Rabbit holes Ep 1 Part 1: The quirky and wonderful world of custom mechanical keyboards

A curious mix of tedium and therapy resulting in a cacophony of satisfying clickety clacks. Here's what you need to know to join in the fun.

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One of the most unusual rabbit holes in the world of tech is that of the custom mechanical keyboard. It’s equal parts social media ASMR, solder fumes and life-changing decisions over plastic composition and the viscosity of grease.

And oh, months of waiting.

If it sounds like I’m mocking the hobby, it’s because that comes from a self-deprecating place. If you jump into the rabbit hole, you’d realise that the ridiculous stuff IS the fun stuff. If you already suspect that this might really get expensive, you’re a far shrewder person than I was. That said, the explosion of the hobby has made it possible for manufacturers to make a leap of faith and offer competitively-priced starter kits. If you ever considered getting into custom mechanical keyboards, this is as good a time as any.

Budget or premium?

The simplest way to answer this question: if you know that you will go through at least a few keyboards in your journey, get a cheap starter board. Otherwise, spring for something a little more premium that can realistically be your ‘one and done.’

And there are many options in the cheap and cheerful category: KBDFans, Royal Kludge, Idabao, Novelkeys, Akko; just to name a few. Many of these budget offerings are offered in plastic and are a great way to get started – they scratch that itch and more importantly, they leave you itching for more. And that in a nutshell is what the game is all about.

For that one ‘good enough’ keyboard you’d be happy with and possibly never bother to look at others again (yeah right), a keyboard with an aluminium case fits the bill perfectly: it looks good and is hefty enough to feel premium. We think the Keychron Q1 or Q2 does this quite well for relatively little money and you can check out our review of the Q1 here (they’re basically the same keyboard). It’s a basic, premium keyboard that’s good to go out of the box, and yet, offers much potential for you to fiddle with whenever you feel ready.

But if you find the Keychron to be James Milner levels of boring then you’ll be glad to know that there are no shortage of alternatives. Wuque Studios has also released a budget offering that’s comparable to the Keychron Q2 – the Meletrix Zoom 65 . If you want a budget option and you prioritise sound over everything else there’s the Bakeneko 60 and 65 . And if you don’t mind paying more to have something a little better than the Q1 the Freebird TKL checks all the right boxes.

The Group Buy

One unusual thing you might notice about custom mechanical keyboards is that it’s tough to find one on sale, especially if you’ve been searching around on the Internet. While it’s easy to find budget boards in stock at your usual suspects like Lazada or Shopee but the ‘cool’ ones always seem hard to come by.

That’s because most of these boards are small projects put together by small teams or even just individuals who go through the whole design process on their own. Hence, a ‘group buy’ is often needed to secure numbers – and the money – that’s large enough to make financial sense. As such, these projects are not without risk, and often take a lot longer than initially projected. These days, it takes about an average of nine months from putting down your money to receiving the end product.

When you consider that there’s also a risk that the ‘runner’ may not be reliable and fail to deliver a product that doesn’t meet expectations, you can imagine that this is a hobby that demands a lot of your attention and due diligence.

Even the most reputable group buy runners have had production or quality control issues so it’s not something you take for granted. So it helps that you study their track record on how they handle adversity to ensure that even in the worst-case scenario, you will not be short-changed (too much).

This is why many vendors are trying to offer budget keyboards as an in-stock item. The Keychron Q1/Q2, GMMK Pro , Novelkeys NK65 /NK87 , Meletrix Zoom 65, Bakeneko 60/65 and Freebird 60/TKL are just some of the notable aluminium case options right now and we can expect more to come soon. They were designed to be available ‘in-stock’ for as long as possible and you do not have to commit your money ahead of time for something that may or may not turn out well. These keyboards may not be as exciting as those exotic Korean TKLs, but you always know what you’re going to get, and for a fraction of the price. Even cult-favourite Geonworks is trying to keep an entry-level board – the Frog TKL – in stock every month.

Layout

The more comfortable you are with combination keys, the more likely you are able to adapt to the smaller formats. Often, the best way to find out is to try it out yourselves.

While the choice of keyboard layouts are highly personal, it’s often better to start out with more keys and seeing if you can make do with less. It’s rare to see custom keyboards in the full-sized, 104-key format because why on earth do you need them all? Hence, TKLs (sometimes referred to as 80%) and the 65% layout are more popular – and distinctive. If you don’t need arrow keys, the 60% layout is actually quite popular. If you want to go 65% but have hangups about losing too many keys, that’s where the 75% comes in. Other niche layouts that you will see frequently include Arisu (Alice), 40% and 1800 aka 96%.

