More users are finding enjoyment in discovering how to build a custom mechanical keyboard. Aside from the satisfaction of building something from scratch, you can also build your preferred keyboard with all the necessary features that you want.
You might think that it is hard to build a custom mechanical keyboard but with the right guidance and steps to follow, it’ll be easier than you think.
Before you build a custom mechanical keyboard first of course learning the basics can help a lot. For example, first, you need to know about the keyboard type that will work best with you. If you have already a keyboard in mind, it would not hurt to know more about the other types out there. Who knows you might realize that another keyboard type is actually what you are looking for contrary to what you have decided upon initially.
So, to help you build your first ever custom mechanical keyboard or if you have built one in the past and want to know more, we have gathered all the helpful information you need.
The following are helpful guides on how to build a custom mechanical keyboard:
Choosing a Keyboard
There are several keyboard types to choose from once you decide to build a custom keyboard. You also have other features to consider like if it’s wired or wireless, or what RGB lighting you’d like your keyboard to have. You also have to consider a keyboard that will fit your budget.
The following are the things that you have to consider when choosing a keyboard:
Building custom mechanical keyboards start with knowing the keyboard size that you want. There are several mechanical keyboards option when it comes to size:
Full-sized (100%) Keyboard
Perhaps the most common kind of keyboard that you can find anywhere is a full-sized keyboard with 104 to 108 keys. This keyboard is what you can usually find in offices, especially where the job requires a lot of data input. The presence of a number pad in a full-size keyboard helps in faster data entry.
Though, with the full size, these keyboards are bulky and can take up much space in your office setup.
1800 Compact (96%) Keyboard
You won’t see much of an 1800 Compact or 96 Keyboard nowadays but it’s still knowing that this type of keyboard exists. This compact keyboard still has all the 104-108 keys but less space in between the keys. So you will have a smushed keyboard layout that saves space a little bit but is less bulky than the 100 keyboards.
Tenkeyless or TKL (87%) Keyboard
A tenkeyless keyboard has gained popularity over the years. As the name suggests, the keyboard is without the 10 keys on the number pad and overall has typically around 87 keys. Without the number pad, a tenkeyless keyboard offers better comfort with your mouse closer to your monitor and better portability with a compact size.
Searching among mechanical keyboards, another type that you will find based on size is a 75% keyboard. A 75% keyboard has around 80-84 keys which is a smushed version of a TKL keyboard. The arrow keys are placed without space with the other keyboard keys and the home cluster is arranged vertically.
There are a few of the 75% mechanical keyboards in the market nowadays but if you think this is the one for you, you can still find some if you know where to search.
A 65% keyboard is also gaining attention among users who want a compact keyboard. This keyboard has around 66-69 keys and is without the function row which is seldom used anyway.
A 65 keyboard is the smallest keyboard with arrow keys. So if you can’t live without the handy arrow keys and want the smallest keyboard, then a 65 keyboard might be a good choice for you.
This keyboard is also highly recommended for gaming with its highly programmable keys
A 60% keyboard has around 58-65 keys and is the most common keyboard size for a custom mechanical keyboard. If you’d like to build this custom keyboard, you won’t have the arrow keys, the number pad, and the function row. For some who are used to having all the different keys, it could become quite a challenge to get used to the compact layout.
But when it comes to portability, availability of materials for a custom keyboard, and space-saving. this keyboard is an overall great pick for gaming or typing.
Yes, there is a 40% keyboard with just 40-44 keys. Imagine the 60% keyboard and then remove all the special character keys plus all the number keys at the top row, that’s a 40 keyboard.
If you’re willing to go through the process of getting used to a 40% keyboard then you can try this keyboard but if you don’t want to have that long adjustment period then this keyboard is not for you.
This keyboard is also hard to fund so you will struggle with the parts too.
Wireless or Wired?
Building a custom mechanical keyboard, the next thing to put into consideration is your keyboard’s connectivity. There are wired and wireless keyboards. A wired keyboard is the most common type that you can find anywhere because it doesn’t need any power source like batteries to function.
