By Steven R. Hurst, KA7NOC

What does CW mean ?

CW stands for “continuous wave”, most hams refer to Morse code when they talk about “CW”. So what does CW have to do with Morse code ? Morse is the code used via the CW medium, or “mode”, of communication. Morse code can be created by means of a flashlight, signal flags, mirrors, even a stick hit against a water pipe can be used to communicate with Morse code, or any code for that matter ! Telegraph operators used Morse code over the telegraph wires back in the 1800’s to send messages. These messages were known as ” telegrams “. People of that time relied on the telegraph operators to pass information over great distance’s . Telegraph operators also checked the current weather conditions across the country , making sure that the trains ran on schedule . So , it’s no surprise that when radio came along at the turn of the century, Morse code became the standard in communication , as many telegraph office’s went “wireless”.
As the art of radio progressed, most ships became equipt with transmitters and receivers. Those ship to shore operators used Morse code as their only means to communicate with other ships and land stations. The R.M.S Titanic used Morse code to send its ill-fated distress signal ” C Q D ” .

Of course the amateur’s were using Morse code all along. They used home made ,”spark gap”, transmitters to send their messages around the globe. These primitive transmitters took up enormous amounts ( by today’s standard ) of radio spectrum !

Ok, so what is morse code ?

Morse code is named after its inventor Samuel F.B. Morse,1791-1872. Morse invented the code (and the electromagnetic telegraph ) in 1836. The code consists of a series of dots and dashes. Each letter of the alphabet and numbers 0 through 9 have individual combinations assigned to them. For example, the letter “E”, is a single “.” , or “dit” . Making it the easiest letter to learn ! The letter “O” is “- – -” , or “dah dah dah”, another fairly easy one to learn. Most are not that easy, but with practice and determination, it can be done. Some people can copy code at speeds of up to 70 words per minute ! Of course that is more the exception than the rule, most ham’s copy code in the 10 to 30 word per minute range. Once you get over the learning curve, morse code becomes a second language, you begin to hear “words”, not just each individual letter. You begin to recognize the rhythm of the words so you can easily pick them out and follow along with the conversation.

Where do I begin to learn the morse code ?

You already have begun ! You now know two letters, E and O ! Because morse code ( as used on the amateur radio bands ) is an audio code, the best way to learn it is by sound, not by sight. There are many manufacturers of code tapes, some of these tapes simulate real life code as heard over the radio waves. Also, look for tapes which send the code characters at around 15 words per minute, but the actual word speed should be slower. This way you will become familiar with the sound of each letter and number sent at the higher speed. There is a big difference between the sound of code sent at 5wpm and code sent at 25wpm ! Software is available here on the WWW that you can download and practice on your PC. I have found a couple of really neat programs from “PA3BWK’s” web site. Once you have learned the alphabet and all the numbers, I would suggest the purchase of a good quality SW ( shortwave ) receiver. Nothing beats real live code practice, after awhile you begin to memorize the tapes! The ARRL conducts daily code practice on the HF ham bands, so you will want to check them out as well.

What type of equipment do I need to learn morse code ?

You will need (1) a cassette tape player, (2) code tapes,(3) a code practice oscillator, (4) a code key, (5) paper and pencil. Those items will get you started on your journey to learning morse code! I will explain what each piece of equipment is for those of you who are unfamiliar with some of them. Everyone knows what a cassette player is, so I will skip over that as most people already have a tape player of some sort ! Code tapes are cassette tapes that teach you all the letters and numbers in morse code. Some are better than others, try to find ones which are narrated, that is , ones which have someone explaining what is going on, some tapes assume that you already know the code and just send random letters and numbers. So if you are a beginner, make sure you purchase beginner tapes, ones that take you from the start ! A code practice oscillator is a device used to generate tones by means of a key, or switch. You can easily build one yourself ( with the right parts and equipment ) or there are a few companies still around that offer code practice oscillators for sale. If you are new to all of this, and don’t own a soldering iron, I would highly recommend the purchase of a fully operational “CPO”. The building of a kit or designing your own is beyond the scope of this discussion, should you wish to build your own, there are many books available at your local library. One company that I know of which offers code practice oscillators is “Whiterook Products Company”. Check out their web site for more information and decide for yourself. Most everyone is familiar with a code “key”, you have seen them in the movies and on TV. This is the device used to close or open the circuit which generates the pulse to form the tones which make morse code. Make sure you get one of good quality, avoid the “cheap” plastic base one’s available at some of the electronics’ stores in the malls. You may have to find a mail order source for these, check out “Fair Radio Sales”, they carry lots of neat things for the radio buff.

