Well, I didn’t mean to take the whole summer off from Keebin’, it just kind of happened that way. You’d think it would have been #13 that tripped me up, but we ain’t even there yet — this is only the twelfth edition. I kept thinking I should write one and it just wasn’t happening, until I got a tip from [s.ol bekic] about their stunning hexagonal keycaps and the journey toward making an open-source 12-key macropad featuring same.
But let’s back up a bit. Originally, [s.ol] designed a totally sick hybrid MIDI-and-typing keyboard from scratch, which you can see in this short video. It glows, it splits in half, and it snaps back together again quite satisfyingly. And you probably noticed the hexagonal keycaps that look like they might be printed or milled, or perhaps even printed and then milled.
In actuality, [s.ol] threw all the processes at this keycap project — milling, molding and casting, and 3D printing. None of them worked well enough to get much past the prototype stage, but in the end, [s.ol] joined forces with fkcaps.com to create and offer an injection-molded version that I’d really, really like to rock my fingertips around in. Good thing I can pick some up for cheap.
Of course, the real process was all the learning [s.ol] did along the way — both in the early days of making the hybrid keyboard, and after teaming up with fkcaps to make the keycaps and the accompanying macropad into real products. And that was after all the design work it took to get this newfangled honeycomb configuration right.
As with any other community, it takes all kinds to make the keyboard world go ’round. Some like them thicc — more backing for the clacking and all — but some like them sleek and prefer the slimmest possible keyboard. For now and the foreseeable future, the go-to method for making whisper-thin keebs is to use Kailh Choc switches, because that’s about all that’s out there.
The whole video is great, and at less than 2½ minutes long, it’s definitely worth your time. There are a few little gems of wisdom sprinkled throughout, like printing keycaps standing up on their backsides (like where they would have a little flash dot if they were factory-molded). This gives them a nice texture thanks to the layer lines. But the real reason we’re here today is this DIY method for making doubleshot keycaps with little fuss that [Khmel] just tosses out there toward the end.
Traditionally, doubleshot keycaps are made with two layers of plastic — one for the legend, and one for the rest. This produces a quite durable keycap and (used to be the norm), but the expensive process gave way to laser-etched and pad-printed keycap legends in the ’90s. [Khmel] was able to fake the look by printing legends at 0.25 layer height and then fusing each one to its respective keycap by laying a thin piece of glass (think microscope slide) on top and applying a soldering iron for a few seconds. Classy!
We know this feeling all too well [YOHON!] spent $340 building, lubing, and filming a custom keyboard and it still wasn’t perfect until they got the keycaps sorted. They bought blank ‘caps because they’re awesome, but also because they wanted to make their own custom ‘caps for all those painstakingly lubed and filmed Gateron yellows. At first [YOHON!] thought about doing it DIY dye-sublimation style with a hair straightener and polyimide tape, but that is too permanent of a method. Instead, [YOHON!] wanted room to experiment, make changes, and make mistakes.
We think these pictograms are all totally adorable, and we particularly like the owl for O, the volcano for V, and of course, the skeleton for X is a solid choice. Oh, and there’s a tiny fidget spinner knob to round out the cuteness. Designing and applying the keycaps took longer than the entire keyboard build, but you can check out the sped-up version after the break.
Why is Cupertino’s iOS anywhere near a cyberdeck? If a touch screen is better than an LCD panel, a tablet with a full OS behind it must be even better. You might even see this as the natural outgrowth of tablet cases first gaining keyboards and then trackpads. We weren’t aware that either was possible without jailbreaking, but [Alta’s Projects] simply used a lighting-to-USB dongle and a mini USB hub to connect the custom split keyboard to the iPad and splurged on an Apple Magic Trackpad for seamless and wireless multi-touch input.
The video build (after the break) is light on details, but a quick fun watch with a parts list in the description. It has a charming casual feel that mirrors the refreshingly improvisational approach that [Altair’s Projects] takes to the build. We appreciate the nod to this cyberdeck from [Tinfoil_Haberdashery] who’s split keyboard and offset display immediately sprang to mind for us too. The references to an imagined “dystopian future” excuse the rough finish of some of the Dremel cuts and epoxy assembly. That said, apocalypse or not, the magnets mounted at both ends of the linear slide certainly are a nice touch.
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.
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.
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.