Local keyboard enthusiasts find their passion during the pandemic

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A Chris Laporga original. They’re all originals.

The pandemic has brought about boom times in the mechanical keyboard business.

Let’s back up a bit.

The pandemic was—insofar as anyone is willing to call it over—a bad scene. Nearly three years of chaos and confusion over public health policy, intertwined with politics, have taken an immeasurable toll.

Most businesses, and entire industries, were devastated. Every aspect of life was disrupted. But this disruption, however implausibly, had a silver lining for the computer peripheral market.

The momentous shift to working from home had millions of people building or upgrading their personal workstations, often more than once. And lockdowns left many of them soaking up streaming video content after the work day was over, hungry for something creative to do.

To be sure, spending on communications and computer technology was up across the board. But it’s the keyboard that has struck that perfect balance of utility and craft.

“I think a lot of people got into mechanical keyboards because of the pandemic,” said Giorgio Tran, one of the founders of HI Keyboards, a local keyboard builders’ and collectors’ club.

“The hobby definitely accelerated during the pandemic, it was a matter of right place, right time,” added club member Chris Laporga. “It just blew up like double, triple, maybe even quadruple in that year.”

The business case

A coffee-themed keyboard by Giorgio Tran of HI Keyboards.

Mechanical keyboards—or “clicky” keyboards, or simply “old fashioned” keyboards—are big business.

Perhaps it’s pushback against the flat, squishy keyboards that come with most modern laptops… especially by those who grew up with the classic 101-key IBM Model M. Perhaps it’s because of renewed attention to ergonomics and aesthetics, as carpal tunnel syndrome became a domestic concern. Perhaps it’s their high-end performance and durability… or perhaps it’s because of a mix of nebulous, immeasurable things.

Whatever the reason, mechanical keyboards are now everywhere. A $200 million market, by one estimate, with yet another analysis breathlessly predicting $3.6 billion sales by 2030. For computer hardware makers, it’s the top selling accessory by a wide margin. Throughout the massive computer gaming market, enthusiasts test and compare keyboard models the way car enthusiasts discuss shocks or tires.

Of course, beyond gaming, hardcore typists also take this stuff seriously.

One step beyond mechanical keyboards, however, are custom-built keyboards. The same way computer nerds would build their own PCs in the 1990s, keyboard enthusiasts design and assemble bespoke computer keyboards to perfectly match their every whim.

What size? How many keys in which configuration? Which switch mechanism and which keycaps? There are dozens of components and millions of combinations. And of course there’s special lingo.

Irresistible to obsessive tinkerers, building custom keyboards is also accessible to the less mechanically or technically inclined—and certainly less expensive than building an entire PC, or a kit car.

“While enthusiasm for custom mechanical keyboards has been growing steadily over the past few years, the last year and a half has been explosive,” reports Wired. “Hobbyists spend hours building their own personalized rigs, while others drop thousands of dollars on a bespoke board—the hype is only getting bigger.”

Among the especially geeky, building a custom mechanical keyboard for a loved one is a very romantic gesture.

“Some of us might reminisce about creating mixtapes for our crushes: picking the right selection of songs, hitting the pause/play button at just the perfect moment, debating which song to end Side A, and so on,” wrote Charles Tan. “Building a keyboard for someone elicits similar emotions.”

Where it all began

A mechanical keyboard designed and built by Chris Laporga of HI Keyboards.

Only recent inductees into the ranks of keyboard builders, Tran and Laporga are quick to acknowledge the rich history of the hobby.

“There’s always been a custom keyboard community, maybe as early as 2010, but a true custom keyboard didn’t really happen until a small Korean company started making them, CNC-machining aluminum keyboards,” Laporga explained. “Those were the first customs, and those boards today are worth a lot of money.”

(As an aside, 2010 is when I got into mechanical keyboards, after winning one in a typing contest at SXSW in Austin. I logged 168wpm and lost in the semifinals to this guy.)

The contemporary explosion in mechanical keyboard building can actually be traced pretty definitively back to one person, and one specific YouTube video.

In January 2020, just before the world fell apart, keyboard fanatic Tae Ha Kim, a.k.a. “Taeha Types,” livestreamed himself building a custom keyboard for top gaming streamer Turner “Tfue” Tenney. Tfue then unboxed it on his channel, gushing in admiration to 30,000 live viewers. The rest is history.

“Several keyboard enthusiasts cite that Taeha Types Tfue video as a pretty significant catalyst in drawing a huge number of eyes in from the gaming world to Kim’s channel, and to the keyboard space at large,” Wired reported.

