The addictive hobby of customizing mechanical keyboards

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Since that one time that I wrote a review of the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard for you nerds, I’ve only come to love my UHK more. I’m officially a mechanical keyboard guy at this point. Much like the right band can ease me into a whole genre of music I hadn’t previously appreciated, it’s turned me on to all kinds of mechanical keyboards and related pursuits I just couldn’t get into before.

I love my UHK enough that I decided to show it some custom keycap love. I had a custom set of translucent black, side-printed keys that I’d picked up from Massdrop for my Ergodox keyboard. So I swapped those in. I had a set of red keys for — I don’t remember what, and replaced the IJKL keys (which are arrow keys on my UHK) and the Caps Lock key (my Hyper key) for fun. But those weren’t side printed and the font was ugly. And so began the journey.

Max Keyboard

I went through a few vendors before I got to Max Keyboard. Turns out it was the same company that provided my original set of side-printed caps from that Massdrop drop. They offer a custom keycap set with a little picker where you can customize the plastic and printed text color of every key and get the whole set in the mail for $40 (or $20 for blank keycaps).

For many keyboards this would be enough for a great custom keycap set, but among the problems I ran into was that the UHK has a unique layout for modifiers on the right. The Return, Shift, and Control (as well as Backspace) on the right side are all non-standard widths, so the custom key set didn’t give me full coverage.

Because I’d messed up with purple text on carbon grey keys for the bottom modifier row, which turned out to be unreadable, I just ordered a second set with new colors on everything but the left modifiers, which covered my right shift key and gave me a few more options for the rest of the keys. Even then, I needed an extra function key, a non-standard-width pipe key, and a few other anomalies. With great hope I entered those requirements in the comment box of my order and, lo and behold, they accommodated every request at no extra charge.

In the same order I discovered that you can also order single keys with custom artwork side or top printed on any color keycap. I used that to get my own Return symbol on a purple key, and am eagerly awaiting shipment of my custom Backspace key and a Hyper key with a rocket ship symbol. I’m sure you’ll see pictures of those on Twitter or Instagram

The only keys I’m having trouble working with are the Space/Mod keys on the keyboard, which I’d love to color but would be happy with just blank versions. Unfortunately, RX4 1x1.75 keys aren’t the easiest things to track down. It’s also hard to find a R4 1x2.25, so the angle on my right-side CTRL key is a bit off. This paragraph is probably already too nerdy for all but the most hardcore keyboard folks. I’ll stop.

The level of service and willingness to help me with overly custom orders leads me to highly recommend Max Keyboards for all of your keyboard customizing needs. That’s really the point of this whole post. Go buy stuff from Max Keyboard.

The Keybow

As an aside to this post, I’ve been having a lot of fun with the Keybow from Pimoroni. It’s a solderless 12-key Raspberry Pi keyboard project you can assemble with just a screwdriver (and maybe a spudger), then program with Lua and a micro-SD card. It took me a bit to get it up and running, but it was a great host to the Fn row from my first set of custom keycaps that hadn’t previously found a home (all the keyboards I’ve ever customized were 60%…).

You can program the LEDs using a 1 x 12px PNG file, with each pixel representing an RGB color. Load that into the SD card and watch it light up. Add a few more columns of colors and it will start cycling. You can also manually assign colors in the config files, and have keys change their color when you press them (and other fun tricks).

You can have the keys send whatever codes you want. I have it sending CTRL-Shift-F1 through F12, shortcuts unused elsewhere on my system that allow me to trigger anything I want via BetterTouchTool. I have a fun system set up where double tapping a key1 launches one app, but then a sequence combining one of the three bottom keys with any of the top nine performs alternate functions. Sure, I’m making another beast out of it that’s going to require a printed chart to use, but I’m having fun. Let me be.

Anyway, go check out Max Keyboards, the Ultimate Hacking Keyboard, and the Keybow (and the other fun Raspberry Pi/Arduino kits from Pimoroni). Join Massdrop (my referral link) for great custom keyboard/keycap buys, and obviously check out /r/MechanicalKeyboards for that keyboard pr0n. If you’re into that kind of thing, of course. Which apparently I am now.

  1. Did you know that BetterTouchTool can use key sequences as triggers now? It’s awesome. You can also chain together multiple actions in response to triggers. Have fun with that.