Introduction

The QWERTY layout was designed in the 19th century. The Dvorak layout was an attempt to create a better and more ergonomic keyboard layout but it was made before the computer age and some of what we now know about typing efficiently, and it moved nearly all the keys although that wasn't necessary which made it harder to learn. Colemak is a modern alternative to the QWERTY and Dvorak layouts, designed for efficient and ergonomic touch typing in English.

Learning Colemak is a one-time investment that will allow you to enjoy faster and pain-free typing for the rest of your life. Colemak is now the 3rd most popular keyboard layout for touch typing in English, after QWERTY and Dvorak. It comes pre-installed on Mac and Linux systems; see below for Windows and others.


Colemak on a US (ANSI) keyboard. Keyboards in other regions may vary slightly.

Advantages

From the colemak.com main page:


Resources

Colemak isn't just a layout, it's also a creative force in the alt-layout landscape. This site is the community site. On its own, this page is still a bit bare-bones for now, but it acts as a hub for finding other Colemak users and resources of which there are plenty. See the links below.

The Colemak community have devised many mods and additions to Colemak, and there are transitional layouts (Tarmak) if you wish to learn it step by step instead of all at once. DreymaR from the Colemak forums has been working for more than a decade on bringing the word out and making implementations of DreymaR's Big Bag of Keyboard Tricks; that is, a collection of mods and tricks and knowledge centered around Colemak. If you want to know your options, rummage around in the Big Bag a little! You can select your platform such as Windows, Linux or programmable controllers to learn more about the different implementations.

DreymaR also makes the EPKL program for Windows that gives you anything from simple Colemak to pretty much the whole Big Bag experience – and neat help images too. As a Windows user, your main Colemak options are to install a system layout using a MSKLC file like the one found at the main site, running an Autohotkey (AHK) script for simple remapping or using a program like EPKL. EPKL is actually a fancy compiled AHK script that's designed to be more functional and work better at high speeds; it may not be compatible with all games though, so for those you may need an installed layout.

Frequently Asked Questions

"Should I learn Colemak? Is it worth it?"

  • Yes. Well, you asked. On a page dedicated to Colemak... ¯\(º_o)/¯
  • Longer answer: If your only concern is speed then maybe not. You can get fast with most layouts, likely including the one you're using now.
  • "Your fingers will thank you" goes the slogan. Colemak is very comfortable and once you've learnt it properly you'll nearly certainly enjoy it a lot.
  • While learning though, it can be unpleasant at times. So be warned if you're an impatient type. There are different ways of learning, if you wish.
  • If you're worried about having to use QWERTY on other computers, that's usually not a big problem. You will get by, and you can even maintain both.
  • Consider that you'll probably type a lot in your lifetime. Learning a better way of doing that should easily be worth the while.
  • In sum, nearly everyone we've heard from who gave it a dedicated attempt ended up saying that learning an improved layout is well worth it.

"What about Vim, or other programs that use shortcuts?"

  • For the majority of users, that's not a problem. Many worry beforehand, but we haven't heard anyone with a little experience complain.
  • In Vim and most other programs, most of the shortcuts are by letter. The Yank command in Vim is on the Y key no matter where that is.
  • Commands/shortcuts that are positional will take a little more getting used to. Some remap them, but many prefer not to after a while.
  • There are other navigation ways than HJKL in Vim, and they may just be better overall. Extend is a good example – it even stays with you outside Vim!

"Which is better, classical/vanilla Colemak or Colemak-DH?"

  • It's quite individual really! There are many users of both variants, among them people who have tried both.
  • To determine what you like best, decide how you feel about inwards stretches to D (QWERTY G) and H.
  • Then compare with the downwards curl to V and M. If you prefer those, consider Cmk-DH.
  • Individual preference and typing style (e.g., float vs grounding) may affect the choice.
  • Both variants are well suited for both row-staggered and matrix/ortho keyboards.
  • The speed typists Viper and Sophie have achieved 220+ WPM typing test results on both variants between them.

