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How to Build a Custom Keyboard

The process of creating your own keyboard is a fun, simple, and incredibly fulfilling method to improve your computing experience. Few things are as fulfilling as the satisfaction of creating something with your own two hands. In the realm of mechanical keyboards, where designing and making your own can improve your overall computing experience, this has never been more true than it is now. More keyboard fans than ever before have been bitten by the keyboard bug and are wanting to build their very own custom mechanical keyboard, thanks to the efforts of major streamers like as Taeha Types.

Even though it’s an amazing proposition, the thought of creating your own keyboard can be a little scary. What exactly should you purchase? Where should you go to purchase it? What is the best way to tell if everything will function together? It’s enough to discourage prospective builders from even taking the plunge in the first place, preferring instead to seek among pre-made alternatives for a one-size-fits-all keyboard rather than creating something genuinely unique.

We’re here to assist you. Here, we’ll walk you through the steps necessary to create your very own bespoke mechanical keyboard, whether you’re looking for the greatest gaming keyboard or the most efficient productivity tool.

What You Need to Build a Custom Mechanical Keyboard 

To assemble your own mechanical keyboard, you’ll need a number of important components and accessories, including the following:

  • Keyboard case
  • PCB compatible with that case
  • Switch mounting plate
  • Mechanical switches
  • Stabilizers
  • Keycaps
  • USB cable
  • Screwdriver
  • Tweezers
  • Soldering iron and solder (not required for hot-swap keyboards)

There are a plethora of sites that provide these, but for a selection that has been specifically curated for keyboard builders, we recommend KBD Fans and KPRepublic.com. Shops such as Novel Keys, Prevail Key Company, and Cannon Keys provide well-curated selections of accessories such as stabilizers, switches, switch lubes, and more. These sites frequently feature things that are popular within the community at the time of purchase. For a broader search, AliExpress and Bang good are both good options, although we’ve found them to be less dependable in terms of quality, customer service, and shipment time in general.

Optional But Helpful Extras 

  • Keycap and switch puller
  • Stabilizer pads or cloth band-aids
  • Nail clippers or flush cutters
  • Permatex or other semi-thick dielectric grease
  • Switch lube (Krytox 205g0 is a safe bet)
  • Fine paint brush
  • Switch films
  • Neoprene damping material

Consider Buying a Kit 

If all of this seems a little overwhelming, you’re not alone in feeling that way. All of these variables might be intimidating for beginner builders, which is why I usually recommend getting a kit for your first construction.

DIY keyboard kits always include a matching PCB and case, but they may also include optional extras such as stabilizers, sound dampening foam, and a carrying case as well. Custom keyboard kits can be found on websites such as Drop, Epomaker, YMDK, and KBD Fans, among others. When it comes to low-cost kits, sites that specialize in group buying and accessories are increasingly selling their own versions, such as the TKC Portico, Novel Keys NK65 Entry Edition, and Cannon Keys Bakeneko60, that are definitely worth considering if they are available. It’s important to note that keyboard kits typically require you to purchase switches and keycaps separately.

Things to Consider Before Buying 

In order to ensure that everything goes smoothly and that you end up with a keyboard that you are satisfied with, it is a good idea to review some fundamental factors before acquiring any of the goods listed above. Take the time to examine the following points, and you’ll find that the construction process will go much more smoothly.

Layout

The first thing to think about is the layout. Is it more convenient to have a compact 60% keyboard or a full-size keyboard with a number pad? This will not only have an impact on the operation of your board, but it will also influence what you should be purchasing for. The following is a list of the most popular layouts.

  • 40 percent: This is one of the smallest functional layouts currently available on the market. There are only the basic typing keys, no number keys, and no carriage return. The secondary layers play a significant role in this layout, which is both portable and difficult to learn for novices to the field.
  • 60 percent: There are no arrow keys, a function row, a number pad, or a cluster for navigating and editing. Secondary functionalities are frequently found on a second layer that can be accessed by key combinations.
  • 65 percent: This is simply a keyboard with arrow keys that is 60 percent of the size. A variety of navigation and editing buttons are located on the right-hand side of the majority of keyboards with this configuration.
  • Seventy-five percent: This arrangement retains the 65 percent form factor while repositioning the function row above the number keys.
  • the majority of the keyboard is tenkey less/TKL: This is a typical keyboard layout that takes a full-size design and removes the numeric keypad.
  • 95 percent/96-Key: This configuration takes the majority of the keys from a full-size board and pushes them together, eliminating the need for blank space. Some keys that are rarely used, such as Scroll Lock, are frequently reassigned to a secondary layer or are eliminated entirely from the keyboard.
  • Keyboard layout with all standard keys (full-size/104/108-key): This is the classic keyboard layout with all standard keys.

Your choice of layout has an impact on the keycaps as well. Compact layouts frequently include non-standard key sizes, which makes it more difficult or expensive to locate keycaps that are compatible with them. In terms of finding matching keycaps, the most difficult layouts to locate are the 65 percent and 96 percent layouts; however, dedicated keyboard websites like KBD Fans offer a larger range of keycap sets to match most layouts. It’s important to note that some layouts, like as the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB), are visually appealing yet feature spacebars that are significantly longer than the norm, limiting your keycap options.

Keycaps

Keycaps are a rabbit hole unto themselves; nonetheless, there are a few things to bear in mind when working with them.

