How This Project Came About

The Goal – A Perfect, Working Reproduction

So many products that people purchase today develop issues within months or years – no surprise, since they were designed for disposal. It is great to have the chance to buy something made for real-world use today that will be just as usable and enjoyable ten, twenty or thirty years from now. That has been my unchanging hope and goal for this F77/F62 project.

To make this possible, I have not wanted to compromise the project by lowering standards and cutting corners to produce a reproduction inferior to the original. Just like you, I want to use a new F77/62 that is on par with, or better than, the original Model F keyboards that I use daily.
This was why I have ordered hundreds of thousands of dollars in brand new molds and materials matched to production processes that meet or exceed original standards and tolerances.  Lots of metal in these keyboards!

The Inspiration of the “Kishsaver”

I am a big fan and collector of the IBM buckling spring keyboards; below is a short clip of me with the first keyboard I ever typed on – the IBM Model F.

My very first keyboard was a Model F.  The first family computer was an IBM PC (5150) or IBM PC XT 5160 (not sure of the exact model) with its IBM Model F XT keyboard.  Like so many, I have tried both Cherry MX mechanical keyboards as well as various rubber dome keyboards in later years. They just do not compare in quality or feel to IBM buckling spring keyboards. Naturally, over time, I became a big fan and collector of the IBM buckling spring keyboards.  

In recent years, I have made the  122 key Model F keyboard my daily driver, thanks to Soarer’s great work with his converter and Fohat’s guide to refurbishing and adjusting the F122 layout to conform more closely to a 1391401 Model M ANSI layout.  In 2014, I worked with  xwhatsit to bring his Model F keyboard controllers to mass production and assembly in China at a significantly lower cost. I also collected a number of 4704 keyboards along the way, thanks to my network of IT recycler contacts. These included 50-key, 77-key, and 107-key models.  Despite my finds, I could never acquire one of the coveted  62-key Kishsaver models.  “Kishsaver” is a nickname that has stuck to describe a rare, compact IBM Model F keyboard type that Deskthority contributor Kishy reintroduced to the public a few years ago and described in detail on his website.

From a young age I have had a great interest in computers and technology.  At age 4 I was taking computer lessons at FutureKids.  I have done a lot of typing on Model F keyboards and have taken them apart and repaired/restored a number of them over the years.  But no related background for me; I am not a professional programmer or CAD person.  I studied business in college and have a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University in Applied Economics and Management.  The professional and/or enthusiast-level background of those who have helped me with this project include programmers, PCB/hardware designers, engineers, product designers/inventors, and other Model F keyboard fans.

Alongside other passionate keyboard hobbyists, I continued to search for 62- and 77-key Kishsaver models to no avail. Seeing an ever-growing demand for these keyboards against a non-existent supply, I began looking into the manufacturing challenges and costs required to bring these great metal keyboards back into production. Was it possible? If possible, was it feasible?

Taking computer lessons at FutureKids in 1992 (not on an IBM PC!)

Working on the Brand New Model F project. Photo taken for an article in the Cornell Alumni Magazine on the project

A Team Effort

My work has become known as the Model F62 and F77 project, with names chosen to reflect the original key counts of these compact keyboards, but this has been far from a one-man show. The enthusiasm of others for the Kishsaver keyboards has inspired me at all points. From the start, work on CAD files included lively discussion of ideas with some of the smartest professional engineers, PCB designers and product designers on the planet – many who have contributed greatly to the DT/GH/reddit forums on mechanical keyboards.

The crucial contribution of xwhatsit’s invention of a reliable capacitive controller replacement for Model F keyboards is well-known, but others whom I have not yet approached about public recognition have also contributed in unique ways.  Along the way, thanks to them, I have learned a lot about manufacturing, PCBs, materials, micrometer measurement, CAD (computer aided design) and, most of all, about the specifications for producing top-notch Model F keyboards.  

Meeting the Engineering Challenge

This is a unique project – the first-ever that will bring back Model F buckling spring technology into real-world use, twenty-five years after mainstream production was halted by IBM. 

While the original buckling spring patent expired long ago, opening the door to “generics”, no projects to make brand-new buckling spring keyboards from 100% new stock had been attempted beforehand.  No original tooling could help us.  I had to pay for all the tooling, CNC milling and molds in the hope that our designs, schematics and materials processes would prove sound.  Another forum member pointed out that other custom keyboard projects based on Cherry MX switches begin with lower production costs and reduced end-goal risks, since the individual key mechanisms come pre-manufactured – unlike  our conceptually ‘old’, yet newly-conceived and manufactured Model F components. 

