Six things I learned after becoming a CW operator and activator

Friday evening, I met with my good friends on the crew of the Ham Radio Workbench podcast and we recorded an episode. During the recording, Vince (VE6LK) spoke about his CW goal progress (which, by the way, is going quite well) and he mentioned that he’s moving into the phase where CW is becoming fun.

Vince’s comment reminded me that I started a post draft many weeks ago that focused on several things I learned during my own CW journey. These were all surprises–perhaps even small revelations–that either no one ever told me about in advance or I thought couldn’t possibly apply to me.

This morning, I decided to finish off this post and publish it, so here are six things I learned after becoming a CW operator and activator:

1. More (much more) space on the bands

So, in theory, I understood this prior to becoming a CW activator. As we do our license study, we all learn that CW, as a mode, is a fraction of the bandwidth of Single-Sideband (SSB).

But in practice–when I moved from operating SSB to CW–it almost felt like I had an unfair advantage. That’s especially the case today with the popularity of POTA and SOTA. The bands can be crowded.

I love SSB, but if I’m being completely honest with myself, one of the reasons I operate the mode so little these days (besides the fact that many of my radios are CW only) is because it’s orders of magnitude easier to find a clear spot on the bands as a CW activator. This is especially the case on weekends when bands are generally more crowded.

CW is such a narrow bandwidth mode, I can be 500 Hz away from another signal and we don’t interfere with each other.

2. You really do begin to recognize peoples’ fists

My CW friends have always told me this, but I didn’t really believe it until I took a deep-dive into the world of CW.

You will start to recognize the cadence and “fist” of operators you work regularly who don’t send mechanically perfect CW (i.e. those sending CW from a keyboard).

This is especially the case with ops who use straight keys, cooties, and/or semi-automatic bugs, but even those who use electronic keyers.

Our brains are obviously quite good at recognizing patterns.  Without trying, variances in speed, spacing, and cadence of operators you work regularly become obvious and expected. After you recognize someone’s fist, their callsign will pop out of a pileup. It’s the equivalent of recognizing someone’s accent. It’s pretty amazing, actually.

3. CW gets easier with on-the-air time

Although some of my friends did mention this when I was learning CW, I think I just couldn’t believe it.

As a CW student–when I was learning all of the characters and trying to build speed–it felt like a real struggle. I remember how hard my brain had to work in some of my first QSOs and rag chews. I literally had to rest afterwards!

But a funny thing happens when you simply get on the air and start using CW regularly at comfortable speeds.

Without trying, CW just gets easier and easier. In fact, this is what Vince discovered too: CW evolved from being difficult to being downright pleasurable.

I remember in my early days of doing CW activations, I’d arrive on site and before I started calling CQ, I’d think, “I hope I remember how to operate CW–!” Of course I did, but there was a part of me that thought I could simply forget all that I’d learned and freeze up.

As I built confidence, I was still very much aware of just how much attention I had to focus on listening to the other op and copying their call and exchange correctly. It wasn’t easy.

But within just a few months of doing random CW POTA activations, the mode became a pleasure to use even though I still had to work a bit to copy fast operators or those with distinctive fists. Complicated copy  moved from being a struggle and brain-drain to being more of a puzzle I enjoyed putting together.

Your brain naturally taps into that language center whether you want it to or not and, quite often, without you realizing it.

It just gets easier and effortless. And fun.

4. CW therapy is a real thing

You’ve often heard me call POTA and SOTA “radio therapy” and indeed it is. There’s just something about tapping into that community of radio friends that puts me in a great mood.

CW maybe even takes it a step further.

I mentioned in point #3 that as you learn CW, it becomes a mode you look forward to using–one that gives you a great sense of pleasure.

For me–and for a number of my radio friends–CW is also therapeutic.

How so?

When I operate CW, I go into a focused state of mind that’s actually quite relaxing. When I’m operating CW, all of my stresses seem to melt away while I’m on the air and the feeling doesn’t end when I hop off the air. It just seems to put me in a good mood.

I liken it to mountain biking. When I’m cycling on a single-track trail, I have to give all of my attention to the path in front of me and simply enjoy the experience of pedaling through the forest. I don’t worry about my obligations, my email load, hectic schedule, or projects that need attention. I’m more mindful of tree roots, puddles, and wildlife.

For me, it’s the same when I operate CW; I simply live in the moment and, turns out, that’s therapy money just can’t buy!

5. CW opens the door to the 30 meter band

It’s funny, but I never thought about this prior to becoming a CW operator: CW (and digital mode) operators have access to the 30 meter amateur radio band.

What’s so special about 30 meters? Quite a lot actually:

  • 30 meters is a WARC band! So on contest weekends? It’s a refuge for non-contest activities like POTA, SOTA, and/or rag-chewing.
  • 30 meters feels like a blend of 40 and 20 meters in terems of its properties.  The propagation footprint is a little wider than 40 meters, but not quite as wide as 20 meters.
  • Sometimes the 30 meter band is open when 40 meters or 20 meters is closed or wiped out by flaring.
  • 30 meter antennas are easy to deploy in the field and at home. For example, a 30M end-fed half-wave (EFHW) is a little longer than a 20M EFHW, but shorter than a 40M EFHW. Also, it’s not difficult to build a 40M EFHW with a link that you can disconnect to make it a 30M EFHW.

