The MechBoard64

It’s finally time to show what has been clutting up my workbench for way too long! Back in 2015 I got my hands on two C64 Reloaded boards (link) and installed them inside cases from the Kickstarter campaign (link). I also entered the Phase5 Indiegogo campaign to get some sweet new keycaps. Thus, all that I needed to have two brand spanking new Commodore 64’s was some new keyboards. So the basic idea was to simply make two new keyboards as no one else seemed to have picked up the idea… How hard can it be, ehh? Well, more than two years have passed since I initiated the biggest Commodore 64 project that I have ever done. Truth is, the project was laying kinda still until a few months back when I decided to just get on with it. Following the presentation of the first working prototype back in March (link), I redrew the bracket and made small adjustments to the PCB. So without any further ado, here is the final version of my new mechanical keyboard for the Commodore 64 – the MechBoard64.

The MechBoard64 is a drop-in replacement keyboard for the Commodore 64, including the new motherboards (Ultimate64 (link) and C64 Reloaded (link)). The keyboard is based on microswitches from Gateron, lasercut aluminum brackets that are anodized in black and a black PCB. The MechBoard64 consists of 123 individual pieces and 200+ soldering points connect it all. This post is an elaboarion of the build of the MechBoard64 for my two C64 Reloaded boards. Hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did creating it.

The Printed Circuit Board

The PCB is black because I wanted it to have the same color as the C64 Reloaded boards. We want things to look nice, right? I had the PCBs made in 2 mm thickness to make them as sturdy as possible. This is overkill as all force during key presses will be on the aluminum bracket and not the PCB… At the bottom right side of the board is the Shift Lock circuit which handles the functionality of the Shift Lock key without using a locking type switch. The circuit is described in further details below.

The PCB has two 20 pin angled male pins headers at each end of the PCB. A short 20 cm ribbon cable is used to connect hte MechBoard64 to the motherboard of the C64. Depending on the motherboard version I can simply use the pin header that is the closest to the socket on the C64. Text near the 20 pin pin header indicates what motherboard each pin header is best suited for…

The Aluminum Bracket

The first prototype had a bracket (the part holding the microswitches and the PCB) made of black acrylic plates (link). They had a thickness of 2 mm which is too thick for the Costar plate mounted clips, the microswitches and the C64C slim cases. These parts need 1.5 mm plates to snap into place correctly. The acrylic plastic is also very brittle and may break during normal use. I therefore completely redesigned the bracket using 1.5 mm black anodized aluminum which is way stronger and similar to modern high-end mechanical keyboards. The aluminum bracket is also a nice addition to the great looking C64 Reloaded and Ultimate64 boards! The aluminum brackets have been lasercut and bend by hand and they have submilimeter precision. The finish really exceeded my expectations and is almost too good looking considering that it will be hidden inside a case…

The holes for attaching the keyboard to the internals of the Commodore 64 have been slotted to make small adjustments possible during installation. To finish everything off, black nylon screws, black nylon spacers and black nylon nuts were used to attach the PCB to the aluminum bracket.

Microswitches

I spend quite some time on deciding what microswitch I wanted to use for the MechBoard64. However, I quickly decided to use microswitches from Cherry mx or Gateron as these seemed to be the most used in modern keyboards and would also be available in the future. To this end, each manufacturer has different types of switches (linear, clicky, tactile) that need different amount of force to activate. I therefore invested in a little microswitch testing board and ordered pretty much all the different flavours of Cherry mx and Gateron switches. The test board made it quite easy to test the different microswitches from both manufacturers at the same time while having an original C64 keyboard as reference. It quickly came clear that the Cherry mx reds (45 g linear) and Gateron yellows (55 g linear) resemble the original C64 keyboard the best. However, the Gateron switches have a smoother feel when pressing them and they are also almost half the price of the Cherry’s. Both manufacturers guarantee that their switches work for at least 50 million keypresses which should be more than enough for all my C64 typing needs! So my new keyboards both have Gateron yellows installed…

The keycaps were removed from donor keyboards of two original Commodore 64 breadboxes as I’m still waiting for the new keycaps from the Phase5/Indiegogo campaign to finish. Using a keycap puller made the job very easy and reduced the risk of breaking the fragile plastic pegs on the old C64 keyboards.

