Customizing Mechanical Keyboards for Beginners: Hot-Swappable Vs Soldered

April 2, 2024

Customizing mechanical keyboards is one of the best and most satisfying hobbies for gamers, computer aficionados, and those who love building electronic kits. There's nothing more fun, exciting, and satisfying than building or modifying a device that is uniquely yours---one that perfectly suits your needs and requirements. 

Hot-swappable keyboards and standard soldered mechanical keyboards perfectly fit the bill for popular computer devices to customize.

But which one is for you? Let's break them down for a closer look. We'll also provide you with general steps on how to customize these computer peripherals.

Main Differences Between Hot-Swappable and Soldered Keyboards

Which one is best for you to customize---a hot-swappable keyboard or just a standard mechanical keyboard? 

  1. Mounting Method
    • Soldered keyboards: The key switches are permanently attached to the PCB using solder. Replacing or customizing the switches requires desoldering the existing switches and soldering new ones onto the PCB.
    • Hot-swappable keyboards: The key switches are inserted onto the PCB using sockets, which allow the switches to be easily removed and replaced without the need for soldering or desoldering.
  2. Customization and Maintenance
    • Soldered keyboards: Customizing or replacing key switches requires some skill in soldering and desoldering. It can be time-consuming, but it's a great hobby for enthusiasts in modding and electronics.
    • Hot-swappable keyboards: Malfunctioning key switches can be easily swapped out. This process is quick, easy, and doesn't require any soldering skills or equipment.
  3. Durability and Longevity
    • Soldered keyboards: Because the connections between the switches and the PCB are soldered, the switches are more secure. There's hardly any issue of switches wobbling.
    • Hot-swappable keyboards: Since switches are simply inserted into sockets, users may experience key wobbling. In some instances, the switches may get misaligned, losing their contact with the PCB. 
  4. Versatility
    • Soldered keyboards: Once switches are soldered onto the PCB, the keyboard's layout and switch configuration are fixed unless switches are desoldered and replaced.
    • Hot-swappable keyboards: Hot-swappable keyboards provide greater versatility since switches can be easily swapped out. Users can experiment with different types of switches, customize the keyboard's feel and sound, or replace faulty switches without significant hassle.
  5. Accessibility
    • Soldered keyboards: Standard keyboards are widely available. They come in hundreds of brands, models, and designs. 
    • Hot-swappable keyboards: Hot-swappable keyboards are less accessible and more expensive than standard keyboards due to their engineering and design. 

How to Customize Hot Swappable Mechanical Keyboards

customizing a hot-swappable mechanical keyboard

The nice thing about customizing hot-swappable mechanical keyboards is that the process is straightforward. Go through this step-by-step guide on how to customize a hot-swappable mechanical keyboard:

  1. Select Key Switches: Decide on the type of key switches you want to use. Hot-swappable keyboards support various switch brands and types, including Cherry MX, Gateron, Kailh, and more. Consider factors such as switch type (linear, tactile, or clicky), actuation force, and sound profile to find switches that match your typing preferences.
  2. Swap Key Switches: Remove the keycaps from your keyboard to access the switches. Then gently pull out the existing switches from their sockets on the PCB. Be careful not to damage the sockets or the switches.

    Insert the new key switches into the sockets on the PCB. Make sure the pins align properly with the sockets and that they are fully seated.
  3. Customize Keycaps: Choose keycaps that suit your aesthetic preferences and typing feel. Keycaps come in various materials (ABS, PBT, POM), profiles (OEM, Cherry, SA), and designs (blank, printed, sculpted). Remove the existing keycaps by gently pulling them off the switches. 

    Install the new keycaps by pressing them firmly onto the switches until they snap into place.
  4. Modify Stabilizers: If your keyboard uses stabilizers for larger keys (such as the spacebar, enter, and shift keys), you can modify or replace them. Lubricate the stabilizer wires and housings to reduce friction and noise. Replace the stabilizers with aftermarket options if you prefer a different feel or sound.
  5. Customize Lighting: If your keyboard has programmable RGB backlighting or LED indicators, you can customize the lighting effects using the keyboard's software or firmware. 
  6. Test and Fine-Tune: Test the keyboard to ensure that all switches register keystrokes correctly and that the keycaps are properly installed. 

