Rediscovering the Straight Key

Back in January, I decided I wanted to add a new facet to this hobby that I’ve enjoyed for more than 42 years now.  I have always heard a lot of Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) activity on the bands and it sounded like fun.  So, I signed up for an SKCC number, dusted off my trusty J-38 key and jumped into the fray.

More than 20 years had passed since I made the switch to paddles and Iambic Mode B keying.  Needless to say, my straight key fist was very rusty.  After some off-air practice, I heard NN9K near Chicago calling, “CQ SKCC,” on 30 meters one day.  I grabbed the J-38 and a few minutes later, Peter had given me my first official SKCC contact.

I bought this J-38 from a military surplus store around 1975. Nothing special but I love the feel of it. It reminds me of my Navy days, I guess.
I bought this J-38 from a military surplus store around 1975. Nothing special but I love the feel of it. It reminds me of my Navy days, I guess.

A few days later, it was time for the February SKCC Weekend Sprintathon (WES).  The monthly, weekend-long WES contests are like most other CW contests except they are friendlier and run at a slower pace.  After a fun weekend operating on and off, I ended up with 38 more SKCC contacts in the log.  One particular highlight was working Bert F6HKA on two bands with my meager 5 watts and rainspout antenna.  (Full disclosure:  Bert’s awesome station gets most of the credit for these contacts.  He was louder than most stateside stations.) After my first WES, I was hooked.

Even though SKCC promotes the use of manual keying methods, i.e., straight key, bug, cootie key; they have some pretty sophisticated, computer-based tools that can help you reach the various award levels.  There are a few SKCC-specific logging programs.  I use AC2C’s SKCC Logger for logging during WES contests and keeping track of all of my SKCC contacts.   The K3UK SKCC Sked Page is an online gathering place for members looking for contacts.  Another slick tool is the SKCC Skimmer.  This software tells me who is online on the Sked Page and which SKCC members have been spotted on the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).  Most importantly, it lets me know if they have SKCC numbers I need for award levels I’m pursuing.

The thing I like most about SKCC is the friendly attitude of the members.  They are particularly helpful to newbies and will always slow down to match the sending speeds of slower operators.  Many times, operators would recognize my new SKCC number and take the time to welcome me to the club — even during contest exchanges.

This is my first key as a ham. I bought this at a Radio Shack store in 1974. It still sees occasional use.
This is my first key as a ham. I bought this at a Radio Shack store in 1974. It still sees occasional use.

After a month and a half of general operating and two WES contests, I found myself with 99 SKCC contacts.  I needed just one more to reach the SKCC Centurion level.  With some sort of geomagnetic disturbance going on, I resorted to the SKCC Sked Page for help.  Within minutes, there were several stations trying to work me to put me over the top.  Werner, N8BB in Michigan, was finally able to get me there.  I applied for my Centurion award and received it later that day.  I’m now in the process of trying to work 50 Centurion, Tribune, or Senator level members for the Tribune level.

I’m pleased to report that my old straight key fist is back in shape and I have rediscovered the elegant simplicity of the straight key.  Many thanks for the good folks who run the SKCC organization.  It’s easy to see why the SKCC is one of the fastest growing clubs in ham radio.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Measuring Audio Frequencies with a Guitar Tuner

Here’s a little hack that serves no real purpose.  I’ll tell you about it anyway.

I recently built the T-Tone Code Practice Oscillator (CPO) kit from Morse Express.   It’s a handy little addition to the shack for adjusting straight keys or testing keyers.  After building it, I just adjusted the audio frequency for a pleasing tone.  Most people would have just left it alone at that point.  I’m not most people.

I started to do some thinking, which is a dangerous practice that can sometimes lead to unexpected consequences.  I wondered how the frequency of CPO compared to the sidetone of my FT-817.  There was no particular point to this mental exercise other than idle curiosity.

Now, I certainly could have keyed both the CPO and the FT-817 and done a comparison by ear.  I could have just adjusted the CPO by ear to match the FT-817.  But what fun would that be?  I was curious about the exact audio frequency of the FT-817’s sidetone, so I opted to do some experimenting.

