CW Training Thoughts

CW Training ~ last update: 10 Oct 2023

Morse Code [CW Modes]

Historically, pre-1991, learning Morse Code was a requirement for obtaining a ham license (based upon 'International Law' and treaties). Various license classes had varying requirements, they usually started at 5 words per minute [WPM]  and went 20 WPM. No longer a requirement "the learning of Morse Code by ham operators" has diminished, BUT if you want to really do contesting and special event operating (QRP, Field Day(s), etc.) then an interest in CW mode will become something you need to consider. I will not lie, it can be a hard and long learning experience and requires constant practice to stay efficient. Think a 'few hundred hours' of effort, but not all is 'work', once you have learned letter, punctuation and pro-signs the "fun part" quickly takes over and it becomes easy and enjoyable. Once learned, you will not 'forget' it, over time your efficiency may drop. Start again using and practicing and your efficiency will come right back. Experience says a 5 ~ eight hour session will restore your skills at a level back to your previous levels. {Like riding a bicycle - if you do not 'do it' your skills drop, but on the positive side, just a short time of use and the skill quickly returns.}

Code Basics - Learning Code Characters, Punctuation and Pro-signs

You should start by learning to receive the code ~ only practice receiving when you start. Leave the "start to  transmit stage" {sending} until you can 'comfortably' receive at about 15~16 WPM at a 90% solid copy rate {low effort}. If you 'know all the pattern sounds' transmitting will be a much easier process to accomplish. Starting the transmit process too early, will establish a 'speed plateau' for you to overcome later, hold off and you skip the plateau. This will make the overall process much quicker and easier.   Get to 'know code by the letter sounds' starts by learning with letters and numbers. Follow on with punctuation marks and then attack the 'pro-signs'. The best way to start is by using 'small blocks' of new letters, just a few at a time. Change the block content to a new group and learn those, add back the previously learned block(s) and mix them into your receiving practice. Repeat adding small groups until the entire code set is mastered.  This is called the 'Koch method' of learning, search on the term if you wish to know all the details.  After all letters and numbers are learned, work on punctuation marks in at least two groups (some marks are very little used in the ham bands, but others are quite frequently used - just learn them all as you go). Pro-signs are two or three letter combinations with the 'inter-character spacing' removed ~ always sent as one string of dits-dahs (no gaps). You need these to quickly copy code, think of them a quick abbreviations. They are used everywhere code is used. If you search the internet, different sites will recommend different arrangements of learning groups - do not worry, the real task is to learn the repeating patterns of ALL the characters, punctuation marks and pro-signs. Which group you are learning when is not really all that important. The total learning  effort will actually be spent learning about 65 different sound patterns. PLEASE {really, really please}  do NOT use charts with 'dots' and 'dashes' as learning aids as they will greatly slow down your learning and add extra work for you later on. DO NOT START SENDING! {yet}. This method has been proven by hundreds of thousands of people learning the code. Proper code usage is based ONLY on audible processing sounds directly into alpha characters (starting by writing down the resulting letters). Using these methods you will prevent learning some 'bad' habits which can be difficult to overcome later in your code practice. Leave the using a mill (think typewriter/computer) or on to 'head copy' as "much later" activities as your CW receiving skill advances, each of these steps  will require additional receiving practice. Try 30 minute sessions and try for three to four concentrated sessions per day. The mental processes or 'flow' through different stages in our minds involves several steps - the shortest number of steps through that processing will be the easiest learning process with the fewest 'relearning' stages along the way (some call these relearning stages "plateaus" and they take real effort to overcome and relearn in trying for further improvements). Using 'good training practices' will prevent you from even having these plateaus! Fred Silveira, K6RAU has a Morse Code Course {free podcast} that can get you started learning the sounds. It does not include all the punctuation and pro-signs you need, but it is a great starting spot for beginning. You can look around the internet as there are many others sites for code practice. Read some materials on 'learning Morse Code" - try the ARRL's 'Learning Morse Code' site as a start for your study, it has many links. The ARRL has a nice You Tube for you to watch, "Learn and Have Fun with Morse Code" {51:46} about the learning process. Also, the ARRL has a one page of 'Tips For Learning Morse Code (CW)' by Chuck Adams, K7QO & Rod Dinkins, AC6V SK .

The Long Island CW club has some interesting thoughts and a CW course. Check out "Learning and Improving Morse Code for All" a  You Tube link from them here {1:33 long}.  The Morse Code Ninja and the CW - leads to the CW Academy [a free online CW course], Learning Morse Code ~ You Tube {several lessons a little over one hour each} by KN4GB, and many other sites are out there for you to use to gather concepts and practice for learning.

