Building a 40% ortholinear mechanical keyboard
Published on Wednesday, November 18, 2020
I've been pretty happy with my James Donkey 619 mechanical keyboard (with Gateron Black switches), which I've been using for about a year now. At times, though, a full-size keyboard felt too big for me as I never really use the number pad. When my friend informed me of a group buy he was running for a 40% keyboard, I was in.
Check out a timelapse of the build on YouTube.
- Self-healing cutting mat that covered my working area as I didn't want anything damaging the wood table
- Small reading light for better lighting
- Wire cutters and needle nose pliers
- Soldering iron with a fresh tip and lead-free solder
- Safety first: a pair of safety glasses and a fan were used while soldering
I began by soldering the Zener diodes and other electronic components.
After all the electronics were put in place, I made sure to test that the connections were configured properly by manually shorting the switch contacts. Keyboard Tester proved to be a useful tool for this.
During testing, I discovered that I had mistakenly broken one of the Zener diode leads on the PCB, which I fixed by soldering in a small piece of 26 AWG wire.
Next, I secured and soldered all of the switches. I used Gateron Speed Copper switches in this build, since I wanted a light but tactile feel. Because I didn't use a plate, I made sure to align the switches as best I could with the PCB.
The board simply uses a blank PCB as the backplate. The two PCBs were connected using some standoffs and some screws. I also mounted a transparent acrylic plate above the electronics area for a cleaner look.
Since the keyboard uses multiple layers (toggled using the blue lower/raise keys) to achieve the same amount of keys as a full-size keyboard, I opted for blank keycaps. Here's how I color coded it:
- Cream: alphanumeric
- Light gray: modifiers (command, shift, control, option), space/backspace, and arrows
- Dark gray: escape
- Light blue: raise and lower
Going from a 104-key, staggered board to a 40% (48-key), ortholinear board has been quite the switch. It took a few weeks, but I'm now typing faster than I was with my old keyboard. Additionally, since the board uses the QMK firmware, I can customize the keymaps and layers to my heart's content. My current keymap is located on GitHub.