Above and beyond all of these specific points, I remember times when the 40 and 20 meter band simply weren’t productive and the 30 meter band saved my bacon.

In short? If you’re a CW (or digital mode) operator, you really need to take advantage of the 30 meter band!

6. No one cares about how slowly you send or any mistakes you make as a new operator


I speak as someone who remembers all of my first CW QSOs and activations and as someone who regularly works new CW operators today.

Most of us are a bit self-conscious when we first try our hand at CW. We worry about how we’ll sound to other operators and we don’t want to annoy them.

I’ll let you in on a few secrets:

  1. Every CW operator on the air has been in your shoes at the beginning of their CW journey. They get it. They’ll be patient with you and, in fact, encouraging! The reaction you’re likely to experience from them is empathy–you just can’t hear that over the air.
  2. I get a thrill out of working new CW operators. When I hear a slow, nervous, and shaky fist, I go out of my way to work them. I’ll give them all of the time they need to get their exchange across accurately. It’s an honor to work a new CW operator.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask other ops to “QRS” (slow down) or send “AGN?” (again?) or question marks to clarify an exchange or call sign. The other op would much rather slow down for you and repeat to help you. It’s not an annoyance…on the contrary…it benefits them.

In short: it’s safe to simply ignore these worries. The CW community is an incredibly supportive one. You’re among kindred spirits that are here to help you!

How about you?

These are just six things I learned after becoming a CW operator.

Of course, there were many advantages of CW that motivated me to learn the mode in the first place like:

  • Being able to use the Reverse Beacon Network for auto-spotting.
  • Opening the door to super simple, ultra-cool compact CW-only radios.
  • Making the most of my QRP power. I’ve often heard that 5 Watts CW is a rough equivalent to 70 Watts SSB.
  • Being able to operate stealthily when needed. When CW operators use earphones, we make almost no noise at all in the field save the sound of our key clicking!

So. readers, what did you discover after learning CW? Or, what are you looking forward to after you learn CW?

Feel free to comment!

84 thoughts on “Six things I learned after becoming a CW operator and activator”

  1. I learned CW as a 17 year old novice @ 5 wpm on a crystal controlled ARC5. I never made a contact-mainly because I couldn’t decipher the myriad of tones with the lousy band spread on the converted BC458.
    Now @ 78 and a frequent SSB and FT8 operator, I keep toying with the idea of CW again. With todays receivers I doubt band spread will be an issue.
    Your comments may be the motivation I need.

  2. Hi Thomas,
    I’ve been spending time, maybe not regularly enough, learning the CW for long weeks. This learning seems endless to me. I prepared my license in three months but I feel like I took a subscription of several years to learn CW.
    What I just read in your post brings me comfort, hope and energy to persist.

    1. Good luck, and keep at it! At first it’s hard to even tell the dits from the dahs, but it will fall into place with regular practice!!!

  3. Good points Thomas. I especially concur with the 30m band. It is one of my favs–I get good propagation and the band is usually pretty clear.

    I also love the Reverse Beacon Network to see how I am getting out. My first radio was a (tr)uSDX and I had my call & CQ in the memory keyer which gives you ‘perfect’ timing and the ability for beacon stations to copy.

    But I have since moved “up” to a G90 and I use a straight key, so it gives me a great thrill when I key up perfectly enough to get spotted on the RBN.

    One last great thing that you didn’t mention about CW is kit building. Yes, we can build phone & digital kits, etc…

    But there are SO many CW transmitter/transceiver kits and they tend to be pretty simple for a novice like myself to finish and get working.

  4. I have been a CW operator for about 10 years and I really get a high after a POTA activation. I send at 20wpm but can copy short exchanges at higher speeds. When a hunter calls me at a lower speed I increase my character spacing to assist them. Unfortunately menu based radios make it difficult to change speed on the fly. A tip for new CW ops – learn the characters at a higher speed but with Farnsworth spacing to lower the word speed. As you gain confidence you can reduce the character spacing. It really is worth the effort to learn CW even though ìt may seem hard at first.


  5. Great Cw article. Brings back memories from my Novice days when hams learned Cw to upgrade to General. Then About all you worked knew Cw. 73 Ron n9ee a know code Extra

  6. An enjoyable read, sir!

    For me, the journey of learning CW was somewhat circuitous but there has been great reward for the effort. In exchange for learning the art and skill of Morse code, the reward has been accomplishing more in radio with less weight and bulk on the trail.

    1. I am very much looking forward to it too, my friend! We will make it happen someday. I need to hit a summit on a day with good high band prop into your part of the world!

  7. I agree with all your points. You missed a big one, though, vis the ability to schedule activations ahead of time and get spotted as soon as you start calling. Sometimes I don’t have cell coverage so it’s great to know I will get spotted. Also, I have done activations where I thought I spotted myself, only to learn that it timed out before I hit the submit button.

    Regarding point #2 and the fists, I do my best to confuse people by alternating between cootie and paddles, and today I used a bug for the first time (in POTA). The RBN found me just fine despite my “stabby” dahs.

