J-38 Madness

As I mentioned last post, the SKCC Weekend Sprintathon for October was all about keys. I heard all kinds of keys on the air during that contest, and many of them were J-38 keys. The J-38 is the quintessential, all American made, military surplus key that every ham cut his/her teeth on in his/her first station. They were cheap, plenitful, worked pretty well, and looked kinda cool with all that mysterious extra unnecessary hardware on the plastic baseplate. Everyone had one. Except me.

I was certainly aware of these keys out there, but not having been a ham in the golden age of WW II surplus (I’m the right age to have been a teenaged ham in the 1960’s, but didn’t get a license until much, much later) I didn’t come across any for a dollar at the army surplus store or anything like that. I think my first key came from MFJ, and was actually a paddle.

Even before that WES weekend, I would occasionally look for a cheap J-38 on eBay from time to time, but gone are the days when these things could be bought for a couple of bucks – I have seen them command totally out of line prices of eBay, and this fact has for the most part kept me safe. But on that fateful Saturday night of the WES, sitting up in bed with a tablet perusing my favorite eBay searches, I came across a new listing that would have serious consequences.

The listing was for a “new in box, sealed in wax, J-38 key”. New in box keys are not that unusual, you see lots of them on eBay, but they go for really high prices. Covered in wax was very unusual though. Also, the listings (there were two) had a really attractive Buy It Now price for a new key. I bit. It was a little impulsive, since the contents of the sealed box was not visible, but hey. J-38 was on the way.

Sealed in wax for freshness

Sealed in wax for freshness

The auction did have photos of another key which the seller said was the same as the sealed units. This other key was definitely not new, and was the “all white metal” variety of the J-38. I know this because I immediately started researching J-38 keys, and found a wonderful resource if you are interested in the history of these keys. Take a look at Scott Hill, N6IX’s excellent page on J-38 keys. A link from his main page promises “more than you ever wanted to know about J-38 keys“, and I found it fascinating reading.

One interesting fact was that the J-38 was manufactured by many different companies, to the same specifications under government contract. I guess this was done to avoid single-source problems during the war years. It means that there are several common varieties of J-38, all slightly different — different manufactures used different materials, and finished the keys in different ways.

A few days later my sealed box arrived. I set up to photograph it as I opened it, rather like an archeolgical dig. I had no idea what the package would reveal. The cardboard key box was wrapped in cloth tape, and covered in a thick layer of sticky wax. Thoughts of every B-movie featuring Egyptian tombs flashed through my mind. Dimly seen through the wax cover was a label that promised a J-38 key, a good sign

Wax covered label

Wax covered label

I tried to gently tease the package open, but the cloth tape was not yielding to gentle. Unfortunately, the tape was applied across the box end, obscuring a lot of the label, but if you look closely at the bottom you can see the manufacturer given as American Radio Hardware.

American Radio Hardware, seen dimly through the wax

American Radio Hardware, seen dimly through the wax

ARH keys are a common variety of J-38, found almost as often as the Lionel J-38. Yes, Lionel, the toy train company, made a boatload of J-38s during WW II. We will revisit this fact in a bit.

Anyway I was excited – I had seen pictures of the ARH keys and I like them a bit better than the more common Lionel variety. I continued to saw away at the box, a little less gently now. Finally, an end came open, and I found the key wrapped in what I would describe as butcher paper. There appeared to be oil or grease on the key, and staining the paper. Here is what it looked like unwrapped:

Finally out of the box

Finally out of the box

It didn’t look new to me, but in very good condition. There were some markings on the lever, and the gap adjustment screw was bent. Overall though, it was a pretty nice key.

It is of the variety that Scott K6IX describes as an all white metal key, containing no brass parts. The conformation is that of the ARH key, but the typical ARH key has brass parts as well as “white” metal. The interesting thing is that if it was new, the box would be evidence that ARH made at least some of the all white metal keys. However, I don’t think it was new. Perhaps whoever packed the key so carefully and sealed it in wax, maybe to bring it home as a souvenir after overseas service, grabbed a key and any box handy and paired them up. Who knows?

I sent an email to the eBay seller, asking for any information they might have about origins of the key. To my surprise, I got a reply almost immediately. The seller’s father had been in the Navy and had a number of WW II items, but beyond that nothing else was known. So whether the key is a white metal key made by ARH remains indeterminate.

I cleaned the key up using good old Brasso, and stuck 4 low profile feet on the plastic base. The base was warped slightly, (this is common with these keys) and wobbled a bit; the rubber feet cured the problem. The key has a very nice feel, and looks good, even with the bent adjustment screw. It’s a keeper

The white metal J-38 key

The white metal J-38 key

Ah, but now the fit was on me. Scott’s web page contained sage advice about how to clean up these old keys, and I decided to try for a Lionel key on the cheap. I watched for the most disgustingly dirty, but complete Lionel key I could find on eBay and bid on it, planning to transform it into a beauty with a little elbow grease. Before long, a Lionel key was on the way…

Lionel J-38 as received

Lionel J-38 as received

The key arrived in good shape, but pretty gritty.

