Home Hacks: How Emma Built Her Own Keyboard

By Emma Chee

09 Apr 2020

Emma Chee was born to build. A senior front-end developer at xDesign whose creativity often astounds us, she recently constructed her own keyboard from scratch. It’s a thing of wonder and, as Emma explains, her handiwork’s productivity and ergonomic benefits match the magical appearance.

I just like building stuff..

I began my career as a UX/UI designer but became a developer. It was then I realised that designing things is fine but what I really enjoy is building. I love the instant visual feedback you get with front-end development – you write a bit of code, refresh the page and then see exactly what you've done. In and outside of my job, I just like building stuff.

Back in Sydney, I made my own boat

My parents lived by the Parramatta River, and there was a sailing club around the corner. I’ve no interest in sailing but I wanted a non-techy side project, so I decided to build a boat. You can buy kits, but what’s the fun in that? I did a lot of research and used old wooden floorboards for the ribs. The boat’s still at my parents. It’s functional and it looks good ­­– I’m proud of it! I documented the whole process here if you're interested.

I cornered the keyboard guy

There's a massive online community of people who are into building their own keyboards. I stumbled across them and got interested. It's a crazy world and can be an expensive one depending on how fancy your tastes are. But it wasn't until I went to an event in Australia called CAMPJS that I really got hooked. A bunch of front-end JavaScript developers get together in a remote school camp and spend the weekend sharing hacks. One guy did a talk about how his productivity had improved through making his own keyboard. That really stood out for me, so I pretty much picked his brains for the whole day.

Getting the parts took months

I could probably have put my keyboard together in an hour – it's really just a case of putting the switches together and doing some soldering. The hard thing is getting all the pieces – it took me months. The guy at CAMPJS referred me to a blog post he’d written on Drop with a bunch of links to where he bought his parts: the PCB (the circuit board), the switches and the keycaps. There are so many types of switches, you wouldn't believe it. I’ve got ‘cherry browns’, which are ‘clicky’, but are not that noisy compared to blues. You need to pick the one that has the best tactile feel for you.

Dad was my Singapore bodyguard

The keycaps world is an industry in itself. There are websites called Drop (formerly Massdrop) where, if enough people are willing to buy a set of keycaps, they'll mass produce it. But then they’re gone very quickly and you may have to wait years for the same ones to reappear. I was set on a specific keycap set that were available. However, I managed to find a guy in Singapore with a set he’d never opened. When I was in Singapore, I arranged to meet up with him to buy the keycaps. My Dad insisted on coming along with me to make sure I was okay. I was 28 at the time!

More novelty keycaps would be good

I really enjoy typing on the keyboard. It took a little time to get used to it because it has such a raised profile, compared to a standard Apple keyboard. I’ll probably make extra changes, such as introducing more novelty keycaps so I can identify the function keys a little bit better. And I’ll probably switch the spacebar so there are two spacebar buttons and a command button in the middle. It’ll have to wait though – I left my keys in Australia.

Why my keyboard’s a winner!

1. Productivity

I can work faster and more easily because the keyboard is designed to the touch of my fingers and the most common shortcuts I need every day.

2. Ergonomics

The keyboard forces me into a better posture and keeps my typing action at an angle. As a result, my wrists don’t get as sore.

3. Satisfaction

I spend a lot of time with my keyboard so why not make it as good as it can be? It’s unique. Check out those lights. It’s really, really nice to have.

More Articles