G0UPL's guide to your first steps in CW

Well, I'm nowhere near an expert. I was licensed in 1994 but did not have my first contact (QSO) until 2002. Then there was another 10 year gap from 2007-2017 where I didn't have QSOs due to living in small city apartments where antennas were difficult and urban noise levels were high. Yes I could have done something but it would have required more effort and being short of time (working too hard) was another factor. Then I designed and produced the 5W CW transceiver "QCX" in the first half of 2017 and put up an antenna to operate, for testing it. The antenna blew down in a winter gale and I didn't have time/inclination to put it back up, so again 2018 was a year without QSOs. But I have now got a nice antenna up http://hanssummers.com/404ul and been having lots more QSOs in 2019. At time of writing (September 2019) I have had 1,237 CW QSOs. And none on any other mode. So I am reasonably competent at it but by no means an expert. 

You can google for expert guides on all this stuff but I thought I would write a basic guide for CW beginners, since a lot of people have been inspired to have a go at CW by the low cost and high performance and features of the QCX kit. Some guides over-complicate it. This guide is just about getting on air as soon as possible, which I believe to be the best way, and the most FUN way, to build up confidence and competence. This guide will concentrate on abbreviations and practices commonly heard on air. Not the complete possible list. 


First learn Morse!

It goes almost without saying... first you do have to learn the Morse alphabet... and there are many ways to do this, I am sure you found one that you like already and if you didn't, please google! Look at Wikipedia too https://en.wikipedi0.org/wiki/Morse_code 

How I learned, back in the day... I wrote myself a simple computer program that would generate 5 sets of random characters, at a certain speed, for 5 minutes. Then I recorded an audio cassette. Then I stepped up the speed 1 word per minute (wpm), and generated another cassette. Just listened to the cassette enough, until able to copy one section... then bump up the speed a notch. But as I said, there are many ways. Different methods suit different people. 

As well as the basic Morse code (letters, numbers) you should also learn some punctuation characters. The most common one is the question mark ..--.. (dit dit dah dah dit dit), You will also hear a lot, the break character sometimes written / or // which is -...- (dah dit dit dit dah) and is used to separate sentences often; and the slash / character which is used to prefix or postfix callsigns. For example I have operated as TA4/G0UPL and this / is sounded -..-. (dah dit dit dah dit). You will also hear, much less often, people sometimes use periods (dot, full-stop) and commas. The period is .-.-. (dit dah dit dah dit) and the comma is --..-- (dah dah dit dit dah dah). Don't worry about anything else, you aren't likely to ever hear it. 

Focus on standard international Morse (the 26 letters, 10 numbers, and these few other symbols). There are national variants, to include German, French characters for example, or non-Roman alphabets such as Japanese. But for most purposes international Morse is what you need. 


Then get on air as soon as, and as much as, possible!

One thing I do believe though is that as soon as you can send and receive all the characters, however slowly.... then it is worth getting on air and making some real QSOs. Have confidence... everyone was a beginner once! The best way, in my opinion, to build up speed and confidence is to actually USE it. Try NOT to rely on a CW decoder such as the built-in CW decoder on the QCX kit. They are never as good as the human ear. They don't succeed so well when there is interference, fading, or variations in timing that you hear so often on air. 

CW is supposed to be a gentlemanly activity. If you send a call (CQ), at a certain speed, people should answer you at the same speed. Or, if you answer someone else's CQ, they should answer you at the same speed you use. This is gentlemanly behaviour. People should be patient and gentle with newcomers. I have met many real gentlemen on air and they have graciously slowed down to match my speed (which is still below average!). 

On the other hand - there are many, MANY non-gentlemen; those who won't slow down; who have forgotten the days when they were beginners; who are always in a hurry, or just collecting points; even if they are not rare DX, not a special event station, and not in a contest. Well, just don't worry about this. You can't change them, don't try. Just don't get upset or deterred, just continue regardless. Ignore morons. 

But first, before going on air, you need to know some abbreviations and the general procedure of a QSO. 


What you need to know about ABBREVIATIONS

Since the beginning, CW was a mode that had a high Signal To Noise ratio due to its low bandwidth compared to Single Sideband and other voice modes (AM, FM); that gave it higher reliability, or longer distance for a given power; or lower power requirement for a given distance, however you want to put it. But what CW is NOT, is very fast. It depends on the sending speed of course but it certainly won't be earth-shatteringly fast when you are a beginner. So systems of abbreviation evolved to make the time demands a bit less. 

