Custom Inlaid Retro Keycaps: Clay Is The Way

They say experience is the best teacher, and experience tells us they are right. When [Thomas Thiel] couldn’t find any resources about re-creating the groovy ‘caps of thocky old keebs like the Space Cadet and the C64 (or find any to buy), it was time for a little keycap experimentation.

These babies are printed in black resin and the inlay is made with white air-dry clay. After printing, they are sprayed with acrylic, and then [Thomas] works a generous amount of clay into the grooves and seals the whole thing with clear spray. [Thomas] soon figured out that the grooves had to be pretty deep for this to work right — at least 1 mm. And he had better luck thick fonts like Arial Black instead of thin fonts.

Of course, as [Thomas] mentions, you’re not restricted to white or even air-dry clay. You could go nuts with colored clay and make a retro-RGB clackable rainbow.

Still not tactile or custom enough for you? These hand-stitched keycaps are technically re-legendable, though it would take a considerable amount of time.

Vacuum Forming Key Cap Covers Doesn’t Quite Work Out

Retrocomputing is as much about physical preservation as it is about electronics and computer science. Plastic is an awful material when it comes to decade-long timescales, and the forces of sun, air and water are unrelenting on these materials. [Drygol] has long experimented with techniques to preserve and refresh keycaps, and decided to try some fun vacuum forming techniques for something new. It sadly didn’t go to plan, however.

The basic idea was to use a vacuum-forming machine to coat keycaps in a thin layer of translucent plastic, for both aesthetic benefit and to preserve them from falling apart. Initial small-scale tests were promising, creating a key with a tight, form-fitting blue plastic wrap through which the original labels were still visible.

However, scaling up the process proved fraught. Uneven heating of the plastic film and a lack of rigidity in the carriage used to stretch it over the keycaps led to poor results. The final product showed many wrinkles and was distinctly unappealing.

[Drygol] isn’t giving up however, and plans to build a new vacuum table with greater performance. We can imagine this technique being an accessible way to colorize keycaps for a vintage cyberdeck or chiptune rig, without permanently modifying the keys. If you’ve got the inside knowledge on how to make this work, sound off in the comments.

We’ve seen [Drygol]’s work in this space before, too, like this extreme modded Amiga. If you’re executing your own retro repairs, be sure to drop us a line!

Adaptive Macro-Pad Uses Tiny OLED Screens As Keycaps

When we first laid eyes on Keybon, the adaptive macro keyboard, we sort of wondered what the big deal was. It honestly looked like any other USB macro keyboard, with big icons for various common tasks on the chunky keys. But looks can be deceiving, and [Max.K] worked a couple of surprises into Keybon.

First of all, each one of Keybon’s buttons is actually a tiny OLED display, making the keycaps customizable through software. Each of the nine 0.66″ displays has a resolution of 64 x 48 pixels, which is plenty for all kinds of icons, and each is mounted over an SMD pushbutton switch. He had to deal with the problem of the keycaps just wobbling around atop the switch button without depressing it; this was solved with a 3D-printed cantilever frame that forced the keycaps to pivot only in one axis, resulting in clean, satisfyingly clicky keypresses.

The other trick that Keybon has is interactivity. By itself, it boots up with a standard set of icons and sends the corresponding keystrokes over USB. But when used with its companion Windows application, the entire macro set can be switched out to accommodate whatever application is being used. This gives the users access to custom macros for a web browser, EDA suite, CAD applications, or an IDE. The app supports up to eight macro sets and can be seen in action in the video below.

We love the look and the functionality [Max.K] has built into Keybon, but we wonder if e-ink displays would be a good choice for the keycaps too. They’re available for a song as decommissioned store shelf price tags now, and they might be nice since the icon would persist without power.

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Hand-Stitched Keycaps For Truly Luxurious Typing

We’ve seen some very unique custom keycaps recently, but nothing quite like the embroidered ones that [Billie Ruben] has been experimenting with. Using a clever 3D printed design, she’s crafted what could well be one of the most easily customizable keycaps ever made…assuming you’ve got a needle and thread handy.

The idea is to take a standard keycap blank and pop an array of 25 holes in the face. Your thread or yarn is run through these holes, allowing you to create whatever shape you wish within the 5 x 5 matrix. While it’s somewhat tight quarters on the underside of the cap, nothing prevents you from using multiple colors or even materials to do your stitching. As an added bonus, the soft threads should provide a very comfortable and particularly tactile surface to tap on.

