Infinity Keyboard: Building My Own Mechanical Keyboard

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I’ve written a lot about mechanical keyboards in the past, but beyond user experience, I’ve never really had any other type of interaction with a keyboard. When I saw the Infinity Keyboard Kit for sale on Massdrop, I was enticed by the prospect of a keyboard with aspects that I could customize, but more importantly, the opportunity to build my own keyboard.

When I first purchased the kit, it was somewhat intimidating. As a software developer, any task remotely related to electrical engineering is a strange and scary one, but I figured I’d give it a shot anyways.

Choosing the Keyboard

I ordered the kit with Matias Alps Clicky key switches, as I’m a huge fan of Cherry MX Green switches and thought the Alps switches might provide a similar but new experience.

Next, I picked the blank Signature Plastics PBT keycaps available as an option on the Massdrop purchase, as finding Matias-compatible keycaps is not an easy task. Plus, the blank keycaps would come in handy when I started messing around with the keyboard configurations.

As for the chassis, I stuck with the purpose-built bent metal chassis, since it was designed for the Infinity Keyboard and has a nice industrial look to it.

Finally, the logic board used is a custom ‘kiibohd’ (get it? ‘kiibohd’ sounds like a British person saying ‘keyboard’, hilarious), designed to fit both Cherry and Matias Alps switches.

Getting Started

The process began with me putting the switches into the chassis. They went in from the top side of the keyboard, and the switches had to be pushed in until the little wings on the sides of the switches popped out on the bottom side of the keyboard. I could tell when they were in place because the plastic stoppers were flush against the metal of the chassis.

I made the silly mistake of putting in all the switches prior to sticking the logic board on. Unfortunately, this meant that lining up all the holes would be impossible, so I took the advice of someone on the Massdrop discussion and popped out all the key switches until I only had a couple in each corner. This made it easy to line up and stick on the board.

Once the board was in place, I began the process of sticking in the rest of the switches anew.

Soldering

The next step was soldering the switches to the board. This was probably the most daunting task to me, since I hadn’t soldered anything in approximately 10 years; the last time was in early high school, and I was hardly an expert back then.

For my soldering kit, I picked up a Hakko FX-888D, since reviews for it are exceptional and a large portion of the internet seems to recommend it.

I also picked up some rosin-core solder, with the idea that it would be 60% lead and 40% tin, at the suggestion of my electrical engineer friend. However, despite the Amazon description, when it arrived it turned out to be 40% lead and 60% tin, but I figured I’d make do. I also picked up some solder wick and flux at my friend’s suggestion, since he assured me it’d make the process easier (it didn’t, I barely even used them).

Wanting to be safe, I asked the same electrical engineer friend if some paper towels on a glass table would make for a good soldering station. He reminded me that paper towels are quite flammable, and suggested that I at least consider a slightly less flammable dish towel as a workstation. I listened to his advice and went with that.

Soldering was a surprisingly easy process. The Hakko FX-888D is a great soldering iron; I just dialed in the temperature I wanted and I was ready to go. For the purpose of the keyboard, I opted to use 500°F as the temperature.

Despite my inexperience and lack of skill, the soldering process went fairly quickly and smoothly. All I had to do was touch the iron to the spot I wanted to solder, touch the solder wire to it, and let it melt right onto the connectors as I pulled away the iron.

Once the soldering was done, I tested the keyboard to make sure all of the switches were reporting correctly. Each one worked perfectly, although my soldering job had much to be desired. Instead of nice, clean, smooth soldering, the back of the keyboard looks like a Terminator T1000 (the melty one) cried onto it. This made me regret choosing the open-backed chassis somewhat, since my soldering left the back of the keyboard sharp to the touch. I suppose I’ll just have to be careful when grabbing it.

Problems Arise

Next up was putting the keycaps onto the switches. Again taking the advice of the Massdrop discussion on the keyboard, I opted to start with the stabilized keys (spacebar, Enter key, etc).

I noticed the stabilizers that attached to the keys felt fairly loose in their housing. Luckily someone online had the genius suggestion to cut tiny squares out of the plastic baggies the parts came in, and use them as a shim for the stabilizers.

This worked beautifully, and made the stabilizers sit tightly in their housing. Although something like super glue would probably work just as well, that’s a much more permanent solution, and the name of the game with the Infinity Keyboard is modularity.

However, while putting in the spacebar, I messed up a bit and got the stabilizing wire stuck under the stabilizers. I figured I would correct this mistake by pulling out the spacebar and fixing it.

Unfortunately for me, the Matias key stems are exceptionally tight, so it took an extraordinary amount of force the get the key out (My poor key-puller just gave up, and I had to use my fingers and a screwdriver to generate enough force to remove it).

However, once I got it out, I fixed the stabilizing wire and got back to work putting on the keycaps.

Once that was done, it meant I was done building my keyboard and it was ready to be used!

