Model F Buckling Spring: the Best Switch for Typing
so far in orders (4/18/18)!
people supporting the project
please have your orders in by then!
Model F: Built to Last for Decades, Not Years
The IBM Model F keyboards not only used the best switches, the materials used in their production (well over 5lbs of steel and other metals) means they will be working as good as new when it’s time to pass it on to your grandchildren. The problem…they just aren’t made that way any more. The IBM Model F was discontinued in the 1980’s. If you do find a Model F, it will be some combination of dirty, broken and/or expensive, requiring hours of work to get it working again!
While the Model F was replaced with the cheaper and now easier to obtain Model M, the Model M made some sacrifices on build quality and tactile response, replacing almost all metal with plastic. Out was the incredibly sharp and firm click of the Model F’s flippers making direct contact with its large printed circuit board. In was the Model M’s tiny pivot plates hitting a rubber mat and underlying plastic membrane sheets with a relatively dull thud. And again, if you want a vintage Model M that is considered to be of higher quality than today’s keyboards, then you are stuck in the second-hand market dealing with dirty, more likely broken and often expensive options.
But through the tireless effort, expertise, and support from countless Deskthority, Geekhack, and reddit community members, the IBM Model F design is being resurrected for the first time in three decades. This effort will culminate in the release of reproductions of the IBM Model F keyboards. Originally, these keyboards were part of a family of industrial strength keyboards designed for use in the banking and other commercial applications – so well made and reliable that some systems and their keyboards are still in use today. The F62’s layout is a 30 year old design that the layout of nearly all current-generation compact 60% keyboards match. The F77 most closely matches modern tenkeyless designs with 15 additional keys to the right side of the layout that can be used as either navigation or numeric keys.
Finally, a keyboard made in this century with more metal than plastic – a sturdy, heavy keyboard with buckling springs, which were later used in the legendary Model M keyboard that set the standard layout for every keyboard from that era to today.
“The Best Keyboard Ever Is Back”
“To gamers and anyone else who is particular about how their keyboard sounds and feels, there are few things more satisfying than the loud click of a mechanical key. Although there are modern mechanical keyboards, aficionados also now have the option of purchasing a brand new version of the IBM Model F board from the 1980s.”
“Old school geeks alike will argue that the venerable IBM Model F, circa 1981 and sporting keys that must be forced down on internal buckling springs, was the best mechanical keyboard ever made. It was a key masher’s dream and emanated a deliciously clicky sound that modern day mechanical keyboards have all tried and failed to perfectly replicate.”
“The second coming of the high-quality Model F (not to be confused with its more affordable plastic successor, the Model M) isn’t a throwback attention grab from IBM, nor a nostalgia play from Big Keyboard. Instead, it’s the longtime work of a historian in love with the retro keyboard’s unparalleled sound and feel, but frustrated by the limitations of actual decades-old tech.”
“The Model F is considered by many people to be the best keyboard ever. IBM stopped making it in the ’90s and the patent expired. But the keyboard is having another moment.”
“The Model F is not exactly the mechanical keyboard that started it all, but it may as well be. What’s more, the keyboard and its switches were discontinued decades ago, so if you wanted to put your paws on the legend, you needed to either dig one up in a junk pile or build a time machine. Now, though, you can order one up from [ModelFKeyboards.com]”
“It was the soundtrack of the Eighties-era office: the clickety-clack of the computer keyboard. More often than not, the instrument at hand was an IBM Model F (or its cheaper cousin, the Model M)—a keyboard that lives in legend among vintage hardware aficionados as the finest ever designed.”
“ IBM rated the switches in the Model F for 100 million strokes per key, about four times the rating for the ones aboard the Model M. That sort of endurance is so long that it practically means “forever,” but in combination with the slightly lower actuation force and the meatier key feel, it means that keyboard aficionados widely prefer the Model F over the Model M.”
“You can buy a mechanical keyboard right now that has fancy LEDs, various custom key switches, and wireless connectivity. However, some keyboard enthusiasts would tell you that the mechanical keyboard actually reached perfection in the early 1980s. That’s when IBM started producing the Model F keyboard.”