A wireless keyboard is powered by batteries and has a Bluetooth or RF connection. A wireless keyboard might be more expensive than a wired one but the advantage of not being restricted by a wire is a big factor for some especially those who like to travel and bring their keyboards with them.
There are mechanical keyboards that can be both wired and wireless so you might want to check them out if you prefer to have versatility when it comes to connections.
Hot-swappable or Not
Unlike the normal keyboard with soldered switches, hot-swappable switches allow a user to change or hot-swap the switches on the fly. Those who want to have some experiment on which type of switches they’d like to have on their keyboard will be better off with hot-swappable switches on a keyboard.
If you don’t want to go through the process of changing switches then just you can stay away from keyboards with hot-swappable witches.
Different manufacturers of keyboards have different RGB lighting styles. There are mechanical keyboards that allow a lot of customization options while some do not.
Aside from RGB backlighting, you can also have per-key RGB lighting. So check out which RGB lighting options will work for you.
The cost of building a custom keyboard is another consideration to take when building your keyboard. If you want to save some money, then you can check out the used market for switches and keycaps. Alternatively, you can look up the materials used by a cheap mechanical keyboard online and purchase them.
There are also different materials that you can use for your keyboard case. If you want something cheaper then plastic would be the way to go but if you’re willing to spend more then aluminum or wood cases are also an option.
Materials You Need and Choosing the Right Parts
After deciding on your keyboard of preference, the next part is shopping for parts for your custom keyboard. There can be several ways to come up with your preferred mechanical keyboard build but the following are the main parts that you need to have for custom keyboard building:
The circuit board or PCB (printed circuit board) is the motherboard of your keyboard. This is where you will attach or solder the switches and where you will attach your USB chord.
There are two main types of PCBs, hot-swappable and normal (as mentioned earlier). Depending on your preference, the PCB is the first part that you have to shop for.
After the circuit board, the next part to purchase in building a mechanical keyboard is the keyboard switches. When you build a keyboard, there are several types of switches to choose from as follows:
This is the simplest type of switch that deliver smooth key presses. With the smooth and quick presses, gamers gravitate towards this type because it can easily cope with the needed fast responses, especially during intense gaming sessions. The common colors for linear switches are red, black, and yellow.
You can also read our review on the C3 Equalz Tangerine, which are linear switches as well.
Related: Best Linear Keyboard Switches
This type of keyboard switch, when building custom keyboards, delivers that small tactile sensation when pressed. The tactile feedback assures the user that all keys were pressed. Clicky switches are often preferred by typists, not too loud when pressed, and have that just right tactile feel. The common colors for clicky switches are brown and clear.
Tactile switches are a combination of both linear and clicky switches. When you press the keys, there’s that small tactile feel plus an audible sound when activated. The main advantage of having this type is that it offers great feedback during gaming and typing. Those who love a good and satisfying Autonomic Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) prefer tactile switches.
The common colors for tactile switches are blue, green, and white.
There are different kinds of keycaps to choose from for your custom mechanical keyboard but perhaps the most common ones are ABS Keycaps and PBT Keycaps. To give you a difference between these two keycap types, we have gathered the main differences as follows:
- Quiet feedback when typing
- Less durable or wears off faster
ABS Keycaps as the cheaper alternative is the most common type of keycaps that you can find on the market. If you plan on experimenting with your custom keyboard when it comes to design and colors then you should go for ABS Keycaps.
- Textured feels
- Louder response
- High durability
- More expensive
PBT keycaps are more expensive but worth more because you don’t have to change them from time to time because of their durability which lasts longer than ABS Keycaps. If you plan to build a custom keyboard that will last longer, then it’s worth investing in PBT Keycaps.
Additional Things to Consider for your Keycaps
There are a few things that you need to take note of when choosing your keycaps. The first one is the row profile of your keycaps. Make sure that you get the right row profile for your keyboard. The most common row profiles are OEM, Cherry, and SA.
