Team Building - Building Mechanical Keyboards

by Rory Woods Posted on September 25, 2017 at 9:30 AM

The Team's finished keyboards

On the week of August 13, Preteckt had its first full team gathering to map out where we were going as a company. While we celebrated the 2 year anniversary since our first hardware install, and also the first time that we had our fast-growing team all in the same place, the tech team decided to do some team building.

About six months ago, Brad (our lead software engineer) introduced me into the world of mechanical keyboards. At the time, I had no idea of the depth of the world I was getting into. I've been playing computer games for years, and I've heard plenty of the pro gamers talk about the keyboards they use (almost always a mechanical one), but I had no idea people built their own. As a coder, Brad likened it to a Jedi building their Light Saber — you're creating and customizing the tool you use most.

Well after hours of reading on /r/mk, I was pretty hooked on the idea of builing my own keyboard. I'd wanted to buy a mechanical board for awhile, so why not build it instead? I figured I'd do this on my own, but to my surprise, the rest of the tech team was all really interested. And so, the first Preteckt Keyboard Build was born.

I loved the look of the boards from this post, and after reading the comments, found a contact at Varmilo to ask about ordering parts. Cynthia from Varmilo worked with me to set us up with an affordable DIY kit, and about a week later, we were excitedly digging through boxes of parts, waiting for the build day to come.

The keyboard parts

Fast Forward to August 13, 2017. We've all arrived from our various home cities, keycaps in hand, and after a productive morning kickoff and pizza lunch, we're ready to start soldering. As a startup company, we all tend to wear a lot of hats — people on the team do what needs doing. Since we build our own hardware, it means most of us have had to do at least some soldering at one point or another.

Yum! Don't like the soldering iron.

Note: don't test a soldering iron with your tongue. This image is a hilarious joke.

Note — if anyone is interested in a more in-depth build guide, we'll soon update this post with a link to an actual build guide, which will be posted to reddit you can visit here. For reference, we built the Varmilo VA68M v2 keyboard.

A quick & dirty build guide

Switches: MX red, brown, and blue

The first step is organizion. As a chef says, Mise en place. When building a DIY keyboard kit, that includes a case, a plate, a PCB, LEDs, keycaps, and of course, the mechanical switches.

The workspace for the build

The basic recipe for our build includes:

  • Attaching the switches to the plate. The plate keeps your keys steady and firm while you're typing away.
  • Slotting the PCB onto the back of the switches, guiding all the pins through their respective holes in the PCB.
  • Adding a healthy dash of patience and focus before soldering. Each switch had 2 pins that needed to be soldered to the board.
  • Sloting an LED into each switch, and soldering these to the PCB as well.

As any chef knows, you should taste your work as you go. In this case, that meant plugging the USB into the PCB, and check that your keys and LEDs work as you go.

Soldering in progress

Now that the innards have been connected, it's time to switch metaphors and start our surgery. Place the soldered board into its case, making sure to add the included thin plastic sheet between the PCB and the case. This ensures no shorts will occur on our creation. The body is finally ready for the finishing touch - decorate the switches with your chosen keycaps, and marvel at your new creation.

Testing the LEDs

If the above guide seems simplified, it is, but not by much. The process is simple enough that anyone with the desire could do it. As far as team building exercises, this one was a lot of fun. Not only did we have fun building the keyboards, but we got to then use our project all week to do our coding.

Finally, I'd like to give a big shout out to Cynthia and the rest of the team over at Varmilo. We wouldn't have been able to make this happen without them, and we really appreciate all their help. Cheers guys!

Amy's finished keyboard