Complete idiot guide for building a dactyl manuform keyboard.

The Startup
Published in
12 min readMay 25, 2020


Not guaranteeing it to be pretty, but it will works. at least it works for me this idiot

This guide is suitable for you if you have no experience with the following:

  1. 3D printing and editing 3D files
  2. custom keyboard manufacture
  3. Soldering techniques
  4. Programming with QMK or programming in general

In this build log, I hope to show you how to create a dactyl manuform mini 5x6 from scratch. I am by no means an expert on this matter and I totally relied on numerous tutorials online to get me through some bad times over the project.

This guide is going to be a long-winded one as such that I would like to have when I was building mine instead of some broad strokes of the process.

I have done any fair share of mistakes so DO AS I SAY NOT WHAT I DO, and you will be fine.

Ok let’s talk turkey, how much did I spend on this project without tool:

  1. 3D printing case x2 (USD 27)
  2. Laser cut bottom plate x2 (USD 3.5)
  3. Key switches x80 (USD 13)
  4. Diodes x100 (USD 0.5)
  5. 15 cm 24 AWG Wire x100 (USD 0.8)
  6. Arduino pro micro x4 (USD 10)
  7. Micro USB to Type C extension cable x3 (USD 3)
  8. 3.5 jack connector x4 (USD 1)
  9. M3 self tapping insert x10 (USD 1)

With tool (I have spent more on tools than the components of the keyboard itself, but that’s because I do not have any of these tools )

  1. Solder
  2. Soldering iron
  3. Tweezer
  4. Wire stripper
  5. Soldering station


  1. Finding the keyboard you like
  2. Finding the Right Dactyl for you
  3. 3D printing the keyboard case
  4. Buying other things
  5. Building your Dactyl Manuform
  6. Testing the keyboard with QMK software

1. Finding the keyboard you like

There are many different custom keyboard online with excellent community support. Along with many build log explaining how it’s done (unfortunately just not enough for me I suppose). To name a few ergodox and atreus or some 60% keyboard, hence it is important that you find a keyboard that suits your need and be willing to commit the time to learn its layout. A Split keyboard is very different to a normal full size and TKL keyboard, learning it will surely take a while, especially if you work with a lot of shortcuts. If you would like to try out those layouts such as ergodox and atreus, a ready-made highly customizable solution exist in the market already. I myself recommend the keyboardio model01 for the aesthetics and if you would like to have a no-fuss keyboard (it seems they are planning to roll out a second version soon).

My keyboard collection so far

Ok no more BS lets go into building a dactyl keyboard. Please note that the more digging you do before you start the project, the less pain will be inflicted on you during the project.

2. Finding the right dactyl keyboard for you

There is two main streams of dactyl keyboard, the first one being the normal dactyl keyboard, where the second one is the manuform version. The main difference is the placement of the thumb cluster, the normal dactyl requires your thumb to be in a raised position, while the manuform allows your thumb to move downwards. It’s mainly a personal preference, I went with the manuform as I had a bad experience with the ergodox design where the thumb cluster is similar to the normal version.

After that, you would have to pick the numbers of keys in your keyboard. 4x5 4x6 5x6 5x7 and much more permutation exist for this keyboard, so just browse around the internet until you find one that you are happy with. I went with the dactyl manufirm mini from beekeeb where he provides the STL files and some high level build log. His design reduces the height and number of keys of the keyboard (of which I am unable to follow and achieve).

3. 3D printing the keyboard case

Well, this is fairly straight forward, if you own a 3D printer, then I have nothing to add for you in this part go nuts. If you don’t, then you have two options, buy a 3D printer and get into the rabbit hole or commission someone else to print it for you. Reddit and beekeeb’s shop offers these printing services, or if you could access aliexpress or Taobao (as we call it in Asia) it could be a much more affordable way to print.

The materials you use for a print doesn’t really matter as you wont be touching the case much once the keycaps are installed, but I do recommend something with nylon, for the flexibility it provides.

