More Than Key Presses: Custom Keycap Materials for Your Mechanical Keyboard

April 29, 2024

One of the best things about mechanical keyboards is that they can be customized. Among the easiest things to customize are the keycaps. They can be easily removed, cleaned, or replaced.

Keycaps can be made of a variety of materials be it ABS, PBT, metal, wood, silicone, or other materials. Each of these materials can affect not just your keyboard's aesthetics but also its feel.

The opportunities to personalize and optimize the keycaps of your mechanical keyboard are endless. So, why not give these options a whirl?

Understanding Keyboard Keycaps

Let's get into the details of keyboard keycaps, shall we? Keycaps are what makes keyboards---well---keyboards. They are the interface between your fingers and your keyboard.

 Keycaps can come in different profiles, shapes, and materials. Let's discuss them in detail.

Keycap Profiles

When you customize your profile, keyboard modders or computer accessories sales personnel may ask you what keycap profile you prefer. Keycap profiles refer to the shape and design of the individual keys. Let's check out some common keycap profiles:

  1. OEM Profile: OEM keycaps have a slightly curved surface and a cylindrical shape, offering a comfortable typing experience for most users.
  2. Cherry Profile: Cherry keycaps have a lower height compared to OEM with a more pronounced sculpted shape that allows for faster typing.
  3. DSA Profile: DSA keycaps have a flat surface and a spherical top, offering a unique typing experience.
  4. SA Profile: Short for "Spherical All," these keycaps have a high-profile design with a large spherical surface on top. They are made to create a retro aesthetic reminiscent of old typewriters.
  5. DCS Profile: Similar to SA keycaps, DCS keycaps also have a spherical top but with a lower profile. 
  6. XDA Profile: XDA keycaps are uniform in height and have a flat surface similar to DSA keycaps. However, XDA keycaps have a larger surface area.
  7. MT3 Profile: MT3 keycaps have a unique sculpted design that aims to mimic the shape of vintage typewriter keycaps. They have a comfortable curve that conforms to the fingers.

Most Common Keycap Materials

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) are the two most common materials used in keycap manufacturing. Let's check out the characteristics of each material. 

  1. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
    • Durability: ABS keycaps are durable. They can resist wear and tear nicely. 
    • Texture: ABS keycaps have a smooth, slightly glossy surface. Some users prefer this smooth texture for its slick texture during typing.
    • Color Vibrancy: ABS keycaps usually have vibrant and sharp colors, making them an eye-catching keycap design.
    • Affordability: ABS keycaps are generally more affordable than PBT keycaps, making them a budget-friendly option for keyboard enthusiasts.
  2. PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate)
    • Durability: PBT keycaps are highly durable and resist fading. 
    • Texture: PBT keycaps have a textured or matte surface that improves grip and generates a more tactile feel when typing.
    • Color Stability: PBT keycaps may not offer the same level of color vibrancy as ABS keycaps.
    • Thickness: PBT keycaps are often thicker and more robust than ABS keycaps.

Other Keycap Materials for Customizing

an image of a mechanical keyboard

ABS and PBT keycaps are not the only keycaps in the market. Indeed, there are many keycaps made of different materials that can add a personal touch to your keyboard. 

  1. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
    • Durable and resistant to wear and tear
    • Smooth, slightly glossy surface
    • With vibrant colors
  2. PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate)
    • Highly durable and resistant to fading
    • Has a textured or matte surface
    • Excellent color stability
  3. POM (Polyoxymethylene)
    • Smooth and slightly slippery texture
    • More resistant to wear and discoloration compared to ABS
    • Produces a high-pitched sound when typing
  4. PC (Polycarbonate)
    • Transparent material which makes it ideal for backlighting effects
    • Smooth or textured surface
    • Less common but favored by users for customization
  5. Metal (Aluminum, Brass, Zinc, etc.)
    • Very durable
    • Varies in weight and texture depending on the metal used
    • Adds a premium aesthetic to keyboards
  6. Wood
    • Provides a unique and natural look
    • Handmade and varies in grain pattern and finish
    • Adds warmth and character to keyboard setups
  7. Silicone/Rubber
    • Soft and flexible material with a cushioned feel
    • Suitable for specific keys like gaming keys
    • Provides a quieter typing experience
  8. Resin
    • Created through a casting process with resin materials
    • Features intricate and artistic designs
    • Popular among collectors for their uniqueness
  9. Carbon Fiber
    • Lightweight and incredibly durable
    • Offers a modern and high-tech aesthetic
    • Less common due to manufacturing complexity
  10. Thermoplastic filaments
    • Can be used to create custom keycaps via 3D-printing
    • Allows for fully customized designs tailored to user preferences
    • Offers versatility and accessibility for hobbyists and enthusiasts

Trends in Keycap Customizing

It's not just keycap materials that are evolving. Let's examine the newest shifts in keycap personalization that are capturing the attention of keyboard modders worldwide. 

