😯 New Interview Series!
Danny here, bringing you a new series to this site. I've been wanting to have a series of interview posts for a while, as I'd like to highlight various keyboard creators/designers/vendors out there. My goal is to get more written material out there about our community members, as opposed to less searchable content like Twitch streams, YouTube videos, etc, so people can have an easier time learning about all the interesting folks in our community.
The first person to be featured in our new series is Tamas, the brains behind the Keyboard Builders' Digest, which is a weekly newsletter about DIY mechanical keyboards. At the moment, there have been 112 issues, so if you haven't read any of them yet, there's plenty of material for you to work through. I've been supporting the newsletter for quite some time now, as it's been great to see what other people have been working on. He also runs the GOLEM Keyboard Project, which houses lots of information about keyboards, from building them, designing, taking good photos, and also has a very extensive glossary of keyboard terms. I highly recommend taking a look through the sites.
And now, on to the interview! 🎙️
Tell us a little bit about yourself in a few lines.
I’m Tamas Dovenyi (45), father of two, living in Hungary (sorry for my despicable government) and working as a research fellow at a university. When I’m not sniffing for keyboard content, tinkering with kbd.news or sinking my arms up to the elbows in vintage terminals and keyboards, I maintain a network of meteorological stations and do the related programming of data loggers and development of ecological models.
How and when did you get into keyboards?
It was a lucky (?) accident.
Back in the summer of 2018, completely unaware of mechanical keyboards, I got back to my office from a field trip, after doing all kinds of measurements in wheat and corn fields – conducting field trials was part of my job. After spending hours in the sultry I decided to do something totally different and relaxing: I was going to write a novel.
I knew there was a dedicated software for writers but couldn’t for the life of me remember its name, so I unwarily typed “tools for writers” into the search bar of my browser.
On that single life-changing search results page, other than the software I was looking for (Scrivener), I stumbled upon mechanical keyboards, alternative layouts, r/mk, dedicated keyboards for writers with integrated displays, etc. The rest is history. ;)
What was your first keyboard, and why did you get it?
Discovering this subculture convinced me to try alternative layouts – first on a cheap rubberdome. I found a thesis on adapting the concept behind Dvorak for my local language, wrote some scripts to optimize my logical layout, and implemented a custom layout via AutoHotKey and PKL. In addition, I also tried out the SpaceFN concept (turning your spacebar into a modifier) via TouchCursor.
I was fairly sure a mechanical keyboard with the classic row staggered physical layout wouldn’t be a step forward so after being exposed to r/mk for some time I realized I had to design my own keyboard to fully exploit the possibilities of custom keyboards. I would have considered this impossible even a few months earlier, but at the time I stumbled upon QMK I’d already tried my hand at Arduino and soldering, so discovering this hobby came at the right time.
After ordering everything from AliExpress (we are in 2018!), which took a month to arrive, I had plenty of time to design the physical layout and try a couple of cardboard mockups. The result: two budget prototypes for $40 each. I consider these my first mechanical keyboards because I used one of the cardboard ones for almost a year as my daily driver at home. :D
What's the current keyboard(s) you are typing on?
I christened it Azimuth – my own design with the hallmark six rotary encoders I never touch… :D It’s a handwired hotswap monoblock split, in fact, the same as my very first cardboard prototype, but with the plate, switches and caps replaced over the years. Fun fact: The wire mesh under the hood is more or less still intact (thumb cluster turned to low profile), so whether the board is the same as the original one from 2018 is a philosophical question now.
My work setup is similar, the Storm46, a previous iteration, has the same layout but with only two encoders.
I use a custom logical layout on both keyboards, which is optimized for the languages I use based on a decades-old personal corpus of my write-ups and correspondence.
What's your favorite switch/keycap profile/layout?
I’m quite good at resisting FOMO and GBs so I’m not really up to date with switches. For my first prototypes, I simply looked for the cheapest option available at the time (Gateron Black), then enjoyed clickies (Box Jades and Whites) for about two years, but my family highly encouraged me to try some silent alternatives so I moved on to linears.
These days I use Momoka Frogs and Flamingos which I received from the manufacturer for free. They are nice, much nicer than the very limited sample of linears I’ve tried, but I have no idea how they perform compared to other fancy and popular switches simply because I don’t buy switches.
Keycaps: Since my designs have flat plates, I prefer sculpted caps. If I’d be into 3D printing and keywells I’d probably use low-pro uniform caps. I have a gorgeous MBK Myth Cherokee set, but I also like CFX and can’t wait for the convex POM MBK caps for the thumb keys.
That said, I’m rocking MT3s (WOB & Susuwatari) at home but also love MDA. My work setup sports an original v1 MDA Big Bang, and I’ll probably replace it by MelGeek’s doubleshot “This Is Plastic” MDA caps scavenged from the Mojo84 I received for a review. (It’s a great board, and I regularly type on classic boards to retain my QWERTY skills, but living in ISO-land ANSI drives me crazy – that single key at the left Shift makes so much difference if you have to deal with 9 extra vowels…).