Remember to leave a spot for the reset button, as most of the build don’t have a space reserved for it.

NOTE: in this build, the designer had specific slots for the 3.5 connector and micro USB exit hole, accessories that you buy might not fit the exact dimension, so it is recommended to measure the size of the connectors before printing them, or you can hot glue them in or melt it with your soldering iron. As far as I know, normal build of the dactyl using the RJ9 connector doesn’t have this issue as the clearance is higher.

4. Buying other things

a. Key switches x80 | Being able to pick your favourite keyswitch is one of the main perks of building a keyboard by yourself. There are just so many types out there that you can’t really go wrong with any of it. HOWEVER, these cases are mostly designed for cherry or cherry-like key switches, kaih or others that I am not aware of will not fit the case snuggly, hot glue will be needed. I myself went with gateron blue, for its light key feel (don’t flame me for this please) and to save me a few quid if this project happens to fail.

b. Keycaps x 1 full set | When buying keycaps be reminded that there are different types such as OEM DSA SA etc. Uniform height style of keycaps is recommended to avoid height differences in the same roll of the keyboard. Finding the right keycap style is not easy as it requires some special keys with specific unit size. If you don’t mind you could buy blank keycaps to save yourself the headache of finding the right style and right unit size.

c. Wires, wire stripper and razor x1 | Having a good wire selection is especially important when you are doing this new. Thicker wire is easier to solder and strip and should cause you less headache in the process. I went with 24 AWG wire stranded (AWG refers to the width of the wire, the smaller the number the thicker the cable, there is also a version of solid wire and stranded wire) but I think I could have benefited if I have gone with 22 AWG. A wire stripper is much appreciated when dealing with wire in general, and having a sharp razor on hand would be great as well.

d. Diodes x80 | Self-explanatory, just get the right one 1N4148, and try to find one that is shipped like this, so it could save you a lot of time bending it individually later on.

e. Arduino pro micro x4 | There are a lot of different variant of Arduino out there, just find one with good reviews and with good pricing, if you are not comfortable with soldering, try to find one with the legs installed. I myself purchased 2 more just in case but I am just a little paranoid in general.

f. 3.5 jack / TRS / TRRS connector x4 | A 3.5 jack cable is used to connect both halves of the keyboard. However, make sure what type of 3.5 jack you are using. The dactyl keyboard requires at least 3 data pin of connection, so only TRS or TRRS could be used.

g. A small reset button x3 | You would need a button to reset the Arduino pro micro once it’s installed inside the keyboard, make sure you have a button for each side or you will be like me, living in shame with two exposed jumper wire, waiting for my button to arrive.

h. Self-tapping thread inserts 145M3 x15 | Please make sure that you are purchasing the right length of the insert. For those in purchasing through Taobao, the Chinese name is 自攻螺套自攻丝套

i. Arduino jumper cable (optional but highly recommended) | Jumper cable with Arduino allows you to solder less, while still having a solid connection. It also allows you easy to access the bottom of the key switch for testing or resoldering purposes.

j. Type c connector (optional) x3 | In my dactyl manuform keyboard design, the user would not directly plug into the Arduino board itself, so if you would like to you can use a micro USB to type c extender cable. Or you could purchase type c breakout board to achieve the same outcome.

k. Soldering tools x1 | Soldering iron and solder is a necessity, given to the nature of the project, don’t worry if you are not proficient with the soldering iron, you will be when you are done with this project. A smaller diameter solder could be useful as we are soldering in smaller spaces but its mostly preferential.

l. Misc tools

  • Philips screwdriver
  • Fine/ flat head tweezer
  • Electric tape
  • Hot glue

Ok now you have everything you needed to start building a dactyl manuform keyboard yeah. Now just wait 2–3 weeks with excruciatingly drooling over other’s build.

5. Building your dactyl manufrom keyboard

The building process is actually fairly straight forward once you get the hang of it. Basically, the keyboard is linked by a grid-like matrix, where each key switch should be connected with 1 horizontal and 1 vertical wire with a diode in between. Note that this diagram has one more thumb key than the design that I have built, You would have to adjust the wiring a little, just skip the bottom key of the normal grid and go straight to the thumb grid instead.

