Build a Custom Mechanical Keyboard

August 28, 2023

Not all keyboards are created equal. To be honest, yours should be as unique as your coffee order—extra foam, two and a half pumps of caramel, light ice, and hold the judgment. It should echo your statement and snugly fit your individual tastes and preferences, just like that perfectly worn-in pair of jeans.

The good thing is that you can mix technology and personal expression. In fact, many people are embracing the art of keyboard customization. At the forefront of this movement is the world of custom mechanical keyboards—a passion-driven pursuit that merges engineering, design, and individuality into one versatile computer. As the popularity and versatility of mechanical keyboards soars, a growing community of enthusiasts is diving into the realm of customization—crafting keyboards that reflect their unique tastes and preferences.

In this article, we will uncover the ins and outs of your own custom mechanical keyboard build. From selecting the perfect switches that match your gaming and typing style to designing a layout that caters to your every need—and even delving into the world of firmware customization—we’ll guide you through the steps and considerations that will enhance your keyboard experience

Whether you’re an avid typist, a dedicated gamer, or simply someone seeking a typing experience tailored to you, join us as we explore the world of mechanical keyboards as not just a tool but a personal extension of your creativity and functionality.

Ready to create a new keyboard that’s uniquely yours? Let’s get clacking!

The Popularity of Building Custom Mechanical Keyboards

The popularity of mechanical keyboards has increased over the past few years due to their superior typing experience—durability—and the unique tactile and auditory feedback they provide. Unlike traditional rubber dome keyboards, mechanical keyboards use individual mechanical switches for each key, resulting in a better and more precise keypress.

Alongside this surge in popularity, there is also an emergence of a vibrant keyboard enthusiast community, often attributed to avid gamers and streamers. This community is passionate about the finer details of keyboards---from the type of key switches used to the aesthetics of the types of keycaps and cases. Customization has become a central theme with enthusiasts seeking to create keyboards that not only feel great to type on but also reflect their personal style and preferences.

Customization in the keyboard enthusiast community encompasses a wide range of choices—including selecting specific key switches tailored to typing feel—choosing keycaps with unique designs—building custom layouts to suit different tasks—and even crafting cases from various materials for a one-of-a-kind look. The rise of online communities, social media platforms, and dedicated forums has further fueled this trend, allowing enthusiasts to share their creations, exchange advice, and showcase their keyboard-building endeavors

These factors have transformed keyboard customization from a niche hobby to a widespread, and engaging endeavor that caters to individuals who appreciate both functionality and aesthetics in their daily typing experience.

Why Build a Custom Mechanical Keyboard?

Building a custom mechanical keyboard lets you create a typing tool that’s uniquely yours, offering a superior typing experience, aesthetic satisfaction, and a deeper connection to your workspace. The process of customization can be both enjoyable and rewarding, making it an appealing option for keyboard enthusiasts and those seeking a more personalized computing experience.

  1. Tailored Typing Experience: When building a custom keyboard, you have the freedom to choose the exact type of key switches that match your typing preferences. Whether you prefer tactile feedback, a smooth linear feel, or a more pronounced click, you can select switches that provide the precise sensation you desire. In other words, customizing your keyboard offers a lot of flexibility.
  2. Aesthetic Appeal: Custom mechanical keyboards allow you to express your personal style and creativity. You can choose keycaps with unique designs, colors, and materials to create a keyboard that reflects your personality and enhances your workspace aesthetics.
  3. Quality Control: When you custom build a keyboard—you have control over the quality of components used. You can select high-quality switches, stabilizers, and keycaps, ensuring a more durable and reliable keyboard compared to mass-produced alternatives.
  4. Layout Customization: Many custom keyboards offer flexible layout options. You can choose between different form factors (full-sized, tenkeyless, compact), layouts (split, ergonomic), and even program your keys for specific functions or shortcuts, enhancing your productivity and comfort.
  5. Build Satisfaction: There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with assembling a keyboard from scratch. It’s a hands-on experience that allows you to understand how the keyboard works, troubleshoot any issues, and develop a deeper connection with your typing tool.
  6. Learning Opportunity: Building a custom keyboard is a great way to learn about keyboard technology— electronics—and even programming. It can serve as an introduction to soldering, firmware flashing, and basic electronics principles.
  7. Upgrade Path: Custom keyboards are often designed with modularity in mind. This means you can easily swap out components such as switches or keycaps without needing to replace the entire keyboard. This adaptability lets you keep your keyboard up-to-date with your preferences.
  8. Reduced Noise: Some custom keyboards offer the ability to dampen sound through case materials, switch modifications, and stabilizer tuning. This can lead to a quieter typing experience, which can be especially beneficial in shared or quiet environments.
  9. Potential Cost Savings: While custom keyboards can be an investment, building your own allows you to tailor your budget to your needs. You can select components that offer the best value for your money without paying for features you don’t need.

Understanding Mechanical Keyboards Layout

Gearing up to build your own cool keyboard? Before you customize your keyboard, it’s important to know crucial keyboard parts and how they work. 

What is a Mechanical Keyboard?

A mechanical keyboard is a type of keyboard that uses individual mechanical switches for each key. These switches are made up of several components, including a housing, a spring, and an actuator. When a key is pressed, the actuator makes contact with an electrical circuit. This registers a key press. The keypress is then sent to the computer or device connected to the keyboard.

