Unhappy with Your Keyboard? Build a New One

October 06, 2020
- Extracurriculars

Some people surf, study wars, blow glass or mix cocktails. Activities pursued during one’s leisure time reveal taste, curiosities, and patience. Sometimes hobbies also reveal outside but nearby systemic flaws, or opportunities to innovate. For Funkhaus Programmer Derek Chiampas, it was a daily aggravation with the ergonomics of his keyboard that influenced him to join the online community of people who build customized mechanical keyboards.

When we asked him what goes into a build, he showed us a large plastic bag filled with small pieces of hardware, chords, cables and other miscellaneous objects that looked like the dregs of an e-waste bin.

To get started, he followed devoted subreddits, Discord chats, and consulted with other programmer friends before customizing his first mechanical keyboard. He built a macropad, a move he recommends for beginners as they are less involved simply because they are smaller than standard keyboards. Although complete kits containing every component one would need to build a mechanical keyboard are available for purchase, Derek is a serious DIY’er and preferred to individually source each part. (He recommends Tindie.) But as he was essentially inventing a unique piece of hardware, choosing every feature and function of its structure, it took him time to dial in to exactly what he wanted. Once he did, the resources spent on experimenting were well worth it. “It actually makes it enjoyable to type. It feels good tactilely and I can type faster. It improves the experience for sure.”

Options to curate the design and mechanics of a keyboard are infinite. From size of the pad to the switches – the parts below a key that get pressed, available with ranging actuation points, to the alphabet, language, texture, and spring of a keycap. Derek said the community jokes that if you like mechanical keyboards then you are probably broke because you spend all your money buying parts.

Interestingly, one of the most common obstacles inherent to building mechanical keyboards has nothing to do with soldering or coding skills, it comes down to sourcing parts. Most components are artisanally produced, and only in small batches depending upon demand. Because of this, people in the community typically take IC’s (interest checks) and go in on group buys. Derek explained that considering much of the supply is produced only to match a demand, the community can attract those with a scarcity mentality, people who enjoy chasing and attaining a product with a limited run.

But Derek is in it for the chase of improvement; for maximizing efficiency, increasing function while minimizing design. Putting more on less. He also enjoys the iterative process of programming each keyboard. “Once you have access to firmware, the programming framework allows you to do all sorts of crazy stuff; you can make any key do anything.” On one of the three customized macropads he uses most often (with a case he 3-D printed, two rotary knobs to control volume, and cherry blues {square keypads with loud, staccato clicks}), he mapped a single key to perform different functions based on whether it was single or triple tapped. And to expedite the many hard resets involved in animations he has been building, he reduced each hard reset command from pressing (cmd + L; pause; cmd + shift + r; pause; esc) to simply pressing one key, while also sequencing the timing of each reset to match the animation loads.

His upcoming slate of builds includes designing and programming an open source e-book reader, a CO₂ sensor, various other environmental monitoring devices built with Raspberry Pis, and a Greek language keyboard. That one’s been in the works for a while, but the Greek keypads he ordered from China three months ago still haven’t arrived. He’s also designing his end game build, the magnum opus of customized builds. So far, the plan is to 3D print the case and hardwire a custom macropad. He wants to go extremely minimal with one rotary knob and one key, probably a cherry blue, maybe a brown. “You always think you know what your end game build is until you add some new feature on another one, and then you think, ‘now I want that on this one’.”

While it’s safe to say that customizing mechanical keyboards is a hobby pursued by no one else at Funkhaus, we love getting a glimpse into our colleagues’ side projects and seeing how it maps to their role here. We’re all just a bunch of layers with different actuation points!