"What does Colemak-DH look like, and which finger goes where?"

  • You can read more about the Colemak-DH layout on SteveP's mod-DH pages.
  • The main feature of the DH mod is that the D and H keys "Curl" downwards instead of being on inwards stretches.
  • In the process, the V B G and M keys are moved – but G goes back to where it was on QWERTY.
  • It also depends on what keyboard type you have. For row-staggered boards, an Angle mod is included.
  • The Angle mod lets you keep your left wrist straight like your right wrist already is, by moving the Z X C keys.
  • There is a wonderful tool made by Discord user Baobaozi that lets you determine how it looks and what fingers to put where. Try it!
  • Pay attention to the fingering color codes. To use an optimized layout right, use the right fingering for it.

The "Which Colemak is which?" tool by Baobaozi.


Colemak-DH on an ISO keyboard

"Is Colemak-DH the same as...?"

  • There are many names and letters and an older standard floating around, let's hopefully clear this up a bit.
  • The DH mod for Colemak is the result of SteveP's Mod-DH project from 2014. As its name says, it moves the D and H keys.
  • It's a Curl mod: It lets the home row curl down like the natural curve of fingers on a hand instead of stretching inwards.
  • To be precise, 'Mod-DH' is the project. The 'Curl-DH' or just 'DH' mod is the result. 'Colemak-DH' is the resulting layout.
  • On a row-staggered board (any standard keyboard has a 1/4–1/2u row stagger), DH is accompanied by an Angle mod.
  • The geometrically descriptive name for Colemak-DH on a row-staggered board is therefore Colemak-CurlAngle or Cmk-CA.
  • There is only one standard variant of Cmk-DH now, although a few have been tried out. It's the same as the original from 2014.
  • Standard Cmk-DH has M on the home row and is thus also named Cmk-DHm. There's also a Cmk-DHk, the former standard (2017–2020).
  • A common misconception is that the 'm' in DHm stands for 'matrix' as in matrix/ortho boards. This is wrong. I should know; I made that abbreviation.
  • Some use Colemak-CurlAngle plus further Wide and Sym mods, which makes Colemak-CAWS. See the Big Bag.

"Can I use Colemak-DH without moving the Z key?"

COLEMAK-DH WITHOUT THE ANGLE MOD?!?

Yes, we do get that one a lot from newcomers. Please read the Big Bag Ergo mod page to understand what the Angle mod does: It allows you to keep the left wrist straight like your right wrist has always been. That's important for typing comfort, and so it's baked into the DH mod for row-staggered keyboards.

Even though the simplicity of the ISO Angle mod doesn't quite carry over to the ANSI world and the rare Z has to move into the middle as a result (unless you use an advanced type of Angle mod like FatZ), do keep in mind that this key is indeed rare and the slight hassle of moving it and the Undo shortcut is abundantly warranted in our strong opinion and experience. There is a little discord in the typing community on this subject, but many top typists and layout designers support the idea of the Angle mod wholeheartedly.

Colemak-DH was designed for use with an Angle mod on row-stag boards, and we believe that using it without is disregarding its potential. The V key will be in a too poor position. And your left wrist will still be at an uncomfortable angle, experiencing what's known in medicine as ulnar deviation.

If you have a matrix/ortholinear or any similarly advanced ergonomic keyboard there is no Angle mod on it. Hopefully your board is split or angled in such a way that you can type with straight wrists; single-slab/"plank" ortho boards may not do that for you. Anyway, Colemak-DH for ortho boards is just Colemak-Curl.

In case you're wondering what to do if you have both kinds of board, many people in this situation have said that using an Angle mod on the row-stag actually feels more like the ortho experience, Z be damned! That's how cursed the traditional left-hand typing technique is.


Colemak-DH on a matrix/ortho keyboard

"Isn't Workman/Norman/Whatever better than Colemak? Its documentation says so!"

