Modding the IBM Model M Keyboard

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IBM Model M Keyboard

Remeber 1986? I was 8 then. "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" was on the big screen, the Cold War was still raging, Regan was President... and IBM produced the first Model M keyboards. These keyboards with their nearly indestructible build quality, mechanical buckling spring key action (responsible for producing the legendary "clicky" feel and sound), and perfect key layout make them the reference standard by which all other keyboards are judged, just google "Model M Keyboard" and see how many fan sites and "Best Keyboard Ever" discussions feature this marvel of 1980's era computing. It's a shame IBM doesn't make them any more!

It's safe to say that the Model M keyboard design has aged very well. In fact, as my primary Model M approaches its 15th birthday it's still outstanding to type on, and I've been hacking out code on it every working day for the last 6 years. It would be the perfect keyboard...If only it wasn't so drab looking. In the age of all black and metallic colored computers, the off-white and beige color scheme of my Model M has the all sex appeal of a beige station wagon.

The legendary black M-13 Trackpoint keyboard, part number 13h6705

If you want the superior build quality and typing action of a Model M with a better looking (not beige) shell, you've got a few options. Between 1995 and 1998 Lexmark and Maxi-Switch made a very few black trackpoint Model Ms for IBM like the one pictured (Model M-13, part number 13H6705). They can be hard to find, expensive (I sold the one pictured for over $300 on eBay), and compared to the IBM built Model Ms (part number 1391401 or 1390131) the build quality is just not up to par. The M-13's case seems to scuff easily, and the key action feels sloppy (although still light-years ahead of any modern rubber-dome switch keyboard).

Another option would be to purchase a brand new black buckling spring keyboard from Unicomp. They purchased the design rights to the Model M from IBM/Lexmark and market a black version under the name Customizer 104. Sounds perfect, until you see one. First, while you can order the white version of the board with out the dreaded Windows keys, the black version is only available with them. Second, the black frame looks nice, but the keys are a light gray color. Lastly, its generally accepted that the Lexmark and Unicomp built boards have lower build quality and slightly diminished tactile response as compared to the original IBM boards.

As an alternative, some people have taken to permanently dying their IBM built Model M's in a more modern (black) color scheme. Going this route means you can improve the look of the M without sacrificing build quality or typing feel. The results look pretty good except for one glaring issue, they keys are still white. Of course, the keys could be dyed too, if you're into the all black Das Keyboard look. For my M, I've got a slightly different plan...

The Plan

Last month I lucked into a lot of four used black Trackpoint keyboards at a bargain basement price. Two were in excellent condition, and have since been sold. One is completely functional but in poor cosemetic condition, and another is in poor cosmetic condition and has a broken trackpoint stick. As I was thinking about what to do with the broken board, it hit me...

The black keys, dark LED cover, and black IBM logo are just what I needed to build the ultimate clicky keyboard. I'll vinyl dye the case of my 1391401 black, swap in the black logo and LED cover, switch out the keys, and trade the green LEDs for some red or blue lights and it'll be perfect. The legendary build quality and typing action of the made in the USA, IBM built 1391401 M board, in black, with no build quality comprimises and no trackpoint nub to get in the way. It'll be perfect...

Phase 1 - Disassembly, Cleaning, and Prep

Phase 2 - All Black

Phase 3 - New LEDs