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How and why I built my first mechanical keyboard



Depending on who you ask, mechanical keyboards have any number of benefits. Some people like how long they last, others like the way they feel, and plenty of people claim that their tactile feedback makes them easier to use. For a lot of people, however, much of their appeal comes from customizability. You can buy different keycaps, change their mechanical switches, and in some cases even swap out their USB cables or microcontrollers to get a keyboard that is tailored to your preferences.

Modifying an existing keyboard will only get you so, though. For the ultimate bespoke keyboard, you have to build one from scratch. The process won't be for everyone. The components can be expensive, you need to do a lot of soldering, and there's every chance you might break something if you're not careful. But at the end of the process you'll end up with something completely separate to you and your needs, whether it's typing, gaming, or some horrific Frankenstein mix of the two (here's to you Typing of the Dead: Overkill .


Photo by Paris Seawell for The Verge

Photo by Paris Seawell for The Verge

This was my first time building a keyboard from scratch, but I'm not a complete beginner. It's been modified plenty of keyboards in the past. I've swapped out numerous keycaps, de-soldered and replaced the switches on the keyboard 4, modified and Apple Extended Keyboard II to work over USB, and I've even installed a customizable microcontroller in a Filco Majestouch 2. So I have a pretty good idea of ​​how the assembly of a keyboard works, even if I had gone through the entire build process before.

It wasn't too tricky, but if you're going to try it yourself then you're going to want to take your time. Some of the steps are a little fiddly, and if you're not careful then you can break something that's not easy to replace. My soldering is by no means great, but I ended up with a functioning keyboard after just a couple of hours of work, and I think most people would be able to achieve the same.

What you need

A keyboard is not made up of too many parts, but they're not something you can just pick up in a store. Even Amazon is a bit of a stretch. The Chinese retailer AliExpress has a huge selection of parts, but it can be a bit of a Wild West if you don't know what you're looking for. So I found it really helpful to look at popular keyboard forums including the Mechanical Keyboards subreddit, GeekHack, and Deskthority to find their recommendations.


Clockwise from top; PCB, switches, case, USB cable, mounting plate, soldering iron and accessories, solder, stabilizers, a screwdriver, and keycaps.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

The keyboard components will vary based on what kind of Keyboard switches

  • Keycaps
  • Stabilizers
  • Case and backplate [19659017] USB cable
  • It sounds simple, but where things get complicated with the sheer amount of options available. You can get different sizes of keyboards (which means different case and circuit board sizes), different kinds of stabilizers, and different ways that keyboards mount their switches. Don't worry, I'll get into all these options in a little bit.

    in case you make any mistakes), and solder.

    Choosing your parts

    When planning your build, you have an almost bewildering array of options, and it would be impossible to try to list them all here. But these are the most common choices out there, along with some general rules about what might work for you.

    The first choice you have to make about your keyboard is its size. There are two main options: full-size keyboards, which include pretty much every key you expect, and tenkeyless keyboards, which strip out the numpad. These cover a big chunk of the keyboards you can buy from mainstream retailers.

    Since you're going custom, though, you're able to get into more niche layouts, which are great if you want a really compact board and don't have to hunt down some keycaps in nonstandard sizes. These boards are often described using percentages – the larger the percentage, the larger the board and common ones include 60 percent, 65 percent, and 75 percent.

    You know what size keyboard you want, you can pick your PCB and case. For my build, I decided to go with a 75 percent board because I think it strikes a nice balance between size and functionality. It's also very similar to many laptop keyboards, so it feels familiar to me when I switch between a laptop and my desktop.

    Your choice of PCB and case will therefore determine a couple of other features of your keyboard – namely the child of stabilizers it uses and whether your keyboard is mounted – since these features are determined by these components.

    Stabilizers stop the bigger keys on your keyboard from wobbling, and any key that's the equivalent width of two letters keys or wider needs one. On a board with an American (aka and ANSI) layout, which typically means you need a stabilizer for the keyboard's shift keys, its spacebar, backspace, and its enter key. If your keyboard has a numpad, you will also need stabilizers for its 0, Enter, and + keys.


    I used Cherry stabilizers, which need to be assembled before being attached to the PCB.
    Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

    There are two main kinds of stabilizers, Costar and Cherry, which sit underneath a keyboard bigger keys and stop them from wobbling from side to side when you press them. There are big debates in the keyboard community about which of these are better (some people say that cherry stabilizers feel well and that are expensive), and I try to resolve the debate here. When you are trying to replace keycaps, so I tend to prefer when I have the option

    Then there is the choice between a keyboard with plate-mounted or PCB-mounted switches. In a plate-mounted keyboard, the weight of your switches is taken by a metal plate that sits above the PCB, while with a PCB-mounted board your PCB takes all the weight. We found that plate-mounted keyboards can feel more sturdy, but they can be a little harder to work with because it's harder to remove just a single switch when something goes wrong.

    Youll sometimes see switches referred to as being plate-mounted or PCB-mounted, because the laughter will have an extra couple of plastic legs on their bottom for stability in the absence of a plate. However, in reality, the two kinds are a little more flexible. A lot of PCBs designed for a plate-mounted keyboard will have holes for these plastic legs, and if they don't make a PCB mount switch fit by simply snapping off these legs with a pair of scissors.


    On a plate-mounted board like this one, need to put the switches through the mounting plate and into the PCB.
    Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

    For this build, my choice of stabilizers was made for me at the specific kit I bought, which was plate-mounted and used Cherry stabilizers mounted directly onto the PCB. It came with an aluminum case, which included a transparent acrylic layer in the middle of the LEDs on the underside of the PCB shine through.

    The most significant choice you make while building your keyboard is which switches to use. Switches define how a keyboard feels and sounds, are the thing that literally makes it a mechanical keyboard, and there are almost endless amounts of options.

    There are plenty of different kinds of mechanical switches generally (including buckling spring, Alps, and Topre, but Cherry MX-style switches are generally what people mean when they refer to a keyboard as being "mechanical," and what most DIY kits are designed to use.

    There are also a large number of different kinds of Cherry MX switches, each of which takes a different amount of pressure to press and actuates in a different way. Some are clicky, some are smooth, and some sit in between. You've got Cherry's official models (of which the red, brown, and blue variants are the most common), but since the company's switch patent expired there are also lots of third-party switches available based on the Cherry MX design. 19659040] 65g Zealios were my choice of board for this board Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

    I'm going with one such switch for this build, a 65g Zealio switch. These Zealios have a really nice tactile bump when you press them, like cherry MX, but without the stiffness and scratchiness. There is more resistance than a Cherry MX brown, but none of the clicks of a Cherry MX blue. Personally, I find this design usable for either typing or gaming, making them a good all-around switch for my needs.

    The final choice you will have to make with your board are the keycaps. Like the switches, you have a lot of choice here, and which ones you go with will ultimately come down to your personal preference about the way they look. That said, there are some general rules that will be useful to bear in mind, namely what kind of plastic your keyboards are made of, and how their lettering (or "legends") are printed.

    In terms of materials, your two main options are ABS plastic and PBT plastic. PBT keycaps are generally a bit more resilient, and they do not wear and become shiny as easily. The downside is that they tend to be more expensive.


    Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

    The way to keycap's legends are printed will have a big impact on how much or how little it is wears away over time. Double shot is generally considered to be the gold standard, because the coloring for the legend runs through the keycap, meaning even if the top layer of plastic wears away, the lettering won't disappear. Dye sublimation is also good, and is unlikely to wear off anytime soon. Try to avoid laser-etched keycaps if you can. Have seen these keycaps start to lose their lettering in as little as a year, and you deserve better. Alternatively, you can avoid these dilemmas by opting for completely blank keycaps if you have completely taken leave of your senses.

    I prefer an understated keyboard, so for my build I have a set of EnjoyPBT 9009 keycaps. What's important for my build is that this kit comes with plenty of non-standard keycap options, which will fit this weird layout. I've got a shorter shift key for the right, and the Windows, alt, and keys to the right of the space bar need to be smaller to accommodate the arrow keys.

