C64 Replacement Keys
Image: Laszlo Nagy / @c0pass

The Commodore 64 turned 40 this year and is still going strong. In addition to the host of new games, demos and magazines still being made for the machine, its original hardware is slowly regenerating. With new cases, motherboards, keyboard mechanisms and modern replacements for its custom chips available, it may soon be possible to build a new C64 using no vintage parts at all. However, despite high demand, there hasn't been an option to buy new keyboard keys until now, and there is an intriguing history as to why.

Back in 2015, a set of original injection moulds for the C64C (slimline version of the C64) turned up in Mesquite, Texas and a Kickstarter campaign was launched to produce brand new cases in red, white, blue and transparent. These were delivered in just a few short months, and the moulds were then moved to Germany, where a new batch of cases was produced to match the original C64, C64C, C16 and SX-64 colours.

Unfortunately, the tooling used to make the individual keys was never found, so owners of these colourful new cases had to make do with their original keyboards, which Commodore only produced in dark brown and an off-white colour that was particularly prone to yellowing. New injection moulds would have to be custom-made at a high cost to produce new keycaps – seemingly impractical for such a niche product – until a group called Phase5 based in Austria launched a new crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

They would be handling all the manufacturing themselves with a funding target of €25,000, and such was the demand for custom keyboards, this was almost doubled by over 2,000 backers. The campaign was off to a great start – but there were soon signs of problems. Several members of the Phase5 team stepped away for undisclosed reasons leaving just one person, called Michael, to see the project through to completion.

C64 Replacement Keys

Undeterred, Michael continued to post updates, with photographs and videos showing the completed tooling, large bins full of blank keycaps and the decal printing process in action. Over the following weeks, updates became less frequent, speaking only of further delays due to “unforeseeable events”, and some backers began to lose their patience. Michael halted production over the winter, citing ambient temperatures in Austria being too low for the injection moulding process to work, while backers questioned why none of the keycaps already produced had been shipped. A sense of anger began to swell, as could be seen in the comments section of the campaign page and various forum posts, much of it directed at Michael as well as Indiegogo themselves for not stepping in.

Michael's repeated efforts to explain why the campaign had stalled were met with increasing scepticism, with many backers simply writing off their pledge. Mysteriously, a complete "one-of-a-kind" keyboard with green keycaps (presumably the one displayed at Gamescom 2017) was put up for sale on eBay in January 2020, which sold for €879. As recently as 2019, Michael stated that the project was not dead, but as of the end of 2022, there have been no further updates.

C64 Replacement Keys

Back in August 2018, amid this turbulence, one of those empty-handed backers named Jim Drew (proprietor of CBMSTUFF.com) began to explore the possibility of finishing the project himself. He reached out to Michael with a view to purchasing both the backer list and moulds from Phase5.

"The day I made the offer, there was an immediate (and possibly final) update to the Phase5 campaign," Drew tells us. "I was told in an email from Michael that if I even thought about doing a campaign of my own, he would release his keycaps so I would lose money on tooling and not sell any." Perplexed by this, Drew's only choice was to start from scratch. Whatever reason Phase5 might have had for holding on to them for so long, it seemed a second attempt to produce new keycaps would finally make them available, one way or another.

But there were challenges ahead. "Should I do this as [another] campaign?" Drew recalls thinking. "Because of the bad taste in the mouth everyone got from the first one? But if I'm going to spin $50,000 on something, am I going to recoup that?"

C64 Replacement Keys
Making keycaps in SolidWorks — Image: Jim Drew

After a few weeks of experimenting with resin-printed prototypes based on 3D scans of the original keycaps, and reverse engineering the locking mechanism using sophisticated CAD program SolidWorks, Drew reached out to the wider C64 community to gauge interest. "The community is great,” he tells us. "I have to say that once I had mentioned this to some people, they started jumping on board and saying they can help with this, and they can help with that..."

This second campaign launched on 15th December 2019. This time, the new moulds and keycaps would be produced in China (to keep the cost of each set to a minimum) by a specialist keyboard manufacturer. So far, the only setback had been the discovery midway through the campaign that the height of the stems to which the keycaps attach was different between the C64 and C64C keyboards. "My keycaps were designed for the long stems," explains Drew. "If you put them on the short, they fell off. By the end of January [2020], I had come up with a solution, but it took a lot of test fitting and 3D printing."

