Henry Smith

🚀 make things
📝 write about it

That Weird Keyboard

At the start of 2014 I started to pay the price for years and years of typing. A horrible RSI was causing shooting pains in my wrists by mid-afternoon each day. Something had to change, but obviously not typing any more wasn’t an option. The solution I settled on was an ergonomic keyboard, specifically the Ergodox.

The Ergodox is an open source hardware design. Like almost anything involving the words “open” and “source”, some assembly is required. The equipment you need is fairly standard, and the assembly instructions list it all. The only extra I’d recommend is a magnifying glass, to help inspect those tiny diode solder joints and so on. Here’s what it all looked like just before I got started. The video playing on the laptop is a 35 minute close-up of somebody who knows what they’re doing completing the whole build. It really helped.

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The big thing that people worry about is whether they’ll be able to cope with soldering the surface mount diodes. It really isn’t that hard, and once you get into a rhythm it’s kind of fun. The part I think is actually the most difficult is stripping all the plastic off the USB connector. Unlike the diodes, you don’t build up any practice with that step, so it’s a one shot deal. I actually fucked it up the first time and had to get another one and do it again.

Once the whole thing was put together, the left hand keyboard didn’t work at all. This was pretty bad news. I don’t know anywhere near enough about electronics to debug a circuit board. It started to look like I’d spent all this time and money on a failed project. I was out of ideas, so I spent about a day miserably retouching solder joints and checking things with the multimeter. Against all the odds, my desperate, clueless poking around randomly fixed whatever was wrong. Easily one of the most undeserved moments of success in my life.

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The sheer difficulty of learning a new keyboard with no key labels was a major surprise. It took a week of practice before I could type a whole sentence slowly without a mistake. It took months for me to regain enough speed to use it in my day job. Months. After almost a year, I can type as naturally and fast on my Ergodox as I can on my laptop keyboard. Switching between the two is no problem at all either. But it took about six months of daily use before I could type without thinking about it.

Massdrop provide an excellent web-based keyboard layout configurator. Customising the layout was an experience full of lessons about ergonomics. Many of the Ergodox’s buttons are great as modifiers or special keys, but terrible for typing regular characters. The default layout pretends that this isn’t the case, and mixes both types of key haphazardly across all the different locations. Eventually I settled on the layout below.

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The main principle behind my layout is that it mimics a normal QWERTY layout as much as possible. Learning to type all over again is hard enough without throwing in a new layout as well. Punctuation keys are as close to their usual homes as possible too. Just a few of them are squeezed out onto the thumb key clusters.

The left thumb keys deal with [LCtrl] and [Esc], with [Enter] and [Backspace] on the right thumb. These are some of the most frequently used buttons on the keyboard, and it’s so much more physically comfortable having the strong, dexterous thumbs deal with them instead of those poor overworked little fingers.

Apart from the number keys on the top row, I’ve kept the edges of the keyboard clear of keys that enter characters. I found it uncomfortable reaching for those keys while typing. You have to move your wrists to do it, which I felt undermined the whole reason for choosing the Ergodox. They’re better suited for less frequently used special keys.

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The Ergodox is a great keyboard, but that almost seems irrelevant. It’s definitely solved the original problem; no more shooting pains. And typing on it is really enjoyable. But at the end of the day it’s a fun project that just happens to produce a nice keyboard as a byproduct.