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Quest For The Perfect Key


How do you know when you have found the perfect key ? A good question, and one that has perplexed many a cw operator. I’ll let you in on a little secret. It isn’t something that is revealed over night. The process of finding the perfect Morse sending apparatus is one that may take many years to discover. Yet in that discovery there is a very special reward. One earned and learned only by many years of vigilant cw operation. This is my story of such a quest.

My very first key was an old military signal corps key / buzzer combination set. A high school electronics teacher had acquired several sets and had given one to my friend Jim Lundy and one to me upon earning our Novice tickets in 1972. At the time I believed it to be the ultimate in cw sending equipment. Indeed it sends great cw and has a great feel. As the years went by and I advanced up the ham ladder I had the chance to use many other hand keys of various makes and manufacturers. Most of them felt “foreign” to me compared to my old signal corps set. Many were just too stiff. Some had springs that were too tight. Still others had just plain sloppy mechanisms. Another friend had purchased a hand key from Radio Shack and it felt fairly good so I got one too. These were a relatively inexpensive key made in Japan and had small ball bearings to hold the fulcrum in place. One had to be very careful when adjusting them or the ball bearings would come out of the race, and end up on the floor ! They were very small and easily lost forever in the carpet.

As my cw speed picked up I soon realized that there were better and worse instruments for sending the code. Around 1985 I started collecting hand keys. At first mainly for beauty, but later for the “feel” of a good sending key. After my collection grew to 8 or 10 keys I found that I had a few favorites, but always in comparison to my old signal corps key. A J-38 purchased at a ham swap seemed to be the right combination of speed, feel, and forgiving handeling. After a few more hamfests more J-38’s were acquired. It was then that I realized that even keys that were supposedly identical and made by the same manufacturer had big differences in their “feel”.

Around 1990 my collection had grown to about 40 keys, and I found I had favorites made by the same maker, Bunnell. It would seem that some key makers took more pride in making a quality key than others. I found that I liked the ones that had a natural resonance the best. By “natural resonance” I mean that while in operation, when the key was depressed it would have a natural ring to it, similar to the sound a tuning fork makes when it is struck, yet also be effortless in sending for long periods. The keys that were too tight, poorly adjusted, or poorly constructed, would invite a good case of “glass arm” and fatige the operator in short order.

As my code speed increased above 20 WPM I found I was topping out at the speed limit of a hand key. It was then that I acquired my first Vibroplex paddle. As I quickly learned to master the code with this key I thought to myself, “ I wished I’d known about them years ago ! “, because I’d had several opportunities to puchase bugs and paddles but had never acted on the inclination. ( To this day I could still kick myself for this lack of good judgement.) During the 90’s my quest still continued and I acquired more paddles and bugs. I had thought I’d reached the pinnacle of cw enlightenment when I got used to the first Vibroplex, but soon realized htat even in top of the line cw gear, there were big differences in “feel” even with identical keys! I found my cw journey was not over but had merely just begun.

As my collection grew I found myself trying anything I could get my hands on in hopes of finding the best cw instrument available. Trying Vibroplexes, Benchers, Schurrs, Ham Keys, Bunnells, SpeedX’s and many others.

As we approached the new century I began to restore I began to restore old beat up keys to bring them from a state of disrepair and junk to “like new” condition. At a hamfest in Jackson, Mich. in 1999 I happened upon an old set of Vibroplex paddles that were perty broken and very beat up. I felt sorry for the decrepit little key. It was rusty, had no finger pieces, and had obviously seen better days. After a bit of haggling with the owner, I walked away with it, convinced that I could restore and refurbish it and give it a new life. Upon disassembling it I began to see this was not going to be an easy task. The base was sand blasted and then repainted with black hammer finish paint. As it had no finger pieces I decided to fashion my own from walnut. These turned out to be very beautiful and also gave the key that “personal touch”. Careful polishing of all the chrome and silver parts reviled a very nice key under all that dirt and rust. After reassembly I was even more pleased to find that after careful adjustment the key handled quite nicely and had a wonderful feel. Upon hooking it up to my transceiver I was surprised how well it played. It sent cw as if it were “music sung by angels” ! The handling was superb ! Had I finally realized morse nirvana ? So it seemed. After many QSOs with this new key I truly had found a one in a million.

Now after having hundreds of QSOs with this fine instrument, again I began to question. Is there something better? Maybe keying at the speed of thought ! Or possibly a key that would automatically correct my sending errors even before I made them !

So the quest continues. Is there a perfect key? Maybe I’ll find it someday. Perhaps the search has no end. Here’s hoping you may one day achieve a state of Morse Code Zen! 73’s WB8LZG