Modernization of an Old Favorite

or, "the Sideswiper Revisited".

Figure 1. ON RETURNING to the air after a 30-year absence I was astonished to find a general unfamiliarity with the sideswiper, the basic speed key of pre-WW II impoverished hams. Therefore, I was determined to give this old favorite its just dues by getting one into operation. In the course of building my new one I devised an improvement in design, which I feel must be shared with my fellow sideswiper enthusiasts.


It is important first to review fundamentals for those who may never have had the opportunity to use a sideswiper or hear one on the air. The sideswiper is the forerunner of the modern paddle (1) used with electronic keyers. As is the paddle, the sideswiper is essentially a SPDT switch with a return-to-neutral feature that assures you that your carrier doesn't remain on the air between dots and dashes. With it, a practiced operator can sideswipe along at a good clip, well above the speed anyone without a rubber wrist can achieve with a straight key. In use, one swings the arm of the key back and forth between the contacts, with elements of Morse character being formed alternately at right and left (left and right does just as well). It's a dot if your dwell time on the contact is shorter than your dash dwell time - although sometimes dots tend to come out longer than dashes. Sideswiping compared to straight keying is something like flag waving as compared to using a well hand pump, a waggling versus a pumping motion.

One of the important characteristics of this basic instrument is that its action is faster than that of a straight key. On the other hand, perhaps its most important feature (which sets aglow the warm feeling many of us have for the sideswiper) is that it gives real character to one's fist Such character isn't achievable with modern keyers by any but the most dogged - and it's impossible with a keyboard. It's easy to remember the beauties of the "accents" sideswiper users developed. There was the draggy Southern drawl, the distinct New England inflection, the mid-Western flat drawl that was almost accentless (I'm an ex-W8), the clipped accent of the British, and of course the special accents of the stutterer. The accent was a much more reliable identifier of the operator than was his chirp or his 120-cycle note (in sideswiper days 120-Hz hum was virtually unknown). The accent was almost better than a fingerprint. It never was clear why the FCC didn't record a little bit of each operator's sideswiper fist for its gumshoe operations (maybe they did!) since his accent couldn't be faked as can a call sign.

The ARRL Handbook (2) gives well-intentioned advice to the effect that the objective of a good CW operator must be "the formation of well-formed, rhythmical characters," which is unachievable by the use of special keys like sideswipers. And later on, "Any recognizable swing is a deviation from perfection." The basic fallacy in the advice lies in the premise that sideswipers can't give well formed, rhythmical characters - especially rhythmical. In fact, in addition to developing his own rhythm, each user of a sideswiper can choose his own style - swing (3), boogie, rock - and even send in any key. With a sideswiper there's an opportunity for each CW operator to do his own thing that is much more in harmony with modern ideas of individuality than is the homogenization of fists resulting from the use of such modern electronic aids as keyers and keyboards.

It is suggested that each CW operator review his own fist objectives and consider the sideswiper, particularly the modernized version that is described below, for character building (4). There will always be the turnip who doesn't seek to extract from any key the intrinsic advantages it offers, but this article won't interest him anyway (except possibly the hardware details described here).

Construction Details.

The classical homebrew sideswiper is built from fundamental items found in any ham's workshop 35 years ago: a porcelain-base DPST knife switch (just try to find one now!), a hacksaw blade, a 6-32 x 1/4-inch machine screw and nut, and about two feet of friction tape. The switch is disassembled, the two blades are used to form a pair of rear supports for the sideswiper arm, and the terminals are reformed (5) to make the opposing contacts spaced about 3/32-inch apart. The exact dimensions are unimportant as long as the result is generally as shown in Fig. 1. A hacksaw blade is then selected (those with a number of teeth missing are preferred over new blades, but the number of teeth per inch is unimportant since they are ground off anyway), cut to length, and mounted as shown. Finally, the classical key is completed by winding the friction tape over the end of the blade to produce a soft, comfortable "knob" (much better than the cold feel of a plastic knob). Experienced users will mount the key on a wooden baseplate that is large enough to prevent the key from scooting around in use and that is finished to match the decor of the shack.

Basic Design Improvement.

After lengthy experimentation during the building program, required by an inability to find in the junk box any non-dried-out friction tape of the type required for the classical design, it was determined that the currently available plastic electrician's tape is an entirely satisfactory substitute - and in fact provides the basic modernization. One's fingers no longer stick to the knob when the key is first made. Instead, the smooth, plastic tape encourages the use of the sideswiper immediately on completion and does not require dirty fingers to eliminate the stickiness, as was necessary with tape of the earlier specifications. Experienced sideswipers will recognize this basic improvement in the homebrew key as a valuable contribution to the evolution of the instrument.


* 5536 N. Hollywood Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53217.
(1) It is not possible to use a paddle key as a sideswiper and get anything like the results achievable with a properly used sideswiper; the converse is not true. Back to text.
(2) 1972 edition, pages 646-47. Back to text.
(3) Note to Handbook editor: swing is definitely out and rock's in. Back to text.
(4) The term "character building" should be interpreted in the context above to mean the synthesis of Morse characters from a loosely formed series of sideswiper dots and dashes. Back to text.
(5) Note in Fig. 1 the file marks that are evidence of the tender, loving care taken to remove the dents caused by hammering and gripping the terminals. Back to text.

John J. MYERS, W9OK (ex W9LA).
This article was published in QST magazine, vol. 58, no. 4 (April 1974), pp. 40-41.