The Keyboard Build Part 3: A quiet conclusion


It's surprising to me that the last keyboard post was only 6 months ago. It seems like it was a year or more, then again, so does everything in 2020.

The manufacturer for the Astrolokey's caps I had ordered faced several delays in delivering the caps. I had first heard December, then January, then February (for certain this time!) but it wasn't until April they were finally delivered. In addition to normal manufacturing problems, they also faced the problem of shipping during the Covid19 pandemic.

Perhaps if I was still using the keyboard, it would have been more annoying, but the build made me realize several things.

As I had mentioned in the summary of the last post, the Levinson's 40% form factor made programming very frustrating. It got to the point I had to go back to my previous staggered full-size just to be productive. The keyboard's height also posed difficulties as it caused issues with my ergonomics. I had guessed that a shorter keyboard with a 60% size -- basically the same as the Levinson plus a number row -- would work.

I eventually bought another keyboard PCB, and proved myself right.

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I bought a Helix PCB from LittleKeyboards. The Helix is a lower profile 60% keyboard which uses Kalih Chocolate switches. They keys are much lower than the Cherry MX keys, but have less options for keycaps. Still, they are mechanical switches and decently rated by those who prefer or need the lower form factor. I bought the switches from NovelKeys.

Assembling the Helix was more challenging than the Levinson. Mostly because the original project is in Japanese. While I may understand the stray spoken word or phrase, kanji is beyond me right now. Fortunately, the documentation is on Github, and an English translation was provided.

While assembling the diodes was easy, the LEDs were the most difficult part. Each were smaller than the head of a pencil eraser, and surface mount only. Worse, these weren't soldered in directly on the PCB, but in a small square cutout which held each LED in the plane of the PCB, only kept in place by solder.

Soldering the LEDs proved to be immensely challenging. And then my soldering iron broke! I barely got 5 uses out of it before it ended up in the trash with a cracked heating element. I ordered a new Hakko, but the finer control did not help the soldering.

After much, much, much troubleshooting, I did get all the LEDs on.

Even with that success, adding the switches and assembling the keyboard resulted in considerable flex of the PCB. This broke the delicate solder joints, resulting in issues I still have yet to rectify today.

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Even so, I kept the Levison. While it may not be my daily driver, it still feels amazing in a way the Helix does not. I suspect the cause is that the Kailh switches do not have the rubber O-rings around the key stems. I added those to the Levinson for bottom-out dampening, and it's very much the reason those keys still feel better to my fingers.

Replacing the keycaps only hit one potential snag. My only key puller was thrown out with all of the unused caps that came with the first translucent set I had applied to the Levinson. Whoops.

Still, you can pry them off with fingers if you're careful enough. After a few minutes of work and color coordination, I had all the caps on I needed.

The dark, translucent keys almost work with the pastel Astrolokeys. Almost. When the keyboard is on, the purple LEDs shine through under the alpha keys, balancing the look. I'd like to joke that this kit-bash is "Astrolokeys Twilight", but something with more explicitly purple keys might coordinate better.

I found making the Levison keyboard an ultimately empowering experience. I have since built two more keyboards including the Helix. The last keyboard is a Nyquist (Keebio's version of the Helix, sans LEDs) for another project of mine. In the future, I'll me less cautious about building new computer hardware as there's a vibrant community to support me.