Using A Cheap Handheld Radio As A Morse Transceiver

Both grizzled hams and potential future amateur radio operators are well-served by the market these days. Powerful and capable UHF and VHF handheld transceivers can now be had for well under $100, something unimaginable as recently as 20 years ago. Of course, a major part of the amateur radio scene used to be Morse code. Not to worry though, you can do that with a handheld, too!

The setup is simple but effective. A Morse code training unit generates tones in response to input from a Morse keyer. This audio is passed into the headset port of a Baofeng handheld transmitter. A toggle switch is wired up to the Push-To-Transmit circuit of the Baofeng to trigger transmission when required.

It’s a little different from the more typical constant-wave transmission methods that are so seldom used nowadays, but it gets the job done. Morse code has always been appreciated in situations where voice transmission is difficult due to low bandwidth or interference, and now it’s easy for new hams to give it a try.

Morse code can be a trial to learn, but spare a thought for the folks who had to pick it up back in 1939. Video after the break.

36 thoughts on “Using A Cheap Handheld Radio As A Morse Transceiver

  1. The Ultra PicoKeyer kit does this kind of thing well (as well as being a fine general-purpose memory keyer). It has a mode where you can feed its key closure output to the PTT input of a radio, and feed the keyer’s audio into the radio’s microphone input. It will automatically hold the PTT closed while you’re sending letters, and for a little while afterwards, saving you the trouble of flipping a switch to go between transmit and receive modes. Just hit your key to start sending, and stop manipulating the key to have the radio switch to receive mode. It’s available from HamGadgets, which his easy enough to find via your favorite search engine. I have no affiliation, except as a customer. It’s a simple kit to solder together in an evening.

    My local ham radio club had a group of Morse Code learners, and we tossed around the idea of using 2 meter FM for scheduled code practice sessions. But we eventually dropped the FM idea and got together for scheduled practice on 40m, using conventional CW. We weren’t quite within good FM range, and everyone in our group who was learning code was doing so with the goal of getting on HF, Everyone managed to scrape up some sort of 40m CW rig, even if it was only a 5W QRP rig into a simple wire antenna. For some early practice sessions, some of us used 2m FM voice via a repeater to talk about things when our CW communications skills were insufficient, but we fairly quickly lost the need for voice backup.

    I encourage anyone so inclined to learn Morse. If you can find a local ham or two to coach you through the process, so much the better, but any way you do it, the important thing is to put in consistent daily practice, sustained over time. And have fun!


    1. Has anyone connected the Ultra PicoKeyer to a Baofeng 1801, or any other digital-capable handheld? If so, would you tell me how I can do it? I want to be able to send CW via hotspot.

  2. Here we go again – the ‘wonderfully inexpensive’ hobby of amateur radio. That Baofeng may run you $30, but you’ll pay more than an extra 100 times that in your first year, before you can use it to rattle electrons legally, in many “overly extortionate” countries.

    1. – Citation Needed.

      Bitx40 and a simple antenna can be done for $100 or less if you’re experienced with electronics, and $150 or less if you need to go buy stuff and learn how to solder. Ham radio is as expensive or cheap as you want it to be.

    2. I have paid 3 euros for renewing my license for another few years the last time. If you have to do the exam, it is about 20 bucks. Hardly “100 times more”.

      A cheap HF station (not an FM walkietalkie like that Baofeng) can be built for peanuts from various scrap material and scavenged components – a wonderful way to learn both electronics, basics of radio and general engineering. A cheap Realtek TV dongle and a Raspberry Pi (or PC) gets you a pretty decent SDR receiver.

      You really don’t need a $1000+ ICOM or Yaesu to get started with the hobby, especially if you want to actually do more than just talk to other people (which is fine but some people actually do prefer to build stuff and learn things – you don’t learn much from operating a “box” radio).

      Someone doesn’t know what they are talking about, methinks.

    3. M, you commented similarly to Dan Maloney’s recent post. Pray tell, what country do you live in, where obtaining the license itself is expensive, and will cost you over $3000 in the firstyear? I mean, I’m sorry that that is the case, but we aren’t all going to stop doing fun things because it’s too expensive somewhere else. I’ve had my license for about 2.5 years now, and haven’t spent anywhere near $3000 yet, total. Please stop saying “in many countries” without backing up this claim with examples.

