Building a custom mechanical keyboard

Table of contents

Why a custom mechanical keyboard?

«I have a normal, cheap and fully functional keyboard, why would I need a custom keyboard? And why does it matter that it is mechanical?»

Yes, your keyboard is perfectly fine. You press a key, and that key triggers an action on your computer.

This simple use of a keyboard does not change when using a custom mechanical keyboard.
But what does change is the haptic feeling you get when typing. And a keyboard size that is tailored to your own needs can also improve ergonomics while working on the computer.

For someone who sits all day in front of the computer for a living and basically touches his keyboard 8+ hours a day, these two attributes of tactility and not-fucking-up-your-posture suddenly become important.

Just like any other craftsman, you want to have high-quality, durable and fitting tools to help you earn a living.

Oh, and it also looks kinda cool.

Keebs: an overview

So, welcome to the amazing niche world of «keebs» (how nerds call their keyboards), where you spend way too much money on some plastic. You will maybe also wait several months just to have new expensive plastic, but in another color.

Yes, this is weird. But also fun. 🙂

Just look at all these beautiful boards, all these colors, and sizes, and extras, so cool!

Switches

They are the heart(s) of your keyboard. Switching (hehe) from classical rubber-dome switches to mechanical switches will feel much nicer and precise when typing.

There are three different types of switches: linear, tactile and clicky.

  • Linear switches have no bump in them, it feels the same throughout the whole pressing motion. These are normally the most silent switches.
  • Tactile switches have a bump in them, so you feel when the switch is activated and get a nice haptic feedback while writing.
  • Clicky switches are just like tactile switches, but they «click» very loudly every time you press them, so you also get audio feedback when writing. If you hate your coworkers, use these switches at work.

There are hundreds of different switches from various manufacturers. The «default switch» would probably be the Cherry MX Brown, a slightly tactile switch. This is also the one I chose for my first keyboard (but in the RGB version, where the housing is transparent and light can shine through).

Sizes and Layouts

Sizes

Keyboards come in various sizes other than your standard-100%-with-numpad-board.

A smaller keyboard is generally considered better (if you can still use it normally, not like 40% boards…), as you gain more space on your desk and you do not need to move your arm as much when switching to the mouse. This way, when you have one hand on the mouse and one on the keys, you can easily have your arms just straight out and your shoulders do not need to be at an uncomfortable angle. This also helps with ergonomics.

I got myself a 65% (in the picture it says 68%, but it’s commonly referred to as 65%) board. That means I do not have a numpad or any function keys (F1, F2, …). But I have the FN key, which lets me use different layers on the same key. So for example, if I press the 1 key, I get the 1 key, but with FN+1 I get the F1 key. Or FN+RightShift, which lets me pause any media that is currently playing. I did not go for a 60% board because I use the arrows, delete, home and end too much and did not want to put them on another layer.

Also, you really really really do not need the numpad, the number row is just fine (probably… maybe you do need it, how should I know?). I bet you will be very glad to have more space on your desk instead of that big ol’ numpad.
But if you absolutely need the numpad, there is the option to get your numpad on the left side, where it would not be in the way of your mouse.

Layouts

You mostly got to choose between ANSI (American) and ISO (European).

There are parts for ISO keyboards, but ANSI is much more common and easier to find.

I switched from ISO to ANSI and really like it. For programming, the most used symbols are easier to press and the positions feel more natural.

Relearning the different keys took me about two weeks, and now I do not really have a problem to work on ANSI or ISO, switching is almost seamless.

Keycaps

The part which you most use to personalize your keeb. They are like make-up: way too expensive and mostly plastic.

There are thousands of different sets in all colors, with a lot of extra keys or with handcrafted unique masterpieces.

Prices can greatly vary, depending if you go for the cheap AliExpress keycaps or for some expensive and rare GMK set (GMK is more or less the gold standard for keycaps, they are located in Germany and are very high quality). But really any keycaps are fine as long as you like how they look, quality shouldn’t be too much of an issue, even if you go for a cheaper set.

