Straight Key vs. Paddle

The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.

I still have SO MUCH MORE to learn in amateur radio.

After just upgrading my ticket to Amateur Extra, my next big project I plan to take on is to learn CW. I’ll admit I have not done this yet. I have toyed with PSK31 on HF, but I have not yet gained any experience on the air in CW. CW, in case you didn’t know, stands for “continuous wave,” which is the use of Morse code in radio.

There are many disagreements out there on what is the best method to learn by. One of the arguments is over whether it would be best to learn Morse code on a straight key or whether one should learn on a paddle.

straight key
straight key

Straight keys and paddles are some of the typical instruments used in amateur radio to produce the signals for transmitting Morse code over the airwaves. (Another common option available is called a bug. However, due to their design, bugs are generally not recommended for beginners, so bugs will not be discussed here.) As for the first of the two other options, a straight key is the traditional instrument pictured when one visualizes tapping out Morse code. It is usually some kind of lever which, when pressed, will produce “dits” and “dashes” by the connection of the electrical contacts. The advantages of a straight key are found in its simplicity of design and function. However, when one uses a straight key, one must use precise timing since the code is produced by physical manipulation.


A paddle is different from a straight key since the difference in timing between the “dits” and the “dashes” is built into the unit. There are both single-paddle and two-paddle instruments available. A single-paddle key is a device which gives a “dit” when pressing the paddle in one direction and gives a “dash” while pressing it in the opposite direction. With a two-paddle instrument, one paddle is for producing the “dits” while the other produces the “dashes.” Many experienced hams prefer these instruments since one can key quite a bit faster since they do not need to hold down the device three times as long for a “dash” as they would for a “dit” and that also their “dits” and “dashes” would be uniformly made.

Which brings us to the center of the argument where many hams believe it is best to learn Morse code first with a straight key. With a straight key, one must learn the timing. However, other hams have recommended learning first on a paddle since many hams migrate to them eventually anyway. Also, another advantage to using a paddle is that they are easier to use on the wrists, which is especially a plus for those concerned about carpal tunnel syndrome. However, when using a paddle, if a ham is not careful, his or her code couldtransmitlikethis. That is, one could easily lose a sense of timing with a paddle. (Of course, one could transmit just as poorly with a straight key as well.) Yet that returns us again to why many hams suggest one should learn with a straight key to begin with: to get down the timing. Also in regard to timing, one has more control with a straight key over the speed with which one chooses to transmit each element when keying out each letter or number. This is not as possible with a paddle since the time units of each “dit” and “dash” are preset.

I honestly don’t know if there is really a right or wrong answer. All in all, I believe how you choose to learn Morse code is really up to you. You should think through to what end you plan on using Morse code, and how often. That should help you make the decision. However, from a prepper’s standpoint, I have seen one argument which makes perfect sense on why it would be best to learn first with a straight key. This opinion was posted by KE3WD on an forum:

I’m old school about learning the proper timing and spacing with a Straight Key.  You never know when there may be a day where you have to communicate without a key handy.  At that point, being able to touch a couple bare wires together yet maintain some manner of proper timing and spacing, where dashes are as long as three dits at the speed you are operating, should be a natural thing because you’ve learned CW inside and out.

He has an excellent point when viewed from the perspective of preparedness. If you proficiently learn the timing of Morse code, you would not be limited by the means of how one could communicate with it. Just as stated in my last post Morse Code, one could communicate by visual, audio, or by physical means. Knowing the timing would be necessary to employ many of these methods, so that makes a good case for me to learn with a straight key first rather than with a paddle.

Just so you know, I already own a paddle, and I do plan on using that method some day. But for now, I have made the choice to move ahead with learning with a straight key in order to learn the manual sense of timing.

In closing, I am offering (with permission) two videos which present both straight keys and paddles. These videos are produced by TinkerJohn (W5CYF,) and give an excellent introduction into beginning CW with either of these instruments.

Also, if you have any input from your experience, I would love to hear.



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