Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A post on learning CW

I've had a couple people ask me about how to learn CW and I typed up a nice response in an email to them both but I thought it might be useful to the rest of my readers so here it is.  The offer stands, if you have any questions about radio stuff at all, please feel free to ask, I love to help when I can!
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As far as CW goes, its quite a long story, but I'll try to keep it as short as possible. I was originally licensed in 2003 as KC0PNH. I got into radio knowing I wanted to get on HF so I didn't wait around too long to get my General. At the time, we still needed 5wpm to upgrade. Luckily my high school math teacher was a ham and he offered to elmer me and teach me code. I remember using an app called Code Quick which gave you words and images to associate with each letter. It certainly worked but I would NOT recommend that at all. It became a big hurdle to me later in my ham life which I'll get to... So I get my general ticket a couple months later. I get on HF, doing lots of low power digital stuff for the most part. I was operating with an FT890 and a 40m dipole on a privacy fence. Yes, just 6 feet off the ground. I worked all kinds of DX, it was awesome. (oh to be back in that solar cycle!)

I made 1 QSO on CW (W2YC, still remember it to this day). I was just not fast enough for it to be very enjoyable so I gave it up pretty quick. I went to college in 2005 and didn't take a radio. I was pretty busy anyway. I wasn't on much until Jr year when I got a co-op at Rockwell Collins (where I still work). One of the other co-ops was also a ham and he had just upgraded to Extra. Now that I had some Electrical Engineering under my belt, the Extra exam was going to be a breeze. This other guy was also a CW op and that got the spark going again. I decided when I got my Extra, I had better know everything (read: CW) so I got back to re-learning it. Lucky for me, it was like riding a bike. I actually came on at about 10 WPM. Going faster was tough tough. I was still writing everything down by hand letter for letter. This was a huge hurdle. And as promised, the Code Quick stuff had made it very difficult to copy fast because as I'd hear a letter, I'd also see the image, and have to process that, and then hear the word associated with the letter, and process that too! BAD BAD BAD!

Through consistent persuasion and on-air work, I finally was able to drop the pencil and head copy. That is when my speed shot up pretty quickly. A Field Day and a contest later, I was doing 20 WPM in my sleep. A few more contests and 25 wpm comes without effort. Now regularly copying contests at 35 wpm is no big deal but I'm still working on increasing my ragchewing speed with a goal of 40 wpm. Its not easy to find guys interested in going that fast though! Just a personal goal to say "hey, I did something!"

Now, where should a complete newbie start? lcwo.net is a great place to start. It teaches all the characters and then more stuff to increase speed. Big problem is it requires you to type in the letters as you listen to the "tapes". Unfortunately it adds another place to get stuck - the transition between hearing and typing - especially if you're a slow typist. Still, its probably the best way out there right now.
On air practice will be the best way to increase speed. Once you know the alphabet and a little bit of punctuation (question mark, =, are the biggest 2 you'll want), get on the air and start making QSOs. Go as slow as you need to. Granted, if your memory is as bad as mine is, you might need to write down stuff as it comes in or you'll get lost, but be very careful to only write down the minimum needed to get the whole word. If the guy is sending "t o m o r " you should recognize he's sending "tomorrow". Thinking ahead is allowed! This should help keep you from becoming dependent on the paper and using your brain to copy. Usually people get stuck around 15-20 WPM because they are writing stuff down. Get over this hurdle early and you'll be 25 WPM copy in no time.

I think that covers most of what I can offer. The next question from newbies is usually "what key should I get/use?" Well, if you already have a key, use that. Lots of people suggest straight keys for newbies but getting spacing right is really difficult and if you have bad spacing, people will not want to talk to you. Keyers make this much easier. I would recommend a paddle type key. My personal favorite is Begali but they are very expensive. If this is something you're really serious about, its a very good investment as they will outlast you or me but its probably not best to start with. A Bencher type key is OK to start with but I find them deplorable to use now. We can always talk about that more.

I think that answers your questions so far... by all means, please, please feel free to ask more or whatever. I'm more than happy to talk about my hobby and I could spend all day doing it! If you have not already, check out my blog, it's got all kinds of fun stuff.