Beyond the standard full-size and compact layouts—there is a variety of unique and specialized mechanical keyboards to explore. Enthusiasts build custom ortholinear keyboards with vertical columns of keys—ergonomic boards designed for comfort—miniature macropads for single-hand use—and stunning artisan boards that are like functional sculptures. The custom community also crafts themed keyboards featuring custom keycaps, cases, and components tailored to specific aesthetics, interests or fandoms. The options are endless when you decide to build a custom mechanical keyboard that suits your needs and style.

Mechanical keyboards use specialized keyboard switches, which offer several advantages over the more common rubber dome switches found in many traditional keyboards:

Components of a Mechanical Keyboard 

These components collectively determine the feel, functionality, and aesthetics of a mechanical keyboard. Keyboard enthusiasts often take these components into careful consideration when building or selecting a keyboard to suit their preferences and needs.

  1. Key Switches: These are the individual mechanical switches located under each keycap—Key switches are responsible for registering keypresses when pressed and providing tactile feedback or audible clicks, depending on the switch type.
  2. Keycaps: Keycaps are the visible and removable parts of the keyboard that you press. They are placed on top of the key switches and come in various shapes, sizes, materials, and designs.
  3. PCB (Printed Circuit Board): The PCB is the electronic circuit board that houses the electrical connections and components of the keyboard—It’s the central component that connects the key switches to the controller and allows the keyboard to send keypress signals to the computer. The PCB design can vary based on the layout and features of the keyboard.
  4. Controller: The controller is a microcontroller unit (MCU) that processes the signals from the key switches—translating them into digital data that the computer can understand. It’s essentially the “brain” of the keyboard.
  5. Stabilizers: Stabilizers are used for larger keys like the spacebar, enter key, and shift keys to prevent wobbling and ensure consistent keypresses. They consist of housing, wire, and inserts, and they help maintain key stability during typing.
  6. Case: The case encloses all the components of the keyboard and provides structural support and protection. Keyboard cases come in various materials, such as plastic, aluminum, wood, and more, each offering different aesthetics and sound profiles.
  7. Plate: The plate is a rigid metal or plastic sheet that sits between the key switches and the PCB. It helps stabilize the switches, ensures even keypresses, and can influence the typing sound.
  8. Backplate/Back PCB (Optional): Some keyboards have an additional backplate or back PCB that adds structural support and can impact the typing feel and acoustics.
  9. Cables: The keyboard is connected to the computer via a USB cable. Some custom keyboards allow for detachable cables, offering more flexibility and ease of transportation.
  10. Firmware: The firmware is the software embedded in the keyboard’s controller. It defines how the keyboard functions, handles keypresses, and can often be customized to remap keys, create macros, and adjust settings.
  11. LEDs and RGB Lighting: Some keyboards feature customizable LED backlighting or RGB lighting, allowing you to personalize the keyboard’s appearance and lighting effects.
  12. Hot-Swappable Sockets: In some keyboards—especially those designed for customization—hot-swappable sockets are integrated into the PCB. These sockets allow you to change out key switches without soldering, making it easier to modify your typing experience.

Key Switch Types

When you build your own mechanical keyboard, you’ll realize that most of the customization involves installing key switches. Here are common types of mechanical switches for customization.

  1. Linear Switches
    • Linear switches provide a smooth keystroke without any tactile bump or audible click. They are often preferred by gamers for their consistent and quick keypresses.
  2. Tactile Switches
    • Tactile switches offer a noticeable bump in the keystroke, providing tactile feedback to typists. They are popular among those who appreciate a tactile feel while typing.
  3. Clicky Switches
    • Clicky switches combine tactile feedback with an audible click sound. They provide a satisfying typing experience with both tactile and auditory cues.

Key Switch Materials

Different switch manufacturers may use proprietary blends of plastics to achieve specific switch characteristics such as the feel of the stem sliding against the housing, the keyboard sound, and the overall durability of the switch. Here are some of the different materials used in manufacturing key switches:

  1. Polycarbonate (PC): Polycarbonate is often used for the housing of key switches. It’s known for its durability, transparency (for clear housings), and resistance to impact. PC housings can produce a slightly deeper sound compared to other plastics.
  2. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS): ABS is widely used for keycaps due to its versatility and cost-effectiveness. ABS keycaps are known for their smooth texture and ability to be easily printed with legends (characters). They can develop a shine over time with use.
  3. Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT): PBT is another common material for keycaps. It’s more durable and resistant to wear compared to ABS. PBT keycaps have a slightly rougher texture and tend to retain their original appearance for a longer time.
  4. Polyoxymethylene (POM): POM is used for keycaps and switch components. It’s known for its smooth surface and low friction, making it suitable for parts that require sliding or movement.
  5. Polyethylene (PE) and Polypropylene (PP): These plastics are sometimes used for specific components like stabilizers due to their low friction properties. PE Foams are also used to enhance the sound and feel of the mechanical keyboard.
  6. Polyetherimide (PEI): PEI is a high-performance plastic used in certain switches and housings. It’s known for its high heat resistance, mechanical strength, and electrical properties.
  7. Polyphenylene Sulfide (PPS): PPS is used for parts that require high-temperature resistance and stability. It can be found in certain switches for specific applications.
  8. Polystyrene (PS): Polystyrene is sometimes used for switch components due to its mechanical properties and affordability.

Planning to Build a Custom Keyboard: Things To Consider

To build your first custom keyboard, you need to plan it out. Indeed, planning is half the job!