The second thing is the stem of your keycap. There are two types of stems, MX and Alps. Make sure that you get the right stem for your switches.
And lastly, is the size of your keycaps. The most common sizes are 1u, 1.25u, 1.5u, and 2u.
Stabilizers are used to stabilize longer keys on a mechanical keyboard such as the spacebar, enter key, and shift keys. There are two main types of stabilizers namely Costar Stabilizers and Cherry Stabilizers.
This type is usually used in custom keyboards. The advantage of using this is that it’s easier to install and remove. The main disadvantage is that it produces a lot of rattling noise when typing.
This type is the original stabilizer for Cherry MX Switches. The advantage of using this is that it’s more durable and produces less rattling noise when typing. The main disadvantage is that they are harder to install.
In choosing your keyboard case, two main options often used are aluminum and plastic. When you search for a keyboard case, these two will be what you will see most because they are easy to manufacture in bulk. The other options to consider are stainless steel, acrylic, and wood. You can even make your own keyboard case if you’re a DIY enthusiast. To give you an overview of the different types of keyboards, here are the key features of each:
- Cheapest and light
- Usually comes in black or gray colors
- Made from either ABS plastic or a blend of Polycarbonate (PC and ABS Plastic)
- Usually comes with a metal plate for supply
A plastic case is a good choice if you’re looking into building a custom keyboard on a budget. Though, as it’s the cheapest case type, expect not to have the best experience. Some users who use plastic cases reported that there’s an unstable feel and keystrokes with a more bouncy response that makes you question its sturdiness.
- Heavier and more sturdy
- Delivers a stable feel
- Cleaner look (depends on the aluminum quality thought)
- More durable
An aluminum case as a choice for your custom keyboard is a good one. It gives a more premium look and with that, you also get better gaming or typing experience. The aluminum build also offers more durability which could make your keyboard last longer.
Stainless Steel Case
- The heaviest case type
- The most durable
- The sturdiest option
For those who are looking for a keyboard case that will give them a great typing experience and will also last long, the stainless steel case is the best option. It’s built to be durable and can withstand more wear and tear. The only downside is that it’s quite expensive.
- Offers a unique look
- Can be transparent or come in different colors
- Dynamic look
- Less durable than the other cases
If you’re looking for a case that will give your keyboard a unique look, then an acrylic case is a good option. It comes in different colors and can even be transparent. The downside is that it’s not as durable as the other cases.
- The most unique look
- Can be customized further
- Heavier than the other cases
- The most expensive case type
Wooden cases offer the most unique look for your keyboard. You can even customize it further to make it more personal. The downside is that it’s quite expensive and not as durable as the other cases.
A keyboard backplate place provides the place to mount your switch of choice. A Keyboard backplate also delivers that extra reinforcement your switches need to stay in position. Just like a keyboard case, you also have different options for a keyboard backplate material.
The choice of keyboard backplate material can affect the sound and durability of your keyboard. The following are the best keyboard backplate materials to choose from:
Polycarbonate backplates are a good choice if you are building a custom keyboard on a budget. This backplate is a cheaper option, lightweight, and has better backlight diffusion because of the plastic material. But you might be surprised that you can’t find a lot of Polycarbonate backplates, this is because the plastic material is prone to damage and easily bends.
The polycarbonate backplate also has more flex than the metal counterparts and absorbs more of the switch’s sound.
Aluminum backplates are a great choice for those who want a durable backplate. The aluminum material is more resistant to wear and tear. Aluminum also has that lightweight feel that users love. It also gives your keyboard a premium look and feels. The only downside is that it’s quite expensive.
Brass backplates are a good choice for those who want a durable backplate with a unique look. The brass material is more resistant to wear and tear and also has that unique gold color that gives your keyboard a luxurious look.
The downside of brass backplates is that it’s quite expensive and adds more weight to your keyboard.
