Artifact Analysis: Wooden Keyboard

Now this is an interesting keyboard modification… it’s entirely made of wood, with handmade brass keys! The creator stated briefly on the Instructable page that he was “tired of the ever present brass frame.” What other material was prevalent in Victorian designs, and subsequently Steampunk? Wood, of course.

Before

After

I haven’t been able to find a lot about this creator, username Phirzcol on Instructables. Phirzcol’s profile on Instructables states this is his only instructable since he joined the website in 2007. He doesn’t have a personal website, but plans on having one soon. Phirzcol’s interests include “electronics, internet, hardware hacking, diy, science and fantasy fiction, steampunk, and anything you can make at home with few tools.”

This is my assumption (a fairly safe one, at that) based on the fact that Phirzcol has been a member of Instructables since 2007 and lists DIY and hacking as interests: Phirzcol belongs to the DIY, user-creator arm of Steampunk that I find so intriguing. Let’s analyze the keyboard with this bit of information about the creator, shall we?

Identification

This is a superficial modification of a computer keyboard, that is, the modification changes the look and feel of the keyboard, but not the function. The style of modification is declared to be Steampunk by the creator, though, to me, it simply seems more organic, perhaps because of the wooden frame, and lack of any indications that it could, potentially, be steam-powered.

The keyboard is made from an old-styled mechanical keyboard; one of the commenters suggested a keyboard from 1995 or earlier. The 1/16th inch thick hardwood was steamed for softening, and then glued to the original plastic frame with a quick dry glue. The steaming was done in order to mold the wood to the plastic. The keys were handmade from brass tubes, metal tube cutter, printed numbers and letters, cyanoacrylate for the glue, and a polymer resin.

Evaluation

This guy knows what he is doing, and is able to give instructions for people to replicate his work. Phirzcol not only made an entire set of keys by hand by cutting brass tubes to the correct height, printing out numbers and letters, capping off one end of the brass tube with a wooden circle and then filling the tube with a resin. He also bent wood by steaming it, applying a glue, and fitting it to the original keyboard frame. He then drilled the key holes from the back, using the plastic frame as a guide. This is not, perhaps, the most beautiful Steampunk modified keyboard, but it is obvious that a lot of time and ingenuity went into its inception.

Phirzcol knew what others were doing for their modifications, and decided to do things differently. Is this because he knew a different way to get the same effect? Is it because he didn’t have the same materials or resources as other modders? Is it because he likes to be different, and do things in a unique way? I feel it’s probably a combination of all three.

Cultural Analysis

Though this was posted in 2007, it seems those who commented on this instructable were familiar enough with Steampunk keyboard modifications that they asked why Phirzcol didn’t use existing keys from a typewriter, rather than making his own. While commenters expressed their admiration for his dedication, they seemed confused.

Why create an entirely new key, if typewriters exist and can be put to use? Why put so much time into that particular part of the project? None of the commenters seem to dispute the wooden facade of the keyboard, but they question why Phirzcol didn’t follow-through with an entirely mechanical aesthetic as seen with other Steampunk modifications by adding wooden detailing, or little mechanical flags that pop up and down depending on the different special function keys chosen (caps lock, num lock, etc). Phirzcol’s answer to many of these questions is simply, “just personal artistic preference.” I interpret this as, “That’s a pretty good idea. You do that for your project. I like mine as it is.”

This dialogue showcases the tensions within the Steampunk community, that being a differing interpretation of  Steampunk and Steampunk modifications. The mere existence of Steampunk modifications defy the constructs of what computer keyboards should look like, and how people should interact with them. Yet this modification somehow also defies the social constructs within the Steampunk keyboard modifications by only going so far.

Not painting the “clearly industrial” white power cord, for instance, upset some commenters because it detracted from the gestalt of the piece. The point of these modifications is to pretend as if the keyboard was created in that aesthetic from the start. It is meant to seem as though the keyboard belongs to the “future that never was” and is not, in fact, an old keyboard that has been made over. This is why, I feel, commenters dispute the choice of the bright blue LED light, the lack of mechanical gauges or flags, and the untouched power cable.

I am unable to tell the sex of the persons commenting, but it seems to me as though the commenters are more male than female in number. The modder, Phirzcol, is male. So again, we have a male modifying a piece of technology that for all intensive purposes represents a male-dominated profession, computing.

I’m curious about the decision to use a wooden facade rather than placing the keyboard in a wooden frame, as shown in one of my subsequent analyses. Perhaps this was the material at hand, or the material Phirzcol was familiar with. In any case, it is an approximation of  “looking period,” as stated by one of the commenters. It is not a representation of looking period. The difference, I feel, is that the wooden facade is an approximation because it is a veneer, an industrialized abstraction. Using real wood and treating it to seem old, or buying old wood in the first place, however, seems more of a representation of a period look due to the materials. One, when touching it, will feel fake. The other will delight the senses because it is an unexpected juxtaposition; organic materials performing digital functions.

Interpretation

Once again the ability to pull the original artifact apart without destroying its function is the first step to the personalized appropriation. If we are to empower our user-makers with our designs, therefore, I feel we need to design for dis-assembly in some form or fashion. One part of appropriation, at least in the manner I’m studying, requires a feeling of “I can try this, and I won’t break it,” or, “I can try this, and maybe I’ll break it, but I probably won’t. Let’s find out…”

Having now looked at three appropriations of keyboards, all of them different but with similarities in the act of appropriation, I feel like I’m on to something. I feel like this particular example shows how someone can be inspired by others in the Steampunk community, try their hand, share their process, and make something unique to them which also has a story to go with it.