(Originally published May 6, 2008)
New radios and towers may offer the biggest advances as you build a competitive radio station, but don’t overlook the value of little things.
Some of the most profound pleasures are found not in the grand additions to my station, but in the small steps and discoveries that fill the spaces between great evolutionary leaps.
I have realized as much anticipation and thrill hanging a simple fence-wire antenna and racing back inside to see how it worked, as I have cranking up a commercial tower and beam for the first time and racing back inside to see how it worked. It’s not the new gear but the racing back inside, half of you dreading disappointment and the other half almost tripping over your own feet with excitement, that does it.
Yes, those big moments — putting up a tower, plugging in an amazing new radio for the first time — are truly memorable (and can even involve inscribing your name, the dog’s pawprints, and the date in concrete), but so is something as unextraordinary as bringing home a used set of CW paddles.
Happiness in station-building is usually not about acquiring a new toy. I think it’s mostly about the promise of doing more, or doing something better than before. Whether that’s digging out weak stations with a sharper receive filter, carving out a spot in a busy contest to call CQ with a higher gain antenna, or just sending better Morse code with a more responsive key….
In the Beginning
When I was first licensed — back in 1982 — I had no money at all. I was 16 years old, and if I needed something for ham radio I had to either build it myself from scrap parts, or mow lawns for the money I needed. I hated mowing lawns almost as much as being poor.
I had a Radio Shack brass straight key for sending Morse code, but one day I got a “can’t say no” $25 deal on a Versakeyer. It was beautifully built by Norm, VE7EGO (sk) from plans in the May 1979 edition of QST. He assured me he had only built the thing for the joy of building it. I knew the parts cost him twice what he was asking, and countless hours building it had to be accounted for, too.
When you’re 16 and someone offers to sell you an electronic keyer for a fraction of the going price, you say “thank you” and mean it. Norm’s quiet generosity provided me with a very fine iambic keyer far beyond my means. Now I suddenly also needed some paddles to drive the thing.
For a couple of weeks, while I built some paddles of my own, I borrowed a set of black Bencher BY-1 paddles from my greatly missed elmer, Harold Marshall VE7EGY (sk). I LOVED the way characters flowed like liquid out of the Bencher paddles but eventually they had to go home to their owner.
My first set of paddles was fabricated “breadboard” style on a plank, using for paddles a foot-long piece of pliable plastic trim — the stuff covering the space between 1979-era woodgrain panels on my bedroom wall. (Dad never even noticed. That is, until my stupid brother Matt ratted me out.)
On a base of pine board cut from a plank my dad had in the garage, I bent the trim around a nail. At each end of the trim, I wrapped tinfoil for electrical contact — so that when I tapped one of the trim ends against a steel screw serving as the “center” contact, a dot or a dash was sent.
For tension adjustment, I pressed the trim close to — but not quite touching — the center screw using cable clamps screwed to the pine board, one for each side, which I could nudge against the outer side of the trim to adjust the space between tinfoil and screw.
(Later on, I glued magnets to the ends of trim, and to the cable-clamp “tensioners” — so the magnets positively pulled back the trim from the screw when I released the paddles. Brilliant stuff back then. Heck, the Space Shuttle was just a toddler still).
A long way from the Bencher, but it got me through several years of young hamming. I came in first place for B.C. in CQWW CW one year with this jury-rigged contraption.
Homebrewed but Real Paddles
In 1989, I dragged my girlfriend to a ham flea market in Vernon, B.C. for an afternoon. I know many of you are saying to yourselves, “That Bud is a pretty smooth operator, taking Kim to a hamfest and all.” She didn’t think it was all that much fun, actually.
I vividly remember seeing a set of Bencher BY-1 (black base) paddles for sale on a table. $50. We were both saving up for our wedding the next summer, so I kept my wallet in my pocket. In large part, this was because I only had $10 left after buying us lunch. As you can imagine, over the years I have regretted my decision not to borrow $50 from Kim so I could buy those paddles. Or, at least, her decision not to give me the cash.
In 2002, when I really got the contesting bug, I went to the Summerland, B.C., annual ham radio flea market. I purchased a homebrew set of paddles for $25 from an old-timer. They are magnetic and work just fine, but I’ve never been very accurate with them. I knew one day I would have to upgrade.
Over the years, I watched the price of Bencher paddles go from $50 to $100, to $150 and now $200, depending on the base — black or chrome. I figured they were out of my league, and I always had something more important to pay for.
With two teenaged boys (hockey, golf and other activities), mortgage and car payments, food for aforementioned teens, etc., the ham radio budget is pretty slim. OK, so that’s the party line (in case XYL Kim is reading). The hard truth is, I could have bought any paddles I wanted any time at all — I just didn’t feel quite right doing it. Until now. I figured I was due.
Stepping Up to the Chrome Plate
On Sunday, May 4, 2008, I went to the Orchard City ARC flea market with $100 in my pocket and a singular goal: buy a Bencher paddle. I got there and saw a black Bencher BY-1 with a small MFJ keyer on top of it. $85.
I filed that one away, and kept looking. Around the corner, I caught a glint of chrome in the morning sunlight. Middle of the table, between a couple of 2M handhelds was a Bencher BY-2 with the chrome base. I already knew that a brand-new BY-2 would cost me $160 plus shipping.
I casually made may way closer and peered down to find the price sticker. I had to struggle to keep the grin off my face. “$75.”
It was a beauty. Damn near new, with the box! I wandered around for a while, hemming and hawing about whether or not to spend that much for paddles. You see, not only am I clinically budget-challenged, those early days pinching pennies turned me into an honest-to-goodness cheapskate, even if I have a buck in my jeans.
“Yes,” I told myself. “You deserve to upgrade. You’re contesting every weekend — get the right tools for the job.”
I went back to the table and shelled out the money. I saved big-time and spent the rest of my $100 semi-annual allowance on a pair of Heathkit five-position antenna switches for $20 and a $5 raffle ticket (didn’t win the 2M rig), and drove home — grinning all the way.
The Bencher is outstanding. I can comfortably key with accuracy now at 35 words per minute (had trouble with 25 WPM on the older paddles).
The venerable Versakeyer with the nifty Bencher now drives the FT-2000, and a Ham Keyer (HK5A) and the old paddles run the FT-920. I could not be happier. I feel like a real ham — or at least like those smiling QST-cover hams with Benchers on their desks, hi.
So happiness is about the promise of improving — but it can also be about new toys sometimes. And when you wait a long time for it, it’s sweeter still.