So you've decided you want to learn CW? Great! Prepare yourself for months of frustration and self-doubt. Just kidding (a little).
Disclaimer: I am not a good CW operator. I am still learning, and the information here is just a compilation of my notes and musings, things learned through trial and error, and whatever advice I can give to hams that wish to "go legit" and be more than appliance operators.
There is no "one size fits all" method to becoming a CW operator. The notes here are my method, and you should structure your own learning process in a way that is effective for you, and in a way that you will enjoy learning.
Learning CW is a long, ongoing process. I have referred to it as a "grind" because progress can be very slow at first. There are no shortcuts and a considerable investment of time and effort is required to realize gains. Compare it to any other learned skill that you can't fake, like learning an instrument or a foreign language. You can't do either with any sort of proficiency without consistent practice and progress.
Everybody has their own reason for wanting to go through the process of learning CW. Maybe you want to have another tool in your contesting bag. Maybe you want to operate QRP, for which CW is one of the most effective methods. Maybe you just like the challenge. No matter why you choose to learn CW, by doing so you become a small percentage of the population who can communicate by using a continuous wave of electricity.
CW is a language, but unlike others it is not a written language - it is audible only. Great care should be taken to avoid visual representations of dots and dashes when learning characters. If you have a novelty CW poster or a printout of dots and dashes on the wall of your shack, take it down! The objective is to train your ear to recognize the sound of an entire letter, and not the dots/dashes within it. Visual representations can undermine this and lead you to counting, which will prevent you from receiving more than a letter at a time. This becomes important later when moving from decoding single letters at a time to hearing whole words.
A good start is 15 minutes of uninterrupted practice per day. A better start is 30 minutes. In my experience, more than 30 minutes of practice in one sitting can be counterproductive. Fifteen minutes every day is better than 30 minutes every 2-3 days. The key is to remain focused and stick to a regular practice schedule. Remove distractions when practicing. Turn your phone off, turn off the radio, make your environment as conducive to focus as possible. Fifteen minutes without interruption is better than 30 minutes in between distractions.
My method was to use LCWO.net's Morse Machine feature to learn the 40 most commonly used characters. Morse Machine sends one character, you type it into the box, Morse Machine either alerts you of an error or sends another character, and so on. I like this method because Morse Machine will track your statistics and allow you to learn the characters without overloading your brain. Keep character speed between 20 and 30 wpm, add the next character as you get comfortable, and you should be able to learn all 40 characters in a few weeks. Once I was able to decode and type the characters at about 6 wpm effective speed, I moved on to the lessons.
The important thing to remember here is to keep character speed above 20 wpm. Any slower and you'll find yourself counting. Faster here is better - I did most of my Morse Machine learning at 30 wpm character speed.
The lessons are where you learn to decode more than one character at a time, without having to think about it. This process will take longer than learning the 40 characters with Morse Machine. I found that 1 minute lessons worked best for me, and I used 5 character groups at a set tone. Variable tones and code group lengths just complicated the process at this point. Key here is to start learning how to receive a string of characters. You can lower the effective wpm (under Change CW Settings), but keep character speed above 20 wpm. You can add as much word spacing as you need but keep that character speed up!
If you used Morse Machine to learn the characters before starting the lessons, you should breeze right through the first few. But at some point you will feel the grind become apparent. Learning how to not dwell on missed letters is a skill that you must learn. When you find yourself missing a letter, let it go and focus on the next character. If you miss two, get ready to jump back in. If you miss a whole group, start again with the next one. Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good. Once you're scoring consistently in the 90% range, move on to the next lesson. I moved on as soon as I scored 90% once, but don't be afraid to hang out on a lesson until you're comfortable moving on.
You should be able to get to lesson 40 after a few weeks to a few months of regular practice. After this point, I felt I was seeing diminishing returns continuing with lesson 40. My goal with CW is to head decode conversational CW at a moderate pace, not to receive random strings of characters at increasing speed with the aid of a keyboard - this isn't a real-world example of the type of CW I'd expect to hear on air. So I stopped the lessons and starting doing code groups as a warmup for other practice.