  1. Define the purpose.
    • Determine the primary use of your keyboard—Will you use your keyboard for programming, typing, gaming, or some other purpose?
    • Identify any specific features or layout preferences that align with your needs.
  2. Set a budget.
    • Decide how much you’re willing to invest in your custom keyboard—Make sure you’re willing to pay that amount.
    • Allocate funds for key components such as switches, keycaps, PCB, case, and stabilizers.
  3. Choose a form factor.
  4. Select key switches.
    • Research and choose the type of key switches that match your preferred typing experience—There are clicky, linear and tactile switches.
    • Consider factors like actuation force, tactile feedback, and noise level.
  5. Pick keycap sets.
    • Decide on the material, color, and design of the keycaps—PBT and ABS keycaps are the most common.
    • Ensure compatibility with your chosen key switches and layout.
  6. Decide on the PCB and controller.
    • Choose a PCB that supports your desired layout and features (hot-swappable, programmability).
    • Research available firmware options (QMK, VIA) for customization.
  7. Select a keyboard case.
    • Pick a case material (plastic, aluminum, wood) that matches your aesthetics and desired sound profile.
    • Consider any design elements or features you prefer, such as angled or floating designs.
  8. Consider stabilizers.
    • Determine whether you need stabilizers for larger keys (spacebar, enter) and choose the type (plate-mounted or PCB-mounted).
    • Research stabilizer brands that are known for reduced rattle and smoothness.
  9. Research additional features
    • Explore additional features like RGB lighting, underglow, rotary encoders, or OLED screens.
    • Ensure your chosen PCB supports these features if you’re interested.
  10. Check compatibility.
    • Ensure that all selected components are compatible with each other including PCB, case, switches, and keycaps.
    • Double-check layout and keycap size compatibility for a smooth assembly.
  11. Research and purchase.
    • Research trusted vendors and online stores for purchasing components.
    • Read reviews and gather recommendations to ensure you’re getting quality parts.
  12. Gather the right tools and accessories.
    • Prepare tools such as a screwdriver kit, soldering iron (if needed), keycap puller, switch puller, and screwdrivers.
    • Consider accessories like switch lube for smoother keypresses.
  13. Plan for customization.
    • Research and plan how you’ll customize your keyboard’s appearance and functionality through firmware settings.
    • Familiarize yourself with the software needed to flash firmware and configure key mappings.
  14. Document your build.
    • Take notes, photos, or videos as you build the keyboard—You can use the documentation for reference and future troubleshooting.
  15. Allow for personalization.
    • While planning, remember that your keyboard can be a reflection of your personal style and preferences.
    • Don’t hesitate to add unique touches that make your keyboard truly yours.

By following these steps, you’ll be well-prepared to start building your custom mechanical keyboard and create a typing tool that perfectly suits your needs and preferences.

Choosing the Right PCB for Your Custom Keyboard

The PCB is the heart of your custom keyboard. The PCB determines not only the layout and functionality of your keyboard but also its capabilities, customization potential, and overall functionality. Consider the following factors when choosing your PCB.

  1. Layout Compatibility
    • Ensure that the PCB supports your desired keyboard layout—ANSI, ISO, split, etc.
    • Check if the PCB offers flexibility to accommodate layout changes or alternative key placements.
  2. Switch Compatibility
    • Verify that the PCB is compatible with the type of new switches you intend to use (Cherry MX switches, ALPS, etc.).
    • If you plan to use non-standard switches, confirm if the PCB supports their mounting style.
  3. Hot-Swappable vs. Soldered
    • Decide whether you prefer a PCB with hot-swappable sockets—or one that requires soldering switches.
    • Hot-swappable PCBs offer ease of switch replacement and experimentation without soldering skills.
  4. Programmability and Firmware
    • Research the firmware options supported by the PCB (e.g., QMK, VIA).
    • Consider your need for customization, remapping, and creating macros when choosing a firmware.
  5. Additional Features
    • Explore any additional features offered by the PCB, such as RGB lighting, underglow, or integrated controllers.
    • If you want shine-through keycaps or RGB lighting effects, pay attention to the LED orientation on the PCB—North-facing LEDs shine up through the switch, while south-facing LEDs point down. Most backlit keycaps are designed for north-facing LEDs. Using them on a south-facing PCB can cause issues with switch clearance, leading to interference and an uneven lighting effect. 
    • Ensure your PCB LED orientation matches the keycaps for proper compatibility.
  6. Build Quality and Reviews:
    • It’s always recommended to read reviews or seek guidance from fellow enthusiasts about the PCB’s build quality, reliability, and performance.
    • A well-regarded PCB can contribute to a smoother building process and an enhanced typing experience.
  7. Support and Documentation
    • Check if the manufacturer provides comprehensive documentation, guides, and support resources for the PCB.
    • Access to clear instructions can be invaluable, especially for first-time builders.
  8. Flexibility for Future Modifications
    • Consider whether the PCB allows for future upgrades or modifications, such as adding LEDs or other components.
  9. Community and Compatibility
    • Join online keyboard enthusiast communities or forums to discuss PCB options—gathering insights from experienced builders.
    • Ensure that the PCB is compatible with keycap sets, stabilizers, and other components you plan to use.
  10. Budget Consideration
    • Factor in the cost of the PCB within your overall budget for the custom keyboard project.
    • Remember that PCB prices can vary based on features and brand reputation.

Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Custom Mechanical Keyboard 

Now it’s time to create the keyboard that you’ve always wanted. Stay tuned because we will teach you how to build your custom keyboard.

Your Guide to Your First Build

Time to build your custom keyboard! This involves careful handling of components and following a systematic process. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you successfully assemble your keyboard:

Tools and Materials You’ll Need:

  • Keyboard components (PCB, case, key switches, stabilizers, keycaps)
  • Screwdriver (if needed for case assembly)
  • Switch puller
  • Stabilizer puller
  • Optional—lubricant, soldering iron (if soldering switches)

Step 1: Prepare your workspace.