Having been playing guitar for more than 50 years, I have acquired a gadget or two over the years.  One of those gadgets is a clip-on guitar tuner.  I can clip this clever device on the headstock of my guitar and, by sensing vibrations, it will tell me what note I’m playing and whether the pitch is sharp or flat.  I figured I could use this thing as an audio frequency meter of sorts.

First, I laid the guitar tuner on top of the FT-817’s speaker and keyed up.  That indicated that the pitch of the sidetone was an F note.  Consulting a conversion chart I found on the Internet, that equates to 699Hz.  I seemed to recall that the FT-817’s sidetone was somewhere around 700Hz, so that seemed about right.  I was sure I was in the right octave.

Guitar tuner on top of the FT-817
Guitar tuner on top of the FT-817

Next I took the lid off of the CPO and clipped the guitar tuner on it.  It initially indicated that the CPO was tuned to F#.  That equates to a frequency of 740Hz.  I tweaked the CPO’s frequency adjustment pot to F, matching the FT-817.  A side-by-side comparison of the CPO and the FT-817 showed that I was successful.

Guitar tuner clamped onto the lid of the code practice oscillator
Guitar tuner clamped onto the lid of the code practice oscillator

So, what’s the point of all this?  None really.  Is there a practical use for this?  Probably not.  Does it really matter that my CPO matches the sidetone of my radio?  Nope.  I just had one of those “I wonder what would happen if…” moments.  Now I know.

72, Craig WB3GCK

MS2 Straight Key Magnetic Mount

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I bought the little American Morse MS2 straight key intending to somehow magnetically attach it to the clipboard I use for portable operating.  It took some thinking but I came up with a workable solution.  I might come up with a better solution in the future but, for now, it should suffice.

What I set out to do was build a wooden mount that could attach the MS2 that held two magnets that lined up with the steel washers on the clipboard.  I had a couple of “super magnets” that I planned to use.  The problem I ran into is that the magnets are almost too strong to attach directly to the washers.  My solution was to enclose the magnets within the wood base.

Super magnets used for the MS2 straight key magnetic mount. Boy, these things are powerful!
Super magnets. Boy, these things are powerful!

I cut a 1×3.25-inch piece of 1/8-inch plywood.  Then I drilled two 3/4-inch holes just deep enough to fit the magnets.  After placing the magnets in the holes, I glued on a thin wood veneer.  This puts some extra spacing between the magnets and the washers on the clipboard.  After drilling a mounting hole for the MS2, I sprayed on a couple of coats of paint.

MS2 straight key magnet mount wood pieces prior to assembly
Wood pieces prior to assembly

After letting the paint dry, I went to attach the key to the base.  Oops!  I drilled the mounting hole from the wrong side of the mount.  My first inclination was to putty it in and repaint.  However, I decided to leave it there as a constant reminder to always measure twice and drill once!

MS2 straight key attached to the magnetic base
MS2 attached to the magnetic base. Don’t look too closely or you might see the drilling mistake I made.

The mount actually works well.  The concealed super magnets hold the key firmly to the clipboard without the need for excessive force to remove it.  Once I free up some time, I’ll give it a thorough test out in the field.

MS2 straight key mount attached to the clipboard
The finished product

72, Craig WB3GCK

Li-Ion Battery Pack

Here’s a little battery pack I put together for use as an external, portable power source for my YouKits HB-1B.  I wanted something relatively lightweight and inexpensive that would put out at least 13 volts.  This solution has fit the bill, so far.

There isn’t too much to it.  I already had some Li-Ion cells on hand, so I wanted to make use of them.  They are 18650 cells with a 6000 maH rating.  I haven’t actually verified the claimed capacity but most cells tend to be somewhat over-rated. These particular cells are the “protected” type; each cell contains some circuitry that prevents overcharge and over-discharge.  There are much cheaper unprotected cells but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

Battery pack with cable stowed
Battery pack with cable stowed

To put it together, I bought a 4-cell battery holder for 18650-size cells.  With 4 fully charged cells, the voltage can exceed 16 volts.  To keep the voltage below 14 volts (the maximum for my HB-1B), I put 3 silicon diodes in series with the output.  This brings the voltage down to about 13.7 volts with fully charged cells.  I also added a 2-amp fuse and an Anderson Powerpole connector.