      1. Heck, I’ve had my license for 12 years and haven’t spent $3000 on the hobby yet.
        Almost all of the radios I’ve owned were purchased used for very little money, found at a ham fest for very little money, or given to me outright.
        One simply doesn’t need to spend a fortune to get going in ham radio, at least not here in the US.

    4. Just a thought regarding costs… here in Australia (VK) the initial set up costs are rather expensive. It can be done cheaply, but not without certain caveats that I found restrictive. For example, when I got my licence (all in AUD):

      $70 – Regulations Exam
      $70 – Practical Exam
      $70 – Standard Theory Exam
      $70 – Advanced Theory Exam (because I got sick of not being able to use 160 m or 6 m after a couple months when that’s where most of my experiments are to be done)
      $53 – Initial Licence Fee (paid yearly)
      $20 – Callsign recommendation
      $35 – Club membership

      Which amounts to $388 AUD, and I hadn’t even purchased the equipment. The much cheaper way is to go for a Foundation licence, which bundles the exams into one, but the terms are so restrictive as to prevent more experimental operations involving digital modes, higher power, etc.

      I then purchased a Baofeng (about $45 to purchase in Australia) and a dinged-up Yaesu FT-901D (about $250) which I needed to align myself. Then all the antenna components, tuner components and metering… probably about $200. That’s all second hand and DIY stuff. Higher power (legal limit in VK is about 400 W PEP) is typical due to our low population density.

      The costs have recently gone up considerably due to a change in examination body, so the exams are now about $90 each from memory. Some people have cottoned on to the fact that an amateur in Australia can get a US licence for about $22 and use (albeit awkwardly) the reciprocal licence agreement to gain cheap operating privileges. Cottoned on to the point where people are running businesses to supply US examinations to would-be Aussie hams, which I suspect may be beginning to rouse the regulatory bodies.

      I’m not sure what it’s like in other parts of the world, but there are basically two demographics in the VK scene – men over 50 and under 20. If you’re over 50, chances are you’re involved in amateur radio as a leisure pursuit or you’re an old-school operator who got started transmitting on C42 sets and other converted military radios in the 1960s or 1970s and have kept your licence up to the present day. If you’re under 20, you’re a teenager living with family who has a bit of an allowance and time after school to work on your hobby. There’s a noticeable absence of people my age (20s). This is partly due to the considerable financial input, when at the same time we’re trying to study full time, work part time and often pay rent. This is a shame, because I think this is a peak period to get involved in technical hobbies (also I have no one to talk to).

      More on-topic, this is a form of MCW, which is interesting but not particularly functional on FM, unless you’re training yourself or using it as a repeater ident. Much more interesting to go the other way and do FM propagation experiments on 160 m (which we can do in Australia! One of the perks despite the aforementioned expense and lower power limits).

      1. Thank you for an interesting and informative look into Australia’sham radio environment. We sometimes forget that hobby costs can vary wildly from country to country.

    5. In Denmark (And the rest of EU i believe) you only need a B-license, which is kinda easy (Learn the phonetic alphabet and simple stuff about electronics and radios, which you probably already know if you’re into this stuff), and costs 588 kr, which is just below 80 euros, which will get you both a license and call-sign and you can legally transmit up to 100w on the common frequencies.

  3. Issues of the magazine 73 amateur radio can be found online, along with an article index. I recall one project was an audio oscillator made for just this application. The FCC has an emission designator for this sort operation, but I’d die if my life depended on remembering it now. One thing to keep in mid is, even at slow sending speed this could be a fairly high duty cycle for lightweight FM transmitters Play like an experienced blacksmith/ welder and use the back of your can to to judge how hot the transmitter heat sink is getting.. o matter how hard the man tried not to use CW inappropriately, he managed to do so anyway, LOL, something I’d be certain to do.

    1. Well, sending Morse Code by way of an FM transmitter will certainly not tax the transmitter any more than sending speech. The average power remains the same, and it’s not at all unusual to hear people gabbing for two or three minutes straight on 2 m and 70 cm bands, on extremely cheap transceivers. Most people won’t send Morse for any longer than that (continuously) anyway. Hand fatigue will limit this quicker than jaw fatigue typically does.

      As for using the back of my “can” to judge transmitter temperature, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work. I’m often sitting on it while transmitting, and would balk at having to stand up just to check a temperature.