    1. Hi, Steve–so actually, I was trying to focus on the things I didn’t realize before becoming a CW activator. As I mention at the end of the post, auto-spotting via the RBN was a HUGE motivator for me to do CW activations. Such an incredibly powerful tool! You’re right. 🙂

  8. Great report! It reminds me, to get back on the air… I’ve been traveling a good deal over the summer, and want to continue improving my ‘copy.’ I’m afraid I may have lost my momentum, and need to immerse myself again.

    Often, it’s just listening in, with an occasional contact. My ‘copy’ needs some scheduled discipline.

    Thanks again for the report!

    72 de W7UDT

    1. You’ve got this, Rand! 🙂 You’ll be surprised just how quickly the cobwebs go away even with just a little time on the air!

  9. As always TW this is another fine read. For myself the nerves run high. I had to learn code 23 years ago for my general. Since the test I hadn’t messed with it. Lately since watching your videos and a few other guys I’ve gained high interest in it. When I’m setting in front of the rig and Break-In is off I can send the crap out of it but when I activate it, it’s like I hit the stupid button inside my head (can’t send a lick). Over the last week I’ve been hitting it pretty hard. I feel like there’s progress, slow, but progress. Thanks for being that online Elmer and for always being encouraging to us that are less confident.


    1. There’s always progress, OM, even when you can’t “feel” it, your brain is soaking it in in the background.
      Thank you for the comment!

  10. I learned Morse Code less than a year ago. Something Thomas said on an HRCC episode was a gem. Listen a lot and get on the air. And of course listen to Thomas’ videos. I found this especially true of POTA exchanges as they are pretty routine. All the work is being done by the activator. I did my everyday listening to Morse Code Ninja every chance I could (driving, gardening etc). I listened to 20 wpm character speed at 8x spacing at first. I just started listening to 2 world groups at 20 wpm. Every step forward still feels like I’m starting all over but that is true of learning anything. I now hunt parks regularly without any reservations and am easing into activating. That is my 11 month journey to date. Thanks to Thomas for all his online encouragement.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind comment, Shawn. I’m proud to have played even a small role in your CW journey. Thank you!

      1. Another thing I learned I have not seen mentioned is to write down what I want to send ans a park hunter and practice it. At first I would read it as I keyed but now it is just there for moral support. In the beginning I really helped me get through the anxiety of using the language.

  11. I appreciate the post Thomas, really do. I’ve been a licensed ham since 2020 (general) and am finally breaking into CW. Your channel and blogs have served as an invaluable source of knowledge as well as encouragement. God bless.
    – John KI5MKH

  12. I got into CW specifically for Sota and started teaching myself from scratch and within 6 months was activating CW only and by 8 months a member of CW ops #3166. I learned quite quickly Cw operators are extreamly friendly patient and encouraging when your brain is having a off day and you can’t quite decode the way you normally do they won’t hold it against you some will even email you later in the day to talk to you which was absolutely appreciated.

    All in all the CW community is tight knit and the men and women of it are all amazing humans and Im so proud to be apart of it and hope to get as many ops in my log as I can.

    73 de VE6JTW, Jesse
    YT: Canadian Rockies Radio Adventurer

  13. What a great post Thomas and I agree with the points you’ve made. I also echo what John VA3KOT said – to learn the characters at a higher speed (32-35 wpm) so you hear the shapes of the characters instead of counting dits and dahs but with Farnsworth spacing to lower the word speed and gradually shorten the Farnsworth. Operating CW, whether POTA or a ragchew, is indeed my happy place. I hope this post encourages more ops to join those of us who love this mode.

    72, Teri KO4WFP

  14. Interesting take on my views and opinions, with your twist. Morse Code has been no big deal for me, as I learned it in 1966 at 12 years old. In the mandatory electric shop class in the 7th grade, we had the opportunity to get an automatic A if we went into the radio room. A no brainer. Our teacher gave us a sheet of paper with the morse code on it, I think on a Thursday, and said that there would be a test on Monday, but we didn’t need to know the punctuation. So you learned the code. He gave us our novice tests, which was good for one year, CW only. That was 57 years ago, and I still know the code. The 13 wpm was no big deal, as we sat about in class each day, sending and receiving code for 45 minutes. Then got on the air with CW.
    Fast forward a few years and I began contesting, CW contesting. One of the team, N6MA, Paul Gagnon, had been a Navy radio operator. He could operate the contest, CW, and carry on a conversation with someone in the room and not miss anything. And this was a contest. About 40 wpm. Tim
    Shroyer (remember your dad’s call, Mac, K6VMN, but can’t recall yours) could do the same.
    So for me, CW is home. It is what I know. It is what I operated for a year, only. I was fine with the no-code licensing change. It was about time. And the resurgence of CW is fun, as it should be.
    My only problem with CW is making the key work with the keyer/radio. I must be technologically challenged. I like a straight key, or cootie. Several of my small, portable radios take special knowledge to make them work with a straight key.
    But as a result of this blog/video, QRPer, and the Ham Radio Workbench, I am spending too much money on stuff. I was always a minimalist and homebrewer. I found it to be anti-radio and sacrilegious to the radio gods to buy a premade coax jumper cable. They are so simple to make – but I am buying stuff that I should be making. Or that I really don’t need. How many keys do I need? Well, one more, I as found a reasonable deal on a KX2 and Begali Traveler, so I had to have it – not really, but I am buying it. My $3 straight key mounted on a piece of 1″x4″ about a 1.5′ piece of pine always worked great. Zip cord soldered to a phono plug worked well as a cable. Well, apparently not, as I need a K4SWL approved and sponsored retractable cable that fits into my CWMorse green paddle key. I did find my own MTR series of radios, or the TruSDX, or any number of other CW radios that I have found, cheap, that add to the CW enjoyment. I have found that they add to my field operations being easy and simple – one bag carries my entire station, including my 4aH battery. (that works if I remember my charger – that failure of my current multi-day trip). POTA and SOTA have provided a means for making contacts, as I had more than 300 QSOs this past Saturday from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, SSB, all simply made because of the nature of the technology that uses the internet and spotting system. CW activations were made on Sunday morning and Friday afternoon, again simple, actually simpler than the SSB because of the lack of QRM, intentional interference-I had a “tuner upper” that suddenly came on my SSBfrequency and stayed there for almost2 hours, constant carrier which seldom occurs on CW. Working the “pileups” was fun and quite relaxing, the reason I like these activations. Contesting, I worked at several high power (antenna) stations, which had command of the frequency they choose to be on. IE, 2 element, full-size rotatable 80 meter beam. Three phased 5/8 wave 160 meter verticals. Stacked KLM 6 meter beams – worked DXCC on 6 in the 1980’s over one contest weekend.
    A simple 40 meter EFHW can be a great antenna, on 30 meter when the band opens and the activator becomes “rare DX” with a pileup for hours. The joy of CW and ham radio. It is about having fun. Operating is having fun. Building is having fun. Talking and socializing is having fun. Listening to podcasts like Ham Radio Workbench and Solder Smoke is having fun. CW is fun – that is why I, and we, do it. Fun