My warmup was 2 minutes of random length code groups at a set tone. I would do this once or twice, just to get my mind into the task at hand and to prepare me for my next round of practice. I didn't worry too much about accuracy, but 80-90% was common. This is where I really felt I was getting better at ignoring missed characters without getting lost.
Remember that when learning CW, you are learning a spoken language. When you were a child learning how to speak, we did not know the alphabet before learning how to speak, so we learned what words sounded like and replicated them. We as mature humans are lucky enough to know our CW characters, so we have a slight advantage.
When we communicate using speech, we typically don't spell out words in our heads when conversing. In fact, a lot of people don't know how to spell the words they use! No, we hear the word and make an association in our heads. The goal at this point in the learning process should be to start hearing words instead of the individual letters.
How do we spell words without the letters? Well, we aren't necessarily ingoring the letters, we simply want certain combinations to make a connection in our heads so we associate the word with the sound without having to spell the word every time. Take the following example and its associated cw:
C Q D E K N 3 B -.-. --.- -.. . -.- -. ...-- -...
This represents the first words you should learn: CQ, DE, and your callsign. The sound of CQ is very distinctive, and it is often repeated several times by calling stations, so it is very easy to recognize on the air. It's not uncommon to learn the sound of CQ before learning the characters C and Q.
When we hear CQ on the air, it is usually followed by DE [callsign], so we learn to listen for the DE, which means the following characters are going to be a callsign. So in the example above, you should train yourself to hear and immediately comprehend CQ DE without spelling out the letters in your head, and prepare to copy a callsign. This is the type of instant recognition we are working towards with common CW abbreviations. This should give you an idea of what to aim for when progressing from letter copy to word copy.
After my 2 minute code group warmup, I focused on LCWO word training using common CW abbreviations and Q codes. Since my goal is head copy, I tried to avoid typing anything until the whole word was sent. I also tried to avoid using the repeat feature unless absolutely necessary.
At this point, I noticed what I refer to as my "mental buffer," the figurative pool in my head where letters go before I "hear" the whole word. As the buffer got larger, I could retain more letters and not dedicate as much mental effort to retaining them before recognizing the word. This is where I began to think of words as groups of letters rather than a string of individual characters that had to be pieced together. This is also where I started internalizing the sounds of 2 and 3 letter words such as CQ, DE, TKS, PSE, RPT and so on.
When doing word training, I much preferred a fixed speed. I feel that trying to recognize words at a constsant 30-35 wpm was much more beneficial than increasing the speed with every correct answer, because at a certain point the speeds above 40 wpm made word training more of a guessing game. The objective is to learn words and recognize them, not frustrate yourself at 45 wpm. Stick to a comfortable speed, and increase when you find yourself easily decoding words.
Plain text training (proverbs) using can also be useful, but I found myself guessing what the sentence would be before it was over. I would stop listening in the process, and guess close (but incorrect) more often than not. I've since dropped this from my practice, but may revisit it in the future if I feel it could be helpful, perhaps when trying to head decode full sentences.
Callsign training can be beneficial. However, I found that a lot of the exotic DX callsigns used were really not much different from decoding random word groups at the stage I was at. Instead, I did more callsign head decode practice by listening to a US-based websdr on 40m during the day, when I knew the callsigns would follow US or Canadian conventions. Learning to head decode a callsign on the first or second try came very quickly, especially when following "CQ DE". LCWO Callsign training becomes more useful if you're actively trying to work CW DX and need to be able to head decode 6 or 7 character non-US callsigns.
Once you can recognize letters and simple words, it is time to start combining them into common phrases used in short CW exchanges. If you have worked SSB at all, you know that your typoical SSB exchange involves callsigns, signal reports, and a farewell. CW is no different.
