Steampunk Keyboard

Steampunk is an alternate reality where the Victorian era has continued to flourish. In the same way electricity shaped the modern world, steampunk imagines the world based on steam power.

Steampunk culture includes futuristic innovations as people of the Victorian era might have envisioned them, or modern technology reimagined and recreated for the Victorian age.

I was really drawn to steampunk, so I decided to build a steampunk keyboard. There are quite a few creative keyboards out there already, so designing something unique would be a challenge.

One item my keyboard would include is a power source. Of all the keyboard creations I have seen, none have actually contained a source of steam power – so mine will have a built-in steam engine.

I sketched out a rough design in Photoshop and based the look of the keyboard on the old Commodore and Atari computers from the 1980’s.

Since I don’t have the ability to cut metal, I would build the case out of wood.

Before I could do any further designing, I needed to decide what type of keyboard to use as the working-base for my creation. I decided to go with the IBM “Clicky” keyboard (Model M keyboard), a keyboard considered to be one of the finest ever made.

Built on a heavy steel frame, it included electro-mechanical keys with springs underneath that mimicked the actual sound and feel of a typewriter, which was an important consideration when keyboards first came out.

I found a refurbished keyboard on eBay for $80 (US) and once I received it, proceeded to take it apart.I removed all they keys, as I would be dealing with them later (they pop off with a screwdriver).

Once I had disassembled everything, I basically had the following pieces:

The keyboard itself with the keys removed.

The larger circuit board at the left, which controls the keyboard, and the smaller circuit board containing the lights for the CAPS/NUM/SCROLL LOCK area of the keyboard.

The keyboard cable that plugs into the larger circuit board above. It had a proprietary plug on one end, and a standard PS/2 plug on the other end.

I ran into one issue almost immediately- when I plugged the keyboard into the PS/2 jack on my computer, the keyboard did not work. After doing some online research, I found that the modern PS/2 jacks lack the required power to drive an old keyboard. Luckily I was able to purchase a PS/2 to USB adapter that supplied the additional power, and the keyboard tested fine.

I had an old piece of wood in the garage and decided to use it for this project. It was large enough that I could cut the five pieces I needed, and have enough left over in case I needed to recut.

Cutting the rectangular pieces was not a problem, but cutting the sides was a different story. The sides needed to be sloped to match the contour of the keyboard, and that wasn’t easy.

I eventually got it right, but it took six tries to get the sides evenly sloped. I bought two metal rods and placed them between the sides to support the heavy keyboard being installed.

I stained the wood several times with different types of stain and varied the dry time to produce an aged appearance. I then let it dry for about a week.

Once fully dry, I performed a test fit with the keyboard. It fit perfectly with just enough room around each edge for the fabric keyboard cover I would later cut.

Next I needed to cut a piece of fabric and use it to cover up the plastic portion of the keyboard. I took the keyboard to work and made a copy of it.  I now had a template to cut the fabric so the key holes would stick through. I thought about what type of fabric would look good with the dark wood, and also what type of fabric would look somewhat Victorian. I chose red velvet.

I took the template, laid it on the back of a piece of practice fabric, and proceeded to use a hole punch and a mallet to punch out the 109 keyboard holes (some of the wider keys like the spacebar used two holes).

I then took the freshly punched fabric and did a test fit over the keyboard. It looked really good. Even though my punching wasn’t perfectly straight, the velvet stretched a bit to cover my mistakes.

Satisfied that I could complete the final version correctly, I punched out the holes in about 30 minutes.

Now that I had cut the keyboard cover to the proper size and punched the holes for the keys, using double-sided tape, I attached the fabric to the keyboard.

I saved several of the “holes” that I had punched to cover the extra posts that I would not be using (some of the longer keys, like the shift keys used two holes, but I would only be using one).The keyboard itself was pretty much done. Now I had to work on the individual keys.

In order to attach typewriter keys to a computer keyboard, I would have to cut and re-shape the computer key stems.

The original IBM keys looked like the pictures to the left. At the time, IBM made their keys in two pieces.

The main stem that plugged into the keyboard, and the key cap the covered the stem. The key caps could be printed in different languages or customized for a particular user or company. I would be discarding the key caps, and cutting the stems down to a flat circle so  a typewriter key could be attached.

It’s a bit of a pain when you have to cut down 101 key stems, but I spaced it over a few days and managed to cut them all down. The key stem on the left is the original, and they key stem on the right is the cut down version. I know the freshly cut key is still square, but once I finished cutting down all 101 keys, I filed the square tops down into circles the size of the typewriter keys.

I then painted the top portion of the key stems gold so that the gray plastic would not be seen once the keys were back on the keyboard.

Next I would need to prepare the typewriter keys.

Now it was back to eBay to purchase typewriter keys. I liked the round, glass covered keys from the old Royal typewriter, so I purchased three sets.Typewriter keys that have already been removed from the typewriter are easy to find as they are popular with crafters and jewelry makers.

I needed three sets because typewriters usually had about 50 keys, and my keyboard had 101. Plus, I needed a few spares to practice with. The keys were about 70 years old, so I decided that once I took them apart, I would also clean them. Each key had a series of tabs on the back that could be pried up, and the key disassembled. The large hole in the center is where the key used to be attached to the typewriter.

Here’s some of the keys and glass after they had been washed.I did run into one unforeseen circumstance. When I disassembled the round keys, the paper letters inside were so old, they basically disintegrated. I would need to reprint all the round keys. The rectangular keys were ok, so I would try to re-purpose them.

I designed new lettering for all the round keys in Photoshop. I then printed them on glossy paper, and punched them out with the same tools I had used on the keyboard fabric. Once cut, I took a black Sharpie, and went around the edges of the newly cut circles to cover up any white that might still be showing.

Now that I had clean key stems, keys, and glass, it was a simple matter to reassemble the keys using my newly printed letters. The tabs on the back of the original keys were now simply bent back and affixed to the keyboard stems and voila – a new key is born.

The newly created keys could then be inserted into the keyboard. I knew the keys wouldn’t be perfectly level or straight yet, but I placed them in the keyboard just to make sure they would still depress, and function properly, which they did.

Finally, I needed something that looked cool that could cover the three little LED lights in the upper right hand corner of the keyboard (num lock, caps lock, scroll lock). I wanted something in brass since the later additions to my keyboard will be brass, so I purchased 3 brass peepholes (the kind you drill through the front door so you can see who’s on the porch), cut them down, and glued them to the LED lights.

I then added some brass parts for the case trim and completed the keyboard. Over the next few weeks I cleaned it up a bit and ended up with the final product below:

1 Comment

  1. David says:

    You need to see this:


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