The first thing to consider is the sort of plastic used. ABS is found on both very high-end and very low-end keycaps, and the quality of ABS keycaps can vary greatly. High-quality ABS keycaps are more expensive than PBT keycaps, but they provide more vibrant colors than the other popular option, PBT.

PBT is a denser material that will not become shiny after prolonged usage, unlike ABS keycaps. However, colors will be duller and large keys will be more prone to warping than smaller keys. PBT keycaps with double shot or dye-sublimated legends are an excellent choice for newbies because the letters will never fade, even after years of use.

PCB and Case

After you’ve gotten that out of the way, you’ll want to select a PCB and case that match. On shops such as Amazon, these are tough to come by, but they may be found in abundance on specialist keyboard building storefronts such as KP Republic and KBDFans. Alternatively, AliExpress and Bang good offer a diverse selection of possibilities. Make certain that your PCB is compatible with your casing. That entails double-checking that all mounting points for fasteners and the USB port are in the correct locations. Also, keep an eye out for any additional features that you might be interested in, such as RGB or hot-swappable switches, which allow you to swap out the switches on your mechanical keyboard without having to solder anything.

Switch Mounting Plate 

For first-time homebuilders, it is not necessary to become overly concerned with the switch mounting plate. When your mechanical switches are plugged into the PCB, they will snap into the mounting plate, which will retain them in place until you remove them. The last thing you need is for switches to lose their connection because they’re wiggled around in those hot-swap sockets!

Plastic, aluminium, brass, and copper are some of the less expensive materials available for switch plates. The most expensive materials available are carbon fibre and carbon fibre composite materials. Metals with a higher hardness, such as brass, are more stiff to type on and produce a higher pitched sound profile. The main considerations here should be whether you prefer a firm or flexible typing experience, as well as what style of sound you prefer.

Stabilizers 

To accommodate the larger keys on the keyboard, you’ll need a set of stabilisers to attach to the keyboard. The majority of keyboards require a total of five stabilisers, but certain compact layouts require less.

Make a note of whether the stabilizers on your PCB and case are attached directly to the PCB with clips or screws, or if they are attached to the plate with snaps. For their enhanced stability, enthusiasts favor screw-in PCB-mounted stabilizers , but the most essential thing to remember is that they must be compatible with the system. Remember that one of the benefits of making your own keyboard is the ability to customize it to meet your specific requirements over time.

Switches 

Finally, we come to the topic of switches. Do you favor a linear, tactile, or click interface design? You should spend some time thinking about which option you prefer the best because it will have the greatest influence on your typing experience. The universe of key switches is much larger than the Cherry MX, so don’t feel obligated to purchase expensive Cherry switches just because they’re common in production keyboards. Learn about the distinctions between the two. Consider purchasing a switch tester so that you may experiment with different options. If you’re not sure which switch is your favorite, consider purchasing a hot-swappable PCB, which will allow you to experiment with several switches without having to remove them from your keyboard first.

The only thing to consider when selecting a switch is the number of pins it has. 5-pin switches, also known as PCB-mounted switches, can be installed without the use of a plate and have five pins on the bottom to provide additional support. Three-pin switches, also known as plate-mounted switches, are designed to be used with a plate and have three pins on the bottom. Some printed circuit boards (PCBs) only support 3-pin switches. Take a look at one of the switch positions. Is it three or five holes in the ground? No need to be concerned if your switch of choice has five pins, but your PCB only accepts three pin switches: you may still use them in your design; however, you’ll need to use your nail clippers or flush cutters to trim off the two smaller plastic pins to make it work.

If you’ve been involved in this activity for a while, you’ve probably heard about the need of lubricating your switches. Optional and time-consuming, this procedure can significantly improve the smoothness of your typing experience as well as the sound profile of your keyboard. Check out our post on How to Lube Switches on Your Mechanical Keyboard if this sounds like something you’d be interested in learning more about.

The Keyboard Kit Used in This Guide 

We used the D60 WKL keyboard kit from KBDFans for our construction, but the procedures outlined here should be applicable to the majority of keyboard builds. We chose this kit because it includes a lot of elements that are now popular in custom keyboards, such as the ability to look and sound fantastic, and because it is readily available for purchase, avoiding the lengthy group buy process that is usually required.

For $335, you could get everything you needed to start building your own bespoke keyboard, including the casing, PCB, and plate, as well as a lovely brass weight and stabilizers. While this particular kit is pricey, custom keyboards may be created for considerably less money using the same principles. The cost of a good keyboard does not have to be prohibitively expensive, especially if you take the time to make some minor tweaks along the way.

The D60 kit has a 60 percent layout with blockers for the Windows keys (so-called because the casing prevents the Windows keys from being located in their proper locations) to produce an appealing symmetrical layout. In order to isolate keystrokes and improve typing sound, it employs a gasket mount design, which installs soft gaskets between the PCB and case. The FR4 plate was chosen because it provided a good compromise between a comfortable typing experience and a nice acoustic profile. In addition, the kit includes pre-cut dampening foam for the enclosure as well as between the plate and the PCB, allowing you to fine-tune the sound and feel of the keyboard even further.

In conjunction with Enjoy PBT Gray keycaps and Novel Keys Cream switches that were lubricated with Krytox 205g0 and tightened with switch films, I created a unique combination. Both of these things also help to improve the sound and feel of the buttons. The entire cost of constructing this specific keyboard was $472.

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