Monthly Archives: September 2011

Basic CW Operating Procedures

Back when I first got on the air in 1978, CW QSO’s had a pretty standard format. That format didn’t change much until the last few years. But today there’s quite a hodgepodge of operating procedures out there. Most of the time it works, but it’s not uncommon to hear a downright jumbled mess — even from a CW operator who has been on the air long enough to send and receive at 10 wpm or more.

It’s important to learn good operating procedure, not just because it sounds polished but because it serves a practical purpose. You can get away with sloppy operating procedure under perfect conditions, but not if your signal is weak or if there’s much QRM, QRN, and/or QSB. Even under perfect conditions, you’re making the person at the other end work harder if you’re constantly surprising him with your own odd way of operating. Under poor conditions, he may miss some of what you’re trying to say. And even if he succeeds at copying what you’re saying he may well be relieved when the ordeal is over.

I’m not going to get into all of the details of good operating procedure here, but I would like to discuss some basics.

General structure
There is a general structure to a CW QSO that most operators expect. After establishing contact, the first transmission should stick to the basics — RST, QTH, and name. You don’t know yet how well the other fellow is copying you; if you’re a 329, you’re going to torture him if you go on and on about your rig, your power, your antenna, the weather, etc. Furthermore, you might lose the opportunity to hear even the basics from the other fellow if band conditions deteriorate while you’re sending all this on the first transmission. So stick to the basics — and do send them. Here’s the way we all used to do it years ago:

NØART DE NØIP R TNX FER CALL OM BT UR RST RST 579 579 BT QTH QTH GRANITE FALLS, MN GRANITE FALLS, MN BT NAME NAME TODD TODD BT SO HW CPY? AR NØART DE NØIP KN

Note the use of BT. That seems to have fallen out of favor, but once upon a time it was the standard way of changing the subject. The most important thing I want to point out here is to preface each of the three major elements of this first transmission with their labels: RST, QTH, and NAME. It takes a few seconds longer than sending something like, “UR 579 IN GRANITE FALLS, MN OP TODD,” but it is worth it. As the FISTS club puts it, “Accuracy transcends speed.” Update: I have noticed that OP is often used instead of NAME, especially with DX stations. Since it is widely recognized it’s perfectly acceptable.

The operator replying to this first transmission sends the same three basics in the same way. If he’s inclined (and if he’s received a reasonably good RST) he will probably go on to talk about his station, the weather, etc. As it turns into a ragchewing session you can pretty much send whatever you want.

Procedure signals
Just as the use of BT has fallen out of favor, so have other procedure signals fallen on hard times. I often hear them sent incorrectly and used improperly. Remember what these are — they are procedure signals. Learn to send them well and to use them well, and your operating procedure will improve substantially. The ones most commonly used are AR, AS, BK, BT, K, KN and SK.

Notice the line that appears over each one of the two-letter procedure signals. That means you send the two letters as if they are one character. For instance, KN isn’t sent as dah-di-dah dah-dit (KN) but dah-di-dah-dah-dit (KN).

  • AR End of message: Send this after you are completely done sending everything — everything, that is, but call signs and KN. If it’s your last transmission, use SK instead.
  • AS Wait:You might hear this if you’re working an experienced operator. If you hear this, the next thing you hear will probably be silence — maybe he has to answer the phone or something. Or maybe you’ll hear him hold his key down while he fiddles with his antenna tuner. Don’t start sending — he’ll start sending when he’s ready. This is a handy procedure sign to know, if you ever need to take a break yourself.
  • BK Break: This might be used by a station who wants to enter an ongoing QSO — he’ll send BK between transmissions to see if they’ll let him in and turn their QSO into a “roundtable.” With the advent of full QSK keying, this also became popular among experienced CW operators who could interrupt one another right in the middle of a transmission (perhaps to answer a question or clarify something). But most commonly BK is used to rapidly turn the conversation over to the other station without sending any call signs. For instance, an operator might send something like “HOW CPY? BK” and then cease his transmission. If this happens to you, reply by simply sending BK and answer his question. You can go back and forth in this manner for as long as you want, but don’t forget to obey the law by identifying yourself with your call sign at least every 10 minutes.
  • BT Separator: Usually used to change the subject, even if it’s just to go from sending RST to sending QTH. (If you hear the other fellow sending BT several times, it’s because he’s trying to think of what he wants to say next!)
  • K Over: This invites anybody listening to reply. Send this after you’re done calling CQ. But if you’re in a QSO, you almost always want to use KN, not K.
  • KN Over (to specific station): Send this after signing over to the other station in a QSO, e.g. NØART DE NØIP KN. KN tells other listeners that they’re not welcome to call you yet — you just want the station you’ve named to reply. Don’t send this after calling CQ — send K instead.
  • SK End of contact: This lets the other operator know that you want to end this QSO, and this is your last transmission. Usually sent in place of AR right before signing over to the other station.