3D Printed Key Adapters

In order for the original C64 keycaps to fit the stems of the Gateron switches, 3D printed key adapters have to be used. A guy on Deskthority (link) made the CAD drawing and I’ve updated them slightly for an even better fit. The keycap adapters are made from Shapeways in a material called Strong and Flexible which is also known as Nylon Plastic, PA12 or Polyamide. They are printed using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), which is strong enough for structural components. The 3D prints fits really well and are easy to attach to the stems of the microswitches. The same goes for attaching the keycaps on top of the adapters. It is important to note that the 3D printed key adapters only work with the Cherry mx style switches (e.g. Gateron) and the standard Commodore 64 keycaps. Other C64 keycaps, like the ‘strange’ ones shown below, will not work and hence cannot be used with the 3D printed key adapters!

Special shaped adapters are used for the stabilizer wire of the Return key. All 1.5u sized keys (Shift keys, Function keys, Restore and CTRL) have a 3D printed stem installed into the free hole to stabilize the keys during key presses. The stabilizer system of the Space bar simply uses the same 3D printed key adapters for the Costar keycap inserts.

Keyboard Stabilizers

The Space bar and Return keys both have a stabilizing wire installed underneath to keep them stable regardless of where they are pressed during use. Costar plate clips were snapped into the rectangular slots near the two keys while stabilizer wire were added to the Return key and Spacebar keys. I installed the two keys before anything else in order to have as much room as possible for fiddling everything into place.

The Space bar stabilizer wire is placed behind the space bar in order to get as far away from the edge of the bracket as possible. This was to ensure that the bending tools did not alter the dimension of the slots. I used a flat headed screwdriver to gently push the mircoswitch stem down in order to attach the spacarbar.

I then installed the Return key. First the stabilizer wire was installed into the Costar keycap inserts before snapping it into the two plate mounted inserts. Again, a flat headed screwdriver was used for snapping everything into place.

I had to make my own stabilizers as the size of the Space Bar is very long (size 9u!). I used a tool called DuBro EZ Bender #480 and some piano wire. Before I even had the first stabilizer made, I broke the die… typical, right? I also found that the 1.19mm wire was a bit too thick for the costar keycap inserts. After replacing the broken die, I got some thinner 1.00 mm piano wire and after that, making the stabilizers went pretty fast.

34 comments on “The MechBoard64

  1. Just be clear, you need to go here (link) for instructions on how to be added to the non-binding pre-order list of the current batch 🙂 Thanks.

  2. I also sent my sign up. This is maybe the coolest thing to intersect two passions of mine. I’m happy to take one of these for my retro toolbox! 🙂

  3. Hi Zsolt. The MechBoard64 is made in batches depending on demand to keep a balance between risk and cost. Information on how to get a keyboard from a batch can be found here (link). Right now the pre-order list for the very first batch is already full. Information on upcoming batches can be found on the linked page above 🙂

  4. Would you consider a run of just the pcb? While the whole kit would be nice the PCB is the hardest bit to source myself.

  5. Hi Brett, currently the MechBoard64 will only be sold as a complete item to ensure that it works right out of the box. However, future batches may be run with an option without microswitches for those who want to use their own 🙂

  6. Currently there are no plans on making the keyboard available with Cherry switches, sorry. However, future batches may have a ‘switchless’ options for those who want to install their own switches 😉

  7. I guess I should’ve made my question less specific… So there are no plans to offer a batch with switches other than the Gateron Yellow? Linear switches are a no-go for me, if I’m going to replace a C64 keyboard I would want something that improves on the original instead of just copying the mushy feel of it.

  8. Hi Unseen, I know that the choice of microswitches is a very personal thing especially for those who use as a mechanical keyboard as their ‘daily driver’. For the MechBoard64 I had to make some choices with regard to microswitches to find a balance between cost, quality and availability. The primary goal was to find a switch that would resemble the ‘feel’ (whatever that is, right?) of the original C64 keyboard the best. To this end, I think that the Gateron yellows get closest with respect to being linear and the force needed to activate – but without the mushy feel of the original. However, that is just my personal opinion and the MechBoard64 is therefore also offered with Gateron Reds and clicky Blues.

