Well, unsurprisingly, it turns out I’m not the only one.
In fact, the mechanical keyboard community, which is well represented on Reddit, is a thriving little niche community of total keyboard nerds. And within that community, there are numerous sub-cultures: the keyboard collectors, the artisan keycap fans, the switch hackers, and–and this is the subject of this post–the builders.
Yes, builders–those slightly crazy people who take great pleasure in constructing their very own customized, personalized keyboards.
When my good friend Jas first opened my eyes to this concept, I was fascinated. I joked that this was the nerd equivalent of building your own lightsaber–a right of passage from padawan programmer to master hacker. And, at least initially, the joke ended there.
For context, understand that, in addition to the WASD that I had purchased for myself, I also picked up a Keycool 84s during a drop on Massdrop, with the intent of using the keyboard at work. As a result, I was hardly in need of yet another keyboard.
But the idea got stuck in my brain. I just couldn’t shake the fascination with building my own board.
Now, within the building community there’s a few routes.
First, it’s important to understand the essential bones of a keyboard. A typical build requires:
- The switches
- A controller
- Some mechanism to wire everything up
- A switch plate
- A case, in which to put everything
The simplest route to fulfilling all these requirements is to buy a kit, which typically includes a PCB, which is used to wire the switches together to a controller to form the essential bones of the board, and the case, where everything lives. The kit might also include switches and keycaps, or they might be sourced separately. In either case, the builder then mounts the switches on the plate, solders them to the PCB, and then puts everything together.
And if it’s a hotswappable build (meaning the switches can be easily replaced), then even the soldering can be avoided!
The more adventurous might have a PCB manufactured, either from an existing open source design or buy designing it themselves.
More adventurous still, one might also have a case custom manufactured, again with either a new or existing design.
And finally, for the most masochistic, one can forego the PCB entirely. Instead, the builder buys a controller (typically an Arduino of some kind), sources or builds a case, and solders the whole thing together by hand with wires and diodes.
Each route has its own pros and cons, trading off cost with effort and flexibility.
As the idea of building a keyboard took root in my brain, I knew one thing: if I was going to do this, I was going to wire it by hand. I wanted the infinite flexibility of a custom PCB with none of the hand holding!
But, of course, I wasn’t actually going to do this, right?
Yet, I found myself playing with different key layouts, trying to find that perfect, unique arrangement that would combine ergonomics, my own usage patterns, and personal aesthetics.
And the I found something I liked, and I thought, well heck, why not send out for some quotes to see how expensive getting a case built would be?
The next thing you know I was filling a shopping cart on Digikey with parts and equipment.
And before you know it, well damn. Apparently, I was committed to building a keyboard.
Let the games begin!
And if you read that post, I can confirm that I still love my WASD Keyboard! Those Cherry Blue switches are just… delightful! ↩
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