Better Keyboard Part 1

This is the first of three opinionated posts on building a better keyboard.

  1. Why? This post will cover both what's wrong with most keyboards, and why I opted for a Corne keyboard.

  2. Hardware. The next post will discuss actually building the keyboard.

  3. Software. The final post will cover configuring the software to suit my needs.

Just a reminder that most of this post is personal opinion - it's how I think and work, so both the problem being solved and the solution suits me. If it also suits you, that's fantastic. If you work in a different way, though, these solutions may not be appropriate for you and you may want to take a different path, or at least adapt my conclusions.


Over-riding principle: adapt the computer rather than yourself.

There's two extremes for working with a computer. The first extreme is to adapt how you work to suit the constraints provided by your computer. That's the wrong extreme. The correct approach is to adapt your computer to suit your working patterns. This extends from fixing the screen brightness to your taste, through customising emacs, and culminates in adapting your hardware.

Standard keyboards aren't really fit for purpose, so rather than adapt to shoddy keyboards, let's consider the areas we'd like to improve.


Thumbs are great. Don't believe me? It's a scientific fact! We have two of these amazing appendages, and on a normal keyboard, they have 1 key between them. That's clearly a waste. So our first requirement is:

Requirement 1: More keys for the thumbs


Fingers are pretty good too. But they don't bend sideways. So why are the keys on a standard keyboard staggered such that Q isn't just above A, but is up and to the left? And similarly for all the other keys - they're stagered by row. But fingers move up and down, not on the diagonals.

In addition, try putting all your fingers on your desk as though you were resting your hands. Notice how the tips of your fingers describe an arc, rather than a straight line. So wouldn't it be good if your keyboard rows followed a similar arc?

Requirement 2: Column stagger, rather than row stagger


On a conventional keyboard, your shoulders are closed and your wrists are angled outwards to get your hands in front of your body and on the keyboard. But since your left hand isn't supposed to be on the right side of the keyboard, and vice versa, why not just cut the keyboard in half and have the two halves roughly shoulder width apart?

This also means you can move the halves to wherever is more comfortable.

Requirement 3: Split keyboard


This is driven by the over-riding requirement of being customisable. The keyboard should be programmable. We can replace caps lock with a control in any sensible OS, but why not take this further? If I want to double tap the U key to trigger an emacs re-compile (and I do ☺), I should be able to do that.

Requirement 4: Programmable firmware

Minor requirements


It'd be good to use quality mechanical switches. I like a good, satisfying clicking sound too.


If I'm going to the effort of building a keyboard, I want it look good. That means adding some bling, in the form of LEDs. My target is at least 1 LED per key.

Fewer keys

Having argued for more thumb keys, I'm now going to sugget fewer keys for the fingers. I want to limit how far the hands need to move, so want to try a keyboard with all the keys on or adjacent to the home row. This does imply 3 keys per thumb too: one for the resting position, and another key to each side of it.


I know how to use a soldering iron, but I also know enough about using one to know that I'm competent with a soldering iron, rather than talented. So something that's reasonably easy to build would be better.

Not a requirement: RSI

You've probably noticed there's no mention of RSI prevention above. I'm not in a position to evaluate whether there's more or less risk of RSI from a split, column-staggered, keyboard with fewer keys. I use a normal keyboard at work (unsurprisingly, security people at work aren't too keen on plugging a keyboard with programmable firmware into their devices). So I think there's a reasonable chance that switching between a normal keyboard and a split keyboard will be better than constantly using either, but don't really have an opinion on whether a split keyboard is better or worse for avoiding RSI.


This gives us a list of requirements of:

  1. More thumb keys

  2. Column stagger

  3. Split keyboard

  4. Programmable firmware

And nice to haves of:

  1. Mechanical switches

  2. Bling!

  3. Fewer keys

  4. Easy assembly

This results in the Corne keyboard being the option that best fits the requirements. There's many, many other options - take a look in r/ErgoMechKeyboards if you'd like to see some of the alternatives. But, for me, the Corne was the option that best fit my requirements.