Quick Primer on CW

Primer on CW

Always the student for CW, I keep a page of documentation that refers to the tools that I've used over the years to learn CW.

Every suggestion to learn CW should be taken with a grain of salt because everyone learns differently.    Some learn visually, some learn by listening, others just dive right in, and others take a cautious approach.   Whatever works has to work for you and it has to be fun.


Whether you like to rag-chew, work contests, work DX, or anything in between, there's a lot of action on the bands for CW.  Regardless of how you proceed you'll have homework to do.  Practice takes time and it's really up to you how much you want to improve.   Learn by doing.   Additionally, it's very important to make friends in the CW Community so you have someone to work CW with -- at the very least.

The Guidelines

I will call them rules, but they are just guidelines to follow.

Rule #1   Have Fun.  If you're not having fun, then adjust the plan.   CW is meant to be fun, and if you're not having fun then re-evaluate what you're doing and talk to your local ham friends about what to do next.

Rule #2  Learn the alphabet. Know your letters and numbers start to build a vocabulary of words that are often used.
  • Ward Cunningham's "MORSE" program is what I used years ago.  Still available. https://c2.com/morse/   -- This will teach you the alphabet.
  • The folks over at Learn CW Online borrowed his idea and made it web-based and added a lot more to the system.  https://lcwo.net/    Get a free account on that site and use their Morse-Machine (equivalent to the Morse program).  There are also a range of word/callsign recognition tools there.  Set the speed that makes sense and practice.  This will teach you a vocabulary.
A tiny note about practice tools at LCWO -- You want to have errors between 10-20%.  If your error rate is 0% then you're not going to learn very fast.  If the error rate is 10-20% then you will learn much faster/better.  As soon as you start to squash the errors, then turn up the speed more.

Practicing copying CW is half the issue.  The other half of "Learn the Alphabet/Vocabulary" is getting proficient at sending.

The bare essentials:
  1. Send your own callsign.  Can you send your own callsign reliably at speed?  Practice sending your own callsign on your device (paddle, key) hundreds of times a day until it is just perfect and effortless.
  2. Recognize your own callsign sent to you.  There are numerous packages on the web that you can use to "encode" something in CW and save the audio.   Encode your own callsign sent.
  3. Example of a simple response:    5NN TU.   Can you send that?  Can you recognize it sent to you?  Of course you usually need more but that's about as short as it can get.
  4. As stated, there is not a perfect solution to learning CW and everyone learns differently -- but one thing is common -- those who want to learn choose to practice often.  So, the bare essential is to simply practice the way that works for you.

Rule #3 - Use CW.
  • The virtual method is to work CW with a key and your radio -- disable the Tx function so you don't transmit but can still hear your own side-tone.   This will help you practice your sending.   Sending helps you learn the letters and words even if you're not copying them.
  • There are programs that simulate QSO in CW - although they are more oriented to those who train for contesting, the skills are still necessary even if you don't contest.   Morse Runner is a very popular tool for this.  Set into Single-Call mode and set the speed accordingly.   The function-key bindings are similar to N1MM.
  • The other virtual method is to take part in the Long Island CW Club classes.   
    • LICWC classes are almost daily, no wait-list, and distributed across the week for different levels.   https://longislandcwclub.org/events/  The Zoom meeting instructions are at their site.

Other Advice

Get on the Air
  • Ask your local ham radio club members about any CW Net that is regular.   
  • Just set the VFO at the bottom of the band (for example on 20 meters, start at 14 MHz and then just slowly roll up and listen for a CQ.  Drop your callsign and take it from there.)
  • The ARRL Qualifying Run Schedule
  • ICWC MST Top-9 
If you're interested in DX, there's another thing to try.  If you load up the Reverse Beacon Network web page: https://www.reversebeacon.net/main.php   And enter your own callsign, select the band you are working, then start calling CQ on that band, you'll see right away where your call is being "skimmed".  Hopefully far enough that DX may be a possibility for you.

I didn't even mention POTA or SOTA yet.  That's a terrific way to get action on CW.

Contesting is a good way to get practice.

It's not necessarily about trying to win the contest or rack up points -- it's about active participants who are also using CW -- like you -- and getting the experience to work QSO's with CW.  If you don't turn into a contester, that's fine. If you do, same answer.

The Contest Calendar is always updated (there are far too many contests to keep track of!) State QSO parties are excellent.   Look for CQ Magazine sponsored contests, ARRL sponsored contests and State QSO parties.    Additionally, there is always a set of unique one-off contests each year.  For example the "13 colonies" contest is fun to do (work each of the 13 Colonies).  

Weekly K1USN SSTICWC MST  are things to do each week.   They last one hour each.  Participants routinely post their score on https://www.3830scores.com/index.php.

The general speed-limit on SST is 20 wpm.   MST ranges between 20 and 25 wpm.    Most operators will QRS (slow speed) to match you, and if you are in S/P mode (answering a CQ) you will have time to know the call-sign of who you are working.

A mix of contests are always on the air, every week.  For a good chunk of the year, there is a US State QSO Party almost every other week (it seems).  That's a lot of CW to enjoy!  You don't have to participate to win the contest, but practicing is ideal!

The 2023 ARRL 10 meter contest was actually interesting too, and taking part of in that for CW meant being very aware of the time of day to work 10 meters during the daylight.

Perhaps you've already worked all states (WAS) but "Mixed" or just on Phone.  Try to do it with CW?
Same for DXCC, same for WAZ, etc...

Final Thoughts

If this isn't enough to inspire you to work CW, then consider this:  There are thousands of operators out there just like me and you who are trying to learn CW.   And for every student there are many operators out there who would love to work you with CW.   So, if the hold-up is your anxiety about "doing it wrong", let me gently inform you that opinion is wrong.   Just work CW.   I have never come across an operator who found it "inconvenient" to work me with CW regardless of how much I need to learn.

The other point I wanted to make is about DX.  

Not everyone chases after DX stations, but if you do, consider that working DX is even more fun if you can do it with CW.  For a lot of "rare ones", it may be the only way (despite the popularity of the digital modes).   For example, the 2023 DX'pedition to Crozet island (FT8WW) was saturated with callers on FT-8. I could not get through.  But I managed to easily work them on 15 meters with CW.

There is something quite noble and refreshing about CW.  On one hand it's a very old mode for ham radio -- from the beginning we've had it in our toolbox.  But if you think about the exchanges and the way it works, it's a very relaxing mode to partake and refreshing from the splatter and shoulder-to-shoulder pile-up on SSB.   Don't get me wrong -- I enjoy all of the modes.  I just find it actually a lot more relaxing to work in CW.   And, the satisfaction of working DX with CW is really nice too.

You may experience the same thing.  But, if you don't have the same reaction to CW, that's fine !    Regardless, you're here, reading this and that tells you something -- doesn't it? 


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