  1. Clear a clean, well-lit workspace to assemble your keyboard.
  2. Lay out all your components within easy reach.

Step 2: Prepare the PCB.

  1. Place the PCB inside the keyboard case according to the case’s screw holes or standoffs.
  2. Make sure your PCB is secured. Secure the PCB in place using screws if required by your case design.

Step 3: Insert the stabilizers.

  1. Identify the locations for larger keys—spacebar, enter key, etc.—that require stabilizers.
  2. For each stabilizer slot, insert the stabilizer into the PCB’s stabilizer mount holes.
  3. Push the stabilizer pins into the PCB until they click into place. Make sure they are securely seated.

Step 4: Lubricate the stabilizers.

  1. If desired, apply a small amount of lubricant to the points of contact between the stabilizer wires and the housing.
  2. Re-insert the stabilizers into the PCB after applying lubricant.

Step 5: Install switches to the PCB.

  1. Hold a key switch by its sides—making sure not to touch the pins on the bottom.
  2. Align the two pins on the bottom of the switch with the corresponding switch mount holes on the PCB.
  3. Gently press down on the switch until you hear or feel a slight click as it snaps into place.
  4. Repeat this process for all switches, ensuring they are evenly and securely seated.
  5. Secure the PCB into the case.

Step 6: Test the switches.

  1. Before proceeding further, consider testing a few switches to ensure they are registering correctly. Also, make sure the PCB is working.
  2. Plug in the keyboard and use a key testing tool or software to confirm that the switches are working as expected.

Step 7: Install stabilizer wires if required.

  1. If your stabilizers require additional wires—e.g., spacebar—insert them into the corresponding slots on the stabilizer housings.
  2. Secure the wires to the stabilizer housing by gently pressing them into the small clips.

Step 8: Install keycaps.

  1. Place each keycap onto the stem of its corresponding switch.
  2. Press down firmly until you feel the keycap click into place.

Step 9: Final check and testing.

  1. Double-check that all switches and stabilizers are properly seated and aligned.
  2. Inspect the keyboard for any loose components or visible issues.
  3. Plug in the keyboard and thoroughly test each key to ensure proper functionality.

Step 10: Close the keyboard case.

  1. If your case consists of multiple parts, carefully align and secure them. Screw them into place or make sure the clips are locked in case of snap-in components.
  2. Ensure that the keyboard is securely closed and all components are enclosed within the case.

Congratulations! You’ve successfully assembled your custom mechanical keyboard. 

Solder and Desoldering Components 

When building your own custom mechanical keyboard—unless you’re customizing a hot-swappable keyboard—your customization process will most likely include soldering and desoldering components. These processes require careful technique and attention to detail. Here are some tips to help you successfully solder and desolder components:

Tips for Soldering

  1. Select the right temperature.
    • Adjust the temperature of your soldering iron based on the type of solder you’re using and the components you’re soldering. Generally, a temperature between 350°C and 400°C (660°F and 750°F) works well for most keyboard soldering.
  2. Use flux.
    • Apply a small amount of flux to the soldering joint before soldering—flux helps improve the flow of solder and creates cleaner connections.
  3. Tin the tip of your soldering iron.
    • “Tinning” the soldering iron tip involves applying a thin coat of solder to the tip—this helps improve heat transfer and solder flow during soldering.
  4. Secure components.
    • Hold the component in place with tweezers or a helping hand tool to prevent it from moving during soldering.
  5. Heat and solder joint.
    • Heat both the pad and the lead of the component for a few seconds before applying solder. Then, touch the solder to the joint—not the tip of the iron. The solder should flow smoothly onto the joint.
  6. Avoid using excessive solder.
    • Use the right amount of solder—enough to create a strong connection but not so much that it bridges across adjacent pads.

Tips for Desoldering

  1. Use a desoldering pump or wick.
    • Use a desoldering pump (solder sucker) or desoldering wick (solder braid)—this helps get rid of excess solder from the joint.
  2. Apply heat.
    • Heat the solder joint with the soldering iron while using the desoldering pump or wick to absorb the melted solder.
  3. Alternate heat and suction.
    • Apply heat, release the trigger of the desoldering pump, and quickly press the trigger again—this helps create a vacuum to suck up the molten solder.
  4. Prevent lifted pads.
    • Apply gentle pressure when using the desoldering pump or wick to avoid lifting or damaging the PCB pads.
  5. Clean the area.
    • After desoldering, clean the area with isopropyl alcohol and a brush or cotton swab to remove any residue.

Flashing and Customizing the Firmware and Programmability

Custom programmability is a huge advantage of building your own keyboard. Many custom PCBs support powerful firmware like QMK and VIA—allowing you to completely customize your layout. You can create function layers, program macros for complex tasks, build lighting effects, and customize tapping, holding, and repeating of keys. If you want to make your keyboard uniquely yours, look for PCBs that support QMK and VIA and consider the steps below:

Flashing Firmware with QMK

  1. Download QMK Toolbox.
    • Download and install the QMK Toolbox software—available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
  2. Obtain firmware files.
    • Visit the QMK Configurator (https://config.qmk.fm/) to create a firmware file for your keyboard’s layout and preferences.
  3. Put your keyboard into Bootloader mode.
    • Depending on your keyboard, this might involve pressing specific key combinations or using a reset button. Refer to your keyboard’s documentation for instructions.
  4. Connect your keyboard.
    • Plug in your keyboard to the computer using the provided USB cable.
  5. Open the QMK Toolbox.
    • Launch the QMK Toolbox software.
  6. Load the firmware.
    • Click the “Open” button in QMK Toolbox and select the firmware file you obtained from the QMK Configurator.
  7. Flash the firmware.
    • Click the “Flash” button in QMK Toolbox to begin the flashing process—the software will communicate with your keyboard and upload the new firmware.
  8. Test and configure.
    • After flashing, test your keyboard to ensure all keys work as expected.
    • If needed, you can customize further by editing the firmware using QMK’s C code files.