As unlikely as it first seemed, the campaign doubled its initial target and reached a staggering $75,000. With their redesigned universal locking mechanism, the new keycaps were set to go into production just as soon as the factory returned to work after the Chinese New Year. This was February 2020 – what could possibly go wrong?

C64 Replacement Keys

It is tricky to approach the subject of an unprecedented global pandemic from the perspective of a small-scale manufacturing effort. Suffice to say, COVID-19 saw the chosen factory shut down for several months and eventually commandeered by the Chinese government to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE), while all other work would be halted indefinitely.

Drew was not aware of the extent of the disruption until much later in the year, at which point his only option was to move production to another supplier. Although no money had changed hands by this point, the costs would now be significantly higher, and the already slim profit margins were set to be squeezed even further.

"They provided me with a long list of contacts in the US that they had worked with, so I called them and they all said the same thing: they are expensive, but they do an incredible job," Drew recalls. "I thought I could live with the expensive part, I just had to get this stuff done." Once all of the CAD data had been sent to the new manufacturer, the first samples that were produced and sent to Drew for testing revealed a problem with the internal locking mechanism.

C64 Replacement Keys
Test fitting a 3D resin-printed keycap — Image: Jim Drew

"It didn't lock," Drew says with a grimace. "It was six months of hell, literally trying to get these things to lock. The solution was to change the depth of the recess the tangs [that protrude from the stems] push into. They finally produced one that worked."

In a further setback, the factory advised that they could not provide UV printing as planned, rather they would be pad printing them and that, in turn, led to problems with alignment and scale. Many samples were sent back and forth between China and the USA and subsequently rejected over the following months.

Once all the issues had been fixed and a full set of prototype keys had been produced and approved, the campaign was back on track, but it was now January 2022, and many backers were feeling a sense of history repeating itself. Observers had already begun to conflate the campaign with the previous one, as it had been six whole years since Phase 5’s launch, and neither had delivered by this point. But this time, the mood over at Indiegogo remained mostly upbeat, thanks in no small part to the regular and highly detailed updates from Drew.

With colour selections and final figures for each production run also taking longer than anticipated, manufacturing finally began in May 2022, with all of the injection moulding completed by early June. Printing several thousand sets was expected to take a few more weeks, with pictures of finished keycaps being released in mid-August.

C64 Replacement Keys
Keyboard glyphs had to be redrawn by hand to match the original Commodore design — Image: Jim Drew

Hopes of reaching the finish line were soon dashed, as eagle-eyed backers spotted a problem with the pound (£) keys having been printed incorrectly, despite the previous prototypes being spot on. Every single set had been printed this way, all of which had to be redone – including the injection moulding – delaying the packing and shipping stage until late October. To save money and time (in theory at least), the factory would be shipping the finished product directly to backers, yet by the first week of December, there were still no signs of movement, much to Drew's bewilderment.

"This company has made numerous plastic enclosures for me and for some of my clients over the last three years, always perfect, and always on time," he laments. "Why there was a problem with just the keycaps is a real mystery to me!”

With shipping taking weeks rather than days, pressure was mounting, and relationships with the supplier were stretched to breaking point. It was revealed that the printing process had been done using stencils, rather than a more versatile rubber stamp that had been agreed upon with the supplier and paid for. As a result, repeat production of keycaps in new colours would be more expensive, so the tooling is set to be moved to another manufacturer going forward.

C64 Replacement Keys
Online colour selector created for the campaign by Vince Valenti — Image: Vince Valenti

This does suggest that CBMSTUFF will be selling new keycaps for as long as there is a demand for them, which is great news for C64 fans – especially those who were put off by three years of broken promises. "There was a ton of people I got e-mails from, saying they would have backed this had the first one not been a catastrophe and this one taking so long," Drew explains.

Finished sets finally began arriving at the beginning of December (in the UK, a Royal Mail postal strike has slowed things down a little, but that's not the fault of the people behind the campaign). Exactly three years later, every backer is set to receive everything they pledged for in that second campaign. Anyone who did not back the campaign needn’t miss out, though, as sets will soon be available to buy directly from CBMSTUFF.com in all their technicolour glory.

C64 Replacement Keys
Production keycaps in transparent black with blue LED backlighting — Image: @Amon_RA