Micro Straight Key by KC5ILR

I recently bought another key from KC5ILR & Sons over eBay. This inexpensive little straight key could become one of my favorites.

Last year, I came across these straight keys that KC5ILR and his sons produce on a 3-D printer. They sell a variety of key styles in various colors. I bought a camelback style key and wrote about my initial impressions. While it is a nice key, the aluminum contacts didn’t always close cleanly and I detected some slight noise in the keyed signal.

I noticed that KC5ILR’s keys are now using solid brass contacts, so I bought one of their new lightweight Micro keys to give it a try. I received it a few days after ordering it and boy am I impressed.

Micro Key by KC5ILR & Sons
Micro Key by KC5ILR & Sons

Here are the specifications from the eBay listing:

Width: 1-7/16"
Length: 4-1/8"
Height: 1-3/8"
Weight : <2 oz.
Action: Single Max .100" gap.
Spring: Coil Chrome
Style: Camel Back Arm
Wiring: Stranded Copper
Contacts: Solid Brass
Resin: Biodegradable PLA Polymer
Construction: 3D Thermal Printed
Screws: 18-8 Stainless Steel 3MM Socket Head Cap Screws
Nuts: 3MM Stainless Steel Jam Nuts
Screw Holes To Mechanically Fasten.
Standard 3.5MM Receptacle (Use Tip & Sleeve Mono Or Stereo)
Solid Brass Contacts For The Ultimate QSO.

It took no time at all to adjust the contact spacing and tension to my liking. The base has countersunk holes for permanent mounting but I applied the four stick-on, rubber feet that came with the key.

The key has a 1/8-inch audio jack for connection to the rig. A cable is not provided so you’ll need to provide a stereo or mono patch cable. When using a stereo cable, the key is wired to use only the tip and sleeve. So, using a regular stereo patch cord, I can connect the key directly to my KX3. I connected it to my code practice oscillator for my initial tests.

The solid brass contacts are a huge improvement over the earlier aluminum contacts; the keying was absolutely clean. Even though the key weighs less than 2 ounces, I found that the design of the base makes it very stable when keying. The overall feel of the key is impressive.

I recently took my new key out for some portable operating. I used it to make a few SKCC contacts during a Weekend Sprintathon (WES) contest. As expected, this little key performed well and keyed cleanly. This will be a nice little key to take along when weight is a major concern.

KC5ILR's Micro Key being used for portable operations. My American Morse MS-2 key is in the background.
KC5ILR’s Micro Key being used for portable operations. My American Morse MS-2 key is in the background.

If you’re looking for a small straight key for portable operation, look no further. For $19.95 USD, you really can’t go wrong.  You can also buy these keys directly from the C. W. Morse website.

73, Craig WB3GCK

[Disclaimer:  I have no financial interest in this company.  I’m just a satisfied customer.]

Mini Straight Key by KC5ILR

When I saw a Facebook post about a straight key fabricated with a 3D printer, I was intrigued.  I headed over to KC5ILR’s eBay listing to take a look and wound up buying one for $21.95 plus shipping.  (This was one of two impulse purchases I made recently.  I’ll post about the other one later.)  These keys are also available on the C.W. Morse website.

Here are the advertised specifications from the eBay listing:

Width: 1.45"
Length of Base: 2.68"
Overall Length: 4 1/8"
Weight : <1 oz.
Action: Single Max .100" gap.
Spring: Coil Chrome
Color: Black & Red
Style: Camel Back Arm
Wiring: Stranded Copper
Contacts: Solid Aluminum
Resin: Biodegradable PLA Polymer
Construction: 3D Thermal Printed
Screws: 18-8 Stainless Steel 3MM Socket Head Cap Screws
Nuts: 3MM Stainless Steel Jam Nuts

The key was promptly shipped and I received it a few days later.  Using a 3mm hex key, I was able to easily adjust the spring tension and contact spacing to my liking.  For a plastic key, it has a pretty good feel to it.  The feel is crisp and there is no side-to-side slop.  The hardware used is all quality stuff.  It doesn’t have the solid feel of a more expensive, all-metal key but I wasn’t expecting that.

C.W. Morse Straight Key by KC5ILR
C.W. Morse Straight Key by KC5ILR

Given its very light weight, I found that it needs to be attached to some kind of base to keep it steady during use.  The base of the key has two counter-sunk holes for mounting.  I’ll definitely be making up some sort of base for it in the near future.

Although this key looks like a toy, it’s actually a pretty decent straight key.  At this price, I think it would a great starter key for beginners.  If nothing else, it’s an interesting conversation piece.  I’ll probably be using it mostly for portable outings where I’m operating from a picnic table.

My trusty J-38 can rest easy; there’s no chance of it being replaced by this little, plastic key.  I am, however, looking forward to spending some time with it on the air.  Congratulations to KC5ILR and his son for coming up with this cool little key.

UPDATE (4/24/2017):

After seeing this post, Joseph KC5ILR and his boys graciously sent me one of their new, non-skid bases for my key.  Like the key, the base was produced with a 3D printer.  Although it weighs next to nothing, the new base greatly improves the stability of the key.

73, Craig WB3GCK

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Ham-iversary

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

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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

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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