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Many gadget enthusiasts find that, although the market’s best keyboards are admirable, achieving perfection means selecting each part individually and stitching them together by hand. If you’ve ever pondered making a custom keyboard, read on, as we’re offering a basic hand-wired keyboard guide. We’ll show you what to consider heading into the process and provide tips to ensure your success.
There are optional parts to consider when hand-wiring a keyboard, such as RGB backlighting.
For more excellent keyboard content, you can check out our maintenance article on what to do when you press a key and it types different letters. Or, if you need help with your Mac, you can find our article that explains how to lock a MacBook keyboard.
Building a keyboard is no simple task, but getting each mechanical duck in a row is vital to ensuring the process runs smoothly. It requires a lot of planning, but you’ll be happy with the results once thought out.
Remember that keyboards are complicated devices requiring special care. And anyone taking the time to build a keyboard should know how to clean your keyboard with compressed air or how to remove a spacebar from a mechanical keyboard.
Knowing what size you want is the best place to start with your hand-wired keyboard. From here, you can figure out what the wiring diagrams will look like; then, you can pick a keyboard plate and switches.
If you are a fan of the number pad, you should use a full-size. For something compact for gaming, consider a 60% or 65% keyboard. If you want something more mid-range, then a TKL or 75% model would be a good place to start looking.
Another thing to consider is how the keys will be arranged, which can affect typing speed and ergonomics. For a great primer on key layouts, read our article on what a QWERTY keyboard is.
The primary choice when selecting a keyboard switch plate is the material. There are plastic, polycarbonate, aluminum, and brass options for both keyboard plates and casings.
Next, you’ll need key switches. Keyboard switches are perhaps the most critical choice when hand-wiring your keyboard. Choose switches based on your sensitivity, tactile feedback, and sound preferences. The switches will also impact how you wire them. Some, like mechanical switches, encourage individual wiring methods, and others encourage using a matrix.
For more articles on keyboard switches, you can check out our article explaining what a scissor-switch keyboard is. Additionally, knowing how to clean a sticky keyboard is critical for anyone who cares about keeping their switches in prime condition.
Make sure to set up your soldering station in a well-ventilated area whenever you solder. Fumes from the solder wire are hazardous to humans and animals.
The next step is to purchase the electrical components. The diodes are wired to the mechanical keyboard switches to ensure the flow of electricity moves in the right direction and that each key has a clear connection when pressed. The microcontroller is a small circuit attached to the matrix that powers your selected layout and communicates which key has been pressed to the computer’s OS.
After you have sorted out the size, switches, and electrical components, you’ll have to create a wire matrix. Some choose to use a piece of wire with each key, which reduces keyboard ghosting. However, others use systems of row and column wires to reduce the amount of necessary work and material.
Once everything is collected, you can begin piecing the materials together. Start by placing the mechanical keys on the switch plate, soldering them if necessary. Then solder the electrical wire to the switches, starting first with the row wires and then the column wires. Lastly, put in the diodes and microcontroller.
After the hardware is complete, it’s time to set up the software to customize the function of each key.
To program your keyboard, you will need to download open-source firmware. Doing this allows you to develop your device. From here, you can customize each key individually, create unique combos, lighting patterns/colors, and more.
STAT: Keyboards require a thinner wire, such as 18 gauge. (source)