Michael / Atratus (mbarrick) wrote,
Michael / Atratus

Steampunk Keyboard Mod

[EDIT] This keyboard mod was mentioned in the August 23, 2008 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald.

I finally finished that "secret project" I started exactly two months ago - a Steampunk keyboard mod.

First, an $8.29 keyboard on sale at Staples. I actually bought three, just in case of screw-ups.

Next, off to Dressew for $25 worth of buttons to use for making the keys.

The best buttons for the larger keys ("Enter", "Shift", "Tab", etc.) were coat buttons and had a knob on the back that was not conducive to my purposes, so...

Dremmel tool to the rescue!

Bit of a dusty job, that, when there are several to do. But I survived.

Now I needed to make the labels for the keys. Getting the size of the buttons right was "key" so I took rubbings of the two sizes of button I was using to get an accurate measurement of the inner dimensions. Choosing the right font was also important. I used my circa 1930 Underwood as a model and settled on Quicktype Mono as the closest match.

The labels for all the keys were printed on 4" x 6" glossy photo paper (something I'm never in short supply of) and each character individually cut out, the cut edge blacked with a Jiffy marker, and then glued to a button.

All done, I think...

Sanity check.

My original idea was to fill each button with a gob of urethane. As you can see here, that did not work well. The urethane lifted the black ink out and went almost completely opaque black. I tried pre-sealing with a thin coat, letting that dry completely, then putting the thicker coat on, and ended up with the same results.

A much more successful test with polymer resin. The smallest kit I could find was $30 at Michael's.

The resin is really intended for pouring in relatively large batches to do things like coating a coffee table. Dripping the three drops at at time into the buttons was a challenge. I learned quickly to only make very small batches because the viscosity would change fairly quickly, making the small pours impossible and wasting a lot of resin. The very small pours also caused a couple other problems.

I discovered that getting the tiny air bubbles out of the small pours was a problem and I also had a problem with some of the buttons not curing completely. With the small amounts the catalyst lost efficacy too soon.  I solved both problems by using slightly more catalyst when mixing and applying a little heat (200 °F). The bubbles rose to the surface much more quickly and could be easily tapped off with my fingertip and the cure time was only a couple of hours instead of a day or more (or never).

And now on to getting the keyboard ready. First all the keys have to come off.

My test-key is fully cured, so I decided to try out a sample. Most of the original key needs to be cut away, just leaving a column to glue the buttons to. You can see the cut-down control key below the shift key. This is going to work! The guides that the metal bar under the larger keys slip into that you see on either side of the shift key have to be snapped off.

The next step required complete disassembly of the keyboard. All the ugly marks left from snapping off the guides for the larger keys need to be covered up. I'm going to use a piece of vinyl for that, but I need to know exactly where to cut the holes for the keys. I could have done a whole bunch of careful measuring and drafting out the position of the holes on the back of the vinyl, but I'm lazy.

Confucius said, "If you want to find an easier way to do something, give the job to a lazy man."

Now that I have the exact positions of all they keys mapped out on the vinyl, it's time to cut them out. The exacto-knife approach, however, quickly proved too difficult.

"Didn't I inherit a bunch of upholstery tools?" I think to myself. After some rummaging around I found a leather punch just the right size. Thanks, dad. R.I.P.

Rather than annoying the crap out of my downstairs neighbours by using a mallet with the punch to make the holes, I just pushed each one through with a twist.

I hope the downstairs neighbours appreciate my efforts. Although it was fun telling people at work that my stigmata was acting up as the blisters healed ;-)

With a couple of strategically placed keys to hold things down, I cut out the vinyl inserts.

Then on to painting the keyboard shell. I used a coat of "hammered copper" Rustoleum, and while the hammered copper coat was still wet, dusted it with "antique brass" Rustoleum.

The idea was to have the "hammered copper" texture split the "antique brass" layer, resulting in a corroded brass look. It worked really well. The two cans of spray paint add another $18 to the project.

And now for the especially fun part of snipping the keys down with a pair of wire-clippers and gluing on all the buttons. I didn't really pay too much attention to how long this took, but I'd estimate around six hours or so (not in one sitting).


A closer look.

Compass-rose cursor keys.

Roman numeral function keys in deference to The Steampunk Workshop's much, much nicer keyboard mod that inspired me to do this.

The (what I think of) Windows keys.

At home on my messy desk.

In the end the materials cost multiple times what the keyboard cost and many hours of my time. This post is the first significant amount of typing I've done with the keyboard and it has taken a bit of getting used to - mostly overcoming the urge to mash the keys like I would typing on my old Underwood! Next one of these I do is going to have to be based on a better quality keyboard. Nonetheless, I'd call this a successful experiment.

Tags: craft, steampunk
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