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KK1B Straight Key

It’s been over a year and a half since I renamed my blog to my amateur radio callsign, but so far I’ve made few references to the hobby.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, if you wanted to get a ham radio license in the United States, you needed to be able to demonstrate proficiency in sending and receiving Morse code. Some years ago, the FCC eliminated the Morse requirement for the lower license classes. Later, it eliminated the requirement for all the classes. I was licensed after that time, explaining how I can have an Amateur Extra class license without being able to receive or send even my call sign in Morse.

Recently, as my interests have been moving towards simpler, more compact radios, I decided to start bridging my knowledge gap by learning Morse. There are some great tools out there for learning how to receive Morse, my favorite so far being Morse Machine for Android. Eventually, though, I’ll need to be able to send, and for that I’ll need a key of some sort.

After doing a lot of reading on the subject, there seems to be two schools of thought on what type of key to start with. The minority opinion is that if you anticipate graduating to paddles, where the wrist movement is side-to-side and the length of the dits and dahs are controlled electronically, then start with paddles. The predominant opinion, though, is to start with a traditional straight key and graduate to paddles when you’ve mastered the manual spacing. This is the school of thought I bought into.

Having decided my first key would be a straight key, then I had to decide which straight key. I wanted something small enough that I could easily travel with it, but substantial enough that I could use it as my regular key at home. After reading a lot of reviews, I bought the KK1B Straight Key from American Morse. Its components are precision-machined in California. The key is available only as a kit.

Within a week of ordering, the kit arrived, all of which fit in a 4″x6″ padded envelope. It was almost another two weeks before I found some time to open the envelope and begin assembly. That was yesterday morning.

The instructions recommended opening the interior packages over a container of some sort, since some of the parts are tiny. Here’s what the key looks like out of the package.

The screwdriver and the nail file were not part of the KK1B kit, but that itty-bitty Allen wrench in the container did come with the kit.

The first challenge was walking through the instructions once before starting assembly. I realized I was a bit vocabulary challenged for this exercise. Clevis? Shoulder washer? I eventually figured out what these words meant through context. Also, the instruction manual had recently been revised, as the black knob in the lower left corner of the photo above was until recently not part of the kit. There were a few minor issues with the instructions and the parts list that I eventually figured out.

The first assembly step was in fact the hardest. The base came with some burrs that would need to be removed. This is what I used the nail file for. I think I removed more sand from the nail file than aluminum from the base, but it worked. If I were to do it again, I’d get a fine metal file and use it instead. After the deburring and placing the shoulder washers, which will keep the brass contact bar from electrically grounding to the aluminum base, here’s the result:

The rest of the assembly was relatively straightforward. Some of the machine screw lengths were close to one another, and putting a screw one-sixteenth of an inch too long through the wrong hole became obvious quickly. Keeping a ruler handy was helpful. Here’s the base with the contact bar installed:

Two more screws attached the knob to the paddle and the paddle to the operating lever. Take a close look at the photos above and below, particularly at the center hole in the contact bar, and you’ll notice a change I made. The parts list mentions two 4-40 x 1/4″ machine screws. The kit comes with two 4-40 machine screws that are around 1/4″, but one is clearly longer than the other. Initially I put the longer one through the base and into the center hole in the contact bar. I then realized the remaining one was too short to attach the paddle to the operating lever. I’ve seen photos of the kit before the knob was included, and I think it used a thinner paddle, in which case the shorter machine screw probably would have worked. I replaced the screw in the contact bar and used the longer screw in the paddle.

Bringing the components together with the spring installed, it looks like this:

It looks lopsided because the spring is forcing the level into a full up position. From here I installed the two long thumb screws. The one on the left is directly over the spring and is used to control the tension. The one on the right controls how far the level travels between its up and down positions. With some adjustment of the thumb screws, as well as the terminals for attaching the key to a radio, it looks like this.

I put the five-dollar bill in the background to provide an idea of the size of this key. It’s tiny!

The KK1B kit took me just under an hour to put together, and I’m not someone who builds from kits often. The only thing left to do is to make a cable to attach the key to a radio — or perhaps just to a practice oscillator for now.

Curt Gilman
Curt Gilman