Building An Ergonomic Keyboard

Despite the passing of several decades since that scene in Star Trek IV, the Voyage Home in which Mr. Scott remarks “A keyboard! How quaint!“, here on earth, they remain a central plank of our user interface experience. A plank is an appropriate metaphor, for the traditional keyboard with its layout derived from typewriters and intended to minimize type bar collisions has remained the same flat and un-ergonomic device for well over a century. If like [Tom Arrell] you suffer from repetitive strain injury to your hands and wrists from using a keyboard then a more ergonomic alternative is a must. His solution was to build his own keyboard in two halves.

He was inspired by a colleague’s Ergodox, but balked at the price. Then he found the Dactyl, an open source 3D printed keyboard in two halves, and resolved to build his own. Unlike the Dactyl, however, he wanted his ‘board to be able to operate as either a linked pair operating as one or a pair of separate keyboards. In went a pair of Sparkfun Pro Micro boards to his slightly modified Dactyl, along with a full complement of Cherry MX Brown switches.

The final product lacks key labels so is not for the faint-hearted. But he persevered with it and after a couple of weeks was able to use it without a crib sheet. It’s a bit higher than its commercial equivalent so it needs some improvised wrist rests, but for the price, he’s not complaining.

This isn’t the first keyboard with two halves we’ve shown you, here’s one from 2017.

Via Hacker News.

19 thoughts on “Building An Ergonomic Keyboard

  1. Great idea. Would an even more vertical placement of the two halves offer a more ergonomic solution? I would put lables on the keys because I am not that great a touch typist.

  2. I have a custom dactyl too, I love it but they can be tedious to build. They get a good amount of getting used to to use but with the custom programming available with qmk you can program many shortcut keys that can speed things up in the long run. If anyone is gonna build their own I recommend high profile keycaps, My hands are on the smaller side so the high profile makes it easier to use. Mine are sculpted too which helps. I tried to use a uniform xda profile of keycaps which are flat and low and with the size of my hands it made it harder to use.

  3. I’ve been a huge fan of the “Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000”, it’s over a decade old, but it’s the only keyboard I have that doesn’t hurt to type on, and it’s amazing. — (And I’ve been typing on them for over a decade as well!)

    I snag them up anywhere I can find them, and you can still buy them new! — Good luck getting a wireless keyboard in that form factor though, the only one I can find is the “Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Desktop 7000”, which sells for hundreds of dollars these days. :-(

    1. The original Microsoft Ergonomic Natural Keyboard was MUCH better and I used them for years and years until I couldn’t get replacements. The 4000, like you use, never worked for me. Some of the keypresses were wonky.

      The best I’ve EVER used is the new “Surface Ergonomic Keyboard” (just bluetooth, nothing really surface related about it). The even finally put most of the special keys back in places that are closer to where they belong. It has a very light but solid touch feel to it, and for me with my giant hands, it is a lifesaver.

    2. Hundreds of dollars you say? I have one of those that I used in my job for about a year, at the end of the year I put it back in its box. I wonder if ebay would be interested. I use more ergonomic keyboards like ergodoxen these days.

      1. During the 1990’s, IIRC, we paid ~$1500 for a split keyboard for one of our scientists with Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. It was two piece, sort of like the one in the banner photo, but had adjustable brackets that allowed each half to be laid flat or back to back.

        1. I use an Ergodox EZ now, it has an optional ‘tenting system’ so that I can angle it away from me. It was expensive, but I use it every day as a software developer.

    1. Ya this looks more like a clone of the Kinesis rather than the Ergodox (which was obviously inspired by the Advantage). I own an Advantage and use it a lot, but I also own an Ergodox and I have to say I kinda prefer the latter. The scooped design of the Kinesis is slightly better ergonomically, but the Ergodox comes with a better choice of switches (MX browns’ tactility is pretty lame) and has dramatically better programmable features courtesy of QMK.

      I do also doubt this keyboard actually ended up cheaper than a Kinesis, especially if you consider time required.

      1. You can get an Advantage on eBay for way less than list, if you’re willing to deal with an older model. I’ve gotten some under $100.

        And there are some pretty good options for converting to QMK if you’re willing to do a bit of DIY, e.g.:
        https://michael.stapelberg.ch/posts/2013-03-21-kinesis_custom_controller/

        Modifying that design for the connectors in the older models is perpetually on my to-do list. (The article he links is a conversion of an older keyboard, but recycles the connectors from the original board; I’d rather avoid that if possible.)

        MX Browns may not be your personal preference, but using light, linear switches is an intentional choice on the part of Kinesis, and can be a big help for people with some RSIs.

        Sadly there are some reports Kinesis has stopped selling keywell PCBs on their own for those who want to swap out the switches. Given they’re not *actually* flex PCBs (just thin standard PCBs), though, a DIY replacement isn’t unthinkable.

        1. Ergodox was inspired by Kinesis, at least for the thumb cluster. Kinesis maybe by Maltron.

          Does this keyboard look more like a bowled Ergodox or a split Kinesis? I think that’s probably in the eye of the beholder.

          Anyway, the Kinesis Advantage 2 looks really good. As do the various Ergodox clones, Iris especially, IMO. And bringing it all full circle, Kinesis is recommending their Ergodox-inspired board these days due the the flexibility of the split design.

          Let these all be an inspiration to you. DIY.

  4. Ok no offense but this is a pretty vanilla build of a common mechanical keyboard design. There’s a huuuge community out there building all kinds of crazy contraptions. What HAD really needs is a series on QMK and its associated ecosystem of tools. Handwired keyboards should be a rite of passage for hardware hackers – they’re not technically challenging, but the sky is the limit on customizability, and you can get it done for around $75. When you’re done, your primary input device will be totally yours.

      1. ..and after you’d mentioned QMK on one of the PodCasts, I’ve dusted off some of my old Sun workstation keyboards with the aim of making them USB given that is easily done with QMK and an almost bare ATMega.

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