Introduction

Ever since trying my first buckling spring board I’ve wanted to get my hands on an IBM Model F. The consensus seems to be this: it’s everything great about the Model M but even better. The case, plate, switches, keycaps, even the feet; all are better versions of the components in the Model M. The only downside I see to this board is that the layout is different than what I’m used to using.

I was excited to find one for sale at a good price. It needed a lot of cleaning but I figured it looked totally functional (forgot to ask this important question). I actually found out that the seller wasn’t able to test the board which is why he was selling at a discount (oops).

Disassembly

A really charming quality of this keyboard is that it can be completely disassembled. That makes cleaning and repair work much easier.

I started by removing and cleaning all of the keycaps in the ultrasonic cleaner. The caps are high quality dye sub PBT and are all one piece (my Model M keycaps are two-piece). This little bit of cleaning actually really brought the keys back to life and that’s when I started to see that this board was just dirty and not in bad shape at all.

One very tricky part about disassembling this board is figuring out how to detach the plate from the PCB. Basically the plate has clips/tracks along the top/bottom and the PCB slides into place; sandwiching all of the little barrels with a sheet of foam. There’s really no elegant way to take these pieces apart. I tried tapping with a mallet but ultimately opted for the “slam it on the table” approach. Luckily this thing is a beast and will probably outlive me.

Cleaning

The plate had a few tiny spots of rust that I tried treating with a product called Evapo-Rust. This worked great at removing the rust but also started removing the paint as well. The paint is necessary to protect the steel from rusting so I knew I’d have to deal with this.

I decided to commit and ended up stripping the rest of the paint off completely so that it was just the bare metal. Then I re-painted it with three coats of Rustoleum acrylic paint. I was nervous that this might add too much thickness to the plate and pieces wouldn’t fit properly but it turned out totally fine. I actually think the blue looks pretty cool as well.

Reassembly

Putting this board back together is really easy if you do everything in the right order. This is the order that I should have followed in the first place:

  1. Put plate sandwich back together
  2. Put spacebar keycap on
  3. Put spacebar stabilizer wire on
  4. Reattach cord
  5. Close case

Final Thoughts

I now buy into all the the Model F hype. I’m very excited to receive my F77 from the “Brand new Model F” group buy project that Ellipse is running. I would love to see how it compares. Thanks for reading :)

My next keyboard I picked up from a local place called FreeGeek Chicago. This is a not-for-profit facility where you can drop off used computer equipment. They refurbish items and sell them to the public at a really nice discount. The facility also provides educational activities and PC/internet access to anyone interested. It’s a very cool place in the city providing some much needed services to the public.

This was my first time visiting so I didn’t really know what to expect. They did have some vintage equipment but that certainly wasn’t their focus. Nevertheless, there were some very helpful volunteers who assisted me in finding a few old keyboards that they had on hand. I purchased one of three Apple Extended Keyboard IIs that they had on hand.

Board Details

This was the first AEK II that I’ve had. The board was manufactured in 1990 in the United States and came with Alps SKCM dampened cream switches. These switches get a bit of a bad rap as a lot of people don’t like the little rubber bumpers on the switch slider. Personally they’re not my favorite switch but I really don’t mind them at all.

Cleaning

The keyboard was pretty dirty but not beyond repair. I started my project with cleaning the keycaps and case by soaking in warm water with denture tablets for about 24 hours. This got most of the dirt and grime off the plastic. Then I put the caps in the ultrasonic cleaner to finish them off and set them aside for later.

All of the keys, save for the spacebar, are dye sublimated PBT plastic which tends to stay the same color over time. However, the spacebar and case are made from ABS plastic which yellows over time when exposed to the elements (light, air, heat, humidity) over many years.

Retrobright

To combat the yellowing, I took a shot at retrobright-ing the plastic. This is a fairly simple process where you use hydrogen peroxide, Oxiclean, and ultraviolet light to whiten ABS. I built a little soaking tub out of an old Amazon box cut down to size and lined with a garbage bag. Then I filled the tub with just enough peroxide to cover everything and added a bit of Oxiclean. Once this mixure is exposed to UV light, the chemical reaction starts to occur and you can see some tiny bubbles coming off the plastic as the mixture works.

It’s pretty dark and gray this time of year in Chicago so I took turns setting the tub by the window sill where it could get some sunlight and supplementing that with a blacklight for when it was too dark outside. I let this cycle for a couple of days until the plastic was nice and white again. It wasn’t perfect but there was minimal bleaching and I’m overall happy with the results.

