Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

Some of you may know already, but for those who don’t, I am currently an undergraduate student. Well, I was up until very recently (I am currently on an indeterminate hiatus). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to finish my last semester because things once more took a turn for the worse with my health (more on that some other time).

During the production of snackeys, Kudos forced me to take a break from live casting in hopes we’d be able to get things under control. And when I say “things”, I mean everything—our finances, my health. Hell, even our relationship had taken a backseat to this crazy project we’d started. It was like it had taken on a life of its own and we were powerless to it. It had control over us, not the other way around.

Sure, my resin rash went away, but it didn’t take long before being exiled from casting took its toll on my mental health. I started going stir-crazy, tensions mounted between us at times, and naturally fights ensued. I begged Kudos to let me back in the lab, but fearful of any additional stressors in my already fragile physical state kept him stern; strong, the very thing I couldn’t be for myself.

On top of everything else, I was right smack in the middle of Chinese 2 finals at the time. (need I say more?) If I was lucky, or particularly persistent, sometimes he’d let me do post-work on snackeys, or package orders, but I was mostly delegated to conceptual work—that, and menial but necessary post-office trips to drop off the overwhelming amount of orders he was pretty much single-handedly fulfilling, and they just kept pouring in. Why am I telling you all of this? Because KeyKollectiv may imply that there are more than one of us, but if you want the truth, Kudos is definitely the greater half and heart of this endeavor.

Like many of you, I’m equally excited to see what he has in store for 2016. The most exciting part about all of this has been watching him pour his heart and soul into his creations. He has persevered when I was ready to give up at a moments notice. There were so many nights during the original Meowcaps when all it would have taken was one more failed cast, one more ruined double-pour to scare me away from casting forever, but he always stuck it out.

With that said, KeyKollectiv’s 1st birthday is coming up in just a few months—which Kudos pointed out earlier tonight is actually 6 days before my birthday, further demonstrating that life events have never stopped us from creating and experimenting since KK’s conception. In light of this, I’m especially inclined to reflect on our humble and colorful beginning. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a miracle that KeyKollectiv has survived its undeniably rocky infancy, especially to us. But at the end of the day, this endeavor is like a love child of sorts. And you don’t turn your back on your children just because they started in the intensive care unit.

Hope you all had a wonderful Christmas! Kudos and I spent our holiday processing caps and making delicious hot pot. We are looking forward to beginning the Meowcaps/Purrkeys sale in the coming days. Stay tuned!


– Koala-T

My Other Half

There are two sides to every story. KeyKollectiv’s journey is no exception. My dear readers, up until this point, the narrative has been that of my own. Unfortunately, memory is imperfect and views can be skewed by personal experience.

It is our hope that we can share this experience with you– one that is more complete. Until now, Koala-T was the silent partner. The [wo]man behind the curtain. Her creation, Meowcaps, put KeyKollectiv on the map. And without her, you would likely not be reading any of the blog entries that followed Meowcaps.

 

Moving forward, all posts made in Purple will be from her perspective.

Putting the Collective in KeyKollectiv: Who the F*A^ is Koala-T?!

Where do I begin? For those who don’t know, KeyKollectiv is two people: “Kudos” and “Koala-T”. Hence, the ‘collective’ in our name. Furthermore, we are also a couple. Less than a year ago, we embarked together on the journey of making “artisan” keycaps. For me, it was just a way of making something cute for my keyboard. As an English student, my keyboard was already more than just a writing tool, it was a huge part of my daily life; and after going mechanical, it became what I can only describe as: an experience. Cheesy, I know, but it’s true; and I’ve been hooked ever since. Customizing my own board was only natural. It was what followed that took me by surprise.


Speaking of experiences, the process of learning to cast has been a surprisingly challenging one. Part of the reason I’m writing this is to share some of what I’ve learned along the way. Up until now, I’ve been the silent partner in KeyKollectiv, which brings me to my second reason for this post.

In light of our upcoming releases (stay tuned for more on that in the next week or so!), before KeyKollectiv moves on, I wanted to take a moment to talk about Furt from my perspective.

