Build a High-Performance Custom Mechanical Keyboard for Gaming

March 22, 2024

A good number of pro gamers, around 60%, use mechanical keyboards as part of their gaming gear. The tactile feel, the satisfying click sound, the programmability, the precision, or even the aesthetics that these keyboards offer make it easy to understand why gamers love them.

But what about taking it one step further by creating your own high-performance mechanical gaming keyboard? A keyboard exclusively designed to fit your gaming preferences and style?  A keyboard with personalized keycaps, your preferred switches, and even the LED lighting?

Yes, it can be done. We have this guide on how to create your ideal mechanical gaming keyboard. Every keypress brings you a step closer to your winning moment.

General Characteristics of Mechanical Gaming Keyboards

Do pro gamers use mechanical keyboards? Yes, most of them. That's because mechanical gaming keyboards are designed with features that cater to the needs and preferences of gamers. Many of these keyboards have features that make gaming more enjoyable and efficient, giving the gamer an advantage. 

While there are many brands and models of mechanical keyboards in the market, here are some general characteristics that are often associated with mechanical gaming keyboards:

  1. Mechanical Switches: Mechanical gaming keyboards use individual mechanical switches for each key. These switches provide tactile and audible feedback, which offers a more responsive feel than membrane switches. 
  2. N-Key Rollover and Anti-Ghosting: N-Key Rollover (NKRO) allows you to register multiple key presses simultaneously, preventing input conflicts. Anti-ghosting ensures that each key press is accurately detected even when multiple keys are pressed together.
  3. Backlit and RGB Lighting: Gaming keyboards often feature customizable RGB backlighting. This helps you personalize the keyboard's appearance, create immersive lighting effects, and enhance the gaming atmosphere.
  4. Durability and Build Quality: Mechanical gaming keyboards are built with durability in mind. They have robust construction, reinforced keycaps, and a solid frame to withstand the rigors of intense gaming sessions.
  5. Programmable Keys and Macros: Many gaming keyboards have programmable keys and macro functionality. This allows you to customize key functions and create complex macros for in-game actions.
  6. Dedicated Gaming Mode: Some gaming keyboards have a dedicated gaming mode that disables certain keys to prevent accidental interruptions during gameplay.
  7. Wrist Rest and Ergonomics: Some gaming keyboards include a detachable or integrated wrist rest. The keyboard's ergonomic design may also feature an angled or contoured shape. All these features allow you to play games comfortably for long hours.
  8. Media Controls: Dedicated media controls (volume, playback, mute) allow you to adjust audio settings without leaving the game.
  9. USB Pass-Through Ports: Some gaming keyboards come with USB pass-through ports so you can connect other devices such as a mouse or headset directly to the keyboard.
  10. Customization Software: Gaming keyboards often come with customization software that enables users to tweak settings, create profiles, and adjust lighting effects. 
  11. High Polling Rate: A high polling rate, measured in hertz (Hz), ensures rapid communication between the keyboard and the computer. A higher polling rate can result in lower input lag, providing a more responsive gaming experience.

Standard Performance Metrics of a High-Performance Mechanical Keyboard for Gaming

an image of a mechanical keyboard for gaming with backlight

How would you know if your gaming keyboard meets the high-performance standards required in a gaming keyboard? Well, there are metrics to measure this. The specific metrics and figures for high-performance mechanical gaming keyboards can vary among different models and manufacturers. We will provide you with a handy, general guide.

Note that these metrics may not apply universally. It's important to refer to the specifications provided by the keyboard's manufacturer for accurate information. 

  1. Switch Characteristics
    • Actuation Force: Ranges from 45 grams to 60 grams
    • Actuation Point: Commonly around 1.2 to 2.0 millimeters
  2. Key Rollover and Anti-Ghosting
    • Key Rollover (KRO): Often 6-key or N-key rollover
    • Anti-Ghosting: Full anti-ghosting support
  3. Durability and Switch Lifespan
    • Switch Lifespan: 50 million keystrokes or more
  4. Backlighting and RGB Customization
    • Backlighting: Adjustable brightness levels
    • RGB Customization: Full RGB spectrum with customizable colors and effects
  5. Polling Rate
    • Polling Rate: Commonly 1000 Hz (1 ms response time)
  6. Macro Functionality and Programmable Keys
    • Macro Support: Often includes dedicated macro keys or support for custom macro recording
    • Programmable Keys: Multiple programmable keys for customized functions
  7. Software Integration
    • Software Features: Dedicated software with advanced customization options
  8. Connectivity and Portability
    • Wired or Wireless: Options for both wired and wireless connectivity.
    • USB Pass-Through: Some keyboards include USB pass-through ports.
  9. Customization Options
    • Keycap Compatibility: Support for custom keycap sets.
    • Adjustable Feet: Adjustable feet for changing the keyboard angle.
  10. Price and Value
    • Price Point: Can range from $100 to $300 or more, depending on features.
    • Value for Money: High-quality components and features relative to the price.