The Handshake
It has long been customary to send “dit dit” at the very end of a QSO, like a final handshake. On the very last transmisssion, the sending station sends “dit dit” and then the other station replies “dit dit,” and that’s the end. Or (like we did in the old days) you’ll hear the first station send “dit di-di-dit dit” and wait for the second station to send “dit dit” (“shave and a haircut, two bits!”).

But this is often fumbled. Here’s how it usually goes wrong. The first station to send his final farewell, e.g. TNX FER QSO HPE CU AGN 73 73 SK NØART DE NØIP KN, knowing full well that the other station still plans on bidding him farewell in the same manner, goes ahead and sends “dit dit” at the end of his transmission. Naturally, the other station ignores this faux pas, goes on to send his last transmission, and only when he is done does he finally offer “dit dit” for the other operator to send his own “dit dit” again.

Now, this is obviously not the most important point of operating procedure, but why not do it right? No need to be socially awkward at the end of a good QSO!

I’ve only covered a few basics here. For more on CW operating procedures, it’s worth checking out something like http://www.fists.org/basiccw.html. But the best way to learn good operating procedures is simply to pay attention to what proficient operators are doing — especially as you get into more advanced operation, like handling DX pileups. The more listening you do before you wade in, the better operator you will be.

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Teaching Morse Code: The Importance of Perfect Dits and Dahs

My son and I had another lesson this evening before bedtime. This time I dug out my paddles and my electronic keyer, since I was afraid that my imperfect fist at the straight key could do him damage.

My fears were well placed!

It turns out that in our first lesson I made my “dahs” much too long. This caused him some grief when I started using my electronic keyer since the “dahs” and the “dits” sounded too much alike to him, accustomed as he was to my goofy fist (which shall now be rectified ASAP!).

So we spent most of this lesson just fixing my mistake, getting my son to discern between perfectly proportioned “dits” and “dahs.”

I’m glad we caught my mistake on this second lesson and not several months from now! But I still feel bad for exasperating my son.

So to all you would-be Morse Elmers out there, learn from my mistake! Whatever quirks you may have in your fist may be exacerbated at low speed. So unless you have a perfect fist with a straight key, use your electronic keyer right from the beginning when teaching Morse Code.

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Teaching and Learning Morse Code: The Personal Method

There are all sorts of ways to teach Morse Code. There’s the old Army way (check out these youtube clips: part 1, part 2). Then there’s the way the ARRL taught me back in 1978 — with cassette tapes. And today, students can download software that will teach them Morse Code with the Farnsworth Method and the Koch Method. It all works, so long as the student sticks with it.

How do you get a student to stick with it? First and foremost, by cultivating within him an affection for Morse Code. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery purportedly said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”1 But since so many things can thwart this affection (from discouragement to competing interests), sometimes you simply need to come alongside the student and encourage him. This is where cassette tapes and computer programs usually fall short. There’s nothing like The Personal Method — a real, live Elmer teaching you Morse Code.

Just ask my son! A few days ago I purchased a nifty Nye Viking Speed-X straight key and code practice oscillator to begin teaching him Morse Code. I hooked up my own Speed-X to it so that we could both key the oscillator — him on one side of the table with his new practice set, and me on the other side of the table with my own key. Thus equipped, we had our first lesson before bedtime Wednesday night.

I was surprised by how hard the bug bit him. At first he wasn’t so sure about the whole thing, but by the end of the lesson he was so excited he said he wouldn’t be able to get to sleep. He even told me that he wouldn’t enjoy his classical guitar lesson and horse-riding lesson quite as much the next day because he just wanted to have the next Morse Code lesson! The next morning, he woke me up by sending “GM” outside my door with this practice set. And later in the day, he started sending me code as went down the road, saying “dit” and “dah” like a true CW operator.

So to my fellow CW operators who know somebody that wants to learn Morse Code, I say let’s try The Personal Method. And to those of you who do want to learn Morse Code, try to find an Elmer who is willing to spend some time with you. If you can’t find one who can meet with you, hang in there with your cassette tapes or your computer program until you know enough code to work with an Elmer on the air. As the SKCC website says, “If you can only key at 3 words per minute, so be it.” There are SKCC Elmers who are eager to work with you (http://www.skccgroup.com/elmers.php). You’ll be amazed at how quickly you build up your speed, and you’ll enjoy the experience a thousand times more than by trying to learn all by yourself.

