Dave Richards AA7EE

July 24, 2009

My First SKCC QSO and 5 Watts to VK Land on 40M

One of the first things I did after completing assembly of my new KK1 straight key (my first straight key in about 15 years) was to apply for membership in the Straight Key Century Club.  There are a number of organizations designed to encourage the use of morse code amongst radio amateurs of which SKCC is one.  As the code is no longer used commercially in the developed world, and we as amateurs are the last large organized group of people to be using it, I think it’s very important that we not only preserve, but also encourage the growth of morse code usage. It is the original digital mode.

There are quite a few folk who claim that morse code is obsolete.  To back up their point of view, they cite facts such as the existence of more recent digital modes, many of which have an even greater SNR (signal to noise ratio) advantage over voice modes than CW does. Add to that the fact that morse code is no longer used commercially* (at least in the developed world) and the argument seems compelling on the surface.

I’m not about to attempt to construct an argument against the newer digital modes.   They each have their advantages and particular uses.  If you need to bounce a signal off the moon (and radio amateurs just get that strong urge to do that sometimes,) then JT65, with it’s ability to copy very weak signals, would be a fine choice.  If you want to ragchew, with it’s slow bit rate, JT65 would be a bad choice (unless you want to ragchew via the moon and have LOTS of time on your hands and the patience of Job).  You’d be much better off with Olivia or PSK-31.  I’ve been playing with WSPR recently and am quite taken with it’s ability with weak signals; I have decoded signals as weak as 30dB below the noise level with it! Truly astounding.

Thing is, just as the more modern digital modes have their specific uses, so does morse code transmitted by CW, which is pretty much the only way we radio amateurs transmit code (unless you’re talking about a repeater identification on FM). What if you’re hiking and camping and want to make contact with a minimum of equipment? Your low power signal won’t go as far if you’re using a voice mode, and all the extra gear necessary to generate and decode digital modes like PSK-31 and Olivia takes extra space. What could be simpler than a small light CW transceiver and a small morse key? It’s this combination of simplicity and effectiveness that makes CW so appealing to me (and to many others.)

I don’t want to seem like an obsessive survivalist type, but the fact that a very simple CW transceiver running on battery power can get a message out to the other side of the globe under the right propagation conditions is reason enough for me to want to keep morse code, and the CW mode of transmission, alive and thriving. Talking about the right propagation conditions, we are experiencing a deep solar minimum right now and even so, my 5 watt signal to a vertical dipole was copied by VK4TJ 11,500 km away on 40 meters last night! That’s a thing of beauty to me, and thank you John for listening for my signal.

Anyway, after signing up for, and receiving my SKCC number, I started listening and calling CQ on the SKCC elmer frequency of 7114 KHz.  No replies, but it was still a little early, and there were no signals on the band.  I came back a few hours later and called CQ a few more times.  Around 11:40pm local time, I heard a loud and very brief dit. It’s the kind of thing I sometimes do if I accidentally touch the key.  I knew that meant there was someone with a strong signal on frequency.  At that point, I can’t remember whether I then called CQ and he came back to me, or whether he called CQ and I replied, but either way, Paul N6EV became my first CW QSO as an SKCC member.  Paul (SKCC #3358) is an SKCC elmer who monitors 7114 on a regular basis and enjoys sending slow CW to help folk like me get some practice in on-air QSO’s. We QSO’ed for a few minutes short of an hour before QSB took us out.

It was my longest CW QSO ever, and the length of it gave me a chance to really get more comfortable. John, VK4TJ,  was also on frequency and commented on the SKCC sked page that he could copy both of us, even when we couldn’t copy each other. Paul and I were only about 560Km apart, wheras John was about 11,500 Km from both of us;  such is the interesting nature of radio propagation.

I stayed up for a couple more hours, heard some scuffling outside, and stepped out onto my first floor balcony to see a group of 5 raccoons staring at me from just a few feet away.

It was a magical night.

5 watts to this Buddipole got me a 559 QSO with N6EV in Southern California on 40 meters.  VK4TJ copied both sides of the QSO.  5 watts and a Buddipole on 40 meters to VK land.  Very exciting!

5 watts to this Buddipole got me a 559 report from N6EV in Southern California on 40 meters. VK4TJ copied both sides of the QSO. 5 watts and a Buddipole on 40 meters and I was copied in VK land. Very exciting! By the way - in this picture, the Buddipole is resonant on 20 meters. When on 30m and 40m it also has a loading coil.

*Ships still use lamps to communicate via morse code when maintaining radio silence.


July 22, 2009

The KK1 Straight Key From American Morse Equipment

Filed under: Amateur Radio,Ham Radio — AA7EE @ 3:15 pm
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A couple of days ago, this turned up in the mail:

Almost as exciting as getting Lego for my birthday as a kid - a package containing the KK1 Straight Key kit from Doug at American Morse Equipment.

Almost as exciting as getting Lego for my birthday as a kid - a package containing the KK1 Straight Key kit from Doug at American Morse Equipment.

Now, you have to understand how exciting this was for me. I’m trying to find an analogy here.  Mmm….the first time I made out with a girl? Well, I’m not THAT much of a nerd, but close.  For a start, I haven’t owned a straight key in about 15 years, and the ones I owned in the past weren’t of very high quality.  My last key was a cheap practice key, and I only had a few on-air QSO’s with it. So…….this was going to be my first decent straight key.  Secondly, seeing this key in the flesh is a bit like seeing your favorite celebrity in person. You’ve seen them in magazines and on TV, and you can’t quite believe that they are really in front of you.  Well, I haven’t seen the KK1 on TV, but I’ve seen it plenty in magazines and online and have been considering it for a while now.  I was thinking that for the main station key, perhaps I need something a little larger and heavier, but my ham budget is limited.  Doug Hauff, the chief bottle washer at American Morse Equipment told me that it didn’t need to be held down while operating, so I thought that perhaps this little key was going to be substantial enough to be the main key while using my FT-817 at home, as well as while on portable operations.