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your comments and thoughts. Yes, indeed, I’ll admit that being a listener and now crew member of the HRWB has cost me quite a lot of money. 🙂

      I always tell myself that when I need to downsize, it’s easy to do int he world of amateur radio. There’s a healthy used market. Of course, that’s also a convenient justification! 🙂

  15. You guys are awesome! CW is a therapy specially if QRP. But I saw some POTA’ers using an elecraft KPA 500! And makes me so sad. I mean really sad. Please don’t ruin the POTA …..

    1. I’ll admit that I do feel like 500W for POTA in CW is a lot of overkill unless someone is activating a super rare park or have a special antenna aimed for parts WAY DX! 🙂

  16. Great post, Thomas. I’ve always enjoyed CW (well, once I got over the trauma of sitting before the FCC examiner for my General as an early teen in the 80s). My logs were filled with probably 90% CW / 10% SSB for years, until the evil FT8 came along. Over the last several years I’ve had very little time to get on the air, and my CW has atrophied considerably, so I need to get the practice going again.
    My two bits for beginners: (1) NEVER – EVER – look at printed code. Avert your eyes immediately! It’s intended to be an auditory language only – learn it as such. (2) As mentioned above, start your learning by listening to it FAST. The reason for both these is to prevent getting anything but an auditory pattern of a letter (or, ideally, a word) in your mind. The last thing you want to do is count dits or dahs, or picture the printed character in your mind. Unfortunately, both of these errors is how I learned and it’s a hard habit to break.

    1. Excellent points, Mike.

      And I must admit: when I took my first code test (for the Novice exam), I was a Nervous Nellie. It would have been orders of magnitude worse, though, had it been in front of an FCC examiner!

    2. I agree with this, CW is not a written language – it is totally auditory .

      When I did the tech plus route in the 90’s – I used an associative program that made letter sounds like words, with flash cards of the words……I forget what it was called. I still hear some of those associations today. I got good, used to run CW in my Nissan Pathfinder with a Navy Flameproof on the console.

      Once I went inactive, the ‘cw’ language went dormant…but it is back again. Slowly getting back up to speed and more active. Now to upgrade…and stick with the code.

  17. Way back when I was more act8vr in the mid 90’s…I used tontun CW Nissan pathfinder on 40m with all Navy Straight key on the console…. no paper no pen…driving and clicking…. ? it was a second language.

    Fast forward to today….just got back into radio..loving POTA and CW again…! My speed and copy are not there as to what it once was…BUT, it’s getting there..!

    Max power 9watts with wire antennas…. fun stiff.

    All your points are spot on ! As well as nice to work you when at Lake Norman…

    1. Nickjc,
      I was right there, with you on the mobile CW, though most of the time I used a converted computer mouse for a key. I never was really fast, but 20 years of inactivity really hurt my CW abilities.
      Been back on the air now for over a year and they’re coming back. I doubt, however, that I’ll ever drive and do CW again.

      George KG8DA

  18. I think I’ve mentioned my journey to CW before, but it started with practice with Morse machine on my phone and then ultimately using Thomas’s videos. Ultimately the best thing you can do is get on the air. After a few QSOs you won’t be scared anymore.

    Another thing that’s advantageous with CW is that most lids don’t know it. If you go on 17 meters you aren’t likely to have an ill-informed lid tell you to get off the band (because they think POTA is a contest when it’s not)

    1. 100%. It’s rare in CW to ever run into someone intentionally trying to cause interference. Well, outside of a DXpedition or contest. 🙂
      Good point, Jonathan!