Kudos and his Creature:

In hindsight, Furt was his Frankenstein’s monster. Seriously. I was there the nights he was obsessively toiling away in his lab at all hours of the night; when his desire to create had begun to border on madness. Admittedly, I didn’t quite understand his enthusiasm at the time, but seeing Furt come to life triggered an epiphany for me. That desire to create is, at times, a self-indulgent one. I know now because I finally understand it, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

Frankly speaking, the original Meowcaps put us so far in deficit I’m ashamed to even talk about it. Yes, we managed to pull ourselves out of it by the skin of our teeth, but now, after several borderline disastrous releases (ask Kudos and making modifiers; I dare you) we were chomping at the bit to get back into the craft (and likely—into debt). Kudos will wax poetic on his reasons for making Furt, but I knew just as well as he did, it was—in a way—a visceral attempt at self-preservation. Those of you who dabble in resin casting, or any other hobby where a level of technical skilled combined with a fortuitous wave of creativity is required, you know what I mean. Sometimes you get lucky and the maiden of inspiration comes, but it doesn’t end there. You have to be able to bring it to life. Sometimes she comes and performs a masterful tease before disappearing behind the velvet curtain—leaving you frustrated and blue-balled. You have an idea, but you don’t have the skill to bring it into actualization. Muses can be cruel in that way.


But this, guys—this is why we do it. It may be on such a small-scale, and maybe I sound like an asshole for being so sentimental (consider this a warning, I do this a lot), but that magical moment where something comes out exactly how you wanted it? Yeah, it’s pretty gratifying. Humble it may be, it’s also surprisingly addicting. Maybe that clarifies some things, or maybe it raises more questions. I don’t know. I suppose it’s just as much of a mystery to us as it is to you guys. One thing is for certain, though—KeyKollectiv doesn’t like to play it safe. With every collection release, we try to utilize new methods and push new boundaries. Furt was certainly no exception; he was only the beginning.

Furt: Extinction

6 out of 18. 8 out of 18. I counted the viable caps. I dumped the duds. At this point, I wasn’t even keeping the defective ones for archives. Fresh from the mold and straight to the trash. This was becoming infuriating. This “resin-fusing” technique required quite a bit of work. Preparation of the molds takes roughly an hour. First phase was 3-4 hours. Secondary prep required another hour. Final phase was another 3-4 hours. The total — 10 hours. 10 hours to make each key. At a 33-50% success rate, each defective cap was a day of work. Each dud, a slap in the face.

Obviously, the process needed more refining. PM’s poured in asking when Furt was ready. Offers to help fund the project were kindly refused. It wasn’t that we didn’t need the help. We were too stubborn to ask for hand-outs. The decision to turn down offers stung even more when we opened the bucket of silicone. Empty. We stared at each other and knew what needed to be done.

I opened the little acrylic box in the closet. We used these archives as reference for any future collections. To Koala-T, our archives were the only reminder we had of our past failures and achievements– a KeyKollectiv time capsule. One day, we would take them out and laugh at how crude they were. But today, these last SnacKeys would help pay for more supplies. I reluctantly posted them up on /r/mechmarket. Two minutes and they were gone. It wasn’t enough to buy more supplies so holiday gift money was withdrawn from the bank account. I was determined to bring Furt to the masses.

Credit: esplin2966

But Furt wasn’t ready for the masses. Up until now, failure was never an option for me. Hell, KeyKollectiv mods brought me to the brink of the City of Los Angeles putting a lien on my apartment and I still pushed forward. But no matter how much I pushed this project, the results were the same. Low yields and lost resources. “You’ve got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em”.

Pulling the plug on Furt was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve made in the lifespan of KeyKollectiv. Over this time, Koala-T and I had grown such a strong attachment to this little blob. Every time we pulled the molds from the pressure pot, it felt like pulling life from a bubbling cauldron. He felt alive. Full of personality. The mischievous look on his face and the souls he devoured inside his fat slimy body. It was so hauntingly charming.

