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Using a Straight Key
by John Shannon, K3WWP

I have thought about using material on my web site from an old, but excellent book that I inherited from my uncle. Recently an email from Steve, WB6TNL prompted me to do something about it.

Before computers, electronic keyers, and bugs there was the straight or hand key for sending Morse. It is still a joy to send Morse with a straight key today, and I often forsake my keyer to slip back in time and use an old straight key which also came from my uncle.

There are proper ways of adjusting and using a straight key that are fairly straightforward, but may not be apparent to everyone. I hope this page will pass along some useful information on straight keys.

Enough for the intro - let's get down to the business at hand. The following material when contained in quotes is from 'The Telegraph Instructor' by G. M. Dodge, published in 1908. It deals with telegraphy as used on the railroad, but the material I am using here is general in nature.


"Any person, of whatsoever age, can learn telegraphy and become a telegraph operator, but the best time to undertake the study is between the ages of fifteen and twenty-eight years."

"Telegraphy is not, as a great many are led to believe, a complicated or difficult study to understand. The apparatus employed is quite simple and readily understood, but the student should bear in mind that nothing is attained without an effort........."


"The Key. The 'play' of the key should always be free, the upper platina point striking the under one with preciseness, and these should be kept free from rust or dirt. In commenting upon the 'play' of the key it is not intended that either extreme should be employed. Perhaps it would be suggestive to say that the distance between these points should equal the thickness of three to five pieces of ordinary writing paper.......... The lever is held to its position by the set screws on the sides of the trunion. These latter, as well as the set screw on the end of the lever, together with the set screw attached to the spring, are all adjustable and are provided for the adjustment of the key."


"The art of transmitting or sending, in the writer's opinion, supersedes that of receiving. The student should bear in mind that accuracy and not rapidity is the qualification needed in sending. Speed should be attained unconsciously. Untiring efforts should be employed to master accurately letters or characters which are difficult."

"Many are of the opinion that sending is easily attained, while receiving is the more difficult. The facts are to the contrary, as few who become proficient in sending fail to become equally as good in receiving. A number, however, who receive well are poor at sending. This inefficiency can usually be attributed to a failure of observing the elementary principles."

"Take an easy and graceful position, always sitting erect and facing the key. Place the first and second fingers on the furthest part of the key-button with the thumb under the edge, curve the first and second fingers so as to form a quarter section of a circle, partially close the third and fourth fingers but do not allow them to touch the table. Rest the arm on the table at the elbow. The grasp of the fingers and thumb upon the key should be firm but not rigid and should never leave the key (while sending)."

pix_holding_the_key (41K)


"The wrist should be perfectly limber. The motion should be directly up and down, avoiding all side pressure. The movement should be from the wrist and forearm and not from the fingers; the fingers are used only for a leverage. The fingers, wrist and arm, however, should all move in the same direction."

"The downward movement (closing the key) produces the dots and dashes, while the upward movement (opening the key) produces the breaks and spaces."

"A dot (.) is made by a single, instantaneous downward stroke of the key. A dash (-) is made by holding the key down as long as it would take to make two dots........."

The book contains much more very interesting information, although as I said before much of it pertains to railroad telegraphy in particular and is not applicable directly to ham radio. Also the book deals with American or Land-line Morse and not the Continental Morse used almost all the time on the ham bands.

I'd like to add a bit of personal information to the above.

In adjusting the key, the side set screws should be adjusted so that the contact points (or platina points) come together squarely. Once that is achieved, they should be adjusted so the key lever moves freely, but does not wobble. Once that adjustment is made, the set screw at the far end of the lever is adjusted to set the spacing of the contact points. I prefer a fairly close setting, perhaps two thicknesses of paper versus the three to five thicknesses mentioned in the book. Finally the set screw at the spring is adjusted to give a good feel to the key closure. I prefer a somewhat strong spring setting so the contacts snap apart quickly when I release pressure on the key-button. The last two adjustments I mentioned are pretty much up to the personal feel of the operator.

One final important point that is also emphasized in the book. The key should be firmly fastened to the operating table in whatever way you choose. Mounting it on a very heavy base, using double sided tape or velcro, or bolting it directly to the table are some ways that come to mind.

The book, as I said, deals with sending American Morse and contains references to sending spaces within letters since several of the American Morse characters are made up of dots and spaces. For example the letter 'C' which is sent as two dots, a short space, and a final dot kind of like sending the Continental Morse combination of 'I' and 'E'. As a result, the book text may be confusing when referencing spaces and breaks. So I'll say here that the spacing should be as follows, considering one dot as the unit of measure:

Dot: 1 unit
Space between dots and dashes in a letter: 1 unit
Dash: 3 units
Space between letters in a word: 3 units
Space between words: 7 units

Perhaps the diagram belowing illustrating CQ DE will make it more clear:

Morse spacing

I hope the info proves to be helpful for those many hams who are discovering or re-discovering the wonderful ham radio mode of CW or Morse. Have fun, and call me on the air if you hear me. I'd love to chat with you.