  1. Artisan Keycaps: Uniquely crafted by independent artisans, these keycaps often feature intricate designs, vibrant colors, and themed motifs. Keyboard modders can ask these artisans to design custom keycaps for them. Artisan keycaps are highly sought after for their creativity and craftsmanship.
  2. Collaborations and Limited Edition Releases: Limited edition keycap sets feature exclusive designs and premium materials. Owning a premium or limited set creates a sense of exclusivity and excitement.
  3. Novelty Keycaps: Novelty keycaps are keycaps designed to resemble various objects, characters, or symbols. These keycaps add a playful and whimsical element to mechanical keyboards. Popular themes include animals, food, anime characters, pop culture references, and more.
  4. Custom Dye-Sublimation and Printing: With dye-sublimation and printing techniques, users can have their keycap legends customized with high-resolution graphics. 
  5. Texture and Material Experimentation: Keyboard enthusiasts are exploring alternative keycap materials and textures to enhance typing feel and aesthetics. Materials such as wood, metal, resin, and silicone/rubber are being used to create unique keycap designs with different tactile experiences. 
  6. Themed Keycap Sets: Themed keycap sets are designed around specific themes such as retro gaming, sci-fi, nature, or anime. These sets often feature cohesive color schemes, iconography, and legends that evoke the theme.
  7. RGB Compatibility: Keycap designers are creating keycap sets specifically designed to complement RGB backlighting effects. These keycaps feature translucent or semi-translucent designs to allow RGB lighting to shine through, enhancing the visual appeal of illuminated keyboards.
  8. Ergonomic Keycap Profiles: Keycap designers are exploring ergonomic keycap profiles to improve typing comfort and reduce hand fatigue. 
  9. Sustainability and Eco-friendly Materials: There is a growing interest in sustainable and eco-friendly keycap materials such as biodegradable plastics and recycled materials. Manufacturers and designers are exploring environmentally conscious alternatives to traditional plastics.

How To Maintain Keycaps

an image of keycaps dried up after being washed

Keeping keycaps in pristine condition goes beyond mere cleanliness; it's an important aspect of achieving a seamless and gratifying typing experience. The good thing is that regularly maintaining your keycaps is not a daunting task. 

  1. Regular Cleaning: Dust, dirt, and oils from your fingers can accumulate on keycaps over time. Prevent buildup by regularly cleaning your keycaps using a soft, lint-free cloth or a keycap brush. 
  2. Remove Keycaps for Deep Cleaning: Remove the keycaps from your keyboard. Most keycaps can be safely removed using a keycap puller tool. After removing them, clean the keycaps individually using soap and water or other suitable cleaning solutions. Allow the keycaps to dry completely before reattaching them to the keyboard.
  3. Avoid Harsh Chemicals: Do not use harsh chemicals or solvents that can damage the plastic or surface finish. Stick to mild soap or dishwashing detergent.
  4. Protect Against UV Exposure: Prolonged exposure to sunlight or UV rays can cause discoloration. Avoid placing your keyboard in direct sunlight. Use a keyboard cover or dust cover when not in use.
  5. Store Keycaps Properly: If you have spare keycap sets or artisan keycaps, store them in a clean, dry, and dust-free environment when not in use. 
  6. Inspect for Damage: Periodically inspect your keycaps for signs of damage such as cracks, chips, or warping. Damaged keycaps should be replaced promptly to prevent further issues and maintain the overall appearance and functionality of your keyboard.

Conclusion

Customizing your keyboard's keycaps goes beyond aesthetics. It's about finding the ideal blend of comfort, resilience, and tactile pleasure. Choose ABS keycaps if you prefer a lighter touch, or PBT if you prefer durability. Metal keycaps can provide distinct tactile feedback while wooden ones offer a warm, natural feel. Different materials offer different typing experiences.  The perfect keycaps can transform your typing or gaming experience.

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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