A beginner’s guide to custom mechanical keyboards
Let us guess: you saw a video on TikTok of people building vibrant and delicious mechanical keyboards and thought you’d have a blast. But all you found online were acronyms, dense subreddits, and 10-plus-minute YouTube videos about the complexity (and cost) of homemade mechanical keyboards.
Even though the community has become more welcoming to the curious, it’s not easy to find basic information about the hobby. This is especially true if you didn’t give your keyboard much thought in the first place, or if you still think the flimsy, unresponsive membrane keyboard on the MacBook Air isn’t all that bad.
So before you fall down an internet rabbit hole trying to figure out what the colors on the switches mean, let’s talk about what you really need to know to get or build your own customizable mechanical keyboard. Maybe you will understand why people spend hundreds of dollars on them and even decide that they are really worth it.
Why do people buy mechanical keyboards?
The gaming community has been using mechanical keyboards for quite some time now because they can provide faster response times and a better overall gaming experience. But if you only game on a console or only use your computer for work, you may have never wondered why people would spend money on a keyboard. Well, COVID-19 might have something to do with it.
[Related: The best mechanical keyboards let you game, code, type, and work smoother and faster]
“Keyboards were never seen as something to invest in, but with the help of everyone staying at home, people are starting to realize that you can make a keyboard an enjoyable tool to work with at home. instead of something you buy off the shelf for very cheap,” says Taeha Kim, also known as Taeha Types, a custom mechanical keyboard builder and content creator.
In one of his videos, Taeha also points out that if we’re already spending money on more powerful machines and bigger, better screens, it makes sense to have a nice and comfortable keyboard to use with them. . Especially if we type most of the day, every day.
It’s all about customization
The main difference between a customizable mechanical keyboard and more basic devices is that they are customizable. But it’s not just about changing your keys – the outer part of the keys that you actually hit with your fingers – to something more colorful or comfortable. You can customize how your keyboard sounds, how hard you have to press each key to operate it, how well that key “responds” to each press, how many keys you want to have, and many other features .
You can even remap your entire keyboard, erasing the default functions of any key and assigning it a completely different task. On top of that, you can include layers upon layers of macros and keybindings specific to you and your needs.
To remap and create macros, you will need an open source program called Via. This free and easy-to-use software will give you access to your keyboard’s key mapping, as well as information about everything each button does. Keep in mind that you can’t use VIA without a customizable keyboard, so make sure yours is compatible.
The anatomy of a mechanical keyboard
Because the possibilities for customization are so vast, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the number and variety of mechanical keyboard parts you can find online. But if you look at the big picture, the anatomy of a keyboard isn’t complicated at all.
First, there’s the case, which is the actual body of the keyboard and can be made from different materials, including wood. If you’re building your own mechanical keyboard, the case will always be the first thing you buy, as its size will determine the number and distribution of keys (shape). For example, a full-sized keyboard, known as “100%”, will include a row of function (Fn) keys at the top, a number pad on the right, and other useful buttons like “page down” , “homepage”. ‘ and ‘delete’. A 75% is what you see on most home laptop models, including the MacBook family, and there’s even 55%, which basically just includes letters and d’s. other basic keys such as “return” and “control”.
The PCB and the plate
Inside the case there are two parts: the printed circuit board (PCB) and the faceplate. The first is the brains of your keyboard, connects to your computer and contains your switches (we’ll get to that in a bit). The plate, on the other hand, sits on top of the PCB and protects it from the elements – you can spot it between your keycaps. But because the plate is in direct contact with the keys, it also provides some of the delicious sound we all want and love in a mechanical keyboard. The plates are available in different materials, such as brass, aluminum, or carbon fiber, and each material sounds different when struck with different keycaps.
Perhaps the most complex part of a keyboard are the switches, and these are by far what confuses newcomers the most. In general terms, switches are the buttons under the keys. They connect to the PCB via two or three copper connectors, and they are mainly responsible for giving your keyboard a specific feel and sound. In general, you will find three main categories: linear, tactile and clickable. The former provides no feedback when pressed or when the key is actually registered by your computer, while the latter provides tactile feedback (a small bump), and the third provides an additional click.
