Category Archives: Keyboards

Deeper Down the Custom Built Keyboard Rabbit Hole

In my last post, Starting Towards A Custom Built Keyboard, I left off with my pining over the idea of an ErgoDox; a split keyboard, with full programmability of the key mappings.

A new co-worker and some Obsessive Compulsive Syndrome

Not long after starting a new job, a co-worker was intrigued by my Das Keyboard, but couldn’t touch-type, so I let him borrow my Code Keyboard with Cherry clear switches.

After an extended weekend with it, he was determined to learn to touch-type so he could try out my Das Keyboard with its Cherry blue switches.

It was at this point his (officially diagnosed) Obsessive Compulsive Syndrome kicked in.

He dove in and learned to touch-type, and soon he was ready to try out the unlabeled keys of the Das Keyboard which had been “taunting him” from my desk at work.

After just a few days with the Code, and then the Das Keyboard, he fell (back) in love with mechanical keyboards.

Of course, since he was learning to appreciate touch-typing, instead of just hunting-and-pecking, I introduced him to Steve Losh’s Modern Space Cadet post.

Due to his Obsessive Compulsive Syndrome, combined with love of the hunt at thrift stores, he found some older keyboards like the IBM Model M, and and old cop car keyboard by TG3.

As the old IBM Model M’s don’t support USB, he found the TMK Firmware project by Hasu, and assembled some converters which would allow him to use his older keyboards with his current computers.

If you are curious on his journey down the rabbit hole, he has been starting to document it on his blog at

The Ultimate Hacking Keyboard

Meanwhile, I was still on the hunt for a split ergonomic programmable keyboard.

In August of 2015 I stumbled across a pre-announcement of the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard, and after listening to Laci on The Changelog in December of 2015, I was intrigued enough to pre-order a board.

My thought was it would net me a programmable keyboard, as well as a split keyboard, without having to assemble it myself, and if it would turn out I wasn’t a fan, I could likely sell it to someone who missed the pre-order.

To top it off, it outlined that it was going to have magnets that would hold it together in a non-split mode.

Being uncertain of if I would even like a split keyboard, I saw a reduced risk in the purchase, in that if I tried the split mode and didn’t like it, I could always fall back to non-split mode for the keyboard, yet still have something that was programmable.

And of course, hardware being as it is, it has (understandably) been delayed a number of times as the project has progressed, but should hopefully be arriving this August (2017) as of last update.

Sierra and Karabiner

While awaiting the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard, and watching my co-worker dive deeper in to customizing his keyboards, I was sitting in a holding pattern before upgrading to OSX Sierra as it meant incompatibility with Karabiner due to changes in OSX.

Karabiner Elements was eventually announced as the replacement for Seil and Karabiner, but didn’t give the full extensibility of Karabiner, and I wasn’t going to lose my “Hyper key” from my keyboard without a battle.

Because of this, my co-worker was busy trying to sell me on the idea of building converters for my keyboards myself, but kept un-selling himself on the idea, as “a USB-to-USB protocol wasn’t quite supported”.

The “sales” cycle continued in this manner until he finally mentioned:

“Now, if your keyboards supported the PS/2 protocol, that would be very easy.”

Getting ready to make the dive

With those magic words, he convinced me to build a set of converters for my keyboards, as building the converters would mean:

  • I can specify the key-mappings I want at the firmware level in the converter, and not have to worry about operating system compatibility of key remapping software;
  • it also gives the added bonus of being able to bring my keyboard to someone else’s desk to pair, plug it in, and have my keyboard work as I am used to;
  • remove the converter so that someone can use my computer with the standard key-mappings they are used to;
  • or possibly even using someone else’s keyboard and using my converter with it to get my key mappings.

With a previous order of a nicer soldering iron over the $3 one from Harbor Freight I had, and an order from Amazon for:

I was ready to start on building some converters for my keyboards.

Starting Towards A Custom Built Keyboard

As someone who works with computers and uses a keyboard, on a near daily basis, and for 10-12+ hours in most cases, having a great keyboard that fits you is right up there with a great bed, really nice monitor, and good desk environment.

Distant Early Warning

My fascination with keyboards go back a number of years, in that whenever I would go into Best Buy, CompUSA, or some other computer sales related stores, I would make sure to try out the keyboards they had on display.

Given all that I am about to lay out, in retrospect, I knew there was something about the importance of a good keyboard, but wasn’t yet cognizant of what a good keyboard even was, settling on nice rubber-dome Logitect keyboards usually.

Enter Das Keyboard

This all started to change about the end of 2009, when Das Keyboards Ultimate Model S was announced.

I was a touch typist, mostly, and I specify mostly, as that I would touch type, but then start letting my eyes wander from the screen where they would eventually wind up looking at the keyboard and my typing pace would slow to a crawl.

Seeing that there was a supposedly really nice keyboard at a reasonable price, given the expected lifetime of a good keyboard, I cashed in my “Christmas Credit”, and asked for only one present, a Das Keyboard Ultimate Model S.

After some selling on the idea, in that professionals invest in professional grade tools; that I wanted the blank keycaps to force myself to not let my eyes wander, because there would be nothing to watch; and that this should last me years of use, if not decades, on Christmas Morning I opened up and started click-clacking away.

Jeff Attwood, Steve Losh, and a co-worker named Pete Young

Then 4 years ago happened, I was following Jeff Atwood’s (a.k.a. CodingHorror) blog posts and he announced the Code Keyboard.

After hearing about how nice the Cherry MX Clears are if you like the Blues (which were the key switches in the Das Model S that I had), and catching the first glimpse of customizability with the Code having dip-switches to change between Mac/Windows Mode, QWERTY/Dvorak/Colemak options, and others, I was able to get an order in on the second round to get a clears.

While we were waiting, my co-worker Pete, who was also excited about keyboards, and further down the path than I, started bringing in his various keyboards, and we would exchange and see how different keyboards felt after a day of usage, getting an initial feel of what we like.

And I believe it was Pete, (and if it wasn’t him that shared it with me and I shared it with him instead, he will still get the credit), showed me Steve Losh’s A Modern Space Cadet post, and I started the path down to using some customization of my keyboard layout as outlined in the post.

Pining over the ErgoDox

At some point I came across the ErgoDox online. I don’t remember where it was originally, but that put the Atreus on my radar and a few other variants of “travel” keyboards.

Somewhere in this time range as well, I heard someone refer to building and customizing your own keyboard as a software developer was akin to a Jedi building their own lightsaber.

Truth be told, I was intimidated. The cost for the parts, and me having to do it myself, made it both a dream, and also very intimidating.

Intimidating as my knowledge of soldering was:
– that there was an soldering iron (which wasn’t spelled how it sounded to my ears),
– flux (not to be confused with the capacitor),
– the solder itself,
– used for connecting electrical “stuff” together,
– and that a soldering iron could easily be confused with a very badly operating wood burner.

But the ErgoDox still remains the dream, and that dream is getting closer to being reality.

In the next few posts, I will outline how I have since started making faster progress to the dream of a fully custom built keyboard and having my own perfect keyboard.