Southpaw + Burnt Orange + MT3

Some quick background:

By this point in time, you might have heard that mechanical keyboards are a thing.

The Whitefox keyboard (picture from Massdrop)

As people increasingly use touchscreens for more and more of their daily communication needs (and slimmer laptops lead to thinner keyboards with less feel to them) a neat counterculture has been developing around keyboards. Typists have been turning away from the trend of smaller and thinner, and looking to keyboards that are less minimal, sure, but incorporate a significantly increased level of feedback into the typing experience: after all, if we’re going to spend so much time in front of our computers, we may as well enjoy it.

A small industry has come up in the space, with people buying and selling new, used, and antique boards. Entire companies have been raised from the dead because of the demand the community is generating. With the advent of easier manufacturing in China, people are even designing and building their own from scratch, needing relatively minimal electronics thanks to standardized chips with wide support.

 

But this post isn’t meant to be a post-modernist review of the culture around keyboards (maybe I’ll do that in the next one?) – I’m here to talk about my next project.

The project:

I’m going to be putting together a kit board. Kits are interesting because while they don’t need a ton of technical expertise (most simply involve soldering) they truly broaden the amount of customization I’ll get to do.

The first decision was on the kit; in fact, if I were to be honest, it was the launch of the group buy for the kit that triggered my interest in the board.

Numpad on the left, no function keys, but a handful of extra keys to the right. Image from Geekhack post.

My current board is a WhiteFox I got through one of Massdrop’s early drops. While I liked the more compact form factor (no function keys, arrow cluster pulled tightly into the rest of the board), I did miss the numpad. Most boards put the numpad to the right, and that means the mouse has to be kept (for right handed people) further out to the right. I had seen a handful of boards with a number pad incorporated into the left side – I was immediately drawn to this. But, the boards were extremely rare, and almost uniformly, not available for sale.

So when the Southpaw 65+ groupbuy launched, it checked literally every box as far as what I was looking for.

  • The kit keeps the compact layout of the Whitefox
  • The keyset is also mostly standard, making it easy to use a custom kit
  • It just adds 4 columns of keys to the left to be used as a numpad or otherwise
  • The steel bent plate would offer a rigid design while going further in the aesthetic design I wanted.

I didn’t hesitate in joining the drop. I would, though, need to figure out where I was going to get the rest of the parts from, primarily, the keycaps and the switches.

The keycaps:

Luckily enough, I already had an open order for a perfect set of keycaps. Matt3o, the maker of the Whitefox, was already working with Massdrop on a high profile set, the /dev/tty kit in their MT3 profile.

  • The high profile design was new but comparable to an existing standard.
  • The colorway was perfect for the aesthetic goal
  • The set was made of PBT, which while a bit harsher to use, is pretty much the best material for use in keyboards.

I had bought into it with the expectation of putting it on the Whitefox, but luckily I had decided to go ahead buy the caps necessary to cover a full board, and then some. So, I was squared away on this front.

The switches:

The final step was the switches, and this definitely took a bit more deliberation. Switches are essentially the heart of the mechanical keyboard experience; the rest of the board is effectively housing for the switches, so I wanted to make sure I got this right.

  • I had basically insisted on Cherry switches for my boards so far, but I had been hearing quite a few good things about the Asian manufacturers of switches by this point.
  • Additionally, while I had enjoyed clicky switches on the Whitefox, the Cherry Browns in my work keyboard were suprisingly tactile and gave a great amount of feedback
  • Most clicky switches don’t rely on the click in order to activate – at risk of getting too far into the weeds, suffice it to say that in most cases, the click feedback is added on artificially rather than as a critical part of activation.
  • Asian manufacturers provide a lot more choice in terms of weighting and features – I could choose heavier switches for a more distinct experience.
100 switches, ready to go.

Accordingly, after some trial, I purchased a set of Kailh BOX Burnt Orange switches. They are tactile, and give good feedback on actuation, with a bit more weighting than the standard brown switches. The Kailh switches are a bit newer in design as well, with clear housing and a contact area that is a bit more insulated from the elements.

Where I’m at so far:

So far, I already have the keycaps and the switches in hand. The big thing still missing is the kit which I’m expecting in the next month or so, but once I have it, I should be able to kick off the build, which is probably going to consist of a few things:

  • Soldering the switches and LEDs onto the PCB and case.
  • Pulling together the exact layout I ended up going with and compiling the firmware needed for it using existing tools
  • Flashing the firmware and testing to make sure everything is working.

There’s no programming or coding needed, and the actual soldering isn’t too challenging (even if it is a bit repetitive). So I’m hoping once I have everything I can get it together pretty quickly. A lot more to come on this!

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