Li-Ion battery pack layout
Li-Ion battery pack layout

To package it, I had a sandwich-sized Rubbermaid container that wasn’t being used.  It turned out to be the perfect size to hold everything snugly.  When not in use, everything is neatly tucked inside the container.  In use, I lift one corner of the lid to bring out the connector.

Battery pack as I normally use it
Battery pack as I normally use it

For charging, I remove the cells from the holder and charge them with a Nitecore D4 charger.  This is a 4-bay smart charger.  It automatically detects the type of battery inserted and applies the proper charging method.  Each bay works independently, so balanced charging is not an issue.  The D4 works with a variety of battery types (Ni-Cad, NiMH, Li-Ion, etc.) so it is a handy accessory in the shack.

Nitecore D4 smart charger. Each cell is charged independently.
Nitecore D4 smart charger. Each cell is charged independently.

I haven’t done any formal testing of this battery arrangement, but it has provided adequate power for an afternoon of portable operating.  For extended operating sessions, I throw 4 extra cells in my backpack that I can swap in if needed.

It’s not the most elegant solution but it works fine.

72, Craig WB3GCK

American Morse MS2 Straight Key

For many years after I first learned the code in the Navy, I was a die-hard straight key user.  Unfortunately, back in the 90s, I started to experience some wrist pain and switched to using iambic paddles.  Recently, after working one of the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) K3Y special event stations, I was inspired to sign up with SKCC and dust off my straight keys.  Hopefully, I will be able to get my old straight key fist back in short order.

Since I do most of my operating while portable, I wanted a straight key that was easy to pack and use while sitting on the ground along some trail somewhere.  I was looking for something small that I could add some magnets to for use with my little clipboard.

After doing some research, I decided on the American Morse MS2 miniature straight key.  I built a set of Doug Hauff’s (W6AME) NorCal paddles from a kit many years ago and they are still in regular use.  Doug’s machine shop produces some precision stuff.

The kit arrived a few days after I placed my order.  Following the manual’s precautions, I emptied the parts into a baking pan.  Some of the parts are pretty small and would disappear forever if dropped on the carpet.  Even with my aging eyes, it only took about 45 minutes to assemble the kit.  (A younger person with better eyes and steadier hands could have done it faster, I’m sure.)  You need to supply your own cable and connector, so I dug an old audio patch cable out of my junk box and cut it in half.

American Morse MS2 straight key after initial assembly
American Morse MS2 straight key after initial assembly

The key is 2 inches long by 1 inch wide and is made from machine aluminum.  The contact gap and spring tension are fully adjustable.  The key (with my cable attached) only weighs about 2.7 ounces (76 grams).

The finished MS2 straight key with cable attached. The cable is one half of an 1/8-inch diameter audio patch I had in the junk box.
The finished MS2 straight key with cable attached. The cable is one half of an 1/8-inch diameter audio patch I had in the junk box.

After adjusting the contact spacing and the spring tension, I was surprised at how great this little key feels.  The knob is a little different from most keys, but I was able to easily adapt to it.  As expected, the overall quality of the key is outstanding.

My next project will be to attach some sort of base to it with magnets spaced to line up with the washers on the clipboard I use while portable.  More on that in another post.  I’m looking forward to making some SKCC contacts from out in the field.

72, Craig WB3GCK

FYBO 2016

I didn’t have a lot of time today but I wanted to get out for an hour or two for the annual Freeze Your B—- Off (FYBO) contest.  FYBO is sponsored by the Arizona ScQRPions.  I didn’t do a lot of  advanced planning for this event, so I threw my backpack into my truck and headed out with a couple of possible locations in mind.