“Just like the mechanic who will only buy a specific brand of wrenches, the engineer who has a favorite pair of tweezers, or the amateur woodworker who uses a hand plane made 150 years ago, some people who use keyboards eight or twelve hours a day have realized the older tools of the trade are better. Old keyboards, or at least ones with mechanical switches, aren’t gummy, they’re precise, you don’t have to hammer on them to type, and they’re more ergonomic. They sound better.”
Why a Limited Production Run?
One of the goals of this project has been to get the base price of the keyboard (with no keys) down to $325 USD, even though this project is incredibly expensive to put in motion (we met this goal!). To achieve this, I will be doing just one production run, plus one early-bird round. This saves on tooling and other costs that make continuous production infeasible at this time, but it requires orders to be accepted only in a limited window of time. When the window closes, that’s it! So if you want one of these, please order one soon! I will be hand inspecting each keyboard to make sure each one is up to my quality standards before they ship to you. Your keyboard will be made to order at the factory from dozens of possible combinations of options.
F62/F77 Prototype testing, brief teardown, and sound comparisons with original IBM keyboards
- F62, F77 base keyboard without keys: $325
- All F77/F62 keyboards have function keys! See product pages for info
- Key sets: starting at $29
- Colors: off-white/beige (to match the originals), Industrial Gray (to match the Industrial SSK), black, silver gray, and Pantone True Red
- Layouts: ANSI, ISO, HHKB-style
- Premium supporter options (earliest delivery options!): Single digit and lower serial numbers or request a specific serial number; pricing premium of $35 and up
- Extra parts are available
- Go to the shop page for the full list of options and products
Ultra Compact Case F62/F77 Keyboards - Unboxing, Testing, and Teardown
Early Bird Process – expected shipping in 2-3 months
Place your order for the early bird round- your card will be charged when you place your order because you are buying a made-to order product. No extra charge from the currently-listed prices to order in the early bird round. Feel free to message me with questions or requests.
Production is expected to take several months, and sea mail from China to me should take 2-4 additional weeks
Keyboards begin shipping out in sequence of serial number. Serial numbers assigned in order of when I receive your payment generally, with an exception for early-bird product supporters who want a low and/or single-digit serial number – those go out earliest.
Final Round Process
- Last chance to place an order before production ends. These will likely not be stocked continuously, so you may not be able to find these if you hold off.
- Final production
What makes the Model F great
Original materials and quality standards, updated with an easily configurable controller
Pre-programmed for your layout – just plug it in! Native USB support; the controller uses a detachable USB cable.
Custom layouts possible; fully programmable with function layers and macros. Cross platform configuration tool (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux).
Full NKRO (N-Key Rollover) capacitive switch sensing. Aerospace-grade buckling springs.
Capacitive technology prevents key contacts from being directly exposed, thereby significantly expanding the keyboard’s useful life.
Aerospace-grade springs manufactured to the original tolerances will help these keyboards attain decades of service.
Powdercoated (painted) metal top and metal bottom case
Top and bottom case powdercoated in a color similar to the original “off white/beige” color, black, or similar to industrial gray.
The factory did an outstanding job with texture and color matching. Can you tell which case below is the original and which is the reproduction?
Heavy-duty industrial design
Puts your effort into typing and not flexing the case
Layouts and key placement can be adjusted at the factory, or you can adjust them yourself later on. Here’s an example layout on my original F77:
Barrels and capacitive flippers
For super-smooth key travel and a solid sounding click: Model F barrels and full-size capacitive flippers, all injection molded for accuracy/durability (not 3D printed)
Dye-sublimated PBT keycaps
Dye-sublimated legends resist wear much better than regular pad-printed keys.
High quality packaging for shipping and storage
Packed in two custom-milled styrofoam shells and a close-fitting brown double-walled cardboard box. Ships fully assembled, or fully assembled with a “bring your own keys” option. You will put on your keyboard’s feet though!
Metal top and metal bottom inner "sandwich" plates with interlocking tabs
The same method used in the original Model F’s.