  • Please don't trust any layout maker's own words blindly. Layout design is a hobby, and yet far from trivial.
  • Specifically, the Norman and Workman layout makers seem exceedingly proud of themselves; more so than warranted.
  • For one: Both these layouts have too high same-finger bigram (SFB) stats, and their fans often downplay the problem.
  • Secondly, many users of these layouts who have studied layout design a little seem unhappy with their choice.
  • Workman was created to address Colemak's lateral index finger travel to D and H (see DH vs vanilla). It did so poorly.
  • If you do dislike lateral travel, Colemak-DH achieves the same thing without sacrificing layout quality.
  • Here's a video by Ben Vallack in which he talks about abandoning Workman.

"Which layouts are better than Colemak?"

  • There is a virtually infinite pool of possible keyboard layouts, and no clear way of selecting a winner.
  • We know some important factors, of course: Using fast fingers for frequent keys, avoiding bad n-grams etc.
  • Even so, at some point we're bound to hit a diminishing returns curve. This was part of Colemak's design philosophy.
  • Shai Coleman chose to add some additional design limitations to ease learning, transition and hotkey consistency.
  • So, by releasing these extra limitations you could in theory make a slightly more efficient layout at the cost of some benefits.
  • More changes from QWERTY, more keys changing hands, and fewer shortcuts kept may not matter to you though? They will to many.
  • Any answer depends a lot on your modeling and scoring.
  • Individual factors and preferences become important at high levels of optimization, as with vanilla vs DH.
  • Many layouts claiming superiority have more pinky movement than Colemak! Also more pinky SFBs even with fewer total SFBs.
  • Colemak places the quite common A and O on pinkies, but has little pinky movement to the other rows.
  • If you're interested in the field of alt-layouts, one good suggestion is to join the Alt Keyboard Layout Discord for discussion and info.
  • A word of warning: If you choose a "bleeding-edge" layout, you're pretty much on your own concerning implementation and support.
  • So in conclusion: If you put in a lot of effort you may be able to find a layout that works better for you than Colemak does?
  • Most likely not by a lot though. And it's an uncertain process at best.
  • We believe that Colemak is very well optimized within its design parameters, and an excellent and well proven choice of layout.
  • One interesting way of going further, is to add mods and other tools. Again, see the Big Bag for info.

"I want to tweak Colemak a little to suit my needs!"

  • Needs? Or wants, based on just a little experience with it? Keep in mind that you'll likely be using it for a long time, be careful!
  • Unless you are an experienced layout designer, consider that you probably don't know and understand enough to do it well.
  • On a properly optimized layout it's generally very hard to change even a small thing without breaking something more important.
  • You need to understand typing concepts such as grounding vs float, hand and finger balances, alternation vs rolls, lateral stretches etc.
  • You need to understand anatomical concepts such as finger strengths, interdependences and speeds, ulnar deviation etc.
  • Same-finger bigrams is a crucial factor in layout design! You may not notice them at first though. Even some individually rare bigrams can trip you up in the long run.
  • Read the Colemak Design FAQ and the accompanying Design overview by Shai Coleman first, to learn more.
  • Beyond simple SFBs, among the things to consider are roll direction and redirects, skip-grams and whatnot. Here be dragons!
  • If you wish to discuss and learn about alt layout design, try joining the Alt Keyboard Layout Discord server.

"In the world of layout design there is no beginner's luck. Only beginner's mistakes." ~ DreymaR, 2021

"Wouldn't it be better to swap R and S on Colemak? It's so hard to learn!