Ordering is a breeze.  You click the appropriate button on Doug’s website, pay by Paypal, Paypal send you an acknowledgement of your payment, and that’s it. A couple of days later the above package turned up in my mailbox.

Here’s what I got when I opened the packet:

IMG_7280On opening the outer plastic pack, here’s a look at what’s inside:

IMG_7286I like the fact that instead of including an assembly manual, Doug points you to his website, which has a downloadable pdf file with complete assembly instructions. This is really the way to go.

Before doing anything, I spent a good 15 minutes looking the parts over, and in particular, marveling at how well machined the aluminum base, operating lever and other parts were.  It’s a pleasure to look at well made parts like this, so I did.  I had a good look at everything before proceeding.

I emptied the parts into the lid of a Quaker Oats box.  The lid has a small lip that prevents small washers, screws, springs etc from escaping. Lots of things you could use here.  An egg carton would work also:


I eat a lot of oatmeal, so it’s nice to find a use for the lid before I toss it.  I’m thinking I should get back into building crystal sets so that I can use the cylindrical card oatmeal containers for winding coils on.

Although some owners spend quite a bit of time polishing and buffing the aluminum base and brass parts of the key, as well as performing other customizations, such as fixing a knob to the paddle, the only thing you do need to do before assembly is to deburr the clevis (it’s the two vertical “posts” sticking up out of the aluminum base).  I used a fine file; you can also use fine sandpaper or a small pocket knife.  Only a light touch is required here, so go easy on it; it doesn’t take much.

I won’t say much about the assembly. The instructions are detailed and straightforward to follow. Anything in the instructions that doesn’t make immediate sense to you will most likely become apparent after looking at the pieces and the photos in the instructions. I only had one slight uncertainty during the assembly process, and that was the following instruction:

“Locate the 4-40 x 1/2 ground end machine screw. There are two ½ inch screws, the smaller is the 4-40; you can easily see the ground end.”

The other 1/2 inch screw, according to the parts list, is a 6-32 x 1/2.  Well, the problem I had was that both my 1/2 inch screws looked exactly the same.  The pitch was the same and the ends both looked the same.  Although the ends of both my screws were ground a little,  but as this screw is going to be used as the electrical contact for the key, I think that perhaps the end was supposed to be ground smoother than it actually was. Anyway, the thread on the screw fit the thread in the hole easily, so I went ahead with the assembly, deciding that if I had problems further down the road, I would contact Doug for a replacement part.

I had one extra part – an extra #0/1 washer.  No problem.  I’d rather have one part too many than one too few.

The assembly didn’t take long, at the end of which, I had this:

The finished KK1 Straight Key

The finished KK1 Straight Key

Yours could look even more beautiful if you want to polish the main parts.  It looks perfectly nice to me the way it is, so for the time being, it stays the way it is. Maybe one day I’ll find myself with a little time on my hands and a can of brass polish to hand.

One more thing before it could be used – a cord and plug.  I found an audio connecting cable that had come from Radio Shack and hadn’t been used in a long time.  It had a molded 1/8″ jack on each end.  I cut it in half, and used one half to make a cord for this key, along with heat-shrink tubing.

Here’s the finished item:

The KK1 Straight Key from American Morse Equipment - A solid little key.

The KK1 Straight Key from American Morse Equipment - A solid little key.

I have never used a straight key that was this small before, and was pleasantly surprised.  For the size (approx 1.5″ x 3″ x 1.375″ tall), it is quite heavy, and it definitely stayed put on my wooden desk top while I was keying it.  It’s not very apparent from these pictures, but the key comes with 4 clear rubber “bumpers” that you stick to the bottom of the base, and these do a splendid job of keeping the key in place while you’re pumping brass.  I also tried it on a tile countertop with no problems, so if you have any concerns about the possibility of a small key scooting all over the place while you’re trying to key your transmitter, I don’t think that’s going to happen with the KK1.

I did at first find it a little unusual using a straight key with a paddle instead of a knob.  Some have attached their own knobs; I will most likely keep my key the way it is.  I seem to be getting used to it.  Having not used a straight key in 15 years, I was disappointed to find that I need to work on my sending in order to develop a more natural rhythm. At first, I wondered if a larger key with a knob would help.  It may, but I think that lack of practice is the bigger factor here.

This key was fun to assemble and will be a pleasure to own.  For $36 plus shipping you have a straight key that can be used as the main key in your station as well as an excellent key for portable ops too. It’s well made and looks great.  I can’t keep my eyes off it. Kudos to Doug Hauff W6AME, and his company American Morse Equipment.

Now please excuse me while I go make a cup of tea and come back to the computer to apply for my FISTS and SKCC memberships!

This news just in: I just heard from Doug that he has turned the 6-32 x 1/2 inch screw into a 4-40 and eliminated the end grind, so I did have the correct part. He just hadn’t made the change in the documentation.  You can grind this screw yourself with a piece of sandpaper if you wish; my key is working fine using the screw as supplied.

More news just in: I’ve been using this key for almost a week now and have gotten fully used to using it.  I’m pleasantly surprised at how such a modestly sized key not only feels solid and stable on my desk, but also feels natural for sending code.  Any shortcomings in my sending are due to operator error, and not to the key. I wholeheartedly recommend this key.  Great value for money!

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