    You will certainly get an even stiffer feel by using Cherry greens or their clicky blues! That is also why I’m considering to offer future batches with an option without any switches installed. This way people, like yourself, can add their favorite Cherry mx styled microswitches and hopefully share their experince 🙂

  9. We Love your engagement and want to preorder a new Keyboard for our C64.

  10. @MtnBuffalo Ah, I didn’t see that you also offer Red and Blue! Just disregard my questions then, Gateron Blue is probably clicky enough for me. =)

  11. Just curious, you have gone this far with the keyboard. Why not go all the way and create the keycaps too, that will fit the switches? Screw waiting for phase5…

  12. Hi Oscar, back in 2015 when I started on the keyboard project, the Phase5 campaign seemed like a sure thing that would come through really fast. However, as time has passed even I start to have doubts that they will ever deliver. Producing the keycaps myself would be the coolest way to finish the MechBoard64 and to get rid of the 3D printed adaters. The problem is that the mold cost is very high. I have been told that they cost at least $20.000+ to make before the first keycap has been produced. After that they need to be printed on. As I have absolutely no experience with this line of work, the financial risk is simply too high. However, if someone will produce the keycaps I’m more than willing to team up 🙂 The MechBoard64 can very easily be adjusted to accommodate Cherry mx styled keycaps.

  13. 3D printed ketycaps would definately work. However, the finish will be different compared to plastic molded keycaps 🙂

  14. Hi Jason, no it is a standard non-latching microswitch just like the rest of the keyboard switches. A red LED lights up underneath the keycap when the Shift Lock is active. However, a locking type switch like the Cherry locking can be installed by the user. The mod is described in the installation manual (link). If the mod is performed, it will void your warranty of the keyboard.

  15. Hi Urban, estimated delivery times are always stated at the current batch page which can be found on this page (link) 🙂 The current batch (Signature 2018 batch) is expected to be shipped no later than October 29th 2018. However, I try to ship the keyboards out as I make them so the date is conservative 😉

  16. so.. basically… that’s the final stage in reproducing new c64’s.
    take a new c64c case from icomp, take the ultimate64-II mainboard (as the one icomp offers still needs the old chips you can’t buy anywhere), take that white psu boxy thing made by yet another company and take this keyboard… and you have a complete brand new c64. Btw scr** the ‘original’ keycaps. Why not just take any keycap that was designed for these switches and already is mass produced and just have the commodore pictures lasered onto them instead. Same mold, for all I care even the same grey plastic, just different images on the keys 😉 (or would normal keycaps be too low to come out of the case or something)
    Now all that’s needed is a shop that sells it all in masses, in one place. Preferably already assembled and put into one box 😛 (the keyboard has been the ‘missing part’ for years now, all of those chips have had fgpa replacements for ages. The case molds popped up again, nobody even wants the original PSU as it’s a death trap so there are at least 3 better mass produced replacements for those on the market. But nobody ever came up with a keyboard to complete the thing.

  17. I have to ask. – Why didn’t you get the switches with new keycaps? Was there a size issue? Cost? It seems to me that if everything else on the keyboard is new, why not the keycaps? This is not a cheap assembly, just under $200 US. Were the adapters drastically cheaper than new parts?

    After reading about how sturdy the assembly is, it seems like there are ways to trim the PCB thickness and the aluminum plate, and still have a keyboard that is several times more sturdy than the original keyboard.

    One of the issues with rebuilding an older Commodore is that the plastic keyboard parts are often bad, broken or missing.

    Thanks,

  18. I would love to add keycaps to the keyboard. No doubt about it. Cherry mx keycaps will fit the Gateron switches. However, the keycaps are not all standard size so a normal e.g 96/104 keyset of Cherry mx compatible keycaps cannot be used. The C64 has more 1.5u keycaps and the 9u spacebar is not really easy to get anywhere. To my knowledge only Signatue Plastics produces them. I have just ordered a set of these for testing purposes. The price of the keycaps, shipping, customs fees and VAT, ended up at 226 USD…. And these keycaps are not even printed on!
    I’ve also talked to companies that make keycaps and print them. I need to order at least 200 sets and 1000 sets will abviously make it cheaper (go figure, right?). So adding printed keycaps, that can be used without the 3D prints will probably make the keyboard 65-120 USD more expensive. For customers with unlimitd funds, this may not be a problem. But for most people it will be. Furthermore, due to the unconventional keycap sizes, the C64 keysets will only be compatible with my keyboard and I don’t think I will ever sell even close to that many keyboards
    I can save a little on the PCB if the thickness is reduced. However, this is only in the range of 1-1.5 USD per PCB. Furthermore, the bracket price will be unchanged as any excess material will just be removed by the lasercutter – and most lilely reduce the strenght of it.
    So the short answer to your questions is cost. It will be way too expensive to add custom keycaps, especially if Phase5 from the Indiegogo campaign eventually starts to deliver. This will most likely make any custom keycaps for the MechBoard64 redundant.

