Author Topic: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps  (Read 5613 times)

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Offline failKeys

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Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« on: Mon, 20 November 2023, 11:00:57 »
I hope this is the right place to put this. I want to make a little thread about my process making wood and corian and other types of keycaps. More than just "heres some caps, pay me!". I want to detail the process and update on progress. Thanks for looking.

---

So about 6-8 months ago I got the idea to make some keycaps from wood. I have a CNC mill that I built from scratch and got underway.

Some initial designs...


Although, the first thing I discovered was that any and every 3d model reference you could find online of a keycap, be it cherry, oem or otherwise is completely wrong. Not usable at all. No stem offset, bad shape, heights, etc.

So I wound up needing to design my own "cherry" profile.



The next issue was the stem. Most wood keycaps, (and many artisan in general), use some sort of cat epoxy resin stem. Oof. Not ideal because they tend not to hold their shapoe and stay snug.. I decided i needed something a lot better. i tried 3d printed them in nylon.



That went poorly as nylon is super flexible. Gummy stems! Hana. I tried 3d printed stainless steel. That was also a fail for the opposite reason. Zero flex and no real ability to fine tune the fit. The tolerances on the prints were quite bad. Finally i just decided to machine them. I got some really tiny bits and milled them from delrin (POM). These turned out great. Super snug and dont lose their shape even after removing and reinstalling 100 times.




On to the caps then. I did a number of trials and tests, and eventually ahd to give up on my cherry profile caps for now, because it was difficult to find a way to fixture them securely.





I switched to a square sided keycap design to get something going. We will revisit cherry later, but for now, I could do r4 escape caps and low profile style caps.



In the mean time though, we need some graphics. There are not really many choices for graphics on wood. You can use a decal, which will wear off in short order. You can use  laser to engrave some thing but it will tend not to be very readable except on light woods. Last, you can inlay. I chose to engrave pockets and then inlay epoxy paste to create a double shot (and triple shot) style cap in wood.





With that sorted, I could start on "production". It is not too hard to make 1 keycap. It is another thing to try and make 50 efficiently and cost effectively. I made a variety of fixtures for holding the caps, and some for sanding them, and one for settng in then stems.






I could now set about making a bundle of caps in different woods and inlay designs.







I should add in here, gluing delrin stems was complicated. Delrin doesn't really like to stick to anything. In the end 3M sent me a care package of things that managed to let me glue the delrin to the wood.



Next on the list was finishing. Inevitably anything you put on these will wear off, so I wanted something the user could easily touch up and repair themselves. I wound up sanding them to 600-1500 grit (depends on the wood) and putting osmo polyx oil on them. This is a wax oil that acts as a barrier to moisture, and a tiny $25 can will last 1000s of keycaps. Heavy users could touch up the keys once or twice a year and keep them looking brand new indefinitely.




Last on the to do list was packaging. When you only need a handful of boxes, it is surprisingly expensive to package a keycap. Little printer boxes with foam cost as much as $15 each, and off the shelf jewelery boxes while cheap, increase shipping costs $5-$15 due to the size. i decided i would just make my own packaging. Oof. Nightmare, although in the end, i think it was worth the effort. I decided to make blister packs. Went through a number of tests and iterations for vacuum forming and printing.






That's it for now. I will keep this thread going with updates on new designs, cherry profiles, different key positions (spacebars etc) and new processes. Please ask any questions you like about the process. If you like the caps, there are a handful in my etsy store at the moment.


« Last Edit: Mon, 20 November 2023, 11:23:48 by failKeys »

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #1 on: Mon, 20 November 2023, 11:03:46 »
Doh. Looks like i botched all the image links... please stand by :)

Offline Axiom_

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #2 on: Sat, 25 November 2023, 00:04:53 »
I hope this is the right place to put this. I want to make a little thread about my process making wood and corian and other types of keycaps. More than just "heres some caps, pay me!". I want to detail the process and update on progress. Thanks for looking.

This is nice and well documented. Keep the posts coming.

Sometimes we make things for no other reason than to satisfy our desire to create.
The trial and error behind the product's development is what makes it interesting.

Although, the first thing I discovered was that any and every 3d model reference you could find online of a keycap, be it cherry, oem or otherwise is completely wrong. Not usable at all. No stem offset, bad shape, heights, etc.

I too encountered the same frustration and had to resort to 3D scanning to get the right measurements.


