How to Solder a Mechanical Keyboard PCB

March 26, 2024

If you're considering the DIY route of creating or modding your mechanical keyboard, then you should know how to solder electronics to your mechanical keyboard's printed circuit board (PCB).

This guide will equip you with the knowledge of what tools you require, how to set up your workspace safely, and the nitty-gritty of soldering. Of course, we'll also help you refine your soldering techniques to produce a pristine PCB and prevent possible drawbacks of electronic mishaps.

Let's heat it up!

Tools You Need for Soldering a Mechanical Keyboard PCB

Is keyboard soldering hard? Not really if you have the right tools. Soldering a mechanical keyboard PCB requires the right tools to ensure a clean, safe, and reliable soldering job. 

  1. Soldering Iron: A good quality soldering iron with adjustable temperature control is essential. A soldering iron with a temperature range of 300-400°C (572-752°F) is suitable for most soldering tasks.
  2. Solder: High-quality solder with a diameter of around 0.8mm is commonly used for soldering electronic components. Lead-based solder is commonly used, but lead-free solder is also an option.
  3. Soldering Iron Stand: A stand to hold the soldering iron when not in use is important for safety and convenience. It should have a heat-resistant base and a cleaning sponge or pad to keep the soldering iron tip clean.
  4. Desoldering Pump or Solder Wick: These tools help remove excess solder or correct mistakes. 
  5. Flush Cutters: These are used to trim excess component leads or cut soldered connections neatly, ensuring clean cuts.
  6. Third Hand or Helping Hands: This tool with adjustable arms and clips to hold the PCB and components in place while you solder helps keep your hands free for soldering.
  7. Magnifying Glass or Helping Hands with Magnifier: A magnifying glass or a third hand with a built-in magnifier can be useful for inspecting small solder joints and ensuring precision.
  8. Safety Gear: Safety should always be a priority. Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes from solder splatter and fumes. Adequate ventilation or a fume extractor is also recommended.
  9. Multimeter: A multimeter is useful for checking the continuity of your solder joints and ensuring there are no short circuits.
  10. Heat Shrink Tubing or Electrical Tape: Use these to insulate and protect connections or wires, especially if you're working on a keyboard with LEDs or other electrical components.

Mechanical Keyboard Components That You Can Solder to the PCB

a man soldering a pcb

As an electronic computer peripheral, a mechanical keyboard is bound to have a lot of components that need to be soldered on the PCB. The specific components can vary depending on the keyboard's brand, design, and features, but common elements include:

  1. Switches: Mechanical switches are a fundamental part of a mechanical keyboard. Each key on the keyboard has its own switch, and these switches are soldered to the PCB.
  2. Diodes: Diodes are electronic components that ensure the correct direction of electrical current flow. They are often used in keyboard matrices to prevent ghosting and improve key rollover.
  3. LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes): If your mechanical keyboard has backlighting or indicator lights, LEDs will be soldered to the PCB. These can be single-color or RGB LEDs.
  4. Resistors: Resistors may be used to control the current flowing through the LEDs, diodes, and other components of the keyboard.
  5. Microcontroller: The microcontroller is the brain of the keyboard. It processes keypresses and communicates with the computer. It is soldered onto the PCB.
  6. Crystal Oscillator: Some keyboards use a crystal oscillator to provide precise timing for the microcontroller.
  7. Capacitors: Capacitors can be found in various parts of the keyboard's circuitry, helping to smooth voltage fluctuations and improve stability.
  8. Headers/Pins: These are often used for connecting additional components or features such as USB ports or extra functionalities that can be added to the keyboard.
  9. Reset/Programming Buttons: Some keyboards have a reset button or a programming button that is soldered to the PCB. This is used to enter programming mode or reset the keyboard to default settings.
  10. USB Connector: The USB connector is where the keyboard connects to the computer. It is usually soldered to the PCB.

How to Solder Components to a Mechanical Keyboard PCB

How do you hand solder a keyboard? Soldering components to a mechanical keyboard PCB involves several steps. Here's a simplified guide to help you through the process:

1. Prepare Your Workspace: Work in a well-ventilated area with good lighting. Use a clean, stable surface for your work. Wear safety gear for protection.

2. Organize Components: Identify and organize all the components you'll be soldering onto the keyboard PCB. Double-check the orientation and placement of switches, diodes, LEDs, and other components.

3. Prepare the Soldering Iron: Clean the soldering iron tip using a damp sponge or brass wire cleaner. Turn on the soldering iron and allow it to reach the appropriate temperature for your solder. 

4. Apply Flux: Apply a small amount of flux to the solder pads on the PCB. Flux helps improve solder flow and creates cleaner solder joints.

