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How and why did I build my first mechanical keyboard?



Depending on who you ask, mechanical keyboards offer a number of advantages. Some people like how long they last, others like how they feel, and many people claim their tactile feedback makes them more user-friendly. For many people, however, most of their attractiveness lies in their adaptability. You can buy different keycaps, replace the mechanical switches and, in some cases, even replace the USB cables or microcontrollers to get a keyboard tailored to your preferences.

However, if you change an existing keyboard, you're only there. For the ultimate customized keyboard you have to create one from scratch. The process will not be for everyone. The components can be expensive, you have to solder a lot and there is a possibility that you break something if you are not careful. But at the end of the process, you will find something that is completely individual to you and your needs, be it typing, playing or a terrible Frankenstein mix of both (here for you Typing of the Dead: Overkill ) ,


I built a map with a 75 percent layout, omitting the number pad and merging the arrow keys and the function line into a compact layout.
Photo of Paris Seawell for The Verge

I first built a keyboard from scratch, but I'm not a beginner. I have changed many keyboards in the past. I've replaced numerous keycaps that desolder and replace switches on a keyboard 4, modified an Apple Extended Keyboard II to work over USB, and I even have a customizable microcontroller installed in a Filco Majestouch 2 has a pretty good idea of how the assembly of a keyboard works, even if I have not gone through the entire creation process yet.

It was not too difficult, but if you want to try it yourself, take your time. Some of the steps are a bit cumbersome, and if you're not careful, you can end up breaking something that is not easy to replace. My soldering is by no means great, but after only a few hours of work, I found a working keyboard, and I think most people would be able to do the same.

What you need

A keyboard is not too many parts, but you can not easily pick it up at a store. Even Amazon is a bit far-fetched. Chinese retailer AliExpress has a huge selection of parts, but it can be a bit wild west if you do not know what to look for. Therefore, I found it very helpful to look up the recommendations in the popular keyboard forums, including Mechanical subboards subreddit, GeekHack and Deskthority.


Clockwise from above; PCB, switch, housing, USB cable, mounting plate, soldering iron and accessories, solder, stabilizers, screwdrivers and keycaps.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

The keyboard components vary depending on the type of keyboard you build, but in simple terms, here is what you need:

  • A PCB (also called PCB)
  • Keyswitch
  • Keycaps
  • Stabilizers
  • Enclosure and Backplate [19659017] USB Cable

It sounds easy, but where it gets complicated is the set of options available. You can get different keyboard sizes (ie different case and PCB sizes), different types of stabilizers and different types of keyboard mounting of their switches. Do not worry, I'll be covering all these options shortly.

To assemble the board, I hardly need more than a screwdriver, a soldering iron (plus accessories such as a soldering iron holder and a solder teat) if you make mistakes) and solder.

Choosing Your Parts

When planning your build, you have an almost confusing set of options, and it's impossible to list all of them here. However, these are the most commonly used options and some general rules that determine what may be helpful to you.

The first choice you have to make for your keyboard is size. There are two main options: full size keyboards that contain virtually all the keys you expect, and tenkeyless keyboards that remove the number pad. These cover much of the keyboards that you can easily buy from major retailers.

But because you're custom, you can get into the niche layouts that are great if you want a really compact board and do not want to search for some key caps in non-standard sizes. These boards are often described in percentages – the larger the percentage, the larger the percentage – and often 60 percent, 65 percent and 75 percent.

If you know which keyboard size you want, you can select PCB and chassis. For my build, I chose a 75 percent board because I think it offers a good balance between size and functionality. It's also very similar to many laptop keyboards, so I know when I switch between a laptop and my desktop.

The choice of board and case also determines some other features of your keyboard – namely the type of keyboard stabilizers and whether your keyboard is panel mounted – as these two functions are determined by these components.

Stabilizers prevent larger keys on your keyboard from wobbling, and any key that has the same width as two letter keys or needs a larger width. On a board with an American layout (also known as ANSI), this usually means that you need a stabilizer for the Shift, Spacebar, Backspace, and Enter keys on the keyboard. If your keyboard has a number field, you also need stabilizers for the 0, Enter, and + buttons.


