Periodically I hear fellow hams say they would like to learn CW. Recently I heard yet another ham say he would like to learn CW since we get twice as many Field Day points for CW contacts than for phone contacts. He suggested the club should help members learn.
At the September club general meeting, a quick survey showed that six members present were capable of operating at 15 words/min (wpm) or better, one was capable of 5 wpm, and six members were interested but had not yet learned CW. Clearly there is some interest in CW, and particularly in learning CW. If all those interested were to reach at least 15 wpm we could double our cadre of CW operators. If those who can operate at 15-20 wpm raised their proficiency to 25 wpm, we could significantly increase our contact rate in CW contests (like Field Day).
Back when I first got my licence (mid-1960s), being able to send and receive CW at 10 words per minute (wpm) was a requirement to earn a ham radio operator certificate. Ham classes at that time had a session where the instructor sent code and the class "copied" it.
Today, however, the inefficient teaching-intensive way I first learned code is unnecessary. I started learning again, almost from scratch, in late 2011 after being away from ham radio for nearly 35 years. The first thing I discovered is the wide range of excellent resources now available via the internet. I’m convinced that, by making good use of the (largely free) materials available on the internet, anyone who can read and write can learn CW to the 20 wpm level, if they are prepared to work at it. All that might be needed is a little advice on "how to get started”, which I felt I could provide based on my own recent experience. And so this article was born.
Keep in mind that these are my personal recommendations, based on my own personal experience. Looking on the internet you’ll find all kinds of articles telling you how to learn CW. Some of them may be helpful to you. The tools and techniques I discuss here worked for me.
CW is magic.
Since changing my operation from SSB (and some digital) to almost exclusively CW, I’ve added stations to my log from all over the US, the Pacific, and the occasional contact in Europe.
Now, if I had done this using a tower and beam antenna, running the usual 100 watts, this wouldn’t be even worth mentioning. Even if I pointed out that I was working stations in high demand (like the W1AW portable stations, and TX6G, a DXpedition on the Austral Islands), where I generally had to “bust a pile-up”, there would be nothing worth writing about. If, that is, I had been using a beam and 100 watts.
But I hadn’t. I had been running a simple “end-fed half wave” wire antenna, less than 10m above ground at its highest point, and using my KX3 portable transceiver set for 5 watts output.
The type of setup I use (QRP transceiver with simple wire antenna) could be within reach of many, or even most of you, and the low power avoids almost all problems with interference to your neighbours’ badly constructed (but high-cost) TVs.
But did I really mean I could contact Florida on 5 watts? Yes—confirmed on ARRL’s Logbook of the World, along with Hawaii, Japan, Austral Islands, New Zealand, Aland Island (Finland), Guam—all on 5 watts. To top it off, my KX3 radio, with antenna, packs into a medium sized lunch bag and runs on an internal battery pack that holds 8 rechargeable AA cells. Perfect for an afternoon’s operation in a park. Although only a mediocre operator, using just 5 watts into a length of wire hung from a tree, I’ve been able to routinely bust pile-ups of more powerful stations who were using more elaborate (and expensive) antennas.
But, of course, I was using CW. Did I mention CW is magic?
It was this magic quality of CW that convinced me to get back into CW after 35 years away from ham radio. The three primary benefits to me are:
- More contacts, and at greater distances, at any power level (extremely important in a contest).
- DX contacts at low power (very important for QRP enthusiasts, who limit themselves to 5 watts of power output).
- Less use of band space, so more room to find a slot in which to operate when the bands are crowded (something we're increasingly likely to see on the lower HF bands as we slide down the backside of the sunspot cycle over the next few years).
CW, because it is just on and off, puts out the radio's full power (100 W for example) when it's on. SSB, on the other hand, puts out an amount of power that increases as the voice loudness increases (to 100 W maximum in our example, and usually much less).