Customizing with VIA Software

  1. Download VIA Configurator.
    • Download and install the VIA Configurator software for your operating system.
  2. Connect your keyboard.
    • Plug in your keyboard to the computer.
  3. Open VIA Configurator.
    • Launch the VIA Configurator software.
  4. Detect the keyboard.
    • The software should automatically detect your keyboard. If not, follow on-screen instructions to manually select it.
  5. Customize keys.
    • Use the VIA Configurator’s graphical interface to remap keys.
    • Click on a key and select the desired function, key code, or macro from the dropdown menus.
  6. Create macros.
    • To create macros, select the “Macro” tab in the VIA Configurator.
    • Record a series of keypresses and assign them to a single key.
  7. Apply changes.
    • Once you’ve made your customizations, click the “Write” button to apply the changes to your keyboard.
  8. Test and save configuration.
    • Test your customizations on the keyboard. Make sure everything is according to your preference and is working properly.
    • If satisfied, save the configuration to your computer for future use.

Final Tips

  • Always follow the software’s documentation and guidelines for flashing firmware and customizing your keyboard.
  • Be cautious while making changes to firmware and configurations—incorrect settings can cause issues.
  • Join online keyboard communities or forums for support, advice, and inspiration from fellow enthusiasts.

Sound Tuning and Modifications: Enhancing Your Keyboard Sound

One of the joys of building a custom mechanical keyboard is fine-tuning the sound signature to your preference. From muting pingy noises to amplifying satisfying clicks—you have full control to shape the acoustic profile through simple modifications. This section will explore popular techniques to make your keyboard sound just right.

Introduction to Sound Tuning

Mechanical keyboards emit sound not only from the key switches themselves, but from interactions between the switches, plate, PCB, and case. The combination of materials and construction can result in hollowness, pinging, reverb, or other undesirable effects. Tuning refers to modifications that alter these acoustic properties—the goal is to achieve a clean, uniform sound without harsh overtones.

Dampening Mods: Making Your Keyboard Sound and Feel Better

Many builders add o-rings, foam, or other dampening materials to soften the typing feel and mute the higher frequencies. Here are some common damping mods:

  • Switch o-rings - These rubber rings fit around the keycap stem—cushioning the downward impact for a softer bottom-out. They also reduce the clack sound when returning to top position.
  • Case foam - Adding foam inside the case absorbs errant noises and high resonances—resulting in a deeper, duller sound signature. Open-cell neoprene or EVA foam work well.
  • Plate foam - Foam between the PCB and plate dampens vibrations for a softer, quieter typing experience. Dielectric grease on plate stabilizers also mutes noise.

How Plate Material Influences Sound

The type of material used for the keyboard’s plate impacts sound considerably. Here are guidelines for common materials:

  • Aluminum - Bright, higher-pitched sound. Provides a rigid typing feel.
  • Steel - Produces a fuller, lower-pitched acoustic profile than aluminum. Excellent durability.
  • Polycarbonate - Softer, deeper sound signature—adds flex while typing for a cushier feel.
  • Brass - Warm, clacky sound with attractive yellow coloring. Heavy weight.

Practical Tips for Sound Tuning Modifications

When applying any modifications, remember less is often more. Gradually add thin layers of foam or other materials until achieving your desired acoustic profile. Be systematic and patient—tuning is an iterative process of testing and refining. With some customization, you can make your keyboard sound incredible and type like a dream.

Troubleshooting and Maintenance

Customizing keyboards can be intimidating for beginners. Don’t worry - with some guidance, troubleshooting, and practice, you’ll be proficient in no time. This section covers frequently asked questions, demystifies quirks in the process, and provides solutions to common issues that may arise.

Common Issues and Solutions

Customizing keyboards can be a rewarding experience, but it also comes with its share of challenges. Here are some common problems you might encounter when customizing mechanical keyboards:

1. Incompatibility Issues

  • Problem: Components (switches, keycaps, PCB, case) may not be compatible with each other.
  • Solution: Thoroughly research and double-check compatibility before purchasing components. Read reviews and consult forums to ensure that all parts will work together.

2. Soldering Mistakes

  • Problem: Poor soldering can lead to cold joints, bridging, or damage to the PCB.
  • Solution: Practice soldering on scrap components before tackling your keyboard. Use the correct soldering temperature and technique. Clean the soldering iron tip and ensure proper heat transfer for smooth soldering.

3. Flashing Firmware Issues

  • Problem: Flashing firmware may fail or result in unintended behavior.
  • Solution: Follow instructions carefully when using firmware tools like QMK or VIA. Ensure your keyboard is in bootloader mode before flashing. If errors occur, consult documentation, forums, or online guides for troubleshooting steps.

4. Key Mapping Challenges

  • Problem: Remapped keys or macros might not work as expected.
  • Solution: Double-check key mappings in software like VIA or QMK. Test each key after remapping to ensure proper functionality. Avoid overcomplicating your layout, especially if you’re new to customization.