1 This quote is all over the Internet, but I’ve yet to see any citation for it. If you know where Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote this, please let me know!

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My First 72

What a beautiful evening! A cool autumn breeze rustled the leaves of the apple tree above me as I turned on my Heathkit HW-8, kindly set up on the picnic table by my son Antonio. The temporary 20m dipole we have strung up right now is only a few feet above the ground (the center-point is right on the picnic table!) so I didn’t really expect much success. And 20 meters was dying — after hearing some greyline propagation from Chile at sunset, I was hard-pressed to hear much of anything.

Pretty soon it was obvious that the stations I could hear couldn’t hear me! Oh well, that’s what happens sometimes when you’re QRP. As my odds of making a contact seemed to be plummeting along with the temperature, I decided to call it a night. But then I heard K6LEN come blasting in on 14.050, calling CQ. I replied, and he came right back! The QSB was a little troublesome at first, but he was a solid 599 and he gave me a 569.

I think we were both a bit surprised when we found out that we were both running QRP! Len was running 5 watts with his Elecraft K1 in Los Angeles, and I was running maybe 2 watts with my HW-8 1,422 miles away. He congratulated me on having an HW-8 (heartwarming, I admit — I built it when I was 14 years old, and I’ve been fond of it these past thirty years), but I should have been the one congratulating him for having such a fine antenna. His 3 element SteppIR, up 55 feet, really did a great job tonight.

Pretty soon I was shivering a bit from the cold, and my CW began to suffer. I apologized for messing up a couple times on my straight key, and Len told me to get inside before I froze to death. As we signed off, Len gave me my first 72. That’s new since my early days on QRP — 73 is the standard way of bidding farewell. It means, “Best regards!” But instead at least some QRP operators today send 72 when they meet each other on the air, in happy recognition that they’re running less power than everybody else (Get it? 72 is less than 73.). Up until now, I’d only read about this new token of camaraderie among the fraternity of QRP operators. I think I like it!

After I packed up and brought my little rig inside, I went back out and picked some of the last okra by moonlight (okay, I used a flashlight too, but the moonlight was pretty). The growing season is winding down; pretty soon the leaves will begin to fall. Maybe next time I work Len, they’ll be crunching beneath my feet!

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How to Make an Attractive, Heavy Base for a Straight Key

My friend is getting back into ham radio for the first time since he was a boy, and one of the first things he wants is a straight key. I’ve steered him toward the Nye Viking Speed-X key. You can spend lots of money on keys nowadays, and I admit that some of them are mighty pretty. But the eham reviews of the Speed-X key suggest that looks aren’t everything. Unless you’re willing to spend a fortune for a luxury-model, I say put your money on the Speed-X. It’s worth every penny.

Probably the best way to mount this key is to screw it down to your desk if you’re willing to. Or you can buy a nice heavy aluminum base for this key straight from Nye Viking. But here’s how you can make an attractive, heavy base for not a whole lot of money. Here’s the finished product (I made this years ago):

I found this inexpensive piece of wood at Michael’s (an arts and crafts store). It was unfinished with the edges already routed as shown. When you find your own piece of wood like this, figure out where you want to mount your key. I used nuts and bolts to mount my key, but wood screws probably would have been better (by the time you’re done with this project, you’ll have a hard time getting to any nuts on the underside because they will be covered with felt). If you do decide to use nuts and bolts, drill holes for the bolts now so that you know where those holes are in the next step.

Flip the piece of wood upside down and go to work hollowing out as much of it as you can, starting about a half inch in from each edge. I can’t remember if I used a chisel, a Dremel tool, or both, but either would work. Just be careful not to hollow out so much that you punch through to the other side! Leave enough wood in the spots where you’re going to bolt or screw down your key so that you have a good strong mount when you’re done.

Once you hollow out the underside of your piece of wood, take a hot glue gun and glue in as much lead shot as you can stuff in there. This is what makes the base nice and heavy so that your key doesn’t jump around while you’re pounding out CW.

Give the block of wood a quick sanding, stain it with your favorite stain, varnish it, and mount your key! If you are using nuts and bolts, I recommend using a bit of Locktite to keep them from coming loose.