Then I put the case in the dishwasher on the low-heat quick cycle to finish it off. This part I made a mistake. I should have removed the little Apple logo/badge first because it didn’t survive the ride and the colors pealed off the sticker. I tried to purchase a new sticker on eBay but when it arrived I realized that it was way too big ¯\(ツ)/¯. That’s okay; I actually kind of like the imperfect look the ruined sticker gives this old board. Someone on /r/mechanicalkeyboards described this as “wabi sabi”; a term that I had never heard before but immediately fell in love with.

Switches

The switches were in decent condition but Alps are so suceptable to dust that I decided to do a full cleaning on them. I desoldered the whole board, disassembled the switches, and ran the components through the ultrasonic cleaner. Then I took a shot at lubing them using Sentry Solutions SMOOTH-KOTE. This is actually a gun lubricant but I had heard that it was a good dry-lube option for Alps switches. I unfortunately forgot to take any pictures of this process but I’m not sure how well it worked out anyways. The switches basically feel the same to me. After the lube dried and cured for about a day, I resoldered all of the switches back onto the board.

Here’s a cool little timelapse video I made of the soldering job.

Keycaps

At this point I thought I was done and I planned to sell this keyboard since I have a few too many for my tiny apartment right now. Then I got the bright idea to instead take a shot at dying the keycaps. There are six colors in the old apple logo and six rows of keys. This seemed like too perfect of an opportunity to pass up!

People have had good results dying PBT plastic using iDye Poly which is a synthetic fabric dye available in many colors. I experimented with this product about a year back and played with different concentrations and submersion times. Based on my previous experiences, I used 2.5L of water with a pack of iDye Poly at 100°C. In my experimenting I found that I got the best results by erring on the side of caution and only submerging the caps in the hot dye for about a minute before checking the color, evaluating, and resubmerging them if they needed more pigment.

This is what I did for all of the PBT caps. However, the spacebar is ABS plastic and I had read some mixed results that people had. There are two main problems with dying ABS:

  1. The temperature is too high and will melt/warp the plastic
  2. The “color intensifier” included with the iDye Poly is a solvent that might damage the plastic

Based on these factors, I again erred even more on the side of caution. For the spacebar only, I kept everything the same but submerged the cap for only about four seconds at a time before removing and immediately dunking in water to keep the temperature down. I found that I only had to do this about three or four times before the cap was dyed to a color similar enough to the rest of the blue row. The dye was not as even on this material but it still turned out pretty nice.

Final Thoughts

And that’s it! I’m happy with how this turned out. I’ll need to build an ADB-to-USB converter if I’d like to use this board but there is a great opensource project from Hasu on Geekhack to do this using a Teensy. I’m not sure if I’ll end up using this keyboard in my rotation but it certainly looks cool! Thanks for reading :)

This next keyboard I also purchased off of /r/mechmarket when I was soliciting for interesting vintage keyboards. Based on the pictures it looked like a pretty cool board but I was reluctant to purchase it since I was totally unfamiliar with the brand and style. I actually wasn’t even aware what type of switches this keyboard had when I bought it (I’m not sure why I didn’t ask this question. I guess I like surprises).

First Impressions

When it arrived my first impression was, “wow, this thing is immaculate!” It seemed to me like the keyboard had probably never been used or had seen very light use in its time.

The keyboard has a very strange layout which I really didn’t like at first. It’s pretty modern but has some weird idiocicracies to it. I love the giant “Do” button though I have no clue what this key actually “Does”.

The keycaps are very nice doubleshots with interesting typeface legends.

This keyboard actually uses Mitsumi miniature mechanical yellow switches so the keycaps are MX compatible. What’s unfortunate about these switches is that they are very scratchy unless you press on them dead-center. Chyros really hit the nail on the head in his video where he said that playing with a single switch feels really nice and tactile but once you start typing on the board the whole feeling falls apart due to the roughness that comes out.

Pretty funny is that, while the keyboard came with a 5-pin din to PS2 adapter, I had some trouble getting it to work with my PC. I eventually realized that there were dipswitches on the back that toggled between different protocols. I was able to find a copy of the keyboard manual online which detailed the different configurations. I had an interesting time trying out the combinations and found that some of them caused the board to emit a very interesting light/beep show.

Switch Lubing

I asked around about how to lube these switches to make them feel nicer. What I was told is that they are extremely difficult to disassemble. So my plan to desolder the whole board and lube the switches quickly went out the window. I then asked if it’s possible to lube the switches while they’re still mounted on the board and much to my surprise this is actually something that people have had success with.

