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. Any units that have survived after over 30 years are highly sought after, but there’s another option. A one-man operation has started producing brand new Model F keyboards, and you can order one now.
IBM produced Model F keyboards starting in 1981, but just a few years later it had mostly switched to the cheaper Model M. At the heart of any mechanical keyboard is the key switch, and the Model F introduced the world to the buckling spring design. The new Model F keyboards are being produced by one Joe Strandberg, who spent about $100,000 setting up a factory in China to produce the keyboards. They have the same design as the original Model F, right down to the buckling spring switch design.
The buckling spring was a replacement for IBMs older beam spring mechanism, which was prone to failure from dust and debris infiltration. The buckling spring switches consisted of metal spring barrels inserted into a metal plate. Beneath that was a capacitive PCB that registered the press. The later Model M, which is a much more common find in thrift stores and the closets of aging relatives, used a plastic membrane under the springs to register the press. Its casing and plate were also injection molded plastic, which some people see as a step down from the Model F.
Typing on a buckling spring keyboard is very different from any modern Cherry-style switch. They’re heavier and incredibly tactile — the spring in the barrel compresses, and then buckles to produce a sharp (and loud) clack sound. The spring pivots a hammer under the plate, which makes contact with the capacitive contact on the PCB. It’s an elegant and simple switch that basically never wears out.
The original Model F came in several layouts, all of which are rather large and inefficient by today’s standards. The new Model F project aims to offers some more compact form factors while retaining the design style of the original. The two main options are the F77 and the F62 “Kishsaver.” The F77 has a number pad and arrow keys, and the F62 is a more compact 60-percent keyboard.
The new Model F starts around $325, which seems like a lot. Although, the original Model F cost $600 in 1981. This is a bargain by comparison. The first round of pre-orders are open right now and will close later this month. The keyboards will ship several months after that. If you miss out on this one, you’ll have to wait until next year for another round.
Now read: Building Gaming Keyboard 2.0: Bigger, Better, Oranger