Getting Started With CW

Fred Beatty, K8AJX


Sending Morse Code

Now you are probably thinking, “Okay, dude, I am copying code, but what about sending it? And when should I start with that?”

Obviously, learning the characters and gaining some proficiency in copying is most important. Once you do, you can begin to practice sending. You don’t necessarily have to wait till you have learned all the characters, either, though that would be best because you will achieve a comfort level and self-confidence in your competency. Alternatively, you could practice sending the characters in each set as you gain proficiency with those particular characters.

Whichever approach you decide on, we recommend that you begin with a straight key, though where you begin is your decision.

Morse Key

In the picture above, you can see that the design of the key is quite simple and effective. You can buy straight keys in a variety of models.

You can use your transceiver side-tone as an oscillator, or buy or build one. Many are available on the Internet, at e-Bay, from various vendors. The MFJ 557 makes a unit that includes both ( and is moderately priced. The American Radio Relay League also offers a code practice kit, which you will find at

The straight key is operated with an up and down motion and the dots and dashed formed by simply holding the keying bar down for the necessary length of time. When sending with a straight key, by the way, experts recommend that you rest your forearm on the table, sending with wrist action. That saves on muscle aches.

It won’t be long until you want to go faster. There are a number of options for doing so that reduce fatigue by operating with a side-to-side motion rather than up and down, as with a straight key. The “bug” is a first step. It automatically makes dots with a vibrating arm. You make the dashes manually on the left side, while dots are made by the vibrating arm when you push the finger grip to the right. Bugs are available from several manufacturers, with Vibroplex being the best known. You can also buy bugs used at hamfests and on eBay.


The bug above is a Vibroplex “Original Deluxe.”

Most CW operators today, however, use “paddle sets” connected to an electronic keyer, where the operator simply holds the paddles left to make dashes or right to make dots.

Paddle Set

This is a Bencher paddle set, which can be purchased in several different models.

The electronic keyer makes automatic dots and dashes, produces a corresponding side tone, and keys the transceiver. Paddles and keyers are available from a number of manufacturers and used ones can be purchased on eBay, as well. These days, however, the keyer circuitry is included in most transceivers, so all one needs is the paddle set and the radio. In either case, the side tone is handy to practice.  When using the keyer in a rig, by the way, be sure it is not in the "transmit" mode.

Learning to send code with any of these devices is not difficult. Begin slowly and “methodically” progress through the character sets that you printed out from the basics page. Again, don’t think in terms of dots and dashes, but rather dits and dahs. Mentally review each character and then practice sending it. From the character sets, move on to mixing characters, then to words just as you did in “Just Learn Morse Code,” and then on to text until you feel comfortable at a particular speed.  As you gain proficiency, you can gradually increase your speed.  The key here is to maintain comfort, because if you force increased speed, your sending will get sloppy.  As with receiving, be content with gradually improving your proficiency.

Okay, now we can copy and send code. Are we ready to get on the air? Not quite. There are a few more steps we can take to improve our proficiency and gain confidence in our CW abilities before we take the big leap.  

Next Page: Improving Your Speed