Custom Retro-Keycaps with Character Inlays

I did not find the style of keycaps I really wanted. So it was time to make them by myself.

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Nowadays, custom keyboards are something that can be found nearly everywhere. The market seems to tend to the needs of the makers in this regard, but special wishes are often left alone. Anyone who wants keycaps that differ too much from a standard 10x-key ISO layout is left on their own or just needs to use standard blank caps.

But blank caps are soooooo booooooring...

I love the classic keycaps of classic keyboards like the space-cadet or the C64. The look and feel of these keyboards is just timeless. I searched a lot to find some information on how to make good representations of these caps, but was not really successful. No chance to buy these anywhere, too.

So I chose to experiement with some own techniques and came up with a combination of SLA printed caps with inlayed modeling-clay, which resulted in really nice looking keycaps. I want to document my work here so anyone can replicate my work.

How I created these caps:

You have to make sure that you prepare your keycaps with a sharp, deep enough groove. The inlays need some empty volume to fit into. I used arial black for the caps 
(the depicted caps are a variation of the excellent work of DesignersMind on ThingiVerse, in the main project photos, the engraved characters are about 1mm deep. Shallow grooves mess up the surface of the inlay.

I printed my caps using a SLA printer (Photon Mono X) in 0.05 layers with a standard black resin, just to make sure that the concept itself will work without special materials. So there is much headroom for even better optics.

I chose to spraypaint the keycaps with acrylic paint before proceeding. It greatly improves the surface structure of the keycaps. If you plan for further cap-smoothing, you should do so before applying the inlay.

After the paint has dried, i took a modest amount (about pea sized) of really cheap white airdrying modeling clay (I literally took the cheapest stuff I could find, <3€ for 500g delivered) and just massaged it into the grooves until I was convinced that the whole space was completely filled. I then used some clear water to remove the excess material and to smoothe out the surface of the inlay.

After letting everything dry out, you should apply some clear protective coating of your choice. I experimented with matte and shining finishs and they both work pretty well.

Above are some earlier versions with thinner characters (0.35mm width), You can clearly see where the inlay was not able to penetrate deep enough into the groove (i.e. the zero of 'P08'). A font this thin did lead to some problems during printing, too. But even this version looks decent from a normal viewing distance. There is still some room for improvement left, if you desire really thin characters.

As these modeling clays are available in a diverse set of colours, your imagination can go wild in choosing the colors you want.

If you want a really durable inlay, you can use a heat-curing modeling clay (i.e. Fimo). Just make sure that all your used materials make it through the heating process. I would not dare to try that with PLA printed caps, though. :D

  • Additional fill-in materials

    Thomas Thiel02/22/2021 at 13:25 0 comments

    I just stumbled over an old pack of "Plasto", a plastic filler from Revell, which I used for plastic model kits. It turns out that this is a pretty good filler for keycaps, too! It cures without external heat and results in a durable and stable inlay. This stuff is also a good alternative if you do not trust the cheap modeling clay I tried for my first batches (though the clay itself withstands a good amount of screwdriver scratching when in place and dried).

    Other really stable alternatives would be two component fillers (like green stuff) or heat-activated plastic materials (like Fimo). The correct coloring is always a problem - not all materials are available in all color choices. But there are definitely a lot of good alternatives out there to create really stable keycaps using the inlay method described on this page. Just be creative! :)

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Timo Birnschein wrote 02/19/2021 at 16:46 point

This certainly looks great! Do you already have some experience with the clay's durability as an inlay?

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Thomas Thiel wrote 02/19/2021 at 17:13 point

I tried using a good amount of mechanical force against it. As soon as the clay is dry, it is astoundingly stable, well more than I had anticipated. I think the stability originates mostly within the groove itself and not in the inlay material. I tried to make some caps without an additional coating over the clay and even in those the inlay was surprisingly stable against abrasive forces (even using a screwdriver to scratch it - you need quite some force to get clay out of the groove again).
I think the caps are ready for daily use. If unsure, you could use a harder, heat activated polymer clay for the infills. But I will do my first full set with the cheap clay. I am pretty confident that it will hold, especially with a good final coating.

But of course it all depends on the used materials. I would really encourage you to do some own tests with the materials that are locally available to you, before doing a full set of keys. ;)

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marazm wrote 02/16/2021 at 17:42 point

look at this font wide verticaly line

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Thomas Thiel wrote 02/16/2021 at 17:56 point

Are you referring to the font of the webpage or the classic MacOS Fonts?

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marazm wrote 02/28/2021 at 15:41 point

look at right (similar font)

or download 

Trouble is with nationality glyps. 

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marazm wrote 02/15/2021 at 19:40 point

meybe creating it from wood?

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Thomas Thiel wrote 02/15/2021 at 19:46 point

Cool Idea! I'm not good enough with working wood, but would be definetly awesome like hell. :D I thought about combining these caps with a neatly gloss-finished dark wooden case, though.

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marazm wrote 02/15/2021 at 21:16 point

Do You planing create a custom keyboard too? 


I wrote about chocolate layout similar


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Thomas Thiel wrote 02/16/2021 at 08:41 point

Wow, nice wooden optic, I like them! With the right form they could just be lasered with the right content! Very cool.

And yes, I already did create a custom keyboard:

That is what the keycaps are for. This is just a prototype, I already planned a new iteration, but the general structure of it will stay the same. It is a variant of the classical Sun Type 7 with a bunch of additional keys

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