The last step is to glue a piece of felt to the underside of the block of wood. This hides the unsightly gob of lead shot and glue you’ve put in there, and it lets you slide the thing around on your desk smoothly. Don’t worry, it won’t make it too slippery. If you’ve put enough lead shot in there it will stay put just fine while you’re pounding brass. Here’s a look at the underside of mine:

If you build one of these yourself, let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

Items required:
Wooden base (available from craft store)
Felt (also available from craft store)
Lead shot (available from sporting goods store)
Nuts & bolts (or wood screws) to mount key
Dremel tool and/or wood-chisel
Hot glue gun
Wood Stain
Varnish

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QSL Cards for My New Call Sign: NØIP

I know, I know. Just five months ago I got a new call sign: NIØL. But as I said back then, there was an even better call sign that I wanted: NØIP. I’ve always preferred 1×2 call signs, probably because back when I first became a ham that was what every extra-class operator got. But not only is NØIP “lightweight” in Morse Code, it also suits me as a web developer (IP stands for “Internet Protocol”).

I feel bad for killing NIØL for the next two years. That’s what happens anytime you take a new vanity call sign — when you cancel your old one, it stays out of circulation for the next two years and one day. I’ve heard there are hams who change their vanity call signs as often as they change their socks, but I intend to keep my new call sign for the rest of my life. It’s downright selfish to tie up a call sign on a whim since the pool of available call signs is already so small, but I think I made the right choice. After all, the odds were against me when I applied for NØIP. Half a dozen other hams were in the running, but I won the lottery. If I hadn’t, I sure would have regretted not snapping up NIØL when I had the chance.

Anyhow, once I got this new call sign I needed a new QSL card. There are lots of vendors who will make them for you, but I decided to try my hand at printing my own. There are web pages you can visit that help you do it yourself, and freeware you can download for this purpose, too. But instead I just designed it in my word-processor, OpenOffice. Here’s the result (filled out for a QSO I had the other day):

The straight key pictured on this card is the one I’ve been using since I was 10 years old — a Nye Viking Speed-X. It’s a great key! While I prefer using paddles with an electronic keyer, I have still used this straight key from time to time over the years, especially for portable operation. That was the case this past weekend when I set up my Heathkit HW-8 on the picnic table in the backyard. There’s nothing like sitting outside and working QRP with a trusty straight key!

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Support Your Local Radio Shack

For five months now my friend Keith (ACØVW) and I have been planning to get together and build Ham-Can kits together. Finally the day arrived when we could fit it in! Last Thursday Keith made the 2 1/2 hour drive from the Twin Cities to my house in Granite Falls for a kit-building session.

The first thing we did was to inventory the parts in each of our kits. All were present and accounted for except one — a 1000 pF capacitor was missing from Keith’s kit. So naturally I picked up the phone and called Radio Shack in Montevideo, MN. Where else are you going to find a part like this at a moment’s notice out in the sticks?

What I didn’t know when I called was that the store had already been closed for a half hour! But still the owner answered the phone, and without saying anything about being closed he went to see if he had the capacitor we needed. When he came back he said that he couldn’t find one, but that it was a bit hard for him to search all of his stock because he had to use a flashlight — that’s when he explained that the store was closed. After thanking him for going to the trouble I started lamenting our state, explaining how my friend had driven all the way out here only to find that he didn’t have all of his parts.

The fellow at Radio Shack told me to hold on while he went to search for the capacitor again. Next time he got back on the phone he told me he had found one! And not only that, he told me that he would deliver it to me since he and his wife happened to be heading our way in a few minutes. By now I’m really thanking him! But it gets better. He told me, “The only catch is that you can’t pay for it. We get paid by the smile.”

We met this gentleman and his charming wife at Subway, where he gave us the capacitor we needed along with a handful of others just for fun. All of this added up to way more than mere marketing. This was heart-warming small-town kindness, and yes, it did instantly make me a loyal customer.

Of course Keith and I insisted on purchasing their dinner. They showed us what had brought them our way. In the back of their pickup-truck was an antique mill they had just purchased. They were planning on grinding up a whole bunch of wheat that they had at home so they could make their own bread with flour they’d ground themselves. I gave them my card and told them to call me when they had a loaf of that bread, and we’d have them over for supper.

Whatever you think of Radio Shack, it’s still the only game in town for most of us when we need electronic components at a moment’s notice. Maybe we should think twice before going to Wal-Mart or ordering stuff online that we could otherwise get at the local Radio Shack. It may cost a few dollars more, but it might be worth it. If we don’t support our local Radio Shack, it may not be around for long (see here).

I for one am sure glad this Radio Shack is still around, and that the owner is such a fine fellow. I’d like to keep him in business so that the next time I come up short when building something, he’s still there to sell it to me.

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