All About ABS Keycaps in Mechanical Keyboards

April 26, 2024

If you recently bought a standard mechanical keyboard, chances are the keycaps in them are ABS keycaps. These are some of the most common keycaps in the market. They are known for their brilliant hues, shiny finish, versatility, and affordable price. 

There's a lot under the surface than just the type of plastic. In this article, we'll discuss what are ABS keycaps and why they're a noteworthy option to consider when customizing your keyboard.

What Are ABS Keycaps?

ABS keycaps are a common choice for many mechanical keyboard users. They are made of Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), a type of thermoplastic polymer. Their characteristics, affordability, and versatility make them popular among keyboard enthusiasts.

  1. Affordability: ABS keycaps are generally more affordable when compared to other types of keycaps, making them a budget-friendly option for both keyboard manufacturers and consumers.
  2. Versatility: ABS keycaps can be easily molded into various shapes and sizes.
  3. Smooth Texture: ABS keycaps typically have a pleasant smooth texture. 
  4. Thinner Construction: ABS keycaps are thinner compared to PBT keycaps. 
  5. Keycap Printing: ABS keycaps can be easily printed with legends (letters, symbols, or characters) using various methods, such as laser etching, pad printing, or double-shot molding. 
  6. Less Resistant to Yellowing: ABS keycaps are more prone to yellowing over time, especially when exposed to UV light. 

Manufacturing ABS Keycaps

Like many plastic products, ABS keycaps are manufactured using a common industrial process called injection molding. 

  1. Design: Designers use computer-aided design (CAD) software to create the shape, contours, and legends of the keycap.
  2. Mold Creation: A mold is created based on the CAD design. The mold is usually made from metal such as steel or aluminum and consists of two halves that fit together. These halves form the cavity into which the molten ABS material will be injected.
  3. Injection Molding: Liquid molten ABS is injected into the mold cavity under high pressure. The high pressure ensures that the material fills the entire mold cavity and takes on the shape of the keycap design.
  4. Cooling and Solidification: The molten ABS material cools and solidifies. Cooling channels built into the mold or placing the mold in a cooling chamber accelerates the cooling process.
  5. Ejection: The two halves of the mold are separated, and the newly formed keycap is ejected from the mold. Any excess material, known as flash, is trimmed or removed from the keycap.
  6. Finishing: Keycaps undergo additional finishing processes. This can include surface polishing, printing legends, applying coatings, and more.
  7. Quality Control: Finally, the keycaps undergo quality control checks to ensure they meet the desired specifications and standards. 

Comparing ABS Keycaps to PBT Keycaps

an image of keycaps

There are two common keycap materials: ABS and PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate). When purchasing keycaps, you might become confused with these two types. Use this guide to check for distinction.

  1. Durability
    • ABS keycaps are softer and generally less durable compared to PBT keycaps. They wear faster than PBT. Also, their surface becomes slippery and shiny as the coatings wear off.
    • PBT keycaps are more durable and resistant to wear. They are suitable for long-term use without showing signs of surface wear or deterioration.
  2. Texture
    • ABS keycaps have a smooth texture.
    • PBT keycaps have a more textured feel compared to ABS keycaps. The texture provides a more "grippy" typing experience. It also resists the accumulation of oils and fingerprints.
  3. Thickness
    • ABS keycaps are often thinner compared to PBT keycaps. 
    • PBT keycaps are typically thicker than ABS keycaps. They are more tactile than ABS keycaps.
  4. Printing and Legends
    • ABS keycaps can be printed with legends using various methods such as laser etching, pad printing, or double-shot molding. 
    • In PBT keycaps, the printing process may be more challenging due to the material's density. Double-shot molding is a common method used for PBT keycaps.
  5. Resistance to Yellowing:
    • ABS keycaps are more prone to yellowing over time, especially when exposed to UV light. 
    • PBT: PBT keycaps are more resistant to yellowing compared to ABS keycaps.

What are Double-Shot Keycaps

Double-shot keycaps are a type of keycap manufacturing process used to create legends on the surface of the keycaps. The term "double-shot" refers to the process of injecting two layers of plastic into a mold to form a single keycap with dual-colored legends.

Here's how the double-shot keycap manufacturing process works:

  1. Base Mold Injection: The base layer of the keycap is injected. The ABS (or PBT) material is typically opaque. This forms the main body of the keycap.
  2. Legend Mold Injection: A second layer of plastic, usually a different color from the base layer, is injected into the top of the mold cavity. This second layer forms the legends on the surface of the keycap.
  3. Integration and Fusion: The two layers are fused during the molding process. The result is a single keycap with legends that are seamlessly integrated into the surface, forming a durable and permanent bond between the two layers.

Double-shot keycaps are durable. Since the legends are molded into the keycap itself rather than printed on the surface, they are highly resistant to wear, fading, and scratching. 

The manufacturing process for double-shot keycaps is more complex and more expensive compared to other printing methods such as laser etching or pad printing.

Best ABS Keycaps for Mechanical Keyboards

GMK keycaps

Having a hard time choosing which keycaps are for you? We'll provide you with a list. These keycaps have garnered positive reviews and are popular among keyboard enthusiasts for their quality and performance.

  1. GMK Keycaps: GMK produces high-quality, vibrant ABS keycaps with sharp legends and excellent durability. They offer a wide range of keycap sets in various colorways and profiles.
  2. EnjoyPBT Keycaps: EnjoyPBT manufactures thick and durable ABS keycaps. They offer keycap sets in a variety of colors and designs, including classic and retro themes.
  3. Tai-Hao Keycaps: Tai-Hao produces affordable ABS keycap sets with a wide selection of color options. Their keycaps are compatible with various keyboard layouts and have vibrant color schemes.
  4. Signature Plastics SA Keycaps: Signature Plastics manufactures SA profile keycaps made from ABS plastic. These keycaps have a sculpted profile, comfortable typing feel, and are compatible with different keyboard layouts.
  5. Ducky Keycaps: Ducky manufactures ABS keycap sets that are either included with their mechanical keyboards or available for purchase separately. Their keycaps feature double-shot legends for durability and are available in various colors and designs.
  6. Maxkey Keycaps: Maxkey produces ABS keycap sets with double-shot legends and vibrant color schemes. Their keycaps are compatible with Cherry MX switches.

Conclusion

ABS keycaps have a vibrant, glossy appearance that makes typing satisfying. Despite they wear faster than PBT keyboards, their cost-effectiveness coupled with a wide range of designs make them a favored choice among users. They are perfect as replacements for old keycaps or for customizing your keyboard.

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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