  19. As many have mentioned-this is a wonderful post Thomas! I’ll pass on a few thoughts-as a longtime CW op and instructor that might help. As some have mentioned, getting comfortable with basic head copy will make a world of difference in your comfort level. Many of my students will panic if they miss a letter and then they fall behind struggling to catch up. If you’re copying and writing and miss a letter or character just draw a line and move forward to the next one. Odds are that when you go back it’ll be obvious what the word was – ‘ame is Jo-n’. Oh-‘name is John’….
    Second-please try to get comfortable with using your paddles in the Iambic B mode. At first it might seem strange but you can complete characters with fewer strokes and be more relaxed. I often see newer CW ops slapping away at their paddles when they could be using small relaxed strokes and making more
    and cleaner contacts. I can share a more detailed description of why B and dual paddles to anyone interested-just email me at [email protected].
    And-make sure you use a well made and properly adjusted set of paddles. Unfortunately many of the 3D units just aren’t well made nor adjustable. You’ll notice this by suffering fatigue after a few contacts and when you get tired both sending and copying become tough. As a longtime op and SOTA/POTA activator I got the Begali Adventure Unit and have never regretted the expenditure. Now I can work many stations and never feel exhausted. Saturday I did 3 SOTA activations with multiple CW contacts. And at age 72 I need to make it as easy as I can! And lastly-as Thomas said-get out and operate! It’ll become really fun!

  20. Just relax and copy the CW being sent. Seems obvious, right?

    An experience I had this weekend while activating W6/NC-407 is one I will learn from and maybe sharing it will help others.

    K6EL is a well known SOTA op in these parts, he is “King of the mountain” when it comes to Mt. Davidson W6/NC-423. So when he called S2S in response to my CQ SOTA I was thinking to myself, “oh, this will be easy”, but when copying his peak it wasn’t “NC-423”. The unexpected peak designation broke my brain for a little while!

    The OM was very patient with me as I think I had to send “agn?” at least three times while my ability to copy numbers in CW recovered from the shock of hearing the unexpected.

    Turns out K6EL was across San Francisco Bay, activating Vollmer Peak W6/NC-298, in the hills above Berkeley.

    So the lesson for me is, be prepared to copy what the other op is sending, not what you think he is going to send.

    72 Matt

    1. Ha ha!
      Trust me…I can tell you how many times I have been expecting a reply, got something else, and it completely blanked out my ability to copy them. 🙂
      You point out a very valuable lesson, OM.

  21. Morning. As someone interested in CW, your article was interesting, if not bewildering to me. You use terms, abbreviations that I do not understand. At 71, CW has always interested me. Where can I go to learn the language of CW and ham radio?

    1. The only acronyms lacking a definition in the post were CW (continuous Wave, which you surely know) and POTA (Parks on the Air) and SOTA (Summits on the Air). Both are popular programs where hams “activate” a location, announce it on a website, and wait for all the chasers (hunters) to call them.

      When it doubt, try typing an unrecognized acronym in the YouTube search box. The world is your oyster.

    2. Steve, I am 70 and have been operating CW only three years. I took classes through CWOpps CW Acadamy. Long Island CW Club is another good option. If you want to learn Morse you can. It is dedicated practice on a regular basis. Pat, K7GUD has placed a good overview of learning code in these comments. He too, is fairly new to code and has become a very good operator in just a few years. He is regularly on the SKCC frequencies sharpening his skills.
      Good luck, and just go for it!

      1. It is all relative.
        Morse/CW is easy for me. I learned it at 12 and have used it since the old novice license days.
        I am 70, and find programming a DMR radio difficult.
        CW easy. DMR difficult. POTA/SOTA fun. QRP fun.

  22. I’ve been operating CW off and on for many years but have yet to get up the courage to do a CW activation. I have the best of intentions, but at the last minute I wimp out, lol.

    I’ve been studying Korean for the past four months, and if you ever want something to study that seems harder than CW, I recommend Korean. After four months of intensive study, I’m at the equivalent of the ‘please let me copy just 5wpm’ stage. It’s amazing how many similarities there are, although since CW is truly a language, I shouldn’t be surprised. It takes only one fast-spoken question from my tutor and every bit of Korean I’ve learned just vaporizes. Just like calling CQ POTA and hearing the 20wpm replies… and hitting the power switch and running like a scared dog back to SSB.

    I’m returning to Korean in six weeks, where I intend to connect with HL1KKC and get in some hiking and CW operating. Thomas, your post is giving me some extra motivation to double down on both my CW skills and my Korean language studies. 감사합니다!

    1. You, sir, have my complete respect for learning Korean! Not one of the easiest languages to tackle, but I know you and I know your strong connection with that beautiful country. Bravo!
      You are going to have SO much fun hanging with HL1KKC and I’m willing to bet he’s going to introduce you to some amazing food! 🙂
      Thank you for your comment, OM.

  23. Hi Thomas,

    Thanks for your observations on CW. All very good points.

    I got my Tech license in the spring of 2019, at age 68. Got my general in the fall of 2019. I have to say that if there had been a code requirement for ANY ham license, I probably NEVER would have got into Ham radio.

    Once I got my General license, I was on HF SSB, of course. But once in a while, I’d turn the dial down to the low end of the band and listen to CW. It sounded like mysterious language to me, one that I could never learn, but that fascinated me nonetheless.

