Settling in for the long winter season, I have lots of bench projects waiting in the queue. Some have time constraints and are higher priority, such as getting my HX-1681 back on the air in time for this years Novice Rig Round-up (0000 UTC on FEB 18 through 2359 UTC on FEB 26, 2017). Others, like finishing the one tube regen I started, or repairing half a dozen broken items, will rise to the top of the list in due time. And there are some new home brew ideas I am eager to start, definitely including another QRP tube transmitter this year.
So with all these worthy items awaiting attention, how do I spend the little bench time I had available over the last two weeks? I built a cootie key, of course.
A cootie key, or sideswiper as they are also called, is a key that is operated with a horizontal motion of the hand, rather than the up-and-down motion of a straight key. It has two contacts, left and right, and unlike a paddle a key closure on either side closes the same circuit. Cooties go way back; they were the first attempt to solve the problem of “glass arm” (what we call a repetitive strain injury today) which was the frequent result of too much straight key activity. It is said that the first cooties were made by enterprising telegraphers who mounted two straight keys base to base on their sides, with the keys wired in parallel. Later, commercially made cooties appeared, touting less fatigue and faster keying speed as advantages.
In the early 20th Century the “bug” or semi-automatic key made its commercial debut. Since that key automatically completes the dits, the telegrapher does less work, and soon the bug pretty much completely supplanted the cootie key and they more-or-less disappeared. Today the advent of inexpensive electronic keyers and the paddle, which uses two separate circuits for the dot and dash, have pretty much relegated bugs and cooties to the attic, to be used only by aficionados of retro and antique gear.
But there is one other group of hams who have traditionally embraced the cootie: those seeking a key for next to no cash outlay. Cooties can be made out of any piece of springy steel and two contact points. Hacksaw blades are commonly used, but I have seen pictures of cooties made from steak knives jammed point first into a block of wood! This is a technology that lends itself to improvisation, and that is what ham radio is all about.
Sending with a cootie, or side-swiping, is tricky business. Basically, you start each character on the same side of the key (I’m right-handed, I start with my right index finger first), and then alternate thumb and finger creating the elements of the character. The timing is all on you, much as it is with a straight key. I found the technique difficult at first, but with some practice still find it difficult. My inclination is to start each character with whatever finger was left over after completing the last, but I can see that method quickly leads to disorganization and madness. The always-start-on-the-same-side approach makes sense if you think about each character as a separate unit, always formed the same way. Harder to learn, but I think you get a better sounding result.
I have actually owned a very fancy cootie key for some time now, made by Llaves Telegraphicas Artesanas (LTA) in Spain. The gentleman who made these keys, Guillermo Janer, EA6YG, has been a silent key since 2008, but you can still see a very nice page describing the keys he made at Morse Express.
This key is beautifully crafted, but really awkward to use. With the pivot in the center the throw is short, and the stiff brass arm has no give upon making contact, making for a very jerky feel when keying. After several tries to get used to it, I gave up and it sits very handsomely on the shelf where I display my key collection.
I got interested in cooties again when just recently one came up for sale on a club swapmeet listing. This was a cootie made by Vizkey. It gets excellent reviews, and I got intrigued. The Vizkey version is based on the venerable hacksaw blade which simultaneously provides the contacts and the spring tension for the key. These keys are a bit pricey though, and I wondered if there was a way to experiment with cooties that would require less commitment.
On to steak knives and blocks of wood.. I researched inexpensive home brew options, and came up with this really nice design by Mike Maynard, KC4ICY. His Depot Key, so named because all the parts can be obtained from, well, you know. Anyway it looked like a nice inexpensive way to play with a cootie, and being based on a hacksaw blade I figured it would be pretty much the authentic side-swiping experience. Mike estimates that his version of the cootie can be built for about $10. I think the actual number is closer to $20, but I didn’t have any old hacksaw blades handy and the Depot only had packages of two available. I did have most of the rest of the hardware on hand, as well as the wooden base (leftover from the external VXO project) and the wood finishing supplies (leftover from the Bayou Jumper.) I bought the angle irons, the hacksaw blade, and the 1/8 stereo plug which I was out of at the moment. And the buttons for the finger pieces.
My first attempt at finger pieces was to cut out two rectangles from a heavy polyethylene container. They looked awful, so I went searching through the craft department of our local Wal-Mart, and found a package of six really cheap coat buttons for $2. The buttons had flat backs so they fit together nicely around the hacksaw blade, and a #6 bolt fit the hole perfectly.
Construction was very straightforward. I cut the hacksaw blade to length using a pair of tin snips (don’t forget the safety goggles when working with springy steel), and drilled a hole near the cut end to accommodate the fingerpiece attachment. The blade was a little tough to drill, but no big deal really, just go slow and perhaps use a drop of oil on the bit. I used a wire brush in my Dremel tool to remove the paint from the hacksaw blade, as it was a rather garish white and yellow color scheme.
In a departure from Mike’s design, I added a bolt across the top of the angles holding the contacts, so I would only have to wire one side. This eliminates the possibility of using the key as a single lever paddle, but adds some rigidity to the contact posts.
The only other feature I added was a staple and a dab of hot glue to act as a strain relief for the cable, which is a short length of RG-174 coax. I put a piece of non-skid foam backing, (the kind used under rugs) on the underside, held in place with a few pieces of double-sided scotch tape. Although key is very light, this arrangement holds it in place just fine, and there is no need to hold the key with your other hand while keying.
So how does it play? Not bad, actually. The springiness of the blade, and the soft landing with a little give on the contacts is very pleasant. It makes a little noise when keying, but not nearly as bad as the LTA key, which clanks dramatically with each stroke.
I’ve been practicing off the air with it, and while I like the feel and the side-to-side keying, I still sound pretty awful. There is a tendency to run the dits together, and shorten the dahs. Based on internet advice, I set the contacts pretty far apart – this is supposed to help avoid the running together.
There are many online resources for on the art of sideswipery – the SideSiperNet website lists nets and other information, and has a gallery of keys posted by cootie afficianados that is very interesting to browse through. You can also find a short essay on the practice of side-swiping at Morse Express. The also feature another commercial cootie, the GHD-501 (see the bottom of the page), a pricey but beautiful instrument.
I like my homely little cootie, and will continue to play with it – maybe even venture out onto the air someday if my sending with it ever becomes comprehensible. I did get to satisfy my side-swiping itch without investing in an expensive instrument – dodged the bullet on that one.