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Building a Custom Mechanical Keyboard
As a software engineer, and last year turning 30, I decided to embrace my new path and become a keyboard collector. 😅
As a software engineer, you have 3 non-electronic hobbies you can choose from:— Cake is Kate. Always has been. 💫 (@kefimochi) July 27, 2020
Being a reply guy
Mechanical keyboards collector
That's it, sorry I don't make the rules.
In reality, I purchased my first mechanical keyboard back in 2014! And have been buying prebuilt keyboards for a while; I currently own 4
My actual first keyboard was a CM Storm QuickFire Stealth, which I gifted to a friend when I relocated away from my home country.
From time to time, I lurked around r/mechanicalkeyboards, and liked the pictures I was seeing, but never really bother to wonder where they were getting this keyboards. I used their wiki buying guide as a reference to get the keyboards I bought (except the Planck, I think).
But earlier this year, with the pandemic going on, and for some reason custom keyboard gaining popularity. Twitch and YouTube started recommending me more content creators around building keyboards.
And suddenly, it clicked for me! All the photos I had been looking at all these years were actually (for the most part) custom mechanical keyboards.
So I started going through the rabbit hole and trying to understand which parts I needed, what tools are required, and how to actually build it.
If you're also interested, I would recommend checking first Keyboard University by The Key Company (& friends). It's an excellent resource to understand the topic and has a few guides regarding common keyboard modifications you can do.
Parts and mods
So, coming back to building a keyboard! In general, you require 6 parts.
- Keyboard case - everything goes inside here
- Keyboard PCB - the circuit which also holds the microcontroller and switches will go here
- Keyboard plate - goes on top of the PCB and allows for hold the switches (some builds don't require a plate)
- Switches - the "mechanical" part of a mechanical keyboard, also gives the sound
- Keycaps - these go on top of every switch and can be made of different materials
- Stabilizers (aka stabs) - these allow longer keycaps (like spacebar) to not wobble when pressed
If you want to mod your keyboard, you would additionally require thin lube. The commonly used are Krytox 205g0, Trybosys 3204, and cheaper you can use Permatex dielectric grease or Teflon grease. You can find many guides on how to lube switches and stabs in youtube!
Mods allow to silence stabilizers or make them smoother. It also changes the sound signature of switches, improves the smoothness, or reduces the "ping" from the springs.
All about feel and sound
People usually go the custom route when they want to improve the feel when typing, or the sound, or both! It's all about the experience.
Initially, you'll have to look into switches, which are, for the most part, the origin of the sound. They can be either linear (no "bump"), tactile ("bump"), and clicky (audible "bump"). All the switches will usually measure actuation force, generally measured in weight of grams, and more accurately using centiNewtons. Commonly grams seems easier to understand, so you'll usually see switches having actuation forces of 55g, 67g, etc. That's the weight required for the switch to "actuate", or effectively close the circuit and allow electricity to flow through.
Then all the other parts will work as layers for the sound to bounce against, so materials and shapes influence the keyboard's sound signature. You will generally see materials like aluminum, brass, polycarbonate, titanium for something like (but not limited to) the case or the plate.
Keycaps commonly are built with either ABS or PBT plastics. They both have pro's and con's, as well the production methods they support. Also, keycaps have profiles, which affects the shape and height, producing a different sound signature.
I would recommend getting a switch tester or trying a keyboard from a friend or from a group when gatherings become available again.
Where I started
So you can source all the parts separately, but I would recommend getting a "keyboard kit". These kits generally include the case, plate, and PCB. So at least you know they will all work together. You're left to buy switches, stabs, and keycaps. And modding tools if required.
Also, I would recommend purchasing a hot-swap PCB which allows for changing switches instead of soldering them, and then going through the challenging task of desoldering.
If a kit starts with [GB] (AKA group buy), you will not receive it immediately. Instead, all purchases will be grouped together. A single order will be emitted to the producer, only to be later shipped to customers.
People seem to commonly start with kits from KBDFans (even if their quality control sometimes fails), e.g.:
I purchased a KBD67v2, and as I'm writing this, I've actually not started to build it. 😅Because I decided I wanted to solder the switches to the PCB, so I had to buy a few extra tools.
I'm thinking of buying ZealPC Zealios switches 67g, ZealPC stabilizers, and getting ePBT keycaps from The Key Company. I already got the thin lube and my soldering iron ready!
Where to go next?
I would recommend going to r/MK and seeing the pictures and names of the builds you're seeing if you're interested in this topic.
Other exciting forums are keebtalk and geekhack. The latter being one of the oldest around.
I would also recommend looking on twitch for builds, or YouTube for keyboards or switches you want to see and listen to it in action.