    Putting it together

    It's a good idea to test that your PCB is working before you solder anything to it. You can do this by using something metallic to connect each switch's contact pads. Something like a paperclip works just fine. There is an online keyboard testing tool. I like to plug in your PCB using a USB cable, load up this site, and test each switch position one by one.


    Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

    How to put your keyboard together is going to depend on the specific parts you're using But here's the method I followed for my specific board.

    First, I needed to install the stabilizers into the circuit board. Make sure you put them in the right places, since many PCBs will support multiple layouts, meaning there are certain stabilizer holes that you won't use. For my build I have a UK layout, meaning it has a shorter left shift key that needs a stabilizer, and a key whose stabilizer is vertically mounted. Because it's got a 75 percent layout, the right shift key is also a little shorter to accommodate and arrow key to the right. Make sure you know what you're using when you're installing your stabilizers. It's not the end of the world if you get it wrong, it's just quite annoying to have your work done.

    The Cherry stabilizers used in my build came disassembled, so I had to place a stabilizer in each housing, before clipping the metal into both sides. It can be a little fiddly, but once you work out which way the stabilizer goes, it's a simple process to put them together. Then, you take the stabilizer and clip it into its two holes in the PCB.


    Our Cherry stabilizers in place on the circuit board.
    Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

    Next up are the switches, and Just like the stabilizers, you'll need to pay attention to where you are going to make sure you're using the right holes for your layout. I found it helpful to test this by preinstalling a keycap onto any switches with multiple placement options, and then guiding it into the right holes. Then you just need to remember which holes to use for the switch.

    For my plate-mounted board I needed to place each switch through the plate and into the PCB. Then, once they're all inserted, you can flip the PCB over and get to soldering.

    If you're new to soldering, then I definitely recommend watching this YouTube video to get started. Otherwise, here are the basic rules to follow. Apply heat even to both the switch's and the electrical contact, and then apply solder so it connects the two. You're looking for a nice neat cone; so use so much that it turns into a dome, but use enough to get a good solid connection between the two. Take your time. If the solder is not flowing properly, then do not continue to apply for heat because you could break something.


    Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

    With all the switches soldered on, it's time to assemble the case. Again, this will vary based on your components, but for the process was to unscrew the two halves of the case, screw the PCB to the bottom of the case, and then re-assemble the case with the circuit board and acrylic installed within. 19659066] Finally, you can install your keycaps. This is probably the easiest part of the build, and it's only time-consuming by virtue of how many keys there are. Just line up key with its switch, and press down.

    Now that the keyboard is assembled, it's time to plug it in. There are some amazing USB cables out there, but in my case I just went with a fairly traditional USB cable. My particular PCB uses a USB cable, but you can support Micro USB or even USB Type-C. I like to check that everything is working using the same online keyboard testing tool. had to be screwed together with the PCB inside. Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

    If your keyboard supports it, now is a great time to customize its layout. The process works differently on every board though, so honestly this one on you. I wouldn't do anything like swapping around the letter keys, but you might want to change around keys like Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down depending on what you use most on a regular basis. This process differs for basically every keyboard, so you will have to refer to your manufacturer's instructions for the best way to go about doing it.


    There are exceptions, but most of the technology gets better and better every single year. Screens get higher resolution, battery life gets longer, GPUs get faster, voice assistants get smarter, but besides fancier flashing lights and maybe macro keys, keyboards from the early "90s are almost as functional today as they were back then. If you're talking about mechanical keyboards made with Cherry MX switches, then you're talking about a design that hasn't changed much since the early eighties.

    Good keyboard design is timeless, and if you can resist the lure of becoming a bona fide keyboard collector then the right model can last you for the rest of your life. At the very least it will outlast every computer you plug it into. That's what I find so appealing about building your own; you can tailor something perfectly to your needs, without worrying that it will be outdated in a couple of years' time.

    It's not for everyone, but if you're far enough down the mechanical keyboard hole, then building your own is the final step in this hobby through.

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