Turn the clock back 8-10 years ago, mechanical keyboards was a relatively niche hobby and not many companies were that interested in producing them. Fast forward to today, and we’re starting to see many mainstream brands like Razer, Corsair, Steel Series, and Logitech create their own mechanical keyboards.
While keyboards from those companies are perfectly fine, we’re going to assume that you’re looking for something more, which is why you’re reading this guide. If you’re looking to dive into the (somewhat expensive) world of custom mechanical keyboards, you’ve come to the right place as this guide will take you through the steps and point you in the right direction on how to get started.
What Makes Up A Mechanical Keyboard?
Now, the process of building a mechanical keyboard can be rather complex as there are many, many factors to consider. However, to simplify the overall process, there are basically five different components that make up a mechanical keyboard.
Case: This determines the size of your keyboard and the form factor that you’re choosing
PCB: This is what “powers” your keyboard. Take note that for the most part, a lot of these PCBs are programmable which means that you can remap the keys according to your own personal preference and style
Keycaps: This is probably one of the most fun aspects of building your own mechanical keyboard as it is probably the most visually obvious part of it.
Switches: This determines the “feel” of your keyboard, like whether you prefer a “clicky” keyboard, a tactile keyboard, or a linear keyboard. Some switches even have the option of being silent in case you want to use it in an office environment and don’t want to disturb your co-workers.
Stabilizers: These are used for longer keys like your Shift key, spacebar, Enter key, and so on. It helps them “balance” due to the fact that they are longer than most other keys on your keyboard.
Plate (optional): This is completely optional because you can build a keyboard without a plate. However, sometimes adding a plate can add stability and also alter the sound and feel of your keyboard, but for beginners, it isn’t 100% necessary but could be worth researching if you’re looking to go deeper into this hobby.
When it comes to custom mechanical keyboards, there are various form factors to choose from. In fact, many custom mechanical keyboards actually do not adopt the full-sized layout. If you’ve ever taken a sneak peek at r/MechanicalKeyboards, you’ll notice that many of them come in all manner of sizes, with full-sized keyboards actually being a minority.
Full-Sized Keyboard – This is the standard keyboard that many of us think of and are familiar with. It comes with all the alphanumerical keys, navigation keys, function row keys, arrow keys, and also a number pad.
TKL – The TKL form factor is a slightly more popular one in custom mechanical keyboards compared to a full-sized layout. For the most part, it features all the keys of a full-sized keyboard save for a number pad. Most enthusiasts who need the number pad usually end up building a separate custom one as well.
75% – The 75% basically means that this keyboard is roughly 75% the size of a full-sized keyboard. It is considerably more compact than a TKL but still maintains its function row. One of the more common mechanical keyboards that adopts the 75% layout is the Vortex Race 3.
60%/65% – The 60% and 65% keyboards are pretty similar to each other, where they feature alphanumerical keys but ditch the function row entirely. This results in a much more compact design, where the main difference is that the 65% model usually comes with dedicated arrow keys and page navigation keys. A popular option for the 60% layout would be the Vortex Pok3r series.
40% – The 40% form factor is typically for more hardcore keyboard enthusiasts who value size above all else. It pretty much ditches all the keys except for the alphabets. A popular choice in this area is the Vortex Core.
There are certain form factors that tend to be more popular than others. 60/65% and TKLs tend to be the more popular form factors around, making it easier to source for keycaps and variety. In addition to the form factor, you will also need to consider the material that the case is made out of because this not only affects the weight, but the sound as well. Also, if you like RGB underglows, obviously picking a clear case will allow those lights to shine through.
Aluminum tends to be the most common material of choice, but some higher-end keyboards might opt to use brass or stainless steel. Cut and stacked acrylic (held together by stand-offs) is also pretty popular these days due to the relative ease of manufacturing where you would essentially only need a laser cutter. This also allows for a greater degree of customization and also turnover time. Polycarbonate is also another popular option we’re seeing these days, where there are some who believe that it offers up a better sound.