OK, I have the stuff, now what ?

Find yourself a quiet, comfortable spot and begin learning the morse code ! Take it slow and easy, relax, put your feet up and close your eyes ! Don’t worry about writing anything down at this point, just listen to the tape and get the feel of what’s going on. Once you are familiar with the order of things, start to copy the letters and numbers down on paper. Don’t worry about missing a few at first ( it happens to everyone, even after they know every letter and number !) it will get better. Try to make each practice session no longer than 30 minutes, listen to the tape for 10 minutes without writing anything down, then rewind the tape and copy what you can down on paper. After the session is done, go outside and get some fresh air ! Try to practice at least twice a day, 30 minutes each. While you are at school or work, try to remember letters that you have learned, as they sound, not as they look ! This is important and will help you improve your speed on down the road.

When can I start sending with my code practice oscillator ?

Don’t worry about sending just yet, sending code is much easier than copying it once you know it. I have found that if you start sending first, you tend to think of letters as they “look”, ( trying to remember “dot” “dash” ) not as they sound. Also, try to avoid counting dots or dashes, code is a sound which has a rhythm to it, so you should get in the practice of hearing each letter as a rhythm, this is also very important ! Believe me, you will catch on to it a lot sooner than you think with just a little practice each day, you should also set goals for yourself and strive to meet those goals with each practice session. If you run into a block, where you just can’t seem to reach the next level, take a break from it all. Take a few days off, play on the computer, work out in the yard etc. Get your mind off of it, but get back to it after a few days, don’t wait to long !

Ok, I have learned all the letters and numbers, can I start sending now ?

Yes, and congratulations ! Once you have learned all the letters and numbers, it is time for you to start practicing your sending. Remember I told you that sending was easier than copying ? Well that is true, but you still need to practice, remember other people will need to understand what it is you are trying to say ! If you have found a good straight key, you will need to know how to operate it. Straight keys are very light and tend to move around on you when you are sending, the best way I have found to keep them in place is to bolt them to a piece of wood. Find a piece of pine, 1″x6″x10 approx., and bolt the key to it, not in the center, at the end. With the “knob” toward the other end of the wood, this way your hand can rest on the wood while you are sending. Hook your key up to your code practice oscillator and practice sending. What you should be trying to do is make your letters and numbers sound just like what you were listening to on your tapes. Try to space your letters and numbers exactly the way you have heard them, remember the rhythm ? That is what you should be trying to obtain, perfectly spaced code, with a smooth sound to it. It should not be “choppy”, if it is , try adjusting the spring tension on your key to where it feels comfortable to you. Once you get that down you are all set to practice until you feel comfortable with your progress. The speed will come the more you practice, and it will become second nature to you. Soon you will not even have to think about what you are doing, you will just be doing it !

I can’t seem to send smoothly, what’s the problem?

Could be a number of things. First, check the spring tension on your key as well as the contact spacing. I personally like very little “play” in my key, high tension and very little space. You will have to find the place where you are comfortable with the tension and spacing on your own, as everyone has a different feel for it. You will find that as you progress and your speed increases, you will need to adjust the key to fit your style of sending. Second, you need to relax and not think about it so much, everyday will be different. Someday’s it will just flow, others it won’t. When it’s not coming to you and you are thinking that you just can’t get it, take a break. I have found that you get nowhere when you become frustrated with it. Learning to send morse code properly takes time, and you should devote the time it takes to become proficient. After all, that is the goal we are trying to achieve !

I’m getting pretty good at this !