My dream MX keycaps would be probably somewhere between MT3 and MDA. Sculpted, spherical, the lowest possible height, but still cuddling the fingertips. So I’ll keep an eye on Matt3o’s MTNU.
Finally, I prefer split and columnar layouts which alleviate ulnar deviation. I have no problem with forearm pronation so I haven’t bothered with tenting. Since I spent some time tailoring my physical layout to my finger lengths, and I’ve been using this arrangement for four years now, I find most other designs (even other split ones) strange.
Are you into artisan keycaps?
No. I adore them as artwork but wouldn’t put an artisan on my main keyboard which, at least for me, is a cutting-edge productive tool, not a display item. The only artisans I had (until I gave most of them away) were the metal KBD.NEWS ones, courtesy of metalkeyboards.no.
Any QMK tricks you use?
Just the usual layer change stuff. Home-row mods don’t work for me. And I played with the encoder functions but realized I prefer key combos and keeping my hands on the home row.
Are you into backlighting or underglow?
No. However, I tested how I could control external light strips (Christmas lights) with my keyboard, that’s why my Storm46 has a protruding connector for those. :D
Are you into ergo keyboards? (like ortho or columnar stagger)
Absolutely. I especially dig angled monoblocks/unibodies/pseudosplits/unsplits. At the time I picked up the basic MK terminology I met with “monoblock” most of the time so I tend to use this on my blog.
Are you into 40% keyboards at all?
Yes, if 44-46 keys count as 40%. I’d hate having alphas hidden on a secondary layer, and my mother tongue has 9 extra vowels, so that’s the minimum for me. I’m not into the smaller 40%s with classic row stagger or ortho arrangement.
What's your unpopular opinion about keyboards?
I don’t think most people need more than two keyboards or keycap sets. ;)
And as much as I like some colorways, I can’t justify buying all-in-one sets of 190+ keys for my humble 40%(ish) boards. However mouthwatering they are (I’m looking at you MDA Future Suzuri).
Why did you decide to start making content?
First I just wanted to document my own projects, as well as gather some useful stuff from all around the web for my own reference. These old articles are on golem.hu, which by the way was intended to host my logical layout scripts and write-ups (thus the name: Genetically Optimized Layout Evolution Model). The age-old Pro Micro pinout and hack, or the DIY coiled cable making write-ups are still popular and gain a lot of visits.
From a didactic perspective, I find writing posts or making small tables/databases a good way of learning. And e.g. the split database (pretty outdated!) or the keyboard lexicon are results of this learning approach – the former registering a lot of traffic despite it being last updated probably more than a year ago.
So I had some posts and online tools earlier, but KBD.news started out as a Covid project, about two years after delving into this hobby. I wanted to highlight some interesting projects which quickly disappeared on r/mk.
Before the new moderation rules were implemented a few months ago, there were about 200-300 posts a day on r/mk, with giveaways and memes taking up all the slots in the “Hot” list. The useful ideas or valuable projects simply disappeared before anyone could see them.
At the beginning I posted a weekly digest of my bookmarked links on r/mk, later on golem.hu, and in a few months it seemed this project deserved a dedicated domain.
By the way, I had the kbd.news domain in my cart, contemplating if I really need it, and kept it open in a tab of my browser for several days if not weeks when my long-time supporter Chad reached out to me with an offer that he would buy me a domain – and he suggested exactly kbd.news. So I went on with the purchase.
What/who are you influenced by or where do you draw inspiration from?
I feature about 50 projects in a month so it’s hard not to get inspired by all the intuitive designs. I’m in touch with hundreds of community members and another hundreds of shop owners because of the keyboard vendor database and coupon list, so let me not pick out a few of them.
If I’d have to highlight one single source of inspiration, it would probably be the Japanese MK community in general. They are very active with lots of interesting keyboard designs, a weekly Youtube show Keyboard News and photo duel on Twitter (look for #KEEB_PD every Sunday), meetups, the meishi competition/exhibition, and of course the annual MK advent calendar – a great idea I borrowed for the first kbd.news advent calendar this year.
How much time does keyboard stuff consume your life, how do you balance that with other things in your life?
Keyboard stuff is mostly kbd.news for me these days. I spend about 15-20 hours with it on a “normal” week. Right now, however, cleaning up the mess after the anniversary giveaway (involving 50 sponsors and 100+ winners), organizing the KBD.NEWS advent calendar, and e.g. jurying the Seeed keyboard contest, it’s probably a much more intimidating number which I don’t even dare to estimate. I’m pretty sure it’s more time-consuming than a full-time job.
That said, I live in walking distance of my workplace so my daily “commute” is a 10-minute walk. That helps with time-management. And I’m in a stage of my life when my kids are getting independent, so not having to drive them around in the city twice a day makes up for most of this time.
In addition, my wife is an angel. ;) Although she mocks me by calling the blog my magnum opus.
What are you currently working on that you're excited about?
