Sunday, October 30, 2016

Book review: "How to Restore Telegraph Keys"

I received my much anticipated copy of W.R. "Bill" Smith's (W4PAL-SK) book last week and wasted no time in reading it from cover to cover. During that time, I also received my 1944 Vibroplex Champion and a 1914 Vibroplex Blue Racer. I had them both in mind as I read this book.

A wealth of information is contained within this 105-page book and it is significant that Bill spent many decades as a clockmaker. Techniques, tools, chemicals and procedures for dealing with metal, various platings, removal of such platings are all dealt with and fascinating to read about. I never knew about the uses of boxwood sawdust, ground walnut-shell sandblasting or of japanning (for the time being, japan is now a verb!), home scale nickel plating or even electrolysis for rust removal.

Several topics led me to search YouTube where I found many videos demonstrating just how effectively rust can be removed using a simple procedure and inexpensive supplies we probably already have at home.

Another procedure deals with how to remove a screw that has broken off in the base of a key without risk damaging the surrounding metal that might come from drilling. Also discussed are types of sandpaper, emory cloth, glass brushes and other abrasives and their usage as they relate to particular types of metals.

This info is contained within the first four chapters. Chapter 5 is about making from scratch whatever part may be missing from a Vibroplex bug. Springs, levers, weights, mainframes, etc - all territory of a seasoned machinist but quite interesting for the layman to read nonetheless. The book is heavily illustrated with color photos and sources are provided for all chemicals and tools.

Chapter 7 is mostly descriptions and photos of specific restorations of various types of semi-automatic keys from Vibroplex and other manufacturers.

Chapter 8 decribes various keys of different designs made by the author including a set of paddles made as a course project 70 years ago. Also, a vertical bug and another bug that uses magnets instead of springs to operate the action.

As I mentioned, much of what is in the book does not apply to the level of work I need to give to my particular keys, which is good because a good deal of the book's final chapters are far beyond my skill level. But reading about these techniques makes me appreciate the craftsmanship required by those who do this kind of work. We live in a technological age and are engaged in a hobby that innundates us with techno jargon such as receiver specs, transmitter spectrum, antenna characteristics and the like - to read something of a mechanical nature that requires the use of both the hands and the mind was a breath of fresh air.

My 1944 bug is entirely operational and sends great code. Its only weak point at the moment is the sender (me!) but I'm starting to get the feel of it. There is a tiny bit of rust and I only want to clean the bug up a bit. The 1914 bug looks good also but I expect to be re-japanning the base at some point and perhaps re-nickel plating the hardware. It is good to read about these procedures and see them illustrated. I'm looking forward to the process over the coming winter months.

My 1944 Champion, as received, before disassembly and cleaning:



  1. John... wonderful. I watched the video this morning. and said, "Hey, maybe I should get out my old bug. I hooked it up and had a QSO with it after several years of sitting idle. When I saw/heard you sending, I thought, "Heck... I can do that." Had a nice QSO and the other guy could actually copy. Thanks OM. Jim W1PID

    1. Good morning Jim - we have em, we might as well use them, right?! Check out this event coming in a few weeks:

      We'll probably hear lots of classic bugs and some very "musical CW" to put it politely ;-)

      I'll be using my 1914 Blue Racer.