Custom Dyed IBM Model M Keyboard

As soon as it became clear that my career trajectory was going to be predominantly in front of a computer screen, I sought out ways to optimize my work set-up. This mostly led to a strong interest in various ergnomic and oftentimes plain weird keyboard devices. At this point it is still in my bucketlist to use a Kinesis Contoured, Datahand (I know, its freaky looking isn’t it?), or Kinesis Freestyle2 on a regular basis. I’m embarassed to say that I did own a Goldtouch Split Keyboard for a hot minute, but I took it apart, the dog got interested and jangled up the parts absolutely everywhere, and, uh, I find myself quite unable to bring it back to life. I also didn’t find it as exciting as the Beaglebone to truly bother. Ah well.

This brings me to the IBM Model M. I learned that despite its age, the Model M with its buckling spring design is said by many to be the best example of keyboard design, engineering, and construction. I wanted one – basically I experienced a “I had to have it” moment. (For my international friends, here is some context to the previous statement.)

I’m not going to go into where I got my Model M – if you’re a university student then you know that all you have to do is wander about certain departments to find vintage technology left neglected in the office hallways for E-Recycling. I asked around and got a tip where to find a Model M. It was a fantastic sight – put out for disposal was a pristine, barely used, IBM Model M circa 1994.

However it had a PS/2 connection. The best PS/2 to USB adaptor on Amazon is the Adesso, and I added another 4 star review to its already 200 some-odd stellar reviews. I plugged it in and my keyboard just worked. Since then I’ve found that typing on the free keyboards that came with computer wasn’t nearly as satisfying as a clicky mechanical keyboard.

But it looked rather dull, so I decided to customize it.

Overclock.net has a customization guide, but one key point is missing from it.

Use Liquid RIT dye

After multiple attempts with blue, green, and purple with powdered RIT dye and ending up with splochy grey keys, I can say that paying a few dollars extra for the liquid dye is better than hours of work and bitter disappointment.

The Keyboard Clean Up

So this is what I had to work with. As you can see, the original model isn’t particularly exciting.

I removed a few screws from the back to take off the cover. I carefully popped off the keys by squeezing the topmost and bottommost sides, then pulled in an upwards direction. This technique preserved the underhangs of the original keys so they could clip back on when I was done.

Despite the Model M being well preserved, there still were a few dust bunnies underneath the keys. I cleaned it off with a soft cloth with a bit of rubbing alcohol sprinkled on it.

IMPORTANT: Clean off every single one of the keys with soap and water. Just before dying them them, rub each one with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol to remove any remaining residue.

The Dyeing Process

The dyeing process takes 45 minutes per color. Yes, you have to stand there and stir it the entire time. Catch up on an episode of Parks and Recreation to make it bareable. The end result makes it all worth it, though – just look!

My plan was to dye my favorite Emacs keybindings yellow, the letter keys orange, and the number and function keys red. Before I started I printed out a copy of an emacs keyboard and colored it in so I could plan my design.

I added both 1 tablespoon of salt and ¼ cup vinegar to my 4 cups of boiling dye solution to make the dye become bright and stick to the keys.

IMPORTANT: Constantly stir the dyebath so the keys don’t warp and the color is consistent.

When the dyebath has hit a rolling boil, then add your keys and reduce the heat to medium low. My “Golden Yellow” worked beautifully. My red dye? Not so much.

As soon as I rinsed off the red keys to check their progress, the whole thing washed off like I’d never dyed them in the first place.

I was ever so slightly peeved about this, so I decided to just throw the red ones into my Tangerine Orange dye. This somehow activated the red dye (or for some reason the orange permated the plastic better) and suddenly, as if by magic, I had approximately the color I was looking for.

Turns out the darker grey plastic of the Model M actually gave me the three-color spectrum I was aiming for! I was satisfied with my work, rinsed out my orange dyebath in the sink, and began cleaning up my workspace.

Then I realized that I had errantly left an undyed key behind – one of the ones that had been in the powdered red dye earlier. I checked the sink and maybe a cup full of orange dilluted dye was left in the bowl. It was better than nothing, so put the bowl back on the burner, turned up the heat high, and crossed my fingers.

If I do say so myself, it turned out very, very well. Hint: the key dyed in the discarded dyebath is on the left.

The final result was just glorious.

Unfortunately the noise produced by this keyboard got it vetoed out of the office. I was not one to distrupt the harmony of the workplace so I took it home where it has been my trusty companion for all my personal computing needs. In short, this dye process was extremely gratifying and I have to strongly repress the urge to dye every old beige keyboard I see. It certainly sparked what is a very powerful and odd attraction to unusual or vintage input devices. Seriously, where can I get a Kineses Contoured? Come on, people! Help a girl out!

An Aside.
People are doing all sorts of incredible things with their Model M keyboards – just look at this Steampunk version!