14 Aug 2015
This interview was conducted by /u/skiwithpete.
Many of you will have seen /u/margo_baggins name alongside builds of JD40 and other custom boards that occasionally pop up here in /r/mechmarket. His builds, often called “Margo_mods” are widely sought after and if you’re lucky enough to have one – as I am – you’ll know why. I had the chance to chat with /u/margo_baggins and we covered a wide range of topics from his passion, to some insider knowledge on mechanical keyboards. If you’re a regular on mechmarket, there’s a ton of useful knowledge that he shares in this fascinating chat.
margo_baggins: Hello Pete
skiwithpete: Should I call you Margo?
margo_baggins: Haha, my friends genuinely call me Margo haha… I don’t even know why or when that happened…
skiwithpete: Are your friends part of the mechanical keyboard community?
margo_baggins: Nah, keyboard philistines the lot of them.
skiwithpete: Thanks for agreeing to be on r/mechmarket as part of the Artisan Corner a monthly segment on makers/artisans/and big players in the Mechanical Keyboard community. What do you describe yourself as in the community?
margo_baggins: I’m not a big player, I don’t think, I’m not really that in the community, I come and go quite a bit, I just like the electronics and building keyboards. I like groupbuys and I like sorting keysets with [CTRL]ALT - not physically sorting individual keys, but actually sorting out keysets for the community, and organising that with /u/BunnyLake dealing with SP and GMK etc.
skiwithpete: I’ll ask more about your relationship with [CTRL]ALT in a minute - but you do know you have kind of a cult following right? Like seeing your name attached to a build means something to the community…
margo_baggins: hmm I’m not fully convinced that’s the truth… but it’s quite humbling to hear that.
skiwithpete: Let’s talk about keyboards for a second. What’s your keyboard of choice?
margo_baggins: hmm depends really, I’m not in any real camps - I got a whole lot of keyboards here
skiwithpete: Go on…
margo_baggins: in no certain order - things I like -
Monterey blue alps
Topre - any kind, not really fussy, don’t like light one but you don’t see that that much
Black alps - I think they’re awesome, loud, clunky switches, that aren’t clicky
I don’t like cherry clicky switches
I really like vintage brown cherry switches
skiwithpete: I didn’t even know about vintage browns… What’s the difference between that and modern browns?
margo_baggins: hmm, vintage ones are quite pingy I find, and just alright, I didn’t used to like them, I used to be full clears all the time. I like the pingy-ness, reminds you it’s a mechanical switch in there, which is half the fun - but yeah actual keyboards, my rotation at the moment:
The Cheat - I use this almost exclusively at home, don’t know why, I just love it - half plate, vintage browns, but mainly the half plate, I like plateless, maybe it’s a sin but I like it…
skiwithpete: I had to look up “The Cheat” -
margo_baggins: At work I currently have a Realforce, just a stock beige one, 87 key. But, I rotate that board quite a lot and I take a plateless 60% there quite often, which is in a hammer case with a GON 60% PCB, one of the [CTRL]ALT ones. I like this as it supports all layouts and plateless means I can change it around really easily. I also have a 60% alps board that I pop in that case sometimes, which has Monterey blue switches and I’ve finally got a complete cap set for it by getting my hands on 4 SGI Granite boards, only needed 1 for the keyset, but you know this game, it thrives on excess! I also got a whole heap of boards that live about my flat (and annoy my girlfriend) that I rotate with work and home sometimes. I’ve got 5 or 6 cherry boards that I don’t really use but, I just have: off the top of my head a G80-1800 ISO winkeyless, Raptor K1, G80-1000’s, G80-11901 ANSI, G80-11900 ANSI and maybe that’s it… They all have nice cherry doubleshots on them, which is why I pick them up. I also pick up old alps boards and old typewriters that may or may not have mx switches and/or cherry profile caps. At the mo, I’m running about 30/70 success rate with the typewriters and I’ve had to stop for a bit as I get into real trouble for that because some of the things I’ve thought will be great are not great and have cost me more than they are worth :D
Oh, and regardless of what I use, I regard HHKB to be the best keyboard you can get.
margo_baggins: I have one, I love it, I used it a stupid amount, and I stopped using it just to use all of my other keyboards. Off the shelf, yeah it’s the best one. My HHKB is kind of working with bluetooth now as I managed to get a custom controller off the awesome Hasu… but, it was a rev.D, so didn’t include bluetooth. The PCB has the landing pads for the bluetooth parts but, they aren’t soldered and it’s a bit wrong, which means it’s on the endless pile of things to get working properly one day.
skiwithpete: I don’t know Hasu
margo_baggins: He’s in Japan, does very cool things…
skiwithpete: I feel like this is a dumb question but, one I feel I have to ask, what’s your WPM? Style?
