The Endgame Keyboard

Still not a keyboard

If at first you fail, then fail, fail, fail, fail again. Every step takes you closer to your goal. I still have no keyboards to show you, but I’m working pretty hard at it.

This will be a circuit board, eventually.

I decided to focus on just one thing, and I chose the PCB. I use KiCad to first make a schematic, and then to plot the actual board. It’s actually really fun, but I’m not very good at it.

The other night I realized I’d made a pretty big mistake. So in stead of ordering prototype boards I ended up unravelling the mess of connections I’d created. And today I’m starting all over again. Well, not really. I’ve gotten past square one (and thirteen), so the switch layout is fitted on the board. That’s something.

I’m not sure deciding on just this one thing is the best way of moving the project forward? I should at least solder the first board up, using just diodes and a small control unit. It’s just that I need to order parts and boards, and should probably expect a lead time of several weeks. So I’ll design first and solder the prototype up while I wait for delivery. Seems a little counter-intuitive, but there it is.

The webpage

This home page needs a little love too. You should be able to browse the posts a little easier. I need a contact form and so on. Hopefully you’ll just notice the improvements as they’re launched.

Parallel lines

I’m not blogging that much, am I? Now why is that? Could it be that I’ve given up on this idea already? Have I realized that this is beyond me? Alas, no. I’m still working on this monster of an idea. In fact I’m working so hard (when I have the time) that blogging isn’t a priority at all.

Red Matias switches mounted in their plate.

I’m doing this on my (limited) spare time. This is not, I repeat not, a full time pursuit. Even if it should be. Hence the lack of updates

So what am I doing? I’m working three parallel lines; case design, pcb design and prototyping. And even though things are going well, it’s hard to focus enough on any one thing at a time. Everything depends on everything else. If I change the pcb, I need to change the case; the plate, mounting holes. The works.

My focus right now

Designing circuit board in KiCad

I’m trying to create a perfect circuit board. It needs to do everything I want it to do, obviously. It needs to be compatible with the QMK firmware. And I want it to be modular, so I can use the same basic design for several keyboard sizes. I’m still working mainly on the 65% layout. Figuring as this is the largest I’ll go to begin with, I should make it first because omitting a few columns later on won’t be as difficult as adding a couple.

And then there’s prototyping showing me what doesn’t work. And a few things that do. And so I go back to changing the pcb.

What I’ve learned

  • I’ve realized that the basis of a good design is the circuit board. I can fit it into any design, in fact I’m retrofitting it to match existing cases, but it’s so much better to base the case design on the pcb.
  • The design process is a back and forth.
  • Every iteration of any component makes this a better keyboard. It’s the Endgame I’m after.

I’ll get back to you soon. Hopefully with something a bit more tangible.

This is not a keyboard

Mock-up of a 65% keyboard

In fact it’s an empty case with a switch plate, some great switches (Zealios 65g) and excellent keycaps (/dev/tty MT3, by Matt3o). Still missing stabilizers, though, and a short right shift. If anybody can find that shift (I know they were made) I’d be most grateful for it.

I need to start somewhere, and this is my first mock-up. I built it to have a physical object to try my ideas on. To get to test-drive one, eventually. For now, I’ve gotten to type on it (even though it doesn’t output anything, obviously), and tried the switch and keycap combination.

The Matias set-up

Only problem is, that set-up is actually a bit too nice. I don’t feel like soldering it up using diodes, cables and no skill to talk of. I shall put this plate, these switches and caps away until I have a working PCB.

Same case, different switches, different caps.

I also did a plate up with Matias silent reds, and some blank keycaps. Also very nice switches and caps, but a lot easier to get a hold of, so they’ll be the ones used in my first hand soldered prototype. Right now the build is going slightly faster than the blog, so I’ve already started soldering. Stay tuned for more on that.

The switch plates aren’t screwed down, so I can just lift them out and change them. A great way of trying things out. You can get a feel for what the board will eventually look like, and how it will feel, with switches and keycaps. I recommend making a mock-up of any build your doing. Preferably before you make any committing decisions. In this case before you solder things down.

Maybe you’d like to make changes? Mod your switches? Change them altogether? I learned that it’s a good thing to try your stabilizers out before you set anything in stone

What I’ve learned

  • You don’t need a lot of switch-plate mounting points, just create a ledge for the rim of the plate and a couple of mounting points. It will look pretty nice, not showing any screews.
  • Put mounting holes under keys that aren’t stabilized.
  • Aluminium bends, giving the switch plate a slight sag in the middle. 1.5 mm for MX style switches seem fine, but 1mm for Alps is a little too thin. Mounting points will help, so no problem.
  • MX style switches seem to have a better grip on the switch plate. Alps-style switches really want a PCB. If you’re hand-soldering, maybe hot-glue the keys on the bottom side to hold them in place?

This is not a case

This is not what I’m trying to do, but I’m glad I did it.

