Rainy Camping Weekend

My (far) better half and I took our little trailer back to French Creek State Park (PA) for what turned out to be a rainy weekend of camping. Despite the lousy weather, I did have some radio fun and ran into one of my QRP friends.

The QRP camper on a rainy weekend at French Creek State Park
The QRP camper on a rainy weekend at French Creek State Park

Right after we set up the trailer, I was flagged down by one of my Boschveldt QRP buddies, Ron WA8YIH. Ron and his family were also spending the weekend at French Creek. Ron’s campsite was across the road about 30 yards or so away from ours. I hadn’t seen Ron since our Boschveldt QRP gathering back in January, so it was good to catch up with him.

Ron WA8YIH operating outside his camper at French Creek State Park
Ron WA8YIH operating outside his camper at French Creek State Park

I spent most of my radio time operating in the SKCC Weekend Sprintathong (WES) contest. This month, bonus points were available for QSOs made using a homebrew key. So, before we left, I threw together a homebrew straight key using parts from an earlier key project that wound up in my junk box.

My homebrew straight key
My homebrew straight key

The lever arm is a strip of thin fiberglass material I liberated from a trashcan where I worked many years ago. The contacts consist of a small screw on the lever arm and a piece of brass-plated metal from an old cabinet latch. I used some nuts and washers as spacers to get the contact spacing where I wanted it. That took a bit of trial and error. I couldn’t find anything on-hand that I liked for a knob, so I used a piece of self-adhesive foam. Using it on the air, I was pleasantly surprised with the feel of the key.

My 9:1 UNUN all prepared for the oncoming storms
My 9:1 UNUN all prepared for the oncoming storms

Since the weather was so lousy, I spent a bit more time on the radio than normal. Over the course of the weekend, I found the band conditions to be highly variable with some deep fading. At times, my 5-watt signal seemed to be getting out really well. At other times, not so much. I also had to disconnect the antenna when thunderstorms rolled through.  As if that wasn’t enough, our area was under a tornado watch on Saturday night. (Fortunately, they never materialized.)  Needless to say, I have had better weather for camping.

I ended up with 19 WES QSOs and 1 QSO with Ron. Since I could actually see Ron from my campsite, I guess we could have used semaphore for that contact.

72, Craig WB3GCK

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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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

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