For your custom keyboard, you also have to choose the USB cable to use. There are different types of USB Cable designs to choose from as follows:
The USB-C option for a USB cable on a custom keyboard is the latest and most convenient type of USB cable. This is because the USB-C cable is reversible, meaning you can plug it in any orientation. The only downside of using a USB-C cable is that not all devices have a USB-C port.
The MiniUSB option for a USB cable on a custom keyboard is a smaller and more convenient type of USB cable. The only downside of using a MiniUSB cable is that it’s not as durable as the other types of USB cables.
The MicroUSB option for a USB cable on a custom keyboard is the most popular type of USB cable. This is because it’s compatible with most devices. The only downside of using a MicroUSB cable is that it’s not as convenient as the other types of USB cables.
Soldering Iron (For non-hot-swappable switches)
If you prefer to have a keyboard with non-hot-swappable switches then you also have to prepare a soldering iron. This is because you need to solder the switches to the PCB.
Rubber O-rings (Optional)
O-rings can be used to adjust the feel and sound of your keyboard. This will come in handy in case you discover that your switch of choice is louder than you preferred or you don’t want the bumpy feel. Rubber O-rings come in different thickness levels. The thinner ones muffle the sound less but preserve your keyboard’s original sound. Thicker O-rings can result in a more mushy feel.
Sound Dampening Foam (Optional)
A sound dampening foam can be used to fill the dead space air inside your keyboard and make your keyboard sound better. Sorbothane foam is highly recommended by users but there’s a cheaper alternative called Neoprene Foam that you can also use.
Steps in Building your Mechanical Keyboard
Now that you know the different parts of a custom keyboard, it’s time to start building your own! Follow the instructions below to create your very own custom mechanical keyboard.
Step 1 – Prepare your Keyboard Parts and Test Your PCB
Once you have prepared your keyboard parts, the first step before you start building is to test your PCB and make sure that the keys are working without issues. You will need a tweezer to poke at the PCB pads for testing. Once you’re ready do the following:
- Attach your USB chord to your PCB and plug it into your computer.
- Find a keyboard testing tool. One site that lets you test your PCB is the Keyboard Tester website.
- Press both ends of your tweezers on two PCB pads that you will see for every key.
- You should see the key light up on the keyboard testing tool site. If it does not light up after several tries, you might have a faulty PCB and you need to have it replaced.
Step 2 – Install Stabilizers
After making sure that your PCB is working without issues, the next step to do is to install stabilizers. The steps on how to install your stabilizer can differ depending on the type of stabilizer that you chose. You can check on the steps included in your purchase or find a good youtube video specific to your stabilizer.
But generally, the process will have you screw or snap the stabilizers to your PCB plate.
There are also a few modifications that you can do when it comes to installing your stabilizers. If you’re interested to know more then continue reading but if not, you can skip this part and proceed to the next step.
The following are stabilizers mods that you can do:
Band Aid Mod
Your stabilizers can hit the PCB and this is when you use the band-aid mod. With a band-aid mod, you add a small adhesive to the areas where the stabilizer hits the PCB to dampen the sound.
As the name suggests, you use the fabric-type band-aid for this, cut tiny strips from the sticky parts, and place them on the parts where your stabilizer hit the PCB.
Clipping your Stabilizers
Yes, you can clip your stabilizers. There are stabilizer parts that you don’t need and you can clip them off to prevent that wobbly feel.
Lubing your Stabilizers
Lubing your stabilizers can make them smoother. This is the best method to use when you’re aiming for a smooth keypress.
To lube your stabilizers, first, you have to disassemble your stabilizers. Then, apply the lubricant of your choice on the wire shafts and the inside of your stabilizer housing. Lastly, re-insert the wire shafts into the stabilizer housing and install them on the PCB.
