IBM Model F GlowUp

Before we get started...

If you are like me, then I know you are anxious to get to the keyboardy goodness. However, I can't get into the glow up without first giving you a bit of backstory. Stick with me, because I promise, it's sort of, kind of, totally freaking heartwarming. Additionally, I'll make every attempt to not droll on for ages about my various origin stories. So here it goes. In the beginning of my life when I was but a wee lad...I'm kidding. Sheesh. I promised no origin stories. So I finally left the bird site completely in 2022. Not that I used it much, but I found it to be increasingly disgusting and wanted no association with it. I moved to Mastodon in an attempt to keep some ties to the tech, dog, gaming, and gadget communities. I found pretty quickly that Mastodon was just utterly delightful. People were accomodating and civil. Weird. I know. As I began to post various thoughts, usually ridiculous ones, I began to connect with a handful of people that, were somehow able to, deal with my weirdness. One person was particularily supportive and could also hit me with high levels of snark. I'm not going to name this person directly, they know who they are. And thankfully, there are quite a few people on Mastodon that hit me with high levels of snark, so that's not a big enough clue to figure it all out. It's like I deserve snark or something. I don't want to name this person because, I don't want them to be hit up by other people that would try to exploit their generosity. As such, to protect the innocent, I will name this person FinkleBean McHorsington the Third. Both because it's ridiculous, and because it's my blog and I can do whatever I want. I shall call them Finkles for short going foward to save on character length. So, Finkles does this entirely unexpected, and frankly, bonkers thing. Finkles sends me this Model F keyboard they scored, for what I can only hope, was less than the price of a Starbucks frappawhatever, because I don't deserve this level of amazing. All this to say, that I cannot start this post without acknowledging that some people are just gems. I am a massive introvert with extreme trust issues among a literal litany of other problems. The world is dark, and people are darker. Until they're not. Until someone like Finkles just randomly decides that they want to inject some light into the void. There are so many reasons to be afraid, and to be depressed, and to withdraw from the world. So many reasons to lose hope. Then someone, for no reason what so ever, can change all that. The world continues to be an amazing place, made more amazing by the lovely people that choose to light it up with their graceful beauty of spirit. This post would not be possible without the endless generosity of a person that had no reason to do what they did. There are no words to thank people like this. Despite the many that are written here, they all fall short. Without Finkles, there would be no Model F for me to tear into. So, as inadequate as it is, thank you Finkles. You are a legend to many, but a very special legend to me.

A keyboard to rule them all...

There are quite a few iconic keyboards from the 80's, but several of the most recongnizable were produced by IBM. The Model F was a series of boards produced by IBM mostly from 1981 until 1985, with vastly scaled back production units coming out until the early 90's. By today's standards, the Model F is an absolute beast, weighing in at almost seven pounds, and feeling like it was forged from Dwarven Metal Ingot. The key layout would also appear strange to someone born post PowerPuff Girls. The arrow layout is straight nuts, and stuff like caps lock, and even the enter key, are not super comfortable to get to. But, the Model F really shines (IMHO) versus it's younger brother the Model M. Both the F and the M are based on a mechanical key design called the buckling spring.

the "buckling spring" was designed by famed IBM'er Richard Hunter Harris, and patented under "buckling spring torsional snap actuator" - which just sounds cool AF honestly

But, while the M used a rubber membrane to convey keystrokes, the F uses a much heartier capacitative plate. This means the Model F just feels and sounds "crispier", as well as providing a mean time before failure (MTBF) of over 100 million keystrokes compared to about 25 million for the Model M's more damage susceptible membranes (which were way cheaper to produce). This capacitive plate design also meant that the Model F featured NKRO, or n key rollover. This a fancy mech term meaning that the keyboard can correctly detect each keypress on the keyboard, of every key, AT THE SAME TIME. EPIC. The Model F's are not without their problems. As you'll see below, they can be prone to vicious corrosion, parts that literally rot, and a spacebar design gotcha, that if you don't know about it before tinkering, can destroy your spacebar forever. Enough history! Let's see the Model F!

Here...there be dragons...

Caution dear readers - this section contains pictures of aged technology, which is not always pretty. That's right - there's dust bunnies below. It's also worth mentioning, that in an effort to not stuff all the writey bits with picture bits - there will be a gallery provided at the very bottom of the article with more pics of the teardown and glow up. These links will open up full size images of the Model F from start to - mostly finished. So lets see the box!

a top down view of an original box for the IBM Model F

As I received my surprise package and opened it up - I was greeted by this aged beauty. It was at this point that I knew that Finkles had done gone crazy and I needed a few minutes to have a good cry. I should also mention that my excitement levels kind of hit fever pitch, and I realized very quickly that I had actually begun disassembly without even taking starter pics. As such there is no pic of the board when I first opened the box. And for that, I am ashamed. But stick with me, because there's still lots to see! Let's get a look at the internals as I remove the housing.

the view of the Model F with its back housing cover removed exposing the PCB and an iridescent backplate