Aside from making things faster (or at least, less slow), another useful benefit of abbreviations is that they facilitate communications even if the two stations don't speak the same language! This is quite remarkable. Of course you won't be discussing international politics or the finer points of the evolution of religious belief systems but then again, remember the time-honoured radio amateurs' code of conduct... you weren't going to discuss politics or religion or selling things, on air, anyway! So with these simple abbreviations you can nevertheless have a quite considerable conversation, with someone who doesn't speak any of the same language at all. 

Abbreviations are used a LOT on air, so you really do have to know something about this before you try to use CW on air, otherwise you will wonder what is going on. In my opinion, don't go on air until you have learned these abbreviations too - because nothing will make any sense, no none at all. 


Firstly the Q-codes. These are 3-letter abbreviations such as QSO

Over 200 years ago the British Government started this whole Q-codes thing for Maritime use and it was useful, and quickly spread internationally, and in different services such as aeronautical and telegraphy. Some are still in use today even in 2019! See Wikipedia https://en.wikipedi0.org/wiki/Q_code for more on Q-codes. 

The limited subset of Q-codes adopted and used by radio amateurs still have similar or the same meanings, as the originals. And the even more limited set, which I will list below, that you will encounter in 99% of ordinary QSOs on air. Traditionally the 3-letter Q code would be followed with a question mark ? if you wanted to ask the question, or no question mark if you wanted to make a statement of fact about your situation. This is still used the same way today (in practice, not all of the Q codes would be relevant as a question). 

These are the main Q-codes which you will actually hear and use in modern amateur radio CW QSOs:

QSO: A radio contact, communication conversation which takes place on air
QRM: Interference (from another station or man-made source)
QRN: Interference (from atmospheric, naturally occurring noise)
QSB: Signals fading
QTH: Your location
QRS: Send more slowly (the corresponding QRQ for sending faster, is never used in practice)
QRP: Low power (5W CW or 10W SSB PEP maximum are commonly accepted)
QRO: High power (anything not low power)
QRZ? Who is calling me? (Often used after a station finishes his QSO with someone)
QRL? Is this frequency busy (Used before sending CQ on a frequency, to make sure it is free)
QSY: Change frequency
QSL: As in, QSL card, to confirm a contact (sent direct, or via the buro; or electronically nowadays)
QRU: often used to declare, I have nothing more to say to you, then promptly commence the goodbyes

Yes, there are more! See the Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedi0.org/wiki/Q_code#Q-codes_as_adapted_for_use_in_amateur_radio and elsewhere! But to keep things simple easy, I am only listing here the Q-codes that you are actually going to hear on air in the real world. 


Other common CW abbreviations

There are a lot of other short abbreviations, usually (but not exclusively) based on English words. These are also used extensively all the time in CW QSOs and you DO need to know them. Nobody spells out whole English words for everything. It would take too long. Spelling out whole English words is done when you give your name or QTH; or perhaps when you get into a longer chat and start discussing things which aren't catered for by abbreviations. This is my list of common abbreviations, in no particular order:

CQ: A general call for other stations to talk to you
GM
: Good morning
GA: Good afternoon
GE: Good evening
GN: Good night
GL: Good luck
GB: Good bye
GD: Good
DE: From
FB: Fine Business (means, very good!)
UFB: Uber Fine Business, Ultra Fine Business... in other words, EXCELLENT!
VY: Very
MNI: Many
DR: Dear
HR: Here
HI: Laughter (for example HI HI)
OM: Old Man (term of endearment for the operator at the other end)
YL: Young Lady, Girlfriend
XYL: Ex-girlfriend: means WIFE (of course, because now you married her she's not your girlfriend anymore!)
RST: Signal report (Readability, Strength, Tone)
RPRT: Report
CONDX: Conditions
OP: Operator; often used instead of "Name"
NR: Near
DX: Long distance contact, or rare station (or also pleasantly, long years of operating ahead of you!)
ES: And
FER: For
TNX/TKS: Thanks
PLS/PSE: Please
RIG: My radio that I am using
TX: Transmitter
RX: Receiver
PWR: Power
ANT: Antenna
HB: Homebrew (you built it yourself)
73: Best wishes
HPE: Hope
CU: See You
AGN: Again
SN: Soon
CUL: See you later
BCNU: Be Seeing You
CIAO: Italian for Bye bye! When you QSO an Italian station, he'll often say this at the end!
HW: How (frequent example: HW? means, how well can you hear my signals? What's my report?)
CPI/CPY: Copy (example, HW CPI? How well can you hear my signals?)
SIG/SIGS: Signal/Signals
CFM: Confirm
TU: Thank you
UR: Your
ABT: About
NW: Now
WX: Weather
TEMP: Temperature
BK: Break (handing control back to the other station, normally without all the callsigns; like "Over" on SSB)
BTU: Back To You
R: "Roger", "Message Received", Correct
BURO: The QSL Bureau (normally run by your national radio society)
SRI: Sorry

Remember also, that if you make a mistake, sending 8 dits in a row is the way to say so, then correct your mistake. But not everyone does this; some people send a couple of, or a few, widely-spaced dits that sound to me more like someone hiccuping. 


