TheVan Keyboards started as a project to create a 40% keyboard that I could use as my daily driver. I was inspired by the JD40 but could tell right away that I would need to change a few things.
In early 2015 I started playing around on keyboard layout editor. I had a few design objectives in mind.
- Staggered layout
- Needed the forward slash key
- Stick as close to QWERTY as possible
- Two function layers accessible from either side of the keyboard
- Split spacebar
After I was happy with my layout it was time to hand wire a prototype. I stumbled onto the brand new http://builder.swillkb.com/ and downloaded my dxf and took it straight to Big Blue Saw. I may have been one of the first users to get a plate made from the files generated on Swill's plate builder.
The plate arrived a week later and I hand wired my first keyboard. I crafted a case out of a thin piece of hardwood and used screws and nuts as spacers. I had Cherry clears in the first prototype.
I started using my keyboard at work and adjusted the layout a handful of times before settling on the default layer I use today. Then I took a nap.
For several months I was busy with real life and didn't get on the keyboard forums at all. I was still using my prototype, but that was it. February 2016, finally the dust settled and I made my way back into the community. I started designing a PCB for my MiniVan keyboard. I read data sheets, looked at pictures zoomed in a hundred times, looked through open source projects. I finished my schematic and moved on to routing the board. I routed it again. I rerouted a couple more times. Each time getting a better more refined layout.
With the PCB finished, there was only one thing to do; have it produced! I created an interest check for the PCB hoping I could get 10 or so people on board bringing costs down enough for me to test my PCB. The resounding feedback was 'interested if a case is included'.
I thought about doing a sandwich case for a bout 4 seconds before giving in and going all out on a CNC milled aluminum case. I had a 3D modeling class in high school, 10 years prior, how hard could this be? Surprisingly I remembered most of what I learned and cranked out a case design rather quickly. It had an integrated plate and a cover on the bottom of the case.
I sent out my design files to several local shops asking for quotes. My design was way too expensive to produce! Back to the drawing board I went. I redesigned the case to be similar to the Poker style case, hollowed out aluminum with a plate that drops in. I sent out for quotes again. A couple shops were upset that I didn't have my design locked down and wouldn't quote the updated version. A couple shops did give me a quote for the new design. One shop in particular hit the number I was going for, East Valley Precision.
As I was preparing for a group buy, I knew I needed to do a prototype run. I couldn't risk sending out stuff that wouldn't work. I bit the bullet and ordered some prototype PCBs and dropped $400. I also got a case produced, another $400. I figured I'd test the entire chain and do anodizing as well, $100 more.
I was dropping some serious cash and had no idea if this thing was even going to hit MOQ. My wife was extremely supportive through the entire design and prototype phase. The single prototype unit was complete one day before one of the SoCal meetups.
I launched the group buy on April 1st now that I knew everything was good to go. I attended that SoCal meetup on April 2nd. The response for the MiniVan was huge! I met so many cool people, including one man who ended up purchasing 10 kits!
I took payments the first week in May and then scheduled the manufacturing. By the end of May all kits without keycaps were ready to go out. Two weeks later the custom keycaps were finished and the remaining orders went out.
Since running the group buy, many of the purchasers have posted build logs and photos and the popularity of my board has begun to grow.