I learned CW on a set of borrowed Bencher BY-1 iambic paddles. Ultimately I had to give those paddles back to their owner, and I’ve been paddle-less ever since.
Having knocked out more than half the U.S. states on the old Ameco straight key, and used it for a few late-night ragchews, it had become the proverbial “extension of my hand” — and yet pounding out each dit and dah was, to be honest, tiring, possibly owing to the fact that the Ameco isn’t a high-grade key. The flimsy stamped metal parts, sloppy action and stiff springs made for a “unique” experience. Only after trying a precision Kent straight key at the Charlotte hamfest did I understand what I had been missing.
I tried a Begali recently, and it was definitely a high-quality item. It’s a piece of fine art, and probably too nice for a CW novice such as myself. Yes, the Benchers are just about right for me: Utilitarian, precise and no-nonsense. I’ve recently entertained the notion of a sideswiper, or “cootie” key.
Last week a member of our club indicated he had picked up a lot of ham gear at an estate sale. He told me had Vibroplex paddles, which I took to mean, he had dual lever iambic paddles. I was certainly interested, because Vibroplex is one of the oldest companies in ham radio, and they have a notorious reputation for building quality code keys; in fact, the official ARRL “Centennial Key” is a Vibroplex Deluxe Iambic.
So when I saw the Vibrokeyer, I was initially taken aback, fearing I was looking at a bug. Where was the other paddle? I took a closer look and determined I could hook it up as either a sideswiper, or a semi-iambic style keyer (Technically it’s not iambic, since you can’t close both contacts at once). It was old and that appealed to me too. Plus, online reviews of it are universally positive, so I whipped out the cash and headed home with a new piece of kit to play with. The key came in the original box shipped from Vibroplex, with the original typed instructions on adjustment and usage.
The first order of business was adjusting the key. As it rested in the box, the action was floppy, with more than a centimeter of lever movement side to side. A couple adjustments later and I had it firmed up, with about 1-2mm of movement on the arm and contact spacing just slightly larger than the width of a sheet of paper. It felt about right, so I configured it as a sideswiper by connecting it to my straight key cable, then tied the two outer contact posts together with a short jumper of hookup wire.
Right off the bat, I didn’t like this configuration. The key is fairly heavy, but the feet on the base lack grip and the back-and-forth motion needed to send continuous strings of dits had the key sliding all over the desk. Even after I secured it a bit more, I discovered I didn’t really care for the sideswiper mode because my timing was inconsistent. I believe I could improve with practice, but the Vibrokeyer seemed too clunky for this technique, and not really intended for that purpose.
Just for giggles, here is a brief video of me sending some code as a sideswiper. My technique is quite poor, but by the end of the string, I’ve settled into a nice speed:
Next, I fabricated a new cable so I could use the key as intended, with repeated dashes and dits courtesy of my rig’s keyer.
My code sounded a lot better and I found the key much easier to use, until the old muscle memory of squeeze keying took over and I found it nearly impossible to retrain my fingers to send letters starting on a dit, like R, L and F. Practice, practice and more practice will be required. 17 WPM seems to be about my sweet spot at this time.
Here’s another quick video of the key in automatic operation. I still need to minimize my hand movement, but at least I’m not slapping it around:
The Vibrokeyer is chunky. Heavy, but not heavy enough. Instead of a scalpel, I feel like I’m using a ratchet wrench. It feels very “American” and I don’t mean that in a bad way necessarily. It’s the Corvette to the Porsche: Big, brash and brutal, but still very, very good.
Like one of the old jacked-up mag-wheeled Camaros of the 1970s, I feel like the key sits up a little too high. The hinged action of the lever results in a certain “floppy” quality. Further adjustment is likely needed. The trunnion screws that float the lever in place also need to be adjusted to remove some of the up and down rattle. I’m still working on this.
Honestly, I’m not sure this is the key for me. I’ve tested a Vibroplex Code Warrior Jr . several times and it suits me. It’s small, elegant and effective. The Vibrokeyer is going to take some getting used to, but I will persist and keep practicing. This key has been on the market since 1960, and as one reviewer on eHam noted, this is a “timeless classic,” so I intend to explore it as fully as possible before writing it off completely.