I’m pretty busy with the MK advent calendar right now. It was inspired by similar calendars of the Japanese MK community, and I thought it would be cool to make one. While the original Japanese format is an open platform where anyone can post, for my first calendar I tried to gather an all-star team of the keyboard scene. That involved pressing and coercing authors to contribute, but the end result – and the quality and diversity of posts – keeps exceeding my greatest expectations. 😀
And Cody Tu (designer of the Switch Magazine volunteered to make a PDF-zine version of these articles which may get into print as well, so that’s pretty exciting and intimidating at the same time. These are absolutely uncharted territories for me.
Once this side-project is over, I’ll have to completely revamp the split database, and I regularly rediscover my layout optimization tools which I think would be valuable for the community so I hope I can release that. Other than that, the keyboard meetup database needs some more attention as well.
What direction do you see the keyboard community moving in? What would you change?
Joining in 2018 I felt I came quite late to the party. That changed during the lockdown when the number of people on r/mk reached 1 million (I joined at about 200k) and dudes like me suddenly became more experienced than average by force of circumstances. This large influx of enthusiasts is both an opportunity and a real challenge.
With kbd.news I try to focus on ergo and open-source stuff for the more DIY-minded readers, offering an alternative to the sheer consumerism often experienced in this hobby.
What kind of keyboard content do you consume? Favorites? Blogs/streamers/podcasts/social media/discord?
I’m browsing r/mk, r/ergomechkeyboards, r/olkb all the time. (Note from Danny: This is the same for me) I follow a lot of people on Twitter, where Japanese followers are overrepresented, so that platform gives me a glimpse into a completely different world. Other than that, I regularly check KeebTalk, occasionally use Deskthority, especially the wiki, for identifying and learning about vintage stuff, but I’m completely lost on Discord and Geekhack to be honest.
Finally, streaming and videos are completely outside of my scope.
What barriers to entry to the community have you seen and how do you think we can overcome them?
Access to parts and products is probably easier than ever. I list over 400 shops in my keyboard vendor database. 87 of those offer discounts for my readers which may help with making the hobby more affordable. So accessibility shouldn’t be a problem for those who are ready to get their fingers dirty.
On the other hand, the reform of the EU customs regime successfully discourages the $1-2 orders from China. It’s a pity because that’s what started me fiddling with electronics. But I also admit that these kinds of shipments were not sustainable.
Other than that, the biggest barrier is maybe the noise. People are exposed to all the colorful and shiny keycaps and switches, but most of them stick to classic layouts – which is strange. I mean, the moment I learned about path dependence and how keyboards inherited the horizontal staggering from typewriters, I felt ridiculed for using something that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century. Same with QWERTY vs custom layouts.
What other hobbies are you into?
Guitars, drums, learning Japanese. Hoarding vintage keyboards. This is definitely a different hobby compared to building or even collecting contemporary models.
What's your favorite keyboard vendor sticker/swag that you have?
I don’t really buy stuff these days, but I won a sticker pack from Don (TheBoard) and there’s one made by one of his kids I guess. That’s cute in the sense you find your kid’s art lovely. And do the Seeed XIAO pillows count as swag? In fact, those are not just nice but also useful. Other than that, I use a Keebio coaster in my office. 😀
What's your favorite snack or drink?
I can’t get enough chocolate, I love (almost) all kinds of it. Maybe except mint chocolate. Which is funny because I drink only water and occasionally mint tea as a remedy for the cold.
What's your favorite Keebio board, or if you don't have one, which one would you get?
While I’ve never bought anything from Keebio simply because of the considerable additional costs of overseas orders, I have three boards I won from you in raffles.
- I have a splendid green Jawn macropad (Founder’s Edition) which often appears in my photo shoots.
- The Iris was THE SPLIT when I discovered the hobby, so I was really happy to be able to lay my hands on one.
- And I have a BFO as well. It was meant to be a switch tester board which we could populate with various switches and send around in the local community, based on the original idea of fellow Australian enthusiasts.
Is there anything you'd to address in general?
While I don’t hoard contemporary keyboards/caps/switches, it doesn’t mean I’m not a hoarder. I collect vintage keyboards, terminals, and computers. Mostly what’s available locally.
This is a preservation work rather than enticing production of more plastic, which is (maybe falsely) reassuring.
Parallel to the explosion in the number of people in the keyboard hobby, prices of vintage keyboards skyrocketed too, but you can find some real gems in your neighborhood.
Any shoutouts/plugs/anyone you'd like to acknowledge?
I’d like to thank all the dudes and dudettes who supported kbd.news during its slightly more than two years of existence. My “business model” is quite strange: I don’t want to sell anything, I don’t run obtrusive ads either (I hate them just like you) despite continuously being approached by online ad companies. So donations are crucial to justify the time I put into this project. Keebio is one of my long-term donors which I’m very grateful for.
Well, that wraps it up for the first of what we hope to be plenty of keyboard-related interviews here. We've got another interview lined up for you all soon, so stay tuned! Hit that Subscribe button and be the first to read upcoming pieces.
Any if you've got any feedback/comments/suggestions for this interview series, we'd really appreciate hearing from you. Thanks for reading.