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The Complete Guide to Mechanical Keyboards

2023 Edition
By Cobertt and Loobed Switches

Table Of Contents

  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: Beginner Guide

Chapter 1 : Introduction

  • 1.1: What are mechanical keyboards?
  • 1.2: Customizability
  • 1.3: Mechanical Keyboards Sizes and Styles
  • 1.4: Switch Types
  • 1.5: Keycaps
  • 1.6: Purchasing

1.1 What are mechanical keyboards?

There is no firm definition of what a mechanical keyboard is, as there are too many variations to encompass based on a strict definition. Instead, we should build a definition to highlight what makes mechanical keyboards so great. A mechanical keyboard is a long lasting typing input device that uses a more robust mechanism to input switch presses. Mechanical keyboards, by design, are customizable in both look and layout and an emphasis is put on user repairability. So while that definition is fairly broad, it captures what mechanical keyboards are all about: customizability, longevity, and repairability.

1.2 Customizability

One of the best parts of a Mechanical Keyboard are all the different ways that you can customize your keyboard. Regardless of what anyone says, this entire section can be boiled down to the word: “preference”. What you like is what you like, and nothing you choose here is objectively wrong (well maybe one choice, but we’ll talk about that later). Here, we’ll cover three main areas of customizability: layout, switch choice, and keycaps.

1.3 Mechanical Keyboard Sizes and Styles

Mechanical keyboards come in a variety of sizes. In this section I’ll be covering the most popular styles. There may be some obscure sizes not referenced here, but generally they will fall into one of the following categories.

Full Sized Keyboards

Surprisingly, among custom keyboards, full sized boards are one of the least popular. OEM makers still produce standard full size keyboards. If you are in the market for a full size, a great place to start is with a company like Ducky, WASD, or DAS. If you are looking to do a custom build, there are very few group buys ran for full size boards, so you will have to be patient, or pay aftermarket prices.
 

1800

The 1800 layout is named for the Cherry 1800 compact keyboards. This is an alternative to full size keyboards with the only difference being the removal of the navigation cluster above the arrow keys. This allows the board to be made more compact. These boards were popular with network engineers whose server racks offered too narrow of a space for traditional full sized keyboards.
 

Tenkeyless Keyboards (80%) 

Tenkeyless Keyboards or TKLs are keyboards that remove the number pad from a full size keyboard. They are more compact than a full size, and are more popular. TKLs often cost more to produce due to the greater amount of materials needed in production. Some notable TKL custom boards are the Jane, Keycult No. 2, and the Whale TKL. Recently there has been an adaptation of the TKL board called an F Rowless Tenkeyless. It’s a mouthful and I support the name TKL-F. This style board maintains the spacing of TKL but just removes the top F row to make the board more compact. A traditional TKL keyboard is an 80% board, as it uses 80% (87) of the keys of a full sized board (108).

75%

75% keyboards are extremely popular at the moment. They contain an F row as well as arrow keys. They generally include 3-5 navigation keys to the right of the alphas. The Satisfaction 75% is particularly interesting as it contains both a LCD screen as well as a rotary encoder. 75% have become increasingly popular due to their compact layout as well as coverage of daily use keys. Luckily, more and more companies are beginning to make affordable 75% following the explosion of aftermarket prices.
 

70%

70% keyboards are a niche category of keyboards. They are similar in layout to a 75%, however are more compact and sometimes either have no F row or no navigation keys. 70% sometimes use a short right shift to integrate a function key into row 4. Good examples of a 70% board is the GMK Uniqey C60 and the Bacca70. .

65%

As keyboards get smaller and smaller, there are only slight changes to the design of the board. A 65% differs from a 70% as it has the arrow keys moved to the left, forcing the use of the short right shift. It also eliminates one of the rows of navigation keys. Dixie Mech’s Bauer is an excellent example of a 65% board. 65% keyboards are another layout that is growing in popularity recently.
 

60%

60% keyboards are by far the most popular keyboard in the community today. They are considered to be the ideal minimal layout. They lack dedicated arrow keys in most cases, and have no navigation cluster or F rows. 60% keyboards rely on layers to access those keys. Typically a 60% board features a Fn key. This key when held, accesses a secondary layer in which you can then use arrow keys, navigation keys, and even dedicated media keys. 60% rose in popularity due to the success of the KBC Poker and its successors. Taeha Types continued the popularity for 60% keyboards when he built pro streamer, Tfue, a Keycult No 1 60% board. 
 

50% and Smaller

Once you get down to the 50% category, you might as well throw in the rest of the keyboards that are smaller. This category is by far one of the more niche sections of the keyboard community. These boards aren’t for everyone. Most often they remove the number row, and rely even heavier on layers than 60% boards. Oftentimes, boards 50% and under feature a raise and a lower key. These function exactly the same as a Fn key. Generally, there are two keys because of the need for multiple layers at the stroke of a finger. Much of the credit for the popularity of the 50% and smaller keyboards has to be given to Evan of The Van Keyboards and his Minivan board, as well as the Gherkin keyboard. They made affordable keyboards available to the masses.

Alice Style Keyboards

Alice style keyboards are a best of both worlds situation. They are single piece, split keyboards. They utilize smaller spacebars that are split between the two halves of the board. Alice style keyboards are named for the first one, the TGR Alice. The original Alice was a 60% split layout with three additional keys to the left hand side. This is the true Alice layout, however many layouts are considered Alice styles. On a technicality, a 65% layout Alice is called an Arisu, but this is not a steadfast rule, and quickly can confuse newcomers. Alice now refers to the general shape of the keyboard. If it’s split with a V shape, it’s generally called an Alice style board. Alice style boards are known for being an ergonomic option, and are especially popular among typists. That’s not to discredit the ability to game on an Alice, but the main focus was on an ergonomic typing experience while not having a split keyboard.  