    My intention was to start studying for my Extra license right after I got my General. But sometime that fall I got the idea to learn CW first. I didn’t think I could do both at the same time. I chose to learn CW first. For some reason, I thought it would be cool to learn it, something to do with its rich history, something to do with the challenge. But at the same time, I doubted that I could really learn it.

    I read an excellent are on CW, what it is, and why you would use it, by Richard, AA4OO:
    This article is what encouraged me to start. If you’re a beginner or thinking of learning CW, read it. It’s an excellent, well written introduction to CW.


    In Richard’s article, and many others I read, he encouraged you to learn to copy the characters at 20wpm but to use the Farnsworth method to slow down the spacing to 10 or 15 wpm. They said the reason for this is that it’s too hard to get past the slow speed once you learn the code.

    That didn’t work for me. 20wpm, even with extra spacing, was WAY too fast ,and I couldn’t make any progress. So I started at about 5-10 wpm. And I didn’t take a class. I bought the Morse-It app for my iPhone. It had the Koch and Farnsworth method built in and took me through the characters. After about 6 months of daily practice, I had all the characters memorized…barely.


    My best advice for beginners who have learned the characters is to get on the air and start calling CQ using CW. That’s the best way to learn once you have learned all the characters. And do it every day. And do it every day. And do it every day.


    Become a member of the SKCC (it’ free). It’s a points-based club where you can earn points to get to different levels of acheivement. They require that you use a manual key – straight key, bug, or cootie/sideswiper. But you can still make QSOs with members even if you’re using a paddle and keyer. Another feature of this club is that they tend to operate at slower speed: 10-20wpm. You can find their frequencies listed on their site. Also, most of the QSO follow a simple format: Call sign, QTH, first name, SKCC number.


    I learned to send code using a paddle. I think it helped me to get the timing correct. So, every day, after I practiced copying characters with my Morse-It app, I then used my paddle to send the characters it had sent me. Again, do this every day. Then, after learning to send on a paddle, I learned to send on a straight key. That started hurting my wrist so I learned to send with a cootie. Much easier on the wrist and easier to send fast. The advantage of a cootie or straight key over a bug is that you can instantly speed up or slow down to match the other ops speed.


    When I first started having CW QSOs, I typed everything I heard: I didn’t understand what I was hearing until I typed it and then read it. That’s the way I learned to read code because, after a practice session, I could go back and see how much I got right. Probably not the best way, but that how I did it.

    But at some point, if you want to get past 10-15wpm, you’ll need to learn to head copy, especially for rag chews.

    Learning head copy for me was as hard as learning the code. I suppose it’s best if you start off that way, but we all have different learning styles. So do what works for you.


    The MorseCodeNinja site is the key to speeding up and learning to head copy.

    Read Kurt’s Journey article. In fact read everything on his site. He has very good advice on how to practice. You can listen to these practice tapes on youtube or you can download the mp3 files to your podcast reader and listen to them on your phone anywhere anytime. The best thing for me were the sentences and phrases. His files go from 15wpm to 50wpm. If 15wpm sounds fast, don’t worry. If you listen to it each day, it will start to sound normal.

    Also, the beauty of these training tapes is that after each section of code, a voice reads you what the code said, and then it sends the code again. This is the BEST method I’ve found for head copy because it forces you to head copy, then reads you the correct copy, and then repeats the code.

    I went from an 8wpm copy/sender to a 20wpm head copy / sender. And for simple formats like SOTA and POTA, I can do 25-30wpm. When I started SOTA, I was at about 12wpm. When I was hiking up to my summit, I’d listen to MorseCode Ninja’s call signs podcast at 15wpm. That way, when I got to the summit, my brain was warmed up. Now, when hiking up SOTA, I listen to 30wpm call signs. Yes, they sound very fast, but when I get on the air, 20 wpm sounds quite reasonable.


    As Thomas mentions, the CW signal is much strong than an SSB signal with the same gear and power. On SOTA peaks, going light weight is crucial if you’re climbing big peaks, especially if you’re Medicare climber like me. As a result, I use a QRP rig and 5 watts of power. And I always get 15-80 QSOs, depending on band conditions.

    ZEN and the ART of CW

    Thomas talked about the high he gets from CW. I have to agree. I used to be a rock climber, and getting up a difficult rock face requires a Zen-like concentration. For me CW is similar. For example, on SOTA or POTA, I often get pileups that last an hour. For me this requires intense concentration.I’m trying to decode signals that pile on top of each other, plus I’ve got a combination of wind, heat, cold, bugs, and noise to deal with. After a SOTA or POTA activation, I usually have a high similar to when I made it up a very difficult rock climb. And it usually lasts for the rest of the day.

    I can get the same high after having a 45 minute rag chew on CW. There are some ops the love to chew, and I’m one of them. For me, these rag chews require intense concentration. Sometimes I’m sweating 🙂 But afterwards, I get the same high, the same feeling of accomplishment.

    CW IS FUN!

    Finally, I can’t stress enough how much fun it is to use CW. It gives me great pleasure and a feeling of great accomplishment to complete a long rag chew, or pick out a weak signal and work it. Since I started using CW in January of 2021, I gave up SSB. Not because I don’t like SSB, but because I need to practice CW everyday to improve. I still get on an 80 meter SSB net once or twice a week. But I’m hooked on CW.