As you might expect by now, I had yet another unfortunate discovery when I began to type. All the keys worked well, except the spacebar would output anywhere between 1 to 10 spaces per keystroke.

At the suggestion of the Massdrop Infinity Keyboard discussion forum, it seemed like the best course of action would be to replace the key switch on the spacebar, as it had been speculated that maybe I damaged it when I removed the spacebar from it earlier.

Luckily for me, the keyboard kit included one extra key switch.

I figured the de-soldering process wouldn’t be much more difficult than the soldering process, but boy was I wrong.

The wick I had gotten barely soaked up any solder, and the solder was starting to get stuck in the holes in the logic board. As soon as I would melt it with my iron, it would solidify as soon as I started trying to push the switch out.

Eventually I pulled off enough solder to push the switch out, and replaced it with my backup switch. At this point I tested the keyboard with the new switch, and it worked flawlessly.

Now that I knew what I was doing, I was ready to put the spacebar onto the new switch and get typing.

However, nothing is that simple, and although I attached the spacebar without issue, the key tended to stick at the bottom of my keystrokes. This meant that I still ended up with unwanted spaces, although in some cases it meant I couldn’t hit the spacebar again when I wanted to.

At this point, I was out of extra key switches, and I knew that the force required when trying to remove the spacebar to try to diagnose the issue would cause the switch to break. I contacted Massdrop customer support to get some replacement switches and, hopefully, some advice.

They recommended trying to expand the spacers on the stabilizers, but that didn’t work. It also didn’t help that the spacebar appeared to be making contact with the keys directly above it and seemed somewhat out of alignment along the bottom.

I figured that maybe the spacebar was upside down, though the instructions never made mention of an ‘up’ and ‘down’ on the spacebar. Then again, the instructions were about as specific and helpful as a car-building manual comprised of useful steps along the lines of “get engine, put engine in car, apply wheels, finish car.”

Massdrop was kind enough to send me a free replacement key switch in preparation for the switch I was about to break. I also asked them send me a second backup switch in case I somehow managed to destroy the first backup, in case you are noticing a pattern here.

I removed the spacebar and switch using a soldering iron to loosen up the solder on the switch, pliers to pull the key switch out of the chassis, paperclips that were bent out of shape to pull on the spacebar, and my own tears of frustration. The tears were mostly a side effect, though I suppose they might have added some extra lubrication to the whole endeavor.

Once that was done, I put the new switch in the chassis, and plugged the keyboard in to test it and make sure everything worked properly.

After I was satisfied that the switch was fully functional, it was time to put in the spacebar.

I made sure the spacebar was flipped from the orientation it was in before (upside-down presumably). I attached the stabilizing wire to the stabilizers on the spacebar, and pushed it into place on the key switch.

To my dismay, the spacebar stuck at the bottom of the key press.

I immediately felt sheer terror at the nightmarish thought of having to remove the spacebar and key switch yet again.

In an act of desperation, I took a flathead screwdriver and pushed the one of the spacers out, certain it wouldn’t work.

To my amazement, the spacebar now moved freely.

Feeling like Thomas Edison probably felt when he pretended that he invented the lightbulb, I plugged the keyboard in to test each key.

My feeling of elation was quickly quashed as the “1” key didn’t seem to register key presses. The fear of having to replace a key switch was back almost as soon as it had gone. Feeling like I had eaten some bad Indian food, the sensation of fear in my gut returned as quickly as it had faded.

It looked like the soldering on the switch seemed ok, but given my complete ineptitude when it came to soldering, I figured I would melt it down a bit more to make absolutely certain it was making contact with the board.

A few seconds later, I plugged the keyboard back in, and finally everything worked properly.

I knew at the time that I should be feeling pride and joy for having completed my project successfully, but one singular thought consumed my mind: “never again”.

Conclusion

I got the Infinity Keyboard kit at a price of $157 after tax and shipping, with the intention to use it as a learning opportunity as well as benefit from having a rather unique 60% keyboard.

(A brief aside – keyboards tend to come in a few different sizes, most commonly: Standard, which includes all the typical keys, Tenkeyless [TKL], which excludes the number pad, and 60%, which excludes the number pad, arrow keys, and Home/Insert/Page Up/etc. keys.)

I certainly got my money’s worth as far as learning experience goes, though I was hoping the process would have been a bit more painless (emotionally and physically). I ended up with a fairly unique keyboard though, which I’m sure will impress all the people I know. It’s a known fact that nothing impresses people more than a keyboard.

At least the next time I build a keyboard (never), I’ll know what I’m doing. Also, as far as the key configuration goes, I have the option to compile my own firmware (as a software developer, this option disgusts me), use the default (as an enthusiast, this option disgusts me), or use the new Infinity configurator (as a lazy person, this option disgusts me). Oh well. I guess into the closet it goes.

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2 Comments

  1. BestUndecided says:

    Just wanted to say thanks. This article was very helpful in assembling my infinity keyboard.

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