I ended up in the Schuylkill Canal Park in Mont Clare, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from home.  I’ve been to this park many times but I had never operated from there.  The spot I had in mind had some high voltage power lines nearby so I headed a little further down the road.  I wound up in a parking lot next to the canal lock.  There was still some snow on the ground and the area looked muddy, so I set up in the truck with the window down.  (It was 36F when I started.)  I used my YouKits HB-1B and a 29.5-foot vertical.

FYBO "Stationary-mobile" set up
FYBO “Stationary-mobile” set up

Now, normally, when people see my antenna, they usually just give some curious stares and move on.  Not so today.  Before I had even made a contact, I noticed a county park ranger drive by.  He circled back around and pulled up next to me.  He was curious about the antenna and I ended up discussing ham radio with him for the next 5 minutes or so.  He wished me well and drove off.

A few minutes later, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a car with two park rangers behind me.  They were staring at the antenna, so I got out and went over to talk to them.  I gave them my ham radio spiel and a few minutes later they drove off.  I was finally able to get back to the radio and start making some contacts.

In my hour or so of operating, I only managed to work 3 FYBO contesters on 20 meters.  There was very little FYBO activity heard.  In fact, I worked more Minnesota QSO Party stations than FYBO stations.  Before I packed up, I dropped down to 40 meters and picked up a Vermont QSO Party station.

Just before shutting down, a fellow who had been walking his dogs walked up to my truck and asked about what I was doing.  Once more I gave my ham radio spiel.  In all the years I’ve been operating from portable locations, I can’t remember ever getting this much attention.  Maybe I enlightened a couple of folks today.

Lock 60 and the Canal Keeper's House at Schuylkill Canal Park, Mont Clare, Pennsylvania
Lock 60 and the Canal Keeper’s House at Schuylkill Canal Park, Mont Clare, Pennsylvania

Even though it was a short outing and I’m sure I wasn’t a big threat in the FYBO contest, it’s always good to get out and play some radio.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Winter Field Day 2016

My original plan was to get outside or, depending on the weather, operate “stationary-mobile” from my truck for Winter Field Day 2016.  However, my XYL and I had a long-standing obligation to head out of town for a weekend of babysitting our grandson.  So, “Plan B” was put into effect.  I would have to operate in the “Indoor” category and, at least, hand out some points to those braving the elements.

On Saturday morning, I started to set up my portable station at my daughter’s house.  I secured the feed point of my LNR EFT-10/20/40 end-fed antenna and tossed the rest of the antenna out of a second story window.

Antenna support for my LNR EFT-10/20/40 EFHW antenna
Antenna support for my LNR EFT-10/20/40 EFHW antenna

The next part was a little tricky since there was still more than a foot of snow in the backyard and I neglected to bring boots.  Anyway, I trudged through the snow to secure my 31-foot Jackite pole to the fence.  I used three velcro cinch straps that I had recently purchased.  I used some twine to hoist up the far end of the antenna.  It turned out to be mostly horizontal but with a little bit of sag in it.  Then, I set up my YouKits HB-1B and my logging computer on the dining room table.

My portable station for Winter Field Day 2016
My portable station for Winter Field Day 2016

About 2 hours before the start of Winter Field Day, I fired up my YouKits HB-1B and had a nice 2-way QRP chat with John, W3FSA, up in Maine. So, my slightly sagging antenna wasn’t doing too badly.

In between entertaining my 1-year-old grandson and taking my grand-dog out for walks, I got on the radio.  There didn’t seem to be a large number of stations on, so I bounced back and forth between 40 and 20 meters.  At the end of the first day, I had worked 22 stations and a few stations not in the contest.

I got on for a bit on Sunday morning but things had really thinned out a lot.  I made a few non-contest contacts.  It was a while before I heard any WFD activity.  I only managed to pick up one new one.   Around 10 AM, I packed up and tore down my antenna.

With my 23 contacts, I certainly didn’t set any records.  It was, however, a fun event.  Hopefully, I can get outdoors next year.

72, Craig WB3GCK