Introduction: Wooden Keycaps Using Hand Tools
When I built my keyboard a few months ago I investigated the possibility to create keycaps out of wood scraps and miserably failed due to the precision required for the MX mounts. I went with ABS keycaps at that time but still wanted to get wooden ones...
The main reasons to try to build such keycaps was to be able to customize them at will, but let's face it: I also wanted to take the challenge! There are videos on the web showing wooden keycaps builds, but those require to have a CNC... which most hobbyists like me don't have. So here you will get the instructions without CNC, but also with only hand tools, which makes wooden keycaps possible for almost every body at a really low price!
Note that these steps are for DSA keycaps, but could be easily adapted to other profiles.
This method starts with the bottom of the key to carve out the inside, and then we shape the outside. The whole process is quite lengthy, so we will create a few jigs to help accelerating it.
- hard wood slightly thicker than the height of the key caps you want. Soft wood wouldn't work here!
- 3D printed mounts using the attached file (shortened the base of the one from gcb)
- CA glue
- About 25xYmm stick, where Y is slightly higher than the height of the key caps
- About 20x20mm stick
- 150x100x10mm board for the base.
- 10mm thick board for the blocker piece... exact size depends on the key caps sizes you need
- 3 M5 screws + nuts
- 2 wood screws (about 20mm long)
- thick paper
- 4mm and 10mm chisels
- Screw driver
- Sand paper (from 80 to 320 grit)
- Drill with 5mm bits and countersink bit
- Utility knife
Step 1: Building the Drawing Jig
The first thing we will do is drawing the bottom of the key: its outer and inner sides. Drawing squares or rectangles seems an easy enough task to not build a jig for that... but to ensure precision and reliability as well as reducing the time to produce a key.
The idea is to create two templates: one for the inside of the key and one for the outside. I am having both on the same piece of paper for each key size. I will show for a 1U key, but the whole idea is the same for wider ones.
A 1U key measures 18mm on each side. On a small sheet of thick paper draw the center lines of the two squares and draw a 19x19mm square for the outside jig and a 17x17mm one for the inside. Use a utility or exactor knife to cut the squares.
Do not erase the center lines: they will be used as guides to place the jigs later one.
Note: I intentionally added 1mm on each side to leave enough room for the pencil thickness when drawing later. Just ensure that the squares you draw with this have 18mm and 16mm sides.
Step 2: Building the Shape Jig - Profiles
The idea of this jig is to help reliably reproducing the same shape of the outer sides of each key. I created DSA keys and thus just needed one jig like this since all sides are alike. If building keys for more complex profiles like OEM or SA you will have to create several like this one.
First create the profile guides:
On a 25mm wide stick at least the height of the keycaps, draw the profile of the key to produce. Here I drew it quickly based on a 60° angle... but ideally draw the profile on CAD software, print it twice and glue them on each side.
Hint: you can also see on the picture that I have been lazy and didn't shape the top part of the keycap... don't do it since it will make you gain time!
Using a 10mm chisel cut the shape of the end of the stick along the template lines.
Cut the stick in two identical pieces. You can see that mine are not exactly the same thickness... it's not important as long as you can screw them later. The length of my two pieces is about 80mm: just don't cut them too short!
Step 3: Building the Shape Jib - Base Board
Now prepare the base of the jig where the profile guides will be attached.
On the base board draw a line that is perpendicular to the work edge to fit one of the profile guide.
Drill two 5mm holes with countersinks under the board
Draw a line at 18mm from the first one to mark the position of the other profile guide for 1U keys. You can also draw other lines for other sizes. Here I draw one for 2U keys too.
Draw lines parallel to the work edge for the screw
Drill 6mm holes along those lines and clear with a chisel: the second profile should be able to slide from between the keycaps size lines
Drill a hole to hold the blocker piece. It should be in the middle of the 18mm space for 1U keys. I drilled mine at 50mm from the front edge of the board.
Using the chisel dig around the holes under the board to fit the screw heads
Step 4: Building the Shape Jig - Blockers
To prevent the keycap from moving between the profiles of the jig you need a blocker piece... or rather one blocker piece for each key size you plan to build.
All that is needed is to cut them at the keycap width. 18mm for 1U, 36mm for 2U, etc. Just mind that keycaps are not square... so the 18mm blocker will need to have multiple holes, unless you build so many sizes that you want a slot to adjust the position.
Drill the hole according to one drilled between the profiles in the base board.
The height of the blocker is not very important: it just needs to not be taller than the keycaps to build.
Step 5: Digging the Inside
It is now time to start on the keycaps! This build method uses the bottom of the key as reference.
Draw the center lines of the keycap and use them to align the paper jigs and draw the inner and outer squared of the key. Remember that the pencil thickness will have an influence!
Triple check that you have been precise enough and drew a 18mm square outside and 16mm one inside!
Cut a 20x20mm (or more) stick with a 60° angle. I have to admit that I cut it using the miter saw before I decided to go only with hand tools.
Align the edge of the 60° angle guide to one of the inner lines and clamp it to avoid anything to move.
Using the 4mm chisel, gently cut along the guide by starting with middle. The corners are done once the two adjacent sides middles are cut. The hole to dig needs to be 6.5mm deep.
Proceed with the four sides of the square.
Step 6: Cutting the Key
Mark the outer lines using a wide chisel or a marking knife. Cut a small bevel on the outside of the key to guide the saw.
Saw along the four lines to extract the primitive keycap!
Step 7: Shaping the Outside
Place the keycap in the shaping jig as shown in the picture.
Sand the edge using 80 grit sand paper until you reach the template guide edge. Sand with finer grains until smooth.
Rotate the key in the guide and sand again until all four sides and are ready.
The mistake with the guide on the pictures is that I didn't shape the top with it: I had to eye ball it after the fact, better sand it with the template too!
Step 8: Adding the Mount
Test that the 3D printed mount fits in the key cap and align the cross with the edges. If needed adjust the keycap with the 4mm chisel or sand the keycap edges.
Also dry test the mount on a key switch to ensure it is first nicely. I had to adjust the insides of the mount using a utility knife for it to fit.
Once satisfied glue the mount with the keycap using CA glue.
We could come up with an alignment jig to avoid the eyeballing of this part of the process... I haven't put too much brain power at it yet.
Step 9: Finish
You have plenty of options for the finish. For my first attempt shown on the picture (didn't have the shaping guide for it) I transferred a laser printed logo using polyurethane based varnished. This technique is widely described on the web.
Before applying any water-based finish, wet the keycap, let it dry and sand away the fibers that came out using a fine grit. You may have to repeat this process several times.
It took me about 3 hours to build the first keycap using this process... count how much time you need for your whole keyboard!
Check the small video comparing the sound with a PBT keycap both on Gateron red switches.
I'm eager to see your fancy wooden key caps!
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