On to the caps then. I did a number of trials and tests, and eventually ahd to give up on my cherry profile caps for now, because it was difficult to find a way to fixture them securely.

Have you considered retaining some sort of "stem" for the keycaps to aid work holding? The machining will need to be carried out in 3 steps.

1) Rough out the bottom cavity and external profile while retaining a "stem"
2) Turn over and machine the top surface
3) Turn over again, using a vacuum fixture or soft fixture for work holding and remove the "stem"

The reasoning behind this is that wood works best in compression and you'll need something much thicker than the typical mx stem for secure work holding.

Due to the number of contours on a cherry keycap, trying to machine it on a 3 axis CNC will require many bit changes.
Otherwise, it's next to impossible to get nice and smooth shapes efficiently unless you're using a 5 axis machine IMO.

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #3 on: Sat, 25 November 2023, 03:45:45 »
Thanks

The contours needs to be done with a ball nose really. the sides of a cherry or OEM keycap are not a plane (except r4), so you are kinda stuck. My machine is precise and very fast, so this is not a big deal to surface... if the keycap stays put. I have entertained the vacuum fixture idea, but for a few reasons this is problematic. 1 being there is you only get about 10lbs of holding force, and 2, if there is any change in the wood shape or deviation of the surface, it wont sit flat. Did also look at adding an extension to the cap to allow something to grip, but removing it is problematic (vac comment). There are 2 things I see done with metal caps. One is to leave a square ledge on the bottom of 1.6mm for a vise to grip but I don't like that look and it is a bit of a weak area to grip. Another is to thread the stem, but we cant do that with wood. I did have one idea to mill the sides from the bottom with a side cutter. Undercut the part. Then you flip it over and grab it with a dovetail vise jaw. Downside here is you need to spit the keys off individually, and make a jaw set for each different keycap.

I will revisit this in a few weeks. Fixing my CNC on Tuesday (servo died) and ill be making a number of new caps inlays in different woods ands corian and a case.

« Last Edit: Sat, 25 November 2023, 03:49:00 by failKeys »

Offline Axiom_

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #4 on: Mon, 27 November 2023, 00:40:12 »
Thanks

The contours needs to be done with a ball nose really. the sides of a cherry or OEM keycap are not a plane (except r4), so you are kinda stuck. My machine is precise and very fast, so this is not a big deal to surface... if the keycap stays put. I have entertained the vacuum fixture idea, but for a few reasons this is problematic. 1 being there is you only get about 10lbs of holding force, and 2, if there is any change in the wood shape or deviation of the surface, it wont sit flat. Did also look at adding an extension to the cap to allow something to grip, but removing it is problematic (vac comment). There are 2 things I see done with metal caps. One is to leave a square ledge on the bottom of 1.6mm for a vise to grip but I don't like that look and it is a bit of a weak area to grip. Another is to thread the stem, but we cant do that with wood. I did have one idea to mill the sides from the bottom with a side cutter. Undercut the part. Then you flip it over and grab it with a dovetail vise jaw. Downside here is you need to spit the keys off individually, and make a jaw set for each different keycap.

I will revisit this in a few weeks. Fixing my CNC on Tuesday (servo died) and ill be making a number of new caps inlays in different woods ands corian and a case.

Show Image


Wood is certainly a tricky material to work with when you're machining small items like keycaps. The approaches used to machine metal keycaps seldom apply since wood does not have the same structural integrity as metal (especially if you're looking at features as thin as 1.6mm), its likely to chip and break if speeds are too high. You'll definitely need to lower your feeds and speeds for the intricate parts.

You mentioned having to make different jaws for each keycap, does that mean you're considering making keycaps for the different rows? Most manufacturers just stick to the function row for simplicity's sake.

For machinability, the timber I would recommend is Jelutong (more accessible in my part of the world). It has few pores and imperfections, you can stain it if you don't like the look and it has good dimensional stability when exposed to moisture.
Corian is definitely worth investigating. It machines nicely, is isotropic (unlike wood) and offers more finishing options.


Offline SageCrowDesign

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #5 on: Mon, 04 December 2023, 06:48:56 »
Thanks for sharing such a detailed process! Really makes you appreciate some of the artisan work out there!

Offline Exquite

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #6 on: Thu, 07 December 2023, 23:31:40 »
Amazing!!!


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I'm a Color lover and a designer.

