Setup build series: Building a custom keyboard

“Because keyboards are accessories to PC makers, they focus on minimizing the manufacturing costs. But that’s incorrect. It’s in HHKB’s slogan, but when America’s cowboys were in the middle of a trip and their horse died, they would leave the horse there. But even if they were in the middle of a desert, they would take their saddle with them. The horse was a consumable good, but the saddle was an interface that their bodies had gotten used to. In the same vein, PCs are consumable goods, while keyboards are important interfaces.” – Eiiti Wada


The keyboard is the center of the setup, everything is placed around it, it’s probably he piece that you spend most of your time in physical contact with. Enhancing the keyboard will result in a huge improvement in productivity and ergonomics in this episode we will see how w built a 60% keyboard for our setup.

Eliminations and decision

To start with we need to understand some of the features that a keyboard can have, a keyboard is basically a matrix of switches and a microprocessor that can tell that a current coming from a column is going through (or not) a row. That way the microprocessor understands that the switch at that column/row was pressed and do what it was programmed to do for that.

Switches

Keyboards were invented since the early days of computers and they went through a lot of changes, that resulted in a lot of switches. Membrane or rubber dome switches are the cheapest to make and many keyboard use them to save costs, but they offer the worst experience. The collapsible rubber crashes horribly and offer no tactility or feedback and cause strain and fatigue after long typing.

Mechanical keyboards on the other hand use a mechanical system to do the actuation, the mechanism is a huge improvement and can offer tactility and feedback in many degrees to satisfy all tastes. For this build we’re going with MX switches as they are very popular and accessories are widely available. We chose Cherry MX switches but Gaterons are great too and can be even better since they are much smoother.

Size

In keyboard community, the standard 104 keys keyboard is refereed to as a 100% since it has almost 100 keys. Subsets of the standard layout are refereed to with percentages of the size like the 96%, 86%, 75%, 68%, 60%, 40%, 30%… the number only gives and idea about to the size but not the layout since similar sized keyboards can have different layouts. We chose 60% since it’s a compact size that doesn’t sacrifice too much functionality, you can access all your keys easily with minimal finger travel, less used keys can be found as layered keys on top of the normal keys.

PCB

The PCB is what links everything, it might have multiple features like LED back-lighting, RGB LED back-lighting, programmability, NKRO… most of these is supported by the GH60 which supports back-lighting and is easily programmable and hackable to add things like RGB and custom macros etc.

Parts

To build a keyboard you need the following parts:

  • GH60 PCB: this is like a motherboard to a PC
  • Plate: this is optional but adds a lot of rigidity and weight to the keyboard
  • Switches
  • Stabilizers: optional but these help stabilize large keys in a standard layout like space, enter, shift, … to avoid key wobble
  • Keycaps: switches come without keycaps so you can pick your favorite material, profile and colors (this is a huge rabbit hole)
  • Case
  • Optional LED diodes for back-lighting
  • Optional O-rings for key clack dampening

You will need a soldering iron and solder everything together.

All these parts can be found very cheaply on Banggood:

Clipped stabilizers

The build

The first step is to clip the stabilizers, clipping is optional but it makes stabilizers much smoother.

Next we need to lube the contact point where the wire meets the stabilizers to avoid friction.

Lubing stabilizers

Now assemble the stabilizers






Time to mount the stabilizers on the PCB

Stabilizers on PCB

Put the switches in place, you might need to place some keycaps to fit the switches in place.

Switches on PCB

Soldering time ! it’s a tedious task but the result is totally worth it, take your time and go slowly and make sure to practice to avoid cold joints. De-soldering is hard so better avoid it, if you use LEDs double check the polarity.

Soldering
Soldering

If you installed LEDs trim the wires to not cause shorts. Place it in the case and mount the keycaps and O-rings if you got those, if you find yourself mounting and removing keycaps frequently you can make a wire key puller or buy one from Banggood.

Keyboard

The final result is totally worth it, a cheap board that is 100% DIY but better quality than many keyboards in the price range. If you are into electronics and programming you can write custom code using QMK to do pretty much anything a keyboard can do. If you want to explore the hobby and learn more check r/mk and deskthority.



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