I've used cherry stabilizers that need to be assembled before attaching to the circuit board.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

There are two main types of stabilizers, Costar and Cherry, that sit under the larger keys of a keyboard and prevent them from bouncing back and forth when pressed. There are big debates in the keyboard community about which ones are better (some people say that cherry stabilizers feel mushy and Costars are rattling) and I will not try to solve the debate here. What I'm going to say is that cherry stabilizers are a little less awkward when trying to replace keycaps. Personally, I prefer them when I have the opportunity.

Then you have the choice between a keyboard with plate- or PCB-mounted switches. With a keyboard mounted on a panel, the weight of your switches is supported by a metal plate that sits over the board, while with a board-mounted board, your board bears all the weight. I've found that board-mount keyboards can feel more stable, but they may be a little harder to handle because it's harder to just remove a single switch if something goes wrong.

Switches are sometimes referred to as board or board mounted, as the latter have an extra pair of plastic legs on their underside to ensure stability when there is no board. In reality, the two species are somewhat more flexible. Many printed circuit boards designed for a panel-mount keyboard still have holes for these plastic legs. If this is not the case, you can mount a PCB mount switch by simply breaking these legs with scissors.


On a board like this you have to push the switches through the mounting plate and into the circuit board.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

For this construction, I chose stabilizers for myself through the specific kit I purchased, which was panel mounted and used Cherry stabilizers mounted directly on the board , It was supplied with an aluminum housing with a transparent acrylic layer in the center, through which the LEDs on the underside of the board could shine.

The most important choice you will make when creating your keyboard is which switches are used. Switches define what a keyboard feels and sounds like, literally turning it into a mechanical keyboard, and there are almost infinite options.

There are generally many different types of mechanical switches (including buckling springs, Alps and Topre), but Cherry MX-style switches are generally what people mean when they call a keyboard "mechanical" and they are That's what most DIY kits are designed for.

There are also a large number of different types of Cherry MX switches, each of which requires a different pressure to push, and which are actuated in different ways. Some are tricky, some smooth and some sit in between. They have the official Cherry models (of which the red, brown, and blue variants are most common), but since the expiration of the company's switch patent, numerous third-party switches based on the Cherry MX design are also available. [19659040] 65g Zealios was my preferred switch for this board. Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

I will use one such switch, a 65g Zealio switch, for this build. These Zealios have a really nice tactile bump when pressed, similar to a Cherry MX clear, but without the stiffness and scratch resistance. It's more resistant than a Cherry MX-Brown, but you can not feel the click of a Cherry MX-Blue. Personally, I think that this design is suitable either for typing or for playing, which makes it a good all-round switch for my needs.

The last choice you need to make with your board is the keycaps. As with the switches, you have a wide choice here, and which ones you use ultimately depends on your personal preference for what they look like. However, there are some general rules to keep in mind, such as: For example, which type of plastic is used for your keyboards and how their labels (or "legends") are printed.

In terms of materials, both of your main options are ABS plastic and PBT plastic. PBT keycaps are generally more resilient and do not wear off and shine so easily. The disadvantage is that they tend to be more expensive.


My key caps were made of PBT plastic and had a beige retro design.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

The way the legends of a keycap are printed has a big impact on how much or how little it wears off over time. Double Shot is generally considered the gold standard because the legend's color scheme passes through the keycap. This means that the lettering does not disappear even if the upper plastic layer is worn. The dye sublimation is also good and it is unlikely to wear off soon. Try to avoid laser etched keycaps if you can. I've seen those keyboards lose their caption in just a year, and you deserve it better. Alternatively, you can work around these dilemmas by choosing completely blank keyboard shortcuts when you have completely abandoned your senses.

I prefer a restrained keyboard, so I used a set of EnjoyPBT 9009 keycaps for my build. Important for my build is that this kit includes many non-standard keycap options that are suitable for this weird layout. I have a shorter right-side shift key, and the Windows, Alt, and Function keys to the right of the space bar must be smaller to accept the arrow keys.