Great, again congratulations , now comes the really fun part ! Assuming you have progressed this far, and are sending at a reasonable speed, i.e. 10wpm. Now is the time to get on the air ( if you are a licensed ham ) and make some cw contacts ! I know , you may not be sending or receiving at ten words per minute yet, but you should be. That should be one of your goals, you should be listening to code sent at a faster rate than you can actually receive. Why you ask ? Because this will force you to receive faster code ! If you can copy 100% of everything you are listening to, your going to slow. So speed it up a little, and practice on getting faster with 90% copy. If you are feeling really comfortable at 5wpm, listen to code sent at 8wpm until you get that speed under your belt. Remember, it doesn’t have to be 100% copy at first. Nor will it ever be while making contacts with other hams on the air, due to signal fading ( QSB ) and noise. Once you become proficient at one speed, you should be striving to reach the next higher plateau until you reach the speed you are aiming for. That of course is totally up to you, you may want to stop at just 13wpm or continue on to 20wpm or even higher. The choice is yours, I however would encourage you to practice until you are comfortable with at least 22wpm. That way , should you decide to go for the big daddy of them all, the extra class ticket, you can easily pass the code exam !
Hey, this is really fun !

I was hoping you would say that ! Morse code ( CW ) is a really fascinating way to communicate. It is a skill not many possess, and has a grand history. Many historic events included morse code transmissions, the sinking of the Titanic comes to mind for starters. In fact, morse code brought the news to the people whom otherwise may not have know about it for several weeks, even months ! It really becomes a second language once you get over the learning curve. For those who pursue it , it becomes an obsession. Soon you begin to recognize certain operators just by the sound of their “fist” ! You don’t have to become a code speed champion either, there are many operators who enjoy slower speed code, and almost always, the faster ops are more than happy to slow down for you if you need them to. So don’t be afraid to jump right in and start making contacts on cw. Not only will you be improving your skills, you just might have a blast !

Now’s the time for the paddle’s !

No, you didn’t do anything wrong ! I’m not talking about that kind of paddle. The paddle’s I’m referring to are another form of “key” to send morse code. A paddle type key has two small paddles extended vertically, instead of the horizontal knob on your straight key. One side of the paddle sends “dits”, the other “dahs”, each side will continue to send as long as you hold the contacts closed. For this reason, these type keys are called “automatic”. To form each character you simply “squeeze” the paddles. Sending in this manner is also referred to as ” iambic ” keying. Paddles are available in “iambic” and non-iambic styles. Non-iambic paddles are for those who are use to sending on a single lever paddle . Once you have mastered the straight key, I would highly recommend getting a paddle key of some sort. Paddles enable you to increase your speed dramatically over a straight key. How ? Because you will start to send much faster , thereby hearing code at a faster rate both on receive and while sending ( provided the station you are communicating with is sending fast as well !).

Straight keys vs. Paddles

So why not just learn on the paddles to begin with ? Well, a few reasons. Learning on a straight key is much simpler, since you only have to concentrate ( in the beginning ) on learning the code, not as much on the key. Straight keys require much less concentration while you are mastering the code. So I would encourage you to master the straight key first. Other opinions will vary and you have to decide which is best for you. Paddles on the other hand are a little more complicated but well worth the effort, learning to use paddles is a skill in itself ! Of course you will also need an electronic keyer with a paddle type key. That is unless your “rig” ( or the key in some cases ) already has one built in, as many of the newer radios do.

Other types of keys

While there are many different styles of paddle keys, the principal is the same. Two levers, one side for “dits”, the other side for “dahs” . There are other types of keys as well, another is called a “Bug” , or single lever paddle. This type has one vertical paddle which you move left and right. These type keys are sometimes referred to as “semi automatic” , since one side sends a string of “dits” as long as you hold the contacts closed. The “dah” side is manual, meaning you have to send each “dah” manually. The term “bug” comes from the company ( Vibroplex ) which invented this type of key. Vibroplex has been manufacturing morse code keys since the late 1800’s, making it the oldest key manufacturer still in business ! They called it a bug because their logo has a picture of a beetle “bug” ! Which came first, the bug logo or the name ? Other companies also offer this type of key for those who are use to a “bug” and prefer not to use “iambic” keying. Again , you will have to decide which style you are most comfortable with. This is one of the things that makes “CW” so interesting, everyone is different and there are many different types of keys to choose from. It is fun to experiment with different type keys and keying. But for now , if you are just learning , concentrate on the code and sending well !

