The advantage of the single-lever paddle

My single-lever PCB keyer KI6SN/NB6M-style

It may seem like a bad idea to downgrade from a dual-lever paddle and iambic keyer to a single-lever paddle. It must be inefficient since each individual dash and dot has to be generated by a right or left movement of the paddle. Despite this, many of the champions in the High Speed Telegraphy competitions use single-lever paddles, often home-made ones. How can that be?

K7QO, Chuck Adams, wroteUsing an Iambic Paddle” and compared the dual-lever paddle with the single-lever with respect to number of movements. If all 26 letters of the English alphabet and the numbers from 0 to 9 are sent, the single-lever paddle requires 73 strokes while a dual-lever and an iambic keyer requires 65. This is 11% less.

But when N1FN, Marshall G. Emm, wrote “Iambic Keying – Debunking the Myth” he analyzed the 7 letters that are faster to send with an iambic keyer – C, F, K, L, Y, Q, and R – and found that only one of them, the L, is among the 12 most frequent ones in English. He illustrated it this way:

Guess what’t wrong with this figure? He didn’t see the R and forgot that it is also among the most frequent letters!


So two of the faster letters are among the most frequent ones, not just one. I guess that N1FN’s estimate of only a 5% increase in efficiency when letter frequencies are taken into account is a bit too small then. In addition comes the fact that CQ, and all Q-codes use letters that are more efficient with the iambic keyer, so in radio amateur use the efficiency advantage of the iambic keyer is probably even more than 11%.

So this doesn’t explain the fact that many of the high speed champions do so well on single-lever paddles. My experience is based on learning to send Morse code at the age of 47. Somehow I feel that this was 20-30 years too late in order to master all the finer movements involved in iambic keying.

The issue must be tolerance to errors, not just efficiency. The high-speed champions value that and increasingly the producers of morse paddles are including single-lever paddles in their assortment.

A single-lever paddle is also easy to make yourself, much easier than a dual-lever paddle. I made one from printed circuit board based on the paddles of KI6SN. That design was a modified version of the miniature single-lever paddle of NB6M. I made it just to try the concept before I move on and eventually buy one. But the homemade one was surprisingly good to use, so I might stay with it for a while. The nice thing is that the single-lever couldn’t care less if your keyer is set up for iambic A og B. Neither if the keyer does the ultimatic mode which I promoted recently (Is the ultimatic Morse keyer really that efficient?)

There should be freedom in choice of paddle, so everyone should find what suits best regardless of what is the current fashion or what it is that is considered to be ‘best’. So whether you are a newcomer who struggle with learning to send properly with an iambic keyer, or an oldtimer who keep using the dual-lever as if it is a single-lever paddle, feel free to change to a single-lever paddle. I am sure you will notice a reduced error rate.

The question for me is what “real” single-lever key I should upgrade to, they all look attractive: Begali, BencherBushwhackerHi-MoundKent, K8RAN3ZNScheunemann, UR5CDXVibroplex,  …

Sverre Holm, LA3ZA, is a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com and writes from Norway. Contact him at [email protected].

17 Responses to “The advantage of the single-lever paddle”

  • 9M2PJU:

    never tried a single paddle, i am thinking about single paddle using saw blade.

  • Harry K7ZOV:

    I am not a great CW person (yet). I got a Bencher BY-2 and a few years later traded it for a ST-1. I prefer the ST-1 single lever a lot. Works good for us QRS operators a whole lot better then the dual paddle. A few yrs after the trade I saw in QST a mod to make a dual paddle into a single with a simple piece of plastic. Now this article got me thinking on doing a mod on my KX3 paddle. Hmmmm might be fun. BTW the hack saw blade has been used and appears to work very well.. Have fun “cutting up the air waves with you saw blade paddle”…

    73 Harry
    K7ZOV

  • Sverre LA3ZA:

    I considered the hacksaw blade, but what shall I say, the PCB version is a little more up to date if one can say that. And it is much easier to work with.

    You can tie together the two levers of a dual-lever paddle, that’s an alternative. I am working on a second alternative: a microcontroller project where a dual lever is interpreted as a single-lever. If you press right and then left, the left will be ignored until the right paddle is released. I will publish this here later.

  • Ulis K3LU:

    I switched from an iambic Bencher BY2 to a single lever Vibrokeyer and an old Autronic key (google it if you are unfamiliar) a few years ago and couldn’t be happier. I suppose if I had learned the proper method to use an iambic key then things would of turned out differently. 73 OMs!

  • John Mann-KK4ITN:

    After years of beeping I found a Vibroplex iambic key the best for me. I got used to it from operating a old time bug. Since I am very rough and beat it around a lot. Seems about 20-22 is my sweet spot.
    Keys are a lot like writing pens or cigars. Thin ones, fat ones, long, short ones. There is one for everyones liking.
    But the last chapter reads like this: Keep beeping,CW FOREVER!
    In CW there are no foreign accents,cuts threw qrm,less rf power!