The other thing to consider is that the layout choice affects the range of third-party keycaps to you. The more common your layout, the easier it is to find a set for your keyboard. For example, getting a set for a TKL keyboard is almost guaranteed but the same could not be said for a 75%, especially if you are picking up a cheap and cheerful set of keycaps.

Keyboards are also angled differently, and that affects the ergonomics. There really isn’t a right or wrong angle to speak of but it pays to know what you’re getting; the adjustment can be minimal or it might take you a while to get comfortable. Five degrees is considered relatively flat, seven degrees is somewhat like an average while the Koreans enjoy their steep angles, often clocking in at nine degrees, if not more. If you have a proper typing technique, five degrees is actually pretty comfortable. If you rest your arms on the table the steeper angles might be a comfortable way to keep your wrists straight.

Finishes

For budget keyboard kits, remember not to expect too much of the finish quality. Anodisation is also used, but cheaper alternatives sometimes use powder coating or good ol’ paint as well. On budget boards that employ anodisation, sometimes you can find streaks on the surfaces though it’s not that obvious unless you really scrutinise. For high-end keyboards, these are usually marked and sold as B-stock items.

You pay a premium for more expensive processes like electrophoresis, which is often used for premium white cases that are often referred to as e-white. E-finishes typically cost $10-20 more. Often, you get better colours with premium finishes. This is best exemplified by the Chinese outfit Matrix and its unique colour palette that are almost exclusive to them.

Weight = premium?

One upside for heavier keyboards is that they are less likely to shift around when you type. The other reason is psychological – weight is associated with premium products. There comes a point where the extra mass is unnecessary for keeping the case planted and actually becomes more of a hindrance, but that’s a story for another day.

Many keyboard cases incorporate a weight for various purposes. Weights are used to provide aesthetics, add heft, or shape acoustic profile. The most common materials are aluminium, brass or steel. Zinc is sometimes used as well in cheap builds. Brass is the heaviest and is popular for the way it rounds off the sound but is often the most expensive option. However, the surface quality can add to the cost as well, and polished raw steel can be more expensive because it is that much more tedious to produce a mirror-quality finish.

Weight is purely a preference, but sometimes having a brass weight can help ‘improve’ the sound. The reality is that for most people, you can’t really tell unless you have one in aluminium and one in brass and listen to them side by side. Long story short, don’t sweat it too much.

Design and cost

The more elaborate the design, the more runs the CNC machine needs to execute to cut the case out of aluminium. As such, curves are troublesome and add to the complexity of the task. Any design that increases the time taken to mill the case consequently raises the cost too. This is also why cheaper keyboard cases tend to have simpler outlines as the machine need not carry out as many passes.

The less obvious fact is that the case design contributes to the acoustics of the keyboard. A thin frame tends to result in a pingy case (e.g. Q1) and an overly thick frame can result in hollowness (e.g. Smith & Rune Iron 180). Much of it is subjective of course, but the sticking point is that every keyboard case has unique characteristics.

QMK & VIA

While it’s not a must to have a keyboard support QMK and VIA, it certainly is much easier if you’re the sort who likes to tinker and tweak. QMK is an open-source platform that’s widely used by the keyboard enthusiast community so it’s easy to find solutions or interesting code online.

There’s quite a fair bit you can do with QMK – you can configure your own lighting effects provided the hardware can support your crazy ideas. Or if you find that your keyboard doesn’t behave the way you want it to when your PC goes to sleep, you can always tweak the code so that it does what you want.

For those who aren’t interested in coding solutions, or want something a little more straightforward, VIA is a universally-used UI for QMK that lets you do basic tweaks like remapping keys via a visual interface. It’s closed-source, however, so updates to the VIA might take a while. It’s not unusual for users to manually load configuration files for a new keyboard kit for months because they’re still waiting for their keyboard to be updated in the database.

Universal options

Compatibility is a boon for any hobby, and keyboards are no exception. Cherry MX switches are almost universally used that not many people know about alternatives like Alps and Topre. Most keycaps that you find online are almost always Cherry MX compatible.

So it stands to reason that the less proprietary the board, the better. In some ways, that’s not always true as there would be no innovation. But let’s just say that you’re building a daily beater – would it not be in your interests if your components are easily replaceable?

One area where some degree of ‘universal’ compatibility is welcome: the PCB. This is especially so for TKLs, and many designs are able to support a ‘universal’ PCB such as the H87 and H88. Often, this means that the plates are compatible as well, which means it’s easier to find extra PCBs and plates. This also allows you to mix and match between cases.