First prototype of a case. Any case.

My general idea is to make some really awesome cases. This isn’t one of those. It’s much to big, unbalanced and downright ugly. But it will make for a great prototype. There’s plenty of space inside to accommodate for electronics, batteries, alterations and mistakes. Above all it’s something to touch, feel and see.

And I’ve done my best! That’s some serious (s)crapwood, that is! Made to precision specs by hand. A slow and time tested process for master carpenters in their quiet, airy and light workshops. Think handsaws and box planes. I’m actually rather pleased. But anyway… This is nothing like the cases I’m designing and hope to bring into production eventually.

General idea

I’ve made more than one case in Fusion 360, but this one just uses some of the inner measurements of those designs. The rest is done by feel. The angle of the case is fixed, and the over sized frame is for holding electronics. It’s made from layers of 4 mm plywood.

I know the switches on a PCB (eventually) will need a case that’s 8 mm deep, but to fit my soldering, a micro controller board and a battery I made the inside 12 mm deep. With the bottom it’s 16 mm high before I even lay a frame around the keycaps. That adds 8 more millimetres to the design with a total of 24 mm!

That’s one third more than I hope to make the final version, but for now…

What have I learned

  • You can’t work with too small tolerances
  • Design has to be simple and straightforward
  • Wood shrinks and expands, allow for some play
  • This will take some time, more than I think

O, and by the way

This is not a workshop…

The first success

A parcel arrived at my doorstep today, containing the switch plates. And let’s hope everything about this project turns out as well as this. I ordered two plates from a sheet metal company, and they delivered four. For two plates the order was rather pricey, but I guess this makes it half the price? And I’m definitely going to have a use for four plates. I guess I wont get that good a price again, but if I were to order some quantity, the price per unit would naturally go down. I think I might have found my switch plate supplier.

Matias and Alps switches in their switch plate variant

I’m not sure why I got two extra plates, maybe somebody misunderstood and made two plates of booth kinds. But here’s the best thing of all: they work. Measures are perfect. I can press a switch in place and it sits snugly, even if I pull off an attached keycap off.

So. I think these are enough for mock-ups. I can test out if all the supports I’ve designed for are really necessary, and in the right place? Hopefully my next post will show a proper build, I think it’s about time.

The plan right now is to simply make a wooden frame that fits one plate. An open bottom will make it easy to solder everything in place. This will, firstly, let me get a feel for the layout and the switches. Second: I’ll get a hands on opportunity to develop the switch matrix, witch together with the control unit shall give me the first clues as to how my PCB will be constructed.

By the way…

Leading Edge DC-2014

I now have the privilege to blog on a Leading Edge keyboard. The blue Alps switches are terrific. Along with a minimalistic word processor (Wordgrinder) that runs in the terminal, I have a down played, retro writing environment.

I shall make a post about the restoration and modification, even though it might be a bit off topic. This is not an Endgame keyboard, unless you want a few keys scattered about, and a couple of them missing, like F11 and F12.

Leading Edge DC-2014

Leading Edge DC-2014

My new – old – keyboard is working, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing? It’s always nice to mend something, but I meant to gut it. To harvest its innings, its blue Alps-switches. Blue Alps are considered the crème de la crème of vintage switches, and I can testify to the fact that they’re great! Nice, smooth, tactile, clicky and light. Lighter than the Model M, and not as loud.

However, I bought it untested, more or less hoping it wouldn’t work. That way I could have slaughtered it happily. Now, though… I’m not that sure. I don’t like destroying something that works (and I’m typing on it right now).

On the other hand, it probably won’t be my daily driver. I have better keyboards, particularly in ways of layout, and in smaller sizes. This layout is somewhat useful when I write in English, though. So I’ll keep tinkering with it for a while, maybe it’ll grow on me, or I might make the other decision… I certainly don’t need the switches by tomorrow.

Meanwhile

A freight company called me today, booking a delivery. I can’t be sure, but the only thing I’m waiting for right now are the switch plates I’ve commissioned. We’ll see.

A waiting game

I’m still waiting for some of the parts needed to make my first few prototypes. I need a couple of switch plates, they should be ready for delivery in week 9 (of 2019). I also need a couple of control boards, some cable and a few diodes (now that I write that, I realize I need more diodes than I’ve ordered…). Except for the switch plates (and 70-odd diodes) everything is in the mail.

First project

My first project will be to make a Soarer’s Converter for my Leading Edge DC-2014. I don’t want to brake that up for parts until I know if it works. I wont be using it, but if it works I’ll probably sell it on.

For a Soarer’s I will need a Teensy, and that is in the mail, I should be good to go in a couple of days. I will also try to post a YouTube video of that build, setting up some good lighting in the meantime.

In the mail

I’m still waiting for the switch plates I’ve ordered, but a few interesting things arrived the other day. Something new, and something old.