  • Sverre LA3ZA:

    “Keys are a lot like writing pens or cigars” – couldn’t be more true! And the full spectrum of available keys should be taken into consideration, including single-paddle keys – like Ulis K3LU testifies to.

  • Mauri IZ2MGN:

    well, first of all im a cw enthusiast,so i often use various keys. But ive don my home brew single lever paddle in this days, and what i can say is that’s a lot of fun!

    73 mauri

  • John W2HUV:

    I started using a Vibroplex semi-automatic key or “bug” back in about 1956 as W7WFJ. I switched to a Vibroplex Vibreo Keyer and an Autronic electronic keyer in about 1962. The transistion from a Vibroplex bug to a Viborplex Vibro Keyer was smooth due to the exact same “feel”. I heard of dual-paddle keys, but was never tempted to make the switch. Believe it or not, I can breakout the same combo today and use it like I did over 50 yeaers ago! Yes, the Autronic keyer still works!

  • KC2SIZ:

    I learned on an iambic, but eventually switched to a single lever paddle. It just felt “better” to me, I made fewer mistakes, and I’ve never looked back. But to each his own.

  • Sverre LA3ZA:

    Surprised that comments are still coming here! If you have a Google+ accounts, then my ‘real’ blog is a place where I will discover comments immediately and can respond to them: http://la3za.blogspot.no/2013/06/the-advantage-of-single-lever-paddle.html

  • BOB LECH AF2Q:

    I have used a dual paddle for many years and also different brands.
    However I regreat selling my older Ten-Tec single lever KR-20-A electronic keyer.
    It had a reed relay in it and that baby was smooth.
    Sure like to get the vibroplex but at $ 220.00+ shipping is a bit hard on me.
    I think a home brew single leaver would work out fine with the very small PICO keyer that has the speed pot on it.
    BOB AF2Q

  • Pete Shaw N4KXG:

    At 81 years of age I started using iambic keying and seemed to be going well.
    However, at slower speeds I noticed many mistakes and seemed to be going no further in accuracy.
    My major stumbling block is probably the same as many oprs, frequently hitting wrong paddle first and getting an R for a K and vice versa!
    I notice working stations, I hear the same thing at times from them and right away know iambic is being used.
    So, think I will try a good quality single paddle.( I have a Kent single, but not sure if that will do the job fast enough. I am up to 35+ WPM now.
    Will try that for qrq and see how it works out.
    73 Pete N4KXG

  • Paul Danilchik NT7U:

    KC2SIZ mentioned making “fewer mistakes”. Maybe that is why the high-speed folks like the single-lever? I find that a good number of the mistakes that I make on the dual-paddles are due to not releasing the finger (or thumb) on the opposing paddle in time and then I get a tailing dit or dah that was unintended. As well, perhaps sometimes I accidentally bang the opposite while pressing the intended side. Regardless, one can’t do that with a single paddle so the error rate may be less!

    Thanks for the nice writeup, Sverre. 73, Paul NT7U

  • Nolan Kienitz - KI5IO:

    Good reading Sverre. I’m mostly SK with some iambic, but am considering a SL paddle, but need to do some more trial runs first.

  • Bob Boyle VA3IF:

    I’ve been exclusively CW op since 1982. I always used iambic paddle until about 10 yrs ago, I ordered a plain Jane Vibrokeyer on a whim. I was sent the deluxe (chrome) Vibroplex bug by mistake. I figured, “what the heck…. try it before sending it back”. Well, I never sent it back.. After a week of practice, I found that I loved using the the bug. I never use the iambic paddle. Only single lever models (in semi automatic mode) and bugs for me. I think it’s more fun to send the dahs manually… it’s as if I’m really ‘doing something’ that requires a bit of skill to acquire a fist. That’s my two cents, anyway.
    So,e great comments here… tnx es 73

  • Bruce Prior N7RR:

    There is a huge difference between using a high-quality paddle and a so-so one. The finest single-lever paddle I know of is the Begali Scupture Mono, and the best dual-lever one that I’ve operated is the Begali Stradivarius with its torsion-blade suspension. An excellent paddle which can switch between dual-lever and single-lever modes is the Begali Leonessa. Some people claim that the Leonessa is the best Begali paddle. It is actually more difficult to manufacture a high-quality single-lever paddle than a dual-lever one because of the need for the paddle to return to a properly-centered neutral position. 73, Bruce N7RR

  • Horacio Falciglia:

    Excellent job you do for getting is this important teaching tool. I am 77. A ham since 1956. Proficient withthe straight key now old age i want to learn single level paddle. Horacio KA8TVY

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