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #7 on: Sun, 10 December 2023, 16:50:24 »
Thanks.
I did some blank ones in a bunch of different woods, and some corian.



Video comparing the sounds of each.

Video of the corian ones being milled


Theres a very small amount of each of these in my etsy shop if you like them.

Offline mohawk1367

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #8 on: Mon, 11 December 2023, 07:08:46 »
Is Topre compatibility even possible for this? Topre keycaps kind of bend and snap into place, so I'm not sure, but if there was a way to do it I'd love one in red cherry.
someone needs to make an aussie keyboard community called QMƎɹ┴⅄. get it? haha :D

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #9 on: Mon, 11 December 2023, 08:56:08 »
I'd need a drawing to see how they function. I'm not really sure if I'm going to make more though right now. Was the typical thing, everyone said they wanted one soooo bad... but then never bought them. :P

Offline mohawk1367

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #10 on: Mon, 11 December 2023, 09:00:52 »
I'd need a drawing to see how they function. I'm not really sure if I'm going to make more though right now. Was the typical thing, everyone said they wanted one soooo bad... but then never bought them. :P

yeah i get it. thats the hard part of doing ICs and stuff because people will say it looks cool and then they buy something else and dont have money for your product or when the time comes to actually buy it they dont want it anymore, annoying lol
someone needs to make an aussie keyboard community called QMƎɹ┴⅄. get it? haha :D

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #11 on: Mon, 11 December 2023, 09:09:29 »
I am quite terrible at selling as well. And it doesn't help that reddit is the big place for this, and if you mis-time a "promotional" post, it just goes away largely unseen.
But I'm not bitter. :P

I have more people wanting to buy my CNC machine (I make that too) as a result of my couple videos than the keycaps. haha.

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #12 on: Thu, 14 December 2023, 10:28:16 »
Another little video showing padauk caps being made. Whee.


Offline mohawk1367

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #13 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 06:38:59 »
Do you make other things with wood or just caps (this sounds like a bad pickup line)? I was wondering if you could guide me on something if you have the time.
someone needs to make an aussie keyboard community called QMƎɹ┴⅄. get it? haha :D

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #14 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 09:32:24 »
I make lots of things. mostly metal. but i do guitars as well.

Offline TomahawkLabs

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #15 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 09:45:56 »
I'm in the process of building my own CNC, well currently working on an enclosure, but do you have a formal background in CNC operation? My goals are to create custom cases and reimaged layouts of vintage keyboards, specifically Alps and Snow White design era Apple Keyboards. Were there any resources that really helped with the workflow of creating your own parts?
Always looking for Alps SKCM/SKCL switches. Feel free to DM.
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Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #16 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 10:02:35 »
I have been doing this for almost 20 years. My dad was a machinist. So a lot of this is just experience, especially figuring out how to fixture things. Fixturing is 90% of the job on little irregular parts like keycaps.

Easiest place to start I think would be designing your part in fusion 360, and then using their CAM tools to learn how to set up machining. There are plenty of tutorials on how to use it. Cases cover a pretty big range of complexity. Tray cases are popular (sorry to burst anyone's bubble) because they are super cheap and easy to make, not because they have any other redeeming features. Stick block of aluminium in vise. Cut bottom. Flip. Cut top. Done. Charge $125 for $22 worth of aluminium and 1 hours labour. Profit! :)

Offline TomahawkLabs

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #17 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 10:06:15 »
I have been doing this for almost 20 years. My dad was a machinist. So a lot of this is just experience, especially figuring out how to fixture things. Fixturing is 90% of the job on little irregular parts like keycaps.

Easiest place to start I think would be designing your part in fusion 360, and then using their CAM tools to learn how to set up machining. There are plenty of tutorials on how to use it. Cases cover a pretty big range of complexity. Tray cases are popular (sorry to burst anyone's bubble) because they are super cheap and easy to make, not because they have any other redeeming features. Stick block of aluminium in vise. Cut bottom. Flip. Cut top. Done. Charge $125 for $22 worth of aluminium and 1 hours labour. Profit! :)