Ergonomic and Ortholinear Style Keyboard

This category of keyboards is a small, but growing subcommunity of the greater Mechanical Keyboards community. Ergonomic and ortholinear keyboards embrace comfort and layers. The vast majority of these boards are smaller in size. Many ergonomic layouts split the board into two halves. This is to allow you to position the keyboard for what’s comfortable for each arm. The main goal is to make typing more comfortable. Ortholinear users focus on minimizing the movement of their fingers for keypresses. Many ortholinear layouts allow you to type moving your fingers one key distance away for general typing. While often touted as more ergonomic, more scientific data is needed to back this claim. For both of these types of keyboards, it’s essential to use layers. Layers allow you to map more key inputs to a single key, using Fn keys which can be thought of as a second, third, or even fourth ‘shift type’ key. While you can access layers in a variety of ways, generally they are accessed very similarly to how we access capital letters or special characters, we hold a key and press a corresponding key. Layers allow smaller keyboards to pack the same punch as a full size keyboard.

Chorded Keyboards

Chorded Keyboards are an incredibly interesting super small keyboard. Generally they are a split keyboard, connected by TRRS connectors. They are interesting because they consist of as few as 10 total keys. They type by using a series of simultaneous switch presses. They type using chords. They are more similar to a piano than a traditional keyboard. It uses a layout called ASETNIOP. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend giving it a shot. At asetniop.com you can practice with the layout on your standard keyboard. It’s an incredibly cool take on traditional typing. It’s stated that once you are proficient with the typing method, well over 100 words per minute is achievable.

1.4 Switch Types

As you can see in the gif below, when a mechanical key switch actuates, contact is made in the leaf of the switch and sends the input to your computer. There are a few different types of mechanical switches. Cherry MX style switches are by far the most common. Developed in the early 80’s by Cherry, they have been a staple in the community since. A traditional MX mechanical key switch is made up of four parts. There is the top housing, bottom housing (containing the leaf), stem, and spring. Another type of key switch is the Alps Mechanical Switch. Alps are more complicated in their leaf than MX key switches. Alps were produced from 1983 and largely discontinued in 1996. There are Alps clones, but they do take a specific plate and pcb to be compatible with modern keyboards. There is also a mechanical switch called Topre. Topre switches are a hybrid switch. They consist of a spring, capacitive rubber dome, and sliders. It’s been debated in the past on whether or not Topre should be considered a mechanical switch due to its use of a capacitive rubber dome. The general consensus is that the quality and feel of the switch merits it being designated as a mechanical keyswitch. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll take a deeper dive into Cherry MX style switches and their three main types, linear, tactile, and clicky.  

Linear Switches  

Linear switches are a popular choice for custom keyboards. They have a smooth, uninterrupted travel that provides a very nice typing experience. The gif used above is a Cherry MX Red switch which is linear. Linears have been popular among both typists and gamers alike, that being said, there is no perfect gaming switch or typing switch. Again, like I’ve said earlier, it’s all preference. There are a plethora of popular linear switches available at Loobed both in their stock form and hand lubed using Loobed’s services. Some of my favorite linears are (insert here and short reasoning w/ loobed links)


Tactile Switches  

Tactile switches have been a go to choice by typists for years. Tactile switches have a tactile bump that signals that the switch has actuated. Tactile switches are a popular choice by typists due to the confidence in typing that’s given by having that force feedback. In the gif to the right, you can see how the leaf bounces on the stem legs, providing feedback to typist. The switch in the gif is a Cherry MX Brown. Browns are considered to have a very light tactile experience, but there are many different tactile switches with a variety of tactile experience, ranging from light tactiles to hyper tactiles. Like linears, Loobed carries a variety of popular tactile switches in both stock and hand lubed options. Some of my favorite tactiles are (insert here and short reasoning w/ loobed links)


Clicky Switches 

Clicky switches may be the most polarizing of switch types. You either love them or hate them, and there seems to be no inbetween. Clicky switches are one of the most iconic switches due to their audible click alongside a tactile feel. Although the theme so far of this section has been preference, making the choice to go with clicky switches may have adverse effects on your relationship with your significant other, family, or coworkers. While you may enjoy the fun little clicks at every stroke of the key, a burning resentment may form from those that don’t see, well hear, them as fun clicks. It’s important that if you are going down the clicky path, that you take in consideration of the environment where these switches will be used. To the left you can see a Cherry MX blue. You can see a tactile bump, similar to the brown switches above, but the main difference is the presence of a click jacket. The click jacket is the source of sound in a Cherry MX blue. Kailh, a switch company, developed a clicky switch that utilizes a click bar. This removes the need for the click jacket and gives a crisper, cleaner click. Click bar clicky switches have become the gold standard in this category of switches. Some of my personal favorite clicky switches are Kailh Box Navy, Box Jade, Box White, and Box Crystal Pinks.

1.5 Keycaps

Do you remember when I said that there might be one thing that you could do with your keyboard that might be considered ‘wrong’. Well, we’re going to talk about it in this section. First of all though, let’s talk about keycaps. Keycaps come in a variety of different colors, materials, and importantly, profiles. Like keyboards, keycaps also support different profiles, and if you are using a unique layout board like a QAZ, then your choice of keycaps may be limited. Purchasing keycaps comes in a couple different flavors, but we’ll talk about those in a little bit. First we need to talk about colors. We’re going to break colors down into two sections, colorways and color production.
 

Colorways

Colorways are the color themes of the keycaps. Designers create colorways based on a variety of different things. There are keycaps designed after pop culture, classic art, retro keyboards, and many other things. Once a designer finishes their colorway, including novelties, fun additional keys that help portray the theme of the set, vendors will work with the designer to help make the keyset a reality. Keycap designers often have a particular keycap manufacturer that they design their set around. Popular manufacturers are GMK, Signature Plastics, EnjoyPBT, and others. Here you can see the Mizu colorway, a popular set that’s been created in many different profiles by different manufacturers. Mizu was inspired by the Avatar: The Last Air Bender’s Water Tribe and was designed by Rensuya. Unfortunately due to its popularity, Mizu has been the victim of its own success, and brings us to a frustrating part of the hobby, clones.
 

Color production happens in a couple different ways with keycaps. Almost all caps are made of plastic, generally ABS or PBT. The two ways that color is typically applied to keycaps is either the plastic is dyed and then extruded into keycaps, or the keycaps are created, and then dyed in a bath. This leads to the two methods of keycap creation.The two types are injection molded double shot keycaps, GMK being the most prominent example, and dye-sub and reverse dye-sub, with EnjoyPBT being a great example. Injection molded double shot keycaps are often seen as the gold standard of keycaps. The legends, no matter how much you use the keycap will never disappear, because the legends are molded right into the keycap, you can see this in the cross section of the keycap above. Some companies like JTK will even triple shot keycaps, providing three colors, but the majority, GMK included, only do double shot molding. While this method is primarily done with ABS because it produces nice clean edges with the typeface, you can also find double shot PBT caps. The downside to double shot PBT keycaps is that PBT tends to have slightly fuzzier edges to the typeface. dye-sub and reverse dye-sub keycaps really only occur with PBT caps. An easy way to tell the difference between dye-sub and reverse dye-sub is if the legends are lighter than the keycap then reverse dye-sub was used, as you can’t use dye to make a keycap lighter. dye-sub typically does not have as bright and bold of colors. They also do not have as clean of lines due to the dyeing process. They nearly last forever, but the dye does not permeate completely through the keycap. The upside to dye-sub keycaps is that they are often less expensive and are more widely available.  

Clones


WARNING: This section is going to talk about a controversial portion of the hobby, easily the most fought over portion of this hobby. Clones are unauthorized reproductions of designs. These are done by primarily Chinese companies as there is nearly no enforcement of copyright and trademark law. Each person needs to make their own decision when it comes to supporting clones, I personally choose not to. There are a few debated points of view when it comes to clones. The main point is that designers do not receive any royalties from cloned sets. Designers spent their time creating their sets, and clones take away any revenue opportunity they might have. This has become especially worrisome to designers as cloners have gone straight to copying designs before they have been legitimately produced. Clones also vary wildly in quality. Even though cloning is a hotly debated topic, I believe it’s important for people to know about them, if only to know that not all versions of a set are legitimate versions.

1.6 Purchasing


If clones are the most hotly contested item in the hobby, then the way that consumers purchase mechanical keyboard products is the second. You can break down purchasing into a couple of different categories. In this section we’ll touch briefly on the different ways that you can purchase items in this hobby. The most benign way is the in-stock route. Lots of keyboard stores like Loobed will have multiple staples that they keep in stock. Things like lube, stabilizers, switches, and other accessories are generally in-stock items. Other companies keep some keysets and keyboards in stock, but it’s not as prevalent. As to why some companies are able to have keysets and keyboards in stock, it’s time to talk about the other divisive part of the hobby, group buys.
 

Group Buys


Group buys are the main way that custom products are funded in the Mechanical Keyboard hobby. Years ago, before the Covid-19 era boom, the hobby was much smaller, and had much fewer participants. There weren’t as many regular online stores that you could purchase from, and most products were done as a hobby and not as a business. As such, there wasn’t any real funding in the scene. It was a collective group of people who would see a design they like and through the group buy model, fund the item that they wanted. It wasn’t a perfect system and there were cases where people lost money, but all in all it worked fairly well early on. Particularly when getting more than 25 or 30 people to buy a keyboard was considered to be fairly large. Today group buys are still part of the hobby. Even though the hobby has grown significantly, we are still not at the point where if a company makes a high end product, that they are guaranteed to sell out if they were to do an in-stock purchase. It’s rare to even see middle tier products receive large in-stock buys. The market has proven time and time again that it’s not necessarily a safe venture for small businesses. Larger companies with backing from parent companies, or large investors are able to do in-stock sales. With the exception of Angry Miao, most of these in-stock keyboards are what you’d consider to be entry level custom keyboards. While offering a great value, these entry level boards from Keychron, NovelKeys, and KBDFans among others, are not necessarily what all enthusiasts are looking for. Unfortunately, I doubt that high end in-stock keyboards will be an option in the future. The risk is too great to end up sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars in a product that isn’t selling well. Even though many people don’t like the idea of waiting a long amount of time for a product after purchasing it, it’s hard to argue that group buys haven’t brought success and growth to this hobby. The success of group buys, especially during the Covid-19 era, allowed vendors to purchase a large amount of extras.
 

Extras


Like I previously stated, extras are a direct effect of the success of the group buy model. Vendors choose to essentially roll over their profits from a group buy into purchasing power within that group buy. Extras are often announced at the end of a group buy period. As you can see in this graph of GMK Bento R2 purchasing, there is a steep uptick in sales at the end of the group buy period, this is when all the regional vendors decide how many extra sets they want to purchase in order to have extra sets to sell when they come in. Having that extra stock has been great for people who are joining the hobby and missed out on some of these group buys. It helps to solve some of the issues that we dealt with earlier in regards to clones. The designers are still being paid for their work and there are sets in stock to purchase. Overall a win-win scenario for the hobby. The only problems we’ve seen in the hobby with extras is vendor overreach. While no one expected the incredible boom that happened during the pandemic, it should have been seen that it was too fast of growth for the hobby to sustain. As you can see in the same graph we referenced before. Extras seemed to account for nearly half the total purchases in the group buy. Sets like Bento R2 and Serika R2 had so many extras purchased, they took months and months to sell out. They were even put on sale for below group buy price, which was to the disdain of many who purchased in the group buy to begin with. We’ve now seen some of those companies pull back on the number of sets that they run and the number of extras that they purchase. I don’t see extras becoming a thing of the past, but I also don’t see the double group buy sales extras coming back anytime soon. Because extras are an established number by vendors, vendors have allowed people to secure extras outside the group buy window, but before they’ve arrived with preorders.  

Pre-orders


Note: This section is in reference to group buy based preorders and does not pertain to preorders of normally instock items like switches.
Some vendors do allow preorders on extras that they purchase from group buys. The typical pricing structure is that group buys are the most inexpensive option, followed by preorders and instock extras. Usually preorders and instock extras are the same price, however sales have occasionally lowered the price on instock extras to below group buy prices. Extras preorders are a great way to ensure that you will be able to purchase a set, even though you missed the group buy window. Again, this is not a buying guide, but an informational one. You’ll need to evaluate your budget and make a decision that works best for you. MiTo, a popular designer, once said, “Please don’t buy or put $1 dollar in this hobby if your financial life and health isn’t balanced. This won’t be good for you in the long run.” Truer words have not been spoken. In the past few years this hobby has seemingly run on FOMO or fear of missing out, but this hobby is about creating something that you can enjoy using for a long time. Sure, you can collect, I do, but you should always ensure that you are spending money responsibly. Afterall, this is just a hobby.
 

Chapter 1 Ending


Now that may have seemed like the longest introduction, but the custom mechanical keyboard hobby has a surprising amount of depth for simple input devices that are responsible for inputting characters on your screen. From here, I’ll be breaking this hobby down further into a couple different tiers, beginner, intermediate, and advanced. By no means should this be taken as end all, be all in guides, however, use this as a jumping off point. There are endless Geek Hack and Reddit threads that you can end up going down a wormhole, but I will do my best to give a good enough synopsis, that if all you want to go off of is this guide, you’ll be just fine.

Chapter 2 - Prebuilt or Custom?

  • 2.1: Prebuilt or Custom?
  • 2.2: The Blue Pill: Prebuilts
  • 2.3: The Red Pill: Welcome to Custom Keyboards
  • 2.4: Conclusion

This section will be devoted to those completely new in the hobby. I’ll be assuming that you have no prior knowledge of the hobby with the exception of what’s included in the introduction, so if you haven’t, grab a snack and drink, and take the time to read the introduction. I know that it’s a lot, but if you’re here, you’ve already decided that this might be a hobby for you.

2.1 Prebuilt or Custom?

This is probably the biggest decision you’re going to make regarding this hobby. Fortunately, it’s a simple choice, it’s a simple red pill or blue pill type of question. You’re either going to come down the rabbit hole of mechanical keyboards, or you’re going to pick out a nice board with switches that you’ll enjoy and you’ll go about your day. Unlike in the Matrix, you can come back and take the red pill later, so don’t feel like this is such a permanent decision. This guide will be waiting when you are ready.
 

Prebuilts


This is a custom mechanical keyboard guide so surely prebuilts are bad. This isn’t quite the case. There have always been prebuilt keyboards that are bad and prebuilt keyboards that are quite good. It’s not a black and white decision as much as some people would like you to think. For example, the Fujitsu Happy Hacking Keyboard line are great keyboards. I don’t think you could go wrong with picking out a Happy Hacking Keyboard if you are happy with the layout. This is a decision I made back in 2009. It’s still one of my favorite keyboards and I used it as a stock keyboard for many years. Is it stock now? Not quite. It’s not my fault, I really enjoy the kool-aid here.
So if you’re saying that not all prebuilts are bad, what makes a prebuilt good? There are a couple things that you can look for in a prebuilt keyboard that make it better than other prebuilts.

Layouts


One of the most annoying parts of bad prebuilts is layout. Nonstandard keys are something that we want to avoid. Why? Because generally, the first thing that you are going to eventually want to customize with your new keyboard is the keycaps. And keycaps come in specific sizes and for specific rows on the keyboard. What you need is some sort of guide to determine what is the standard keyboard layout. Well, like everything else before, like your Facebook relationship status in 10th grade, it’s complicated. While browsing the list of mechanical keyboards under $50 dollars on Amazon, you may have seen some phrases like ISO, ANSI, or QWERTY. All of these refer to layouts. For now, we’ll remove QWERTY from the situation. The majority of the world uses a QWERTY layout and it just refers to the first 5 alpha characters on the third row of the board. The French use AZERTY, the nordic regions of Europe have Nordic characters, not Thor or Loki but letters like å, ä, and ö, but I digress. Beware that some keycaps will boast supporting ISO layouts, but they may not support your specific ISO layout. Be sure to check what keys are included and be sure they will work with your layout. If you need a specific region keyboard, then it’s best to talk with other hobbyists in your region. Here we’ll talk about ISO and ANSI and specifically the bottom row of the keyboard. These are the areas to look for in a standard keyboard. The image below, I created to show the standardized sizes in a keyboard layout. It’s easily color coded to show how keys could replace each other and still be considered a standard layout. The first thing I’ll draw your attention to is the green bottom row. I’ve included the sizes of each keycap to help illustrate what you are looking for. The top green line is a very standard keyboard layout. It features a spacebar 6.25 units in length. A unit is just the width of a single keycap. The three keys to the right and four to the left are all an even 1.25u in size. This is a fairly normal and common layout. The bottom green row is what we call a Tsangan bottom row. It features a symmetrical look with a 7u spacebar and a pattern of 1.5u - 1u - 1.5u on either side. This is very popular in customs as sometimes the middle 1u key is removed which is called a Winkeyless layout, and other times the outside 1.5u key is removed for what we call a HHKB (Happy Hacking Keyboard) layout. These are less popular in prebuilts, but it’s important to know. If the bottom row of the prebuilt you are looking at does not match either of these two bottom rows, I’d look at a different keyboard. The other replacement keys are not common in prebuilts, but acceptable deviations that would still be considered standard layouts. Let’s take a look at the Corsair Strafe. It’s a popular enough gaming keyboard that they continue to produce it, but it has a horrible layout when it comes to being compatible with available caps. As you can see in the image there is a plethora of mismatches to our above standard layout. We have all three size bottom keys (1.25u, 1.5u, and 1u) The keen eyed among you may have figured out that our keyboard bottom row should add up to a total of 15u keys. The strafes bottom side keys add up to 8.5u making the keyboard 6.5 units long. It would be nearly impossible to find a keyboard kit that would fit this keyboard. I’m unaware of any keyboard kit that has a 6.5u long spacebar. When purchasing a prebuilt keyboard, the first thing that I would look at is layout.

Hotswap and Solder Keyboards

A popular trend in keyboards today is having hotswap PCBs. Hotswap pcbs make your prebuilt custom quite a bit more friendly to future modifications. A hotswap keyboard will allow you to remove your actual key switches from the keyboard. This opens up a world of customizability as you can now freely purchase other switches and you aren’t so tied down to your initial choices. Keyboards that are hotswap will advertise that they are hotswap, it’s a selling feature. If you know that you want that freedom down the road, double check that what you are purchasing is indeed hotswap. Many boards have both solder (semi-permanent unless you are comfortable desoldering and soldering) and hotswap, with the hotswap version often being slightly more expensive. Within hotswap there are two main types of hotswap boards, Kailh sockets and Outemu sockets. Kaihl sockets are the gold standard. They are going to accept the vast majority of switches and have great durability. Outemu sockets on the other hand, accept a much smaller number of switches, as they are a slightly tighter switch. There are unconfirmed lists of switches that fit in Outemu sockets, but the only switches you can really count on is Outemu switches. Another couple of terms you should be familiar with when shopping for a hotswap board is 3-pin and 5-pin. These switches are just as they sound. 5 pins have two additional homing pins to ensure that the switch is aligned properly in it’s socket. Ideally, having a board that supports 5-pin switches is the way to go. However, you can adapt any 5 pin switch to 3 pin by using flush cutters to remove the additional plastic pins (this is a permanent modification). You can see them labeled as 4 and 5 in this image.  When utilizing hotswap sockets like Kaihl and Outemu, it’s important to support the keyboard from the back on the sockets themselves. This is important as there is a level of fragility to the socket housing. (You may have heard of millmax hotswap, but this is generally not offered in prebuilts or kits, but something that you do yourself. This will be covered more in the intermediate and advanced sections of this guide.)

Switch Choice 


This section relies on you having read the basics on MX style switches. If you are only focused on having a solid tactile keyboard that has a great typing feel for day to day use, rather than possibly customizing in the future, I’d strongly recommend looking at Topre boards. Common Topre boards are Happy Hacking Keyboards and Realforce boards. If you’re looking for an excellent writing or typing experience, no MX style tactile switch can replicate the feel of Topre. I have to give credit where credit is due. If I didn’t enjoy customizing and having so many different feeling boards, and I could only have a single stock keyboard. It would, without a doubt, be a Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional HYBRID Type-S. If that doesn’t speak volumes to how nice of a stock keyboard they are, then I’m not sure what would. Otherwise, you’re probably looking at MX style switches. Within the MX style switches there is a hidden option that I usually recommend that people avoid, especially if they are going the hotswap route. Optical MX switches. Optical MX switches are cool because they don’t rely on the leaf in a keyswitch to actuate, they use a LASER. Lasers are super cool, but if you chose to get a hotswap, you can only replace that switch with other switches that also use lasers. Your options in that market are even more limited than if you had chosen to purchase an Outemu hotswap board. Who doesn’t like more options? As for what I do recommend, it’s still all preference. There is something to be said about Cherry MX switches. They are very distinctive in the way that they sound and feel. I personally avoid clicky switches for the reasons mentioned in the introduction. In prebuilts you are mostly going to see Cherry switches and their Gateron and Greetech counterparts. Reds and Blacks are linear switches with reds being lighter than blacks. Browns are a light tactile with Clears being a slightly stronger tactile. Blues are the clicky switches that I mentioned to avoid. My favorite option is when you can find a prebuilt with Gateron Yellows. Gateron Yellows are a fan favorite among the budget crowd of keyboard builders, especially the milky yellows (they have an opaque white housing). They have a lighter spring and are a really nice switch to start on. They aren’t too heavy and they aren’t too light. Ultimately this is a preference decision, so as long as it’s something you enjoy typing on, then it’s a good decision.

2.2 The Blue Pill: Prebuilts

Switch Choice 


The last thing that I want this guide to be is how to spend your money. That’s not what it’s about. This guide is to help inform you on what to look for in a mechanical keyboard. And if you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably got a good idea of what you should be looking for. But that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t all use a little help looking in the right direction. Below I’ve listed a few options at varying price points of keyboards that I would recommend someone who was looking for a standard prebuilt keyboard. Again, the goal is to be objective. I’ve listed some less customizable options, and more customizable options. I’ll point out a few pros and cons, but this is not an exhaustive list by any means.

Das Keyboards - Das Keyboards have always been a staple when it comes to having a standard layout and good build quality. They stand by their products and provide great customer support. Be aware that none of their keyboards are hotswap, but do all adhere to a standard layout with the exception of the MacTigr.

Happy Hacking Keyboard - These are Topre keyboards, and some of the best in their category. Their layouts are not for everyone and rely on using layers to retain excluded keys. They stand the test of time and are well recognized in the community for their quality.

Realforce - Another brand that features Topre keyboards, but in more standard layouts. They also feature Topre keyboards with backlighting and MX style stems (this allows Topre users to use any MX style keyset). You can get the best of both worlds with these keyboards.

Keychron - Arguably one of the best introductory keyboard makers to join the scene. They have just about any layout you can imagine and touch on many price points. From what I’ve seen their keyboards have been a solid choice. I’ve heard mixed reviews on their customer service, but I’ve definitely heard more good than bad. Be sure to look out if they are using low profile switches.

Glorious - I can’t say that I am a huge fan of Glorious products. Their name has become synonymous with pc gaming, so it was surely going to be brought up at some point. While Glorious does better than other gamer branded counterparts (which you’ll see absent in this list of recommendations due to their horrible keycap compatibility), they still have their quirks. Their software is spotty, and while their customer service is decent, there’s a good chance you’ll need to use it.

Amazon Keyboards - We’ve all been there. We type ‘Mechanical Keyboard’ in the search bar of Amazon and hit Enter. You’re gonna have a list of possible keyboards ranging from $25 to $200+ and you’ll see names like Royal Kludge, Red Dragon, and many many more. The best I can say here is that you should really read the descriptions to really know what you are looking at. Use the above guide and things to look for in a prebuilt to make the best decision. Read reviews, and pay attention to the negative ones. Look on Reddit or Geekhack for threads discussing the keyboard you are looking at. And if when it shows up, it turns out you aren’t a fan, utilize Amazon’s return window. There’s nothing worse than saving your money and making a purchase only to regret it hours after delivery.

You’ll notice this list is missing a lot of the popular gamer focused brands like Razer, Corsair, Logitech, and more. This is intentional. They use a lot of marketing to appeal to gamers. But we need to be honest with ourselves, these gamer products don't make us better gamers. That comes with practice. Simply buying a keyboard is not going to make you the next TenZ, Aceu, or Faker. Gaming peripheral companies sure make it feel that way though. For that reason, alongside their usually inflated price I’ve left them off the list. If you still feel like you’d like to purchase one of their products, do make sure to do your homework and possibly look for a standard layout, especially the bottom row.

 2.3: Welcome to Custom Keyboards

  • 2.3.1: Welcome to Custom Keyboards
  • 2.3.2: Picking out Switches
  • 2.3.3: Stabilizers
  • 2.3.4: Picking out Keycaps
  • 2.3.5: Picking out an Artisan Cable
  • 2.3.6: Assembly of your New Keyboard

2.3 Welcome to Custom Keyboards

Let’s be honest, you probably at least skimmed the blue pill section to see what kind of mean things I said about prebuilts. If we are being honest, a lot of what I said with prebuilts still applies here. We’re going to take a few more steps to do this, and we need a little more information, but at the end of the day we are still looking for the same things: a standard layout, switches we enjoy, and a keyboard we are happy with. That’s our goal, we are just going to add a little bit more manual labor into the process. By all means some of you reading this section may have been people who took the blue pill to begin with. You may already have a hotswap keyboard and are looking to do your first modifications to your keyboard. For some, you may have the attitude of go big or go home, and that’s fine too. Follow me down the rabbit hole. 
 

Keyboard Kits and Barebones


To build a keyboard we first need a keyboard. Generally if we are going this route we’re looking for barebones kits. Honestly, this is where things can start to get a little dangerous. As beginners we are looking mainly for hotswap kits. This means we aren’t going to have to solder and outside of plugging some switches in, there isn’t a whole lot to do. We just need to source all the components ourselves. The scary part is that we need to set a budget that we can stick to. Looking around today, the lower priced kits sit between $100 and $150 dollars. They don’t include switches and they don’t include keycaps. Some don’t even include the cable needed to operate the keyboard. For me, I have a budget in mind for what I want to do, but it’s usually a budget of what I don’t want to go past to build a keyboard. I’ve built boards under $200 dollars for a full kit, and they’ve been great boards. Don’t think that you have to spend $400, $500, or even $600 to get a good keyboard. But also be reasonable with your budget. You probably aren’t going to have the best experience trying to build a keyboard for $125 dollars when the kit starts at $100 dollars. Unfortunately, this guide isn’t a what to buy guide. It’s a how to buy, and what to look for guide. I can’t do all the work, or else I’d end up building a keyboard that I enjoy and not one that you enjoy. Referencing the size and layouts listed in the introduction, hopping on to sites like KBDFans, NovelKeys, Keychron, and Cannonkeys. There are more out there, but a little leg work here isn’t going to hurt you. On these sites you’ll find a variety of keyboard kits. There is going to be a little sticker shock on some of the boards, but you’ll be able to find something in your budget, as long as it’s reasonable. Some layouts will have more options than others, but if you are in love with a layout, there’s a good chance that Keychron has that layout. Here we are going to be sure we know what we are getting. We really want a kit that has a case and a PCB at the very least. If you’ve found a case that you love, but it doesn’t have a PCB it’s time to do some homework. In the description there will be a list of supported PCBs. There are some universal PCBs that work in cases that accept universal PCBs, but always confirm that with the documentation, or ask for help (but at least look first). There is a bare minimum of seven (sometimes 6) things on our shopping list for a custom keyboard. We need: a case, a pcb, a plate (this is sometimes built into the case), stabilizers, switches, keycaps, and a cable. That is the absolute bare minimum for your first keyboard.Some keyboards do have the plate built into the case. It’s called an integrated plate and it appears on boards like the Tokyo60. Again, it’ll be in the description if it has one.

2.3.1 Switches


And now I’ll list all the switches that you can pick from for your first mechanical keyboard. Just kidding. There are far too many switches for me to list them all, and I don’t even know if I could get an accurate list of every unique switch. This often is one of the more daunting tasks of building a keyboard. For veteran members, you’ve already got a feel for what you like, but for a new builder, the choices seem overwhelming. If your budget allows, I highly recommend picking up a switch tester. They come in all different sizes and include a variety of switches that you can test (albeit only one, so it won’t be a typing test per se). These can help you quickly identify what you like and don’t like. From there you can do a couple of things, you can look for sound tests or community posts regarding switches you are interested in, or you can start off with a tried and true switch. For our most budget oriented builders, I can’t speak highly enough of Gateron Milky Yellows. They are an absolute budget staple and one of the best switches for those on a tighter budget. If you have a little more room in your budget, switches like Gateron Black Inks, Gateron Oil Kings, Boba U4Ts, Holy Pandas, Nixies, or even my own switch, Nebulas, might be good options for you. There are a lot of people in this hobby that are willing to help you along in this journey. Loobed’s discord has a great questions section, and I run MechGroupBuys help channel! Stop by either channel and ask away, we just ask that you have done a little bit of background reading, which you’re already doing, so great job! As a beginner the idea of lubing your own switches might be daunting, or might even be an idea that you’ve never heard about. Many enthusiasts lube their switches using a combination of oils and greases to improve the way a switch feels when you press it. To a newcomer this might seem like a wild idea, but it really does change the typing feel of a switch completely. If you like the sound of the idea, but aren’t interested in the time and materials it takes to do properly, you can purchase hand-lubed switches ready to go straight from Loobed Switches. They do cost a bit more than unlubed switches, but you can rest assured that your switches will be lubed accurately and consistently. After all, a consistent typing experience across all your keys is extremely important to the typing experience. If you’d like to learn more about lubing your own switches, I’ll be talking more about it in the intermediate section of this guide.

2.3.2 Stabilizers


This section is going to be short and sweet informational. Stabilizers are what make the larger keys (2u and up) feel nice when you press them. They won’t rock, or lean when you press the key because the stabilizer creates three points of contact on the switch so that it’s well supported. If you purchased a barebones kit, there is a good chance that it comes with stabilizers already. It’s important to double check the listing to ensure that you know if you need to purchase them separately or not. We’re going to assume that on your first keyboard, you are not going to lube your stabilizers. If you want lubed stabilizers, you can also purchase them hand-lubed directly from Loobed Switches. (If you want to lube your own stabilizers, you can find instructions on how to do that in the intermediate section.) Stabilizers come in two main varieties. There are plate mount and PCB mount stabilizers. As their names suggest, plate mount stabilizers are mounted to the plate of your keyboard and PCB mount stabilizers are mounted to the PCB of your keyboard. To be completely honest, PCB mounted stabilizers are the better option of the two. That doesn’t mean that plate mount stabilizers are bad, they just can be more difficult to work with (this will be addressed in the intermediate section on stabilizers). If your keyboard kit does not come with stabilizers, you do need to know what stabilizers it uses, as they are not interchangeable. The simplest thing I can recommend to you is what I would purchase as a beginner. This is not saying that these are the best stabilizers out there, but what I would recommend to someone who isn’t as well versed in the mechanical keyboard hobby. For plate mount stabilizers, purchase Durock plate mount stabilizers. These, I can say, are the best plate mount stabilizers I’ve worked with. For PCB mount stabilizers, purchase Durock v2 stabilizers. This is not an ad for Durock. But, in this case, the reason I recommend Durock v2 stabilizers is that they have a different style of clip in for the wire of the stabilizer. This eliminates the chance for the wire to pop off the housing when removing keycaps, which can be a pain to fix. That’s the main reason I am recommending them. I personally use them in a lot of my builds. Some sites sell stabilizers by spacebar length. If this is the case you need to know if you are using a 7u or 6.25u spacebar. Some websites sell them with both wires, but if they don’t you’ll need to consult your manual. If you are using a keyboard kit that uses a rubber o-ring for mounting, also called a gummy worm mount, you will need clip-in PCB mount stabilizers. You have two real options here, you can get Cherry clip-in stabilizers if you are more budget oriented, or if you have room in your budget you can get TX clip-in stabilizers. TX stabilizers are better than Cherry objectively.

2.3.3 Keycaps


Ladies and Gentleman, what you’ve all been waiting for. Keycaps. Another section that is completely up to your preference! We all like different styles and aesthetics. The important thing here is that you like your keycaps. It doesn’t matter what someone else thinks, if you like them, perfect you’ve got it. You’re probably thinking, man, why did I have to read everything up to this point to just be told that my keycap choice is preference. Well, to be honest, as much as it’s up to preference, everything up to this point is important in your final selection. If you, like me, chose to purchase a Topre prebuilt and want to pick out new caps. We have a support group for the nearly empty list of options. If you’ve picked an MX compatible board then you’ve got quite a few options. Remember that standard layout image I created earlier? It’s time to reconsult that image. Not all keycaps are created the same. There are some sets that have better compatibility than others. This is really going to come down to your budget. Your budget is going to limit your buying options, especially if you are using a layout that isn’t as popular. When you are picking out keycaps, most of the time there is going to be an image that includes all the keys that are in the set. It’s really important to cross reference this image with your keyboard layout. If you don’t there’s a chance that you will not have the correct caps to complete your board. It’s really defeating when you complete everything, you’ve got your switches, you’ve got your keycaps, you’ve got it ready to go, and you’re missing a 1.75u shift so now there is no key on your right shift. You place an extra 1.5u keycap there, say it’s fine, and inhale copium. I know it’s gotten really repetitive at this point, but going back and consulting your documentation is going to save you time, money, and your mental sanity. There are a lot of moving parts in building your own keyboard, and they all need to come together at the end. Doing your homework really pays off in this regard. As far as what keycaps to buy, I highly recommend shopping around. You’re going to run into ABS caps and PBT caps, both are good options. They have different sound properties, which we will talk about more in the intermediate section of this guide, but either are good options. You’ll tend to notice that lower priced caps are often PBT and higher priced caps are ABS. You can spend anywhere from $35 dollars to over $150 dollars on keycaps. Overall quality does tend to increase with price. Some great places to shop for sets are NovelKeys, CannonKeys, KBDFans, among others. This is in no way an exhaustive list of sellers. It’s always good to shop around. 

2.3.4 Cables

Cables are a fairly straight-forward section. We might even actually be able to call this section short and sweet. For your cable you need to know what interface your keyboard uses. It’s either going to USB-C, Mini-USB, or very rarely Micro-USB. Most keyboards made today are USB-C. The vast majority of keyboards will not work with a USB-C to USB-C cable, make sure to use a USB-A to USB-C cable. If you want a cable with a little more flair, many vendors offer custom cables. Again this is down to your budget. You can get a barebones cable from Amazon if you don’t care about how it looks, or you can get custom cables made from a variety of vendors. Unfortunately, this part of the hobby is overshadowed by many cable makers that have scammed customers by accepting orders and never delivering. Sticking to well known cable makers with good track records is important. I personally use two kinds of cables. I use Loobed cables or CableMod cables. You can’t go wrong with either. There are other great cable makers in the hobby, I just haven’t used them since discovering Loobed and CableMod. Just make sure to do your research on the company producing your cables.

2.3.5 Assembly


This section was challenging to write as all keyboard kits are different. There is no way to be able to write how to assemble a keyboard when there is such a variety of kits that you could have purchased. So we’re going to rely on two things, some standards across all keyboard kits, and that you have your documentation for your specific board. If your board did not come with good documentation, YouTube is your friend. There is a good chance that someone in the community has built your board and uploaded it to YouTube. If you still get stuck, use your help channels. Like I said previously, both the Loobed Discord server and MechGroupBuys Discord server have active help channels. Utilize them if need be. Below you can find the basic steps to building your own keyboard, remember to consult your documentation.

1. Begin by gathering all of your supplies in a single location. Remember you’ll need your case, pcb, plate (if applicable), stabilizers, switches, keycaps, and cables. It’s going to be important to stay organized throughout the process. If your keyboard includes documentation, whether that be physical or digital, have that at the ready. You’ll also most likely need a multibit screwdriver. If you need recommendations, I can’t speak highly enough of iFixIt kits and Wiha screwdrivers.

2. If you are using PCB mount stabilizers, start here, otherwise you can skip this step. We need to attach our stabilizers to the PCB. Remember stabilizers are used on keycaps that are 2u or greater. Typically, left shift, right shift, enter, backspace, and spacebar are stabilized keycaps. When inserting stabilizers into your keyboard, locate the clip-in side of the stabilizer, it’s opposite the wire, and has a lip to clip into the pcb. We are going to insert that side fully at an angle into the larger of the pair of stabilizer holes before pressing the wire side down onto the board. If your stabilizer is a clip-in stabilizer, you’ll snap the wire side into the pcb. If you are using a screw-in stabilizer, you’ll use a screw (and a washer if your kit includes it) to secure the wire side of the stabilizer from the bottom of the pcb. The stabilizer should sit flat and flush with the PCB.

3. At this point, you’re going to need to consult your documentation as to how the pcb and the plate interact with each other. More than likely there is going to be some sort of way that your pcb is mounted to your plate. This occurs in most hotswap boards. We are going to need to attach the pcb to the plate. If your kit came with some sort of foam that sits between the plate and the pcb, you’ll want to use that now as well. In the case of a board like the Tokyo60 from Drop, you’ll need to take apart the case to access the integral plate.

4. Once our pcb and plate are securely mated, we are going to start inserting our switches. When using a hotswap pcb, inserting switches is a fairly simple task. However, you do need to be sure not to damage the hotswap socket in the process. You should inspect the metal legs of the switch to ensure that they are straight and not leaving the switch at a wonky angle. These can damage your socket. Not to worry you can bend these pins back gently and the switch is good to go. When inserting into the hotswap socket, you are going to want to support it from the back of the pcb. This can help you to not push the socket out of it’s soldered position on the pcb. If you break the solder joint, as a beginner, you’re going to need to either find a reputable builder to repair it, or purchase a replacement pcb. If you think you are applying too much force to something, you probably are. I’d rather you go slow and methodical, then to race and make a potentially costly mistake.

5. This step is only if you are using a gummy worm or o-ring mount keyboard. At this point, you need to place the included o-ring around the pcb and plate. It will sit in the groove or gap between the plate and the PCB.

6. You are now ready to assemble the plate/pcb with the rest of the case. You’re going to need to refer to your documentation for this part, as there are different ways this can happen. Some might need to adhere gaskets to their plate or case, others may need to screw in the plate and pcb to the case. It’s going to depend on your specific case. If you have a daughter board that attaches your PCB to a separate break out board, make sure to connect it before assembly. A friendly reminder in this stage is to be careful when tightening any screws. This is a keyboard, we don’t need to crank down on any screw during assembly. If you're gripping your screwdriver any more than holding the hand of a loved one, you’re tightening too much. The screws are small and sometimes of questionable quality. You’re risking stripping the heads of the screws or worse, shearing the head of a screw off. Both are easily avoidable mistakes.

7. Now we can put on our keycaps. Pretty self explanatory. Not a whole lot to be said. I bet your keyboard looks so good now that the caps are on it. Plug your cable into your keyboard and computer, you’re ready to start typing!

8. If your keyboard came with software, you can now install and use it to make any modifications to the layout that you’d like. Many custom keyboards are compatible with QMK and/or VIA. Their sites and Discord communities are extremely helpful if you have any questions about their software.

2. If you are using PCB mount stabilizers, start here, otherwise you can skip this step. We need to attach our stabilizers to the PCB. Remember stabilizers are used on keycaps that are 2u or greater. Typically, left shift, right shift, enter, backspace, and spacebar are stabilized keycaps. When inserting stabilizers into your keyboard, locate the clip-in side of the stabilizer, it’s opposite the wire, and has a lip to clip into the pcb. We are going to insert that side fully at an angle into the larger of the pair of stabilizer holes before pressing the wire side down onto the board. If your stabilizer is a clip-in stabilizer, you’ll snap the wire side into the pcb. If you are using a screw-in stabilizer, you’ll use a screw (and a washer if your kit includes it) to secure the wire side of the stabilizer from the bottom of the pcb. The stabilizer should sit flat and flush with the PCB.

3. At this point, you’re going to need to consult your documentation as to how the pcb and the plate interact with each other. More than likely there is going to be some sort of way that your pcb is mounted to your plate. This occurs in most hotswap boards. We are going to need to attach the pcb to the plate. If your kit came with some sort of foam that sits between the plate and the pcb, you’ll want to use that now as well. In the case of a board like the Tokyo60 from Drop, you’ll need to take apart the case to access the integral plate.

4. Once our pcb and plate are securely mated, we are going to start inserting our switches. When using a hotswap pcb, inserting switches is a fairly simple task. However, you do need to be sure not to damage the hotswap socket in the process. You should inspect the metal legs of the switch to ensure that they are straight and not leaving the switch at a wonky angle. These can damage your socket. Not to worry you can bend these pins back gently and the switch is good to go. When inserting into the hotswap socket, you are going to want to support it from the back of the pcb. This can help you to not push the socket out of it’s soldered position on the pcb. If you break the solder joint, as a beginner, you’re going to need to either find a reputable builder to repair it, or purchase a replacement pcb. If you think you are applying too much force to something, you probably are. I’d rather you go slow and methodical, then to race and make a potentially costly mistake.

5. This step is only if you are using a gummy worm or o-ring mount keyboard. At this point, you need to place the included o-ring around the pcb and plate. It will sit in the groove or gap between the plate and the PCB.

6. You are now ready to assemble the plate/pcb with the rest of the case. You’re going to need to refer to your documentation for this part, as there are different ways this can happen. Some might need to adhere gaskets to their plate or case, others may need to screw in the plate and pcb to the case. It’s going to depend on your specific case. If you have a daughter board that attaches your PCB to a separate break out board, make sure to connect it before assembly. A friendly reminder in this stage is to be careful when tightening any screws. This is a keyboard, we don’t need to crank down on any screw during assembly. If you're gripping your screwdriver any more than holding the hand of a loved one, you’re tightening too much. The screws are small and sometimes of questionable quality. You’re risking stripping the heads of the screws or worse, shearing the head of a screw off. Both are easily avoidable mistakes.

7. Now we can put on our keycaps. Pretty self explanatory. Not a whole lot to be said. I bet your keyboard looks so good now that the caps are on it. Plug your cable into your keyboard and computer, you’re ready to start typing!

8. If your keyboard came with software, you can now install and use it to make any modifications to the layout that you’d like. Many custom keyboards are compatible with QMK and/or VIA. Their sites and Discord communities are extremely helpful if you have any questions about their software.

2.4 Conclusion


Congratulations on making your first mechanical keyboard. I’m sure that it looks good, types well, and puts a smile on your face. It’s a great feeling and I hope you enjoy using your keyboard. Now, you might be thinking of your next keyboard build and how awesome it’s going to be. My suggestion is for you to use your new keyboard for a while. If you think that you may want to build more keyboards, that’s fine, but give yourself time to experience the keyboard you just built. You’re going to learn what you like about it and things that you want to change. Take the time to reflect on your build process. Next time maybe dive a little deeper than you did this time. You’ll find even more information in the following intermediate and advanced sections. But for now, take the time to enjoy your keyboard.

Authors

Chris Malson, Founder of LoobedSwitches.com

Cobertt, ControllCaps.com and Designer of Nebula Switches

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