How to Customize Standard Mechanical Keyboards

soldering a mechanical keyboard

Customizing soldered mechanical keyboards requires a bit more effort and technical skill compared to hot-swappable keyboards. That's because you need to desolder and solder components. But that is exactly what modders and hobbyists like! Soldering components is actually part of the fun!

  1. Prepare Necessary Tools: Gather the tools you'll need for soldering and customization, including:
  • Soldering iron
  • Solder wire
  • Desoldering pump or desoldering wick
  • Keycap puller
  • Switch puller 
  • Lubricant for stabilizers 
  • Replacement keycaps or switches 
  1. Remove Keycaps: Use a keycap puller to remove the keycaps from the keyboard. Set them aside for reinstallation later.
  2. Desolder Existing Switches: Heat your soldering iron and apply it to the solder joints of the switches you want to replace. Use a desoldering pump or desoldering wick to remove the molten solder from the joints. 

    Once the solder is removed, gently lift the switches out of their sockets. Be careful not to damage the PCB or other components.
  3. Install New Switches: Insert the new switches into the empty sockets on the PCB, making sure they are aligned correctly and fully seated. Solder the new switches onto the PCB by applying solder to the switch pins and PCB pads. Be careful not to apply too much heat or solder as this can damage the components.
  4. Customize Keycaps: If you're replacing keycaps, install the new keycaps onto the switches. Press them firmly until they snap into place.
  5. Modify Stabilizers: If your keyboard uses stabilizers, you can modify or replace them to improve their feel and reduce key wobble. Lubricate the stabilizer wires and housings to reduce friction and noise. Replace the stabilizers with aftermarket options if desired.
  6. Test and Fine-Tune: Ensure that all switches register keystrokes correctly and that the keycaps are properly installed. 
  7. Reassemble the Keyboard: Once you're satisfied with the customization, reassemble the keyboard by reinstalling any components you removed.

Other Customizing Ideas for Keyboards

Customizing a keyboard goes beyond just changing switches and keycaps. Here are some additional ideas to personalize and enhance your keyboard:

  1. Case Customization: Modify or replace the keyboard's case to change its appearance or improve ergonomics. This could involve painting, hydro-dipping, or adding custom decals to the case. Alternatively, you could 3D print or purchase aftermarket cases in different materials and designs.
  2. Plate Material: Replace the keyboard's plate with one made from a different material, such as aluminum, brass, or carbon fiber. Different plate materials can affect the typing feel and sound of the keyboard.
  3. Sound Dampening: Install sound-dampening materials such as foam and silicone inside the keyboard to reduce noise and improve acoustics. 
  4. Switch Lubrication: Lubricate the keyboard switches to reduce friction, improve smoothness, and dampen sound. Different lubricants can be used to achieve specific typing feel and sound preferences.
  5. LED Mods: Modify or add LEDs to the keyboard for customizable backlighting effects. 
  6. Programming and Macros: Many keyboards support programmability through software or onboard programming, allowing you to tailor the keyboard's behavior to your specific needs.
  7. Artisan Keycaps: Add artisan keycaps to your keyboard for a unique and personalized touch. Artisan keycaps are typically handcrafted and come in a variety of designs, colors, and themes.
  8. Wrist Rests: Pair your keyboard with a custom-designed wrist rest made from wood, acrylic, or other materials. Wrist rests can improve ergonomics and provide additional comfort during long typing sessions.
  9. Modular Add-ons: Explore modular accessories that can be attached to your keyboard, such as a detachable numpad, media control knobs, or additional macro pads.

Conclusion

Well done! You have now learned the basics of keyboard customization, including hot-swappable and soldered keyboards. Now, it's time for you to try out different things until you find the perfect fit.

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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