Further, on SSB we need to carry the "frequency range of information" in human speech, which is roughly 2500 Hz (receive filters 2100 to 2800 Hz wide are typical). CW, on the other hand, is "carrier on, carrier off”, and needs only a couple of hundred Hz bandwidth (receive filters 200 to 400 Hz wide are typical).
So, put crudely, with SSB we are sprinkling our “up to 100 W” over about 10 times the frequency range of our “full 100 W” CW. The tight filtering with CW means the receiver passes through less atmospheric noise (QRN) and man-made interference (QRM). All of this makes for more "punch" in a CW signal at the receiver. And that’s why it’s possible to bust pile-ups using 5 W into a simple wire antenna.
You Can Do It–If You Truly Want To
I've always liked Nike's slogan: "Just Do It". It sums up for me the one problem I've so often seen, in myself and others, that keeps people from doing something they say they want to do: lack of commitment.
CW is often seen as intimidating. Certainly, anyone who wants to do it is going to have to work at it. No one else can learn it for them. Basic capability in CW will require (based on my own recent journey to date) 2-3 years of a minimum of ½ hour of practice each day (best split over two sessions). How do I define "basic capability"? Being able to participate in most CW contests and being able to hold a reasonably satisfying on-air CW conversation with another ham at speeds of 15-20 wpm.
It's actually not difficult to continue this level of commitment if one is serious at the start and keeps at it. It has been said that habits can be formed quickly with serious initial effort. CW practice will have to become a habit. But the progress becomes very enjoyable once the 10 wpm threshold is reached.
So before reading further, ask yourself if you really want to learn CW. You will not succeed if you are not willing to work at it over an extended period. Better to be honest with yourself and stop saying (or thinking) you want to. You aren't going to dream yourself into becoming a CW operator any more than you dreamed yourself into reading and writing a language. But if you really want to learn CW to the level of basic capability, here are some of the tools and techniques I've found helpful in my own journey back into CW after some 35 years away from the radio.
Learning to Copy CW
Now that you are convinced that CW is worth the effort (you are, aren't you?), and you've examined your schedule to find a spare half hour a day (you have, haven't you?), how can you get started?
Just as with human speech, there are two actions to CW: sending and receiving. And, just as with human speech, listening is more important than sending. So we start with listening, or "copying" as it's generally called. (I will cover learning to send in a future article.)
The first thing to keep firmly in mind is that CW is received by your brain as sound. Many experts have pointed out that learning the characters as patterns of dots and dashes on paper is inefficient and ineffective. It is far better, from the start, to learn the characters only as sounds if you are ever to become comfortable with CW. Start there until you have learned at least the simple, common characters: “e”, “i”, “s”, “t”, “m”, “o”, “a”, “n”, “r”, and “k”.
The next step is to drill using the “Koch” method, which presents a few characters at a time, adding characters until all letters, numbers, and common punctuation have been learned. Once you start with the Koch method, you can continue to learn new characters as you go.
Morse Machine teaches Morse using the Koch Method. Characters are presented in a prescribed sequence and the user types the appropriate key on the computer keyboard to indicate they recognize the letter. Initially only a few characters are presented, but as you prove you have mastered these, the program adds further characters until you know the full list of letters, numbers, and critical punctuation. A bar chart graphical display shows your progress. The slowest the program will send is 20wpm, so it prepares you well for the future stages in your learning. Keep drilling until you can work through the entire sequence with few errors. Practice at least ½ hour a day, if possible in two sessions a few hours apart. I used this program a great deal in the beginning, and it was grueling. But it worked.
Once all the characters are known, I believe the next step should be to start copying actual language (as opposed to random letter groups). There are many sources of computer-generated code, with perfect timing of the sound of each character, and perfect spacing between the characters. It is essential at this point that you learn the sound of perfect CW. You will be training your brain to recognize perfect code, and building a memory of how good code sounds which will be invaluable when you begin learn sending.
