Custom keyboard plate design & manufacturing
A lot of people building keyboards design their plates and let them manufacture. It's not hard at all and in this comprehensive guide I show you all the necessary tools, software and steps.
Let's right dive in!
Why would one create a custom keyboard plate?
Well, there may be plates on offer for the most popular form factors. Even in this case, ordering one from a lasercutting company may be reasonable because of limited local availability, expensive shipping or high prices.
But if you aim for a unique, custom layout, or even for one with just a slight modification, designing and manufacturing your own plate is probably your only choice.
Where can you manufacture a keyboard plate?
I would recommend to look around in your vicinity to find a local business that may do lasercutting for a fraction of the price popular online services usually quote. (However, this probably depends on where you live.)
Many companies do laser cutting from tiny marketing enterprises to gigantic car manufacturers. There's a chance you find one in your city.
With going the local way, picking up the product in person eliminates shipping fees. You also protect the environment at the same time (again, no shipping involved).
Google for "lasercutting + your city", send out some mails, make some calls to find a company with nice people asking for only $9 for the same plate Lasergist/boost would make for $50+ (real life example).
What kind of file do you need to manufacture a keyboard plate?
Manufacturers request mostly DXF files, which is a vector format originally used by AutoCAD to export DWG, their native format (DXF -> Drawing Exchange Format).
A DXF file contains all the exact measures (not just relative coordinates like some other vector formats).
However, I personally ended up with sending good old SVG files (basic vector files) to my contact. These can contain the necessary info too if set up properly. (We had some difficulties with the first DXF and the SVG was just fine.)
How do you create a DXF file for laser cutting?
There are free plate files all over the internet ready for sending to manufacturers. Alternatively, you can use online plate generators to create a custom DXF file or you can even draw a plate from scratch.
Free keyboard plate designs
As a start, you may be interested in how a plate file looks. Luckily, there are a ton of open source plate designs which you can find and simply download e.g. at github project pages.
These free plate designs are an excellent start. You can either use them right away or you can tweak and modify them as you wish in a vector editing software like Inkscape.
Beginner method: KLE & plate builders
If you aim for something unique or uncommon, a good way to start is the Keyboard Layout Editor (KLE). It's a popular choice of beginners to quickly access common plates, modify an existing layout or even design/replicate the layout from scratch.
KLE and its easy to use graphical interface is great for designing the classic horizontally staggered layouts or ortholinear keyboards. However, this tool is quite limited and not ideal for anything angled or split: thumb fans, split layouts, etc.
Once you are ready with the tweaking, you'll need the RAW data of KLE, which became somewhat an industry standard for similar tools.
DXF files generated by these plate builders are ready to be sent to manufacturers, but they are also a great starting point for further tweaking in a vector editor.
Once you are familiar with the process above, you are ready to draw a plate from scratch without the constrains of these online tools.
Advanced method: Inkscape
After playing with the first method above for a while, I changed completely to Inkscape. This free vector editor can export your project as a DXF file and comes with a plethora of useful features making a plate designer's life a lot easier.
Feel free to use your vector editor of choice. I use Inkscape because it's free and open source, but Adobe Illustrator or CorelDraw will work the same way.
To draw keyboard plates from scratch you will need to keep in mind only a few important dimensions:
- The basic cutout is a 14x14 mm square.
- The standard distance of keys is 19.05 mm. (19 mm is just perfect.)
- Screw holes: the minimal hole diameter may be limited, e.g. 3 mm for a 1.5 mm steel plate. Fortunately, this is a good hole size for an M2 screw.
Vector drawing frameworks come especially in handy with angled and split plate designs. Their major benefit compared to the plate generator method: you can use all the robust vector manipulating features (like layers, groups, mirroring, custom grid size, moving by exactly 19.05 mm, etc.).
Some Inkscape tips & tricks:
- Resize the canvas to the actual drawing by pressing Ctrl+Shift+R.
- Set the units to mm (ruler, grid, etc.)
- With these changes your exact plate dimensions are displayed in Document Preferences (Shift+Ctrl+D).
- Increasing stroke width (Shift+Ctrl+F) may help if you can't see anything after opening a DXF.
- Create a custom 19 mm helper grid.
Once you are finished with your plate design, you can export the file as DXF and you are ready to request a quote from a manufacturer.
Getting a quote
The most popular services have an online form where you upload your DXF and set some parameters like material, thickness, finishing, etc.
After hitting the submit button you are presented with a (hopefully not that gut-punching) price.
The plate price depends on the plate size and path length. Thus, going with a smaller form factor results in an istant "discount". Regardless of the actual design, plate material choice and finishing can heavily influence the final cost.
Not much of your precious plate is exposed on a finished board with caps. Thus, the look, i.e. finishing is probably the last thing I would consider.
One important thing to keep in mind though is that switches were designed for 1.5 mm thick plates.
Cardboard plate. The cheapest material for a prototype is probably cardboard. Yeah, you read it right. Cardboard prototyping is actually not just a great way to figure out your ideal layout without spending a fortune, but I've also found it superior to acrylic. Btw, I used a keyboard with a cardboard plate for almost a year.
FR4 plate. FR4 is the fire resistant layered epoxy (hence the FR abbreviation) material of PCBs. Their usual 1.6 mm thickness makes them a good plate material too.
Acrylic plate. The problem with acrylic is its thickness. Acrylic below 3 mm is prone to break. On the other hand, switches won't snap in the 3 mm acrylic plate and will keep falling out. People usually glue them in these plates which instantly kills the hotswappability.
Steel plate. Stainless steel plates are very rigid and heavy. If that's what you want, don't look further. You can easily find a 1.5 mm thick steel plate, however, they can be pretty expensive. Switches will snap in nicely though.
Aluminum plate. An aluminium plate is lighter but more flexible than a steel one. Also, more pricey.
Brass plate. I can't think of a good reason to pay for a brass plate, but if you are seeking exactly this feel and sound, I won't stop you.
PLA. 3D printed plates are common today. Since they are, well, printed instead of cut by a laser beam, they are out of this guide's scope.
If you still have some money to burn, one or all surfaces of a metal sheet can be finished in various ways.
Laser engraving, brushing, sandblasting (glass-bead blasting), polishing, etc.
Again, since after assembly, keycaps will cover almost all of the plate's surface in most cases, I see no reason to pay for extra finishing.
In addition, you can always spray-paint the plate if you don't like the look of the raw surface.
Designing and manufacturing a custom plate for your keyboard project is way easier than you might have thought. By now you should be familiar with the process and are ready to start drawing.
That's it. Thanks for reading. Happy building!