While some claim that CW, or Morse code, communication is a dying art reserved to old time mariner movies, many amateur radio (ham radio) operators still operate CW on a daily basis. As feoh stated in his E2 writeup on Morse code: "There is a definite art to mastering the ways of the key." (go there)

This writeup is a brief outline of what equipment is used for CW operation, how to tune a radio (also called a "rig"), and the basic format of a contact ("QSO")


Anything from a simple 500mW transmitter -- often called "tuna can transmitters" because they fit in a tuna fish tin -- on up to 250W all-transistor electronically-filtered radios can be used. In fact, a whole class of operators routinely operate at a maximum output of 5W! The operation of low power stations (up to 5W inclusive) is called QRP. Outdoors enthusiasts often enjoy QRP operation because of the compact and lightweight design of low power transmitters. CW lends itself well to QRP since voice or phone communications usually require much more wattage than CW to produce a strong signal.

The following household items offer a good point of comparison for ham radio transmission wattage. Keep in mind that comparisons with lightbulbs foresee an ideal-hypothetical situation where no power is radiated as heat. An LED flashlight produces about one watt or less. A typical bright halogen lightbulb produces 100W. A typical AM (mediumwave) station often produces at least 10 kW (10,000W). A broadcast station operates at the power of 10,000 flashlights or 100 heavy-duty household light bulbs!


Wire antennas/aerials, especially on frequencies of longer wavelength, are all that is necessary to make local, regional, even international contacts. It's important to provide that the antenna is situated high enough, with little electrical interference. Antennas need to be "cut" for a certain frequency according to simple algebra. Otherwise, much of the signal output will be absorbed by the transmission line and not emitted from the antenna. Precise lengths are very important for low power operation. Bad impedance matches will result in almost no power reaching the antenna.

The craft of configuring antennas (hams say "antennas", not "antennae") and rigs is another E2 node altogether. But once the station is properly wired and grounded, attention should focus to how to properly tune the rig to effectively contact stations.


The following information on "zero beat" tuning has been paraphrased from Jack Wagoner, WB8FSV, in his online guide A Beginner's Guide to Making CW Contacts. More information on CW can be found on this excellent guide, so look it up.

(Yes, it's not from print; but I like this author's clear way of describing what becomes an automatic action.)

Note also that this advice pertains to newer transciever radios. In the case of transmitter/reciever combinations, simply follow option 1, but adjust each seperately.

Wagoner suggests two methods for zero beating, one that can be used on any rig and one that is better suited for more modern rigs. For older/non-solid state rigs, tune the signal from high to low (meaning, from a high cycle/Hertz tone to the very breaking point when it disappears.) At this point, the operator is at the transmit frequency. To center on other operator's frequency, tune up 600 Hz.

Okay. But newer technology makes tuning easier. The RIT (recieve-incremental-tuning) control allows the user to adjust the recieve end of the radio +/- 1.5kHz or so for a little added room to adjust signals for aural comfort. Tune the RIT up 600Hz and listen to the other station drop out at the breaking point. Then retune the RIT up until the signal approxmates 600Hz to the ear. I can't do this technique since I am tone-deaf, but Wagoner prefers it. My radio has RIT and I never use it.


Making contacts can be intimidating at first. Here's a very simple outline to give an indication of what to do. Note these symbols. K is equivalent to "go ahead" or "roger". BK (the characters B and K run together) denotes a pause in transmission. SK (again merged), denotes the end of a conversation (sometimes SK CL is sent, meaning "I'm gone and shutting down the power.") Contacts start out as:

CQ CQ CQ CQ DE AB2* AB2* AB2* K (the one asterisk indicate the last letter or suffix of a callsign)

CQ is a general call to contact any other operator. I wait on my frequency until someone comes (not a good idea to go skip off somewhere else.) Then, a response may be as follows:

AB2* AB2* DE W0*** W0*** K(where the three asterisks indicates the suffix of the call)

Note the reply is short; hams who go on and on in replying are in poor taste.

Conversations are in normal language with some abbreviations. A list of these abbreviations are forthcoming. Signal quality and tone reports are also given. When time comes to close shop, an operator sends this:

73 SK W0*** DE AB2* SK

meaning, thank you for the contact (73), goodbye, exchange of call signs (opposing station is always first), then a final termination (end SK). It takes time to understand the terse protocol, but signing the SK becomes automatic. I hope my guide has been of help to prospective hams interested in operating CW. Good luck, and I'll see you around on the air.

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