  19. If the ultimate goal here is ultimately completely new machines with completely new parts, then the need for keycap adapters and old keycaps may not be ideal for achieving it. Doubleshot PBT keycaps are really expensive, but UV printed keys are pretty attainable in small, even single-unit quantities. The question is … will standard keycaps even fit the C64 housings?

  20. I would love to be able to use a Commodore 64, built brand new from new parts like this as a daily driver for work. Maybe if someone can develop GEOS 3.0 and develop enhancements to the GUI for daily use…
    We can deal with the graphics not being the best, but memory, disk speed and networking would be a problem – so you should consider increasing the RAM (as if you had a expansion module built in) – include a SD Card reader in the side somewhere, so we can use SD Cards like small floppies and give me an Ethernet port or wireless so I can actually send an email.
    I believe all of these things have already been developed – either here or by others working on different projects.
    You should start a manufacturing collective, gathering parts from all the other projects out there and assembling them here into a kick ass C64R (R for Reloaded)… Use the newer C64c style case, it looks better than the breadbin – dare I say it.

  21. Dear MtnBuffalo,
    My no4 works perfect 🙂 I love this product and short msg for those who still thinking – order or not 🙂 ORDER ASAP !
    Did you think to put some more led to make (every three/four keys) a nice back light ?

  22. Dear Mike,
    Thanks for the very nice comment 🙂 Much appreciated.
    You are not the first one to ask for more LED light behind the keycaps. I personally think it would kinda ruin the original spirit of the Commodore 64 if I added heaps of LED light to it. On second thought, the newer machines (C64R and U64) with C64C cases in new colors, this may actually look pretty cool 🙂

  23. I like the second thought 😉 Maybe a small revision of the PCB (with the posibility to install switches with LEDs, like the Run Stop switch) will be enough ? 🙂 There should of course be a balance between the orginal spirit of the keyboard and the more futuristic looks of the newer machines (my keyboard works with the U64)… Maybe with an on/off option so that those who wants to keep it orginal can keep the LEDs turned off, but with the possibility to turn on the backlight to add some magic 😉
    Maybe this tiny gadget could be used – the TTP223 touch sensor button to turn on/off the light. I used the TTP233 with my mods and the wow effect is guaranteed 🙂 Here is an example of the device (not mine) on YouTube (link).

  24. Hi Mike, really cool idea with the touch sensor and an arduino to run it all. I’m a little concerned about the power needed to power everything (Arduino, touch sensor and numerous LEDs). Especially the bright LEDs chug down quite a bit of power. Don’t want to but excessive strain on the old power supplies that some people are still using 🙂

  25. You dont need Arduino to use the touch sensor 🙂 You can use it as a stand alone device. Sensor works with 3.3 to 5 v. Regarding the old power supplies – Mmybe in that mode use only every third LED in line? It will be 5 LEDs per row 🙂

  26. Have you considered releasing a variant of the MechBoard64 which works as a USB keyboard? It would be a good complement to both software emulation running on modern PCs and … certain hardware C64 replicas which use USB keyboards. An integrated dual USB hub would be ideal, as that would allow joysticks, USB drives, SD2IECs, and also mice and normal PC-layout keyboards to be plugged in.

  27. Hi Leo, I have actually played around with the idea of implementing a small circuit that would enable USB connectivity. To keep the MechBoard64 in its current form, I think the best approach would be in the form of e.g. a cheap daughterboard that can be inserted directly onto one of the 20 pin male connectors. It could also be one of the smaller (and cheaper) Arduinos with USB integrated. The latter doesn’t have the USB hub you talk about. However, having a readily programmable platform will certainly make things happen a lot faster in comparison to developing a new PCB 🙂

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