radio. Most radios produced since 2000 have this built-in. You can use an external keyer with a radio as some keyers have memory and other features at your fingertips instead of working through the menus to get to features.
  • Tutor: some sort of device you can plug a key into and learn CW and keep your skills sharp. Various features are available depending on the device.

Education – Self-Paced

Often referenced is the website Learn CW Online which has a variety of exercises to teach you CW as well as Morse Code Ninja.

Education – Instructor-Led

If you are unable to find a local course, these two remote courses are the top of my list. They are delivered via telepresence like Zoom or Skype, and teach the same thing – to copy code in your head without writing it down. It is said that to get beyond speeds of 15 words per minute (WPM) that head copy is the only way. Their approach to learning is different but the goal is the same.

The Long Island CW Club has a focus on using a straight key first.

The CW Ops’ CW Academy course says to use whatever key you are most comfortable with.

I’ll note that these courses are popular and fill up quick, but have a flexible approach to confirming your booking with them. My advice is to jump in to book your course, even if you’ve never done CW before, and await the start. If it turns out you can’t make your schedule align with theirs, try again next semester. One thing is for certain and all those that have learned CW agree – study at least 20 minutes per day, and once proficient make at least one CW QSO per day to keep out the cobwebs.

Equipment for learning

At its core you will require a CW key. Paraphrasing my Mom for a moment, “there’s more choice in CW keys than Carter has Little Liver Pills”. A key is simply one or two sets of electrical contacts that close when you press a spring loaded lever and open when you release it. Some people build their own keys and some purchase keys that resemble works of art and anything in between. The choice is purely yours. A key is a very personal device. As you build proficiency in CW it is likely you will try several keys before settling on one you like. My advice here is simple: just start somewhere, don’t over-analyze this as at the start of your journey the key itself won’t matter much.

My first CW keys
My current key, a Begali Traveler

The next thing you’ll need is something that you can hear yourself when you activate the key. Usually this is a Code Practice oscillator, a standalone device that makes a beep as you touch the key. Frequently a CPO is one of the first kits a Ham builds given it’s simplicity, if you are into that sort of thing. Some modern radios have a mode where you can connect your key directly to the radio and use it in practice mode, ie. without making RF spew into the ionosphere. You’ll use the CPO while you are learning then you will most likely donate it to another Ham as they move along their quest to learn.

MFJ-557 key with CPO

Some manufacturers incorporate a key with a CPO or even a keyer that can also be plugged into your radio.

MFJ-422E paddle key with CPO and keyer

How I managed to get my way to CW

 

In closing

Direct from my friend W5WTH who offers the following excellent advice in words better than I would say “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Most CW ops are patient and can recognize a new op right away. They will most likely be happy to work you at a slow speed because they recall their personal CW journey. SKCC and POTA are the two easiest, stress free ways to make a CW QSO. Once you get the numbers and letters learned then start trying to get on the air. Don’t worry if you screw up because we all screw up and try to get better…”   I’ll add here that CW means never having to say SRI (CW shorthand for sorry) <GRIN>. Also Pat W5WTH has an excellent website too!

 

Good luck and   – – . . .    . . . – –