Although the industry and some people in the community have associated each switch type with specific user profiles (linear ones are for gamers, clicky ones are for typists, etc.), Taeha is adamant that your experience is unique to you.
“They are tools to accomplish a certain task. And everyone has different preferences. It’s just a matter of finding the one that fits your needs,” he says.
Finding the right set of switches for you can take some time, and it’s essential that you try them out – you can learn a lot more from hands-on experience than from reading any review. But before you order a few sets, you might want to get a switch tester. These little boards come with different types of switches to try, and you can find them for as low as $7, depending on their size and where you buy them.
Still, testers won’t give you the full experience, so going to community events is a great way to learn about and try out what’s out there. Taeha recommends that you search for local groups of enthusiasts around you and check for upcoming meetings. Keep in mind that these gatherings have become increasingly rare due to COVID, so you may have to wait a bit.
Finally, there are the keycaps – the most visible part of your keyboard with your case on, and definitely the part where you can have the most fun. There are many types of keycaps, and the sky is the limit when it comes to design – you can find them in colorful palettes, and even shaped like cat paw pads.
Changing your keys might be the easiest customization you can do for your keyboard. They’ll change how it looks, provide a new touch experience, and different profiles can even change the way you type. To redeem your keycaps, you will only need a tool called a keycap puller. And don’t forget to take a photo of your original keyboard layout before you start disassembling it, it will help you tremendously when you reassemble your board.
Be aware of compatibility
Unfortunately, there aren’t many manufacturing standards when it comes to keyboard parts. Any time you buy a new faceplate, switch set, or keycaps, you’ll need to do your research and make sure the item you’re looking at is compatible with the setup you have at home.
It all starts with the type of keyboard you are dealing with. Two options are available: hot-swappable and soldered. The former lets you easily swap out switches with just a switch puller, while the latter requires a soldering iron and advanced skills to significantly customize the feel and sound of your keyboard.
Likewise, not all keycaps will fit your switches, and not all switches will fit your PCB. Different colored switches also mean different things depending on the brand, so we can’t stress enough the importance of doing your homework before buying. Failure to do so will likely result in both wasted money and a lot of frustration. Even though massive online marketplaces like Amazon will have much of what you’ll need to build your keyboard, you’ll have to dig deeper if you want something a little more unique or higher quality. And because the hobby is primarily driven by small, local manufacturers, many of which fund their operations on Kickstarter, waiting months or even a year for a piece to arrive is not uncommon, Taeha says.
“That’s how you get access to more complex and nuanced designs that might not be possible with mass production,” he says. “But you’re going to need a lot of patience.”
It’s good to start small
If you’re intimidated, you’re not alone. There’s a lot of information out there and it’s easy to get dizzy. Also, customizable mechanical keyboards and their parts aren’t exactly cheap, so it’s not a hobby of buying the materials and figuring things out later.
Taeha recommends that beginners get a fully assembled keyboard first and play with it by changing some parts. Eventually you’ll get the hang of it and end up with either a highly customized board or a thirst for more. And if you want to jump right in and build a board from scratch, you’ll need to plan ahead.
[Related: 20 essential Windows keyboard shortcuts that will make you forget your mouse]
“Anything between $150 and $200 is a great budget for your first build,” says Taeha. “You can end up with a nice keyboard that you can upgrade later if you want.”
Still, he stresses the importance of research and recommends taking advantage of the current boom in mechanical keyboard content on platforms such as YouTube and TikTok.
“The best way to get into it right now is to just consume a lot of content,” he says. He also recommends diving into the old-school but still fully functional r/MechanicalKeyboards subreddit and geekhack.org. You’ll find more nuanced information and details about parts and construction there, and you can even join in the fun of crowdsourcing, starting, and group buying.