Chasing QSL cards
A pleasant back office activity
When an amateur radio establishes a contact with another station and has confirmed the QSO or when a SWL heard an amateur in QSO or a broadcast, he or she usually exchanges each another a report called a QSL card. This document is a receipt or better defined an acknowledge of the QSO or the listening.
Since the begins of radio, all radio amateurs and listeners, that they are novices or Old Timers will tell you that collecting QSLs is always a pleasure. For some amateurs a QSL can be considered as a collector item and kept as it in a large binder for the pleasure of his owner's eyes. Others will stick it up to the wall or on the ceiling of their hamshack.
In this article we will review how to make QSL cards, what information can we find on these cards, how to fill them out, how to exchange them, and at last what value must we attach to these cards.
What information to mention on a QSL card ?
Once say that an image is worth thousand words... Indeed. Instead of listing all data to mention on a QSL card, begin to click on the image displayed below to get an idea of the kind of information listed on a QSL.
Some licensed amateurs think that the QSL sent by an SWL requests a special "listening" QSL and therefore some radio amateurs do not send back their QSL, in violation with the ham spirit.... Because they are wrong !
A licensed amateur radio can simply send to a SWL the usual QSL card in changing the next sentences usually found on any QSL :
- The sentence "confirming our QSO" must be replaced with "confirming your report"
- The "RST" column can be crossed out as there was no transmission
- The SWL card has to list the callsigns of both licensed hams in QSO
- If there is mention of a "2-way contact", replace it with "listening" or "one-way".
All other data have to be taken into account as there have for an ordinary QSO between amateurs.
Where to print QSL cards ?
There are several solutions : the first is to print yourself your QSLs using a personal computer running a dedicated software or even a graphic tool and a quality printer, inkjet or laser. Up to you to find the adequate vellum paper or glossy support and to cut it at good sizing, 140x90mm (one provider is HamStuff). However this cheap solution has been choosen by a very small fraction of amateurs, most of the time for regular portable operations (activity in lighthouses, castels, islands, etc).
The second solution, the most spread too, consists to entrust this job to a specialized company. Indeed, compared to an ordinary printshop their price is usually 4 times cheaper, and they know exactly what are your needs as they are themselves radio amateurs ! Note that QSLs printed for big DX-peditions are usually sponsored by manufacturers (Kenwood, Icom, Yaesu and co). That means that if you are not associated to such events or regularly abroad and working like a DX-pedition, you have no chance to get your QSL cards for free.
So amateurs and listeners have to find dedicated printshops. In Western Europe IT9EJW and IK1PML are among the most obliging printers, providing a good service. For your information, to print 1500 4-color QSL cards, 2-sides, customized, on opaque glossy paper, 14x9 cm, plasticized, prices are ranging between 140-180€ charges included (the price decreasing with quantity). There are of course tens of other printers, located in Eastern Europe, in Russia, in Japan, in Brasil, in Canada, or in the U.S.A. if you want.
Other QSL shops considered as cheap for low quantities ($10 at Cheap QSLs to print 100 QSLs 2 colors, one side) become much expensive with larger volumes ($140 to print 1500 two-color QSLs, one side).
At last, even in Europe some german printers print at low cost (100€ for 1000 QSLs) but you have sometimes to add some extra costs (20%) and they are unable to correct your draft images (reduce the contrast, add texture on fonts, redraw your logo in 300 dpi, etc). So make the good choice !
Most printshops accept also to work from your documents (drawing and pictures that you send them by email or by post). One constraint, these documents must be sent in high resolution (300 dpi), uncompressed and well balanced to ensure a quality printout.
What's the matter once your documents are sent to the printer ? After each processing the printer will send you a draft for appreciation until you give him your Go for printing. The usual delay between your order and the delivering is about 2 months for a custom work. Note that sending 10000 QSLs by post (410€ to IK1PML) represents a package of about 30 kg, 70x50x30cm wide !
The referenced printshops can also provide you a large collection of samples. The usual format is a 140x90mm vellum bristol, its weight is between 150-250 gr/m2, bicolored or in 4 colors, plastified at extra charge and looking to postcards, with optionally a flap (double length). Conversely nothing prevent you of printing cheaper QSLs (<100€ for 1500 QSLs to IT9EJW), in choosing a grayscale or bicolored printout and to print your QSO information on only one side of the QSL.
How and where to exchange QSL cards ?
Most amateurs and listeners are members of the nearest amateur radio club through which they can exchange their QSLs "via bureau" as one say (also written "buro"), free of charge. In fact members must only pay an annual fee (25-40€) to their national radio association that offers them in exchange various services : information and technical support, the QSL service via bureau and the monthly magazine.
How works the QSLs exchange ? Let's take my case. I pay yearly my subscription to UBA, the main Belgian amateur radio association, member of IARU. Its function is to ensure the QSL service among other things as I have just explained. I am also member of the ON6RN radio club located at Namur. This local radio club receives grants from UBA in proportion to the number of his members. This budget allows the club to purchase some radio equipment, magazines like QST or to develop activities (Field Day, etc).