While any of these keyboards tend to be at the higher end of the spectrum, some budget kits do share some degree of compatibility. For example, the budget Freebird TKL and the ‘unobtanium’ TGR Jane V2 CE both support the popular Hineybush H88c PCB ; the WT60-D PCB was designed for high-end kits like the Mekanisk Fjell but it can also be used in entry-level cases like the KBDfans Tofu60 .

Modding tips

Although modding is a big part of the hobby, most kits are not designed to be constantly taken apart and put together again. Thus, budget or practice kits are important if this is something you want to take seriously. You will inevitably make mistakes, and you wouldn’t want to do that on an expensive and hard to find keyboard kit. Some keyboard kits go through a single production and run and are never produced again – you wouldn’t want to wreck those.

Therefore it’s good to adopt the right habits. Don’t damage your keyboard just because you can’t be bothered to get the right tools. Fortunately, most budget kits these days come with a set of cheap tools that more or less get the job done. Invest in better tools when you are certain that you’ll be doing this for a while.

While it’s highly unlikely that budget kits will turn out to be complicated builds – more often than not they feature a simpler construction – it’s good practice to check out how difficult (it’s usually more tedious than difficult, but equally annoying) something is to build before committing to buy. YouTube and Twitch are good places to find build videos.

But the one thing that you should have at least one of, is a hotswap PCB. In order to learn about switches as well as the effects of switches on different plate materials, you will need to change switches constantly. Just imaging the pain of having to desolder and resolder switches all the time should convince you. Also consider the fact that if something goes wrong with your stabilisers – for example, if the wire pops out, you will need to remove everything to get to them.

It’s not to say that we should toss traditional soldered PCBs to the wayside. Learning to solder and desolder switches is an essential skill so it’s worth spending some time on it but having one hotswap option is a must. Get it for a kit that has multiple mounting plate materials and if possible, multiple mounting options, so you can experiment away without fear of breaking stuff.

Another thing that you need to pay attention to is the orientation of your switches. Though not always true, north-facing switches may cause interference if you use Cherry profile keycaps on R3 (the Enter key row). North-facing switches are used especially when per-key RBG lighting is offered, as the diode is positioned directly below the legends. It’s a necessity if you need the light to pass through translucent legends on your keycaps for that shine-through effect.

Some keyboard kits come bundled with stabilisers and more often than not they are fairly decent. If your keyboard doesn’t come with a set, then you can consider picking up some Durock V2s , which is a good way to learn how to set up your stabilisers. New-age alternatives like Staebies and TX offer better tolerances and a host of improvements, but ‘old-school’ Durocks helps you figure out what makes a stabiliser tick – literally and figuratively. And if set up well, they get the job done perfectly.

There are a host of mods that people do to improve Durocks and other similar stabilisers such as Holee and Epsi, which essentially reduces the amount of play that the wire has in the stabiliser housing. They aren’t always necessary but are techniques to consider if you have a really hard time keeping wire rattle under control.

But guess what, you’re not done even when you finally remove all hints of wire rattle. Stabilisers are components that need some degree of maintenance over time as the lubricant dries up and the rattle will return. But the fix is usually not as painful – just add more lubricant around the stabiliser wire with a syringe.

Keycaps

Aside from aesthetics, keycaps also contribute to ergonomics. With multiple height profiles to choose from – Cherry, SA, KAT, MT3, OEM, XDA, just to name a few – you are more likely to find something that suits the way that you type. For simplicity, we’ll focus only on Cherry MX style switches and mounting.

Keycaps also play a part in shaping the overall sound profile. Aside from the shape, the keycap material also affects how the keyboard sounds. The most common materials are ABS and PBT, as well as a blend of both. ABS is regarded as the cheaper option if product brochures will have you believe, and PBT is the premium one as it doesn’t shine. The reality is that PBT will eventually wear into a shine, but it takes a really long time to do so.

Triple shot ABS gives you two colours for legends.
Triple shot ABS gives you two colours for legends.

The other reality is that the most expensive keycaps in the hobby are made with ABS. Specifically, it’s ABS keycaps made by GMK. It’s a consequence of demand and supply and GMK keycaps are notorious for their aftermarket prices.

The keycaps are still made by the Uniqey company in Germany, which naturally starts it off as pricier. The factory is also incredibly backlogged, with current wait times inching towards the two-year mark. As such, many opportunistic enthusiasts enter group buys for GMK keycaps so that they can resell them in future.

GMK keycaps are prized because GMK were once (maybe they still do) using original Cherry moulds. As we know, anything that links you to the vintage world is always a ‘win’ and commands a premium. Not only that, they were able to produce incomparably vibrant colours that other manufacturers can’t match. The legends and sub-legends are formed via a double-shot process (two injection mouldings) and are the most refined and clean-looking examples in the industry. It’s the easiest way to identify the genuine article because this is something the competition struggles to replicate.