Now that you’ve selected your case, you will need to pick a PCB to go with it. Take note that not all PCBs will fit your keyboard, so you will need to do some research to check for compatibility. Also, when it comes to PCBs, in some instances, some vendors might offer hotswappable PCBs.
What this means is that you don’t need to solder your switches into place, but you can just press them in. This gives you the flexibility of changing to a different switch in the future without having to desolder and resolder the new switches. However, there are some who believe that soldered switches offer better longevity, but if you’d rather build a keyboard without all the fuss, looking for a hotswappable PCB might be the way to go.
Also, some PCBs offer RGB lighting while others do not and you might need to solder the RGB lights yourself, so that’s worth taking note of as well.
Typically, keyboards tend to be sold with an accompanying PCB, but there are certain form factors like the 60% keyboard that have been popularized by the likes of the Vortex Pok3r that many case designs have been created around the PCB design, meaning that there will be several options for you to choose from when it comes to picking a PCB for a 60% keyboard.
Choosing The Right Switch For You
When it comes to mechanical keyboard switches, these are usually split into three types – linear, tactile, and clicky.
Linear – With linear switches, when you press the key, there is no tactile bump at the start of the key press. Instead, with linear switches, when you press on the key, it just goes down straight. Some popular linear switches that you might be familiar with and have heard or seen before would be Cherry MX Blacks or MX Reds.
Tactile – If you prefer more feedback when typing, tactile switches might be of interest to you. Typically with tactile switches, when you press down on it, there will be a small bump before the switch is fully depressed. This usually results in slightly louder typing and might be better for those who are heavy handed. Some common tactile switches that you’ve seen used in mainstream keyboards include the Cherry MX Brown.
Clicky – These switches can be technically considered tactile, but they do come with an additional piece inside the switch that creates the “clicking” sound when you type with them. This is meant to help replicate the sound of typewriter keys. If you enjoy both the physical and auditory feedback when typing, then clicky switches might be for you. The Cherry MX Blue is probably one of the most popular clicky switches in the market right now.
This isn’t to say that Cherry is the only brand that you should consider. The reason we mention Cherry is because they are brand you might be familiar with and are typically used in mainstream keyboards made by companies.
The mechanical keyboard community has grown over the years where there are many other brands by Kailh, Gateron, and Durock (just to name a few) that have created their own lineup of switches that are viewed “superior” to the more mainstream Cherry switches. This includes switches like Zeal’s Zealios/Tealios series, Novelkey Creams, Holy Pandas, Alpacas, T1s, H1s, and so on.
In terms of picking the right switch for you, it really boils down to personal preference. Just because there is a switch that is currently trending doesn’t mean that it is for you. For example, there are many enthusiasts who are more than happy with Cherry’s MX Blacks, so what’s right for someone doesn’t mean that it is right for you.
There are also things like actuation force and spring weight to take into consideration. Most aftermarket switches are rated by their bottom-out force, meaning how much force is required for users to press the switch till it hits the bottom. Some might prefer lighter switches to type faster or to game better, while others prefer heavier switches, which once again, is entirely up to you and which you prefer.
Some enthusiasts take it a step further by buying different weighted springs to mod a switch more towards their personal preference, while others will also lube the switches to make them operate smoother and also reduce the scratchiness that some switches might exhibit.
Switches these days are also being made out of a variety of different plastics due to the belief that certain plastics feel smoother or sound better, but generally speaking, switches are something you need to try for yourself in order to get a better understanding. Picking up a switch tester kit might not be a bad idea if you’re new to the hobby and want to see what options are available out there before fully committing yourself to a particular switch.
Which Keycaps Should You Get?
One of the fun parts of building a custom mechanical keyboard is being able to pick your own keycaps. Given that the keycaps are what you’ll be looking at most of the time, it’s important to pick one that you like. Unfortunately, similar to keyboard cases, a lot of keycaps tend to be run as groupbuys and more often than not, once you’ve missed the boat on these, you’ll probably never see them run again.
