An in-depth introduction to this trend

Custom mechanical keyboards can come in many shapes and sizes. (Image: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

The custom mechanical keyboard trend has been on the rise recently.

With companies like Drop (formerly Massdrop), Glorious and Xtrfy releasing their own versions of mainstream customisable mechanical keyboard kits, one has to wonder, what is the appeal of having a custom mechanical keyboard, as opposed to a standard gaming keyboard that you can buy off the shelf?

Well, to put it simply, it’s all in the word “custom”.

A quick search on these custom keyboards will also show you designs and layouts that are not normally seen in a standard mouse and keyboard set up.

Not limited to the gamers, you will realise that many typists and workaholics also appreciate a good custom mechanical keyboard sitting at their desks.

So, what exactly is so “custom” about these keyboards that make them appealing to the masses?

What is a custom mechanical keyboard?

Like the name implies, a custom mechanical keyboard is a keyboard that you can customise to your needs and wants.

Owlabs Spring Arisu

Ergonomic-style custom keyboard, the Owlabs Spring Arisu. (Image: @bel.keyboards)

You can customise how heavy you want your keyboard to be, how the keyboard switches sound, how the keyboard switches feel, how high you want your keycaps to be and so forth.

A keyboard generally consists of these parts:

  1. Keyboard base/plate/skeleton

  2. Keyboard PCB

  3. Keyboard switches

  4. Stabilisers

  5. Keycaps

For a custom mechanical keyboard, every single one of these components can be customised.

Usually, to make things easier for the first timer, companies will sell a ‘barebones’ kit to the public, which will consist of the body, plate and the PCB.

Some companies like Glorious will also include extras like foam in their kit to make things even more customisable, but this is irrelevant for now.

However, there are also keyboard kits that allow you to purchase these parts separately and assemble it yourself, making it a truly custom peripheral that you can be proud of (and it may be the only one to exist in the whole world!).

With that said, let’s take a look at these parts individually and what they do.

The Skeleton

The keyboard base or housing can range from being fully aluminium to acrylic or glass.

Depending on the material, size and finish of the base, this will also affect the base price of the custom mechanical keyboard kit.

Just note, a custom keyboard doesn’t come cheap. A fully machined metal keyboard base could range anywhere from US$150 to upwards of US$1,000.

For a more affordable option, you can opt for an acrylic base instead of aluminium or brass. However, this will affect your keyboard’s heft, and how your keyboard will feel and “sound” at the end of the build.

If you wish, you can even get it to be made out of wood!

Usually, the body of the custom keyboard will also come with a plate that will act as a structure to lock and house the keyboard switches. It will also double up as the protection for your PCB.

This plate can also be made out of various kinds of materials. The most common are polycarbonate, aluminium or brass. Each of these materials will also provide a different sound quality and typing feel for the end product.

A combination of the keyboard base and plate will give you your keyboard’s skeleton.

The skeleton will also dictate the layout and size of your keyboard build. Common custom keyboard sizes are tenkey-less (TKL, 80 percent of a full sized keyboard), 75 percent, 65 percent and 60 percent.

However, you are not limited to just these sizes. There is a custom mechanical keyboard kit for every size of keyboard, depending on your wants and usage.

NYM96 Keyboard

I personally love the 96 percent layout. (Image: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

I personally prefer the compact full-sized keyboard (96 percent, with the number pad), hence I built a custom keyboard of that size for my personal use. I’m the person who can never do without a number pad on my keyboard.

And that is the true beauty of a custom kit — the ability to make it however you want.

Overwhelmed yet?

PCB

The next part of a custom mechanical keyboard that we are looking at is the printed circuit board (PCB), which is the part that allows your keyboard to be functional.

Most keyboard cases have their own proprietary keyboard PCB. However, sometimes, with some clever modding, you will be able to put other PCBs into your desired skeleton.

To generalise, PCBs come in two forms; standard and hotswap.

Drop CTRL Keyboard

How a bare Drop CTRL PCB looks in its skeleton. (Image: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

The standard PCBs will need you to solder your switches to the keyboard for the switches to work.

The hotswap PCBs allow you freely plug your switches into the sockets for it to be functional. It contains a mechanism at the PCB’s soldering points that allows for a switch to latch on to the PCB without being soldered.

You may think that hotswap PCBs are generally easier to use, and you would be right.

However, there are a few positives to soldering your switches down to your PCB.

First, you are less likely to experience “switch wobble” that may be present in hotswap PCBs, where your switches are able to move in the sockets of your PCB and plate.

Some people swear that they can feel these things, so sometimes soldering down your switches may be your best bet to eliminate this wobble.

Standard PCBs with soldering points are also generally cheaper than their hotswap counterparts.

For those that are not very bothered by these things, or have ways to stabilise your switches in the socket, the convenience of using a hotswap PCB usually outweighs the negatives.

It is extremely easy to swap switches on a hotswap PCB. Whether it is trying a new switch or replacing a faulty one, the hotswap PCB makes these things a breeze, compared to having to de-solder your switches to swap them.

This alone is a good enough reason to get a hotswap PCB for your custom keyboard.

Satisfaction 75

Yes, some PCB even have screens. (Image: @bel.keyboards)

The PCB can also have sockets for RGB LEDs (if you are into those things), and will either come with LEDs already installed, or have sockets that you are able to hotswap or solder them in, much like the switches.

