Designing a (mediocre) Mechanical Keyboard - A Series

This is a quick introduction into why the hell I am bothering with designing, and hopefully prototyping and producing my own keyboard.

Over the last year and a half, I've fallen into what some people would call a money pit where others call it a hobby, although the two do generally come hand-in-hand. This has taken over a decent chunk of my free time; browsing various web forums, Discord servers, Instagram accounts, and hitting refresh on product pages to see what is new that day. I've watched Twitch streamers, and YouTube videos, and even signed up for (now cancelled) in-person meetups. This hobby is known as Custom Mechanical Keyboards.

My HHKB Sirius (POM with internal brass weight) with GMK Minimal Keycaps and Novelkeys Cream switches underneath.

The Custom Keyboard world is an underground utopia for the nerd that wants the latest and greatest in desktop accessories. Keycaps featuring every coloring and theme you can imagine are being sold on a monthly basis. There are sets resembling popular shows, movies, and games, to fully custom color schemes. Every once in a while a meme set will be announced and still reach successful sales numbers (there was a set entirely designed around the 🅱️ emoji). Fancy, plain, and sometimes weird keyboard cases are made from solid blocks of brass, aluminum, or stainless steel and are accented with pieces made out of the same quality materials (e.g. an aluminum keyboard with a brass weight inside or attached to the base or back). Some designers create custom molds for forged carbon fiber cases, injection molded poly-carbonate (a type of transparent plastic that is frequently frosted into a translucent look), or POM (another smoother, softer, and opaque type of plastic) cases. Three to five pound keyboard cases that will not budge on your desk are commonplace, with some designs reaching up to eleven pounds or more. Plate mounting systems that use anything from simple screws, thicker o-ring washers (sometimes called burger mount), "gummy worm" gaskets - a thick, giant o-ring, that snakes around the entire PCB and plate body to prevent the two from coming into contact with the case itself, poron gaskets most commonly put on the top and bottom insides of the case, instead of on the plate and PCB body, that keep the plate in place while still isolating it, to a recent introduction of "magnetic levitation" which has yet to run as a sale but is in prototype stages, uses a magnet and gasket combo to keep the plate pressed against the top case of the keyboard using isolation gaskets, while allowing it to deflect down with the resistance of the magnet on the bottom of the case.

Mekanisk Klippe with a nice mountain logo cut into the back.

These are parts and designs that will never see a retail shelf through mass production, but flow through the customs community at a rate that is almost impossible to keep up. People from all over the world submit their ideas (sometimes just an idea with no pictures or renders, to full blown ad campaigns that would rival most small mainstream companies) on various web forums, sometimes taking feedback and criticism, and sometimes telling people to piss off if they say anything against it. When it's at such an individual level of design and project management, it's very entertaining to see how drama is handled in certain threads with no corporate filters involved. Once a design has garnered enough interest the designer will either host their own purchase, where they gather orders, and money, and submit it to a factory they found online or have previous experience with (also known as a group buy, similar to something like Drop (formerly Massdrop) does) or outsource it to one of the many vendors appearing on the scene to handle the same process for them. Then, everyone waits. I'm still waiting for the first custom board I ever ordered last July (14 months as of writing, but an update yesterday says they have arrived in Australia now and are being shipped soon), but have received plenty I ordered afterwards during my wait.

I could go on, but I think that is a good enough introduction to the customs world. On to the series! In the last few years I have sort of taken an interest in Arduino, and various "maker" type of things. I think I just like to tinker on things, similar to taking electronics apart and trying (sometimes successfully) to put them back together when I was younger. So with my toe in the water in the maker world, and finding out about the custom keyboard world, I figured I would put the two together and make a PCB. That naturally grew beyond just a PCB into look into building a case for one. So here I am trying to figure it out. Once I have more of a concrete structure to this process I will be updating this page to include relevant links, and create the series as I go. Maybe follow along!?

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