  24. Thomas, this post has sure generated a lot of responses – I think you hit a nerve!

    It’s amazing how Morse Code becomes a passion, even an addiction. It’s a healthy one, to be sure, but intoxicating nonetheless.

    Many CW Ops leave their mics behind altogether, though most will occasionally bounce between modes. I have done digital modes in the past but always got burned out from them. Once the technical accomplishment and the easy DX get boring, there’s nothing left to conquer. But with CW, one always has new challenges and room for improvement.

    CW opens up QRP and both, combined, make for a very fulfilling pursuit. Add portable deployments and the chance to “be the DX” and it’s no wonder this post is going so viral.

    1. Thank you, Steve. I think so much has to do with CW ops so completely understanding those early days of learning the mode. We’ve all been there and we understand. Thank you!

  25. I’m working on a proposal for a high school General Class course. I need the go-ahead from the school principal. I’m thinking of CW as a “hook” to get people interested. Suppose I start with CQ, DE, first name initial, 73, 88, TU,, etc. Any reactions from the group?
    73, Bruce N7RR

    1. When I taught a high school Technician class, I had students learn how to send their names. I didn’t expect too much from them, I just wanted them to hear what their name sounded like in CW. I also showed them how the decoder on my KX3 could interpret the CW we heard on the bands.
      Good on you for proposing the class!

  26. Love this post! I remember as a kid, when my younger brother became a ham. I thought he was weird and said I’d never get into it. Then, in my late 20s I found myself living in a remote part of Mexico and in great need of emergency communication. I studied 1 1/2 years before passing my Novice and waited another 1 1/2 years to get my first radio and get on the air. It was an Atlas 210X, with only wide filters and no side tone. My brother helped me set up an oscillator between the key and the radio and, I determined to do a CW QSO a day. My goal was, within six months to have my General and I saw CW as my main “obstacle” to overcome.
    By the time I had done a dozen QSOs (which included one or two SSB on ten meters) I was hooked on CW. Like you said, the CW ops were so kind and patient. They helped me a lot. On my 8th QSO I met Milt W8TZ, who mentored me for several years. I got to where I could literally spin the dial on 40 meters and recognize his fist within one or two characters.

    When I turned 40 I went QRT for about 20 years, returning to ham radio (CW) because of cognitive challenges. The doctors and my wife (a learning specialist) recommended it to stimulate my short term memory. When I got back on the air I was like a toddler, barely able to send and receive was also shaky, but the CW ops were there for me and I have built back up to about 12 wpm. My head copy is coming back and it’s obvious that it helps my short term memory.

    Milt W8TZ is long gone but I’m finding some special friends out there, on the air, and want to be that to them as well. The preponderance of CW ops I run into now are older, most even older than myself, but most are really amazing folks.

    Like you said, when I run into a new op, whether new to amateur radio or new to CW, I REALLY want to help. It makes my day to help them, just as others helped me. That… is more exciting than DX or anything else I know.

    George KG8DA

  27. I specifically learned the code to lighten my SOTA load. I was shooting for 15wpm and done. Yea, we all know how that worked out. I’m 99% CW now. 8 months after I started I was nominated for CWOps by W6LEN and am member 2983. I was solicited to be an LICW instructor but have too much going on right now. Completed the 30wpm ARRL proficiency and working on 35wpm. I’m WAY further down the CW rabbit hole than I ever intended to be.

  28. I learned CW about 45 years ago when I was 16 and got to be quite proficient at sending and receiving. The funny thing is that I haven’t actually used CW for 35 years, but even today, I can easily translate a paragraph of text into CW (by “hearing it out” in my mind, at maybe 25 or 30 wpm) just as I could then. It really settles in like a language (as you say here) and it sticks! It’s so worth the time and effort to learn CW, and trust that soon enough it’s more of a second language to the mind, where the dots and dashes more-or-less seize to exist and instead you hear this beautiful conversation within the tone! WA1YMN

    1. That’s great! I learned CW on the so called FreeWare in the 80’s. I still remember the name of the software “Super Morse”. It is on a floppy disk DOS version.
      GL hope to catch you on the air.
      Take care

  29. Great, encouraging post. I was better as a CW learner a few years ago than I am now because I didn’t have anyone to really encourage me who was also a slow-poke. Self-motivation is hard with other pulls on your time. Ah me, another New Year’s resolution coming up.

    What I find to be problematic is that as a newbie CWer, I don’t want anyone to think I want a ragchew. I just can’t do that yet. The Catch-22 is that the ideal situation for a non-rag chew, slow, controllable, pithy exchange is an activation of some sort (POTA or SOTA or contest) but those folks are nearly by definition in it for speed.

    1. This is one of the great thing about POTA and SOTA exchanges. They’re short, predictable (to some degree), give you an opportunity to log stong/weak and slow/fast signals without the commitment of ragchewing until you’re ready.

      When you’re ready, there are lots of avenues to practice ragchews as well.


  30. Your right on, especially about #3. When I’m down, or mentally lost, a good cq qsonwill set thing right. I will call in the late afternoon on my favorite 40m freq and more often than not a qso will happen and a great chat will be enjoyed. Doesn’t matter if we have chatted before or first time. 52 years ago, as young, very shy novice, cw helped me out of my shell.