Zealios switches

Zealios switches from Zeal PC

Let’s start with the new. I got a bag full of Zealios switches. These are tactile switches, made to high specs. Smooth, and with a nice tactile bump, without much pre-travel. So far I’ve only tested one on a switch tester, and I can’t wait to put them on a complete board and start typing on them.

I originally thought of using them on one of the prototypes, but maybe they’re too nice (and too expensive) to be used like that. Also, they’re PCB mount, so maybe I should wait until I’ve started prototyping those?

Leading Edge DC-2014

This is the old, old stuff. A keyboard so old it has gone all vanilla brown. Not in very good nick, difficult to connect to a modern computer, unusual key layout. And rather expensive… So why?

The switches are Alps SKCM blue. A clicky switch refered to by some as simply the best switch ever. And boy are they nice. However, I’ve hardly used them at all yet, so I’ll have to reserve judgement.

Just a word of warning. If you’re looking for Alps switches, try to get as clean a specimen as possible. Some of these were rather scratchy. I hope I can mend them by opening them up and giving them a gust of compressed air. We’ll see.

Switch plate

The first part

The first part for the first endgame keyboard has been sent out for prototyping, and it’s the switch plate. This is the first of the components I’ve designed myself, and that feels special to me. I’m eagerly awaiting delivery.

I decided early on that the level of detail and small tolerances called for a laser-cut component. That’s not something I can do on my own, and so I had to find someone who could do it for me. That’s the case with many of the components I am considering using. I will make as much as possible on my own, eventually.

Rendering of the switch plate

This is a plate for MX compatible switches. And there’s one for Alps switches on the same order. I hope to be able to provide booth kinds eventually. Alps (or Matias) switches aren’t as prolific as MX type switches, but they’re great switches. Perhaps someone else feel like I do?

65% layout

As you might be able to discern on the plate rendering it’s an ISO layout with a few extra keys to the right. If I were to show you an example of the key layout, it would look something like this:

Rendering made with http://www.keyboard-layout-editor.com/

This is a Swedish layout, but it’s very preliminary. For one, I’m certain that I’d like a Delete key on the primary layer. Perhaps Home and Page up could be on the same key? End and Page down too in that case. That’s easily solved with layers, I shall explain that concept in a later post

The 65% layout isn’t for everybody, and it certainly won’t be the only layout I’ll explore. But it’s fairly uncommon – you can find great 60% layouts anywhere. (I’m still going to make the best 60%, but that’s for later.)

Please leave a comment with your preferred layout, or keyboard size, below.

Commitment

I’ve now taken a pivotal step in my project by actually putting some money on the line. It’s not a large sum, and I will at least get a keyboard or two for my efforts. At four times the cost of most other keyboards, but still.

So, at the very least I shall make a couple of keyboards, and I hope that this build log, at the very least, shall help somebody else build their very own endgame keyboard.

The problem

While customized keyboards are all the rage, seeing a surge of popularity in the US, Europe and elsewhere, it’s surprisingly hard to find parts or kits. Especially in Europe. Mind you, I’m not talking about just mechanical keyboards here, not the branded keyboards by – for instance – Das Keyboard. Rather I’m talking about keyboards that you build yourself – where you source case, switches and keycaps. Where you mix and match, where you design and make.

For enthusiast in the EU looking to make something really special, things aren’t exactly great. We have a few problems to solve before we can get our hands on compatible parts. Let’s start with the two most glaring difficulties.

Layouts

To begin with, most custom keyboards are designed for the US market. The ANSI layout reigns supreme, while European keyboards usually use the ISO layout. This might affect the number of keys available on the PCB, most often impacts the design of the case’s top plate, and is just a hassle to work around.

Most annoying is that it makes any set of keycaps very expensive for European buyers. You have to buy the “base kit”, including all keys in an American set. You probably need “mods”, and to make a Norweigian keyboard, or Swedish, German, French or even Brittish you will need an extra kit called “NorDeUk”, “International” or something like that. And those include keys for every language supported – you buy keys you wont need! Let’s just say it keeps prizes high for the European market.

Rare components

You’re going to need a printed circuit board (PCB). And you probably need one that supports ISO layout. It’ll probably be a PCB that supports multiple layouts, made in China. Or with some cable and a diode for every key you might hand solder your board togheter. Either way, you will need switches.

You also need to find a case suitable for that PCB, and perhaps a top plate that aligns with booth case and PCB. You’ll need a few screws, and spacers, and a USB cable.

By the way, do you have a soldering iron?

Imports

Things are not looking all that great for free trade right now. And maybe that’s good? Maybe we shouldn’t be sending parcels all over the world all of the time? Anyhow, as things stand right now, it’s expensive to buy parts from other continents for your endgame keyboard.

Even if you buy from a local supplier, you can bet on paying those import taxes anyway. The only thing that could seriously mitigate costs would be a local manufacturer. There are a couple of those, but for some reason, their pretty hard to find online.