Lets Build Up Some Receiving CW Speed

You will encounter different  terms and suggestions {like: Koch Method, Farnsworth Spacing, tone frequencies, etc.} and you should not let these confuse or distract you (More information will follow). Only concentrate on receiving code, do not try to transmit before you reach about 15 WPM receiving at the 90% level. Your list of the tasks at hand for receiving which should be: 

 Building speed takes time. One great method is to operate in some CW contests (you will need some sending practice, also). Each contest will vary the information exchange on what precisely is being received and transmitted, but these are 'quick' exchanges and are not difficult to pickup the routine specifics. Call letters will be required and are different for each exchange, so they provide great practice material. At the 18 WPM minute level near the start of a contest to nearly the 35 WPM level by the end of a 24~36 hour contest window seems to be very common for me. Expect your coverage to vary, but do not be surprised by the speed growth as you get into the contest. The operating of contests is great practice. You can then venture out into the DX portions of the HF bands with great confidence. You can 'keep up' with the DX stations after a little contest operation (they typically run 25~28 WPM code speeds at their fastest speed). Both DXing and contesting are useful for keeping your CW skills sharpened up and are special topics for some hams. Take the time and with a little practice and you can add more enjoyment to your ham radio!

So What Is/Are: 'Koch Method'; 'Standard Spacing'; 'Farnsworth' Spacing?

Koch Method ~ A training method where CW characters are being sent in small groups of new characters. Focus is on learning the 'acoustic shapes' of each character. By using small groups and then adding additional new characters for learning "the attention to the sound of each character {rhyme}". The learning person translates the sound directly into a mentally recognized character - not a 'dit-dah' counting process. It does not use or count a pattern of long/short tones that are then translated into a character, it uses the 'total tone' sound to directly form the characters. Eliminate any pattern translation step! Make the sound characteristic recognition directly into the character. Learn the letter sound, it is not easy, but it is the fastest method to learning high speed code. Try an internet search on: 'Koch method' for additional information.

Standard Spacing ~ International agreements [think IARU] state that Morse Code [CW] construction timing be:

1. short mark, dot or dit (  ▄ ): "dit duration" is one time unit long (sometimes called a baud time)

2. long mark, dash or dah (  ▄▄▄ ): is three time units long or 3 bauds

3. inter-element gap between the dits and dahs within a character: is one dot duration or one unit long

4. short gap (between letters): is three time units long

5. medium gap (between words): seven time units long ~ some try using 5 units, but this is not 'official'

Non Standard Spacing ~ Sometimes the dit/dah ratio is modified from the 1:3 to adding time to the dah timing. This is called a 'weight' ratio and common values range up to about 1:3.6, the increased dah length slightly changes the character rhythm and some find a 1:3.2 to 1:3.3 ratio easier to copy and promote it's usage.

Farnsworth Spacing ~ A way of increasing the CW spacing of characters and words to reduce the average WPM value but leaving the character acoustic pattern at a higher speed. The "Character Speed" will be at the higher speed {Farnsworth speed] with both the timing between characters and words being modified (extended). The effect being that the number of words per minute will be then decreased. For example if a 'Farnsworth speed' of 18 WPM is used along with an 'average speed' 10 WPM or with 'average speed' 15 WPM, the character acoustic sound pattern will stay constant with the character and word spacing being modified {changing}. This adds time for your brain to process the characters, gradually push up the average speed and your brain takes over and speed quickly increases. Commercial usage and amateur radio usage have different CW standards, so two different 5 letter 'Standard' words are used for determining the words per minute calculations [WPM].  For amateur radio (hams) the word used is 'P-A-R-I-S' while commercial radio testing uses 'C-O-M-E-X' is used {I have seen "CODEX" used, but it has the same baud length as "COMEX"}. Thus when calculating WPM and element spacing (timing), two different results are obtained. FCC commercial CW testing requirements use 'plain text' and 'code groups', where ham exams use 'plain text' only. Try an internet search for more information. It is a much easier process to use the faster Farnsworth character sounds when learning the various letters, punctuation and pro-signs required as the sounds form the actual sound pattern (rhythm). The method is learn the sounds at the 'proper'  character rate and use 'wider quiet spacing' between letters and words, then shorten the quiet spacing to increase the actual WPM timing. The brain does all the real effort, but your code speed will quickly improve.

CW Receiving Practice via ARRL ~ The ARRL has CW practice via W1AW radio station, look for 'ARRL Info' under the 'Misc. Info' top menu item. I use the ARRL Code Practice MP3 computer files site from the internet. There are many files to choose under each speed. They have sections for 5, 7.5, 10, 13, 15 and 18 WPM which all use Farnsworth spacing (18 WPM) for the various average speeds and then 20, 25, 30, 35, and 40 WPM using Standard CW spacing . These CW files are available at all times, so no need to wait for a particular practice schedule to come up (like with the radio station, W1AW). I should mention that W1AW does have 18 WPM 'bulletins' that are also available for some 'general practice' material and education, some actual station copy is a good idea and adds the experiences of typical propagation and receiving aspects to your practice. This can be helpful when you wish to start communicating over the air.  Many actual CW transmission can be found on the HF ham bands and add lots of good material and tuning practice. Generally tones of 500 to 800 Hz are what most choose to use as "sweet tuning" for CW signals. Choosing frequencies and setting of your equipment filters is a separate learning process you should go through several times [leaving all that for you to work through].