  4. The problem with this way of sending Morse code is that it completely missing the point of why Morse is used.

    a) Nobody uses Morse on UHF/VHF, because given the bandwidth required for the FM modulation these radios use you can as well transmit voice. There is literally no point. You will still need what is effectively a line of sight to be able to communicate, regardless of whether you are sending beeps into the input or actual speech. (yes, I know you can do a few hundreds of km if you get lucky with tropospheric ducting or the sporadic E layer, but that’s beside the point).

    b) CW (the “normal” Morse) is still very much used by HAMs, but on HF bands (i.e. 30MHz and below). There it makes a lot of sense because the bandwidth required for a single SSB/narrow band FM station can accommodate 10 CW ones. Which matters a lot when the conditions are bad or when working in one of the narrow bands – e.g. 40m which is only 200kHz wide, so would accommodate only about 13 NFM stations but can handled thousands when using CW or one of the newer narrow band digital modes like PSK31. Furthermore, with the same output power the narrow band transmitter will have better “reach” – the same energy is concentrated into a smaller band of frequencies, so you can have very selective receivers and isolate the wanted signal from the noise/interference better.

    Finally, CW has the advantage that both the transmitters and receivers can be very very simple (and thus amenable to be constructed by beginners and cheaply) – using something like this and a good antenna you can communicate with the entire world:

    The BitX transciever has also been mentioned already.

    1. Yes,Modulatedd CW. Is not efficient. But it has it’s use. If you’ve got no shortwave receiver it let’s you received morse practice, or to practice two way. Most VHF gear doesn’t do cw.

      Go back fifty years and the US novice license, can only had a 2M allocation, and mcw was allowed, to practice code.


    2. I believe MCW over VHF was used as a means to practice back when one had to pass a morse test to get on HF period. Not an issue these days (in the US at least) but it can still be done.

    1. It did mean Continuous Wave, back in the days when that term was required in order to distinguish those transmissions from the damped waves produced by spark gap transmitters. Virtually all of our transmitters these days transmit continuous waves, that is, waves that can be sustained for as long as we want them to be sustained, rather than showing the exponential decay characteristic of discharging a capacitor through a load.

      So that original meaning of CW is rarely used these days.

      The FCC Rules, Part 97.3(c)(1) defines CW as “International Morse Code Telegraphy Emissions …”

      In casual conversation among hams these days, CW usually means “Morse Code”, normally transmitted as a carrier that is switched on and off.

  5. Here it is quite cheap, 25€ per year. For the simple licenses you need a practical test, but for the most advanced one it is only theory (I would expect the other way around, but this is better for me :) )

    1. Thankfully type-approval goes out the window here in VK as long as you have a Standard or Advanced licence. They figure that if you can use home-built gear on the ham bands, you can use anything. Thus, Baofengs and the like are very popular, if not as cheap as in the US. Ex-commercial FM rigs (e.g. Philips, Simoco, Motorola, AWA, etc.) are very commonly put in service on 2 m and 70 cm. In fact, my entire station is based around these.

      Of course, it’s up to you (as with any equipment operated under an amateur licence) to ensure that they don’t cause interference or end up being misused.

      1. Sorry, I don’t know where “VK” is, and Google is no help. Here in the U.S., you are responsible for ensuring not only that you don’t interfere with other services, but also that your transmitter doesn’t generate spurious signals above specific limits, and this is where the Baofengs fail. This is regardless of your license level. Importing is a whole separate issue – an importer can only bring type-accepted transmitters into the country, and the government has warned that they will be cracking down on non-conforming radios any day now.

        1. VK = Australia. Sorry, we have a habit of referring to each state by the callsign prefix (e.g. Queensland = VK4, Tasmania = VK7) and the operating area as a whole as VK.

          The Baofengs we’ve been using have been practically useable. I understand there’s some variation and counterfeits and whatnot. The spurious emission performance of the transmitter stages in these things is not great, and the receiver frontend is easily overloaded by pager transmissions. I suspect they’re supremely worse than the -70 db spurii requirement set by the ACMA (our equivalent of the FCC) but then, we’re somewhat lucky in the that the gap between the letter of the law and the application of the law is wide enough to have fun in whilst also protecting critical emergency services…

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