margo_baggins: Do you know that sometimes I try those online test and if I try really hard I can hit 100 wpm, but probably not consistently. That’s sat in front of a test and trying my hardest to type fast. I don’t know about style, I can touch type completely but, probably not as you are supposed to, since when I use a split board, it takes a while to get used to… as I use the wrong fingers on some letters.
skiwithpete: Tell me about Margo_mods
margo_baggins: Well it’s an umbrella name I put anything I do under. It was just keyboards but, I’ve branched out a bit in the last year or so and now I do some audio bits and pieces, circuit bend toys, and I’ve started building boutique effects units. I’ve built a couple of vapouriser box mods and I have an imgur that I keep fairly up to date, none of my latest bits on there yet. I will start a proper website one day.
skiwithpete: How did you get in with the ctrlalt.io crowd?
margo_baggins: I can’t remember what happened… I think I bought some keycaps off bunny when he was doing some run of bunny caps a good few years back… it was long and convoluted. I had no PayPal, so I bought an amazon voucher and sent him that but, in all that I found out he lived about 1 mile or so from me. We got talking and I had been messing around with my keyboards and he needed a keyboard building so I told him I could do it… So I did it. And, it was ace. I got loads more keyboards off him to do and we thought as we lived close together we should do a groupbuy, so we sorted the miami groupbuy. I say WE but, bunny does pretty much all things. I email suppliers, chat to them, sort out quotes, and do the ordering and keep bunny updated. He sorts out everyone in the world ever, sorts out the money, sorts out the money when we are short, literally, he’s an awesome character. It’s a real privilege that I can call the guy my friend. I’ve never really met someone who is as generous and cool as him. From time to time I get negative press, as I’m pretty awful at doing things in any kind of a normal time frame, and people get annoyed, etc. He takes a lot of that shit, probably doesn’t always pass it on, and I just plod on at my own rate. That’s seemingly my normal state of work, well behind, catching up.
skiwithpete: How many keyboards have you made?
margo_baggins: I don’t know… over 100… less than 120. I think, sort of ball park, but nearly 40 of those are JD40’s.
skiwithpete: I have a JD40 serial number 021 with clear switches. Was that your favoritest ever that you made? - Sorry, this is so obvious you don’t have to answer it.
margo_baggins: Oh, number 21, I remember it well :D I’m glad that means you have yours.
skiwithpete: Do you have any special techniques that maybe are a little different to others?
margo_baggins: I don’t really know what others do. I don’t use switch openers, haha, I do everything long and convoluted. I think I’ve only recently gotten good, actually, at tuning switches. There is something I think I want to do that I haven’t ever seen anyone else do. It should be cool when I’ve done it… maybe it won’t be that impressive haha. I’m not trying to be too cryptic, but I want to do it and take a picture of it because, as I said before, I don’t think I’ve seen it yet.
I do SMD with hot air as I’m lazy, but I know most keyboard guys do that with irons. I mean I can solder it with irons too, but air and paste gets stuff done faster.
skiwithpete: What equipment do you use?
margo_baggins: For soldering, I have a Blackjack BK2000+ digital station (only 35w), Atten 850D (something like that) hot air station, and a Blackjack BK4000 (I think) desoldering station, and that’s my main soldering line up. Oh, and an Edsyn loner static temp iron. I also have a 60w static temp iron for soldering big stuff, but not normally keyboard stuff. I have a Mastech multimeter that is quite nice but, it’s no FLUKE, and I have a trillion hand tools.
skiwithpete: Having worked so closely with mechanical keyboard parts and switches, what do you know about Mechanical Keyboards that the average user might not know?
margo_baggins: Filco’s aren’t that nice on the inside. The only thing I have a really strong feeling about is the price tag on Filcos, it’s like buying New Old Stock. I can’t see a compelling reason to purchase a Filco over something like a KUL or a Ducky, unless you are a die hard fan of Costar.
skiwithpete: What did you mean by that - “New Old Stock”?
margo_baggins: Well, the Filco PCB is dated. You can buy an aftermarket controller, which is a cheap avenue to a programmable board, but that’s not their doing, that’s just a bit of luck :) They haven’t changed it since it came out. It doesn’t do anything special, like you can’t even change the layout at all, etc. etc. They are just ok, I mean, they aren’t bad, don’t get me wrong.
skiwithpete: So, you’re really saying Costar (Filcos, CoolerMaster etc)?
margo_baggins: No, CoolerMaster have some cool products: Trigger Z, MECH… I mean, the MECH is insane, but inside it’s awesome! Same with the Trigger Z - fully programmable boards with 5 programs, so quick swappable layouts… that’s cool!
skiwithpete: But the QFR is a Costar, right?
margo_baggins: Yeah, but that’s also inexpensive. The problem with the Filco is the full package, the price, the age, the tech, etc.
skiwithpete: What about the other end of the market - any high end pieces that are bargains despite their price tag?
