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Interview: Quentin Lebastard

Quentin Lebastard of Bastard Keyboards, designer of the Charybdis and Dilemma, talks about himself and his designs on the occasion of the upcoming release of the Dilemma Max.

KBD.news
Published September 21, 2023
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Quentin Lebastard of Bastard Keyboards doesn’t really need an introduction. As designer of keyboards like the Dilemma and all the Charybdis variants, he not just sells his pre-built boards and kits but also regularly shares his source files. I asked him a few questions on the occasion of the upcoming release of the Dilemma Max.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hey! Great to be here. I'm Quentin, a French keyboard designer operating from The Netherlands.

Is Bastard Keyboards your full-time job now?

I've been working on this project for 4 years now, and I'm extremely thankful to be able to call this my full-time job. What started as a single-desk keyboard building service is now a full-blown office, constantly buzzing with prototypes and ideas.

Pic:

Sure, a lot of what I do can be considered work – community management, inventory, emails – but on most days it still feels like having fun and coming up with ideas. It's never boring, and I'm going to the office every day with optimism and enthusiasm.

I'm also working with Bas now, who at the start was helping on the operation side of the company, but is now also working on some cool upcoming creative projects.

How and when did this all started out?

Five years ago I was working in IT and, like most people in that field do at some point, started developing RSI issues. Back then I had already started to get into mechanical keyboards – and had a Ducky One TKL with blue switches. I then realized that I needed to get a bit more serious about my health and started to look into ergonomic keyboards. The Dactyl seemed like the best option back then, and I had just gotten a 3d printer that I wanted to put to use… From there, I built a few of them which helped tremendously my RSI, but I was not happy with their design and build experience.

A lot of people get into the hobby but few of them sell their own products. How did you end up as a keyboard maker?

I would describe the process best as organic. In September 2019 I moved to The Netherlands on what was supposed to be a short holiday to see some friends after quitting my job. Back then I was very active on Discord and Reddit publishing pictures of my design experiments, and it was gathering a lot of interest.

The main issue with building Dactyls has always been their complexity – they require a good knowledge of 3d design and 3d printing, electronics design, wiring, QMK. It involves multiple topics and can become overwhelming very quick. Because of that, prebuilt Dactyls were appealing to a lot of people, and I saw that as an opportunity to help them.

From there on, I went through a lot of different ways of building them – first handwired, then using Amoebas, then flex PCBs. First with models generated through online Dactyl generators, then with my own designs. First with handwired Pro Micros, then with custom-designed RP2040 boards with shield PCBs.

Whenever I ended up with new ideas, new designs, the main goal was to help others. For this, open source made sense – but for those not willing to "get their hands dirty", selling prebuilts and kits is a way to help them while financing my full-time work on innovation.

I guess there were some bumps in the road.

Designing keyboards ("maker") is not related at all to selling them ("shop"). Selling products entails very different skills and topics, like communication, inventory, versioning, after sales support, packaging, build guide editing, you name it.

It's not for everyone and brings its own challenges – and it takes out a huge chunk of time that could otherwise be used for designing. Working on this as a team rather than just myself has been very helpful, and it enables my work on design so it's very much worth it.

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Working in a field that's so new makes things even more complicated – standards have to be worked on, and any decisions taken upstream can have consequences on designs for years as I try to make everything as backwards compatible as possible. Because all of the work until now around commercially sold Dactyl-likes (Kinesis, Datahand…) had been kept closed source, I had to reinvent the wheel (and share the process). There has been countless projects around Dactyls, but nothing with a quality high enough that I was happy with – I wanted to take it from a "weekend project" that you have to tinker with and debug a lot, to a more streamlined experience that can also be reused in other designs.

Designing and building keyboards for others also brings the quality requirements a lot higher – while I can afford a few quirks on designs that I use myself, if I ship to others the quality standard needs to be there. For this I’ve always focused on starting things very simple, and from there slowly upgrading – the Dilemma is the most recent example: I started with a very barebones 3x5+2 that brought only one new thing (the trackpad), and from there slowly upgraded it (integrated mcu, rgb, rotary encoders, more keys…).

Could you draw a quick timeline with all the notable keyboard models you designed?

