Building Gaming Keyboard 2.0: Bigger, Better, Oranger

Long ago, I fell down the custom mechanical keyboard rabbit hole, and several of my experiences in this expensive world have been detailed on ExtremeTech. Sometimes my keyboard projects are motivated by a need for a specific board that fills a niche, and other times I just want something that’s more powerful or pretty than what I currently have. My latest project is the latter — a gaming board designed around one of my favorite keysets.

When you commit to having more than one keyboard, you can tune them to specific tasks. I have some that I prefer for typing, some that are better for gaming, and others that I take when I’m traveling. The last time I built a gaming board, I tried to keep it a little on the conservative side. This time, I wanted to go all-out and build something visually striking without ending up with a neon stealth fighter (looking at you, Razer). The result, is the orangest keyboard you’ve ever seen.

The Big Question: Why?

This project was inspired by keycaps. There’s a custom keyset called GMK Carbon of which I’m very fond. It has a similar color scheme to the HEV suit from Half-Life — orange, carbon, and cream. It’s a striking colorway, but the keysets are rare. The official Carbon sets are produced in batches, and so far there have only been two, with a third one underway now.

carbon

The Carbon colorway.

The first Carbon round was in the SA profile, which is a taller keycap designed to look like old typewriters and beam spring keyboards. The GMK version of Carbon was sold last summer in Cherry profile. They look more like traditional keycaps, but slightly shorter and more angled. I find these to be extremely comfortable. The current sale of Carbon, if you’re interested, is in SA profile again. The wait for delivery is pretty long, though.

I have had GMK Carbon on several boards since I got it, but I decided a keyset that I like so much deserved a special keyboard. So, I embarked on what would turn out to be my most ambitious keyboard build to date. Not only did I have to assemble this keyboard, I had to make some additional modifications to it before it was perfect.

The keyboard kit I ordered is known as a KBD75. I chose this board specifically because of the layout. One of the things that makes Carbon keysets so popular is the warning sign novelty kit. Many of my keyboards are smaller 65 percent layouts, and those don’t have enough space to show off all the novelties. The KBD75 is a 75 percent layout, which has an extra row of keys at the top for F1-F12. On a 65 percent board, the F keys are in the function layer.

So, the slightly larger KBD75 is ideal for showing off all the neat Carbon novelties, and the manufacturer offered an orange aluminum case. It’s a hefty board, clocking in at a little over three pounds fully assembled. Since Carbon has orange key caps, this seemed like a perfect mix. The board even has RGB underglow that can be set to orange. Gaudy? A little. Fun? Definitely.

Building the Board

Since this board was primarily intended for games, I wanted to use a lighter switch than I usually prefer for typing. The winner here was the “milky” Gateron Brown. They’re similar to Cherry Brown switches in weight, but they are noticeably smoother than Cherry’s current switches. Don’t ask me why, but Cherry’s newer switches just don’t feel right. The milky Gateron housings seem to have a slightly softer bottom-out compared with the clear/black ones as well. Going with a tactile switch also means I can comfortably type on the board.

switches

It took about three months for all the parts to arrive, which was faster than some group buys I’ve joined in the past. The KBD75 has a universal PCB and plate that support several different layouts, so it was necessary to put some keycaps on the switches before soldering anything together. Rushing this step runs the risk of putting a switch in the wrong place, and that could make programming and even fitting keycaps impossible. Desoldering a switch is about a thousand times harder than soldering it in the first place, so I like to avoid that if at all possible.

spacing

Checking the switch spacing.

Since I opted not to put LEDs in the individual switches, there were only two solder points for each switch. There are 84 switches in my chosen layout, so that’s a total of 168 solder points. Each one only takes a few seconds once you get into a rhythm. You can see an example of my mediocre (but functional!) soldering below.

solder

With the soldering done, I put on my beloved GMK Carbon keycaps and set to work programming the KBD75. This version of the board runs PS2AVRGB and can be programmed with the Bootmapper client, which is a desktop app that connects to your keyboard. You don’t get a nice visual layout editor like the WhiteFox offers, but Bootmapper is serviceable. After connecting, you press a button on the keyboard, then click the button in the software you want to bind to it. The Bootmapper client also handles RGB colors, so I set that to orange, obviously.

Colors Are Important

Since I started this project with the intention of building a home for GMK Carbon, the color of the case was important. I thought picking up a snazzy orange aluminum case would complement Carbon nicely, but there was a problem. The case was not very orange.

not orange

Definitely not orange.

The color of the anodizing when I received my kit was decidedly red. After reaching out to the manufacturer, I was informed this was indeed the “orange” anodizing. Well, that was clearly going to be a problem if I wanted this keyboard to be the visual masterpiece I had originally envisioned. The manufacturer is in China, so it’s not like I could just return the board and look for a different orange keyboard. I decided to look into changing the anodizing, which was not a simple matter.

Anodizing is a process that uses an electric current to create a coating of aluminum oxide. Most forms of anodizing are performed in an acid solution, which slowly dissolves the oxide layer and produces tiny pores a few nanometers across. A dye can be introduced to fill the pores, giving the aluminum a fun color, but lighter colors tend to be more difficult. Imperfections in the evenness are much more obvious with colors like orange. White anodizing actually does not exist at all because the titanium atoms used in white dye are too large to fit in the pores.

very orange

After re-anodizing.

Anodizing is not the sort of thing you can do cheaply or effectively at home — you need a few hundred volts of direct current. Most metal finishers that do anodizing only handle larger industrial orders. It took about a dozen phone calls before I found anyone willing to do this job.

Because the case was anodized incorrectly, it first had to be stripped to get rid of the micro-pores with the dye in them. Then, it was anodized again with the right color. There are a few subtle variations in the color, but it looks great considering the aluminum had to be stripped first. See above for a comparison between the old and new anodizing. The image at the top of the post is the finished product with the right anodizing as well.

final

The finished product.

So, it took a lot more time and effort than I expected, but the final product is exactly as I envisioned. Some people will think an orange keyboard is too loud, but I love it.

[Source:- extremetech]