Decent alternatives to GMK include JTK, DCS (thinner plastic for a different feel), and Domikey. On the budget front, Aifei offers good quality for the money although they predominantly manufacture clones and the plastic seemingly appears to be a blend of ABS and PBT.

Blends seem to be more popular these days and it seems that they are often used in what is labelled as double-shot PBT keycaps. The colours tend to be more vibrant (PBT keycaps aren’t known for vibrant colours) and they tend to shine more quickly when compared to pure PBT keycaps. Akko keycaps are possibly the best-known example of this, and their keycaps can be bought at a fair price if you know where to look (shop around in Aliexpress or Taobao).

Most enthusiasts prefer ABS for the sound (especially the spacebar) while PBT tends to be higher pitched compared to ABS. The profile plays a part as well and taller keycaps like the SA and MT3 profiles tend to result in a deeper sound and louder modifier keys. Cherry profile keycaps should be taken as the baseline sound simply because that’s what most people use in sound tests that you see on YouTube. But remember, this is ultimately about preference and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise – the whole concept of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ is often exaggerated.

PBT keycaps are often imprinted with a dye sublimation process (or a reverse dye-sub for coloured keycaps) and the colour range is somewhat limited when compared to ABS. While PBT is often touted as an upgrade in mainstream and gaming keyboard spec sheets, in the custom mechanical keyboard world, premium PBT plays second fiddle to premium ABS keycaps (actually, just GMK) for the most part.

Dye sublimation prints will never fade, but they can be scratched off if the plastic gets nicked.
Dye sublimation prints will never fade, but they can be scratched off if the plastic gets nicked.

But the shine resistance of PBT is a big draw for many people and for that, it retains some degree of popularity, especially given how long the wait times for GMK are. CRP is perhaps the most highly regarded of the PBT keycaps, but they are almost exclusively recreations of vintage keysets, which may not be to everyone’s taste. Other popular sets include Enjoy PBT (or ePBT, and their wait times are approaching GMK lengths), GeekArk, Milkyway and NicePBT. And from the world of Taobao, you can find hidden gems like Xiami aka XMI aka 21Kb.

When it comes to keycaps, the biggest headache often comes in the form of the spacebar – or the straightness of it. It’s an issue because warped spacebars can cause annoying rattles that might not be fixable. Some try to straighten spacebars by heating them up and gently bending them into shape. But it doesn’t always work, which is why many aspire to pick up a set of GMK keycaps (Drop has many readily available). The reality is that these days, even GMK spacebars are suspect to a little wobble and ironically it’s the cheap Aifei clones that seem to do well in this regard (the plastic is ludicrously thick).

Takeaways – Switches

Switches are an even bigger rabbit hole than keycaps are, given their general availability and the potential for mods. The most common switches (and the only ones we’ll be addressing) are Cherry MX style switches, which take the form of linear, tactile, and if you hate people indiscriminately, clicky variants.

Clicky switches, as the name suggests, let out a clicky sound and is pretty much a niche (or meme, if you’re feeling mean) preference at this point in history. Tactile switches are the more popular go-tos if you need some form of tactile feedback from typing.

Linear switches offer the most options, and it has become somewhat of a buffet – there are countless options with variations in the form of spring weights, spring lengths, top housing, bottom housing and stem materials. The different plastics add a different dimension to the sound, and the switches add their individual character to the board. They all sound the same and yet they sound slightly different – in a blind test you won’t be able to tell the difference, but when you’re made to choose between two switches that you get to compare side by side, you start to agonise over the decision. That’s how they get you, fam.

Certain plastics are also self-lubricating – e.g. nylon, POM and UHMWPE. And these materials make for smoother actuation. Switches are such that even the thickness of the lubricant can alter the sound of the switch. It’s all quite subtle, but apparent. So it all depends on how deeply invested you are in trying to get exactly what you want.

Lubing helps to improve smoothness and to some degree, it affects the pitch of the switch sounds as well. Most modern switches are quite well lubed out of the factory, so there really is no real need to take them apart unless your intention is to tweak the sound profile.

Switches can feel inexpensive, which means you often end up spending more…
Switches can feel inexpensive, which means you often end up spending more...

The same could be said for switch films, which are primarily used for switches with loose-fitting housings. They do lower the pitch of the switch sounds too. It’s fascinating that even in little things like these, you can do something to tweak the sound.