W1AW also uses various digital transmission modes if you want to checkout your station capabilities on those modes, but that again is a "different discussion".

Starting to Learn 'Words' - High speed CW 'head copy' requires a person to learn word patterns, not just character patterns. Sound pattern practice in the 18 WPM (and higher) speeds become the real secret to complete the CW learning process. The 'Ham Radio QRP' group has put together some 'You Tube' videos for you to incorporate into your practice (search on You Tube). You can start with the "500 most common English words in Morse Code at 18 WPM"  You Tube video [36:05] and move on to "23 WPM 500 most common words" [28:05]. There is also "500 words at 15 WPM" [31:16] for some other practice. Common words and initial 'parts of words' will start becoming easier

A Common Learning Thought ~ Using Farnsworth 18 WPM Character Spaced Morse Code for initial learning seems to be standard point for the modern CW learning programs. We believe that at 18 WPM character speed, most people can not 'count' the long and short patterns as a simple task and the mind seeking the simplest path starts to concentrate on the 'entire character sound'. Once the character sounds have been learned, the transition to higher speed means learning 'word pattern sounds'. By using increased speed based code for practice the mind easily allows recognition at these increasing speeds. Older teaching methods used lower speed character speeds (less than 18 WPM 'standard timing') had many people counting the patterns and at about 12~15 WPM a 'mental barrier' to increasing speeds was observed, where the mind had to 're-learn' the process of character recognition. Thus a learning "plateau" was something many people experienced and some could never get passed this point. A common barrier at about 10 WPM kept many from ever getting a General Class license and gave a 'it is hard to learn CW' reputation to mastering Morse Code.  Thus 'many people' wrongly believed that learning CW was a very difficult task while the real issue was the method they were trying to use. This was also a very limiting factor to license upgrading when Morse speed of 20 WPM was required to obtain an Extra Class license (pre 1991).

Making CW Practice Files ~ I recommend using a Windows computer program WinMorse 2 if you desire to make your own computer files to practice from {it is a 'free' program}. It will allow you to make .wav (Windows), .au (Linux) and .aif (Apple) sound files from text information you enter. It is widely configured into what ever average speed and spacing characteristics you desire. You can play around and learn what is 'best for you' for CW timing.

CW uses uses the simplest equipment possible for both sending and receiving. Due to the simple equipment and radio propagation characteristics it also the most reliable method. Simple 'on-off' keying only requires one single signal characteristic ~ is it "on" or "off" for complete detection. All other modes of 'used signals' must add other information alterations. The result is all other modes require more complex equipment and signal characteristics which add to possible failure of the communication - not as reliable. This is true at all signal to noise ratios!

Keep in mind that 'Ham Radio' is a hobby. All hobbies are meant to be enjoyable (fun). So approach the entire hobby in that manner. It may take effort to learn and use CW properly, but it can be great fun and provide some real self-satisfaction. Failure to learn is usually based on a loss of patience, poor learning techniques and not wanting to put in the practice required - just take it slow and easy with proper techniques. If you use good code practice material (ARRL Farnsworth 18 WPM at various average rates) and practice about 1 hour per day, 10 WPM at 30 days will be 'easy'. Longer and more frequent session will yield better results and at about 18 WPM and above, head copy will take place. Just keep practicing at higher and higher speeds and almost everyone will get above 30 WPM and tend towards 50 WPM. Above 50 the efforts get harder, but some pass the 70 WPM rate. Some (a very few) can approach the WPM level, but that is very difficult as above 70,, the character sounds start losing their 'rhythm' sounds and the mind needs to adjust to a different method for recognition. Just set reasonable goals and keep practicing!

Computer Files ~ Audio

CW practice file making leads to the actual storage of 'audio files' on a computer. The process can get quite involved and in 2022 there are over 70 different file structures in use for audio, enough to quit counting types and just know there are plenty of types to select from. At some point you may wish to convert between different audio file types, add editing effects, or wish to make additions and changes. There is 'free' software to assist you. May we suggest you start with NCH Software as a starting point for audio conversion. Many of their programs have free versions (usually slightly limited from their commercial versions) for you to investigate. We use one called, 'switch', as an audio file converter for our ham station efforts (free version) and it works very well for our limited needs. They have lots of MAC and Windows conversion software options in many different areas and may have the support for any of your 'outside' software interests ~ check them out. Just slow down and enjoy the learning process and you too can become 'code proficient'.