Once a month (or each week in large radio clubs like in Brussels-city) active members of these radio clubs gather at the meeting point and give their QSLs to the manager before the meeting begins. These QSLs are then sorted and managers from all Belgian radio clubs send their QSLs to the UBA central bureau that gathers all QSLs for Belgium. From there these thousands QSLs are sent on a palette to an international distribution center that sorts QSLs for several countries (ON, DL, LX, etc) and forward them abroad by post to their destination. In the meantime QSLs sent by other amateurs to my intention follow the same way but in the other direction. Once they arrive by post in Belgium they are deposited at UBA central bureau where a QSL manager forward them to my radio club, ON6RN (hence the necessity for UBA to get updated lists of all members) where I will find my new QSLs at the next meeting. The loop is closed.
Of course such a service is not available to exchange QSLs with radio broadcasts or with countries or stations that are not affiliated to associations member of IARU (check with this DXCC file if there is a bureau in that country). In such cases, the amateur or the listener must manage alone his QSL service : he must send his QSL direct using the usual postal service with the constraint of paying all charges to ensure the return. Advantage, QSLing direct you will exceed 99.5% of return of your QSLs, the 0.5% remaining being related to pirate stations. But learn what is the really life of these small cards in reading QSL and green stamps. In several circumstances this is the only way to get the small card so covetted.
Minus side, today, for so-called financial reasons some radio broadcasts do no more send QSL to name e.g. the BBC but hopefully most broadcasts continue to ensure this service for the satisfaction of all listeners.
Questioning amateurs and SWLs in radio clubs, it appears that QSLing is one of the favorite "backoffice" activities of our hobby. If working a DX station, a satellite contact or a rare broadcast is exciting, receiving his or her QSL gives you the ultimate proof you worked or heard well that station and that you don't lose your time working a pirate station, Hi ! If this postcard displaying sometimes vivid colors comes from the other side of the Earth, there is a good reason to stick it on your wall, near your other "most wanted QSLs" and your latest awards !
If a radio club can help novices in organizing trainings or mutually sharing experience, such an association manages also meetings, contests and, without additional charges, the QSL service via bureau. Consisting in managing the QSL mailing to worldwide amateurs and distributing locally the ones received, this is also the most wanted service by amateurs... So I would like to honor here the long run co-operation and devotion of all QSL managers. You make a great job fellows, congratulations ! Keep up the good job !
Negative side, there are always amateurs who do not return their QSL, mainly to SWLs. Some, like W9DC, argues that he has experimented troubles with SWLs and he only return his QSL if the listener lists at least 3 QSOs. Others simply do not answer to SWLs... These segregations do not reflect the ham spirit, whatever the reason. It is always possible that some OMs are ragchewing on the bands for a long period and work only one station. This SWL can also encounter difficulties in listening some DX stations and work hard to capture correctly the callsign. Remember that SWLs have no possibility to request their correspondent to repeat their callsign..., and therefore when they are sure to get it, they will be very happy to get the QSL in exchange. As OM or YL, if you respect the ham spirit each QSO confirmed has to be acknowledged with a QSL.
They are some exceptions. To get some awards, e.g. the IOTA, the award manager will request that SWLs list two or three stations for each island heard. So SWLs, take care when you listen these islands and record well three stations if you want to get this award.
The value attached to QSLs
The fact of chasing "pretty" QSL and paying maybe less attention to the usual bristol model could be interpreted by some amateurs as a deny to consider QSL as an acknowledge for a worked or listened QSO or worse as a reaction against the ham spirit. On the contrary, I think that amateurs and SWLs chasing polychromes QSL printed like postcards are sometimes the same who chase awards without the least discrimination. They like QSLs for what their represent, a QSO confirmation but in parallel they also appreciate to collect the most beautiful ones like "collector items". I think that there is nothing abnormal in this attitude as long as the concerned amateur does not refuse a QSL for a simple question of quality. The ham spirit has to be preserved !
However, not all amateurs consider their QSL as "collector items" and therefore most will send you the usual vellum bristol card even if everybody is agree to consider that it is more pleasant to receive a polychrome QSL, HI ! In practice, excepting amateurs having some money left or accepting to dedicate a budget to their QSLs, only amateurs well-off and DX-peditions can offer you a chance to get some colorful QSL printed like postcards. However, after 25 years of practice, I note that QSLs tend to be of better quality than before.
Anyway, any QSL is welcome as the final objective is to get the confirmation of a QSO, and still more knowing that all QSLs whatever their quality count for an entity or optionally for awards... So do QSL, is it cheap or reflecting the luxury - or the good taste will say gossip - of his or her sender. I guess that age and experience will change the attitude of chasers but is it really necessary ? As some do collect stamps or postcards, others collect QSL cards.
However don't mislead my ideas. I think that many QSL chasers will agree that it is by far more useful to receive a bristol QSL printed in 2-colors from Solomon island, Tanzania or Ghana to name some poor countries when we know that these OMs invested their money is some more valuable activity, like humanitarian needs or educational projects. In that perspective the standing of our hobby becomes a minor problem.
These remarks end this short review of QSLing. We will come back on QSLs with more details when we will speak about the cost of this activity and the route that they are suppose to follow to reach their destinee in QSL and green stamps.