For a variety of reasons, the past week has been a slow one for me, radio-wise.  However, I did notice on my calendar this morning that today is the 42nd anniversary of my first ham radio license.  Wow!  Where has the time gone?

Forty-two years ago, I had finished up my 4-year enlistment as a Navy Radioman and had just started school studying electronics.  I had plans to get my ham license, so I began to blow the dust off of my rusty CW fist.  Although the Navy trained me in Morse code, I never really had many opportunities to use it.  Also, I had never copied code without a typewriter (or “mill” as we called them in the Navy) so I had to learn how to copy CW with pencil and paper.

Radio gang aboard the USS LaMoure County (LST-1194) in 1974. I’m standing in the back, second from the right (with my eyes closed).
Radio gang aboard the USS LaMoure County (LST-1194) in 1974. I’m standing in the back, second from the right (with my eyes closed).

Once my code was back up to snuff, I contacted a local ham, Bob Rothrock K3MAZ (SK).  Years earlier, he restored an old console radio that my grandmother had given me.  Bob was the only ham I knew at the time and he graciously administered my Novice exam and helped Elmer me along when I had questions.

After receiving the callsign, WN3YSV, it took several months to put a station together and get on the air.  I found a used Heathkit DX-60 transmitter and paired it up with a Realistic DX-60B shortwave receiver I already had.  Anxious to get on the air, I quickly threw together a low dipole for 15 meters.  I picked 15 meters only because the dipole would fit easily across the backyard.

When I finally got on the air, I nervously called CQ a few times and was answered by K3RDT.  I was excited to hear someone calling me and I’m sure my sending reflected my nervousness.  I had never had a conversational CW exchange before.  As it turns out, Pete was only about a mile away from.  He helped other novices get on the air and seemed happy to be my first contact.

A few days after that shaky QSO, I received my first QSL card.  On the card Pete questioned my choice of 15 meters and encouraged me to figure  some way to get on 40 meters.  Of course, he was right.  I eventually rigged up a 40-meter dipole and ran across the roof of the house and across the backyard.  Although I made some nice contacts on 15 meters, the 40-meter novice band was where the action was for me.  I also became interested in QRP early on.  I built a little one-watt transmitter during that time and made a few contacts with it.

QSL card from my first ham radio contact with K3RDT.
QSL card from my first ham radio contact with K3RDT. It was 599 both ways, since we were only about a mile apart.

After a little over a year of operating, I moved away to start a new job.  My ham radio gear got packed away and I focused on my career and raising a family.  It would be another 15 years before I got back on the air with my current callsign.  Ham radio was definitely better the second time around.

Even after all these years, the thrill has never subsided.  This radio stuff is still like magic to me.

73, Craig WB3GCK


Murphy and MacGyver

My XYL and I traveled out to the Harrisburg, PA, area over the weekend to spend some time with our daughter and her family.  Yesterday, I set up my KX3 and Alexloop in the backyard to make a few SKCC Weekend Sprintathon (WES) contacts.  Ol’ Murphy was certainly with me.

First, I had a problem with my little American Morse MS2 straight key.  Well, not the key itself, but rather a bad connector or cable.  I spent some time playing around with it but I had no multimeter to  troubleshoot it and no parts to repair it.

Tuning around the bands, I couldn’t hear a lot of activity.  The SKCC stations I heard seemed pretty weak and I wasn’t having any luck making contacts.  I checked the Band Conditions website and saw that the bands were in bad shape.  At that point, I threw in the towel and chalked up a win for Murphy.

Tough going on the bands
Tough going on the bands

Today I decided to give it another shot.  The bands sounded better and I could hear some WES activity.  I remembered a trick that Burke N0HYD employed to pull off an SKCC contact with me a while back.  So, I channeled my inner MacGyver and set up the KX3 for a straight key and connected my Palm mini paddles.  I turned the paddles over on their side and used one lever as a straight key.  The straight key workaround worked surprisingly well.  The “feel” wasn’t half-bad, actually.

My sideways paddles. The top paddle was used as the straight key.
My sideways paddles. The top paddle was used as the straight key.

With the improved band conditions and the straight key workaround, I made several SKCC WES contacts, including one with Bert F6HKA.  Bert has great ears and has managed to pull my puny QRP signal out of the noise on several occasions.  I finished my session with a nice two-way QRP QSO with Mac NN4NC down in North Carolina on 40 meters.  I was only on for an hour or so but it was fun.

Despite my lack of a functioning straight key, I managed to put a few new SKCC stations in my log today.  MacGyver would have been proud.