I love the honesty. My plan was to create a top mount case with bottom cover, so the top part of the case is a double sided milling operation where you would mill the flat bottom pockets and mounting holes and then mill the top side details since the top will be angled and not be easily machined first. Thank you for all the tips!
Always looking for Alps SKCM/SKCL switches. Feel free to DM.
AMD 5600x | RTX3080 | 2x 1TB NVME + 4x 4TB HDD | B550M Pro-P | 32GB RAM | RM850x | Node 804 | Schiit Modius/Magnius + Audeze LCD-2 | Dell S3422DWG
GMMK 1 Full Size Barebones | Zealio 67g ; Apple M3501 handwired | Alps SKCM Damped Cream
SA: Camping

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #18 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 10:44:24 »
That was the premise of this design. But it threw up some roadblocks primarily about the angle and USB location. I then separated into smaller parts that bolt together, with an ABS plate. Still a bit annoying. To be clear, making ONE is easy. you just do what you gotta do and if it take 9 hours of personal time and a bunch of hot glue, no big deal. But if you want to "produce" them, it is a whole different topic.


Offline TomahawkLabs

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #19 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 11:15:31 »
That was the premise of this design. But it threw up some roadblocks primarily about the angle and USB location. I then separated into smaller parts that bolt together, with an ABS plate. Still a bit annoying. To be clear, making ONE is easy. you just do what you gotta do and if it take 9 hours of personal time and a bunch of hot glue, no big deal. But if you want to "produce" them, it is a whole different topic.

Show Image


I saw my spouse spin up a business and I have seen other makers in the KB space unable to handle orders due to life and I don't want that stress nor do I want people to think lowly of me because I overcommitted. I have 2 kids who are in activities and a full time job. I want to create keyboards for myself. Keyboards that don't exist and keyboards I want to use. My personal favorite keyboard is the Apple M3501, which I have hand wired and use at work.

So yeah, if it takes 40hrs of prep/milling/finishing for a single keyboard, i'd never be able to sell the product for it's "value" and would either be undercutting existing maker businesses or undervaluing myself and I want neither of those things.
Always looking for Alps SKCM/SKCL switches. Feel free to DM.
AMD 5600x | RTX3080 | 2x 1TB NVME + 4x 4TB HDD | B550M Pro-P | 32GB RAM | RM850x | Node 804 | Schiit Modius/Magnius + Audeze LCD-2 | Dell S3422DWG
GMMK 1 Full Size Barebones | Zealio 67g ; Apple M3501 handwired | Alps SKCM Damped Cream
SA: Camping

Offline failKeys

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #20 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 11:29:07 »
I have the other problem. I made a few hundred keycaps cause everyone said they wanted some... and then I sold lie 10. :P
I expect they will eventually sell over a year, but it is a far cry from a "business".

Offline TomahawkLabs

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #21 on: Fri, 15 December 2023, 12:10:42 »
I have the other problem. I made a few hundred keycaps cause everyone said they wanted some... and then I sold lie 10. :P
I expect they will eventually sell over a year, but it is a far cry from a "business".

That's the other fear. Investing thousands into a machine, hundreds of hours learning/failing/succeeding finally only to have nobody care. I love your keycaps and I love that you are sharing your art with the rest of us. I have dedicated my time to the Apple M3501, currently working on a drop in replacement PCB for the OEM case, but the goal will be to reuse the PCB in a custom M3501 case.
Always looking for Alps SKCM/SKCL switches. Feel free to DM.
AMD 5600x | RTX3080 | 2x 1TB NVME + 4x 4TB HDD | B550M Pro-P | 32GB RAM | RM850x | Node 804 | Schiit Modius/Magnius + Audeze LCD-2 | Dell S3422DWG
GMMK 1 Full Size Barebones | Zealio 67g ; Apple M3501 handwired | Alps SKCM Damped Cream
SA: Camping

Offline Nebulonix

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #22 on: Fri, 22 December 2023, 01:46:29 »
Love the look!

Offline transeurasian

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #23 on: Sat, 23 December 2023, 04:11:10 »
I make lots of things. mostly metal. but i do guitars as well.


TALENTED :thumb:

Offline Axiom_

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Re: Making exotic wood artisan keycaps
« Reply #24 on: Wed, 03 April 2024, 22:55:04 »
I have the other problem. I made a few hundred keycaps cause everyone said they wanted some... and then I sold lie 10. :P
I expect they will eventually sell over a year, but it is a far cry from a "business".

The fun part is making the keycaps.
But selling is indeed the real challenge, sometimes the costs involved in the development and manufacturing just have to be absorbed.

Thank you for sharing your experience and the top-notch process documentation.

Hoping that your endeavour has worked out favourably. All the best!