It is beneficial at this point to start listening to on-air CW when you can. If you don't have access to an HF radio, you can use any of the web SDRs found at SDR.hu or WebSDR.org (my personal favorite is K3FEF). Tune to the bottom of any of the HF bands and see if you can recognize the three main components of any CW qso: CQ and callback, a signal report exchange (commonly 599 or 5nn), and 73. Below is a very simplified example CW qso that you might expect to hear on the air between myself (KN3B) and my original sequentially issued callsign (KC3IQQ):
KN3B: CQ CQ CQ DE KN3B KN3B K KC3IQQ: KN3B DE KC3IQQ K KN3B: KC3IQQ UR 599 599 K KC3IQQ: FB ON UR RPT UR 599 599 K KN3B: FB OM TU FER QSO 73 SK KC3IQQ: RR 73 EE KN3B: EE
I like to engage quite a bit in passive listening, just to get my brain used to the sound of CW. I will often leave a web SDR tuned to CW in the background, and when I hear somebody call CQ I'll attempt to head decode, then look at their QRZ page to verify that they are a CW op. It's a fun game I play where I actually get to test my on-air CW without being on the air. When I realized I could do this, I made a serious effort to increase my mental buffer and follow exchanges without transcribing what I was hearing (I'm still not that good at it).
If you're anything like I was at this point, you panic at the idea of having to hold your own in a CW exchange without knowing what to expect. Most CW exchanges will include a pretty limited amount of information such as operator name, age, and QTH. So it makes sense to learn to recognize these words. I started using Seiuchy, a QSO simulator, to replicate what I might encounter on the air.
Remember, CW is a language of its own. It has slang, it has conventions, and there are several ways to say the same thing. It can take plenty of time to get beyond hearing single letters or simple words, and it may get frustrating.
While most of knowing CW involves listening, you're going to have to learn to send if you want to be a CW operator. You have the choice of paddles, bugs, straight keys, or computer keying. I started with a UniHAM UNI-730A paddle plugged into my Yaesu FT450-D, and I'm still using it. I'll continue to use it until I feel like I could benefit from a better key. I don't expect that to happen for a while.
I believe learning to send CW with a paddle to start is superior to bugs and straight keys because there is less technique involved with a paddle. Trying to learn correct technique with a key or bug while being a novice CW operator seems like hard mode, and learning CW is hard enough on its own.
My rig supports keying with a CW paddle without transmitting. If you dont have this option, a code practice oscillator will be necessary. Plenty of kits or prebuilt oscillators are available, just make sure to purchase one that will work with your paddle. The first kit I built is only compatible with straight keys... lesson learned.
I started with a notepad file of phrases I could expect to send on CW. This helped me get familiar with the paddle. Some examples:
[CALL] DE KN3B UR RST 599 599 IN PA = NAME HR BRAD BRAD HW? KN RR ON UR RST TNX 4 QSO 73 DE KN3B SK AGN? MY NAME IS BRAD BRAD MY QTH IS WILLIAMSPORT PA WILLIAMSPORT PA AGE HR 35 35
I also occasionally try to paddle out sentences I see online, just to get vary things and practice non-CW strings of letters. A good sentence to practice sending is "THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPS OVER THE LAZY DOG" because it utilizes all the letters of the alphabet.
[Still working on this part]
I have been told that I should have gotten on the air long before I did. I didn't feel like I was quite ready to do on-air CW until I had a comfortable grasp of words and cadence used during an exchange. I didn't want to frustrate any other operators by being too slow or inaccurate with my paddling. I certainly don't regret waiting to get on the air, but I could have done it sooner. I believe my hesitation was due to the fact that I didn't want to get lost and mess up an entire QSO. I can tell you now that I did, I continue to do so, and I will continue to mess up QSOs until I get better. It's a learned skill and you can only improve by doing it over and over and over again.
The good news is that most CW operators will slow down to complete a QSO. CW operators tend to be some of the nicest and most supportive you'll come across on the radio, so don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself.