a picture of a rectangular mechanical keyboard without the ten key number pad

(HS Insider)

Opinion

Column: Building custom mechanical keyboards

The popularity of building mechanical keyboards are on the rise as people find a custom fit for themselves.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/jessicasheng05/" target="_self">Jessica Sheng</a>

Jessica Sheng

September 21, 2022

Before the 1990s, mechanical keyboards were the norm, and it wasn’t until after companies discovered membrane keyboards were cheaper to make that they became the new standard. Although cheaper, membrane keyboards tend to be lacking compared to mechanical keyboards, as they offer a better sound and feeling.

Now, the popularity of mechanical keyboards is on the rise, and there are even people who end up building their own keyboards – like me.

Personally, I enjoy building keyboards for the results. Membrane keyboards tend to feel too mushy for my liking, and stock mechanical keyboards sound scratchy and rattly. By modding and building my own, I can eliminate most of these undesired sound effects. The result is a keyboard tuned to my preferences with minimal background noise.

Additionally, I have full control over the aesthetics of my keyboard, and I can create something unique to me. There are a variety of different parts needed to build a keyboard, and each one of them plays a role in producing the desired aesthetic and sound.

Parts

To start off, the most important part would be the PCB. This is the circuit board that allows the keyboard to be functional. If you want your keyboard to light up and have fancy colors, many PCBs come with RGB lighting which can usually be controlled with the VIA software.

They also come in different sizes for different sized keyboards so it does not take up too much space. A few of the most common sizes I’ve seen around are 65%, 60%, 40%, 75%, and Ten-key-less(TKL).

The second most important component is the switches. There are three different types, and they each have their own unique feel when typing.

Linear switches go down smoothly and silently without any interruptions, resulting in a quiet “thock” when typing. Tactile switches have a tactile bump, which allows the user to feel a slight bump whenever they press down on a key while staying relatively silent; the tactility can work as an indicator for when the switch actuates. Clicky switches are similar to tactile switches, but they have a larger tactile bump that makes an audible click.

Although clicky switches are great in terms of giving feedback to the user, they tend to be loud and may not be suitable in a quiet setting. These three types of switches provide the user with a drastically different experience.

With the PCB and switches, you will have a functional keyboard. Other components are not technically necessary (because of this, I have even seen people build the rest of the keyboard out of cardboard.).

The PCB allows for a usable keyboard, and the switches allow for the activation of the PCB when pressed, which translates the keystrokes onto the device. However, other than these two essential parts of the keyboard, there are a few other common components that people tend to almost always have in their build.

A case provides a safe housing for the PCB so that it doesn’t get damaged. The resulting sound of your keyboard is also dependent on the material the case is made of. Some of the most common materials are brass, steel, aluminum, and polycarbonate.

Similarly, the plates of a keyboard also play a role in the sound produced, with its material being a major factor. Its function, however, is to keep the switches in place and act as an anchor for them.

Plates also differ in other ways than the material. There are two different styles of plates: full plates and half plates.

Full plated keyboards use a standard plate that covers the entire PCB, acting as an anchor for every single key. Half plates are designed specifically to only cover the areas where the mods are.

Without a rigid layer of metal (sometimes plastic or carbon), it allows for a slight bounciness to the typing experience. Some people even opt to go without a plate because of this reason!

The typing experience of the keyboard can also be greatly affected by the way the plate is mounted, or attached, to the case. Tray mounted plates are most commonly seen with prebuilt and entry-level keyboards, as they do not require a very complex case.

However, they result in a relatively stiff typing experience and the overall feeling and sounds will be inconsistent. Top and bottom mount plates tend to give the user a more consistent experience in both sound and feel, but they also need a more complicated case to be mounted to.

The last type of mounting style is the gasket mount, which is unique as it isolates the plate and PCB from the case. This gives it a bouncy and soft typing experience, which is what gives it so much attraction amongst the custom keyboard community.

The last component of the keyboard are the keycaps. They are the icing on the cake, decorating the keyboard with its various designs and colors.

The different types of keycap profiles also greatly affect the typing feel and sound that is produced by the keyboard.

The differences in size and shape affect how the user’s hands rest on top of the keyboard. For example, cherry style keycaps are known to be one of the most comfortable keycaps, and the way they are angled results in a very ergonomic design.

SA keycaps, however, are very round and while they may feel good around the fingertips, the angling of the keycaps may result in a bit of an awkward typing experience. In the end, how a keyboard is built is all up to personal preference.

Budgeting

While custom keyboards allow for a high level of personalization, it comes at the price of its cost. In 2020, I decided to build my first custom keyboard. I bought the Portico keyboard kit, which included all the typical components of the keyboard except for the switches and keycaps, and it was priced at $110.

This is an entry level keyboard and was one of the best priced 65% keyboard kits available at the time. As for the switches, I decided to buy alpacas, which are sold at around $0.55 per switch. Because 65% keyboards have 68 keys and switches are typically sold in multiples of 10, the switches alone cost $38.50.

Lastly, I bought a typical keycap set on amazon, which cost around $25. This entry level build ended up costing $173.50, without tax or shipping costs.

Now, if someone is particularly tight on money, they are still able to create a decent keyboard with even cheaper parts, but heavy modding would have to be done to make up for the quality.

The higher end keyboards may even cost up to a few thousand dollars; the case itself can easily cost up to $400, and GMK keycaps (one of the most popular types of keycaps) typically cost over $100. You can see how someone can spend thousands of dollars on a single keyboard when seeing prices like these.

While I may be into building mechanical keyboards myself, I personally do not recommend anyone getting into this hobby. Once you get in, it becomes a rabbit hole you can never get yourself out of, and you will gradually spend more and more money on each build.

In the end, all you gain is a piece of rectangle that makes thoccy sounds but leaves you $400 poorer. Choose your poison.

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