5. Stabilizer Rattle or Squeak

  • Problem: Stabilizers might produce rattling or squeaking sounds when typing.
  • Solution: Lubricate stabilizers with a high-quality lubricant to reduce friction and noise. Ensure stabilizers are correctly seated and properly secured to the PCB.

6. Keycap Fitment Issues

  • Problem: Keycaps may not fit properly on switches due to varying stem shapes.
  • Solution: Check keycap compatibility with your chosen switches. Certain keycap profiles might work better with specific switches. Consider using a keycap puller to gently adjust keycaps for a snug fit. Or purchase an entirely new set of keycaps that are compatible with your switches.

7. LED or RGB Malfunctions

  • Problem: LEDs or RGB lighting might not function or display the desired colors.
  • Solution: Verify proper connections of LED components on the PCB. Ensure the firmware supports your chosen lighting effects. Update or re-flash the firmware if necessary.

8. Poor Case Alignment or Fitment

  • Problem: Keyboard case components might not align or fit correctly.
  • Solution: Carefully review case assembly instructions. Follow the order and orientation of case parts. Be patient and gentle when aligning components to avoid forcing them together.

9. Layout Confusion

  • Problem: Custom layouts might be confusing or impractical for your typing habits.
  • Solution: Before committing to a unique layout, consider your typing style, usage patterns, and ergonomic comfort. Opt for a layout that enhances your typing experience rather than complicating it.

10. Lack of Documentation or Support

  • Problem: Limited documentation or manufacturer support can hinder the customization process.
  • Solution: Research thoroughly before purchasing components. Look for brands or products with good community support, clear documentation, and active forums. Engage with online keyboard communities for advice and solutions.

Maintaining Your Custom Keyboard

Proper maintenance can help keep your customized keyboard in excellent condition and extend its lifespan. 

1. Regular Cleaning

  • Dust and debris can accumulate between keycaps and in crevices. Use a small brush, compressed air, or a handheld vacuum to remove dust and particles from the keyboard’s surface.

2. Keycap Cleaning

  • Remove keycaps periodically and clean them with a damp cloth. For more thorough cleaning, you can use a keycap puller and soak the keycaps in warm soapy water. Make sure they’re completely dry before reattaching them.

3. Preventive Measures

  • Consider using keyboard covers when the keyboard is not in use to protect it from dust and spills.

4. Switch and Stabilizer Maintenance

  • Lubing your switches and stabilizers can reduce friction and improve the feel and sound of your keyboard. Change the gasket mount if it’s worn out.

5. Cable Care

  • If your keyboard has a detachable cable, handle it with care. Avoid bending or pulling the cable excessively, as this can damage the connectors.

6. Software Updates

  • Keep your keyboard’s firmware up to date. New firmware versions might include bug fixes, optimizations, or additional features.

7. Avoid Spills

  • Avoid eating or drinking near your keyboard to prevent accidental spills. If a spill occurs, immediately disconnect the keyboard, clean it, and let it dry thoroughly before using it again.

8. Proper Storage

  • If you need to store your keyboard for an extended period, place it in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and extreme temperatures.

9. Switch Inspection

  • Occasionally inspect your switches and keycaps for signs of wear, damage, or misalignment. Replace or repair any components as needed.

10. Use a Keyboard Sleeve or Case

  • If you transport your keyboard frequently, consider using a keyboard sleeve or case to protect it from scratches and impact during transit.

11. Switch out Keycaps Carefully

  • When changing keycaps or modifying your keyboard, use a keycap puller and apply gentle pressure to avoid damaging switches or stems.

12. Regular Usage 

  • Regularly using your keyboard can prevent mechanical parts from sticking due to lack of use. It can also help you notice any issues or changes in performance.

FAQ: Additional Common Questions

What Components Do I Need to Build a Custom Mechanical Keyboard?

The key parts you need are:

  • Keyboard case - The outer shell that houses the internal components. Common materials are plastic, aluminum, acrylic, and polycarbonate.
  • PCB (printed circuit board) - The “brain” of the keyboard where you solder or insert switches. Choose between solderable and hotswap.
  • Plate - Supports the switches and affects flex and sound. Common materials are aluminum, steel, brass, carbon fiber.
  • Switches - Determine the keypress feel and sound. Common types are linear, tactile, and clicky. Popular brands include Cherry, Gateron, Kailh.
  • Keycaps - Set the look and feel of pressing keys. Materials are usually ABS or PBT plastic.
  • Stabilizers - Support larger keys like spacebar to reduce wobble. Screw-in stabilizers are preferred.
  • USB cable - Connects the keyboard to your computer. A detachable cable allows easy replacement.
  • Lube and brushes - (Optional) Lubricates switches and stabilizers for a smoother, quieter experience.

Is Building a Custom Mechanical Keyboard Difficult for Beginners?

Building a custom mechanical keyboard is approachable even for total beginners. The process just involves:

  • Lubing and inserting stabilizers
  • Mounting the PCB and plate into the case
  • Inserting switches into the PCB (for hotswap) or soldering switches (for solderable PCBs)
  • Attaching keycaps onto the switches

There are excellent online guides and YouTube build logs to reference. Joining online keyboard communities can also provide tips and support. As long as you carefully follow compatibility requirements and take your time, building a custom board is very manageable.

Can I Build a Quality Mechanical Keyboard on a Budget?

Yes, you can absolutely build a high quality custom mechanical keyboard on a budget under $200. Here are some tips:

  • Opt for a plastic or acrylic case over metal which can be pricey.
  • Choose a hotswap PCB instead of a solderable one.
  • Use an aluminum plate instead of brass or carbon fiber.
  • Pick affordable but reputable switch brands like Gateron, Kailh, or Akko.
  • Choose cheaper keycap material like ABS over PBT.
  • Skip extras like switch films, lube, and stabilizer tuning for your first build.
  • Join group buys to get discounted custom parts when available.

