My CW (Morse code) Paddles
(Posted May 6, 2008)
radios and towers may offer the biggest advances as you build a
competitive radio station, but for me some of the most profound
pleasures are found not in the grand additions to my station, but
in the small steps and discoveries that fill the spaces between
great evolutionary leaps.
have realized as much anticipation and thrill hanging a simple fence-wire
antenna and racing back inside to see how it worked, as I have cranking
up a commercial tower and beam for the first time and racing back
inside to see how it worked. It's not the new gear but the racing
back inside, half of you dreading disappointment and the other half
almost tripping over your own feet with excitement, that does it.
those big moments -- putting up a tower, plugging in an amazing
new radio for the first time -- are truly memorable (and can even
involve inscribing your name, the dog's pawprints, and the date
in concrete), but so is something as unextraordinary as bringing
home a used set of CW paddles.
in station-building is usually not about acquiring a new toy. I
think it's mostly about the promise of doing more, or doing something
better than before. Whether that's digging out weak stations with
a sharper receive filter, carving out a spot in a busy contest to
call CQ with a higher gain antenna, or just sending better Morse
code with a more responsive key....
I was first licensed -- back in 1982 -- I had no money at all. I
was 16 years old, and if I needed something for ham radio I had
to either build it myself from scrap parts, or mow lawns for the
money I needed. I hated mowing lawns almost as much as being poor.
had a Radio Shack brass straight key for sending Morse code, but
one day I got a "can't say no" $25 deal on a Versakeyer.
It was beautifully built by Norm, VE7EGO (sk) from plans in the
May 1979 edition of QST. He assured me he had only built
the thing for the joy of building it. I knew the parts cost him
twice what he was asking, and countless hours building it had to
be accounted for, too.
you're 16 and someone offers to sell you an electronic keyer for
a fraction of the going price, you say "thank you" and
mean it. Norm's quiet generosity provided me with a very fine iambic
keyer far beyond my means. Now I suddenly also needed some paddles
to drive the thing.
a couple of weeks, while I built some paddles of my own, I borrowed
a set of black Bencher BY-1 paddles from my greatly missed elmer,
Harold Marshall VE7EGY (sk). I LOVED the way characters flowed like
liquid out of the Bencher paddles but eventually they had to go
home to their owner.
first set of paddles was fabricated "breadboard" style
on a plank, using for paddles a foot-long piece of pliable plastic
trim -- the stuff covering the space between 1979-era woodgrain
panels on my bedroom wall. (Dad never even noticed. That is, until
my stupid brother Matt ratted me out.)
a base of pine board cut from a plank my dad had in the garage,
I bent the trim around a nail. At each end of the trim, I wrapped
tinfoil for electrical contact -- so that when I tapped one of the
trim ends against a steel screw serving as the "center"
contact, a dot or a dash was sent.
tension adjustment, I pressed the trim close to -- but not quite
touching -- the center screw using cable clamps screwed to the pine
board, one for each side, which I could nudge against the outer
side of the trim to adjust the space between tinfoil and screw.
on, I glued magnets to the ends of trim, and to the cable-clamp
"tensioners" -- so the magnets positively pulled back
the trim from the screw when I released the paddles. Brilliant stuff
back then. Heck, the Space Shuttle was just a toddler still).
long way from the Bencher, but it got me through several years of
young hamming. I came in first place for B.C. in CQWW CW one year
with this jury-rigged contraption.
but Real Paddles
1989, I dragged my girlfriend to a ham flea market in Vernon, B.C.
for an afternoon. I know many of you are saying to yourselves, "That
Bud is a pretty smooth operator, taking Kim to a hamfest and all."
She didn't think it was all that much fun, actually.
vividly remember seeing a set of Bencher BY-1 (black base) paddles
for sale on a table. $50. We were both saving up for our wedding
the next summer, so I kept my wallet in my pocket. In large part,
this was because I only had $10 left after buying us lunch. As you
can imagine, over the years I have regretted my decision not to
borrow $50 from Kim so I could buy those paddles. Or, at least,
her decision not to give me the cash.
2002, when I really got the contesting bug, I went to the Summerland,
B.C., annual ham radio flea market. I purchased a homebrew set of
paddles for $25 from an old-timer. They are magnetic and work just
fine, but I've never been very accurate with them. I knew one day
I would have to upgrade.
the years, I watched the price of Bencher paddles go from $50 to
$100, to $150 and now $200, depending on the base -- black or chrome.
I figured they were out of my league, and I always had something
more important to pay for.
two teenaged boys (hockey, golf and other activities), mortgage
and car payments, food for aforementioned teens, etc., the ham radio
budget is pretty slim. OK, so that's the party line (in case XYL
Kim is reading). The hard truth is, I could have bought any paddles
I wanted any time at all -- I just didn't feel quite right doing
it. Until now. I figured I was due.
Up to the Chrome Plate
Sunday, May 4, 2008, I went to the Orchard City ARC flea market
with $100 in my pocket and a singular goal: buy a Bencher paddle.
I got there and saw a black Bencher BY-1 with a small MFJ keyer
on top of it. $85.
I filed that one away, and kept looking. Around the corner, I caught
a glint of chrome in the morning sunlight. Middle of the table,
between a couple of 2M handhelds was a Bencher BY-2 with the chrome
base. I already knew that a brand-new BY-2 would cost me $160
casually made may way closer and peered down to find the price sticker.
I had to struggle to keep the grin off my face. "$75."
was a beauty. Damn near new, with the box! I wandered around for
a while, hemming and hawing about whether or not to spend that much
for paddles. You see, not only am I clinically budget-challenged,
those early days pinching pennies turned me into an honest-to-goodness
cheapskate, even if I have a buck in my jeans.
I told myself. "You deserve to upgrade. You're contesting every
weekend -- get the right tools for the job."
went back to the table and shelled out the money. I saved big-time
and spent the rest of my $100 semi-annual allowance on a pair of
Heathkit five-position antenna switches for $20 and a $5 raffle
ticket (didn't win the 2M rig), and drove home -- grinning all the
Bencher is outstanding. I can comfortably key with accuracy now
at 35 words per minute (had trouble with 25 WPM on the older paddles).
venerable Versakeyer with the nifty Bencher now drives the FT-2000,
and a Ham Keyer (HK5A) and the old paddles run the FT-920. I could
not be happier. I feel like a real ham -- or at least like those
smiling QST-cover hams with Benchers on their desks, hi.
happiness is about the promise of improving -- but it can also be
about new toys sometimes. And when you wait a long time for it,
it's sweeter still.