Some people even go to the point of making ‘frankenswitches’, which is a switch made up of parts from various switches. Originally, it was a way for modders to salvage something out of switches that they disliked, but it became a popular outlet for creativity. The downside is that it can get really expensive, though. One of the most well-known frankenswitches – Black Cherry Pie – is made from a Cherry MX top housing (like a Hyperglide ), a JWK nylon bottom like an H1 , and the POM stem from a Kailh Cream . This configuration costs an average of $2.40 per switch to put together (there are cheaper options though), which when you think about it, sounds crazy. but thankfully, with the wealth of choices these days, there’s no real need to resort to these extremes.

Given the sheer number of options, it’s no surprise that sound tests on YouTube are popular, as it’s a way for interested parties to have an idea of what the switches sound like. Although sound tests are inherently flawed and with creative microphone techniques you can make most switches sound similar to each other, watching a couple of videos should be able to give you all the information you need to make a choice.

Some examples of decent budget switches are Gateron Pro Milky Yellows (linear), JWICK Full Black (linear), AKKO Lavender Purple (Tactile), TECSEE Purple Panda (Tactile), Kailh Box Whites /Jade (clicky).

Case acoustics

The Q1 is a prime example of why case design matters. The Q1 isn’t very different from the 75 per cent keyboard kits it took inspiration from but they all sound very different.

In the case of 75% kits, the Owlabs Jelly Epoch is famous for its poppy-sounding keyboards notable for its extreme use of Polyethylene (PE) foam, and for sounding ‘bland’ when you build it without foam. On the other extreme, the GOK 7V is notorious for not playing nice with any build except when you build it without a mounting plate, which is the recommended build.

It’s fascinating stuff, especially when you consider that they are all, ultimately, just rectangles with keys on them. This is why many Group Buys feature videos of their prototypes built by prominent content creators, who typically show the build process and then provide a sound demonstration as well as their thoughts at the end of the build.

When ‘shopping around’ on YouTube and Twitch, because there are so many variables to consider – and especially that grey area that is recording technique – the best way to manage expectations is to settle for combinations that are in the ballpark of what you like.

While it might seem unoriginal to copy builds, it’s usually a good way to start off – you can always experiment with different switches and keycaps and plates later.

Updated: I didn’t mention this previously as I thought it might add to the confusion but I figured that not clearing things up might be worse.

People use the terms ’thocc’ and ‘clack’ quite liberally, and most gaming chair pundits on the interwebs will have a slightly different interpretation. At some point, irony and trolling were taken at face value and here we are. The easiest way to get your head around this is to think of thocc as deep-sounding.

Imagine Topre boards like the Leopold or a Fujitsu HHKB as the classic definition; in the Cherry MX switch world, the venerable KBD67 Lite R3 is a keyboard that naturally sounds ’thocky’. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that the very-hyped Jelly Epoch is considered thocky; it’s actually more ‘poppy’ sounding.

On the other hand, clack is a little easier to get your head around as it covers the keyboards that have a higher-pitched sound. The infamous Keycult No. 1/60 customised for gamer Tfue is an extreme example of clack as the Kailh Cream switches have a unique sound, but I think an exaggerated example helps to frame the description better. An ‘old school’ (also loosely used) TKL with Cherry MX Black switches is usually the trope.

The concept of ‘poppy’ and ‘marbly’ are terms that are used quite liberally. Poppy is something strongly associated with the Jelly Epoch because foam functions like a filter that shapes the frequency curve. Some keyboards sound poppy on their own but being able to add to a sheet of foam or taping the back of the PCB (Tempest tape mod ) does help keyboards that don’t sound good on their own (subjective, of course).

The Tfue board mentioned earlier is a good example of marbly. As the adverb suggests, it sounds like marbles clicking against each other, or the rattling of a spray can. Now you know why these things can be so confusing…

Conclusion

So there you have it – our overview on the massive rabbit hole that is the custom mechanical keyboard hobby. The good thing about working with mechanical keyboards is that there is nothing that is particularly difficult so long as you don’t rush. Compared to something like setting up and maintaining 3D printers, this is child’s play. Your keyboard modding mistakes are punished in the form of the tedium in undoing something that you forgot to do, but that’s about it.

Likewise, the biggest virtue that you can pick up from the hobby is patience – the monotony of applying lubricant to a hundred switches and ensuring that they are all consistently applied and then soldering all of them and ensuring that they are mounted properly will drive you nuts if you’re the sort who wants instant gratification.

For me, it is a glorious waste of time and never has obsessing over the most ‘meaningless’ things been more therapeutic and satisfying. And I mean that in the nicest way possible. My wallet will beg to differ, though.

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