Assembling

Good You should test if your board works before soldering anything to it. You can do this by connecting the contact pads of each switch to something metallic. Something like a paperclip works fine. There is an online keyboard testing tool that I like to use. Simply connect your board with a USB cable, download this site and test each switch position individually.


It's a good idea to test your board before you add anything to it.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

How you assemble your keyboard depends greatly on the specific parts you use, but here is the method I followed for my particular board.

First I had to install the stabilizers on the PCB. Make sure you place them in the right places, as many boards support multiple layouts. This means that there are certain stabilization holes that you do not use. For my build, I've chosen a British layout, that is, it has a shorter left shift key that does not require a stabilizer and an enter key with its stabilizer mounted vertically. Since the layout is 75 percent, the right shift key is also slightly shorter to pick up an arrow key to the right. Make sure you know which layout to use when installing your stabilizers. It is not the end of the world if you do something wrong. It's just annoying to have to undo your job.

The cherry stabilizers used in my build were disassembled, so I had to install a stabilizer in each case before attaching the metal bar on both sides. It can be a bit fiddly, but once you've figured out which direction the stabilizer is moving, putting it together is a simple process. Then take the stabilizer and clamp it in the two holes on the board.


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

Next are the switches, and just like the stabilizers, you need to pay attention to where they are placed to make sure you use the right holes for your layout. I found it helpful to test this by preinstalling a buttoncap on switches with multiple placement options and then threading them into the correct holes. Then you just have to remember which holes are to be used for the switch.

For my board I had to insert every switch through the plate and into the board. Once they are all plugged in, you can turn the board over and start soldering.

If you are new to soldering, I strongly encourage you to watch this YouTube video to get started. Otherwise, here are the basic rules to follow. Apply heat evenly to the pin of the switch and the electrical contact and then solder it to join the two. They are looking for a beautiful, well-kept cone. Do not 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 does not flow properly, do not apply heat, otherwise you might break something. Take a moment to cool things down, readjust and try again.


When soldering, be careful not to damage any of your components.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

With all the switches soldered on, it's time to assemble the case. Again, this depends on your components, but for me, the process was to unscrew the two halves of the case, screw the board to the bottom of the case, and reassemble the case with the printed circuit board and acrylic installed inside. [19659066] Finally, you can install your keycaps. This is probably the simplest part of the build and just time consuming because of the number of keys. Just align each button with its switch and push it down.

Now that the keyboard is assembled, it's time to plug it in. USB cables are there, but in my case I just went with a pretty traditional USB cable. My special board uses a mini-USB cable, but depending on what you get, your board may support Micro USB or even USB Type C. I'd like to check that everything works with the same online keyboard testing tool I used at the beginning of the build, but you'll quickly see if something is not working as it should.


My board was delivered in three parts had to be bolted together with the board inside.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

If your keyboard supports it, now is a good time to adjust the layout. However, the process works differently on every board. Honestly, this is yours. I would not do anything crazy to swap the letter keys, but you may want to change the Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys, whichever you use most frequently. This process is basically different for each keyboard. You must therefore follow the manufacturer's instructions to obtain the best possible course of action.


There are exceptions, but for the most part technology is getting better every year. Screens are getting higher resolution, battery life is getting longer, GPUs are getting faster, language assistants are getting smarter, but in addition to fancier flashing lights and perhaps macro buttons, keyboards from the early '90s are almost as functional today as they were then. If you're talking about mechanical keyboards made with Cherry MX switches, then you're talking about a design that has not changed much since the early eighties.

Good keyboard design is timeless, and if you can resist the temptations of becoming a reliable keyboard collector, then you can use the right model for the rest of your life. At least it will outlast any computer you connect to. I find that so appealing when I build something of my own. You can tailor something to your needs without worrying that it will be outdated in a few years.

It's not for everyone, but if you're far enough in the mechanical keyboard hole, building your own is the last step in following that hobby.

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