Dvorak Simplified Keyboard Layout Hardware Hacking Guide

Hacking your keyboard

Inspired by the guys from dvzine.org I've wipped together this page about hacking your keyboard into the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard Layout. It tries to give you a description of how to go about selecting a keyboard, changing the keycaps and final fixup.

NOTICE: Hacking your keyboard is not trivial. It may invalidate any warranty on it. This description warrants no guarantee of success, or even survival of your keyboard. You're warned, so now make a sound decision if you want to carry on.

With that out of the way we can get started.


Selecting your keyboard

First of all you have to select a keyboard to hack <duh>. This may sound easier than it is. Depending on externally visible and invisible mechanical characteristics a keyboard may be more or less suitable for this hack.

Oke, first take a close look at the keyboard from the left side. Carefully compare the shape of the keys at the various rows. Usually a keyboard has a 'cupped' form, which may be created by either the shape of the keys or the construction of the bearer itself.

Keyboard side view

To make cheap keyboards the trick is to make all keys the same and curve the bearer. The more expensive keyboards have differenct shaped keys at the various rows. But you don't want to bust up an expensive keyboard anyway, so leave it alone and look for one with same shaped keys.

Then there's the dreaded F and J keys.

Keyboard side view
Notice the little knob or line on it? It may well signal invisible mayham, but we get to that later.

Furthermore check that the keyboard has all the keys your regular QWERTY keyboard has. Its no fun when you start hacking and discover you've picked a DE or GB version while you require an international version. Also make sure it has the right connector for your computer.

Keyboard connector

You may want to test the keyboard before hacking it. If it doesn't work now there's no need to put in the effort. Power down your system, exchange the keyboard plugs and power up again. Watch carefully for any BIOS messages on the screen reporting keyboard errors.

BIOS keyboard error

Funny people, those BIOS writers.....

If no errors appear and the system works as usual the ketboard is oke. Power down again and swap keyboard plugs back.


All you really need is a flat head screw driver, about 4mm (that's 1/6 inch) wide. A reference Dvorak and QWERTY layout are handy too. And most importantly some common sense. Go gently people!

Further investigation

I would come back to the F and J keys. Since they are different from the others, the mechanical internals may be different as well. That is were the focus of the investigation is. This is the time you'll have to pop off your first keycap. We'll describe that in detail here.

Popping the J keycap

In order to get a keycap off, you'll have to get the tip of the screwdriver underneath the lower edge of it. To make it more accessable use a free finger to depress the key below the keycap you try to pop. Use this depressed key as a base to leverage your force. Since the keys are no nicely aligned one above the other you'll have to work from one side or the other and try to apply the lifting force to the center of the lower edge of the keycap as much as possible. This will result in the most effective force applied to the mechanism holding the keycap, either a clip-like construction or a forcefit. NOTE: These are feable constructions not designed for this kind of handling. Go easy on applying force, and try to get an idea of what is happening when trying to lift the keycap.

Popping J keycap

Now eventually something will give way. Usually the keycap comes off. Or something breaks. Unlucky you. See if it can be fixed. At least take a close look at the exposed inner construction. You may learn from this when getting you're hands on a similar keyboard. Also watch for any parts flying off with it, like a little spring. Get it back or loose you tactile feedback on your keys.

Once you popped the first keycap the adjacent keycaps are easier. For one access is easier, and you've experienced what it takes to pop the keycap. Now pop the keycap besides the one you just did and stop.

Invisible differences

Take a good look in the hole you created. Could you swap the keycaps you just popped and put them back? Do they fit?

Popped D and J keycap

They may, they may not. In this case they do not. If yours do nothing stands in your way to create a true Dvorak Simplified Keyboard Layout keyboard. If it's just the internal mechanism that is holding the keycap that is different you will end up with four keys you have to relabel to complete the hack. If the differences are even more severe, than you're out of luck. You should reconsider using this keyboard for this hack.

Completing the hack

Popping the keycaps

Once you've desided you want to continue with this keyboard, even with its possible limitation, continue popping the keycaps. But not all of them. Take a look at the Dvorak layout and your QWERTY keyboard. At least Sholes and Dvorak agreed on the A and M keys! Also the pipe key, you know: '|' can remain, as can the numeric keys on top. If you found out that you cannot relocate the F and J keycaps leave them on too.

Popped all keycaps

Resetting the keycaps

Now that you've got all the parts, you can start putting them back. Of course according to the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard Layout! This usually requires the placement of the keycap on the underlying mechanics at the location it needs to go and the apply a bit of pressure as if you are trying the depress the key, A bit more force may be required until the keycap pops back into place. Continue with all the keycaps until you're done.

Resetting a keycap

If you've got a keyboard with different F and J keycaps you are left with the U and H keycaps. They were supposed to go where the F and J keycaps remain.

All done except F, J, U and H

So nothing else to do then to put them in the openings left by the F and J keycaps. All you can do is take some adhesive letters and put them on the F, J, U and H keycaps. It may not look nice but that's the best you can do.

All done

Testing the keyboard

Now that everything is in place, check the layout. Is it according to the Dvorak layout? You may want to ask someone else to check it, since you may simply overlook your mistake. When everything is all right it is time to test the keyboard. Before hooking up your keyboard to the PC be sure the PC is setup to handle Dvorak keyboard layout. It doesn't have to be activated yet, just make sure it is within easy reach.

Layout select

See DVzine.org for full details on how to do that. Now power down your system and exchange the keyboards. Once you power up look carefully at the screen. Is there any mentioning of the BIOS failing to detect your keyboard? Did the three LED's blink during bootup? If there's any sign of trouble power down your system and try to determine what is wrong. Maybe you damaged the keybaord in the process. Maybe the connector or cable is broken. Test the PC ketboard interface with your original keyboard. All this should give you an indicatio what's wrong.

Once you successfully powered up your system you need to get at the keyboard controls. This may require entering a username/password. Note that this is assumed to be entered on a QWERTY keyboard, so keep a QWERTY layout for reference. Once you get to the keyboard controls you can finally switch to Dvorak Simplified Keyboard Layout.

Written by my own two hands and an ASCII editor. Problems? write me Last updated June 17, 2005 Back home

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