Zen and the Art of Keyboard Building

I’ve been reading posts on Keebtalk and what comes through most is the joy that people have about keyboard building. So as a sort of homage to that joy and Pirsig’s book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, a book about searching for quality and value, I thought it might be interesting to have a post where we could share the Zenish moments we have when working on keyboards. Here’s my first one:

The attic is quiet. Muted, unintelligible voices filter up, a door closes, soft footsteps pattering on a carpeted hallway below. I clear the desk of clutter, position the desk lamp, and layout my small plastic tool tub. I’m a novice and have only the basics: a switch puller, a keycap puller, loose alan wrenches, a few precision screwdrivers that I found in one of my mother’s junk drawers, a stem holder, a tweezers (also found in that junk drawer), a small scissors, and some lube. A keyboard is in front of me. I’m still searching for that perfect sound signature and don’t even know what it is for me. I’m too new to the hobby to know. Today, I want to remove all of the foam and try a tape mod. I put on a set of 2.0+ reading glasses, and put the 2.5+ aside. When I need to see detail, I wear one over the other. My daughter laughs when she sees me doing this. Then I laugh. I take a breath and remind myself that the build is the joy. Take time. Enjoy removing the keycaps and switches, relish unscrewing the case, the plate, the stabilizers. Put away each tool when you are done with it, keep the screws together and safe. This I’ve learned the “hard way”, realizing that I have spent a good portion of my life looking for things that were simply not put away or looking for things that I have put away in a special place so I would not lose them, only to forget where that special place was. Breath. Enjoy. Pay attention to detail. Pay attention. Of course, I want perfection and work toward it, but the result is just the result, not really the end at all. The rest of the world fades away and I am with my keyboard.


I mean, the author literally went insane searching for those things because they are slippery concepts to define. In many ways the book is actually about trying to escape from that search.


It wasn’t my intention to discuss Pirsig’s book. If necessary, I can change the homage to Zen and the Art of Archery. I’ll just say this and then let it go: I’m not sure that Pirsig intended for readers to give up on their searches, even the search for meaning and value. And mental illness does not mean that a search is bad or wrong or should be abandoned, but we might need to reflect on how we conduct the search itself. He talks about value traps, but it is a trap when we get hung up on a value and don’t want to re-evalute our values in light of conflicting evidence. He doesn’t say give up at all. He discusses reasons why people give up and one of them is lack of knowledge. I felt that Keebtalk is fantastic because it exists partly to pass on knowledge and keep people motivated. He suggests that we should work methodically and pay attention to detail, again qualities that I feel help in life and are wonderfully reflected in this insane hobby. Anyway, I do apologize if I’ve offended. I really only meant to give people space to share their own peace in this hobby.


“I drop all of the golden springs from my HHKB onto my light brown carpet and I scream the most vulgar words known to man.” Keyboard building isn’t zen for me unfortunately.

Don’t even get me started about reassembling Alps switches…

  1. I had a Pirsig phase (which I think is at least healthier than a Rand phase), and I still think my 10th grade English paper about the Metaphysics of Quality was probably better than the other crap my classmates were putting out, even if it was precious and conclusive in the way that only a teenager who has discovered THE TRUTH can be.

  2. As Pirsig recommended more beer can shims in the maintenance of motorcycles, we need more beer-can shims in the building of keyboards.

Oh no no no, I don’t mean to imply that I’m offended or that you’re wrong because I don’t accept either of those. I even agree that you can justify that Keebtalk is about quality and value. But clearly mental illness is not a direct consequence of a focus on excellence. What Pirsig describes is a trap made by his own psyche that turned his own vulnerabilities into illness.

Although I do think that the possibility of madness lurks close by when one becomes so consumed by keyboards(*) that no time is left for writing. Or if not madness, at least the loss of rational balance(**)

(*) The word “keyboards” could be replaced by almost anything from goldfish to crochet.

(**) There are people posting both here and on GH that are most probably on the risky end of the rational balance spectrum.

That first encounter with a switch opener, discovering how fiddly it is to unlatch the clips, and at last the top comes open and, ping, the stem and spring find a new home in a dark corner behind the leg of some heavy furniture.

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For two months I’ve had only a Logitech K380 in front of me. Practical, great for traveling, but hardly the audio-tactile sensation I’ve been craving. Perhaps worse, nothing to tinker with, no keyboard mods, no switches, no keycaps or stabs. I’ve been reading the Keebtalk boards, and appreciate the discussions and responses to my questions. They’ve kept me in the game, helped prepare me for the moment I can quietly and calmly rebuild a keyboard. But reading without practice is thin, like listening to recordings of other people’s keyboards. Possibly provocative but not fulfilling. It occurs to me that in another lifetime there might be a VR world where a keyboard is a headset away or computer-brain interface obviates even the need for that. In this world I will be a Luddite.

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My affinity for mechanical keyboards is irrational. A keyboard is a tool. It should be like using a hammer or a drill. I suppose that carpenters do, in fact, prefer the heft of one hammer over another; appreciate the feel of swinging a well-balanced mallet through time and space; enjoy the sharp crack of steel on steel. I cannot claim that a keyboard is so much more than a hammer in the grand scheme of the universe. I won’t even attempt an excuse. The affinity exists. I seek cases and keycaps that hold me in their orbit. I seek switches that sing and spring under my fingers. I tune my keyboard to my being and I think, the familiarity principle suggests, it tunes me to it. The inanimate animates the animated and is it not possible that it too becomes animate? Undeniably, it accumulates a subtle power. It draws me toward it: the possessor possessed. It is a shadow muse, not inspiring me by love but by use, a marginal sanity, where I am compelled to work so that the keyboard is a thing of action and purpose and by transference, so am I. It is a mirage I accept, a delusion of existence, a confounding artifact that gives me just enough purpose that I stop hunting for underlying mechanisms. This, perhaps, is the allure: the keyboard is, ironically, the underlying mechanism of my existence as I seek meaning. At least, if my thoughts are confused and opaque, my keyboard is beautiful and responsive, ordered and predictable, and of course, it thocks.


Man feed machine, machine feed man - Peter Gabriel


“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

I don’t know why we like keyboards intrinsically. But here we are :smiley:


How I feel is put far less eloquently than above.

I don’t know much, but I do know I like what I like.