margo_baggins: hmm, the high end can be a bit silly. I’ve been fortunate enough to build a lot of nice OTD boards, and they really are nice. The thing is it’s quite contradictory towards my statements about the Filco as OTD boards have no features and most don’t even have a winkey, but are widely regarded as the ultimate in customs and I agree as they really are stunning. But, they don’t give a shit with big ass ATMEL controllers, minimal PCB parts, and even the not programmable firmware, for OTD boards, is some of the hardest stuff to find on the internet. I love this shit. The idea that a product sells for the amount it does and sometimes the person selling it has no clue where one might obtain the firmware. There are very few boards that ship nowadays that you need to flash with firmware to get working. It’s fairly standard for a custom to be preflashed these days - some people struggle to flash them - but I’ve also used an Arduino to do the flashing, not an ISP flasher and I’ve never had any issues.
skiwithpete: I know you’ve built a couple of GON’s boards. Any comments on those?
margo_baggins: GON’s stuff is simply the best tech on the market, his PCBs are stunning, the software and firmware are amazing. The firmware update is easy, layouts programmed easily, macros programmed with ease, AND he now sells populated PCBs; which is cool as GON has so many parts to solder, it was very time consuming. Maybe it’s a bit more expensive than other stuff and maybe people don’t like the cases but, the actual PCBs, software, firmware, and support are second to none. He’s a genius. He’s made some really cool stuff - OTD controllers for the 359, 360, and 456 boards (which remedies some of their faults I pointed out), and he’s built a whole lot of keyboards.
skiwithpete: Who do you look up to in the community? Any other makers that impress you?
margo_baggins: Everyone impresses me - /u/jdcarpe is a very cool guy, /u/photekq is a cool guy, /u/BunnyLake is my bro, and all of ctrlalt.io are great. All the guys making caps in pressure pots are really impressive. Hipster makes nice caps, but I’ve not got my hands on any, which is a real shame. And, I really like these little space dudes that someone has made, though I can’t remember the guys name who does those. I also really like brocaps and clacks :) though I have only one of the latter. See, I genuinely find those guys more impressive as they actually make something. I’ve only ever made 3 actual keyboards in life, as in, that didn’t exist before and are hand wired with Teensy’s. Those are the only ones I think I’ve actually made and everything else is me just putting together someone else’s stuff and really that’s just soldering. I could solder way before I could do electronics and I’m not even that good at electronics still. I’m going on some night classes next month to learn some more about electronics.
skiwithpete: And, Edmund Hillary just climbed a mountain… to us you’re a legend.
margo_baggins: hmm, silly! That’s good, though, the main thing I have always wanted is people just to use my shit.
skiwithpete: There’s a lot of growth in Mechanical Keyboards at the moment… what do you foresee in the future?
margo_baggins: More flashy keyboards and nothing that people really want :) Too many kids buy keyboards, like the i-rapid…what’s that all about? Stick a hugely OTT processor in a keyboard to control the lights? Can’t change where the control key is? It’s like they’ve missed the point. The primary purpose of a keyboard is for data entry, not for playing snake on a poor res screen. Poker gets things pretty nailed…
skiwithpete: I just wish the Poker was fully programmable - like how hard is that?
skiwithpete: Do you have any advice for other makers and artisans in the community?
margo_baggins: Just make nice stuff and try and do a service. No, not that actually. There’s no obligation, just make nice stuff. Keyboards are a really fun gateway and my end goal is to be proficient enough with electronics to rebuild a full valve amp I have here from the 60’s. It has 14 valves in it and I need to rewire most of it and modernise a few things on it and I’m not good enough to do that yet…but, without getting into keyboards I didn’t even know that I wanted to do that. And, people should support one another in the community.
skiwithpete: Do you have a nemesis? Sorry, I just assume that all heroes have a nemesis.
margo_baggins: hahaha, I don’t think so. I’ve always tried to get along with people.
skiwithpete: Do the people at the pub know that you’re kind of a celebrity?
margo_baggins: Nah, but I also don’t go to the pub! I don’t really drink. I’ve always thought it would be funny in life to bump into someone in real life who knew of some of the things I’ve done.
skiwithpete: You said at the start your friends have started calling you Margo. So…
margo_baggins: But then, how in conversation with someone you don’t know would you say, my name’s not Matt, I go by Margo. My friends have called me Margo for as long as I can remember now, which is at least the last 10 years… it’s my close friends rather than it being my actual alias.
skiwithpete: Well, Margo, if I can call you that… It has been an absolute pleasure.
About the interviewer:
/u/skiwithpete is a regular on /r/mechmarket having bought and sold many boards, keysets and artisan products through the forum. He’s also one half of artisan sleeve makers http://1upkeyboards.com with his wife Stephanie.
Mildly Edited on an SSK