I don't have the exact dates on hand, but the main events that defined my work would be:

The original Scylla design. This was my first Dactyl design in fusion 360, that came out of wanting a better looking Dactyl that was easier to print, build, and maintain.

The Skeletyl: this started as kind of a joke, as I never expected a keyboard with so little keys to become so popular. I wanted to experiment with new design techniques and came up with the skeleton design method, which was also quickly adopted by other designers. This was the first design I open sourced, and the others followed quickly.

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The Charybdis: this was… a challenge. Back then there were a few existing builds (e.g. Tractyl manuform), but they required obscure PCBs and a lot of tinkering. I had to design a sensor PCB from scratch, as well as a reusable 3d holder assembly for it. This was a bet that worked out – the parts are now reused by a lot of other designs. Not only this, but the code in QMK back then for trackballs was… fragmented. Drashna and Charly put in countless hours to make this a better experience, and we now have code directly in QMK's drivers with a ton of neat features

The Splinky: this is not exactly a keyboard, but it's the "brain" of all my 3d designs. I started using Pro Micros and Elite-Cs, but Corona hit and made those 32u4 extremely expensive to source. With the discord community and other vendors, we worked on a standard pinout for the new, cheaper RP2040 chip by Raspberry (RP2040_CE), which means all those new powerful RP2040 boards can be used interchangeably.

The Dilemma: I've wanted to work on flat keyboards for a while and already experimented with a Sweep-like and Atreus-like. I wanted something that could be used on the go (when bringing a Dactyl is complicated), and also brought something new to the table (trackpad), all while not being too alien that it would scare adopters. It worked out well, and the new versions are bringing more and more features.

What aspects of the hobby and manufacturing do you like or are you interested in the most?

What I like so much about my job is that it involves so many different aspects. When I started 4 years ago I was mostly invested into the 3d design part, and the last year it’s been mostly electronics.

I try to keep things fresh – at the moment I’m trying to invest a bit more into photography and video (for guides and tutorials). There’s nothing super concrete yet, but it’s important for me to keep going out of my comfort zone.

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Recently I had to design the silkscreen for the Dilemma Max and decided to learn Illustrator for it – it was a real challenge as I was also on a tight timeline, but it turned out great and I’m now using this tool in other parts of my designs as well.

My most favorite part by far though is the community – there are so many crazy ideas out there, and working on open-source keyboards means I can be part of it and contribute to it. Seeing mods and forks of my keyboards is the best reward there can be.

Your recently announced product is the Max variant of the Dilemma. It seems to be a natural next step in the line-up. Was this a community request?

This was definitely a community request. In all my keyboards, I have 4x6, 3x6 and 3x5 variants. When I started developing the Dilemma I decided to go with an “extreme” package, 3x5, just like the Skeletyl. This was because it enabled me to do some rapid and cheap prototyping compared to something bigger and more complex. I had only one big objective – produce a modern split keyboard with a trackpad. While the trackpad part worked well, I had to sacrifice other parts (rgb, integrated components) just to keep things simple.

Pic: Dilemma Max

Dilemma Max

When looking at my 3d keyboards, the big format (4x6) is the most popular – and that’s understandable. For someone who has little to no experience in splits, going with a 4x6 means it’s a less-big of a jump. It’s less intimidating, and having a number row feels familiar compared to homerow mods and multiple layers. It definitely provides a less intimidating way of getting into ergo. This aligns with my goals – help people find a keyboard that works better with their body. Having a bigger one means they are more tempted to try it, and maybe later switch to the smaller version.

Because of this, the demand for a bigger Dilemma was there – and with the experience I got designing the Dilemma I felt confident I could go ahead with a bigger design.

Bringing a real product to the market is much more difficult than creating a prototype for yourself. What are some possible challenges which are not so obvious for the uninitiated?

That is definitely true, and something that’s hard to fully grasp unless you are also managing products. Like I mentioned previously, the quality requirements are much higher. Rather than sticking to very general concepts, I thought it’d maybe be interesting to give a few concrete examples.