5. Position Components: Ensure components are properly aligned and oriented.

6. Solder the Components: Touch the soldering iron tip to both the solder pad and the component lead simultaneously. Feed a small amount of solder onto the joint until it forms a smooth, shiny cone. Avoid excessive heat and solder to prevent damage to the components or PCB.

7. Trim the Excess Lead: Use flush cutters to trim the excess leads of the components close to the solder joints. Ensure there are no loose or shorted leads.

8. Check for Continuity: Use a multimeter to check the continuity of the solder joints. Ensure there are no short circuits or open connections.

10. Desoldering: If you make a mistake or need to remove a component, use a desoldering pump or solder wick to remove excess solder.

11. Inspect and Clean: Inspect all solder joints for quality and cleanliness. Clean the PCB with isopropyl alcohol and a brush to remove any flux residue.

12. Test the Keyboard: Once all components are soldered, test the keyboard by connecting it to a computer. Make sure that all keys, LEDs, and other features are functioning correctly.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Soldering a Mechanical Keyboard PCB

an image of a pcb with little splatters of flux all over

Soldering a mechanical keyboard PCB requires precision and attention to detail. Here are some common mistakes to avoid to ensure a successful soldering job:

  1. Overheating Components: Excessive heat can damage components, especially sensitive ones like LEDs or microcontrollers. Avoid prolonged contact with the soldering iron. Use the lowest effective temperature.
  2. Cold Joints: Incomplete solder joints, known as cold joints, can lead to unreliable connections. Make sure both the component lead and the pad are heated sufficiently before applying solder. The solder should flow smoothly and create a shiny appearance.
  3. Insufficient Flux: Flux helps solder flow and improves adhesion. Applying too little flux or neglecting to use it altogether can result in poor solder joints. 
  4. Excessive Solder: Applying too much solder can lead to solder bridges (short circuits) between adjacent pads. Use the right amount of solder to create well-defined, individual solder joints.
  5. Solder Splatter: Careless soldering techniques can cause solder splatter, which may create unintended connections between pads or components. Be mindful of your soldering technique, and use a steady hand.
  6. Loose or Stray Wires: Trim excess component leads close to the solder joint using flush cutters. Leaving long or stray wires can lead to unintended connections, shorts, or interference with other components.
  7. Incorrect Component Orientation: Ensure components like diodes, LEDs, and switches are correctly oriented before soldering. Incorrect placement or orientation can lead to malfunctions.
  8. Skipping Continuity Checks: Use a multimeter to check the continuity of your solder joints. This helps identify potential issues such as short circuits or open connections before powering on the keyboard.
  9. Neglecting Safety Precautions: Soldering involves high temperatures and potentially harmful fumes. Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes, work in a well-ventilated area, and consider using a fume extractor if possible.
  10. Rushing the Process: Soldering requires patience and precision. Rushing can lead to mistakes and poor solder joints. Take your time, especially if you're new to soldering.

Choosing the Right Soldering Iron for Your Mechanical Keyboard DIY Project

What kind of solder do you use for a mechanical keyboard? Here are some tips to help you make the right choice:

  1. Adjustable Temperature: Use a soldering iron with adjustable temperature settings. Different components and solder types may require varying temperatures. Being able to control the temperature ensures you don't damage sensitive components or overheat the PCB.
  2. Wattage: For most electronic hobby projects, a soldering iron with a wattage between 25W and 60W is suitable. Lower wattage is generally better for delicate components.
  3. Tip Compatibility: Ensure that the soldering iron comes with a tip suitable for your project. Different tips are designed for specific tasks such as fine-point tips for precision work. Look for a soldering iron with interchangeable tips.
  4. Fast Heating Time: A soldering iron with a quick heating time is convenient, especially for small projects. Look for models that can reach the desired temperature in a few minutes.
  5. Temperature Stability: Look for a soldering iron with good temperature stability. Some models come with features like temperature control systems to maintain a consistent temperature during use.
  6. Quality Construction: A durable and well-constructed iron will last longer and provide better performance.
  7. Comfort and Ergonomics: A comfortable grip and lightweight design will reduce fatigue during extended soldering sessions.
  8. Cord Length and Flexibility: A longer cord provides more freedom of movement, and a flexible cord is easier to maneuver around your workspace.
  9. Safety Features: Look for safety features such as an insulated handle to protect against accidental burns. Some soldering irons also come with automatic shut-off features for added safety.
  10. Compatibility with Solder Type: Consider the solder you plan to use. Some soldering irons are better suited for lead-free solder, while others work well with traditional lead-based solder.

Conclusion

Soldering is an essential part of keyboard construction and modding. Thus, you must have the right knowledge, the right tools, and the right techniques when it comes to soldering. In no time at all, with some perseverance and repetition, you'll master the art of soldering components to the PCB. 

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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