Comparing the Heat Resistance of PBT Keycaps vs ABS Keycaps for Mechanical Keyboards

March 20, 2024

PBT and ABS are some of the most common materials used in manufacturing the keycaps of a mechanical keyboard. But which one is more durable? Which one can stand more heat? Which one is better for you?

Let's check out the science and characteristics behind these keycap materials. This knowledge might just guide you to your ideal keyboard setup.

What are ABS and PBT Keycaps?

If you're personalizing your keyboard, you've probably encountered PBT and ABS keycaps. These are some of the most common keycaps in the market. The acronyms denote the kind of material the keycaps are made of. 

PBT, short for Polybutylene Terephthalate, keycaps are recognized for their lasting durability and resistance to becoming shiny over prolonged use.

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) keycaps may not have the same longevity, but they can offer more vibrant colors. They are also less expensive.

PBT Keycaps

close-up image of a mechanical keyboard with gray PBT keycaps

PBT, or Polybutylene Terephthalate, is a thermoplastic polymer commonly used in making keycaps for mechanical keyboards. Here are some key features of PBT keycaps:

  1. Durability: PBT is durable and resistant to wear. Keycaps made from PBT tend to maintain their texture and appearance over extended periods of use, making them less prone to the shiny, worn-out look associated with ABS plastic.
  2. Texture: PBT keycaps often have a textured, slightly grainy feel. This texture makes typing feel comfortable and accurate.
  3. Density: PBT is denser and heavier than ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene). It has a more solid feel when typing.
  4. Resistance to Chemicals: PBT is resistant to chemicals and solvents, preventing keycaps from degrading or becoming discolored over time after coming into contact with substances like oils or cleaning agents.
  5. Sound Profile: PBT keycaps produce a lower-pitched and slightly quieter sound compared to ABS keycaps due to their dense nature.
  6. Color Stability: PBT keycaps often maintain color stability. Their colors are less likely to fade or change over time.
  7. Manufacturing Process: PBT keycaps are commonly created through a process called double-shot molding where two layers of plastic are molded together. This process allows for legends (characters or symbols on the keycaps) to be more durable since they are a separate layer of plastic.
  8. Availability: PBT keycaps are widely available in the mechanical keyboard market and come in various profiles and designs, offering users a broad range of customization options.

ABS Keycaps

a mechanical keyboard with black ABS keycaps

ABS, or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, is another common thermoplastic polymer used in keycap manufacturing. Let's check out some key features of ABS keycaps:

  1. Affordability: ABS is generally more affordable than other keycap materials, making it a common choice for budget-friendly mechanical keyboards.
  2. Lightweight: ABS is lighter in weight compared to some other keycap materials.
  3. Smooth Surface: ABS keycaps have a smooth surface texture, which some users may find more comfortable for typing. However, this smoothness can have a slippery feel.
  4. Shine and Wear: ABS keycaps tend to develop a shiny appearance over time, particularly on frequently used keys. The smooth surface can wear down with extended use, leading to a polished or glossy look.
  5. Sound Profile: ABS keycaps often produce a higher-pitched and more "clacky" sound during typing. 
  6. Customization: ABS keycaps are easy to mold and are available in a wide variety of colors and designs. This makes them a popular choice for keyboard manufacturers and enthusiasts who want diverse customization options.
  7. Legends Printing: Legends on ABS keycaps are typically printed using pad printing or laser etching. While cost-effective, these printing methods may not be as durable as other alternatives.
  8. Availability: ABS keycaps are widely available in the market, and many mass-produced mechanical keyboards come with ABS keycaps by default.

Which Keycap Can Resist Higher Temperatures?

Between PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) and ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) keycaps, PBT generally has a higher resistance to temperatures compared to ABS.

PBT has a higher melting point and better thermal stability than ABS. PBT generally has a melting point of 225 to 240 degrees Celsius (437 to 464 degrees Fahrenheit). PBT is known for its thermal stability and can withstand higher temperatures without deforming.

ABS material has a lower melting point than PBT. ABS has a lower melting point compared to PBT,  usually around 105 to 125 degrees Celsius (221 to 257 degrees Fahrenheit). ABS is more susceptible to softening and deformation at elevated temperatures.

How do PBT and ABS Keycaps Differ in Terms of Durability?

an image of three different mechanical keyboards

PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate) and ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) keycaps differ in terms of durability, and several factors contribute to these distinctions:

  1. Wear Resistance
    • PBT: PBT keycaps are known for their excellent wear resistance. The material maintains its texture and appearance, showing minimal signs of wear even with prolonged use.
    • ABS: ABS keycaps are more prone to wear compared to PBT. Over time, ABS keycaps can develop a shiny, smooth surface, especially on frequently used keys.
  2. Chemical Resistance
    • PBT: PBT is resistant to chemicals and solvents, preventing keycaps from degrading or becoming discolored when exposed to substances like oils or cleaning agents.
    • ABS: While ABS is generally resistant to common chemicals, it may not be as robust as PBT. ABS keycaps can be more susceptible to discoloration or degradation when exposed to certain substances.
  3. Texture and Feel
    • PBT: PBT keycaps often have a textured, slightly rough surface. 
    • ABS: ABS keycaps have a smooth surface, which some users find more comfortable for typing. 
  4. Impact Resistance
    • PBT: PBT is generally more rigid and less prone to cracking or breaking under impact compared to ABS.
    • ABS: ABS keycaps can be more brittle, which makes them more susceptible to cracking or chipping.
  5. Color Stability
    • PBT: PBT keycaps tend to maintain color stability better than ABS. The keycap colors are less likely to fade or change over time.
    • ABS: ABS keycaps may experience color fading or changes with prolonged use and exposure to UV light.
  6. Printing and Legends
    • PBT: Legends on PBT keycaps are often created through processes like double-shot molding, making them durable and resistant to fading.
    • ABS: Legends on ABS keycaps may be printed using methods like pad printing or laser etching. While cost-effective, these printing methods may not be as durable as double-shot molding.

Conclusion

When deciding between PBT and ABS keycaps for your keyboard, it all comes down to your individual needs and preferences. If you're a heavy user or live in a hot climate, you might appreciate the increased heat resistance of PBT. ABS keycaps may appeal to users who prefer a more fluid typing experience and enjoy a broader selection of designs. 

Knowing the thermal characteristics nd durability of these materials can influence your overall satisfaction and typing 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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