I’m sure everyone knows what a keyboard is.
Vanilla computer keyboards, POS keyboards, keyboard on phone (QWERTY ones), even virtual keyboards.
I’ve been lurking around a certain subreddit called r/mk.
MK is Mechanical Keyboard in short, not Mortal Kombat and surely not Mario Kart (both has its own subreddit though)
So. What’s hot about this… Mechanical Keyboards you ask ? Well, they use a special switch that is… Well, mechanical.
Most generic keyboards provided in offices (I’m talking about Logitech’s K120. It’s not bad.) uses rubber dome stuff, which produces somehow kicky feeling when you type.
Right. So I’ve been lurking for around half a year. Most of the new posts are people showing off their new keyboards, be it their first( well, there’s a lot of lurkers or so they claim) keyboards, new keycap sets, artisan keycaps, jokes, etc. And oh, lots of hate for gaming brand stuff here. So if you want to ask which gaming brand keyboard is best for you, don’t do it there. Unless you want Coolermaster / Ducky stuff. If you do, post there.
Enough about gaming grade stuff. As I’ve said before, there’s a thing called custom keyboard. What’s a custom keyboard ? Well, in a nutshell, you do everything yourself instead of buying a prepacked product. That contains, but not limited to :
1. Designing your keyboard layout
2. Producing your own plate for mounting the switches
3. Programming your own layout and flash it to the controller (and decide whether you want bling-bling or not)
4. Choosing (and buying) switches
5. Soldering switches and PCB (or wires)
6. Getting a case
Those steps sound difficult ? Yes, and no. It’s more like lots of stuff to learn. This is what I did :
1. Designing keyboard layout
First we need to identify what are size and layout. Size is simply the number of keys on the board. This varies depending on the product, however the most “normal” boards are Full Size (108 kyes) and TKL (87-ish) keys which lacks the number pad of the full size. However, keyboard size is not pinned down to those two templates. We even have 60% layout, which simply consists of keys from the leftmost part of the board up to the keys on the same column as enter. And no function keys.
Here’s some images for visualization :
Full Size Keyboard
84 Keys Keyboard (This is Keycool84 keyboard’s layout, but my point is that layouts aren’t really limited to templates)
Which one is the best ? Well, that depends on your use case, really. Some people would even dive to compactness with 40% keyboards. It’s essentially a 60% layout without the number row. Don’t ask me how it works. I’m still trying to figure out myself. Maybe I’ll try getting one. The point of compact keyboard are having “layers”. Basically It’s like shift + alphabet / number row combo. For example, fn+1 would trigger F1. But unlike generic shift + alphabet combo, pressing fn + button x on one keyboard does not guarantee same result with other board. It depends on the manufacturer (in case if it’s a custom one it’s up to you on the flashing step).
After deciding on a layout, It’s time to realize your dreams ! Start designing your keyboard case with your favorite CAD! Eh what ? You have near zero experience with CADs ? NO MATTER ! The community of Mechanical Keyboards is so wonderful they provide nice tools for us peasants.
Keyboard Layout Editor (KLE)
Meet http://www.keyboard-layout-editor.com/. This site simply allows you to “visualize” your dream keyboard layout. You can set the size of each keys and their position, and place them to your heart’s content to create your own ultimate keyboard.
After you have decided on your layout, Click the </>Raw Data tab. There, you’ll find a textarea with magical text. Copy it, save it somewhere safe. The site does not save anything so if you accidentally closed your tab, your ultimate layout would be gone. Or just simply click “Download JSON” button below the textarea. (We will refer the text in the text area as “JSON text” from now on)
The JSON text is needed by the next tool we’re going to use. However, before we continue to the next tool I will explain a little how mechanical keyboard is held together.
I’m going to show you a component of mechanical keyboard : The Keyswitch.
A keyswitch is a component that can be pressed. When pressed, its parts moves and causes electricity to flow from its one end to other end. This electricity will then be processed by the controller unit, and be interpreted as a keypress by the computer (or it will short and screw your usb port. Nah, just kidding). It’s something like this (image taken from http://cherryamericas.com/product/mx-series-2/) :
So a mechanical keyboard simply consists of that thing under every key. Every time we press that, it will conduct electricity from one end to other end, signaling that the key was pressed.
This keyswitch is usually placed on a plate (can be made of many things, metal, acrylic, carbon fiber, or even wood). A plate looks roughly like this (Image taken from https://linustechtips.com/main/topic/52-mechanical-keyboard-club/?page=151) :
These switches goes to the hole in the plate. The switch should snap and lock itself on the plate. This allows us the switches to stay in place and not wobble when we are typing.
That said, I think we’re ready to move to the next tool.
2. Producing your keyboard plate.
Right. We have our keyboard layout ready. Now we will have to design our plate for mounting our switches. Luckily, the process of measuring the length and width of each hole and shape of each hole has been abstractized by the the this tool.
swillkb keyboard case builder (http://builder.swillkb.com/)
This tool allows us to design a completely usable case (plus plate) with few clicks. First you will need to provide the layout. That is, the JSON text from KLE. Next, choose sandwich case type. As the name suggests, this will separate our case to multiple layers for easier manufacture. Fill the rest of the option and you’re good to go. (It has explanations of the options on the site, go check it out)
You should end up with five files. But for now you might want to print only one : The plate layer. The plate layer should look like the plate image I showed you earlier. You can print it on lasergist (there’s a link that automatically specifies your order), or download the design file and send them to your local laser cutting service. Ideally, for this kind of thing you would want to use either 1.5mm aluminum or stainless steel. YES, THICKNESS OF MATERIAL MATTERS FOR THE PLATE.
1.5 mm is what most people would suggest. Unless you don’t want to lasercut stainless steel because it’s kinda expensive. You can use acrylic instead, with thickness of 2 – 3 mm but then you might want to glue it instead, since anything other than 1.5mm would either give the switch wobbles, or the switch won’t click onto the plate. I’ve tried 1.5mm acrylic, and the switches would pop out easily. Not recommended. That said, go either stainless steel or aluminum.
Congratulations ! You have just descended to the valley of walletgone ! Producing your own custom keyboard is a lot of hassle and kinda expensive, but it’s fun (at least for me).