Step 3 – Install Switches
The most important part and probably where users would enjoy the most is the installation of switches. This step will require a lot more focus and attention to detail. After all, the switches are responsible for giving your keyboard that amazing typing feel. The following are the steps to install switches:
- The first thing that you need to do is to insert the switch into the PCB slot. You will know if it’s in the right position if you see the two metal legs of your switch inserted into the PCB’s tiny metal sockets. If you can’t see the metal legs, it means that your switch is not in the right position.
- Once all your switches are in place, it’s time to start soldering them. You will need a soldering iron and some solder wire for this part.
- To start soldering, heat your soldering iron and place the tip on one of the switch’s metal legs.
- Then, touch the end of your solder wire on the other leg while still touching the tip of your soldering iron on the first leg. Hold this position until you see the solder melted and formed a bridge between the two metal legs.
- Do this for all your switches and make sure that you don’t have any loose solder wire or bridges between different switch legs.
- After soldering all your switches, it’s time to test if they’re working. The best way to do this is by using a multimeter. If you don’t have one, you can use a paper clip instead.
For Hot-swappable Switches
Please take note that you don’t need to solder them. Just insert them into the PCB’s hot-swap sockets and you’re good to test your switches.
Step 4- Install Sound Dampening Foam or O-rings (Optional)
Installation of sound dampening foam or O-rings is optional but if you want a quieter keyboard, I would suggest that you do this step. The following are the things that you need to do:
If you’re using sound dampening foam, cut small pieces that will fit on each switch’s housing. You can use a hobby knife or scissors for this.
Once you have your sound dampening foams, insert them into each switch’s housing.
If you’re using O-rings, put them on each switch’s stem. You can get O-rings in different sizes so make sure that you get the ones that fit snugly on your switch’s stem.
Step 5- Mount PCB and Plate into the Keyboard Case
After the dampening foam or installation of switches, it’s now time for you to mount the PCB and the PCB Plate into your keyboard case. You can check if there are special instructions from your chosen keyboard case on how to put everything together but typically it will just involve the following steps:
- Place the PCB plate at the bottom.
- Mount your PCB and screw everything together.
Step 6- Install Keycaps
The next thing to do is to install your keycaps. This part is pretty straightforward, just pop them on your switches and you’re done.
Step 7- Test your Keyboard
Congratulations! At this step, you have actually already built your keyboard and now you just have to test your keyboard to make sure everything is functioning smoothly. Make sure to test all the keys. You can open the Key-Test Site and see if all keys are working without delays or any other issues.
Step 8 (Last Step) – Program your Keyboard
Programming your custom mechanical keyboard can be done by either the keyboard keys, software provided by your PCB of choice, or a third-party software called QMK Toolbox.
Please take note that before you start programming your keyboard, you need to take into consideration the keyboard layout that you have. This will determine the keymap of your keyboard and how each key is mapped to a certain function.
Your PCB of choice usually comes with a manual that will help you program your keyboard including the RGB lighting so just follow the steps.
If you’re using a QMK Toolbox to program, the following are the steps to follow:
- To get started, open QMK Toolbox, and you should see a list of available keyboards. If your keyboard is not on the list, you can contact support or look for a guide on how to add it.
- Once you have selected your keyboard, click on the Keymap tab and you will be presented with a grid of all the keys on your keyboard. You can start assigning functions to each key by clicking on the key and selecting what you want it to do.
- There are a lot of options available and you can even add multiple functions to a single key. Once you’re done, click on the Compile button and wait for QMK Toolbox to compile your code.
- If there are no errors, you can now flash your keyboard by clicking on the Flash button. Make sure your keyboard is plugged in before you do this.
- Once your keyboard has been successfully flashed, you can now unplug it and start using it.
And that’s it, the steps on how to build a custom mechanical keyboard! You have now built your very own custom mechanical keyboard!
Building your custom mechanical keyboard is a fun and rewarding experience. Not only do you get to choose the parts that you want to use, but you also get to program them according to your preferences.
Just follow the steps outlined in this article and you will be able to build your own keyboard in no time. And don’t forget to have fun playing your favorite game using your newly customized mechanical keyboard!