Did it hurt financially? Absolutely. But what got to me was that we would not be able to share Furt with the community. The photos just didn’t do it justice. You had to hold one in your hand to appreciate the details and aesthetics. In the end, only 25 Furts made the cut. I reminded myself that at least there would 25 people out there who would truly know how I felt about Furt. We raffled off the survivors. Over 350 people entered. We felt the pang of defeat as we sent those Furts out in the mail. And with that, we placed the molds into that little box in the closet and turned off the lights in our lab.


A touching review of Furt from one of the proud owners (Credit: esplin2966):

Furt Review

Furt: Genesis

Koala-T and I put our minds together. We wanted to showcase a new encapsulation method that I was developing. Earlier that day, I had a eureka moment at work. Instead of simply submerging objects into semi-cured resin, why not try to “fuse” resin completely? In theory, it seemed feasible. Now, it was a matter of developing a method that was reliable and reproducible. I must admit, resin seemed like an unpredictable and volatile medium when I first began casting. Experience has given me the confidence to change this outlook. Although I am still at the mercy of resin, there was a sense of control that I now possessed.

I spent the following week developing this method. Despite my best efforts to mitigate the amount of time/materials/money lost during the experimentation phase, the losses were significant. “Gambler’s fallacy” is a fallacy in which the subject believes that low probability will eventually yield higher probability over time. It was stubbornness and gambler’s fallacy that led me to persevere despite facing failure time after time.

Skulls are so trite. But I’d be a liar to say that I didn’t want to sculpt one badly. Koala-T had been toying with some concepts on her own as well. Unfortunately, a skull wouldn’t have meshed well with the ideas she had. “How about a skeleton?” It wasn’t a bad idea. A skeleton would open up our options. An encapsulated skull would mean that sculpting a face would be mandatory. But a skeleton gave us a wider template to work off of.

I spent days with a magnifying visor on my head and precision dental tools in my shaky hands. When you’re encapsulating an object in something as small as a keycap, there will be certain parts of the cap that need to within nanometers in order to provide ample clearance. Looking at my finished sculpt, there were definitely areas that were no thicker than a few sheets of paper.

“It looks creepy”, she said. “That’s kind of the point”, I said. She held the master of the skeleton in her hand. “It’s so detailed!”. I was satisfied with the sculpt but we needed to find a way to incorporate encapsulation. We felt that the surface of the cap needed to be fairly simple to offset and contrast the detailed interior. Koala-T whipped up a cute little amorphous blob. This project was falling into place. I took the measurements and adjusted the skeleton. “There. It’s now cute and creepy”. We named him Furt.

Conceptually, Furt was ground-breaking in our eyes– but for those who aren’t familiar with resin casting, I’m sure it would be pretty underwhelming. Sure. Furt was cute and creepy but he needed personality. Once again, we put our minds together and put together a cryptic backstory to breathe life into that little critter.

“Meet Furt. Little is known about his origins. Legend has it that he was once a powerful wizard who lost his body in his quest to attain eternal life. Others say he arrived on a fiery meteor and is not of this world. What we do know is that Furt hungers. In order to sustain himself, Furt must constantly feed on souls. Luckily, Furt is quite pleasant when he’s not on an empty stomach. Don’t miss your chance to take one of these critters home. Don’t worry, KeyKollectiv is supplying the souls!”

I jumped the gun. In my excitement to show the community Furt, I rushed to get photos out. The pictures didn’t do it much justice. Reception of Furt was mixed. Although we had an outpour of support and excitement, it was apparent that he wasn’t ready. It was a major departure from SnacKeys. Ultimately, the aesthetic of the keycap greatly outweighs the execution/technique to the community. Koala-T warned that it was too early to present Furt to the world. As always, she was right.

Creative Detour

Sculpting on a canvas the size of a keycap restricts your capacity to explore creativity and concepts. Being confined to such small dimensions, great ideas can turn out to be completely impractical once you complete the process. Regardless of how skilled of a sculptor you may be, you’ll still find that there is great deal of adjustments and compromises that need to be made in order to properly execute a concept.

Up until this point, the focus has been on honing my resin casting techniques. Any drawing I did was conceptual sketching for keycaps. Visual arts have always been an integral part of my life so, naturally, I felt an emptiness when I set it aside for resin casting. I missed the freedom of drawing– of having no boundaries.

