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Design History

Updated: Feb 25

In this post I will quickly go through the major design milestones which lead to the current ThumbsUp! keyboard design.

For years I used ThinkPad laptops and external ThinkPad Travel keyboards like the one below. I even used them together, i.e. as a split keyboard. The laptop was on the right and the external keyboard on the left, with a display between then. So my left hand used the left side of the external board, and the

right one - the right side of the laptop. A bit excessive, but otherwise quite comfortable, especially with the original version of Travel keyboard, with its trackpad and trackpoint, so either hand could use the mouse navigation.

There were some issues with the cursor control, and I rather refer to my article on All Things Ergo for details. So I started to look for other options.

There was some generic mechanical 60% keyboard, a Mistel Barocco, a Ergodox EZ, and an Ergodox Infinity (the group buy arrived somewhere in between of other boards, so it does not really count.) None fit the bill completely, yet they opened this rabbit hole for me.

Then I learned about Plank keyboard with its programmability. Unfortunately it was not readily available, so I started with a 3D-printed split version of it with a great help from the Internet:

The cable was not detachable, but otherwise it was quite comfortable. I learned how to use QMK for custom layouts.

Let's Split with Tsukaworks' 3D-printed case was even better, the cable connecting the halves could be replaced, so it was much bettter:

Then I learned about Dactyl-Manuform, and got a 3D printer to build one (as the local library did not allow the time required to make them):

I played with the layout, changed the column and row offsets and angles, at least a half of a dozen of them. The blue one in the picture above served me for quite some time as the primary work tool.

Despite all that I had not mastered Closure enough to make real changes to DM, so instead I started with Fusion 360 and simpler boards. Here is the Crocodox, its very first make:

The main key area was ok. The thumb cluster was too far away, so it caused some strain when I used Lower+Backspace (see my current layout diagram) for Del key.

In the next iteration I changed the thumb cluster angle. A bit better, but still too far. So the innermost keys on the cluster were out of comfortable reach.

I even added a carrying case that also served as a tilt platform, I am quite proud of that idea:

The next iteration brought the thumb cluster much closer. Also I discovered the innermost column caused some noticeable strain in my palms, in the area of the index finger base. I found that moving that column up reduced if not completely eliminated that strain:

By that time I got deeper into the Dactyl-Manuform's source code. I started experimenting with the board tilting and tenting. Below are a few examples:

These round key caps are wonderful! I used them for almost all of my MX-based boards:

I even considered it to be my endgame, that did not live long though:

I started playing with the DM source code, removed two of the thumb cluster keys, they were not really used anyway:

In between of DM designs I made a steno board, trying to replicate the keys of a mechanical Stenograph machine. The thumb keys were placed lower than the main block, exactly as in Stenograph. While it was interested, I learned that lowered thumb keys were extremely uncomfortable to use, so I never use such a layout anymore.

I polished my DM version further, removed two more thumb keys, and lifted and rotated the remaining two. It was much closer to the ideal layout:

I tried to replace this layout on a flat surface. It turned out to be pretty handy, slim and handy. The only complaint was the hands were pronated a bit more than with DMs, but it was a good start:

One final improvement for my DM, the pinkie columns were moved up (farther ahway), it was a step in the right direction. From top the rows looked more like W than a smooth arc in the original DM.

So those two boards had been used for quite a while, until I noticed a discomfort that turned into pain in the index finger joints. The sharp angle the innermost columns pushed the index fingers sideways as if trying to bend them in an unnatural direction.

The rest of the orange board was good, so I tried to put all the keys on horizontal plane keeping the layout close if not the same as in that orange DM:

It was surprisingly comfortable. A minor issue with the key caps catching the bag lining was resolved by adding the borders (looking like crenelated battlements) around them:

Printing it with fuzzy skin produced even better results, so it became my daily driver for some time:

I kept playing with an idea of flattening the board to be used with a laptop. The keys layout was the same:

Then there were variations with a primary goal to simplify the build:

Also I explored other switches, like this one Fish Ladder that accepted both Kailh Choc and MX-compatibles:

While using those boards with the laptops (mounted on a platform over the laptop keyboard) I found that most of the time the boards were in approximate the same position, so I decided to make a unibody version, saving the MCUs and eliminating the cable. The first version got something about 30 degrees between the halves, that was a bit too close:

So I doubled the angle to 60 degrees, and that was too much:

Angle was reduced to 44 degrees and that hit the sweet spot. Also I raised the thumb keys a bit, and that was another improvement, even with such a modest lift:

And from here I realized it would be possible to replicate this design with PCBs.

It took a few iteration with the board design (due to screwed up wiring) I got a board that worked with MX, ALPS and Kailh Choc switches:

It worked, but still got some mistakes in the wiring (e.g. the reset button turned out on a wrong side in one of the halves), but otherwise that lead the way for the next version.

I wanted to lift the index finger keys one level up, and the thumb cluster one more level up. That would make three PCBs, so I figured a unibody keyboard would be cheaper to produce. Also I got a batch of the TTC KS32 switches by mistake (confused them with Kailh Choc switches, I learned other people made the same mistake, so no shame in it,) so I made the board that would use MX, ALPS, Kailh Choc and TTC switches. No hot-swaps though. They worked really well.

Here are they in the background with the predecessors in front:

I use the board with spring-swapped Matias switches since February 2022, added a touchpad to it.

That board gave me some ideas how to improve the raiser/connector layout, and I realized that the middle and the ring fingers keys in the bottom row had to be relocated to the second level. Due to the shortage of MCUs I designed three versions to cover all available options (ProMicro in a socket, Atmega32U4 soldered on the board by me, and RP2040 assembled at the factory.) Again, surprisingly all three of then worked pretty well, including a wireless build with nice!nano instead of ProMicro. Results are being sold on this site.

You may find more details, including the STL files and Fusion 360 links at Thingiverse.

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