Building a custom keyboard in 2023

Building a custom keyboard in 2023

Building Your First Custom Mechanical Keyboard: A Guide for Newbies

Building your first custom mechanical keyboard can be an intimidating task. With so many parts and terminology involved, it’s hard to know where to start. However, thanks to the growing popularity of the hobby, it has never been easier to jump in and explore the world of custom keyboards. In this comprehensive guide, we will provide you with expert insights from YouTube creators Brian Philips of BadSeed Tech and Alexander ‘Alexotos’ Medeot, who have built and reviewed hundreds of custom keyboards. Whether you’re a newbie or looking to enhance your existing setup, this guide will highlight the essential features to consider when shopping for your first custom keyboard.

The Basics: What You Need to Know

At its core, building a custom keyboard involves purchasing a case, printed circuit board (PCB), plate, mechanical switches, and keycaps, and assembling them to create a fully functional keyboard. Depending on your level of ambition, you can source these components separately or choose bundles that provide most of what you need. Additionally, customization options are available to modify your keyboard to your preferences. To simplify things, this guide will focus on the parts you need to buy and provide relevant recommendations for each component.

Pick a Layout That Suits Your Needs

When starting your keyboard build, the first crucial decision is choosing a case. The case you select will determine the size, layout, and mounting style of your keyboard. From a usability standpoint, the layout is the most critical factor to consider. Brian Philips advises, “You have to find a layout that is serviceable for you.” If your work demands function keys, then a tenkeyless (TKL) or 75 percent layout would be practical for coding and productivity tasks. On the other hand, if you frequently input numbers, a full-sized keyboard with a numpad would be the best option. Remember, keyboards are tools that should reflect your needs, not just follow popular trends.

Aluminum Keyboards Aren’t Always Better

When shopping for your first custom keyboard, there is a common misconception that aluminum cases are superior due to their higher price point. However, both Brian Philips and Alexander Medeot agree that starting with a plastic or polycarbonate case is often a better choice. Plastic cases are more affordable, and they offer more forgiveness when it comes to achieving the desired sound and feel of the keyboard. According to Philips, “I think it’s easier to tune an aluminum case, but not all aluminum cases sound good.” Medeot emphasizes that the design and build quality of the case play a significant role in how it sounds and resonates. Therefore, it’s essential to choose a case based on personal preference rather than material alone. Additionally, consider the mounting style of the case, with gasket-mounted keyboards being beginner-friendly and providing a soft and firm typing experience.

Hot-Swap PCBs: Beginner-Friendly and Versatile

After selecting the case, the next component on the list is the PCB (printed circuit board), where you install the switches. Most keyboards require a specific PCB that accommodates the mounting style and layout. The recommendation from both Philips and Medeot is to opt for a hot-swap PCB, especially for beginners. Hot-swappable keyboards allow you to easily switch out switches without the need for soldering, making the assembly process simpler and offering more flexibility to try different switches.

Plate Material: Find the Right Balance

The plate is the component that sits between the PCB and the switches, ensuring stability and consistency. While there are various plate materials with different characteristics, Brian Philips suggests going for an aluminum plate for its versatility and compatibility with most switches. Another option is an FR4 plate made from fiberglass, which produces a more high-pitched sound and offers flexibility.

Switch Selection: A Personal Journey

Switches are the heart and soul of any mechanical keyboard, dictating how it feels and sounds. Switches can generally be categorized as linear, tactile, or clicky. Linear switches provide smooth action, tactile switches have a smooth bump before bottoming out, and clicky switches add an audible “click” to the tactile feedback. While linears are popular for gaming and tactiles/clicky switches for typing, personal preferences may vary. The best approach is to experiment with different switch types to find the one you enjoy the most. Cherry MX switches are a good starting point, as most switches on the market reference them. Once you’ve settled on a favorite switch type, you can explore different models and variations. Don’t feel the need to rely solely on switch reviews on YouTube, as the overall keyboard build and your personal taste in sound and feel play integral roles in the experience.

Keycaps: The Final Touch

Finally, a set of keycaps completes your custom keyboard build. Keycaps are typically made from ABS or PBT plastic, each with its own sound characteristics and durability. ABS keys tend to have a higher-pitched sound, while PBT keys may sound a bit duller. It’s also essential to consider whether keycaps are double-shot (more durable) or dye-sublimated. Cherry Profile keycaps are a good starting point for newcomers due to their availability and preferred height. While high-end GMK keycaps are popular, there are many other brands offering well-made PBT keycaps at a more affordable price. Retailers like NovelKeys, KBDFans, and Drop provide a wide range of options.

Enhancing Your Current Setup

If you’re not ready to build a custom keyboard from scratch, there are ways to improve your existing keyboard. One common issue with mechanical keyboards is squeaky stabilizers, resulting in distracting noise. Products like industrial lubricant can be used to smoothen and silence these stabilizers without disassembling the whole keyboard.

For those ready to dive into building a custom keyboard, here are some recommended options:

  • KBDFans Tiger Lite: A budget-friendly polycarbonate case with a gasket-mount TKL design.
  • NovelKeys 87 Entry Edition: Another affordable option with a hot-swap PCB and RGB lighting.
  • CannonKeys Bakeneko65: An aluminum case with multiple variants, featuring a hot-swap PCB and a unique ‘o-ring’ gasket mounting system.
  • Mode Designs Sonnet: A high-end aluminum case with exceptional construction and a top-mount design, providing a premium typing experience.
  • Razer BlackWidow V4 75%: A no-fuss option with a hot-swap PCB, gasket mounting, and included keycaps and tactile switches.

These recommendations offer a range of options for different budgets and preferences, ensuring you can find the perfect custom keyboard for your needs.

Building your first custom mechanical keyboard is an exciting journey that allows for personalization and satisfaction in using a keyboard that reflects your style and requirements. With the right guidance and understanding of each component, you can create a keyboard that elevates your typing experience and brings joy to your daily interactions. So, don’t be intimidated; jump into the world of custom keyboards and make your mark on your desk!