1 month with the Dactyl-Manuform

Starting in about September, I started to build the dactyl-manuform as I had begun to experience RSI symptoms while at work. TotallyMoney had already very helpfully bought me a vertical mouse (the excellent Logitech MX Vertical). However, my wrists and shoulders were still suferring, and I wanted to learn about soldering, Arduinos, handwired keyboards. While looking at the Ergodox-EZ I found out about the Dactyl and it's fork, the Dactyl Manuform, which is the original Dactyl with the thumb cluster of a keyboard called the Manuform.

I used Aliaz 70g switches from kbdfans - I would have liked to use Zealios switches; however they were quite a bit more expensive. As this is to use at work, I wanted silent switches. I'd be tempted to spend a little more and buy the Zilents if I was doing another for the office.

(Short) Build Log

There are plenty of build logs online and on r/mk, so I'm not going to do that here. I'll post a few details about how I built it but keep it to a minimum.

For wiring the columns, I used copper tape to connect each switch. This was quite easy except I keep pricking my finger with the pin on the switch. I then soldered each pin to the tape to secure it.

For wiring the rows, I bent one leg of the diode into a hook and fitted it around the other pin on the switch, and then soldered it on. I soldered the other leg to the diode that had come before it to make a chain.

I then bought some connected connected jumper wires; the female end connected to the Arduino Pro Micro headers, and the male end was soldered on to the copper tape/free end of the diode chain.

Next I flashed the Arduinos (one in each side) with QMK. The Arduino in the left side is the master and is actually an Elite C, so that the keyboard can use a USB-C connection (the Arduino is connected to a USB C extension cable which is then glued into the case). The Arduinos themselves are connected via a RJ9 cable (an old telephone connector), as this provides serial communication (as does a RJJS cable - headphone jack. If I was doing this again, I'd use this).

Keymap and Features

I've built a 4x6 board, which means there's no number or function row, and one column of keys on the outside. To get to numbers, I hold the Lower button (on the left hand side thumb cluster), which then puts a numpad onto the 3x3 grid made up by [U, I, O / J, K, L / M, comma, period]. At first I thought I might not like this but I got used to it very quickly.

On the thumb clusters I have the lower / raise buttons, then on the left hand side I have space, and the right I have enter. QMK has a great feature which lets you put different keystrokes on the press and hold of a button. So, the lower button doubles as [ / { and the raise button is ] / }. On the enter key, I can hold it to use shift. I'd like to do this with space on the opposite side too.

On the grid of 4 cluster keys, I have various keys including ctrl, alt, esc, tab, cmd and backspace. On the ctrl keys (one on symmetrical sides) these double as ( ) when pressed.

I have enabled a feature called Auto Shift, which means you can hold a button for it's shifted value. I've enabled these on the symbol and numeric keys (they'd get annoying for Vim if I enabled them for letters).

I've also added mouse keys on the Raise layer over WASD, which have been really helpful when I need to make small mouse movements but dont want to take my hands of the board.

Next steps

There are a few more QMK features I'd like to explore, including Leader Key, Macros, and some of the more advanced keycodes and layering. In terms of hardware, I'd love to add bluetooth functionality. Also, some haptic feedback would be great: I'd use this for some feedback when using a key with Auto Shift.

I'm probably going to build another (got the bug now!) - possibly a Dactyl Manuform Mini this time. I'd like to explore the option of using the Amoeba PCBs (one switch PCB) which would mean the switches could be potentially hot swappable and I could add some (subtle) LEDs in.

Has it fixed my RSI?

On the whole, yes. I think a large part of it was the Logitech MX Vertical, but also the effect of a split keyboard is huge; my shoulders are no longer hunched up over a small keyboard and I can modify the position throughout the day.

Also, the idea of having a smaller keyboard with a lot of keys on layers may take a bit of getting used to, but after a couple of weeks it feels very natural. In terms of RSI, it also means I don't need to move my hands nearly as much and can keep my fingers on the home row, which is great for Vim.

Hope this was useful - if you'd like any more info please feel free to tweet me, or email (tom at tomoakley dot me) - thanks for reading!