Gritty close-up

Gritty close-up

Following Scott’s advice, and having a Saturday afternoon with nothing much else planned, I got started with my key cleaning event Friday night. Here are the steps:

  • Soak all the parts in household ammonia solution overnight. I collected the parts in groups, so I could figure out how they went back together. Also, I separated the white metal parts from the brass ones, not wanting any weird galvanic thing happening to them while soaking. I had visions of all the brass bits disappearing overnight or something like that. I have a bunch of these all-plastic ice cream jars (the family consumes a bunch of this stuff, good ice cream, great jars) that were ideal for the task. As Scott predicted, the white metal parts turned black overnight, but this is expected and not harmful.
  • Initial polish with Brasso. This removed the residue from the soaking.
  • Polish the parts again with Flitz Blue. You can find it on Amazon. This stuff is amazing. You can even use it on the painted parts, diluted.

Speaking of parts, there are many more that you would think for a simple looking key. The left side parts:

Left side bits

Left side bits

The center parts

The center bits

The center bits

The right side parts

The right side bits

The right side bits

The white metal parts

The white metal bits

The white metal bits

And the weird connective tissue parts. These are mostly insulating washers, critical to the functioning of the key.

Tiny weird bits

Tiny weird bits

Those little wire bits that look like broken ends from mechanical pencil leads are parts too. The are pins that orient the terminal posts so that the holes line up with the markings on the base. No kidding. Only the Lionel keys have them. It was a miracle that I didn’t lose any, and they made re-assembling the key an exquisite experience.

All put together, the Lionel key looked great cleaned up:

Lionel J-38 reassembled, no base

Lionel J-38 reassembled, no base

but it suffered from a pretty bad warping of the base plate and was quite wobbly. While it meant forgoing the extraneous hardware bits, I mounted the key on a block of pretty hardwood (also an eBay purchase), mounted low profile rubber feet, and am rewarded with a very nice looking final product:

Lionel J-38 - final product

Lionel J-38 – final product

Those extraneous bits? These keys were used to train new operators, by wiring the keys in series with the instructor’s key and oscillator. Headphones were wired in series with the keys, and the shorting bar allowed the trainee to listen on the headphones while not sending. The eyelet was used with a cord to tether the headphones to the key, so they wouldn’t wander off at the end of the training session.

Having refurbished two of these keys, I will definitely enjoy using them. They feel good and impart a sense of history, especially hooked up to boat anchor rig. My obsession with J-38s is starting to wane – the doctor says that in two or three weeks it will all pass, and I can have access to my eBay account back again.

73,
de N2HTT

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2 Responses to J-38 Madness

  1. THOMAS HORNE says:

    I believe that the history that you are offering of the j-38 keys is inaccurate. The J-38 was originally designed as a land line telegraph key for use on wire telegraph lines. Every Army post had a telegraph office that was used to send traffic to command and to other posts. The circuit bar at the back of the mounting plate was used to connect the other side of the telegraph line to the receiving apparatus. In most cases that would be a calling sounder on which all traffic on that telegraph wire could be heard. When another telegraph office had traffic for the army post the calling sounder allowed the telegrapher on duty to hear the post’s call letters on the wire. To answer the call the telegrapher would open the shorting lever which would silence the sounders of all offices on that wire. Since all offices on any given telegraph wire were in series with the line that signaled the sending office that another operator needed the line because their sounder would relax to it’s deenergized condition and go silent. The receiving post’s telegrapher would then switch the circuit on TEL side of the J-38 to a relay which controlled the local circuit in that office. The relay would apply the the offices local battery to a local sounder to receive the message and send the sending offices call letters. Then they would close the shorting lever to return the circuit to the control of the key in the sending office. The posts telegrapher would copy the message, open the shorting lever to obtain control of the line, acknowledge receipt and close the shorting lever to return the line to constantly energized and available for use by another office on that line. The message would then be handed off to a messenger for delivery to the addressee.

    When WW2 began the J-38 was already designed, prototyped, tested, tooled, available in the supply chain, an in production at the US Army Signal Corps’s various suppliers of telegraph apparatus. Using the J-38s for many purposes for which they were never intended was a lot quicker than waiting for the newer purpose designed keys to go through that process. The J-38 saw use in training, radio telegraphy, and any other use for which there was an immediate need for a telegraph key. So great was the immediate demand for telegraph keys that months after the beginning of the war production of the J-38 was still being increased. When the War Resources Board informed the Lionel Manufacturing Company that there would be no materials available for the production of toys, including the Lionel toy trains, they invited Lionel to produce signalling apparatus including the J-38 key. The number of J-38 keys still in use belies the idea that they were only used for that one training set. By the time the designing of uniquely purposed keys caught up with the need for radio and other uses there were thousands of J-38s in the supply chain of the US Army Signal Corps. With better designed keys for the individual uses the demand for the J-38s fell off sharply. The training sets for telegraphers had initially been provided with J-37 general purpose keys mounted on a specially shaped base on which the cord could be wound for storage. With the large stock of J-38 keys available in supply depots they were used for anything that did not require a purpose designed key. They were even shipped with some radios with instructions to remove some parts prior to use. The parts most often removed were the shorting bar and, to a lesser extent, the back shunt bar for the other side of the circuit. The removal of such parts only occurred when the keys reached the unit that was to use them. The overproduction of J-38 keys was the reason that they were sold by the hundreds in surplus outlets all over the country.

    I thought that you might want to know the real reason that so many J-38 keys survive intact to this day.


    Tom Horne W3TDH

    • n2htt says:

      Tom thanks for this detailed recap of J-38 history. I have seen some passing references to it’s use for landline telegraphy, but no details. I’ve often wondered why they so many were available as surplus after the war. 73, Mike

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