Vintage dot matrix invoicing to give it that retro feel
Your F62/F77 packing slip printed with a dot matrix printer on old 1980s green bar continuous form computer paper.
HHKB-style (incl. split right shift) layout available
A special customization of the top inner assembly and PCB makes an almost exact approximation of this layout possible on buckling spring keyboards – a first! Great for programmable layers (supported!)
Birth certificate label on each keyboard
Label includes your keyboard’s birthday and serial number.
Metal stabilizer tabs
Metal tabs attached to the top inner assembly for the Model M style spacebar stabilizer wire – no plastic pieces like in the original
Extra parts will be available
Extra barrels (AT-style) and capacitive flippers will be produced and made available for purchase separately (for other projects and for replacement parts) during the limited time order window
Model F mechanical keyboard facts
- Unlike a Model M, a Model F can be taken apart piece by piece and reassembled with just a pair of pliers and a screwdriver (though it does take a bit of time to put all the pieces back together!). The Model F’s top inner assembly is designed with steel tabs that slide into the bottom inner assembly. Therefore it is considered one of the most repairable keyboards, which is one reason why they can be restored to working condition 30+ years later. The Model M requires irreversibly damaging the plastic rivets to get inside. I expect to make an instructional assembly/disassembly video to help with the F77/F62 keyboard maintenance.
- Keys are easy to remove and replace. A pair of paper clips or a standard mechanical keyboard key remover (the keyboard key puller in the store, for example) can remove a key. Since most Model F keys fit equally well on every row (though not the extra wide modifier keys), you can have many layout possibilities – QWERTY, DVORAK, and some international layout variations. During shipping, it is common for buckling springs to fall out of place so it’s easy to remove and re-seat a key that does not buckle properly.
- Buckling springs are also easy to remove and replace. No need to disassemble the entire keyboard to replace a buckling spring, thanks to a number of methods found through a Google search, like the tweezers method or the chopsticks method.
- The Model F keys are in my opinion a lot smoother and a little lighter than their Model M counterparts. Part of it is probably due to the higher quality Model F construction and individualized F barrels made with a special heavy duty but super smooth plastic resin. Also the spring compression force is likely a little lighter than that of the M’s.
- Model F keyboards are known today for having very strange-looking layouts that are difficult to get used to. For example, the IBM XT keyboard, one of the first Model F’s to come out. The IBM PC AT keyboard attempted to improve upon those layout shortfalls, but still required tedious layer switching through the Num Lock button to access cursor keys and num pad keys. Model M’s greatly improved the layouts of these old Model F keyboards, but at the expense of significantly reduced quality of components and metal content in an effort to save costs.
- Most original Model F’s have vertical Enter keys and short shift keys that are often difficult to find and press. Also the space bars of the XT and AT F keyboards were much larger and required much more force to press. The F62/F77 project is the first Model F that will offer a standard, customizable 60% layout.
- Model F keyboards originally sold for sky-high prices relative to today’s keyboards, though many were sold as part of big contracts for huge terminal systems costing tens of thousands of dollars. For example, IBM’s Model F 122-key keyboard originally sold for $295 back in 1984 – over $670 adjusted for inflation! And that price reflected IBM’s huge economies of scale advantage where they could allocate fixed production and tooling costs across tens and hundreds of thousands of keyboards, and later millions of Model M keyboards.
The year is 1981. IBM, in the business of selling expensive mainframe computers and terminals to big corporations, has just released the IBM Personal Computer, which thanks to its open architecture was to become a standard for the computer industry (“IBM PC compatible”). The system is delivered with the latest in IBM keyboard technology, the ‘Buckling Spring,’ patented five years earlier. Smaller in size, designed for higher durability and reliability, and less expensive to manufacture than their earlier Beam Spring keyboards, the new Model F buckling spring keyboards retain the very high build quality IBM’s computer hardware was known for, with a capacitive sensing PCB sandwiched between beefy steel front and back plates, all packaged within an outer casing of solid metal for the bottom piece (and later solid metal top and bottom pieces for their 4704 banking system’s Model F keyboards). These were keyboards engineered and manufactured to endure hundreds of millions of keystrokes. They are arguably the finest feeling and most durable keyboards ever produced, yet very few people today have even heard of, let alone experienced them as they were made before a time of PS/2 and USB standards.
