3D Printed Mechanical Keyboard Cases: A New Trend?

May 21, 2024

Can you create your own unique mechanical gaming keyboard case? A case with an embedded image of your favorite League of Legends character? A case with a built-in tray for a numpad accessory? A case with borders for each key?

This was once just a dream---a product of science fiction. But who knew that today, with the advancement of technology, this can actually be done? So, yes you can! With 3D printing, you can make a lot of objects including a custom-made mechanical keyboard case that is perfect for your gaming or work.

By its present nature, 3D printing is ideal only for creating individual objects or small-scale production. But that can also be an advantage. That means custom mechanical keyboard cases can be created without the cost and complexities of industry-scale mass production. 

In this article, let's discuss everything about 3D printing a mechanical keyboard, starting with the basic principles of 3D printing. We'll also talk about trends and where you can find the STL files for these keyboards. Let's get started.

What Is 3D Printing

In 3D printing, you create your own realm. 3D printing is a transformative technology that allows you to create real, tangible objects from digital files. It is a brilliant engineering feat and a pivotal innovation that is changing the dynamics of production and manufacturing.

A 3D printer uses an additive manufacturing process where the material is deposited layer by layer until it creates a three-dimensional object. Usually, a digital model file is sliced into layers with each layer printed sequentially. In hobby and small business environments, the main devices are usually desktop 3D printers that use thermoplastic filaments such as PLA (polylactic acid) or ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). Some printers use resin as a material.

3D-printing technology allows the creation of customized parts, prototypes, and singular materials that would be difficult or costly using traditional manufacturing methods.

For keyboard enthusiasts, 3D printing opens up a vast world of customization possibilities, letting users design cases tailored to their specific needs or aesthetics.

How Does 3D-Printing Work

3D printing using resin materials

Before you can print your own keyboard case, it's best to have general background knowledge about how 3D printing works. The process follows several distinct steps:

  1. Designing the Model: Everything starts with creating or acquiring a 3D model often using computer-aided design (CAD) software. However, there are existing designs that you can download from repositories like Thingiverse, MyMiniFactory, or Etsy. These designs can either be free of charge or purchased.
  2. Slicing: The 3D model is converted into layers using slicing software. This software generates instructions (G-code) that tell the printer how to construct each layer, specifying parameters like print speed and material flow.
  3. Printing
    • The printer is loaded with filament or resin, depending on the type of 3D printer.
    • The printer's nozzle deposits the material layer by layer, starting from the bottom. Each layer is fused to the previous one as it cures, gradually building up the object.
  4. Post-Processing: Once printing is done, the printed object may require post-processing:
    • Supports Removal: Removing any supports used to hold overhanging parts.
    • Sanding/Polishing: Smoothing surfaces for a better finish.
    • Painting/Coating: Applying color or protective coatings.

Bear in mind that this is not a fast process. Printing an actual object can take anywhere from hours to days, depending on the complexity of your design. However, if done correctly, the end product is a customized, highly detailed object.

Materials for 3D-Printing

Choosing the right material for your 3D-printing project is just as important as having a precise design. Several materials are commonly used in 3D printing. Each has distinct properties suitable for different applications. Some popular ones:

  1. Plastics
    • PLA (Polylactic Acid): A biodegradable and easy-to-use thermoplastic derived from corn starch or sugarcane. It's popular for its low cost and ease of printing although it's less durable and heat-resistant.
    • ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene): More durable and heat-resistant than PLA. ABS is also relatively inexpensive. However, it can warp during printing without a heated bed.
    • PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol-modified): Combines the ease of PLA with the durability of ABS. It’s more flexible and impact-resistant.
    • Nylon: Offers excellent durability, flexibility, and abrasion resistance. Great for functional prototypes and end-use parts.
    • TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane): Flexible and elastic, useful for creating objects requiring rubber-like qualities, such as gaskets.
  2. Resins
    • Standard Resins: Used in SLA and DLP (Digital Light Processing) printing for creating highly detailed, smooth parts. However, resin objects are more brittle compared to those made of thermoplastics.
    • Tough Resins: Modified to improve impact resistance while maintaining good detail.
  3. Metals
    • Stainless Steel, Titanium, Aluminum: Metals can be used in powder form in SLM (Selective Laser Melting) and DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) printers for creating durable and complex metal parts. However, 3D-printing using metals is almost always industrial in scope and nature. There are only a few hobbyists and small businesses that engage in 3D-printing metal objects. 
  4. Composites
    • Wood-filled, Carbon Fiber-filled: Composite filaments combine thermoplastics with additives like wood fibers or carbon for unique textures, rigidity, or strength. Similar to 3D-printing metals, utilizing these materials is usually industrial in nature.

Understanding STL files

Most 3D-printable designs are created and saved in an STL (Standard Tessellation Language or Standard Triangle Language) format. This is a common file format used in 3D printing. They describe the surface geometry of a 3D object using a mesh of interconnected triangles. 

