Recommended Tools for Customizing Soldered Mechanical Keyboards

April 3, 2024

If you're planning to personalize your soldered mechanical keyboard to the finest detail, you should have the right tools. Having the right tools ensures that you're doing your work safely, correctly, efficiently, and effectively. With the right tools, customization becomes more enjoyable. 

These tools might not get the spotlight as the keyboard components. But they play a vital role in helping you create a finely tuned, personalized mechanical keyboard. Once you begin this engaging hobby with the right tools, you'll find it's like opening a new chapter of creativity.

Key Components for Customizing Soldered Mechanical Keyboards

 Customizing soldered mechanical keyboards is a popular hobby among gamers, electronics enthusiasts, and computer modders. In fact, it's an aspect---a part---of their passion.

The hobby involves various components that can be adjusted or replaced to tailor the keyboard to your preferences and needs. Some key components that are commonly customized include: 

  1. Switches: Switches are perhaps the most customizable component of a mechanical keyboard. They determine the feel, sound, and actuation force of each key press. Mechanical switches come in various types (e.g., Cherry MX, Gateron, Kailh) and models (e.g., linear, tactile, clicky), allowing you to choose the ones that best suit your typing style and preferences.
  2. Keycaps: Keycaps impact the aesthetics and feel of a keyboard. They come in different materials (e.g., ABS, PBT), profiles (e.g., OEM, Cherry, SA), and designs (e.g., blank, printed, double-shot).
  3. Stabilizers: Stabilizers allow larger keys like the spacebar, shift, and enter keys to depress evenly and smoothly. Upgrading or lubing stabilizers can improve typing feel and reduce noise.
  4. PCB (Printed Circuit Board): The PCB serves as the backbone of the keyboard, connecting all the switches and enabling them to register key presses. Custom PCBs often offer additional features like hot-swappability, RGB lighting, and programmability.
  5. Plate: The plate holds the switches in place. Different materials (e.g., aluminum, steel, brass) and layouts (e.g., ANSI, ISO, HHKB) can be chosen based on personal preference.
  6. Case: The case encloses the keyboard and contributes to its aesthetics, build quality, and typing sound. Custom cases are available in various materials (e.g., aluminum, wood, acrylic) and designs to match different preferences and styles.
  7. LEDs and Lighting Effects: Some keyboards feature customizable RGB lighting, allowing you to personalize your keyboard's appearance with different colors, effects, and brightness levels.
  8. Sound Dampening: Adding materials like foam or silicone dampeners can reduce typing noise and improve the overall typing experience.
  9. Controller: You want to replace the keyboard's controller with a custom one to enable additional features or enhance performance.

Necessary Tools for Customizing Soldered Mechanical Keyboards

soldering iron tool

The right tools can make customizing a mechanical keyboard easy, fast, safe, and enjoyable. Here's a list of necessary tools for customizing soldered mechanical keyboards:

  1. Soldering Iron: A soldering iron is essential for soldering and desoldering switches, LEDs, and other electronic components onto the PCB. A temperature-controlled soldering iron is recommended for precise control over the soldering process.
  2. Solder: High-quality solder is necessary for creating reliable electrical connections between components. Lead-free solder is commonly used for electronics projects due to environmental concerns.
  3. Desoldering Pump or Wick: A desoldering pump or desoldering wick removes excess solder and allows for easy extraction.
  4. Flush Cutters: Flush cutters are used to trim excess leads from soldered components cleanly. 
  5. Tweezers: Fine-tipped tweezers are handy for placing and positioning small components such as diodes, resistors, and LEDs onto the PCB.
  6. Keycap Puller: A keycap puller helps remove keycaps from the keyboard switches without damaging them. 
  7. Switch Puller: Similar to keycap pullers, a switch puller is used to easily remove switches from the PCB without causing damage. 
  8. Phillips and Flathead Screwdrivers: Screwdrivers are needed for opening the keyboard case and accessing internal components like the PCB and plate. Make sure to have both Phillips and flathead screwdrivers in various sizes to accommodate different screws.
  9. Hex Keys or Allen Wrenches: Some custom mechanical keyboards use hex screws for assembly. Having a set of hex keys or Allen wrenches of various sizes ensures that you can access and adjust these screws as needed.
  10. Brush or Compressed Air: A brush or compressed air can be used to clean debris and dust from the keyboard's PCB, switches, and other components before assembly.
  11. Lubricant: Lubricant is used to lubricate stabilizers and switches, improving their feel and reducing noise. Make sure to use lubricants specifically designed for mechanical keyboards.
  12. Electrical Tape or Heat Shrink Tubing: Electrical tape or heat shrink tubing can be used to insulate and protect soldered connections and wires from short circuits.