  31. Thank you for this post, Thomas! I’m a newer CW operator and, as such, I occasionally get flustered when I make mistakes. I’ve slowly learned that we all make mistakes and become friends with sending several dits when it happens.

    When I started my CW journey my goal was to do CW only and get my number of CW POTA QSOs past my number of SSB QSOs. I’m getting close to that happening, but recently I’ve let my flustered state get in the way of activating and have only been hunting. I’m going to go activate again!

    Thanks, again, for the timely post!

    1. Dave, I would think the Straight Key Century Club could help. They have a sked page on the internet where you could go on and state what you want in a QSO and the time and frequency you’re looking. Look me up on QRZ and email me sometime too. I might be able to get on the air at a time we could do a quickie. I am not fast and love to help others.

      George KG8DA

    2. Don’t worry if you’re slow, the etiquette in CW is the receiver (you are trying to contact) to go slow to match your your speed. And you will know that he is a GOOD CW operator! GL

    3. To quote Farragut: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” 🙂
      Just keep on keeping on and, I promise, the CW just starts to enter your brain.
      Activations will make that happen at an exponential rate.
      You’ve got this!

  32. One thing you might consider when trying to improve your CW-especially sending,is to start thinking of words,callsigns and items like Q signals as phrases. Instead of focusing on the individual letters – try to group common items as a single phrase. Maybe start with your callsign. And if you happen to have any sort of music background this might help you to work on a nice rhythmic flow. I’m a semi retired professional musician and instructor (jazz) and I’ve found that many of the same elements of teaching music and CW are very similar. One concept I use is called ‘forward motion’ ( not original with me) where you start to think about where the target of your phrase is-in other words the finish of the phrase. What happens is this will pull you along to the target and the individual elements (in our case-letters) fall into place. The idea is that you gradually keep expanding the length of your phrases .and maybe with a metronome at a relaxed tempo it will start to become much more like a language or musical piece than a staccato group of letters or characters,which is much harder to send and copy. And missing a letter or note here or there is no big deal because the phrase pretty much finishes itself. And of course head copy becomes easier when listening to this because you hear the words and phrases and can just jot down some notes on what you’re hearing. Give it a try.

    1. Oh gosh. 🙂 So kind of you to say.
      Honored if I’ve played even a small role in your radio journey.

  33. I learned morse code in Sunday School (age=11yo) …so I became curious about it from hearing 3-letter airport navigational beacons on my dad’s car radio at low end of the BC band wondering what they were saying and why. Went to library and copied the Morse alphabet onto 2-cards. Gave one to my SS buddy and we sat in back of the class winking to each other and giggling now having our very own secret code we could exchange messages with! Until the teacher caught us and made come up to the front of the class and share what we were up to! What a Secret Code? Big mistake! 2-weeks later nearly half the class was blinking like lights on a christmas tree …our teacher came unglued! Later on I found my mentor a retired Navy Sparks CW OP with anchor tattoo on his shoulder (reminded me of Popeye) who made me send absolutely perfect code before finally passing my Novice test!? …no regrets! That was 65yrs ago! 99% of my OPs today is SOTA (CW) also called “Cool Waves” among friends.

    1. I love this, Steve!
      Also, I love the times I’ve put you in the logs on summits (as a chaser, activator, and S2Ser!).
      Looking forward to our next contact via the “Cool Waves!”

      1. Ham Radio & CW plugged into SOTA has enriched/made my elder years some of the best yet and seems to only be getting better! Thank You, Thomas …for providing a forum for sharing the Joy!

  34. I am a new General taking the Beginner CW course offered by the CWops club. My local ham radio club also has a surprising number of active CW operators who are supportive and encouraging. It’s a lot of work, but also great fun. And I gather, based on your timely article, that I have many milestones to look forward to on my morse code journey. Thanks, Thomas, for the inspiration! I look forward to meeting you OTA someday.

    73 de KQ4DFV

    1. It would be an honor to meet you OTA someday!
      Just keep up with the practice and do a LOT of listening. You’re in CWOps so you’re on the right path!
      You’ve got this!

  35. Yes, all of the above. For me CW is the essence of radio communications. It’s impact on history, it’s rhythmic sounds, and clandestine nature all appeal to me. Knowing that the European resistance fighters and their QRP rigs were so vital to the success of the Allies in WWII adds to the excitement of taking a tiny radio and a piece of wire to the top of a mountain and communicating with people all around the world on 5 watts or less. How fun is that!?!

    1. I agree 100%. Funny, but in a future video I think I mention how I get a thrill out of QRP because it makes me think of Cold War spies, too, and how low-power gear was used to pass messages across borders. Fascinating stuff!

  36. I learned Morse Code at age of 11-12yo. So in Sunday School I could wink secret messages to my bubby! Our teacher was trying to punish us by sticking us separate corners in the back of the class because we were “disturbing the class”. Earlier I rode my bike to library and copied a Morse Code table on to 2- small cards. Gave one to my buddy and we winked back and forth until we started laughing and the teacher blew a fuze! Demanded we march up front and tell the class what was so funny! SO we did and explained we were winking secret messages back and forth using morse code. Weeks later the whole class winking the code! Teacher lost her mind! That was 67 years ago! I can’t imagine my life without Morse Code and CW! It’s so cool and fun!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.