We enjoyed another great Wednesday night on the Magicians Net (50.130 MHz @ 8:30 pm). With all the talk going on about operating 160 meters, QRP, vertical antennas vs. horizontal, and other topics too numerous to mention, I’d like to mention another topic that seems to be gaining attention…CW.  Yes, that old mode of communication that just won’t die.  I personally know of at least six people that have expressed interest in learning the somewhat black art of CW.  Just kidding… it’s really not that hard to do.  Actually, driving your car is much more difficult.  Devoting the time needed seems to be a major stumbling block for many.

morse codeMemorizing the dits & dahs that form the individual characters, numbers, and prosigns you’ll need is the first step in the process.  There are many good (free) programs on the net to help you do that.  Choosing one is a personal preference; what works for one may not work well for another.  What will work is spending time EVERY day working on it.   I had a college professor for one of my math classes that summed it up beautifully when he told me “Math is not a spectator sport”.  That’s true in a lot of things, but especially when you’re trying to learn a new language.  Being honest with yourself from the beginning will help you avoid frustration.   Now for some ideas on how to reach that goal.  Please remember, these are just guidelines based upon my own personal experience.

First things first… Learning the characters is the first step.  DO NOT WORRY ABOUT BEING PERFECT!  That comes later as we start to increase the speed.  A little tip:  I would always set the “character” speed at around 20cpm.  In order to send, or receive at 5wpm you just leave more space between the characters.  The character speed remains at 20cpm.

  • A GOAL:  Do not set unobtainable goals.  Everybody learns at different speeds.  Some people have learned the entire character set in as little as a week.  A more reasonable goal is knowing each character and a couple prosigns in 3 to 4 weeks IMHO.  Take your time.  It’s not a race.  If you make it too hard it’s not fun.  Remember, it’s a hobby and it’s supposed to be fun.  The main thing is to do it EVERYDAY.   In fact that’s really the most valuable tip I can give you.
  • KEYER:  This is a personal preference.  I like the electronic key, but have a manual one as well.  It’s not that important in the beginning.  Learning to copy CW is.  Most people can send much faster than they can copy.
  • Paper & Pencil:  To write down what you hear.  Some people like to copy by typing what they hear on the computer.  Perfectly ok.  DO NOT block letter print if using paper and pencil.  At the lower speeds it’s fine, but at higher speeds it’s very difficult.  That was one mistake I made in the beginning.  Ask Jim Steiner/W3BWD  who was at my Extra test.  He still tells me to this day he never saw anyone print so fast !  The poor guy beside me should’ve got extra points for dodging broken pencil points.
  • Practice Material:  Once you know the characters practice can take place anywhere you see printed words.  Sitting here in my shack I see hundreds of words within 2’ to 3’ of my operating position.  I see Yaesu, FT-3000, Warning, Webcam, On, Off, Bencher, etc;  Before I retired I would sound out the various signs I’d see while driving to work.  Stop, Rt. 422, Longview Rd., etc;   Once you get your main characters memorized take advantage of this, and practice, practice, practice.  Sure the guy in the car next to you thinks you’re a little weird, but if it gets the job done?  Also, the ARRL sends out code everyday at various times of the day and different frequencies.  Please use it.  It’s a valuable resource.  They also have recorded MP3’s online recorded at different speeds.  These are available for FREE.  Having said all that, nothing beats the real thing.  I would sometimes spend hours wearing a set of headphones, with a sheet of paper & pencil trying to copy people on the radio.  I learned a lot by doing that.  It’s a great confidence booster too.
  • Practice Speed:  Once I learned all my characters & numbers and could copy most of what I heard at 5wpm, I immediately kicked the code speed up to the next level which was 7 1/2wpm.  Always keep the carrot out in front of the horse.  If you’re copying most of what you hear at 5wpm, bump the speed to 71/2.  When you start copying that, bump it up again.  Continue doing that until you hit the proverbial BRICK WALL.  That will be somewhere around the 10wpm mark.  It happens to everyone.  That is where the BRAIN can no longer use its internal look-up table to translate.  I remember being stuck at that speed for awhile until I finally had enough and kicked the speed up to 15 wpm.  At first it seemed as if I was starting all over again.  I would miss whole groups of words before catching a letter every now and then.  I stuck with it and within a few days I started picking up characters again and even some simple words.   Once you get to this point congratulate yourself.  You’re on your way!!!