If you are old enough, chances are you know of the IBM buckling spring technology in the guise of the Model M, which was designed by IBM as a lower-cost replacement for the Model F, and manufactured and sold with IBM PCs between 1985 and ~1995. But before the Model M, for just about five years between 1981 and 1986, IBM manufactured and sold Model F keyboards as their primary offering. Then in 1987 IBM’s Personal System/2 came along and popularized the Model M keyboard, which featured the same layout and set of keys as is on just about every standard keyboard today. The PS/2 (as it was known) introduced many technologies including the PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports, VGA video standard, 1.44 MB floppy disk format, and the 16550 UART serial port (commonly used with its RS-232 interface).
Project notes/terms and conditions/risks
In case you haven’t been following the forums where I have had several hundred posts explaining different aspects of the project and its execution, including risks, here are some key highlights, which will also serve as the terms and conditions the buyer agrees to by placing an order on this web site. As you may have read on the forums, many forum members and I have paid extreme attention to detail throughout this process and I want to be straightforward with some of the less exciting parts of the project, especially with the risks and caveats. I ask that you read through these carefully before placing an order. If you’re concerned with something, feel free to message me. I am Ellipse on the forums and am the project coordinator.
- Please read through the web site and my forum postings to gain a full understanding of what you’re buying. Or feel free to message me with any questions you have or if you need to confirm any specifications or features. However, things I write before production begins may change or may no longer be accurate for the production units. That means that I may have posted something publicly that may no longer be accurate, and I have not gone back and corrected these postings to remove inaccuracies. Final product colors, specifications, etc. may change from what is pictured.
- You’re ordering into production a factory-customized product that could very well be unique to you, given the dozens of possible combinations offered: keyboard layouts, case colors, and key options, as well as the option to buy a special edition split right shift (HHKB-style layout) version. You will not be ordering anything from readily available inventory unless specified. Many premium options are shown in the photos on this site; you will not get these premium offerings (e.g. key caps) unless you order them. Your order will likely not match the layout and keys from the photos unless you specify those options when ordering – the photos serve only as example configurations you can consider. The base keyboard option is a “bring your own keys” option which means that the $325 base keyboard comes with no keys or stabilizer inserts.
- This F62/F77 production run is not a Kickstarter-style project. There is no goal required for production to start. Thanks to the expertise and enthusiasm of the DT, GH, and r/mk keyboard communities all production materials have already been determined and all production designs have been finished. I have already paid significant prototyping, tooling, and mold making costs out of pocket for this project over the past several months. Part of the contents of this site were typed on fully-functional F62/F77 prototypes!
- Much of the design follows in the footsteps of old Model F keyboards, though these are not exact replicas of a 4704 banking keyboard or any other old keyboard. The firmware and hardware components are completely modern and do not use IBM chips or firmware. Interestingly the buckling spring patents expired many years ago and buckling spring is now in the public domain, yet this is the first project to build a new Model F keyboard from all-new parts.
- The order price for the keyboard is the price you will pay: Unlike many crowdfunding projects, much of the production tooling and molds have already been paid for out of pocket and produced. I have negotiated pricing with my contacts in China who will be making the production units. If there are any immediate or significant issues I will address them for you, but I cannot provide personalized or ongoing technical support – those questions are best left to the keyboard forums. The project does not require any minimum commitments for production to happen. Production of your customized keyboard will be going full steam ahead starting with the early bird production after the order window closes.
- In the case of the early birds, your product will be factory made to order. I expect to hand test each unit before it ships, though buckling spring keyboards are known to require key re-seating after they are bumped around during shipping – this is something you may need to learn how to do if you are new to buckling spring keyboards! It’s very easy though.