  • Structure: Each triangular facet is defined by the coordinates of its three vertices and a normal vector indicating which way the triangle is facing.
  • Purpose: STL files provide a simple way to represent complex 3D shapes. They don't include color, texture, or other CAD features. They only focus on geometry.
  • Creation: CAD software or 3D scanning tools typically generate these files. They can be further processed using slicing software, which translates them into G-code for 3D printers.
  • File Types: They come in two formats, ASCII and binary. Binary is more compact while ASCII files are human-readable.

Even though they have some limitations, STL files are widely supported due to their simplicity. STLs are the de facto standard for 3D printing models.

Trending: 3D Printed Mechanical Keyboards

a mechanical keyboard with 3D printed cases

It's a hot trend! 3D-printing mechanical keyboards allowed small businesses and hobbyists to make their custom objects without the high cost and impracticality of industrial-scale mass production. 

As such, 3D-printed mechanical keyboards are here although they are not common. However, they're becoming increasingly popular among 3D-printing enthusiasts and hobbyists. 

  1. Customization
    • Unique Layouts: With 3D printing, designers can experiment with unconventional keyboard layouts.
    • Aesthetic Choices: Users can easily incorporate custom logos, patterns, and artistic designs directly into their keyboard cases.
  2. Modular Designs
    • Swappable Modules: Some 3D-printed keyboards feature modular designs. Users can swap out sections or components like macro pads, rotary encoders, or numeric keypads.
  3. Material Exploration
    • Exotic Filaments: Some advanced hobbyists and businesses use composite filaments like wood or carbon fiber-filled PLA, providing a distinctive look and feel.
    • Flexible Components: TPU and other flexible materials are used for certain keyboard parts to improve ergonomics.
  4. Open Source Collaboration
    • Community Sharing: People share designs online via repositories like GitHub or Thingiverse. Many projects are open-source, encouraging collaboration and interaction between hobbyists, enthusiasts, and small business owners who are into 3D printing. 
  5. Cost-Effectiveness
    • Reduced Production Costs: With 3D printing, you can produce a fully custom mechanical keyboard case at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing. For small business owners who print custom keyboards singly or in small batches, this is a cost-effective method.
  6. Experimental Designs
    • Innovative Switch Mounts: Users are experimenting with different mounting methods for switches such as gasket mounts or leaf springs for enhanced typing feel.
    • Integrated Components: Incorporating features like LED lighting channels or sound dampening directly into the printed case.

How to Find and Download 3D Print Files for Keyboard Cases

Are you interested in having your keyboard case 3D printed? Great! Let's locate and download the ideal 3D print files to initiate your personalized keyboard project.

  1. Online Repositories
    • Thingiverse: This is a popular platform with thousands of user-contributed models, including keyboard cases. You can search for “keyboard case” and filter by tags.
    • Printables: This is a 3D model-sharing platform that also features many keyboard-related files.
    • MyMiniFactory: This repository offers curated designs and often works directly with creators.
  2. Community Forums
    • Reddit: Subreddits like r/MechanicalKeyboards and r/3Dprinting often feature designs shared by users.
    • Discord: Many mechanical keyboard or 3D printing communities on Discord have dedicated channels for sharing and discussing files.
  3. Project Websites
    • Some creators maintain their websites or blogs to share detailed projects. They often include download links, instructions, and updates.
  4. GitHub
    • Many open-source keyboard projects are hosted on GitHub, providing access to files and documentation. Look for repositories with files labeled as “STL” or CAD files.
  5. Commercial Files
    • Some designers sell their models on platforms like Etsy or Cults3D, often with enhanced support or unique designs not found elsewhere.

Downloading Tips

  • Check Compatibility: Make sure the design is compatible with your switches and PCB.
  • Read Instructions: Some designs require specific print settings or assembly methods. Pay attention to these notes.
  • License: Respect licensing terms, especially if you plan to modify or redistribute the files.

Once you download the STL file, you can have it sent to a 3D printer to have your keyboard case printed, usually at a relatively affordable price. Or if you have your own 3D printer, you can print one yourself.

Conclusion

For all you keyboard fanatics interested in diving into the world of 3D-printed keyboard cases, today is an exciting time. With some basic knowledge of 3D printing, a good-quality 3D printer, the appropriate materials, and STL files, you have everything you need to make a personalized mechanical keyboard case. Or if you want it the easy way, you can have a 3D-printing hobbyist or business create a custom case for you. 

3D printing is great, but this is just the start. As 3D printing technology advances, we'll enjoy more options, more customizations, and better-quality creations than ever!

Chris Greiner, a Mechanical Keyboard specialist, boasts a solid educational background with dual bachelor's degrees in Computer Science and Business Management from Lewis University. His additional certification in Mechanical Keyboard Design showcases his dedication to staying on the forefront of keyboard technology. Chris primarily writes for keyboard enthusiasts and has been featured on platforms like Jestik, solidifying his reputation as a thought leader in the mechanical keyboard community.
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