Technical: When I first started working on the original Dilemma 3x5, trackpads in ergo keyboards were still a very new thing. After settling for the Cirque trackpad, I had to find a way to connect it – either soldering a few bodge wires and desoldering a resistor, or using an FPC connector. Having to desolder a resistor and bodge a few wires is fine when you’re designing a one-off for yourself, or even for enthusiasts, but I wanted something truly easily accessible. Because of that I decided to switch to an FPC connector, which meant ordering the boards assembled from the factory rather than bare. This brought a lot of issues and design complexity, but in the end made builds slightly easier.

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Quality requirements, and where to stop. Going into the Dilemma Max, I felt confident because the Dilemma was already a polished product. Every time I make a new product I go through 3 or 4 revisions, and this time was no stranger. While things went overall well, I had a few issues with components placed too close, or zone patterns being different because I overlooked them. For some builders or vendors that’s in the acceptable range of defects, but not for me. You need to draw a line on where you decide a product is good enough to ship, and even if high that line needs to be there.

Firmware and all technicalities. However, hardware is not everything. For a product that works great out-of-the-box, you also need great firmware. Because I work on innovative products this has always been a problem – there was no standard code for the trackball when it came out, and very little features.

I’m extremely lucky to be in touch with amazing volunteers who write and maintain the code for all my keyboards. This means not only developing code for either new features or new keyboards, but also updating as the hardware changes (eg. with the move to RP2040 or to Via).

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To ensure a smooth experience in both hardware and firmware, I have the habit of shipping early versions to enthusiasts and developers. While they get an “imperfect” version of the product, they always give some invaluable feedback and start working on the firmware. This enables me to find issues I’d otherwise either not see or much later, and get a firmware that’s much better than if I’d had to do it (I suck at QMK).

Diagonal stuff. Finally, because I’m creating keyboards that are going to be built by multiple people with different backgrounds in DIY, I need to make sure the process goes smoothly. This means that during the design process, the 3d and electronic parts have to be made in a way where it’s expected there will be mistakes. It can and will happen that the screw inserts are not installed properly, the components are installed in reverse, there are shorts and cut traces and burnt plastic. People will make mistakes, and I need to work on making those mistakes less likely to happen, but also make sure that the keyboard is easy to fix.

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From the start, I needed to do some choices which don’t necessarily make a lot of sense for an expert (eg. big screws, using Splinkys, reversible PCBs, ribbon cables instead of FPC…), but these make the build process easier and less prone to mistakes.

On top of this, there’s of course the build guides – another aspect that comes on top of the simple design of the keyboard, involving photography and editing, video recording and script writing. In my experience, creating a build guide really puts all the little details in the spotlight – if there’s some part of the build that’s awkward, suddenly you have to explain it in details and it puts you in front of your design choices.

What’s your current setup? Favorite layout, switches, keycap profile?

When typing this I’m using a Charybdis Nano, nylon, metal plates with magsafe and tripod adapter, tangerine switches, and DES caps. For some time I was using a wireless CNano with trash switches, but it kept having issues with connecting to my Windows machine and the trackball dropping out, so I switched back to my old design.

Pic: Quentin's current setup

Quentin's current setup

I’m a fan of light linear switches, so I might find something even lighter than the tangerines for my next build. I don’t plan on moving away from DES though – shoutout to Asymplex, those are the most comfortable keycaps I've ever used, and his new thumb cluster for the Skeletyl is killer.

When traveling, I use a Dilemma with sunset switches and MBK keycaps.

What’s your favorite keyboard designed by someone else? ;)

I’m a huge fan of the designs by Geist, specifically the Totem and Klor. One of the most difficult things you can do as an artist is create something that can be appreciated even by the uninitiated, and in that aspect he absolutely nails it. There is so much attention to every detail, and an aesthetic that is carefully crafted, and it really shows in the final build – no detail is left to luck. I also got the chance of meeting him in Leipzig, super chill guy.

What’s next? Any upcoming projects or future plans you can tell us about?

In the future I want to start working again on metal plates for tripods. I’m also still working on upgrading the build guides, and working on transport cases. Very long-term, I’m still slowly working on adding bluetooth to our offer. Bas is also working on epoxy DES caps, to add it to our offer.

Final thoughts?

Come check the Discord! We’re a friendly bunch :)

Resources

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Published on Thu 21st Sep 2023. Featured in KBD #136.


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