A developer’s instrument

Over the past few months, I have fallen into a hobby that seems to complement coding very well: mechanical keyboards.

I became interested in this through Reddit, as I would occasionally come across a post from the r/mechanicalkeyboards subreddit showing a picture of a really nice mechanical keyboard someone had built.

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Apparently, there was a whole world around mechanical keyboards (MKs) now. (At the time of this writing, r/mk has over 383,000 subscribers!) While I appreciated all the work some people put into customizing their MKs, at the time, I still thought it was kind of silly to spend so much time and money on computer keyboards. I had always known keyboards to be worth $10 or $20. Even [what I thought were] “nicer” keyboards, like the Apple Wireless Keyboard (which cost around $100 at the time), did not seem to improve my overall computing experience that much.

Plus, I faintly remember using mechanical keyboards in the 80’s and 90’s, and all I could remember of them were that they were loud and stiff. I still remember the springy noise from typing on my uncle’s IBM Model M in the late 80's.

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But, over time, I kept seeing those posts on Reddit, and it kept piquing my interest ever so subtly… until one day, I finally decided to say what the hell and jumped into the “rabbit hole.”

I decided to buy a cheap one first to see if I liked it. I bought a Velocifire TKL02. I had done some research and decided to go with tactile action (brown) switches instead of linear (red) or clicky (blue) switches. Until that point, I had been using Apple chiclet-style keyboards on Macs and cheap, membrane keyboards on PCs. This felt so much different, but better. The keystrokes were longer but made the overall typing experience feel more precise. Despite the longer key travel, I actually typed faster and more accurately on the mechanical. Also, I loved the sound of the PBT plastic keycaps bottoming-out. Everything about typing on a mechanical keyboard felt more intentional. I was hooked.

While I adored my Velocifire, I did start to notice the switches felt a little scratchy. After reading some comments from other MK enthusiasts, I discovered this was because the mechanical switches used were Outemu brown, which were a more “budget” switch.

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So next, I decided to try some better quality pre-built keyboards, so I purchased a Filco Minila Air and later a Filco Majestouch-2 TKL, both also tactile action, however these came with genuine Cherry MX brown switches. Cherry is a German company that has produced mechanical switches and keyboards for many years and has become sort of a standard in the industry in these regards.

The switches were smoother and the overall build quality of the Filcos was better, however I still felt I could do better. So I started looking into modding. I started out by desoldering all the Outemu brown switches from my Velocifire and lubricating them with Tribosys 3204, then soldering them back in. Some MK enthusiasts might consider this a waste of Tribosys 3204, which is a high-quality switch lubricant, but it was a test and a learning process for me. It also opened up a whole new door into modifying and even building MKs from scratch.

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Now, I’m all into this hobby. You might even call it an obsession. Everyday, I’m checking the MK subreddits and web forums to see what new things people are doing and what’s for sale. There’s something about picking out keycap designs, cases, lubing switches, soldering and desoldering that is calm yet stimulating. It’s sort of like a mix between building a PC and building models.

Also, you get to enjoy your final product everyday as you write code, check emails, browse the web, etc. All the normal stuff you do on your computer is brightened by the look and feel of your custom, premium mechanical keyboard that you designed and put so much work into.

And speaking of putting so much work into silly keyboards, I now look at it like this:

A musician’s instrument is a big part of their music. A guitarist (which I am also) may collect several guitars (which I do also) and make various tweaks and modifications to them, in an attempt to improve their playing and tone, or because it’s just fun! Nobody questions this. Of course guitarists spend a lot of time thinking about guitars, researching guitars, buying new pickups, buying new strings, setting up intonation, tuning, polishing, etc. Makes sense, right?

So when you think about a developer, what would you consider their “instrument”? Well, you could argue it’s the computer, but I equate that more to a guitarist’s amp — it’s the thing you plug the instrument into. And while the computer certainly plays a big part in the final product, but it’s not the thing on which the artist creates his or her art.

To me, a developer’s “instrument” is his or her keyboard. So, for someone who is serious about the “art” (code) they create as a developer, why not build or modify an amazing instrument to enjoy and be proud of while you are spending all those hours hacking away!

My mechanical keyboards (so far):

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(Not pictured: GH60 custom build with Gateron yellow 55g and Ducky One 2 Horizon)

Danny Poit is a web developer with experience in Ruby on Rails and Node.js and a background in film scoring. Grad of Firehose Project, Colt Steele, and Berklee.

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