RESTORE/CTRL – The Keys to the Kingdom (Part III)

We’re on a mission to revive a Commodore 64 mechanical keyboard project, and fill in a critical missing link in the process.

That missing link? Keycaps!

As I mentioned before, there was an IndieGoGo campaign to produce replicas of the original Commodore keys, which finally came through and delivered on its promise (COVID threw a big wrench in those works), but now any new supplies of those can be found at Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, they are completely out of stock due to the crazy demand. But, again, those are NEW editions of the OLD stock design keycaps. We want to take modern MX-compatible designs and be able to make them work on our old machine.

That said, such a concept introduces more options for choice. Let’s say we have access to those mythical clickety-clacky unicorns. So what profile are they?

Oh hell, there it is: the Rub. See with Commodores, you got one style of keycap, but perhaps with slightly different neutral colors and slightly different fonts, depending on the model. Otherwise, the actual shape of the keycaps stayed the same for pretty much all of those systems’ retail lives. However, today we’ve learned a lot about the pros and cons for different key styles, thanks to ready access to all these options produced for the mechanical keyboard fanatics, and the pros for one individual can be a pretty big con for another. It’s the curse of having options.

Cherry and OEM are the standard profiles that most bargain basement mechanical and OEM membrane keyboards use. As you can see here, they have slightly different top angles, depending on which row they’re in. They tend to have pretty sharp edges, and a cylindrical touch area. They are not considered to be very comfortable by anybody who has tried almost anything else, and uses a keyboard daily.

Commodore 64s use something most similar to SA: tall, heavily angled and spherical on the tops. The tops are also pretty narrow, relative to the rest of the key bodies. This is helpful when you need to see what’s printed on the fronts of the keys, but is otherwise annoying to work with, unless you have spider crabs for hands.

Personally, I’m a fan of DSA, or another slightly taller variant, XDA. It’s more “chonky” and rounded, it feels better on the fingers, and there’s plenty of top space for larger, more intricate legends. This is an advantage if we’re trying to get away from dealing with the complexities of having top AND side legends (which we are, btw, if I wasn’t clear about it before).

There’s also a really neat concept I’ve been working with lately: a standardized keycap body with a replaceable legend. It’s produced by Filco, and they call it a “Patch keycap”. I’ve only ever seen it on their Majestouch Minila-R Convertible keyboard, but you can order replacement keycaps direct from Japan, too. So far, to buy a $173 keyboard or spend $56 on the replacement set are the only ways to get your hands on these. I sprung for the latter, because I’m curious about the possibility of casting keycaps with swappable legends like these. If I end up being forced to design and produce my own, it would be nice to only have to worry about the legends.

This is where the project will have the most obvious initial impact on the C64’s looks. However, the goal here is to build a NEW component that the old system will work with as smoothly as its own original hardware, and it would also be nice to experiment with different feels on that keyboard as well. We can always put that old keyboard back if there’s some aspect of the new one that we simply can’t accept or tolerate for some reason, so I’m not really committing to anything permanent with this project. Besides, it might be an appealing change!

Come on, this is straight up garbage just trying to ride coattails here.

Yes, I know there is a “Commodore-inspired” keycap set out there with the PETSCII character set on it, but I have some big objections to it.

  1. It’s still standard Cherry profile (blech).
  2. It is designed for modern keyboard layouts, and does not cover the unique keys (like the solo asterisk or pound sterling key)
  3. It was apparently designed to be “fun” by people who have no idea what constitutes fun with a mechanical keyboard (else they’d have stayed away from that Cherry profile in the first place)
  4. The legends are printed using dye sublimation. Not that I blame them, not with all those colors they’re using, but on that point…
  5. What is this crazy sprinkles-fest they’ve got going on with the PETSCII charset? It’s just dumb, in my opinion. Certainly not worth trying to shoehorn into this project, after going so far to tailor-make every other aspect.
  6. It’s really just a standard modern keyboard layout that has Commodore-specific legends wherever their positions happen to match up.

Right, so now we need to find a vendor who can produce a keyset in the profile we want, with the custom legends we want. OR… we could make our own.

There are two paths we could take here. One gives us a more modern take on the original Commodore layout, the other will renew the classic layout but be fully Cherry-MX compatible:

  1. We cast or purchase our preferred profile keys (DSA/XDA) and work on how to embed, engrave or print our custom legends on top.
  2. We take molds of the original keys, then re-cast them with the modern Cherry MX stems on bottom, legends can be done as a double-shot casting (very tedious), or possibly simply printed on transparency, cut out and embedded during casting.

Either way, we’re looking at how to do our own custom legends, because nobody else is going to step up to the plate for this. Yes, there are manufacturers out there who will do custom keycaps, but they only do Cherry or OEM profile (blech, see above), and/or only do dye sublimation printing (because double-shot is way too expensive for somebody’s custom one-off run). Any external entity I approach to help with this part is going to have the same issues: either they will simply manually do what I was already considering doing myself (and charging me for the effort), do it the cheapest way possible to avoid costly re-tooling and downtime in their facility (pad printing or dye-sub on common caps only), or straight-up charge me out the nose for custom tooling and limited runs (Signature Plastics, which is what those big expensive group buys go through).

I think I’ll do two variants, both on my own, so the only real expenditure is my time (and of course whatever spent for the materials, which is not inconsiderable, but meh, only the dumb hobbies are free!): the all-new DSA/XDA concept, and a modernization of the originals.

I have put down a lot of words and effort into this big huge explanation about what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and how I plan to go about it. Now it’s time to put all that time invested into research and consideration to work, and start building something cool!

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