Files are available for speeds from 5 wpm to 40 wpm, so can be valuable whatever your experience level. The text is taken from past issues of QST magazine. Each mp3 file containing the transmitted code is accompanied by a text file containing the associated text, which will be your “answer sheet”. Don’t bother with speeds below 10 wpm—you must learn to copy at speeds that are useful in the real world.
Once you have listened to a few of these files, you will begin to recognize the sounds of common sequences of letters as single elements (sort of like “super-characters”). The first of these for me was “the”, which is not only a word in its own right, but the root of many other words such as “then”, “there”, “their”, “these”, etc. This “letter group” recognition is very important to being able to increase your copying speed to 20 wpm and beyond, and is a benefit of starting to copy real text early. Make a point of listening for common letter groups in your practice sessions.
Don’t think you must be able to write the code down when listening to get useful practice. Eventually you’ll need to “copy in your head”, so even just listening for the common letter groups when you are travelling in the car is very helpful (but don’t become distracted!). You can burn the files to a CD, or load them on an iPod or even your cell phone if you have a “handsfree” Bluetooth connection between your phone and your car sound system (this is the method I use). The files just continue to play as you drive, and you can mentally “tune in” and “tune out” as traffic conditions permit, with no loss of benefit. (You can do this on a bus too, but wear a good sound-sealed set of ear buds or your neighbours might be tempted to heave you out a window!)
Another source of plain language code practice is the Quote Of The Day (QOTD) CW podcasts, which can be found with Apple’s iTunes music software. Look under “Store” then “Podcasts” then search for “QOTD”, which is the "Quotes of the Day" converted to CW. The advantage of the QOTD podcasts is that they are short and change daily. Podcasts are available in speeds from 5 wpm (not recommended) to 30 wpm (not recommended for beginners). A good place to start is the 10 wpm podcasts.
Whether you are copying the ARRL code practice files, or the QOTD podcasts, don't worry if you can't copy each one perfectly. Just get what you can and keep at it; you'll find you do better as time goes on.
After you begin feeling comfortable copying the ARRL code practice files or QOTW podcasts, you will be ready for more serious drill. At this point you will want to start driving your speed up, and the easiest way to do this is to make use of “Farnsworth” spacing. With Farnsworth spacing, the individual characters are sent at a high speed (here I suggest 20 wpm), but the spacing between characters is increased to give a lower average speed. So if you are reasonably comfortable copying 10 wpm code practice files then you could set the average speed to 10 wpm and the Farnsworth speed to 20 wpm. The higher speed characters will train your brain to recognize the characters you already know when sent at a higher speed. The extra time between characters gives your brain some time to “catch up”, and recognize that the burst of sound you just heard was an “s” and not an “h”.
There are several fine programs available that send code with Farnsworth spacing, including G4FON’s free Koch Method CW Trainer, available at http://www.g4fon.net (look to the left and select the “Koch CW Trainer”). (Note I am listing programs which run under Microsoft Windows; there are also fine programs that run on Mac computers. If you, like me, prefer Macs, then send me an email at my call @rac.ca and I’ll send you a list of Mac-based programs that I think will be helpful. Most of these aren’t free, however.)
G4FON’s trainer has various operating modes. The “Text File” capability allows you to load in a short text file and have the program send it to you. By selecting an “Actual Character Speed” of 20 wpm, and an “Effective Code Speed” of 10 wpm, you can use the Farnsworth method to train. The program has a lower window which displays the text after it has been sent, so you can see how well you are doing.
The program also offers two other very useful modes. One is the “Words” mode, where the program sends you lists of common words and word endings, selected from a drop-down list. The other is the “QSO” mode, where the program sends you simulated QSOs, just as you might hear on the air (except, unlike what you will hear on the air, the code from the program is machine-perfect).
The program has many other features, allowing you to add noise, fading (QSB), simulate weak or strong signals, create irregular (“human-like”) character timing, etc. Once you’ve mastered the basics you can have a lot of fun playing with all the “complicating” factors.