How Do I Choose the Right Switches for My Mechanical Keyboard?

Trying new switches depends on your priorities between gaming, typing, and a balance:

  • Linear switches like Reds have no bump, ideal for fast gaming.
  • Tactile switches like Browns have a bump feedback, good balance of gaming and typing.
  • Clicky switches like Blues have an audible click, preferred for typing.

Beyond type, also consider:

  • Operating force - Lower is easier to press rapidly.
  • Travel distance - Shorter travel can increase typing speed.
  • Sound profile - Clicky is loudest, linear is quietest.
  • Brand - Cherry, Gateron, Kailh are quality and affordable.

Getting a switch tester can help you experience different switches firsthand.

How Do I Ensure My Keyboard Has a Good Acoustic Profile?

A keyboard’s sound can be tuned through careful materials selection and modifications:

  • Case material affects reverb. Metals ring while plastic mutes. Combine for ideal pitch.
  • Plates impact pitch and loudness. Softer materials like POM dampen; brass amplifies sound.
  • Switch choice determines clickiness. Clicky switches naturally accentuate sound profile.
  • Lubed switches and stabilizers reduce rattle and pinging for a deeper tone.
  • Case foam placed strategically absorbs ping and hollowness for a fuller sound.
  • Tape modding eliminates switch housing reverb for a cleaner sound.
  • O-rings on keycaps soften bottoming out noise if desired.

Experiment with tweaks like plate material, switch choice, lube, and foam to achieve your preferred sound.

Other Creative Ideas in Building Your Own Keyboard Type

Do you want your typing experience to be even better? Building your own mechanical keyboard opens up a world of creative possibilities—beyond the basics. Here are some unique and creative ideas to consider when building a custom mechanical keyboard:

  1. Custom Artwork or Engravings
    • Add a personal touch by incorporating custom artwork, engravings, or decals onto the keyboard case or keycaps—turning your keyboard into a unique piece of functional art.
  2. Custom Keycap Sets
    • Design or commission a custom keycap set with unique colors, legends, or themes—reflecting your personality or interests. This can make your keyboard truly one-of-a-kind.
  3. Ergonomic Modifications
    • Experiment with ergonomic designs—catering to your typing comfort. Consider split keyboards, angled cases, or unique hand positions for a more ergonomic and comfortable typing experience.
  4. Incorporate Natural Materials
    • Use wood, stone, or other natural materials for the keyboard case—creating a distinct and organic look. These materials can add warmth and a touch of nature to your setup.
  5. RGB Light Art
    • Get creative with RGB lighting effects—designing patterns, animations, or light art that dynamically change as you type. This can turn your keyboard into a mesmerizing light show. This is particularly cool with gaming keyboards.
  6. Mechanical Switch Mix
    • Mix and match different types of switches across the keyboard—creating a customized typing experience. For example, you could have tactile switches for typing and linear switches for gaming.
  7. Integrated Trackpad or Touchscreen
    • Design a keyboard with an integrated touch-sensitive trackpad or touchscreen area for added functionality, navigation, or shortcut controls.
  8. Sound Dampening
    • Experiment with different materials and methods to dampen sound, creating a unique acoustic profile. This can result in a keyboard with a quieter or more distinct sound.
  9. Repurposed Vintage Keycaps
    • Source vintage keycaps from old typewriters or keyboards and integrate them into your custom build for a nostalgic and eclectic look.
  10. Themed Keyboards
    • Design your keyboard around a specific theme, such as retro gaming, space exploration, steampunk, or your favorite movie or book. 
  11. Integrated Gadgets
    • Incorporate additional features like a small display, knobs, buttons, or even a mini joystick for specific applications or interactions.
  12. Switch Top Modifications
    • Modify the tops of your switches to create unique tactile or auditory sensations. This involves altering the shape or materials of the top housing for a personalized feel.
  13. Translucent or Transparent Case
    • Opt for a case made from translucent or transparent materials to showcase the inner workings of your keyboard, including switches and lighting.
  14. Wireless and Bluetooth
    • Integrate wireless or Bluetooth functionality to make your keyboard more versatile and clutter-free.
  15. Modular or Swappable Components
    • Design a keyboard with modular components that can be easily swapped out, allowing you to experiment with different layouts, switch types, and features.

Creativity knows no bounds when it comes to building your own mechanical keyboard. Feel free to combine ideas, experiment, and let your imagination run wild as you create a keyboard that perfectly suits your preferences and style.

Other Peripherals to Match Your Custom Keyboard

Complementing your custom-built keyboard with well-chosen peripherals can enhance your overall typing and computing experience. Here are some peripherals that can work well alongside your custom mechanical keyboard:

  1. Vertical mouse
    • A high-quality vertical mouse that suits your grip style and preferences can improve accuracy and comfort during tasks and gaming. A vertical mouse is also more ergonomic than a standard mouse.
  2. RGB Mousepad
    • A smooth and large mousepad provides ample space for precise mouse movements and complements your keyboard setup. Choose one with great artwork or RGB rims.
  3. Desk Accessories
    • Items like cable organizers, desk mats, and monitor stands can improve organization and ergonomics.
  4. Mechanical Number Pad
    • If you frequently input numerical data, a standalone mechanical numpad can be a useful addition to your setup.
  5. Custom Keycap Sets
    • Coordinate your keyboard’s aesthetics by choosing custom keycap sets that match your overall theme or style.
  6. RGB Lighting Strips
    • Extend your keyboard’s RGB lighting theme by adding LED lighting strips around your desk area.
  7. External Storage
    • High-capacity external hard drives or solid-state drives provide additional storage for your files and media.
  8. Graphics Tablet
    • For artists and designers, a graphics tablet offers precision and control when creating digital art.
  9. Game Controllers
    • If you’re a gamer, having a game controller or joystick can enhance the gaming experience for certain genres.
  10. USB Hub or Dock
    • A USB hub or docking station expands the number of available ports for connecting peripherals.

