Vile Tofu

And now for something completely different: I built my first mechanical keyboard and I’m typing this post on it right now. This is what I did and what I learned.

  1. I went with a 60% tray mount because those bits are readily available (e.g. from Mechboards)
  2. I chose to solder instead of hotswap; soldering gives more options (I wanted the stepped Caps Lock), has fewer points of failure, and means I have to learn how to solder again after 25 years. Also, I already owned a hotswap board.
  3. I went with a Tsangan layout with split backspace and split right shift. I already have a HHKB so the layout is very similar. I wanted to try a 7u spacebar and this let me do that.
  4. DZ60 off-the-shelf PCB with usb-C and underglow, so I also got an acrylic Tofu case. I specifically wanted usb-C rather than mini-USB because the latter are more fragile.
  5. At every step I tested that the PCB was working by bridging the contacts for each switch and checking they registered against a keyboard tester (the one I used the most was built into the Via software).
  6. I bought a fancy soldering iron. I could have gone way cheaper but the Hakko heats up quickly meaning I don’t have to leave a soldering iron unattended.
  7. I was impatient and first soldered the board with some Gateron Blue switches I had spare. I didn’t bother to treat the stabilizers beforehand. The whole board sounded crap. But that was OK, I intended to desolder as a learning exercise.
  8. So I desoldered using an Engineer SS-02 solder sucker and it’s a really great tool. But also it took me two sessions to desolder because I let the tip of the soldering iron oxidise meaning it couldn’t heat the joints up properly, leaving small strands of solder sticking to switch pins. Then I tried to brute force the pins out. This just meant I broke the switches (which were cheap and rubbish). The correct technique is if the switch doesn’t come out, re-make the joint and then desolder again. This was usually successful in letting me get all the solder out.
  9. Having learned my mistake with letting the iron tip oxidise I bought some tip tinner which was cheap and worked great for cleaning and re-tinning the tip so the iron could transfer heat properly. I also bought desoldering braid, which I couldn’t get to work for anything other than small solder bridges between pads but it was also cheap and may come in handy.
  10. So before I soldered a second time I checked the PCB hadn’t been fried (hurrah!) then I took my time. I clipped, lubed and band-aid modded the stabilizers which made a massive difference to the sound. The youtubers who call this the most important mod are not overstating. And it’s easy to do! I used Permatex dielectric grease.
  11. Then I took my time seating the nice switches (Durock Lavender switches), and soldering, testing along the way. I made a couple of mistakes with switches which were slightly tilted. This didn’t affect the keyboard working but once you saw a switch was not seated right you can’t unsee. But fixing that was a 2 minute job.

Here’s some Instagram posts:

If you don’t want to click through, here are some pics:

So the build used a 60% carbon fibre ANSI plate, DZ60 PCB, Tofu case in acrylic, Durock lavender switches and modified GMK screw-in stabilizers with a Tsangan layout (split r shift, split backspace, 7u spacebar, stepped caps lock). The linear switches are a bit new for me having previously used clicky and topre switches, but it’s still very pleasant to type on partly because it sounds so good. Keycaps are DSA profile Vilebloom, hence the name. However I expect to be putting some nice tall SA profile keycaps on it in the near future.

My next keyboard project is to an old Filco keyboard which will live at work if I ever return to the office. It’s actually functional today… it had a problem with chattering switches which drove me mad, but that was very easily fixed by just desoldering and then resoldering spare switches. But I will probably desolder the whole board and then solder in some much nicer switches.

4 thoughts on “Vile Tofu

  1. This is indeed a cool weekend project. And the finished keyboard looks very slick indeed. Well done.
    Personally, I’m done with mechanical keyboards: I find them to be too loud and basically impossible to clean thoroughly — things fall between the keys, which forces you to remove the keys, etc..
    So, I’ve been using the Logitech Mx Keys (which I use on my PC and my partner’s Mac), and I’m quite pleased with it: I can clean it regularly, very quickly and effectively, and it’s much quieter.

    • Thanks for the comments!

      I think the Logitech MX stuff is great, I have one of their mice. And keyboards are a very personal thing and I can’t see many advantages of an off-the-shelf mechanical keyboard vs. something with scissor switches from a decent brand.

      Building a personal keyboard for me is the same as building a bike from parts — you can buy something great off the peg, but this one is mine, and I’ll use it

  2. Hey I looked through the instagram pictures and was hoping for a full pic. Do you have a picture of the entire board plugged in. In pics I can only see it a low angle or half of it.

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