72, Craig WB3GCK

More SKCC Fun

Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) logoThe past few weeks have been interesting for me.  Despite poor band conditions, I managed to qualify for some more Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) awards.

Two weeks ago I received my Prefix x2 (Px2) award and a 40 meter endorsement on my Px1 award.  The SKCC Prefix awards are awarded on a point system for working a unique set of prefixes and summing up the membership numbers of the stations you work.  The PX1 award requires 500,00 points and the Px2 award requires 1,000,000 points.  So, I had 1,000,000 points on all bands and more than 500,00 on 40 meters alone.  It’s a lot easier to reach these numbers than you would think.

Yesterday afternoon, I got on 40 meters for a bit to see if I could find two more Centurion or higher contacts to reach the Tribune x2 level.  After working Tom N2TRJ in New Jersey, I heard him working Conrad W3ZMN.  Conrad is about 45 miles north of me in my hometown of Bethlehem, PA.  After they finished, I gave Conrad a quick call.  We were 339 both ways but managed to complete the exchange.  My thanks to these two folks for getting me to the Tx2 level!

My SKCC Tribune x2 certificate for working 100 unique Centurion, Tribune and Senator level members. I still need about 500 more to reach the Senator level.
My SKCC Tribune x2 certificate for working 100 unique Centurion, Tribune and Senator level members. I still need about 500 more to reach the Senator level.

Today, along with my Tx2 award, I also received my 1xQRP award.  This award is a point-based award for working a sufficient number of stations while running 5 watts or less.  The points for each QSO vary according to the band used.  There is also a 2xQRP award for making 2-way contacts but that is going to be much harder to achieve.

While I was in my SKCC logging program, I noticed that I was also qualified for 40 meter endorsements on my Centurion X1 and Tribune X1 awards.  I also received those endorsements today.

The SKCC awards certainly become more challenging as you move up the ranks.  I think that one of the things I enjoy most about the SKCC is that even someone like me with a QRP rig and a crappy antenna (more on that in another post) can earn some wallpaper.  Being able to pick up an award now and then gives me a sense of accomplishment that has kept my interest peaked.  Plus, you get to interact with some really friendly hams in the process.

73/72, Craig WB3GCK


Good Week for SKCC Activity

Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) logoLife-in-general made this a somewhat slow ham radio week for me.  It did, however, get off to a great start for my Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) activities.

Having reached the Centurion level (100 SKCC member QSOs) back in mid-March, I set my sights on reaching the Tribune level (50 QSOs with Centurion or higher members).  Thanks to the many SKCC members who were eager to add me to their logs with my new “C” designation, I made great progress over the following 2 weeks.

So, by last Monday (March 28th), I needed just 3 more QSOs to reach the Tribune level.  Despite some rough band conditions, it only took about 30 minutes to reach my goal.  The QSO that put me over the top was a nice chat on 20 meters with Pablo KP4SJ in Puerto Rico.  Pablo’s QSO helped me reach Tribune on the 2-month anniversary of my SKCC membership.  It was especially gratifying doing it with 5 watts into my rainspout antenna.  SKCC members, apparently, have very good ears!

Now begins the long climb towards the Senator level.  That entails 350 more contacts with Centurion or higher members and 200 more contacts with Tribune or Senator level members.  That, for sure, is going to take quite a while.

I made a number of 2-way QRP SKCC QSOs during the week, as well.  I worked K8FAC in Ohio, NC4RT in North Carolina, N0HYD (portable) in Kansas, AH6AX in Maryland, and NF1U in Connecticut.

I’m hoping that “Life-in-General” settles down a bit next week and lets me get out for some portable operating.

72, Craig WB3GCK

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

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

Clipboard Keyer

I purchased a set of Palm Mini paddles for portable operating a while back. I love the magnet base, which attaches nicely to the side of my little YouKits HB-1B transceiver. However, in some situations — like sitting on the ground or operating from inside my truck — that isn’t always the most convenient arrangement for me. Here’s a little hack I came up with to solve that problem.

Figure 1. Washers attached to clipboard
Figure 2. Paddles attached to clipboard

I purchased an inexpensive 6-inch by 9-inch, acrylic clipboard at my local office supply store. I used some GOOP adhesive to attach two steel washers to the clipboard, as shown in Figure 1. I made sure that the washers lined up with the magnets on the base of the paddles. Figure 2 shows the paddles attached to the clipboard. Figure 3 shows the clipboard in use during a recent outing. For transport, the little clipboard fits in the small plastic container I use for the HB-1B and accessories.

Figure 3. Clipboard & paddles in use

For less than $2.00, this little accessory makes portable operating a bit more convenient.

73, Craig WB3GCK