Conclusion

The path to creating your ideal keyboard is a cool journey—filled with choices, creativity, and the satisfaction of hands-on craftsmanship. 

Through the process of choosing switches that offer the perfect tactile dance beneath your fingertips, assembling components with care and precision, and customizing firmware to cater to your every command—you’ve woven a computer peripheral that extends beyond mere functionality. Your custom keyboard is a reflection of your personality, a manifestation of your attention to detail, and a tangible embodiment of the bond between technology and individuality.

Whether you’re driven by the allure of tactile switches, the uniqueness of artisan keycaps, or the thrill of mastering every key’s unique rhythm—building a custom mechanical keyboard is an adventure. Let your creativity flow. Let your preferences guide you. Make your keyboard a canvas on which you paint your own typing and gaming journey, keyboard builder!

Glossary of Mechanical Keyboard Terms

  • Actuation Force: The amount of force needed to actuate a switch. Measured in grams. Lighter switches require less force.
  • Actuation Point: The distance a key needs to be pressed for the switch to actuate (register a keypress). Measured in millimeters. Lower is better for fast tapping.
  • Bottoming Out: Pressing a key all the way down until it hits the bottom of the switch housing.
  • Bounce: When a switch inadvertently registers multiple keypresses from a single press. Caused by switch resetting too slowly.
  • Chattering: When a key switch rapidly turns on and off randomly, registering erroneous keypresses. Sign of a damaged switch.
  • Group Buy: A group of people get together to buy a custom keyboard product as a batch—This allows niche or limited products to be made.
  • Hot-Swap PCB: A circuit board that lets you easily swap switches without soldering—Makes customizing switches a breeze!
  • Key Rollover & Anti-Ghosting: Key rollover means more keys can be pressed together—Anti-ghosting prevents wrong keys from being registered.
  • Key Wobble: Lateral movement of a keycap when pressed off-center. Stabilizers reduce wobble.
  • Keycap Profile: The shape and height of keycaps. Different profiles feel and look different when typing. SA, DSA, and Cherry profiles are common.
  • Linears, Tactiles, Clickies: Types of switches. Linears are smooth, tactiles have a bump feel, clickies make a click sound.
  • Modding: Customizing parts like switches and keycaps to change looks, sound, or feel.
  • Mounting System: How the plate and switches are attached to the case. Changes the overall feel and sound.
  • North-Facing Switches: Switches oriented with the LED cutout facing the north side of the keyboard. May cause interference issues with some cherry-profile keycaps.
  • Ping: High-pitched metallic ringing sound produced by the keyboard. Usually from the switch spring vibrating.
  • Plate Material: The keyboard’s base plate material affects how it looks, feels, and sounds. Popular choices are aluminum, brass, and FR4.
  • QMK Firmware: Software that lets you customize and reprogram your keyboard keys.
  • Sound Dampening: Using foam, tape, etc.—to alter the keyboard’s sound profile.
  • South-Facing Switches: Switches oriented with LED cutout facing the south side of the keyboard. Provides best compatibility with most keycaps.
  • Stabilizer or Stab: Part that help keep large keys steady when pressed. Prevent wobbly or stuck keys.
  • Switch Lubricant: Oils or greases used to lubricate the switch stem, spring, and housing to improve feel and sound.
  • TKL (Tenkeyless): A keyboard without a number pad, giving more room while keeping function keys.

Mechanical Keyboard Community Additional Resources

The mechanical keyboard community is a diverse, global group—united by a shared passion for high-quality keyboards. From custom builders to Group Buy participants, forums to online retailers, there are many ways to get involved with this enthusiastic community.

How to Participate in Group Buys and What to Expect

Group Buys allow community members to collectively fund production runs of limited edition keyboards and keycaps. To participate—join a Group Buy during the order period, submit payment, and wait for in-stock production and fulfillment. The process typically takes 6 months to a year. Patience is key. Group Buys offer access to unique designs not available through normal retail channels. However, there are risks—such as delays or quality issues. 

Navigating Forums and Online Platforms: Finding Your Community

Forums like Geekhack and subreddits like r/MechanicalKeyboards connect enthusiasts worldwide. Browse Group Buy announcements, ask questions, or show off builds. Join local meetup groups or connect on platforms like Discord—to engage with the community. Check vendors like KPrepublic for Group Buys. The community spans both niche technical forums and mainstream social platforms.

Sharing and Learning: Engaging with Others in the Hobby 

The keyboard community thrives on a spirit of collaboration and knowledge sharing. Experienced builders offer advice to newcomers. Creators prototype and gather feedback before Group Buys. Community engagement means both learning from and giving back to other enthusiasts. 

Tips for Staying Updated with Trends and New Releases

Follow hashtags and designers on Instagram. Join email newsletters from vendors announcing upcoming releases. Check out keyboard forums daily or weekly to discover new Group Buys. Set up alerts for keywords on platforms like Reddit. Attend local meetups to try the latest keyboard innovations. Stay curious—and connect with fellow enthusiasts worldwide.

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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