Beware that you need to make sure that your keycaps fit into your layout, as the sizes of certain keys are different. For example, space bars can be 6 units long, or 6.25 or 7. Check your key sizes before you get a set that doesn’t fit.

Problems and difficulties

Before you get all excited and storm the websites of keyboard-vendors to buy your own parts, note that you could run into some problems.

First, if you are European, you do not have as much of a selection from parts as you would have if you lived in the US or in Asia. For parts which might not be available in Europe, you need to pay a lot for shipping and customs.

Second, when I first looked into building a keeb, I did not know which parts I actually needed. On my first order I forgot the stabilizers because I thought they would be optional… luckily I noticed and could cancel the order.
Make sure that you know what you buy (parts list).

Third, when you actually know which parts you want and made sure that they fit together, there is a 69.420% chance that these parts are either currently sold-out or they were part of a group buy and will never ever be available again. Sometimes you may find some parts at a hefty price (2x and more the original price) offered by some friendly reseller. So you start checking for alternatives…

Lastly, if you use ISO layout, you need to decide if you want to switch to ANSI layout and have way more options, or stay on ISO layout, where a lot of parts don’t fit and you often need to pay extra (for example for keycap sets, if you can even find a fitting one).

Putting it all together

1. Damage control and PCB test

When you first get your PCB (printed circuit board), make sure to check if all keys are working and that there is not any damage on any contacts. You can do this for example via Keyboardtester.com.

Just plug the PCB into your computer and activate the circuits with a switch or just some tweezers.

2. Mount the stabilizers

Next, mount your stabilizers on the PCB (hopefully you did not forget to buy them like I did the first time…). The nerds generally recommend that you get screw-in stabilizers instead of clip-in stabilizers, as they are (you guessed it) more stable.

3. Align the plate and put the switches in one by one

Start with putting in the switches in the corners so that the space between the PCB and the plate is even everywhere. Then just fill the board with all the switches.

Note that this is for a «hot-swappable» board, no soldering required. Just stick the switches into the PCB.

4. Test the switches

Once you put in all the switches, I would recommend to test all keys again via Keyboardtester.com. Maybe you accidentally bent a pin and a switch doesn’t work because of that. You can just use some tweezers or pliers to straighten the pin and try again.

5. Insert the PCB into the case and put your keycaps onto the switches

6. Done! 😎

Thoughts after a few months of use

I’ve been working with my new keyboard for almost 6 months, so it’s time to reflect if it was worth it.

Overall, the project was very fun and for a while, I actually cared way too much about keyboards (don’t worry, I could escape the rabbit hole and I am back to normal now). Changing to the ANSI layout was not as much of a problem as I anticipated, and now I really like it.

I also do not miss any keys that I had before on the 100% keyboard, I like my small and sturdy keeb and all the shortcuts and keys that I configured myself.

The only downside really was the price. It was pretty expensive, mostly because I live in Europe and shipping and customs cost a lot. But I would still buy the same hiqh-quality parts (except for keycaps, which I replaced already), even if I could save some money by going to get for example a plastic case instead of an aluminium one.

Oh and of course my friends envy me and they all think my new keeb makes me even cooler than I already was!

(just kidding, they think I am an even bigger nerd)

Cost of the project

ComponentPrice ($)Bought at
PCB (Hot Swap, RGB)58kbdfans.com
Keycaps75.90kbdfans.com
Case (Aluminium)129kbdfans.com
Plate (Aluminium)18kbdfans.com
70 Switches (Tactile, RGB)28kbdfans.com
Stabilizers (Screw-in)14kbdfans.com
Package protection4.95kbdfans.com
Shipping25kbdfans.com
Customs53.10FedEx
Total405.95USD
~371CHF
Yes, sometimes I can still hear my wallet crying.

One Comment

Luca Gubler 12. June 2021 Reply

You were the reason why I made a mechanical keyboard for myself, thanks for that…
I can’t type faster but at least it sounds nice 🙂

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