Speaking of switches….

Switches

The switches installed on your custom keyboard will define your typing and usage experience.

They generally come in three types; linears, tactiles and clickies.

Linear switches are those that depress without any feedback. When you press them down, you should feel an entirely smooth travel from the top of the switch all the way down to when it is fully depressed.

Tactile switches perform similarly to linear switches, but with an additional “bumpy” feeling in the middle of the switch press.

You will notice a slight resistance in the middle of pressing a switch, unlike the linear ones. The bump is generally situated at the point where the switch “activates” when you depress it.

This should only be felt by touch, however, and should not produce any additional sound.

Clicky switches on the other hand, are like tactile switches on steroids.

Much like their tactile brethren, clicky switches will have some resistance in the middle of depressing the switch. Instead of just a bump, however, a clicky switch also produces an audible “click” when it passes this bump.

While, on the surface, there may only be three types of switches, there are numerous variants on each of these types.

Travel distance, spring weight, stem height, materials used and housing dimensions are just examples of how varied each of these switches can be.

Keyboard switches

Keyboard switches can come in various types. (Image: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

Stabilisers

Stabilisers may or may not be present on a custom keyboard, depending on the layout.

Stabilisers are, well, meant to stabilise keys that are long and run the risk of being lopsided on a keyboard, for example, the spacebar.

If a long spacebar keycap is just placed on top of a singular switch, any kind of force applied to the sides of the spacebar keycap will run the risk of dislodging it from the switch, and also risk ruining the stem of the switch itself (the portion of the switch that is sticking out, and where you place your keycaps).

A stabiliser will prevent this from happening. It places a stabilising point at both ends of the keycap to keep it stable, hence the name.

But beyond that, it also has a few mechanisms that you might want to pay attention to.

A stabiliser consists of a stabiliser wire and its housing. The length of the wire will depend on what key the stabiliser is used for.

Keyboard Stabilisers

Stabilisers can come in many colours too. (Image: @bel.keyboards)

On the surface, all you have to do is plug both sides of the wire into a housing, fix it onto your keyboard, and you are good to go.

But… not all stabilisers are created equal.

Some stabilisers have housings that are sometimes too big for their wires, hence making the dreaded “stabiliser rattle”. The wires will collide with the housing due to the extra space, giving off unwanted sounds that may irritate the user.

If you are not particular with this, any brand of stabilisers may do for you. Just get the cheapest one you can find.

More expensive ones in the market look to minimise this rattle, but there is no guarantee that it will truly be rattle-free.

You can eliminate these sounds by lubricating the contact points of the wire and housing, but that’s a story for another day.

Stabilisers also come in two forms, plate-mounted and screw-on.

Plate-mounted stabilisers, like the name implies, mount in place on the plate of the keyboard.

Screw-on stabilisers are placed and screwed on the PCB instead.

Depending on the plate and the PCB of your custom keyboard, you usually have to choose one or the other.

Keycaps

The cherry-on-top, keycaps are the “clothes” of your keyboard.

They can come in various colours and profiles to suit your custom keyboard. They can even be shine-through to display the glory of your keyboard’s RGB!

Keycap sets can be made out of different materials, but the two most common ones are ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate).

Keycaps made out of ABS generally have better colour vibrancy compared to their PBT counterparts, while PBT ones have a more robust and premium feeling compared to similarly priced ABS keycaps.

In your research, you may come across comments that ABS keycaps will develop an “oil-shine” after some usage. While this is true for cheaply made ABS keycaps, more premium ones are not prone to this shine.

Keycaps can also come in various “profiles”. These keycap profiles generally have various heights for each of the rows on the keyboard.

Depending on what keycap profile you choose, it may also affect the feel of your keyboard.

There are also artisanal keycaps; unique keycaps that are meant to decorate your keyboard.

Artisanal keycaps

Artisanal keycaps can come in many designs. (Image: Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore)

Wow, that is a lot of things to consider

Yes. There are a lot of aspects to building a custom mechanical keyboard that will generally turn away a first timer.

What if I told you that there are still more advanced aspects of keyboard-building, like placing foam in the keyboard skeleton, choosing the most appropriate switches, lubing your switches and stabilisers, and programming the keyboard to function the way you want it to be?

I usually equate building a custom keyboard from scratch to building your own personal computer. While not having as many moving parts as a PC, the nitty-gritty of building a custom keyboard is enough to stress out a newcomer.

Which is why there are barebone kits available out in the public from companies like Glorious and Drop to ease newcomers into the hobby.

Most of the time, all you got to do is plug in the switches, dress them with the keycaps of your choice, and you are good to go.

In fact, there are others who want to possess a custom keyboard, but do not want to put in the time and work to make one (which is seriously a lot for someone who doesn’t do it regularly), hence they request keyboard commissions from keyboard builders (much like PC builders).

But the truth is, if this article didn’t waive your determination of building a custom keyboard for yourself, the advanced aspects listed above could be done in your own time when you are comfortable with it.

Take your time, do your research, and when you finally finish building your desired keyboard, you will definitely be proud of your work. Bask in the fact that the custom keyboard you have is entirely made by your sweat and tears, and you are the only one in the world that possesses it.

Dominic loves tech and games. When he is not busy getting headshotted in VALORANT or watercooling anything he sees, he does some pro wrestling.