I wanted a new keyboard. More than that, I wanted it to be the last keyboard I would ever buy. If I’m being honest, I also wanted it to be flashy, something I could show off. I liked the idea of a 60%, but I didn’t like the idea of holding
fn every time I needed to use my arrow keys. A tenkeyless, on the other hand, was too big. Scouring the internet, I happened upon the 22-mini from 22kbd.com, a keyboard PCB (printed circuit board) of the elusive “65%” variety. The 65% layout is essentially a 60% with a set of arrow keys and a reduced control pad squeezed onto the end. It was perfect. Compact and elegant, the layout gave me instant access to all the keys I use most often. I had only one nitpick, it was green.
Everyone knows the ugly green colour of classic PCBs. It wouldn’t have been a problem hidden in a case, but in my search for the perfect keyboard I happened upon the NEO KB-87 Zelia, which made a feature of its gloss black PCB, and decided that my own keyboard would also sport a bare PCB. I emailed Apollos, who runs 22kbd, asking if he could order the next batch in black. He said yes, and soon after I was the proud owner of the very first 22-mini PCB to come finished in sleek black. Now all I had to do was fill it with switches.
The switches too were a point of obsession. I bought a switch sampler with nine different Cherry MX switches, and liked none of them. However, when I took the spring from the red switch and placed it into the clear switch, creating what is commonly known as an “Ergo Clear”, I was pleasantly surprised by the light yet responsive switch action. I ordered 100 clear switches, 100 55g springs, 100 vinyl switch stickers (these create a snugger fit between the two halves of the switch housing), clear upper housings (simply for cosmetic value) and a syringe of thick oil (ergo clears are known to get stuck if not properly lubricated due to their light springs).
When everything had arrived, I quickly constructed my ergo clears and soldered them to the PCB (which was graciously prepared with controller and diodes by Apollos). For keycaps, I used the colourful, sci-fi themed Galaxy Class set, shaped in the retro “DSA” spherical dish profile, moulded from durable PBT plastic, and adorned with fade-proof dye sublimated labels. I also ordered a custom Paracord sleeved USB cable with colours to match the keycaps. Once I’d assembled the board, determined it to be fully functional, and programmed in my desired key mapping, it was time to build a case.
I decided to make my case out of wood, as it was the only material that I had the tools to work with. My original design was very extravagant, resembling a cut gemstone. But I had only a bench sander, a router table and a hand plane at my disposal. The irregularly angled, sometimes tapered chamfers would be nearly impossible to make with my tools, and the enclosed PCB inset left me with no entry point for the router bit. Starting fresh, I created a much simpler design, with a single profile all the way through. It would be much easier to manufacture.
My first pine prototype taught me a lot. The first step was milling the slope of the case, roughing it out with the sander and bringing it to final dimension with the hand plane. Unfortunately, the piece was askew after the belt sanding, and I found it incredibly hard to correct with the plane. The sloped surface had to be perfectly flat, as the next step was to lay it face down on the router table to carve the channel for the PCB. The slope came out bowed, and so the PCB channel had uneven depth.
For my second attempt, I used Jarrah. It gave more resistance against the sanding wheel, yielding much better control when milling the slope. I also printed 1:1 scale profiles of the keyboard with guide lines, and glued them to the edges of my work piece, so that I could track the slope angle as I milled away the waste stock. This left me with a slope that was not only flat to the eye, but which also gave me an even depth channel to sit the PCB in. The result was a piece with flat, square faces and crisp, straight edges.
Finishing was a controversial topic among my friends. Many wanted me to leave the wood as natural as possible, to show off the rich burgundy colour of Jarrah. But I’d decided from the beginning that I would stain it deep black, to match the PCB and allow the colour of the keycaps to really pop, rather than clashing with the pastel palette. In the end I used a “Japan Black” stain, a deep black with a subtle blue tint to its sheen, and topped it with satin varnish.
Overall I’m incredibly happy with my keyboard. It has become the centrepiece of my desk, and I’ve gotten complements on it at LAN parties. It is one of a kind, it is entirely my own craftsmanship, and it’s just as nice to type on as it is to look at.