By David

March 10, 2022 at 4:40 pm

Have you been building custom mechanical keyboards for awhile from kits, have a new design in mind, but don’t have the CAD design skills or 3D printing technology to make it happen?

Maybe you’ve created a rough prototype of a keyboard case, or a revolutionary new key cap profile that you’re preparing for a group buy, but you don’t know the most efficient and affordable way to professionally manufacture it?

Do you have an idea for a new type of ergonomic keyboard that you’re sure everyone will love, but you just don’t know how to get it out of your head and into reality?

Maybe you just want to affordably print an .STL file or cut an acrylic plate for a keyboard design on Github that you’ve had your eye on for awhile, but where the parts are no longer available online.

Or would you like to take an existing keyboard design, for example a Dactyl Manuform, but modify the CAD file to perfectly fit your finger length and the number of keys you would like it to have before 3D printing it?

For all of these scenarios, and almost everything design, prototyping and manufacturing of custom keyboards, the team here at JCAD Inc. are perfectly positioned to help! We offer CAD design, 3d printing / prototyping and manufacturing all under one roof. That means that you only have to work with one company for the majority of the non-electrical components for your build, rather than working with multiple contractors in different areas, having to try and find your own factory facilities for manufacturing, or having to learn how to design in CAD and pay for a 3D printer (which will be inferior to our industrial printers in terms of DPI and finished print quality in any case).

Please note: If you’re looking to prototype keyboard PCBs, manufacture diodes, LEDs, OLED displays, or other electrical or PCB components you’ll be better served looking for a manufacturer who specializes in electrical components for that part of the project.

The basic components of custom mechanical keyboard design

When designing your own custom mech keyboard, there are components which are already readily available (eg. keyswitches) which you can purchase from a keyboard store. Beyond the basics though, you have flexibility and control over every aspect of your build.

For example, you will need to decide on your perfect keyboard layout, shape, style, number of keys, whether the board will be high or low profile etc.

Once you’ve figured out the layout (consider using a tool like Compare Split KB as a starting point if designing a split keyboard), you will need to design a PCB prototype, build your layout in QMK and flash it to the controllers to make sure everything is working as expected.

Then you may need to create plates or cases for your keyboard, and that’s where we come in!

How to design your own custom split, ergonomic, ortholinear, 40%, 60%, 65%, 75% etc. mechanical keyboard

CAD design for custom keyboardThe beauty of custom mech keyboards, and the open source nature of many previous projects, is that you already have a base to build on, but you also have ultimate freedom to design and customize a keyboard however you’d like!

For the best ergonomics, consider creating a keyboard that is split, ortholinear (eg. with column stagger rather than row stagger), with built in tenting options and only 36 keys or so and lots of layers to avoid having to reach excessively for keys. If you want to really level up the ergonomics, consider a board along the lines of a Dactyl Manuform or Skeletyl from BastardKB.

Materials usually used to make custom keebs

Custom mechanical keyboard plates

Most plates for custom keyboards are made either from the same material as PCBs (in which case we’re not the best people to help), or laser cut from acrylic. We can help with the latter, especially if you’re looking to produce acrylic plates in bulk.

There are however a number of other materials that could possibly be used to create plates, including various fabrics, metals, natural materials such as wood or cork and more.

If you have an idea, get in touch and we’ll see if we can help!

Custom mechanical keyboard plates

Most cases for custom keebs are made from 3D printing filament, ABS plastic, aluminum or wood.

For once off or prototyping purposes, 3D printed cases are a good route to take, as 3D prints are durable, inexpensive and quick to produce.

However if you have a need to create cases in bulk, and are able to handle the cost of creating a mold for your case, we’d recommend first prototyping with 3D printing, and then mass producing in some form of hard ABS plastic, or alternatively, laser cutting the components from metal or wood.

How to design custom tenting kits for ergo mech keyboards

To design and create a fully ergonomic keyboard, it’s important to incorporate some form of tenting. It is very unnatural to have our forearms twisted with palms down for 8 hours per day. If you don’t believe us, try using a split, tented keyboard for awhile then going back to a regular “flat on the desk” approach!

It’s ideal to be able to vary your hand position throughout the day, so while it is possible to design a case that has a permanent tenting angle, it may be healthier to build a case that incorporates tenting that is variable. This will also likely save you prototyping and production cost, as if you build in a fixed tenting angle, you may find after your case is produced you don’t actually like it and need to change it!