  • We get this one a lot from newcomers! You won't believe how common it is!
  • See the "I want to tweak Colemak..." question above first.
  • Simply swapping R and S on Colemak is definitely not recommended! It leads to higher same-finger bigram frequency and other issues.
  • Ease of learning is a design property of Colemak, but should not be so at the cost of too much layout quality.
  • Funnily enough, other layouts move lots of keys between hands and swap them around. Their learners don't complain.
  • Colemak, on the other hand, has this one somewhat hard-to-learn key swap, and lots of learners complain – since it's just that one?
  • If you make a change to Colemak that makes it worse, you're fixing a temporary problem with a permanently inferior solution!
  • In the Colemak Design FAQ Shai Coleman answers the R-S exchange question like this:
    • It significantly reduces same-finger. This is especially important as it affects the ring finger which is the least dexterous finger.
    • (e.g. try typing WSWSWS fast on QWERTY)
    • It allows for W to stay in the same place. It's more important to keep the potentially destructive Ctrl+W shortcut.
  • Since you care about initial learning, consider that hitting Ctrl+S (Save) by mistake is far less destructive than Ctrl+W (Close window).
  • RS occurs 0.40% of the time; common for a bigram. SR occurs 0.006% of the time. It's better to roll this bigram inwards than outwards.
  • The ST bigram too is better as it is in Colemak, and it too is more common than its reverse counterpart TS.
  • Here's a funny video comment for you on the subject.  ̄(=⌒ᆺ⌒=) ̄
  • There is some more discourse in this Reddit post.

"Is mapping the CapsLock key to Backspace a part of the Colemak layout?"

  • When the Colemak layout was introduced back in 2006, the layout was indeed bundled with this nifty trick.
  • However, treating layout components as modules works better. Special key behavior should be treated separately from letter layout.
  • This is the case in Linux XKB for instance, where you can select what the CapsLock key does independently from your layout choice.
  • Furthermore, several tricks and tools have been added to your options since the birth of Colemak.
  • Consider using the Caps key as a powerful Extend layer modifier!
  • With Extend, you'll keep both Back and CapsLock in handy locations. It's also easy to hit Ctrl+Back with Extend, and so much more.
  • In some implementations, your Caps key can even be both Back on tap and the Extend mod on hold, as a Tap-or-Mod key.

"My right pinky gets tired! And typing 'you' is uncomfortable! What's wrong?"

  • Many QWERTY typists hardly use their right hand pinky, as the rare semicolon sits in its home row position and some type P with their ring finger.
  • These typists may need to build up their finger strength a little to type well on Colemak. Pinky fu!  🥋
  • There are layouts that deprioritize the pinkies more than Colemak. These generally aren't so good, however.
  • There are even highly optimized layouts that have heavier pinky load than Colemak.
  • The YOU trigram in particular, isn't so great on Colemak. Trust us though: Most common n-grams are great.
  • This word has a so-called redirect on Colemak, which means that it changes direction (RL then LR). That's not so comfortable.
  • Furthermore, it uses both the weak pinky and the codependent ring finger.
  • TL;DR: Nothing is really wrong. You just have to train it!

Sign the petition to get Colemak on Windows!

If you, like us, think it's a shame Microsoft hasn't added the Colemak layout to Windows yet when it's found both on Linux and MacOS, there's something we'd like to ask of you. The Colemak Discord creator NottNott has made a Change.org petition to add Colemak as a pre-installed keyboard layout to Microsoft Windows. Please take a look … and we hope you'll sign it too of course!

Handy links

The official colemak.com site by Shai Coleman: https://colemak.com/

The Colemak forums: https://forum.colemak.com/

Colemak Discord server: Follow this invite link

Colemak Subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/Colemak/

Colemak Steam group: https://steamcommunity.com/groups/colemak

Colemak Users Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/2255846901/


DreymaR's Big Bag Of Keyboard Tricks: http://dreymar.colemak.org/

SteveP's Colemakmods pages: https://colemakmods.github.io/ergonomic-mods/


Colemak Club: GNU's fork/update of the Colemak Academy learning site: https://gnusenpai.github.io/colemakclub/


Colemak-CAWS on an ISO keyboard. Colemak variants/mods are described in DreymaR's Big Bag.