Making molds for production allowed me to shift focus on myself. Cure times for the silicone I use range from 4-6 hours. This gave me ample time to get some sketches in. It is a common misconception that if you weren’t born with the talent to draw, that you simply “suck at art”. I would argue that, although talent will help you stand apart from others, most people are capable of creating “good art”. Like the muscles in our bodies, the brain can also be exercised and conditioned. The key to cultivating any skill/craft/trade is consistent practice.

Avatar for mobbo

I was out of practice. It felt as though I exerted too much of my time/energy on making artisans. For practice, I decided to draw a few avatars for members of the GeekHack community. To be honest, as rusty as I felt, it felt gratifying to come back. I swore to myself that, moving forward, I would devote more time to this passion of mine…

Pushing The Envelope

“You’re only as good as your last release”. Those words echoed in my mind while I sat at my workbench. During the weeks following the completion of SnacKeys, I must have sculpted more than a dozen prototypes. Every perceived magnum opus was promptly scrapped for a new idea. Koala-T commented about how hyper-critical I was of my own work. The rush of momentum from SnacKeys ebbed with each passing day. Was I just trying to recreate the perfect storm?

Up until this point, KeyKollectiv was a small blip on the artisan radar. It had only been half a year since we finished up Meowcaps. The artisan scene, from my point of view, was experiencing a second coming. New makers cropped up every few weeks showcasing their work. Some would move on to do great things. Others faded into the landscape.

If we were ever to stand next to the artisans in the major league, KeyKollectiv would need to make something that separated us from the rest. Since the start, my major focus was on technique and execution. Typography, architecture, drafting — those were disciplines that I felt a strong affinity to. Fine art — not so much. It was no surprise that I had not released a sculpted keycap yet.

Artisan keycaps are, by nature, meant to be ornamental. It is “flair” or “pop” that makes our personal keyboards stand out in the vastness of stock keyboards. Form often trumps function in this craft. It is the goal of the designer to merge form and function. KeyKollectiv has always been of the mindset that artisan keycaps should, not only look great, but doesn’t render the key useless. Tall sculpts or keycaps that leave little clearance for adjacent keys left much to be desired. It was with this concept, that we approached our next project.

The goal was to create a keycap that featured technical proficiency. Not only did we want the overall profile to be functional but we wanted a keycap that would showcase both members of the KeyKollectiv duo. The end result would be a blob named “Furt”.

SnacKeys Part 2: The Fruit Of Our Labor

Viscosity and buoyancy. Opposing forces that would ultimately throw a wrench in our gears. The funny thing about seeds is that it has the capacity to float and sink. When placed in mixed resin, the seed will naturally float to the top. This leads to a keycap where the seeds are barely visible. What about the inverse? When a seed is embedded deep in resin that is curing, the mass of resin above may cause the seed to sink to the bottom. This leads to a keycap where the seed is too close to the surface. One where the seed may stick out and mess with the texture of the cap.

Intensive testing yielded a solution. During the curing process, between liquid and solid states, there is a small window where the viscosity is ideal to suspend the seed in a manner where it would neither float or sink. This window lasts roughly two minutes. If you’re too early, the seed will likely float. If you’re too late, you run the risk of preventing the first layer of resin from properly bonding to the second layer. Needless to say that the first tests proved to be unreliable at best.

Each seed is picked up with a tiny set of tweezers and painstakingly positioned into the semi-cured resin. There are four seeds per keycap. You have two minutes. How many keycaps do you think you can make? In the beginning, it was a paltry four. By the end of production, I was doing sixteen in one pull. Artisans with shaky hands need not apply.

SnacKeys were met with enthusiasm by the community. It’s always hard to gauge how well your caps will sell. The interest garnered by the design doesn’t necessarily translate into sell-through. We decided that first-come-first-serve should suffice. To be fair to everyone, we split the buy into three phases/rounds. The first would be for our North American brethren. The second round would be released at a time ideal for both the EU and Austrailian/Oceania. Finally, the third round would cater to the waitlist from the previous rounds. In anticipation, we produced a little over 200 keycaps. A healthy number we thought.

