Building a Compact, Powerful Mechanical Keyboard for Travel

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Most people are content to leave their keyboard on the desk where it belongs, but I have a different set of requirements. I’m a writer who travels a fair bit, and laptop keyboards just don’t cut it. I like to bring a nice mechanical keyboard with me when I expect to do any substantial amount of work, but not all keyboards are ideal for this. I have some that are too loud and others that are too heavy (see: the M65-A). I decided a compact, quiet travel keyboard was in order, but none of the retail boards I could buy fit all my requirements. So, I built one.

A Smaller, More Powerful PCB

This project started with the Zeal60 PCB — the PCB, or printed circuit board, is the basis for most custom keyboard projects. If you don’t have a PCB to connect your switches, then you have to hand-wire a controller. If you’re going for a standard layout, it’s vastly easier to use a PCB. It’s more durable, reliable, and just plain easy. Since this board was going to ride around in my backpack, it needed to be solid.

The Zeal60 is so-named because it supports 60 percent keyboard layouts. That means no dedicated keys for arrows, f-row, or the number pad. The smaller size makes this ideal for me as a travel board, but a lot of people use 60 percent boards full-time just because the layout can be efficient with a few function layers — all those missing keys are still accessible with a press of your Fn button and your hands don’t have to move far.

One of the primary reasons I went with this PCB was the excellent firmware, which is known as QMK. It’s an open source keyboard firmware with some of the most advanced features available. In addition to getting all those “missing” keys configured on the function layer, the Zeal60 can control the mouse cursor, media playback, and more. After the board has been programmed, it works exactly the same no matter which computer you plug it into. Compare that with most mainstream boards with customizable features, which need desktop software to work correctly.

The Zeal60 is a bit more expensive than most 60 percent PCBs because it has per-switch RGB lighting. The LEDs are SMD components that are already on the PCB out of the box. That means no added complications when building the board, but not all switches play nicely with SMD LEDs. Luckily, I got my hands on some cool switches that do.

Switches, case, and caps

Input Club, the makers of the WhiteFox keyboard, have designed some new tactile switches called the Hako Clear and Hako True. I got a batch of pre-release switches to try for this build because they fit several of my criteria. First, they support SMD LEDs via a light channel in the switch. Second, they have little wobble, making them more sturdy for travel. Finally, they’re designed to be quieter by discouraging “bottom out” typing.

Hako True on the left and Clear on the right.

When typing on a mechanical keyboard, much of the noise from non-clicky switches comes from the bottom-out — when you press the switch all the way down. Hako switches have a large space between the actuation force (where the switch triggers) and bottom-out force. This gives you a chance to release the key and move on. Not only is that quieter, it’s faster. The Hako True is a slightly heavier switch than I prefer, so I went with the Hako Clear. It actuates at 55g and bottoms-out at 79g, just a bit lighter than Cherry MX Clears.

The hako switches are based on Kailh’s “BOX” design, making them IP56 water and dust-resistant. Practically, that’s not of much use. If a keyboard gets wet, I have bigger problems than the switches. What I like about the BOX-style slider is that it’s stable. MX-style switches have more wobble that can lead to damage as the board bounces around in a backpack.

A Hako switch compared to a traditional Cherry switch (left).

For keycaps, I knew I wanted something low-profile and durable. A set called XDA Canvas that I ordered last year before production had started was the perfect fit. XDA Canvas was created by noted keyset designer MiTo with a custom font and an optional Bahaus accent color pack. That’s what I have on the board in all the photos. The XDA profile is flat and unsculpted, and it’s made of harder PBT plastic. ABS keycaps allow for more color combinations, but it also scratches and cracks more easily.

The case was the last piece of the puzzle. There are some gorgeous high-profile aluminum cases, but these things are heavy. For a travel board, that’s just not practical. I ended up using an aluminum and acrylic sandwich case from Sentraq. The top and bottom are aluminum, and the top doubles as the switch plate. The acrylic spacer keeps the entire thing light, and it also lets the light from the LEDs bleed out a bit.

Building and programming

The process of building this board was similar to my other projects, but there were some interesting differences. Because the Zeal60 supports multiple layouts with RGB LEDs for each switch, it has a number of redundant SMD components. Out of the box, not all the LEDs work. You need to bridge some jumpers on the PCB to tell the board which switch locations you intend to use.

Bridging jumpers.

Having gotten reasonably comfortable with soldering over the last few years, the jumpers weren’t too intimidating. However, they’re small and might be a challenge for first-time builders. You have to get a bead of solder on each of the adjacent pads, then bridge them with a bit more solder.

Next, I had to confirm my layout and plug the switches into the top plate. Checking spacing with keycaps was vital here as a switch in the wrong place could prevent the caps from fitting. With the switch locations confirmed, I attached the screw-in Cherry stabilizers to the PCB. Forgetting the stabs is one of the most common mistakes people make when building keyboards, and it’s also one of the most annoying. To get the stabilizers in, you have to completely desolder the keyboard. You don’t want to do that.

Soldering.

Soldering the switches here is the same as any other board. Each one has two solder points; the pins that go through the PCB. There are 62 switches in my layout, so that’s 124 solder points total. All the lighting is handled by the SMD parts, and there aren’t even the necessary holes in the PCB for in-switch LEDs. Before I assembled the case, I wanted to see how the lights worked with the Hako switches. They look great.

While I like the power afforded by QMK, programming the Zeal60 isn’t the easiest process. First, you have to flash the updated firmware, as well as another file to enable QMK’s mouse keys. ZealPC provides these files, as well as the batch files needed to change the keymap. You have to edit the keycode matrices in the batch file to change your keymap, and that means looking up all the function codes in the QMK wiki. For example, if you want to add arrows on your function layer, you assign keys with KC_UP, KC_DOWN, and so on.

A snippet of the batch file keymap.

You also need to modify the variables at the top of the batch to tell the board which layout quirks you want to use. I have a split right shift on my board (shift and Fn2), so I needed change a “0” to a “1” on that line for the batch file. When executing the file, everything should just work.

Conclusion

The finished board hits all the right points. It’s light, quiet, and seems like it’ll be able to survive some trips crammed into my backpack. I’ve used 60 percent boards before, so the adjustment hasn’t been too rough. I have Fn layer mouse keys on WASD and arrows on JIKL, so I can control my computer almost completely without moving my hands more than a few keys. This comes in handy because I don’t always have space to set up a mouse when I’m mobile.

As for the Hako switches, I think these are a bit of an acquired taste. They’re tactile switches, meaning there’s a tactile bump but not an audible click. The bump is higher and smoother than a lot of other switches, and then there’s a long ramp up in force. It gives the board a springy feel, but I have been able to successfully keep from bottoming out the keys. So yes, it’s quieter and faster than some of my other boards. The grippy texture of the PBT keycaps is great, too.

The fancy LED effects are fun to play with, but I’m probably going to keep those off most of the time in public. That was mostly just so I could test out the Hako switches’ SMD support.

With LEDs on full.

I’m overall happy with the outcome of this project. I hope this board will see me through many future business trips.

Check out more of Ryan’s mechanical keyboard builds, as well as How to Choose the Right Mechanical Keyboard.

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