Taking Care of Your Tools

Your customizing project is only as good as the quality of your components and tools. Taking care of your tools for customizing keyboards is important to ensure they continue to perform reliably with each project. Check out some tips for maintaining your tools:

  1. Clean regularly: After using, clean your tools thoroughly to remove any solder residue, dirt, or debris. Use a brush, compressed air, or a cloth to wipe down the surfaces of your tools and remove any buildup.
  2. Store properly: Store your tools in a clean, dry, and organized manner. Invest in a toolbox, case, or organizer to keep your tools neatly arranged and protected from dust, moisture, and damage.
  3. Keep blades sharp: If your tools have blades such as flush cutters or hobby knives, ensure they remain sharp for precise and efficient cutting or screwing. Replace dull blades as needed to maintain optimal performance. Fresh, sharp blades are safer to work on as well.
  4. Avoid excessive force: Avoid using excessive pressure or torque on your tools this can damage both the tool and the component. Use the appropriate tool for the job and apply gentle, controlled force.
  5. Use lubrication: For tools with moving parts such as pliers, apply a small amount of lubricant to hinges, joints, or moving mechanisms to keep them operating smoothly and prevent rust or corrosion.
  6. Inspect regularly: Periodically check your tools for signs of wear, damage, or corrosion. Replace any worn-out or damaged tools promptly to prevent them from causing further issues or compromising your work.
  7. Protect from heat: Avoid exposing your tools to excessive heat such as from soldering irons or direct sunlight as this can damage their materials or affect their performance. Store your tools in a cool, dry place away from heat sources when not in use.
  8. Use the proper technique: Familiarize yourself with how to correctly, safely, and effectively use each tool. Avoid using them in ways that could cause damage or strain.
  9. Replace consumable parts: For tools with replaceable parts such as soldering tips or desoldering wicks, make sure to replace them when they become worn or damaged to maintain optimal performance and safety.
  10. Invest in quality: Invest in high-quality tools from reputable brands because they are more likely to withstand frequent use and offer better performance and durability than cheaper alternatives.

Steps to Customizing a Mechanical Keyboard

soldering a mechanical keyboard

Customizing a mechanical keyboard allows you to tailor your device to your preferences in appearance, typing feel, and functionality. This is a general guide to the customization process:

  1. Define your goals: Determine what aspects of the keyboard you want to customize. Are you looking to change the switches, keycaps, case, or all of the above? Understanding your goals will help you plan the customization process more effectively.
  2. Gather necessary tools and components: Collect all the tools and components you'll need for the customization project such as soldering equipment, keycap pullers, switch pullers, lubricant, screwdrivers, etc. Make sure you have everything on hand before you begin.
  3. Prepare the workspace: Set up a clean and well-lit workspace with ample room to work comfortably. Lay down a soft surface or a keyboard mat to protect the keyboard and components from scratches or damage.
  4. Disassemble the keyboard: Carefully disassemble the keyboard by removing the keycaps, screws, and other components that may be holding it together. Keep track of the screws and small parts to avoid losing them.
  5. Customize switches: If you're customizing the switches, desolder the existing switches from the PCB using a soldering iron and desoldering pump or wick. Replace them with the switches of your choice, making sure to solder them securely onto the PCB.
  6. Customize keycaps: Install the keycaps of your choice onto the switches. Each keycap should be properly aligned and seated on the switch stem.
  7. Lubricate stabilizers: If necessary, modify or lubricate the stabilizers to improve their feel and reduce noise. Remove the stabilizers from the keyboard and apply lubricant to the contact points or wires as needed. Reassemble the stabilizers.
  8. Customize the case and plate: If you're customizing the case or plate, paint, powder coat, anodize, or hydro dip them to achieve the desired color or finish. You can also purchase aftermarket cases or plates for a different look or material.
  9. Reassemble the keyboard: Carefully reassemble the keyboard by putting all the components back together in the reverse order of disassembly. Ensure that all screws are tightened properly and that there are no loose or misaligned parts.
  10. Test and Adjust: Test the keyboard to ensure that all keys register correctly and that there are no issues with the switches, stabilizers, or other components. 
  11. Final Touches: Add any final touches or accessories such as custom cables, artisan keycaps, or LED lighting effects, to personalize the keyboard further.

Conclusion

Armed with the correct tools, you're now prepared to truly build and create your own mechanical keyboard. But remember the keyword---correct tools. Having the right tools will make your customization hobby safer, faster, and more enjoyable.

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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