My first idea was to use a blunt-needle syringe to get some lube on the slider inside the switch housing. I purchased Tribosys Switch Lubricant from techkeys.us but found that the lube was way too viscus to even pull up into the syringe. Lucky for me, the kit included two little applicator picks which actually worked much better than I expected my idea to work.

I believe what causes the switches to be so scratchy is the fact that there are so many places that the sliders make contact to the switch walls. I did my best to apply the lube to all of the exposed sides of the sliders and even found that the picks were perfect size to reach the inner tracks.

O-rings / Dental Bands

The other aspect to the harsh keyfeel of this board is how hard the bottom-out is on the downstroke. I’d read some suggestions online that these might be well suited for o-rings. I’m not particually fond of o-rings so I decided to play around with a few different options.

First I tried with some proper red and blue o-rings that were included with a WASD switch tester I had purchased when I was first getting into the hobby. Even though the keys are MX compatible, I found that both of these options added too much cushion to the downstroke making the keyboard feel mushy.

I’m a 30 year old with braces. This typically doesn’t come with many advantages. One of the very few advantages that it does have is that I have a seemingly endless supply of elastic dental bands. These are another alternative that people have used in modding and I found that my “Mountain Gorilla” rubberbands from American Orthodonics provided the perfect balance that I was looking for.

Sound/Vibration Dampening

Another thing I like to do to improve the feeling of a board is to add something to the case to dampen sound and vibration. I’ve found that foam shelf liner works really well for this job. It’s very cheap, easy to work with, and it’s otherwise useful to have in the house. So I used a bit of it to try and achieve the desired feeling. In retrospect, I might go back sometime in the future and add some more to this board.

Final Thoughts

I’m pretty pleased with how this mod turned out. It was a lot of tedious work but I think that these things really did make an improvement to the feeling of the board. The switches now are still very tactile but don’t have the same scratchiness and hard bottom-out that they did before.

Oh and the layout that initially scared me has really grown on me. I especially like the position of the [Ctrl] and [Alt] keys. I even decided that I’d like to do a custom build inspired by this unique layout (hopefully I’ll be posting about that project in the future). Thanks for reading!

This project began when I came across a set of vintage Alps keycaps from a Zenith Supersport 286 laptop on /r/mechmarket. By the time I saw the post, the set had unfortunately been picked up by someone else. Luckily, the buyer said he had a similar set in better condition but the set was missing a couple of keys.

Keycaps

When the keycaps arrived in the mail I immediately fell in love with them. They were high quality doubleshot ABS with really cool pad-printed Russian sublegends. Seeing that this set came from an old laptop, they were of course in a non-standard layout. I really liked the isolated position of the arrow cluster and had it set in my mind to reproduce that (an idea I eventually abandoned).

I knew that I’d be doing a custom build with them but didn’t have any immediate ideas. I cleaned the keycaps up and stuck them in my growing box of random keyboard parts.

Switches

Over some time I came across a really good deal on an old Apple Extended Keyboard. It was just about as dirty as you can imagine. For this reason I figured it would make a good donor board.

The AEK had Alps SKCM orange switches but they were very dusty and felt quite scratchy to type on. I had read about people having success cleaning Alps switches using an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner.

So that’s how I ended up buying a jewlery cleaner. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite tools now and I clean just about everything in it (well, anything that fits). I slowly desolered all of the switches to the best of my ability.

Once I got them all off of the board I went to work disassembling each one into its individual components. I cleaned each set of switch components in the jewelry cleaner with water and denture tabs (my second favorite tool). After they were clean I reassembled each one. The whole process took about a day but I’m sure others could do it much faster.

Plate

I love the feel of keyboards with steel mounting plates. It’s just such a solid typing experience. I’d had luck in the past ordering from Lasergist so I’d be ordering from them again.

With the help of keyboard-layout-editor.com I reproduced the layout online. Then I used the equally awesome tool swillkb to translate the layout into the appropriate cuts for an Alps plate. I can’t stress how awesome these two tools are!

I’d decided that I also wanted a steel backplate for this special board and luckily the prices at Lasergist weren’t crazy so it was not much more expensive. I’m glad I did this because this keyboard has such a nice, solid feel to it as a result.

Case

The swillkb tool outputs gists of each layer that you would need for a sandwich-style keyboard case. I decided on red acrylic for the middle layers and ordered these from Ponoko. Once these pieces arrived in the mail, I pretty much had everything I needed to get started with the build.