If you search for “DIY keyboard tenting” on Google there are lots of innovative solutions. Everything from people using iphone or ipad stands, to beanbags, to building a tenting kit out of cardboard, wood or lego.

For built in solutions, however, most tenting options either include:

  • fixed tenting in the case
  • some form of folding legs
  • tripod mounts which attach the case to mini tripods (one for each side)
  • bolt holes that allow tenting with bolts and nuts; or
  • aluminum feet of varying sizes

We can help you design and build any of these options into your custom keyboard case.

How to make custom designed keycaps

Most keycaps that are mass produced are made out of PBT or ABS plastic. PBT keycaps have a textured, higher quality feel and are mostly considered to be superior to ABS. ABS is what you will find on most cheaper mass produced keyboards. ABS plastics will typically develop a gloss or shine from prolonged or repeated use, whereas PBT caps tend to hold their color and texture better and are considered more durable.

In most cases legends are either laser engraved into keycaps, or printed onto them (as in the case of cheaper keyboards). When printed onto the caps, the legends can rub off over time. On higher end keycaps, a dual molding process called double shot manufacturing is sometimes used. This approach means that legends will never rub off, as the legend is molded as part of the keycap itself.

Custom keycaps can also be 3D printed, although the texture of 3D printed caps is unlikely to be as good as PBT or ABS caps without further tooling, even when printed at very high resolution.

When designing keycaps, one thing to consider is the many different profiles of keycaps out there. There are all sorts of profiles, from angled cherries, to the consistency of DSA caps with higher edges, or similar consistency with XDA caps which are wider and flatter. The type of keyboard you’re creating will often determine your preference in this regard, as well as the type of switch you’re using. Low profile keycaps may not fit Cherry or Gateron switches for instance.

In terms of custom or uniquely shaped keycaps for special keys, the sky (and your imagination) is the limit in terms of what we can create!

Making custom wrist and mouse rests for keyboards

Another aspect of custom keyboards we can help with is creating custom wrist rests or mouse rests, that can either be built-in or attached to your keyboard, or sit up next to them. We can create these for you in multiple ways:

  • Either as part of the keyboard case you’re designing during the CAD design process
  • By using pre-made CAD files you give us, and creating the custom wrist or mouse rest in that file in order to make sure we have the dimensions perfect; or
  • If there are no CAD files available, we can 3D scan your current keyboard, in order to create an exact replica in a 3D CAD design program, which can be used as suggested in the second point above.

How to make travel cases and display cases for mechanical keyboards

One of the problems with mechanical keyboards, particularly the more unique ergo mech keyboards, is that they are not standardized at all.

That means that things like travel cases to protect your keyboards on the go, and display cases to show off your keebs when they’re not in use, are not widely available. So what do you do if you can’t find something the fits your keyboard? You can create it yourself with our help!

If you have an idea for a case, making it a reality is easy:

  1. To begin with, measure all the dimensions of your keyboard.
  2. Decide if you want to allow space to add foam or other padding if you’re making a protective travel case.
  3. Consider what material you want to make the case in. Should it be a strong, rigid material for the best protection or to hold your keeb when displaying it? Or do you want something made out of silicone that will fit more easily in your bag for example?
  4. Consider the color of the material/s you would like to use. Do you want to keep it simple, or match it to your keyboard to create a set?
  5. Consider also if you want to make a one-off case for yourself, or whether you would like to mass produce your items, in which case you will likely want to prototype the design before making a mold and mass manufacturing.
  6. Finally decide whether you want the whole process taken care of for you. Or do you just want a CAD design that you can print on a 3D printer yourself?

Where to get a Dactyl Manuform case customized and 3D printed inexpensively

While not for everyone, if you’re looking for the ultimate split ergo mech keyboard, you might like to look at Dactyl Manuforms. Similar to a split version of a Kinesis Advantage in terms of the contoured keywells and thumb cluster, the DM keyboards are split, with ortholinear stagger, contoured key wells and built in tenting. Build one and it might just be the talking piece of your office!

If you already have an .STL file for your DM, but don’t have a 3D printer, we can help. Just send us the file and we can affordably print and send the case to you.

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If you need help with any CAD design, 3D printing, prototyping or manufacturing for custom keyboards, get in touch with us today on 1-888-202-2052 or by sending us a quote request. We look forward to hearing from you!

 

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