Components and tools

16 April 2017

As per Jessie's guide, some tools you will need and some tools you may need or are nice to have. Just in case.

Tools you will need

soldering iron or soldering stationFor soldering diodes, LEDs, wires to switches and controller
solderFor above
wire stripperOr use the side cutters, depends on wires.
side cuttersTo trim the diodes, wires, etc.
long-nose pliersCan be used if you don't have nut driver below.
suitable screwdriver for the screws you get
hot glue gun and glue sticksMounting controller, possibly securing switches and LEDs
double-sided tapeTo hold insulator to bottom of case
repositionable spray glueFor making mockups
A3 printer (or whichever is big enough for your layout)To print mockups
assorted rulersYou'll see...
keycap pullerDitto
small-point flat screwdriverTo remove switches from plate
superglueFor making standoffs
small hacksawFor making standoffs
fine sandpaperFor making standoffs, perhaps other things
board(s) for mounting test printouts

Tools you may need / Nice to have

14 mm wood chisel and rubber malletFor making mockups.
7mm square fileFor fixing plate cutouts.
mini power tool and accessoriesFor fixing the mess you made above.
eye protection and disposable glovesFor working with above.
nut driver/spinner to fit the nuts you use
vernier callipersYou'll probably regret buying cheap plastic ones. Get metal.
pointed-tip tweezersFor opening switches, if you are otaku about your switches and want to lube/sticker/whatever them.
digital multi-meterFor checking switches, diodes, etc.


feetStick-on, non-slip. Maybe different sizes for front and back.
USB cableIf using Teensy/++, you need USB-A (unless your new PC uses USB-C) to mini-USB.
Teensy / Teensy++ controllerThere are other options.
case, acrylic layersLaser-cut
case, aluminium layersLaser-cut
diodes 1N4148they're cheap, buy spares. You'll need one per switch at least.
LEDsbuy one spare each colour
thin electrical wiredifferent colours may help. Ribbon cable?
screws and nutstry to find a nice head. Perhaps hex.
insulator for bottom platee.g. sheet of neoprene, rubber, thin plastic, card...
stabilizerDepending on your layout. Not needed for this design.
rubber O-rings, lube, etcOtaku or not?


A plain vanilla soldering iron may be okay if you know what you are doing. The advantage of a soldering station is that it is temperature controlled, so you are less likely to blow something with excessive heat. The downside is that they are way more expensive than plain soldering irons. I spent ages comparing models and getting depressed by the prices before eventually picking one. Being in South Africa, we don't have as many choices as Europe or USA.

When buying solder, be sure to get rosin-core not acid-core, that's for plumbing not electronics. The general solder is 60% tin, 40% lead, but a 63/47 (eutectic) ratio is better, and a 62/46 even better, with the other 2% being silver. Costs go up as per usual...

My biggest problem to date component-wise has been the feet, the screws and getting the keycaps printed. I've bought several "non-slip" feet at the hardware store, all of which perform less than satisfactorily. In truth, the feet on commercial keyboards are not really non-slip either. In desperation I ordered some 3M Bumpons online, hope they work better.

The problem with the feet is actually three problems in one. Firstly the keyboard is flat, which is itself not ideal... proper ergo keyboards should have a tilt, as well as be tented. The Clever People say the tilt should be negative, i.e. away from you, but I find that awkward... also I think it assumes that your fingers always operate straight down, but they don't, they press at an angle, so when hitting the upper rows, they also press against the next closest row. So here I am with Maltron/Kinesis, that the upper rows should be higher than lower rows.

That means I need a conventional positive tilt, with the back higher than the front. Ideally I wanted to make the screws holding the sandwich together also hold the feet, but my design put the screw holes too close to the edges, and getting bigger feet means they will stick out past the edge of the sandwich and look ugly.

Given that I could not find the screw sets that I wanted (see below), I've ended up with small nuts holding the layers together. So the feet need to hold the keyboard off the table by more than the thickness of the nut (2mm), which also limits available options... some non-slippies are rather low.

I also thought it would be cool to have an adjustable foot at the back but haven't found a viable part that I can use for that yet... just the sort of thing they put under desks and other furtniture that screw in and out, but are not non-slip and look out of place on a keyboard.

Regarding the screws, I wanted a nice smooth rounded head on top, and a matching head on the bottom, perhaps with a slot/Philips/hex to tighten... basically was looking for a male-female screw-nut construction but was unable to find such a thing, so settled for screws with small round heads driven by hex key, and boring nuts on the bottom.

Getting the keycaps printed was a major problem. I bought blank key caps because I figured my design would change, and anyway the layout was already non-standard in terms of what went on each key. I also wanted various colours for various functions. The general starting place for buying keycaps like this is Signature Plasctics' Pimp My Keyboard online store. I bought DSA profile keys because I figured I would be chopping and changing, and they're the most flexible in terms of which row you put them on.

Which of course led to the the problem of how to get them printed.... I investigated all available options, from dye-sublimation printing to laser engraving to UV printing to stickers and even considered using Letraset covered with clear nail polish. In the end the place where I had the acrylic cut also did laser marking. Although the existing wisdom was that laser marking of PBT keycaps may not work so well, they did a few free tests and the results were great, on light-coloured keys. So I let them do the whole set. Not cheap, but compared to something like DIY dye-sub, a simpler and less hassle solution. And results are good.

Which brings us to the switches.... after research I decided on Cherry Brown switches. The problem then became where to buy them... even the local importer was not able to supply. Eventually ended up buying them from Gon's Keyboard Works, a process which was not without its hiccups. You can also try Massdrop and wait for suitable switches to be on offer. Typically Gateron or Kailh (both Cherry clones, Gateron usually considered better). You could also try RS Compenents. Just be careful you are buying the correct colour.