To come as close as I can to meet my goal of delivering perfectly working reproductions, I have been testing every component of my Model F keyboards as they have entered production. Of course, I will apply the same rigorous testing to the fully-assembled Model F keyboards to make sure they live up to the originals and to my quality standards.

After all, the intention of the project has been to faithfully recreate the 77-key and 62-key Model F keyboards without tinkering or altering a keyboard design that has long been regarded as the best ever placed into widespread production. Changing things around would have brought both positive and negative feedback without the chance for either myself or respected critics to prove who was taking the right approach. This would also have greatly increased the costs of making and testing prototypes.

From a young age I have had a great interest in computers and have done a lot of typing on Model F keyboards.  I have taken them apart and repaired/restored a number of them.  Still, I am not a professional programmer or CAD person.  I do not possess the CAD skills that would have been needed to innovate on the Model F design, even if I had wanted to do so.  In fact, I taught myself CAD for this project. Reproducing the great work of the past, aided by other professionals and keyboard enthusiasts, has been an amply ambitious goal.

A Word About Keycaps

When the project began, I expected to source keycaps from old IBM keyboards (Model M as well as Model F) and from Unicomp for those who wanted new keys. Tooling and quality control for keycaps seemed beyond-budget and outside the acceptable time frame for producing usable keyboards. 

Early-on, I recommended that hobbyists search for keycaps approaching the standard set by the original IBM PC XT keyboard. This meant hunting for the best surviving keycaps; the use of deep/black/bold dye sublimated legends and, finally, an integrated cap-and-stem one-piece design instead of the two piece Model M design.  No easy task!

While some purchasers will ‘bring their own keys’ with them, I am very happy that the generous investment of the community made it possible for me to spec and plan production of brand new key molds that will, I hope, produce keys that meet the IBM PC XT standard-of-excellence.

Open Source Code

A few years ago an extraordinary programmer, engineer, circuit designer, and IBM keyboard enthusiast, known on the forums as xwhatsit, wanted to replace the controller on some of his old IBM keyboards with a modern, NKRO-capable, USB native controller that could be completely customized with custom key values, layouts, and layers.  In 2014 xwhatsit achieved his vision and released his project with an open source GPL3 license.

His project single-handedly made it possible to use some of the older IBM keyboards as well as made it possible for these new F77 and F62 keyboards to exist.

This Model F project uses the most recent stable version of xwhatsit’s hardware, which has run for years on old IBM keyboards around the world.  The xwhatsit source code, GUI software, and firmware can be freely downloaded from xwhatsit’s web site (links are in the manual).

Starting in 2020, QMK keyboard firmware was ported to the xwhatsit Model F controllers thanks to programming and testing by Deskthority forum members pandrew and tentator.  Though currently in beta, QMK firmware has been reported to be stable with no issues on many keyboards.  The advantages of this controller include simpler web-based programmability, automatic threshold adjustment, and some reports of perfect stability where the xwhatsit firmware was not 100% stable.  The downside is there is no offline adjustability of the layout by standalone GUI software with QMK – only the web-based GUI.  The older xwhatsit firmware is also still available and being updated as well.

Future firmware versions can be loaded onto the ATMega chip inside each F62 and F77 keyboard using Atmel’s Flip 3.4.7 software, among other software choices.

Pricing and “Thank You”

I have never stopped looking for those willing and able to lend a hand with the many dimensions of the Model F Keyboard project. Please free free to PM me on the Geekhack and Deskthority forums.  My user name is Ellipse.  I am also on reddit with the user name 1954bertonespyder.  Registration on the forums is free and they are all great communities to be a part of.

The Model F Keyboard project’s original price was finalized early on and has held up well across some early and unpredictable project phases. Happily, the progress made to-date has allowed me to offer a small but increased set of Model F Keyboard types (introducing the “ultra compact case” models and the HHKB style split right shift layout offerings, none of which were originally offered), as well as a variety of keycaps and other extras (including a “first aid kit”) to support many years of reliable use. Consult the website store page for more information.

In closing, I want to express once again my deep appreciation to the remarkable professionals and hobbyists who have shown steadfast support even when unexpected challenges and unavoidable factory delays might have raised doubts. I feel more confident than ever that my original goal is achievable – to manufacture, again, the best keyboard ever conceived, meeting  the quality standard that IBM defined and achieved more than three decades ago.

Anyway, the entire project itself is only preparation for what comes after. The end-point will be our shared pleasure across the years as we type on a keyboard beautifully matched to expressing ourselves in countless ways in the 21st century.