Keycaps also come in different “profiles”. For the most part, the majority of mechanical keyboards being sold today by the likes of Razer or Logitech typically use what is known as “OEM” or “Cherry” profile keyboards.
Image credit – SwitchandClick.com
There are other profiles such as SA which are taller and resemble typewriter style keys, and there are also XDA profile keycaps which are flatter. There is no “better” profile and it all depends on your personal preference and the aesthetic that you’re trying to go for. Some of the more popular profiles include SA and GMK, although it should be noted that GMK is actually a company that mainly manufactures switches in Cherry profile, but because they are so synonymous with the profile that some simply refer to them as “GMK” to indicate a Cherry profile.
Keycaps are also made with different materials, such as ABS or PBT. There is a lot of debate between either material, with PBT typically being viewed as more “durable” due to them being made of thicker material. They also do not adopt a shine over time with use as is the case with ABS, but the downside is that the color options of PBT might be a bit more limited than ABS due to its manufacturing process.
Sound quality can also be affected by the keycap profile and its material, where taller keycaps like “SA” or keycaps made with PBT might sound deeper or “thockier” compared to GMK/ABS keycaps.
Like we said, stabilizers are used to balance out longer keys. These are essential for keyboards and for the most part, all the stabilizers sold out there are good enough to get the job done. Some enthusiasts might prefer certain brands over others, but if you’re looking to build your first mechanical keyboard, you can’t really go wrong with Cherry stabilizers.
Note that when picking a stabilizer, sometimes they are sold as either plate or PCB mounted stabilizers. If you’re building without a plate, then opt for the latter.
Modding a stabilizer has also become a standard practice when building a mechanical keyboard. This usually involves lubing the housing and the wires of the stabilizers to prevent them from rattling. This creates a cleaner and more pleasant sound as you type. You can hear an example of a lubed vs unlubed stabilizer in the video below. Note how the annoying rattling sound is gone after the stabilizers have been lubed.
Like we said, plates can be viewed as optional. This is because for certain builds, soldering the switches directly to the PCB is good enough. Some cases also come with an integrated plate meaning that you only need a PCB. Plates, like cases, are also offered in varying materials ranging from aluminum to brass to polycarbonate to carbon fiber. Some might prefer plates made out of more flexible materials like polycarbonate or carbon fiber, with the theory being that because it is more flexible, it makes the typing experience feel less rigid, which can also contribute to it sounding “better”.
Makers of keyboards have also started to explore different mounting and isolation methods to help reduce the amount of vibrations that goes through a plate when typing, which once again will have an impact on the overall feel and sound of the keyboard.
Were Can I Buy All These Parts?
The problem with custom mechanical keyboards is that it is a rather niche hobby. This means that for the most part, a lot of the more fancy boards you see on Reddit are typically run as group buys, which are a similar concept to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter or IndieGogo. This means that the seller will take orders for a period of time (usually a month) before sending those orders to the manufacturer.
This is because with it being such a niche hobby, it’s hard to determine how many people would actually buy a particular keyboard or keycap set, so it doesn’t make sense for a seller to keep them in inventory. That being said, there are still several vendors that do sell ready-stock parts, but your choices might be limited.
Some vendors worth checking out include:
You can also keep an eye out on upcoming projects on Geekhack.org where creators typically run “interest checks” to gauge interest in a keyboard or keycap set, while also getting feedback from the community before launching as a group buy. Not all projects necessarily come to fruition and it can also take months from a project’s inception to its group buy stage, and then anywhere from half a year to a year before the actual product ships out.
If there is one thing this hobby requires, it is a great deal of patience.
It might seem a bit overwhelming to try and build your first mechanical keyboard, so hopefully this guide will have provided you with enough information to get you started on your first custom! Alternatively, you could always start simple by purchasing a pre-built mechanical keyboard and slowly swap out parts. Starting with the keycaps is a great way to begin the customization process.