A template QSO

After learning Morse code, and enough abbreviations to be useful, the next important thing is the actual procedure of a real QSO. 

So, here is a template QSO which might be held. Bear in mind that there are huge number of minor variations in how QSOs are structured. Sometimes people don't give their callsigns at both the beginning and instead just say "R" at the beginning, or "BK" at the end rather than the full callsign exchange both times. In contests, or when working DX stations or special event stations, everything gets very very brief indeed; when calling such a station you will just send your callsign (not his), you will get your callsign repeated back and "599 TU 73" and that will be all. NEXT! 

The content or duration of QSOs is also very variable; normally names are exchanged, often QTH too; and much less often, rig/power/antenna and weather details. Even less often, you get into a nice chat and sometimes make new lifelong friends, and that's when (for me) the most memorable and valuable QSOs occur. Rare but priceless. 

Other CW symbols that you'll hear are AR, with the A and R strung together with no inter-letter gap: AR .-.-. (dit dah dit dah dit) which means end of transmission, now you are handing control back to the other station; and VA (or equivalently SK) which again is strung together with no gap, ...-.- (dit dit dit dah dit dah) which means end of the QSO completely. A usual QSO end is VA E E (E is just a dit)... sometimes the stations send back and forth a few pairs of dits or if someone just has to have the last word, a single dit. Anyway once we get to VA (SK) and some dits, the QSO is finished; and at this point if someone else is listening and waiting patiently for his turn, he may transmit his callsign now and that'll be your next QSO already started!

Another point is that at the very end of your normal transmissions you should send K if you are open for any station to reply, such as when you send a CQ; or KN strung together -.--. (dah dit dah dah dit) if you only want the specifically addressed station to reply. 

This example QSO is between Hans TA4/G0UPL and Geroge SV2SBE; I had the great privilege to be George's first CW QSO on Thursday 26-Sep-2019. 

Hans:
CQ CQ CQ DE TA4/G0UPL TA4/G0UPL K

George:
TA4/G0UPL DE SV2SBE SV2SBE KN

Hans:
SV2SBE DE TA4/G0UPL / GA TNX FER CALL / UR RST 599 599 / OP HANS HANS ES QTH DALYAN DALYAN / HW? SV2SBE DE TA4/G0UPL KN

George:
TA4/G0UPL DE SV2SBE / GA DR OM HANS TNX FER FB RPRT / UR RST IS 5NN 5NN ALSO / NAME IS GEORGE GEORGE QTH THESSALONIKI THESSALONIKI / OK? TA4/G0UPL DE SV2SBE KN

Hans:
SV2SBE DE TA4/G0UPL / TNX DR OM GEORGE FER RPRT ES FB QSO / QSL SURE VIA BURO / NW 73 ES GL GB 73 TU / SV2SBE DE TA4/G0UPL KN

George:
TA4/G0UPL DE SV2SBE / OK DR HANS TNX FOR NICE QSO / MY QSL OK VIA BURO / 73 ES BEST DX TU / TA4/G0UPL DE SV2SBE VA E E

Hans:
73 TU VA E E

George:
E E

Hans:
E


Conclusion

Above all: get on air, don't worry about mistakes (we all made those!), be confident and learn/improve while having fun. 

I hope that you will have a lot of fun on air with CW. A historic and still a useful mode.

Useful? Last week we had a huge storm in the early hours. It was followed by a power outage of more than 6 hours. I remembered the small 12V 10W solar panel that has been lying forgotten, outside on my roof, for the last 2.5 hours. I found the shack end of the wire and connected it to my 40m QCX CW transceiver. It was around 9am local time. On key-down the voltage dropped severely to somewhere around 6 or 7 volts (someone somewhere lied about that being a 10W panel). I must have only been getting 0.5-1W of RF power output. Nevertheless I sent some CQs and had three QSOs, with stations in Bulgaria, Slovenia and Italy. It was important to me to remember, that in case of a really large disaster, I could be the only person in town with any kind of communications to the outside world and some day, that could be important. 

Now I know that now I have written this, a hundred well-meaning individuals will email me to tell me that I have missed out this or that important Q-code or abbreviation, and I am wrong on this or that aspect of QSO procedure. I am sure you are all 100.0% right. All I have written here is my practical guide to getting started, which is based on my own limited practical experience of CW on HF bands. It isn't necessarily perfect, nor complete. But I hope it helps someone. 

73 DE HANS TA4/G0UPL