At the moment I’m sort of in the middle of several different projects, making very slow progress. So this will not be a finished job, but rather just the first piece of a multi-part project.

Keyboard

I picked up a keyboard assembly from an old Apple Macintosh Portable laptop from an eBay seller. I’ve been holding on to a set of keycaps from this same board for about a year, with plans to make a custom PCB for it. I figured this is a great interim project if I’m able to get the thing up and working.

The keyboard is really nice quality. It has Alps SKCM orange switches which are one of my favorite switches. It also has nice dye-sub keycaps that are very similar to the caps on the full-sized AEK/AEKII. The difference here is that the layout is similar to a 60% keyboard but instead of a full 15 units wide, it is only 14.5 units wide. I found this both very cool and very inconvenient.

Since it’s a bare board with no enclosure, I knew I wanted to build a case for it. I don’t really have any CAD skills or anything so my options for building a case were quite limited. I decided to go with a “sandwich” style case made from layers of laser cut acrylic (since my brain works much better in 2D).

Design

I used the open source vector drawing application Inkscape to begin my design. Using a combination of measuring and eyeballing, I built out the basic shape of the keyboard plate to use as a reference point. From there I began designing the different pieces I thought I’d need, basically just improvising. This resulted in a design like this:

Cutting

I’ve used Ponoko for laser cutting services in the past and I’ve been very happy with what they provide (though shipping is pretty expensive for small projects). The key to keeping the price down with this service is to have a simple design. I’ve had designs in the past with etched text on them and I found that the price shot up significantly. So for this project, I kept the design very simple and avoided pitfalls like that.

Assembling

Putting this together was like assembling a 3D puzzle. The pieces mostly fit but I of course ran into a couple issues due to my hasty measuring job.

The biggest problem that I ran into was one of the mounting holes. I mistakenly positioned it way wrong and knew I would have to deal with this on my own or else get another sheet cut (which I really wanted to avoid). So I attempted to drill my own hole instead.

I put masking tape over the keys to protect the switches from getting little flecks of plastic in them. Then I simply applied my drill skills, using the plate as a guide. I was surprised at how easy it was to drill a clean hole and got a little overzealous in the process. As a result, once I reached the bottom layer, everything went to pieces. The torque from the drill snapped the bottom three layers of acrylic in a very jagged and unclean way. I’ll explain how I attempted to remedy this problem a bit later.

I used acrylic glue to adhere all of the pieces together and I was pleased at how it was slowly taking shape. I also used a dremel tool to make a few adjustments to the acrylic cuts where my measurements were not perfect. I found that this process worked well enough for my purpose.

When I got to the broken bits, I glued them in place the best that I could with the acrylic glue. Then I inserted the mounting screw to act as a placeholder. I used a hot glue gun to fill in all of the spaces where I had ruined the acrylic. Once the glue set, I removed the mounting screw and found that it actually worked pretty well. I used a sharp razor to cut and clean up the hot glue mess that I had made.

Result

The case turned out better than expected. I really dislike how much the bright white color of the case clashes with the old-school shade of the caps so I know that I would like to do some more work on this front. Besides for that piece, my plans are to figure out how to convert it to USB so that I can use it with a modern computer.

First Impressions

I recently got this Zenith ZKB-2R off a friend online. He was unable to get it working with his Soarer’s converter so I figured I would give it a shot. If it didn’t work out, I could always just harvest the nice green Alps switches (linear and smooth).

When I got the board it was in pretty good shape. The only issue that I found was that the plastic screw holder pieces (that keep the plate/PCB in place) had broken off. This is a problem that I hear is very common with this particular keyboard. The assembly of this thing is a bit strange in that the plate/PCB are secured to the top cover instead of the back.

Disassembly

The keys felt a little rough on this out of the box so I knew I wanted to clean the switches. I really didn’t want to desolder the whole board so I decided to disassemble the switches in place.

You can do this fairly easily by inserting a plastic shim on the sides where both tabs are. Then you pull up on the top housing and sort of wiggle the switch until it’s open. This gives you:

  • The top housing
  • The spring
  • The slider
  • The click leaf (no click leaf in this case)

Obviously since the switch is still soldered in place you do not get the switch plate nor the bottom housing since these are still secured to the board.

The lock switches had attached LEDs so I did have to desolder these switches from the board in order to clean them.

Cleaning

I ran each of the switch pieces through the ultra-sonic cleaner to clear out all of the dust and get them feeling smooth again.

Next I moved on to the PCB/plate assembly. This was also a bit dusty but I can’t exactly put it in the ultrasonic cleaner. In the past I have tried cleaning these things using rubbing alcohol and q-tips but that is a super tedious process that isn’t really worth it. This time I stuck with just blowing the whole thing out using compressed air.

I recently picked up a new little gizmo. I have previously been buying cans of compressed air (which are not cheap and don’t last very long). I finally decided to buy an electronic “air duster thing” and I’m really happy I did. It was about $50 and works fantastically. It’s still worth it to have a regular can of air on hand for tiny stuff but the this electric one is pretty awesome.

Lubing

The green Alps switches are linear and are supposed to be nice and smooth. I have tried a few different lubricants on switches in the past but I do not really have experience with dry lubricants. Dry lube is recommended for Alps switches since they are very susceptible to dust. Wet lubricants attract dust and cause the switch to feel scratchy in the longrun.

I tried my hand with a product that I’ve seen recommended for this purpose in the past: DuPont Teflon Non-Stick Dry-Film Lubricant. Supposedly any dry lubricant with PTFE should do the trick. I didn’t have a very artful way of applying the spray lubricant. Basically, I just put all of the sliders in a bowl, gave them a few sprays, shook them around, and repeated that a couple of times. After I felt everything was evenly coated, I spread them out on a piece of tin foil to dry. When the lube dries it leaves a light white film. So you can kind of tell how evenly you’ve sprayed things.

Reassembly

When I was ready to put it all back together, I started by reassembling all of the switches that I had removed. The main ones went right back into place. I find it’s easiest to assemble things inside the top of the switch housing, then hold the PCB upside-down to slide it into place. Here’s a video of this process.

I lost the springs for the three lock keys so I decided to put some aftermarket springs to use. I recently picked up a whole bunch of SPRiT Alps replacement springs to make a bunch of switch testers. I used the heaviest (125cN) springs for these three lock keys in order to give them a bit of a different feel.

Then I tried to address the broken screw holes. I’m not an expert in plastics and barely know what I’m doing half the time so I improvised the best I could. I built up some new screw holes with hot glue and then held those screws in place with even more hot glue. I like hot glue because it works fairly well and it’s not permanent.

Finally I used some shelf liner foam stuff on the bottom of the case to try to reduce sound and vibration. It’s a really thin sheet of foam and I’m holding it in place with more hot glue.

Final Thoughts

I’m not really crazy about this keyboard. I like all of the individual pieces; I like green Alps, I like sturdy cases, I like lots of metal. But for some reason it just doesn’t come together in an awesome way.

It also has a horrible clicker that I don’t know how to turn off. Man this thing is annoying!

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!