First CW contact!

It’s finally happened. My first CW contact! After nearly a year and a half of practice, trying 3 or 4 different methods of learning code, and countless hours of listening to other people’s QSOs on the air, I finally have successfully made a real, on the air CW contact.

It did not go at all as planned.

I was told early on by several experienced CW ops from the club that the best way to learn was at a reasonably useful conversational speed – 18-20 wpm. So, as I jumped into my CW education, I made very sure to practice each character until I had it cold. No counting, no thinking, no delay – just hear the sound, and think the letter. Later on after a lot of practice, words and pro signs started to come to me the same way. Now it’s not too difficult for me to sit and head copy simple exchanges, call signs, locations, signal reports etc. So all that practice was worthwhile.

I applied the same logic to learning how to send. Once I felt comfortable with copying all the letters and numbers, I started to practice sending the characters over and over until I didn’t have to stop and think about what I wanted to send. I could just think “a” and didah came out. So far so good.

I finally decided last weekend that it was time to just jump in and try an on air QSO. I mean, I had practiced, I felt pretty comfortable with it. What was there left to do but get on the air? So Sunday afternoon I turned on 20m and started listening around. I heard a few NPOTA stations, a special event WA1WCC, and then W0DB calling “cq NE qp.” I thought, well, this might be a good first try. The exchange would be simple enough, just “KK4FEM 599 FL.” What could go wrong?

So I wrote down what I wanted to send, practiced it (flawlessly) about 15 times just listening to the sidetone on my rig, then I flipped the break-in switch…took a deep breath, sent a perfect “KK4” – and my mind blanked. I don’t even know what I sent after that, but it definitely wasn’t “FEM.” Joe, W0DB came back with “KK4?” Ok, ok, calm down. One letter at a time…K..K..4..F..E..M. Phew!! Did it! Joe came back with my call, signal report, and his county. Ok, so now my signal report “5NN 5NN.” Wow, that was amazing! First try! Alright, so now all I have to do is send “FL.” Here goes…LF. Dang…LU. No, no…FR. Joe sends “FL?” Aw, man! I sent the signal report so good! One more try, slowly this time – “ FL FL FL.” He send back “FL K” or “TU” or something…I don’t even know. I was just trying to breathe again.

Yay! I did it! Well, at least I hoped I had. A few minutes later I typed out an email to W0DB telling him this was my first time, and to asking if he had actually managed to get anything useful out of all my mangled gibberish. A few hours later he replied with this:


I did it! Woohoo! He congratulated me on my first contact, and very kindly said that we all make mistakes when we’re first starting out. He suggested trying some other contests to get my speed and consistency up, which I plan on doing. Too bad I just missed the NAQCC sprint, but there’s a few other events coming up this weekend (the SKCC sprint and 2 QSO parties).

I thought that after having several SSB contests under my belt, I was over the whole nerves thing. I guess anything new can be hard at first, no matter how prepared you think you are. I’m really thankful for all the patient, experienced ops out there that are willing to slow down and work beginners like me. A whole new ham radio experience awaits me now…and just in time for the sunspot decline! I have a feeling knowing CW is going to keep me on the air as conditions worsen. Now for some more practice…

Speedex Rebuild

A friend of mine (and the president of our radio club), N4ESS, heard I was interested in CW. Being mainly a CW guy himself, he stopped over at the house one afternoon and brought me some equipment. One of the things he had with him was a beat up hamfest-special, Speedex straight key. It needed some work, but he said I could have it if I wanted it.

Seen better days...
Definitely seen better days…


Pretty much all the hardware was corroded, some of the screws were stuck, and the paint was peeling off. With a little bit of Kroil + Leatherman, it didn’t take too long to get everything apart. The hard part was cleaning up all the hardware.

I tried everything I could think of: toothbrush, wire brush, brillo pad, WD-40, etc., etc. after a couple hour of alternate scrubbing and soaking in Kroil, most of it cleaned up alright. I did have a couple of stubborn ports that just wouldn’t come clean…for future reference, laquer thinner is the FIRST thing I should’ve tried, not the last. Worked like a champ. With everything all shined up, it was on to the paint.

First I tried brushing the paint stripper on. Being naturally impatient, after about 2 minutes of that I dumped around 1/3 of the can of stripper into a #10 can and dropped the base in. 10 minutes or so later, this is what came out…

Stripped base
Nice and clean

The original finish was kind of a really light orange peel texture, which I wanted to try and replicate. I took a trip to the auto parts store, and $9 later came home with a can of VHT black wrinkle paint. After reading the directions carefully, I took the metal base out in the yard in a cardboard box and sprayed it all up: applying paint first one way, then 90° to that for the second coat, and finally 45° on the final coat. I stuck it in the garage overnight to dry.

Next morning I went out to check, and it had dried with a perfect wrinkle finish…if I had been trying for that high-heat valve cover look.

Valve Cover  The wrinkles were HUGE! Way rougher than I would’ve liked. So, it was back to the #10 can-of-paint-stripper bath. To save everyone the long, painful, trial and error route that I took (and a lot of paint stripper..), I will try and break the process of wrinkle painting down thusly:

1) Wrinkle paint works on the principle that the surface of the finish dries faster than the rest of the paint underneath. They apparently actually used to accomplish this in times past by mixing various ratios of tung oil (or other similar additives) with the paint.

2) Heat is key. Unless you want your project to look like it belongs under the hood of your car, you need to heat it rapidly after you apply the paint. This can be accomplished in your oven, if you can gain the permission of your wife, mother, or equivalent in charge of the kitchen area. Microwaves are not recommended.

3) If you CAN’T gain access to the oven (you more than likely won’t), you will have to get creative. I made a little hot box out of cardboard and aluminum foil.

How’s that for a piece of thermal engineering??


4) Next I needed a heat source. After scrounging around in the garage awhile I turned up one of those aluminum worklights with (gasp!) an INCANDESCENT BULB. Having had past personal experience melting PVC piping in our irrigation system, by using one of these lights to keep the pump from freezing, I knew it should do the trick.

5) It seems to make no difference what kind of pattern you use when applying the paint, at least not when you are heat-treating. After I had the hotbox all ready, I just kind of sprayed the key base all over, making sure I had covered the entire surface.

6) All I had to do then was drop the freshly-painted key base into the box, flip on the light, and kneel next to it on the garage floor for the next approximately 12 1/2 minutes, watching until the paint started to wrinkle up. If you’ve got one of these fancy laser thermometers like I do, it was at around 120 degrees F.

In the hotbox

Baking the paint

121 F

After FINALLY accomplishing the right look and feel to the  paint, I had to let it cure. Because of the surface of wrinkle paint drying faster than the paint underneath, it takes a while for the paint to fully dry. If you mess with it too much before it completely cures, you can damage the wrinkle finish, or smear the paint (don’t ask me how I know this…). I left mine sitting on a shelf drying for around 2-3 weeks. You might be able to leave it for less time than this, or possible heat treat it after the initial “wrinkling stage.” I’ll leave this up to your own experimentation.

After reassembly (finally!), this is how it turned out. Pretty slick, huh?

Finished key

I have been feverishly practicing my code, and hope to get a chance to try this thing out on the air soon. Thanks again to Rich, N4ESS, for the key. This was an interesting project, and hopefully this might help someone out there with some wrinkle painting projects of their own!