Now the most obvious application is to simply stitch up versions of all the alphanumeric keys, but there’s clearly room for some interpretation here. [Billie] has already shown off some simple iconography like a red heart and we’re sure creative folks will have no trouble coming up with all sorts of interesting needlepoint creations to top their prized mechanical keyboards.

The intricate details necessary to make this idea work may be beyond the common desktop FDM 3D printer, so [Billie] ran these prototypes off on a resin printer (she attributes the visible layer lines to a hasty print). She’d love to hear feedback from other keyboard aficionados who’ve made the leap to liquid goo printing, so be sure to drop her a line if you print out a set of your own. It sounds like a new version is in the works which will provide a false bottom to cover the stitching from below, but functionally these should get you started.

Keycap Customizer Brings All Your Caps To The Board

With bright colors and often intricate designs, after the physical shape of a keyboard the most conspicuous elements are surely the keycaps. Historically dictated by the stem of the key switch it attaches to, keycaps come in a variety of sizes, colors, profiles, and designs. As they necessarily include small features with tight tolerances to fit the stem of their key switch, injection molding is the classic manufacturing technique for a keycap. But as hobbyist 3D printing matures and resin printers become more accessible, home keycap manufacturing is increasingly good option. Instead of designing each cap by hand, consider trying [rsheldiii]’s KeyV2 OpenSCAD script to create custom caps with ease.

To cover the basics, KeyV2 can generate full keycap sets with Cherry or Alps stems, in the SA, DSA, DCS profiles (and more!) for any typically sized keyboard. Generating a particular cap of arbitrary profile, position, and size is just a short chain of function calls away. But standard keycap sets aren’t the highlight of this toolset.

If you’re not an OpenSCAD aficionado yet, visit [Brian Benchoffs] great getting-started guide or our other coverage to get a feel for what the tool can do. Part of OpenSCAD’s attraction is that it is the the paragon of parametric modeling. It’s declarative part files ensure that no parameter goes undefined, which is a perfect fit for KeyV2.

The root file upon which all caps are based on has about¬†150 keycap parameters which can be tweaked, and that’s before more elaborate customization. Making simple “artisan” caps is a snap, as the magic of OpenSCAD means the user can perform any Boolean operations they need on top of the fully parameterized keycap. Combining an arbitrary model with a keycap is one union() away. See the README for examples.

For the prospective user of KeyV2 worried about complexity; don’t be, the documentation is a treat. Basic use to generate standard keycaps is simple, and there are plenty of commented source files and examples to make more complex usage easy.¬†Thinking about a new keyboard? Check out our recent spike in clacky coverage.

Making Art With Keycap Bots

Robots come in all shapes and sizes, from remote landers on distant planets to assembly arms working hard in auto plants. Of course, the definition is broad and can contain more frivolous entities, too. [smdavee]’s watercoloring ‘bots may not be particularly complex or sentient, but they’re a fun creative build.

The design is akin to that of the BristleBot, with a pager vibration motor allowing the ‘bot to wobble about on unsteady feet. In this case, a keyboard cap is used, with cottontips inserted in the base to act as legs. These are then dipped in watercolor paints, and the attached motor is then switched on to vibrate the ‘bot around the page.

It’s an easy build, and one that would be particularly well-suited to teaching young children basic electronic concepts. Plus, there’s the added fun of getting to make a mess with watercolors, too. If you’ve got a fun art robot hiding away in your garage, be sure to let us know. Video after the break.

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Greatest Keycaps And Where To Find Them

Look at your keyboard. Do the keycaps excite you? That’s what we thought. You pound on that thing day in and day out. Shouldn’t it at least be attractive? Or even happiness-inducing? You don’t necessarily have to replace every single keycap to spark joy. When it comes to artisan keycaps, the point is to have something that stands out.

How about an Escape key that looks like a tall stack of flapjacks or a tiny, intricate cream puff? From a practical standpoint, how about a spiky Escape key that makes you think twice about rage quitting?

If you’re into games or anime, chances are good that there are more than enough artisan keycaps out there to keep you cash-poor for a while. The same goes for scrumptious foodstuffs with Cherry MX-compatible stems.

In this day and age, you can get just about any type of keycap you want, especially those encapsulating pop culture phenomena and fads. Yes there’s a fidget spinner keycap, and it’s adorable.

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