Components to Buy for Your Custom Mechanical Keyboard for Gaming

Let's dive into another thrilling part about customizing your gaming keyboard: choosing its components. Here's a list of key components you might need to buy:

  1. PCB (Printed Circuit Board): The PCB is the backbone of your keyboard, connecting all the switches and enabling communication with your computer. Choose a PCB that fits the desired layout (e.g., full-sized, tenkeyless, 60%, 75%). We highly suggest a PCB with hotswap sockets; this makes replacing switches easy because you don't have to solder or desolder connections.
  2. Switches: Choose switches based on your preferences. Common options include Cherry MX, Gateron, Kailh, and others. Select switches with features such as tactile feedback, linear action, or clicky sound.
  3. Keycaps: Keycaps come in various profiles, materials, and colors. Choose keycaps that fit your preferred aesthetic and typing experience. Opt for durable materials like PBT or ABS for keycaps.
  4. Keyboard Case: The case houses all the components and provides structural support. Cases come in different materials like plastic, aluminum, or wood.
  5. Stabilizers: Stabilizers are used for larger keys like Enter, Shift, and Spacebar to ensure smooth and even keypresses. Choose stabilizers compatible with your layout.
  6. Mounting Plate: A mounting plate provides support for the switches and stabilizers, and it often determines the keyboard layout. Ensure the plate is compatible with your chosen PCB and case.
  7. Screws and Standoffs: These are necessary for securing the PCB and other components of the case.
  8. USB Cable: If your keyboard doesn't come with a built-in cable, you may need to purchase a USB cable for connectivity. 
  9. Microcontroller: If you're into advanced customization, you might consider a microcontroller like Arduino or a specific keyboard controller.

Building Your Own Keyboard for Gaming: Step-by-Step Guide

a man’s hand shown building a mechanical keyboard for gaming

This is it! It's time! Building your gaming keyboard can be a rewarding experience, offering customization options tailored to your preferences. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you through the process.

Again, note that the specific steps might vary depending on the components you choose. Always refer to the documentation provided with your parts.

Step 1: Gather Components and Tools

Have the necessary components for your gaming keyboard build such as

  • Keyboard case
  • PCB (Printed Circuit Board)
  • Switches
  • Keycaps
  • Stabilizers (if needed)
  • Soldering iron
  • Solder
  • Screwdriver
  • Tweezers
  • Wire cutters
  • Desoldering pump or wick 

Step 2: Choose a Layout and Layout Plate

Select a layout for your keyboard, and choose a corresponding layout plate if applicable. Common layouts include tenkeyless (TKL), 60%, 75%, and full-size.

Step 3: Install Stabilizers

Install stabilizers for larger keys like Enter or Spacebar. Install them on the PCB according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Step 4: Mount Switches on the PCB

Insert each switch into the designated slot on the PCB. The switches should be correctly aligned and firmly seated. The switches should be facing the correct direction with the backlighting LED aligned with the designated spot on the PCB.

Step 5: Solder the Switches

Heat your soldering iron and add a small amount of solder to the tip. Touch the soldering iron to the switch's pad and apply the solder. Do this with every switch. If you chose a hot-swappable PCB, then you don't need to solder the pins to the PCB.

Step 6: Test the Switches

Perform a test to check if all switches are working correctly. 

Step 7: Install Keycaps

Place keycaps onto the switches. Make sure each keycap corresponds to the correct switch.

Step 8: Mount the PCB in the Case

Secure the PCB in the keyboard case using the screws provided. Align the USB or cable connector with the case openings.

Step 9: Connect the Cable

If your keyboard uses a detachable cable, connect it to the PCB. 

Step 10: Secure the Case

Close the keyboard case, securing it with the screws provided. 

Step 11: Final Testing

Connect your keyboard to a computer and test all keys to ensure proper functionality. If any issues arise, double-check your soldering connections and switch alignments.

Always refer to the documentation provided with your specific components for any unique instructions or considerations. If you encounter difficulties, seek guidance from online communities or forums dedicated to custom keyboards.

Conclusion

Congratulations! By reading this article, you have begun your first steps to having your very own custom-built high-quality gaming keyboard. It will be an extension of who you are as a gamer. The possibilities are limitless in the custom gaming keyboard universe, so continue to experiment and fine-tune your creation.

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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