7 seconds. It took but 7 seconds to sell out in our first round. The formlimiter script I wrote for the order form crashed. We took in more than we had allotted. KeyKollectiv be damned to not follow through, so we took the extra orders. The second round took two minutes. PMs and emails poured in asking for a second run. Even with 200 premade keycaps, we couldn’t fulfill every order that came in. Head down and power through. Koala-T and I breathed a collective sigh of relief as the last batch reached completion.

SnacKeys Part 1: Seedless

When we initially released the promo photos for KeyKollectiv Mods, we received the most inquiries about the pink Realforce caps with Bianchi Green modifiers. I referred to this board as “the watermelon”. To this day, this Type-S is still in my daily rotation. GL1tch3d saw these photos and managed to secure himself a set of Pink Realforce keycaps as well. Having ordered a Bianchi Green HHKB set, he was able to duplicate the same effect.

“Watermelon. Watermelon.” Every few days, I received a PM with those simple words. I was confused about what he meant. He already had the alphas and modifiers. As far as I was concerned, his watermelon was complete. It dawned on me what he meant when he sent me a photo of a sliced watermelon. He wanted to complete the half-ellipse. He wanted a Bianchi Green spacebar.

It’s not that spacebars are particularly hard to make. I was just so burned out with anything longer than 1U. Also, the thought of making another mold made me shudder. I have to admit, GL1tch3d was more persistent than I had anticipated. “I’ll do you one better. I’ll make you a watermelon keycap”. How hard could it be? Translucent pink over Bianchi Green. Cake.

The first few looked pretty good. With the guidance of Binge, we refined our multi-shot process and started feeling more and more comfortable with layering. The first set of watermelons came out as we expected. The complimentary colors meshed well together and our peers all encouraged us to make more to sell. But I had that old familiar nagging feeling. Something was missing.

The process of molding/casting is essentially a 3D puzzle. To produce consistent and viable casts, one must consider factors such as gravity, air channels and shapes/scale. You visualize and hypothesize. And every experiment and method you conjure is scrutinized. You find potential issues and you test. Every failed experiment becomes time and money you’ve lost. This. This process was present throughout the majority of my waking life. My commute home was not an exception. It was at a traffic light when I thought of the solution. Seeds. Seeds are what they need.

Up until then, we had never experimented with encapsulation. Nubbinator had gears inside his heart key and Krytone had brains. How hard could it be? You put the seeds into the liquid resin. Molds go into the pressure pot. Just set it and forget it. Kudos. Koala-T. Do you guys ever learn? When has this journey ever been easy?

Drawing A Blank

I remember seeing Hipster’s blanks and reading that he considered moving away from just doing sculpted artisans. Clean maker’s mark and color marbling. They were a thing to behold. They were blanks but had so much personality.

I wanted the opposite. I wanted to make the move from blanks to sculpted. With Meowcaps far behind us, I missed the old days of prototyping. Carving and sculpting. Measuring and testing. The blank provided a blank canvas to work on but I felt the true embodiment of an artisan was a finely sculpted keycap.

However, the community was very vocal about their preference for more blanks. PM’s poured in encouraging us to put out more of them. Not one to disappoint, I dusted off whatever viable 1u molds I still had from the Modifier sale and set out to make a blank that stood out in the, already blanks-saturated, community. A much harder task than I had anticipated.

Up until this point, KeyKollectiv hadn’t given the MX users the proper respect it deserved. Meowcaps was exclusively MX and every subsequent release was Topre. We felt that our next release would absolutely have to be made available for both crowds (Sorry Alps/BS users). Unlike Topre, MX users had many profiles to choose from. Trends ebb and flow for MX. The community would talk about the aesthetic beauty of sculpted SA sphericals or efficiency of uniform DSA’s, but one concept has held true throughout these trends. Cherry profile was timeless. With that in mind, I selected a R1 keycap by GMK as the template I would use.

With fresh molds made, Koala-T and I began brainstorming ideas on how we would make a blank that stood out from the crowd. Keycaps of various layers and colors have been circulating in the artisan community for quite some time. As it turns out, having a blank canvas to work off of left our minds blank. This dilemma would be one that would haunt me for the following week.