Update 2017-09-27: Karabiner is back!

I’ve used Karabiner for Mac to embed my arrow keys in a Diamond-style configuration - in other words, j-l-i-k maps to left-right-up-down. This configuration is active when the caps lock key is held. (Note: the Seil utility is specifically required for remapping CAPS. I remapped CAPS to CTRL_R, which is not present on my MBP. Consequently, CTRL_R is technically the modifier key). I’ve similarly embedded BKSP and DEL as the o and p keys and added additional ‘super-modifier’ keys: f to signify ‘word at a time’ (e.g. CAPS-f-j jumps back a word), d to go to beginning/end of line, and s to highlight a selection. Karabiner can also detect the vendor ID associated with a connected keyboard, so it can apply specific remappings to specific keyboards (e.g. the command and option keys can be switched for a PC keyboard while leaving the bindings for the built-in MBP keyboard unaltered). Finally, I’ve been experimenting with using CMD_R as a key for exposing all windows and as a toggle key for switching between spaces using j and l. If you’re curious about implementing any of these features, see my private.xml file here.

I recently updated to macOS Sierra from El Cap, which to my dismay caused Karbiner and Seil to stop working. The author (bless him) is hard at work on a new version called Karabiner-Elements. However, the early release (v0.90.40) does not have a usable GUI interface and only supports basic behavior like switching keys.

Fortunately, macOS features built-in support for altering keybindings by creating a property list (.dict file) in the user library directory. This property list can be written in either XML or the ‘old-ASCII/NeXT’ style (the example below uses the old-style). A complete listing of possible actions is available in the developer documentation for the macOS API.

My workaround uses Karabiner-Elements to do the heavy lifting to remap CAPS to CTRL_R. When either CTRL key is held, a property list specifies the arrow keys as jlik, BKSP as o, and DEL as ;.

Disclaimer: I’ve never taken a class in operating systems.

  1. Install Karabiner-Elements
  2. In Karabiner-Elements, remap CAPS to CTRL_R:

    Update: The ‘manual’ actions below are no longer necessary, as recent versions of Karabiner-Elements (~v90.48, noted 2016-10-10) now facilitate simple key swaps via the GUI. Note that Karabiner-Elements will automatically create/modify the karabiner.json config file; since this config file has slight changes in format, it may be in conflict with manually created ones.

    In terminal:

     mkdir -p ~/.karabiner.d/configuration/
     cd ~/.karabiner.d/configuration/  
     touch karabiner.json  
     open karabiner.json  

    Into the text editor that opens, paste and save:

         "profiles": [
                 "name": "Default profile",
                 "selected": true,
                 "simple_modifications": {
                     "caps_lock": "right_control"
  3. In the user library, create a keybinding property list:

    In terminal:

     mkdir -p ~/Library/KeyBindings
     cd ~/Library/KeyBindings
     touch DefaultKeyBinding.dict
     open -a TextEdit DefaultKeyBinding.dict

    Into the TextEdit window that opens, paste and save:

         /* Diamond arrows */  
         "^j" = "moveBackward:";  
         "^l" = "moveForward:";  
         "^i" = "moveUp:";  
         "^k" = "moveDown:";  
         /* Backspace; Delete */  
         "^o" = "deleteBackward:";  
         "^;" = "deleteForward:";  

Note: Before these changes take effect in a given application, the application must be restarted. A full computer restart is ideal.

The resulting mapping is far less powerful - it lacks ‘super-modifier’ keys, keyboard vendor ID detection, and the ability to discern left and right CTRL/OPT keys. However, it should be an effective stopgap until Karabiner-Elements reaches maturity. Likewise, I’m only scratching the surface - I’m sure these missing features are possible (and probably easy) to implement, and, without delving into source code, I’d suspect Karabiner itself interacts with macOS in a similar manner, albeit with a C-based API.


  • Unfortunately, these keybindings do not appear to override application-specific keybindings (e.g. in Terminal, Sublime).
  • A similar CAPS to CTRL remapping can be performed natively without Karabiner-Elements (i.e. without Steps 1,2 above) by going to System Preferences > Keyboard::Keyboard > Modifier Keys.... Unlike Karabiner-Elements, this approach cannot distinguish between left and right modifier keys.

See also:
Customizing the Cocoa Text System
How to Create Keyboard Layout and Keybinding
Mac OS X Key Bindings