“One commenter referred to Kim as the ‘Bob Ross of keyboard making,’ and it’s an appropriate assessment,” noted The Verge, saying the Tfue video “has since amassed nearly 2 million views on YouTube.”

As of the writing, the video has 8.4 million views, and is probably inspires someone to become a keyboard builder every 30 seconds.

“I had just a Corsair keyboard at the time, but when were were just stuck at home, this Taeha guy just so happened to pop up in my recommendations, so I started watching his videos,” Tran says. “I was like, okay, cool, let’s build a keyboard, and that’s how it started for me.”

“I watched Taeha on Twitch and was fascinated by just the aesthetics, the attention to detail, and the sound that these boards can produce,” Tran recalled. “And I love things that are custom and heirloom and collectible, so all of those things rolled into one hit every spot for me.”

“Like Georgio I built my first board and got hooked ever since,” he said.

Laporga’s first keyboard was a “budget” model, he said, and it took a while to complete.

“I sourced parts from all over, and it took months to get to me because logistics for COVID was not very friendly, especially for this hobby,” he said. “Shipping took six, seven months.”

And as soon as he built it, a coworker saw it on his desk and offered to buy it.

“Now I work I pass by his desk all the time, I look at it, and I miss it a lot,” he laughed. “That’s probably the board that’s most precious to me, but seeing him really happy that he likes his board, It’s a good feeling.”

Tran, meanwhile, went higher end for his first.

“I was watching videos and really liked the AI03 Polaris, but it’s a 60-percent format keyboard, without the arrow cluster and number pad, and I was like, ‘I wish there was a 65-percent format,'” Tran says, speaking the same way a classic car fanatic talks about a ’57 Chevy.

“But around that time, I heard about the AI03 Vega, which was a 65-percent keyboard, and it was just coming out, and I was lucky to be able to get in on the sale,” he recalled. “I’ve been using it ever since.”

Kindred spirits

An ‘artisan’ escape key is the bellybutton ring of mechanical keyboards. By Giorgio Tran.

Tran, Laporga, and a handful of other local enthusiasts found each other in the Twitch stream chats and r/MechanicalKeyboards subreddit and formed a club, now housed in a Discord server.

Tran started with four friends, slowly expanding the group to over 130 members.

“I never thought to get so many people together,” Tran said. “I really look up to Chris, because I think he’s one of the OGs you know, in the community here in Hawaii.”

The members of HI Keyboards have lively conversations about the keyboards they have, the keyboards they want, and the keyboards rumored to be coming out.

Laporga admitted, sheepishly, that he owns about 30 keyboards.

“I just like trying different things, and just using one thing can get repetitive, so I like to swap around here and there,” he said. “I’m kind of ADHD with having one keyboard on my desk for for a couple of days.”

“If I ever really get bored of one, I could trade it for something else,” he added. “That’s what a lot of people do in this hobby. They like to try different things, so they swap boards.”

Laporga added that he doesn’t really play games, either.

“It’s mainly just for school stuff, writing papers, coding,” he said. “I do have a silent keyboard, though, which I that I use at night because not everyone appreciates what I like.”

“I only have maybe four keyboards,” Tran said. “Though two more are coming.”

A “classic red” keycap set exhibited by Chris Laporga of HI Keyboards.

Tran, 22, is a computer science student at the University of Hawaii. Laporga, 36, is a system administrator for the military—and a new dad.

“I’m trying to juggle work and my daughter who’s getting a little order and needs more attention,” Laporga said. “I still try to keep up with the hobby, but I keep it simple, building and posting it on Instagram.”

What does his wife think of his hobby?

“She finds it interesting—I built her some boards, and we’ve actually built a board together on stream before,” Laporga said. “She probably wondering when I’m going to sell some of these boards.”

Both keyboard aficionados are daydreaming about their next keyboard.

“I would like to own an Alice, which is an ergonomic keyboard,” Tran said.

“I want to experience everything,” Laporga said. “There are new switches, new boards, different mounting styles, different profiles and key caps, and different materials make different sounds.

“I don’t think there’s an end game to this whole thing,” he added.

Any recommendations for beginners?

“Honestly, it’s all preference, it’s what you like, it’s what use the keyboard for,” Tran said. That’s what custom keyboards are here for, to fulfill your every desire.”

HI Keyboards will be among more than a dozen groups participating in the 13th Hawaii Geek Meet on Saturday, Sept. 25 at Magic Island. If you read Hawaii Bulletin, this free, family-friendly event is for you!

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