Printable Keycaps Keep The AlphaSmart NEO Kicking

Today schools hand out Chromebooks like they’re candy, but in the early 1990s, the idea of giving each student a laptop was laughable unless your zip code happened to be 90210. That said, there was an obvious advantage to giving students electronic devices to write with, especially if the resulting text could be easily uploaded to the teacher’s computer for grading. Seeing an opportunity, a couple ex-Apple engineers created the AlphaSmart line of portable word processors.

The devices were popular enough in schools that they remained in production until 2013, and since then, they’ve gained a sort of cult following by writers who value their incredible battery life, quality keyboard, and distraction-free nature. But keeping these old machines running with limited spare parts can be difficult, so earlier this year a challenge had been put out by the community to develop 3D printable replacement keys for the AlphaSmart — a challenge which [Adam Kemp] and his son [Sam] have now answered.

In an article published on, [Sam] documents the duo’s efforts to design the Creative Commons licensed keycaps for the popular Neo variant of the AlphaSmart. Those who’ve created printable replacement parts probably already know the gist of the write-up, but for the uninitiated, it boils down to measuring, measuring, and measuring some more.

Things were made more complicated by the fact that the keyboard on the AlphaSmart Neo uses seven distinct types of keys, each of which took their own fine tuning and tweaking to get right. The task ended up being a good candidate for parametric design, where a model can be modified by changing the variables that determine its shape and size. This was better than having to start from scratch for each key type, but the trade-off is that getting a parametric model working properly takes additional upfront effort.

A further complication was that, instead of using something relatively easy to print like the interface on an MX-style keycap, the AlphaSmart Neo keys snap onto scissor switches. This meant producing them with fused deposition modeling (FDM) was out of the question. The only way to produce such an intricate design at home was to use a resin MSLA printer. While the cost of these machines has come down considerably over the last couple of years, they’re still less than ideal for creating functional parts. [Sam] says getting their keycaps to work reliably on your own printer is likely going to involve some experimentation with different resins and curing times.

[Adam] tells us he originally saw the call for printable AlphaSmart keycaps here on Hackaday, and as we’re personally big fans of the Neo around these parts, we’re glad they took the project on. Their efforts may well help keep a few of these unique gadgets out of the landfill, and that’s always a win in our book.

five 100% recycled keycaps, spaced out

These Keycaps Are 100% Recycled Plastic

Artisan keycaps are generally meant to replace your Escape key, though they can be used anywhere you like (as long as they fit, of course). Keycap maker [tellybelly] of jankycaps has been experimenting with making keycaps out of 100% recycled plastic, and offers an interesting post detailing their development and production process.

Animation of injection molding flow into a set of four keycaps.What do you do when normal injection molding tooling is out of your budget, and silicone molds simply won’t do? You turn to 3D printing if you can. In this case, [tellybelly] and company found a resin designed to withstand high temperatures.

[tellybelly] was able to design the mold using a plethora of online resources, and even verified the flow using a special program. Although the first two versions worked, they had some flaws. Third time’s the charm, though, and then it was time to sort plastic and fire up the shredder.

After heating up the shreds to 200 °C or so, it was time to start the injecting. This part isn’t exactly a cakewalk — mixing different plastics together can vary the workable temperature range that doesn’t degrade the plastic. Although it sounds like the end, [tellybelly] reports that they spent just as much time here as they did at the drawing board, experimenting with pressure on the mold, various cool-down methods, and how long to wait before opening the mold.

Via reddit

Illustrated Kristina with an IBM Model M keyboard floating between her hands.

Keebin’ With Kristina: The One With The Mouse-cropad

Okay, so you built a macropad or even a keyboard. What now? Well, most people use some kind of mouse to go along with it, but no one uses a mouse like this creation by [Joe_Scotto].