Making that first contact with Morse code

You may be wondering what you will do after you receive that coveted ham ticket. How do you make that very first contact with Morse code ? Sit back and relax while I try to explain the steps and procedures you will need to know before venturing out on your own in that vast void called “HF radio” ! Assuming that you have a station set up , and are familiar with the operation of your equipment, lets begin. First you will need to pick a band to make your contact. I made my first contact on 40 meters. Fourty meters is a good band to start with , it is usually “open” 25 hours a day. So lets say you are a Novice or Tech. Plus, you’re tuning around somewhere between 7.100 and 7.150 Mhz . Your palms are sweaty and your hands are shaking ( been there done that ! ) , don’t let this get the best of you ! All you need to do is calm down a little and try to relax. Remember , most operators in this part of the band are also beginners. No one is going to kick you off the band if you make a mistake or are sending slow code ! You have a choice at this point, are you going to call “CQ” yourself ? Or are you going to listen for someone else calling “CQ” and then answer them ? This choice is up to you, decide which you are most comfortable with. I called “CQ” myself to establish my first contact. This is one way to calm yourself down a little and get your mind on making the contact.
Helpful Hint: Before transmitting in any mode, Always ask if the frequency is in use ! You do this on CW by sending: “QRL?” , then listening for a “YES” or “Y” or “TU” or “C”.

You’ve decided to call “CQ”. Here’s the procedure:

“CQ CQ CQ DE (Your call) (Your call) (Your call) K”
Then LISTEN….. if you don’t hear anyone answering your call try again.
“CQ CQ CQ DE (Your call) (Your call) (Your call) K”
Again, LISTEN….. You might also tune around from your transmit freq. to see if anyone is calling you that you may not have heard. Lets assume someone is calling you. This is what they may say:
It is now up to you to establish communication. Example:
“WA9ZZZ WA9ZZZ DE KB1XXX , TNX fer the call OM es GA (or GE). Ur RST RST is (give signal report). My name is (Send your name twice). My QTH is (Send your location twice). So hw cpy OM ? BK T U . WA9ZZZ DE KB1XXX KN”
Then the other station will tell you if he/she copied all of what you sent or if you need to repeat anything. They might send all of their information as you did during this time.
This is just one example of how to make your first contact. You will of course find what you like and what is comfortable for you. Just try to remember to keep your CQ calls short, no one likes to sit for five minutes listening to an endless stream of “CQ CQ CQ…” . They may get tired and move on , and you will therefore miss the QSO.

After all of the standard information is passed and copied, you can move onto other topics. What do you talk about on morse code ? Try to make it interesting for the other station. You might tell them your age, how long you’ve been licensed, what you do for a living, or what grade your in and what you like to study the most. It’s just like talking with someone on the phone ( well almost, CW is much more fun ! ). Are you familiar with the “hamspeak” being used ? If not keep reading and I’ll explain what all these things mean. I have most of these listed on another page, but will reiterate them here for your convenience.

CQ is a general call for any station to answer you. You are “seeking” any station to call you.
DE means “FROM” or “THIS IS”. From the French , DE means FROM.
K means “OVER” .
TNX means “THANKS”. You could also use “TKS” for the same meaning.
FER means “FOR”. Easier to send an E than an O I guess !
OM is “Old Man” . Hams call each other Old Man no matter how old you really are ! Helpful hint: NEVER call a female ham an “Old Lady” !!!!
ES means “AND”. Again , easier to send ES than AND.
GM / GA / GE / GN . Good Morning , Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Night.
Ur means “Your”.
RST is “Readability”, “Strength” and “Tone”. This is the way signal reports are given using CW. I’ll be setting up a page explaining how to give meaningful signal reports soon.
QTH is your location.
HW means “HOW”.
CPY means “COPY”.
BK means “BACK”.
T U means “To YOU”. ( This can also mean “Thank You” in some cases )
KN means “Over, only the station I’m working respond”.
I hope that this helps to familiarize you with the procedures of making a CW contact ! Don’t be shy or afraid to get on the air and make that first contact ! It really is a thrill to hear someone sending your callsign back to you after you have called CQ ! Oh , where was my first contact made you ask ? I worked a female ham in Montana, I’ll dig out her callsign and post it here soon. I was using an HW-16 by Heathkit with a ground mounted Hy-Gain vertical. When I heard my call come back to me, I almost fell out of my chair ! I quickly composed myself since I didn’t want to miss this contact and called her back. It was a short QSO mainly because I couldn’t wait to get off the air and tell someone about it !!! But one of my most memorable ones for sure. I hope you experience the same thrill as I did with your first CW contact ! Who knows you may work me as your first contact ! Now wouldn’t THAT be something ! 😉


An amateur radio operator, military veteran, jack of all trades and master of none.

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