Wiring

This was my second handwired board and I’m admitedly not the best at it. I wired up all of the rows and columns to the Teensy 2.0 and crammed the whole thing into my custom case. I was running short on room so I sacraficed having a nice USB port cutout and instead opted for this weird rat tail hanging out the back. If I’d had more patience, it’d definitely been worth it to do a nicer job on this part.

Final Thoughts

I’m really happy with how the end product turned out. The orange Alps feel super nice and the layout is actually very practical and modern (well, for a laptop). The keys didn’t come with stabilizers and the spacebar was a very non-standard 5.5 units so I ended up cutting/bending a larger one to fit. As a result, the spacebar is a little bit squeeky but I probably only notice this because I’m aware of the hack.

Like I mentioned earlier, I abandoned the cool arrow cluster and instead opted for this style layout:

[PgDown][PgUp][←][↓][→]

That’s right; no up arrow for me. I don’t even miss it to be honest (okay maybe a little). Anyways, not a big deal. All in all great keyboard.

I occasionally post on the /r/mechmarket to sell things or ask if anyone is willing to sell an interesting keyboard.  That’s how I came across this new-in-box C.ITOH terminal board.  My post was asking for Alps or buckling spring boards.  The seller responded that this board is the “best of both worlds” as it’s an Alps buckling spring board (which I didn’t even know existed). The only downside is that it was made for terminals and not modern PCs.

First Impressions

When I got it I was really excited because the click was so satisfying and unique.  It was very much like a tame version of a Model M (lighter keystroke, shorter travel, less clack).  I searched the web but couldn’t find any information about it at all.  The keyboard itself didn’t have much identity. Even the label on the back simply reads “BRITISH”.  The “Alps buckling spring” Deskthority wiki entry makes reference to an “unknown C.ITOH model” (the model number on my box says CIT342/CIT342E).

My goal was to convert it to USB and use the board as my daily driver.  I’d read about how to make a Soarer’s converter but never really had the need to use one before.  I picked up an RJ-11 breakout board and a Teensy and set to work trying to figure out the connection pinout.  Some helpful people on /r/askelectronics and Deskthority guided me to the correct pins for power, ground, data, and … no clock?  That’s odd.  I tinkered with this mess for a while trying to get a readable input but got absolutely nowhere.  After a while I decided to give up on converting and instead replace the whole controller.  That sounded like a much more fun project anyways (Soarer’s converter took basically no effort to get working; tested with a couple PS2 keyboards).

Mapping the Matrix

Once I knew what to search for, I started finding forum/blog posts about how to swap out the controller for a Teensy.  The first step was to map out the wiring matrix on the membrane to see which wires controlled which keys.  Similar to a Model M, this C.ITOH board also had plastic rivets holding the main assembly to the metal backplate.  I popped each one off and opened up the board.

It was pretty interesting.  Nowhere else on the board was there any reference to the Alps brand.  Finally on the membrane we can see a logo.

I took some photos of the membranes and then mapped out the wiring on my PC, using a different color for each track.  I’m not sure if this is the most efficient way to do the mapping but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Building the Controller

Things that I picked up to build the replacement controller:

  • Teensy++ (has more pins)
  • Rainbow ribbon cable
  • FPC connectors
  • PCB perf board

Assembling the Frankenstein controller was simple enough.  Just had to wire each contact of the FPC connector to an open pin on the Teensy.

Next I used the very helpful website kbfirmware.com to compile a QMK firmware file.  This step actually took much longer than I expected.  The hard part was translating my membrane matrix to the corresponding keys to know which Teensy pins are controlling which keys.

After a few iterations of tweaking the mapping and retesting, I finally had a functional keyboard!  My intention was to get the lock key LEDs working as well but I couldn’t figure that part out and quickly gave up.  Maybe I’ll revisit that some day.

Bolt Modding

Since I had removed all of the plastic rivets, I had to bolt mod the keyboard out of necessity. This step shouldn’t be needed if you know how the matrix is mapped out. I’d never done this before but it was a pretty simple process. The basic steps are like this:

  1. Remove the plastic rivets
  2. Tape off the board with masking tape so that no plastic flecks get in the switches
  3. Sand down each rivet with a dremel
  4. Use a hot soldering iron to poke a little hole where each rivet was
  5. Drill each hole
  6. Attach screws/washers/nuts

A Happy Ending

So now I’m the proud owner of an Alps buckling spring keyboard.  Here’s a picture of the completed board (with my SSK in the somewhere probably looking like a jilted lover).