This is the mouse no one asked for, and yet I think it’s pretty awesome for something that’s supposed to be a joke. Maybe it’s in the great execution, I don’t know. I will ignore the suggestion that MX Browns are part of the joke, however. *cries in OG tactility*

Essentially, this is a macropad that uses QMK mouse keys to emulate a mouse. The build itself couldn’t be more straightforward — it’s six MX browns wired up to six pins on a Pico, and they all share a common ground. Keep the joke going by commissioning one from [Joe] or building it yourself.

Via [r/cyberdeck]

News: Microsoft Discontinues Natural Keyboard

Image via Wikipedia

It’s often people’s first ergonomic keyboard — some variation of Microsoft’s Natural keyboard, that 90s split that took up so much real estate on the desk with it’s built-in wrist rest.

I’ll admit that despite using one for years at the office, I went back to whatever clicky rectangles I could get from the IT department. Then came the pain, and I got a Logitech Wave. Then came the surgery, and the Kinesis Advantage.

Well, now it seems that after 30 years and several ergonomic models, Microsoft are exiting the keyboard game. While I don’t personally understand why when there are so many fans, [Jeff Atwood] believes it’s because keyboards are exploding in popularity and tons of people are building their own. While that may be true, there are legions of normies trying to stave off carpal and cubital tunnel syndrome and have absolutely no interest in building anything, much less a keyboard. So, get these things while they’re hot, I guess.

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Easter’s Over, But You Can Still Dye Keycaps

While it’s true that keycap colorways abound these days, one can’t always find exactly what one is looking for. And once found, the set is often either prohibitively expensive, or it doesn’t come in the desired layout, or both. So, why not color your own keycaps?

That’s exactly what [amphiboi] did, while standing on the shoulders of [CrowningKnight]’s imgur post on the subject. Essentially, you use Rit dye and PBT keycaps for best results. Rit has a comprehensive guide to mixing their dyes to achieve pretty much whatever colors you want. Once that’s all squared away, it’s time to gather your cooking supplies.

Starting with a pot you don’t care about and four cups of boiling water. Add about a teaspoon of dish soap, which helps the dye settle evenly across the keycaps. Then you just add the dye(s) and stir with an expendable spoon, then add your keycaps. 5-10 minutes later, depending on your desired outcome, the ‘caps are ready to be rinsed, dried, and pushed on to your switches.

Satisfied with the color of your keycaps, but wish they had cool legends? Check out this waterslide decal tutorial.

Illustrated Kristina with an IBM Model M keyboard floating between her hands.

Keebin’ With Kristina: The One With The Hexagonal Keyboard

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 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.

In case you’re wondering, these are meant for only Kailh chocs, but no matter the switch, the spacing is really important because of all the possible points of friction introduced by the design. Be sure to check out the keycap docs page, macropad docs page, and this gallery of keycaps and macropads.

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Thinnest Keyboard Uses Cherry DIY Doubleshot Method

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.

But chocs aren’t for everyone, and there are plenty of die-hard Cherry fans out there that want it both ways. Being one among them, [Khmel] set about designing the lowest-profile possible keyboard (and caps) that uses standard Cherry-sized keyswitches. Shut up and take your money? Well, okay, but the case and keycap files are all available on Thingiverse, so.

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.

Trust us, there’s a piece of glass there.

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!

Tweezing tiny legends not really your kind of tedium? Here’s a method for DIY waterslide decals instead.

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Waterslide Decals For Wingding Keycaps

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.

Eventually, [YOHON!] learned about waterslide decals and settled on doing them that way. Every step sounds arduous, but we think it was way worth it because these look great. Since [YOHON!] wanted the keyboard to be weird, they designed a cute little symbol for each key which gives it a cryptic-but-accessible Wingdings feel.

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.

Want to just throw money at the keycaps problem? You may not want an entire keyboard full of cheeseburger and hot dog keycaps, but one or two fun keycaps are pretty cool to have. If you want to make your custom keycaps more permanent and don’t like the dye sublimation trick, try 3D printing them.

Continue reading “Waterslide Decals For Wingding Keycaps”