- Keyboard controller risks: The Model F USB keyboard controller, designed by the super-smart DT/GH forum contributor xwhatsit a couple years ago, has been successfully and reliably used for over one year in dozens of Model F keyboards, with not too many complaints about them misbehaving. It has also been tested with both the F62 and F77 PCBs. I ran the first GB for these xwhatsit controllers back in 2014 and the same factory will be making the controllers for this project, with a modified design to allow for a more standard pitch ribbon cable to connect the capacitive (big) PCB and the little controller PCB. Model F keyboards are known for their reliability and longevity, but there is a small risk that the new production keyboards’ firmware is not perfect just yet. No one really knows, given this is the very first Model F project with all new (no NOS) production parts (except for the continuous form NOS paper invoice that is!). If you ever wanted to change the controller, you may be able to replace it with a compatible controller years from now with some desoldering/soldering of the ribbon cable.
- Color risks: Colors and their shades varied noticeably even on original Model F keyboards. Each keyboard is powdercoated (painted) and the colors may vary. They may not turn out being what you had in mind or what the paint colors look like on your computer monitor. The colors from my forum photos and photos from this web site may not accurately reflect the color you receive. Please keep this in mind when ordering one of these. Colors are not guaranteed to be close to your desired color; if you order a custom color, it will be on a “best efforts” basis.
- Possibility of future production runs and continuous stock. Thanks to generous early bird tooling volunteers this production run will be split into an early and regular run. At this point I do not expect to hold and sell inventory beyond the group buy period, though I may make some extra units in the early bird period for those who may have missed out but don’t want to wait a few months longer with the regular group buy period. Those would all be expected to be sold before the end of the regular group buy period. Also pricing of some items and options may change during the group buy – I will not be refunding the difference if I change pricing for everyone later on. I will refund you for part of your order if it is out of stock of course!
- “Feel” risks: I have many original Model F keyboards in my collection and each one sounds different. No two sound the same or feel the same when typing! This means that your Brand New Model F Keyboard will likely not sound or feel like your 30 year old Model F or Model M keyboard due to their loosened springs, deteriorating foam, different alloys of metal, etc. New or little-used Model M and Model F springs and keys tend to require a little break in to loosen up the springs and keys. Not all keys will sound perfect or all the same with buckling spring keyboards – some may sound funny but they usually keep on working.
- For product support please go to the forums as I can’t offer 1×1 support. These keyboards are easy to repair yourself as they can be opened relatively easily compared to today’s devices and can be done with just regular +/- head screwdrivers and pliers. No spudgers needed :). I expect to post a disassembly/assembly video tutorial as well. It is impressive that an original Model F keyboard can still work well 30+ years later, though you still may need to do some small maintenance and repairs to keep your keyboard in good operating condition, such as re-seating/replacing springs and keys, cleaning your keys, maybe replacing the removable USB cable if it becomes flaky after a decade or so, etc. I know next to nothing about the xwhatsit keyboard controller firmware and software being used for this project.
- Refund/cancellation policy: Given this is a made-to-order product with an expected lead time of several months, refunds and/or cancellations can not be accepted once your keyboard goes into production (keyboards are currently in production). All sales are final.
- Delivery policy: Since you are ordering made-to-order items, stock is not kept and you will need to expect an extended production and shipment time frame specified above. For example, keyboards ordered in the early bird round have an estimated shipping timeframe of early to mid-2018. Items will be delivered by a common carrier (USPS, FedEx, DHL Express, UPS) and you may need a signature for the mail carrier to release the package.
- Company Name, mailing address and contact information: MODEL F LABS LLC, 600 Franklin Ave. #7170, Garden City, NY. Phone: 516 874 6411
- I do hope that these keyboards survive the test of time. So many products people buy today develop issues in a few months’ or years’ time and are meant to be disposed of; it is great to be able to buy something made today that you can use every day and it will be there for you to use 10, 20, 30 years from now. I hope this F77/F62 project will be like that – only time will tell. I do not want to compromise a project like this by lowering standards and cutting corners to make it inferior to an original because it is something I want to be able to use and something that is on par with the original Model F keyboards that I use daily – that is why I expect to end up spending $100,000 or more on this project for materials and production processes that meet or exceed original standards and tolerances, including lots of metal!