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).