Here we can see the iridescent backplate that looks like someone added a border-radius of 5px to it because it's totally curved! This unique design was touted by IBM as providing both a low-profile, and ergonomics! I beg to differ on the ergo part - but my keyboard looks like it came off the Enterprise, sooo.... Moving on - I pop out the board to get my first full look. I remove the keys - NOT THE SPACEBAR AT FIRST, disengage the PCB board harness, remove a single screw that holds the backplate to the PCB, and pry back AN ACTUAL REUSABLE METAL TAB (not to be confused with garbage single use plastic clips - this thing was built solid) and literally have to, gently, bash the backplate to get it slide off the other metal retaining clips. Once the iridescent backplate is removed, I can safely disengage the spacebar stabilizer and finally remove the spacebar keycap. With all that done - here's the view.

the sheer number of fist sized dust bunnies on this board is bonkers - lots of corrosion as well

Remember when I said the Model F was prone to corrosion and parts that literally rot. Yup. In addition to a pretty crazy amount of large debris and dust, the top of the key assembly is HEAVILY corroded. Those little barrels you see sticking out, with springs in them, those are, well barrels that have springs in them 🀣. More on the bucklesprings later! Let's see some more dirt! Time to get a look at the back of this key assembly and assess the state of the foam that sits between the key assembly and the PCB.

a heavily corroded keyplate and the barrel foam is corroded and rotting

The foam, as is often the case with these boards, is hopelessly rotted, and in this state, will not withstand the cleaning it needs to prevent any future corrosion from reaching other parts of the assembly. It's important to note that the foam is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED to keep everything snug. Without it, the barrels could move and the hammer/flipper (I've seen it called both) of the bucklespring could get trapped. With that in mind, know that I will not attempt typing on this too much, outside of a few sound tests and "I can't help myself, I have to hit the keys" moments. I should be able to get a new foam piece from the lovely folks at Model F Keyboards. Ok, let's break out some toothbrushes and get to cleaning!

the keyplate and barrels neatly arranged after cleaning - some corrosion is still visible but this is a huge improvement

I don't know about you, but my OCD is feeling better already! The plate shows its scars from all that debris and corrosion, but its all cleaned up now, and the barrels have been completely submersed and scrubbed! How about we get a look at those famous bucklesprings?

glorious glorious bucklesprings!

Ahhhhhh...glorious! I'm not going to go into all the really neat design history on these, but at some point you should totally nerd out over these. You can get some great insights around the buckle spring right here at Deskthority. Perhaps, you too, will fall in love with torsional snap actuators 😍. After fully cleaning all the keycaps, it's now time to replace the barrels, add the springs, and replace the only key that needs added before reattaching the PCB and backplate - the dreaded Model F spacebar. Thankfully, it doesn't appear that anyone ever tried to rip this baby out improperly, and so, I'm able to get the stabilizer and keycap in place with relative ease. I'm going to reattach the PCB and backplate.

a much cleaner back assembly with barrels and springs in place - the spacebar is properly attached with stabilizer

With that done, last steps will be getting the PCB harness re-secured and putting the board back in the housing. And of course, we should probably put all these keycaps back! And wow - just look at that glow up!

the board is now almost fully reassembled - the key caps appear neatly lined up in proper layout above the board

and here we see  a top down view of the keyboard fully reassembled with all keycaps in place

This was a big project, but there's nothing quite so satisfying as seeing all that dust eradicated off a beautiful piece of technological history. There's still a few more things to do. If you know the Model F - you know the bottom has some pretty unique cork feet pads. I didn't even show those here at all as they were in pretty rough shape and I've decided to replace them with new reproductions from the Model F Project along with the foam pad I mentioned earlier. But just as important, we don't even know if this little gem works or not! I've got a Din 5 to USB QMK adapter on order from tinkerBOY that should hopefully do the trick! But they are custom made and can take a few months to arrive - so it'll be a bit of wait. I'd like to do an update after it arrives so stayed tuned! Be sure to check out a smattering of full size images in the gallery below. And if you're curious about the LEGO figures - it turns out the other special person that I need to mention, but can't actually mention, must've know my wife is an Aussie and that I love T-Rex's - because they were sure to include a couple of cool lego figures which I absolutely built along with the keyboard because no true dork can resist a LEGO build! Lastly, a final, massive thank you, to all parties involved in making this happen. There truly are no words for the majesty of the human spirit when it is directed at just being awesome. 🫢🏻

Footpad Update 2023/03/09

The replacement cork feet have arrived! I was able to get most of the residue from the old pads off the backplate, though there is some residual that remains. I didn't want to risk scraping or scratching the paint from the backplate, so there is still a small, visible amount of the the old pad adhesive. Still, at just $1 per pad - these were well worth it, and they really restore that old vintage feel to this board. Despite looking like some aftermarket furniture feet that some random user decided to apply for fun - these are the stock non-slip feet that came with the Model F!

the underside of the model f so we can see the unique cork feet

Typing Sound Update 2023/03/09

I know you want to hear this thing sing! I've posted a small sample on my Mastodon account. Bear in mind, this is the sound WITHOUT the foam backing. Still waiting on that from the Model F project. I'll post another sound/video once that arrives. In the meantime - enjoy all the crispy clicks right here.