Adding Tactile Feed Back to the Home Keys F and J

I started computing way back in the time of dinosaurs like the IBM 360, DEC-10, and my fav the HP3000. Everything was command line (exactly like the bash shell of linux today). Needless to say I learned to touch type and was very fast. To this day I still hate using the mouse and learn all of the keyboard short-cuts to keep my hands on the keyboard where they really belong.

To properly touch type you’ve got to be able to get your fingers on the home keys so you have a frame of reference. Many keyboards have done something to the F and J keys to provide tactile feed back so you can feel you are where you belong. Sometimes they will have small nibs on the keys (my favorite) or they will make the depressions deeper.

Over the years I have had keyboards that either don’t provide some marker for the F and J keys or the marker has simply worn off from use. Back in the 80’s I learned the tip to put a dot of glue on the F and J keys. That works relatively well, but eventually the glue comes off (about every 6 months) and you have to start over.

The other downside to glue dots is practical jokers. I once had someone pull the glue dots off and put them on the G and K keys. The next morning I come in, type my login, look up and it is all gibberish. Type it again, still gibberish. It took a third try before I finally started looking at the keyboard. It’s only funny in hindsight🙂

My current Dell keyboard is getting quite old, but I like it better than the new ones that have been coming with the systems. The little nibs have worn smooth and I’ve been resorting to glue dots for years now.

This last time the glue dots came off, the glue was missing so I spent a few days cursing my keyboard and trying to think of a permanent solution. Then it came to me:

Melt a little dot into each key with a solder Iron!

I have a old solder iron that I don’t mind getting plastic on, so I warmed it up and touched the center of each key just momentarily (< a second). It provided perfect tactile feedback.


(I swear my keyboard doesn’t really look that dirty – the light from the phone camera seems to reflect strongly)

For the first few days the dots were a bit sharp, but now they feel perfect.

Speaking of keyboards: everyone in my office once used the legendary Northgate OmniKey Keyboard and many of us bought the same keyboard to take home. It was the best we had ever seen even to date. It was heavy, the keys felt good, and I believe they clicked so you knew they were activated.

This keyboard, das keyboard, seems to be the closest competitor available these days

It’s on my wishlist, so someday I will find out if it is of the same quality.

Oct 2014 Update:

Wow, it has only been 6 months and the melted plastic has been worn smooth. I cannot feel it at all on one key and just barely on the other. I guess I could have melted bigger spots on each key, but evidently even that will eventually wear down with my constant use of the keyboard.

So last night I decided to take a different course. I’ll go back to glue, but use super glue (cyanoacrylate).  I really like this loctite gel super glue – I’ve been using it for a few years and it generally is much easier to work with than normal super glue:

Normal super glue would just run across a keyboard’s key, but the gel super glue will create a little raised bump just like Elmer’s glue.

I applied the gel super glue last night. The bumps are very noticeable this morning. Let’s see how long they last.

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3 Responses to Adding Tactile Feed Back to the Home Keys F and J

  1. Sean Straw says:

    A coworker of mine purchased a couple of das keyboards – one with blank keys and one normal (I presume they don’t have removable keycaps). Good build quality, decent click.

    I’m a longtime fan of the IBM “Model M” keyboard. Heavy metal plate inside, solid clicky feedback, keys where I expect them all to be. No goofy windows key. Keycaps are removable (useful for a good cleaning in a dilute solution of ammonia and water every now and again). They have home nibs on the F and J, and the printing on the keycaps is durable, not some thin silkscreen.

    I make my living at the keyboard. These days I do primary development at the office using a macbook pro (still for Linux, but using the mbp hardware), but I still have an IBM keyboard with a PS2-USB adapter on it, and it works solid. I’ve got a keymapper extension installed on the Macbook to remap an alt or ctrl key apple command key. I have them for every workarea where I have a workstation. No clone keyboards. I bought a wad of PS2-USB keyboard dongles so I could use the keyboards on modern workstations.

    The one I use at the office was manufactured in 1992 — I’ve occasionally ribbed some of the younger developers that even my keyboard is older than them. I’ve got some 101/102 keyboards that go back to 1986, possibly earlier. Still running strong.

    Back in the day, Keytronic keyboards were a reasonable alternative (akin to the omnikey), but still paled in comparison to the IBM. I didn’t like keyboards with the 2-row enter and repositioned backslash.

    IBM spun off keyboards and printers, and eventually laptops to the Lexmark brand, and eventually they quit manufacturing the “bucking spring” type keyboard. A company called UNICOMP bought the rights to the design, and continues to produce them: – I bought one so I’d have a native USB keyboard, and while the keypresses are close, I was unimpressed with the build quality – the row of function keys would rub the housing, and there was a rapid drop-off at the front edge of the keyboard, rather than the rest I’m accustomed to along in front of the spacebar, so despite paying US$100+ or so for the thing, I boxed it up and returned to my 20+ year old keyboard.

    … which weighs substantially more than the laptop it is plugged into🙂

  2. Ron DiLaurenzio says:

    Thanks for the info Dan. I was about to try something similar since I was getting frustrated that I could no longer find the home row without looking first. Of all the searches I made for “f and j key bumps missing” yours was the only one that was not a tutorial on WHY the bumps.
    Once I read about your attempts, I tried something different (but still involves super glue).
    I cut short pieces of nylon cable ties – the 3 inch, clear ones and superglued those where the bumps used to be (my keyboard is a Logitech wireless, so has (had) little ridges just below the F and J lettering. I put my scraps of cable ties there. If those where out I will be very surprised, but at least I can easily fix the problem! This is not a bad keyboard – was a fan of the IBM keyboards too and had one at home as well. The wireless works very well for me 3 computers on a KVM switch and very few cables visible.
    Thanks again!

    • Dan TheMan says:

      Cool idea, Ron!

      I purchased a bunch of used lenovo keyboards at the local recycle center because the new Dell keyboards I was getting just plain feeled weird. So far, their nibs haven’t worn off. But, when they do I’ll try your idea next.

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