Another similar program is G4ILO’s MorseGen, at http://www.g4ilo.com/morsegen.htm MorseGen can be used to drill with characters using the Koch Method, groups of random letters or numbers, common words, plain text from a file, or pseudo-QSOs. By using the speed and spacing sliders, you can create Farnsworth-like spacing.
As you progress, you will need to learn to copy “in your head”, without pencil and paper. You can, of course, do this with the ARRL code practice files, or QOTD podcasts. The problem with these, however, is that the spacing is “regular”, rather than Farnsworth. A program that allows Farnsworth spacing that I’ve found useful for this sort of practice is ebook2cw, at http://fkurz.net/ham/ebook2cw.html
ebook2cw is a command line program but it has an optional graphical user interface available which simplifies use for many of us. The program converts a user-selected plain text file to Morse code audio files in MP3 (or OGG, if you prefer) format. It works on several platforms, including Windows, Linux, FreeBSD and Mac OS X. The program isn’t easy to configure on your machine (e.g you’ll have to install several additional files in the same directory as the executable program), but the effort is worthwhile.
If you look to the online (and free) Project Gutenberg library at http://www.gutenberg.org, you can find text versions of out-of-copyright books that may look interesting to you. The generated mp3 files can become huge if you translate an entire book at low speed, so try just a few chapters to start. Be sure you edit out all the unusual punctuation (all the keys on the computer keyboard that I didn’t list earlier), or you’ll be very confused by some legitimate but highly unusual Morse characters. After you do your first few conversions you’ll get the knack and soon have a superb supply of interesting material sent to you in Morse, using machine-generated code with whatever extra spacing (a la Farnsworth) you wish to apply. This is my favourite CW training program!
Many of the programs I’ve mentioned will generate code at your choice of tone frequency. I suggest something in the 600-700 Hz range, but (now you are becoming comfortable with CW) you can adjust the tone to suit your personal preference. Some programs even allow you to change the wave shape from sine (the usual) to sawtooth or square wave. Again, you may find these wave shapes better suit your personal preference.
A couple of other programs which are very effective for CW contest training are the popular Morse Runner (at http://www.dxatlas.com/morserunner)and the (much more demanding, in my view) RUFZXP, available at http://www.rufzxp.net/. These are programs that experts use to drill and get their speeds up before critical contests. If you are reading this article, it will probably be a while before you are ready for these. When you are ready, you can talk to a member of the club’s contest group to learn more about their use.
Once you become comfortable copying code at 15 wpm, and can get the gist of at least some of it in your head (without pencil and paper), you are ready to try some on-air QSOs at 10 wpm. But before that, you’ll need to learn to send, and that will be the subject of a future article. In the meantime, you have your work cut out for you learning to copy proficiently!
December 30, 2021,
We received the following email from a student's mom. The young lady was preparing a project on CW for school:
"I'm just reaching out to let the Surrey Amateur Radio Communications know your 'So You Want To Learn CW (Morse Code)' post was a big help to my daughter Corrine and a 'Famous Inventors and Inventions' project she's working on for her technology class. Her teacher thought it would be fun for the class to learn about a new invention or technology each week that changed history. The students are then required write a short paper about what they learned, and how it impacted society. It's been fun for both of us!
Right before Christmas break, Corrine's teacher assigned a lesson on the telegraph and Morse Code! Your page led us to some great websites to check out, so Corrine and I wanted to make sure we thanked you!!
I'd love to show Corrine and her teacher! It's always nice getting some recognition for a job well done, and perhaps Corrine will even get some extra credit? Brownie points would be nice with the next round of report cards coming out soon!
The project is due on Monday when Corrine goes back to school after Christmas break, if you get a chance to include it by then! I know the holidays/new year are hectic though, so if not, whenever you get a chance to include it is great! I really appreciate it!"
73 (I just learned this!)
Mrs. Sarah Jackson