Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The N3ZN Ironman

This is without a doubt the finest Morse code instrument I have ever laid a finger and thumb on during my short time in amateur radio.  It should be fairly evident based on the ham radio content of this blog that I love all things Morse code related.  In particular I am fascinated by the the little switch mechanisms we radiotelegraphers use to generate our dits and dahs.

This iambic paddle dubbed the "Ironman" is a new color scheme for the ZN-9A series paddles custom made by Tony Baleno, N3ZN of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  I had been looking at his website in the past and after some time had gone by I went back for another peek at Tony's amazing creations.  Upon opening the updated home page I was captivated by the stunning image I beheld.  Stainless steel, carbon fiber, machined aluminum and a handsome gray textured finish combined in perfect measure with a cool name too.

In short order we had exchanged a couple emails and the deal was done.  Luckily there was just enough time to fill my order before production was suspended allowing time for Tony to prepare for the upcoming Dayton Hamfest. 

A project of mine that has paralleled the development of my Morse code sending and receiving skills is a study of the evolution of the equipment used in Morse code operation.  From my first shaky cw contact using a simple straight key I built my confidence and month by month increased my speed.  As my abilities expanded I played around with single lever paddles, built a Sideswiper  and learned how to use a Vibroplex bug.  This past Christmas I blogged about my first dual paddle key, the Vibroplex Iambic.  Although I am a fan of the Vibroplex Company and its century old heritage I wanted to experience the culmination of 200 years of Morse code key development.  After all the Vibroplex Iambic is a design over 30 years old.  It has been quite a journey these past two years.  One part immersing myself in historical study of the code and its associated equipment and another part actual hands on practice using various keys in my amateur radio pursuits.  Often I lament how lucky we radio amateurs are today to have such a varied and interesting choice of data entry vehicles at our fingertips.  My ubiquitous qwerty keyboard has nowhere near the class of these Morse instruments past and present.

Click the image for a closer view and check out the fine threads on the 10-56 contact adjustment screws.  Very precise contact spacing can be attained allowing for high speed operation.  I have the spacing set at .0015" Tight!  Another feature of the ZN-9A not found on any of my other keys is magnetic lever return which is adjustable by screwing the knurled knobs in and out.  This along with sealed cartridge bearings at both the top and bottom of the low mass lever arm trunnions is a sure fire recipe for high speed precision.

I now have six contacts in the log using the Ironman for a total of about an hour and a half of actual on-air sending and I am seriously happy with this key.  During the last two contacts I had the electronic keyer set at 20 words per minutes and sending was effortless.  I have to really concentrate on leaving small spaces between characters so my code is legible and not run together and hard to copy.  The ZN-9A just begs to go fast.  I look forward to continuing to develop my copying ability and I am confident the Ironman will easily do its part pushing the speed envelope.


  1. It's a beauty just to look at. I can only imagine how it sounds. I guess though for mow, this Arizona Ham can only continue Dreamin.

  2. Nice review, and I concur that this is a fine instrument. One niggling item: remember that the word "it's" - with an apostrophe - ALWAYS means "it is" or "it has." Used possessively as above in several instances, "its" never takes an apostrophe. ^_^

    You might test a capacitive touch paddle as well, perhaps from Different concept. Personally, I prefer the ZN-9A.

  3. Keep an eye out on this blog for a review of Tony's new straight key due out late summer or fall of 2012.

    I can't wait to get my hands on it!

  4. I just listened to a couple of videos of N3ZN keyers on YouTube... each video made the key clicking sound loud and, to me, annoying. Is this the case or was the video just amplifying the contact clicking noise. I have a Bencher key and I don't notice any clicking noise like that.

  5. What's the spacing on the outer-to-outer (OTO) surfaces of the two paddles pictured here? I see that one may order any N3ZN iambic key with a choice of several OTO spacings. Tony says that 3/4" OTO spacing is "standard."

    So, would you or anyone else here be able to recommend a N3ZN key for someone with large hands how enjoys QRQ? Is the 3/4" a good apacing for large hands or is that just a matter of personal preference? This some of these keys are taller than others, too, but there's not much mention of that on the web site.

  6. I just went down to the shack and measured the OTO dimension of my paddle. It is 3/4" and works fine for me. I think it is largely a matter of personal preference as to the spacing of the finger pieces. My Vibroplex Iambics seem to be a bit closer together but they are put away at the moment.

    As far as height goes to accomodate a larger hand you could always find some taller rubber feet for the bottom. But I think any of Tony's keys would work fine even with big hands.

    Yes the ZN-9A does click pretty good when actuated. I usually operate full break in so the relays in the rig are clacking away so I don't notice it during actual QSOs. Even with the side tone beeps I don't find the clicks objectionable.

    One last thing I wouldn't hesitate to email Tony with specific questions about his paddles. He's a great guy to deal with.

  7. Thanks a lot for the info and comments - well taken! I did email Tony and he is recommending the ZN-5 in bronze... pretty cool key and I think I'll take his recommendation... what do you think? BTW - he's a bit backed up in production, so it's going to be approximately 6 weeks to delivery! I operate full break in, too, but I don't usually hear any local qrm with the headphones on. :-)

  8. I checked out the ZN-5. That is a beauty and with that massive base it will stay put. I find myself holding the base of the Ironman with my left hand when I'm sending because I'll get excited and start moving it around the table. That's not a fault of the key but me because I'm used to the Vibroplex which of course you can be heavy handed with. I like to increase the magnetic resistance on the Ironman for a similar feel. Really I think the N3ZN keys are designed for high speed with the lightest resistance and closest gap spacing but still I fell in love with the fine feel and precision of the machine.

    I say go for it 6 weeks is nothing! I've been waiting on the straight key since early spring now. If you pull the trigger on the ZN-5 be sure to come back and tell me how you like it.


  9. Will do, Mike... I'm sure I'm going to love it, but I'll come back and tell you for sure. I have a fly-weight Bencher key now that I've never slapped, but I can't wait to retire it.

    Best, John, K4BR

  10. Perhaps your keyer electronics need to be upgraded if you can occasionally leave too little space between characters. Character spacing is typically not provided by the basic keying logic in transceivers. My Icom and Yaesu radios don't provide it. I suggest the Idiom Press/Logikey keyers as they do include character spacing and are very tolerant of slight paddle timing errors. If you are a cw enthusiast, you will appreciate the different.
    73 de Andrew VK1DA

  11. Hello Andrew, Thanks for the comment. Yes I do run a Logikey K-5 and I agree it is a great piece of equipment. The K-5 probably fixes my little errors in spacing and I am just worrying over nothing. If I'm not using a straight key or bug the K-5 is always in line.

  12. I love N3ZN keys, I currently own two: the ZN-5 and ZN-QRP, and both are excellent!