Image from Nick Green

NOTE: Start building the keyboard with the left-handed part, so when you have completed the keyboard you could start testing. If you were to start with the right-hand side like myself, you will not be able to test the keyboard properly until you have completed both hands with the QMK software.

People usually start with horizontal (with diodes) then vertical. Bend the diode to a 90 degree at the start of the diode, then trim the other end of the diode so it is just longer than the switch itself.

The method I have used in wiring the keyboard is the strip cable method. I have purchased 15cm wire, mark out the distance between each stem of the switch and strip a small length of the wire (8mm-1cm). Repeat this process for all the stems. Then bend the wire to wrap around the stem of the switch. It is best if the wire itself is wrapped around the stem in a way that even without soldering it wouldn’t move around too much. It would be easier for you in the soldering process.

NOTE: Diode can only travel through one direction, If you are soldering straight on the diode, make sure that your connection points are always at the end tip of the diode.

Upon finishing the horizontal matrix, give yourself a pad in the back, you have completed the hardest part of the build.

One thing to keep in mind is that the horizontal and vertical should NEVER touch each other. If you have some electric tape laying around, apply it to the bottom layer of the matrix to make sure you will not accidentally short the matrix for unwanted input.

Some of the builds use RJ9 as a connector while I used the 3.5 jack connector. Make sure the connector and the cable you have purchase are of the same type, a TRRS connector to a TRS cable should be wired a little differently than a TRRS connector to TRRS cable.

Here is some video that best demonstrate the soldering and build process of the keyboard better than myself.

Remember to connect a reset button for your keyboard connecting to the RST and GND, double tapping it will reset the Arduino for 8 seconds for you to flash your QMK onto it

Remember to hot glue connectors, the more the better.

6. Testing the keyboard with QMK software

This is actually the trickiest part of the build in my opinion mostly because I have never tried QMK and most build log to focus on the physical build of the keyboard.

If you are using the original design of the dactyl keyboard layout supported by the QMK toolkit, then you shouldn’t have much trouble. But if you are like me, who ventured out a little with a dactyl layout that is slightly different. You would have to go through a different process to do so.

Even if your keymap does not exist on the QMK toolkit, find a closest relative keyboard and test out the keyboard first, and it will no doubt give you a sense of achievement and overwhelming happiness

How to use QMK (if keyboard is supported)

There is much documentation on how to use QMK here

Here is the TLDR for normal layout:

  • Go to QMK configurator
  • Select the name of your keyboard
  • Change the desired keymap
  • Create a .hex file for the next step
  • Download and install QMK toolkit
  • Open the .hex file prepared on the toolkit
  • Click “auto flash”
  • Reset the Arduino pro micro
  • You are done

How to use QMK is your keyboard is not listed

If you are NOT using the normal layout, you would need to compile your own layout. Follow this guide to setup QMK in your computer environment. Follow “Set up your QMK environment” and “Build your first firmware”

After installing qmk and downloading qmk to your local machine and you could edit your own keymap and keyboard.

Go to /handwired/dactyl_manuform/5x6 modify 5x6.h and modify the existing keymap. Add KC_NO to keys that you do not need or register more keys in the matrix

after modifying the 5x6.h file, change the keymap.c file accordingly

compile the keymap to a hex file

qmk compile -kb handwired/dactyl_manuform/5x6 -km <your-keymap>

double click the hex file to start qmk toolkit, remember to click “auto-flash”. double click the reset button of the keyboard, and you should see the text in yellow.

Now you have full control of your Dactyl Manuform keyboard, go train yourself to use it for the months to come, yeah!

Well congrats to whom has read to the end of this long drawn out “guide”, it is my attempt to pass on my experience building the keyboard, and hopefully someone would benefit from it.



The Startup

I am an aspiring ‘filmmaker” I suppose, thou mostly i just want to take some more photos and video that people would like and share.