Everyone I try to coerce into the "one of us" and "custom keyboard gang gang" journey usually end up telling me, "Ok Nat, I really want a mechanical keyboard but there are so many options! It's so overwhelming... I don't know how to start."
So let me just preface this by saying, I am not the end all be all source for keyboard options, nor do I claim to know even remotely half of what there is to know about keyboards. I enjoy the community and creative aspect of the hobby much more than I do the scientific and analytical aspect of the hobby. I had a TON of help from a dear friend with compiling all of this information, and hopefully it will help you!
There are quite a few aspects that make up a mechanical keyboard and each one has a ridiculous plethora of options. Buckle in for a long read because as concise as I want to make this post, I also want to cover all the bases that I can think of!
First things, first.
How much budget you are able to work with is the factor that will affect your options regarding a custom build the most. A custom mechanical keyboard can range anywhere from around $100 at the bare minimum and the sky is the freaking limit. What is considered mid tier usually falls between $500 to $1000 when fully built. These numbers probably seem ridiculous, but when you add up all the parts: the case, stabilizers, switches, keycaps, cables, and possible artisans, the numbers rise exponentially. Having a budget will help with the temptations, and let's be honest the FOMO and clout chase, of beautiful-but-expensive bespoke keyboards that are produced on a smaller scale.
If your idea of building a custom keyboard is more meant to be a fun, cheap, DIY project, you can purchase a cheap kit off Amazon or one of these Cannon Keys practice kits, throw on some $0.30 per switch Cherry MX switches, cheap keycaps off KPrepublic and call it a day. On the other hand, if you want to get a nicer custom keyboard to use everyday for work or gaming, that sounds great, and looks amazing, then setting a budget will help with knowing which tier of a board you can afford while still maximizing the aesthetics and nice typing feeling.
Patience, young padawan.
If you can enter a group buy and wait for it to ship it will save money overall. If you're really feeling the itch, maybe get a cheaper board in the meantime. It seems counterintuitive, but aftermarket prices in this hobby are disgusting (on average, aftermarket keyboard prices range from 2x to 4x more than the group buy cost) so it is a good decision on the wallet to wait for a group buy in the long run; if prices are a serious concern or if you want something that is slightly nicer than you can currently afford to pay for in the aftermarket, I highly recommend joining a group buy! If prices are not a concern... flex away!
Breakdown of a Mechanical Keyboard
Before we dive in too deeply, I want to give a bit of a rundown on what makes up a mechanical keyboard, and what is the appeal?
- Eventually I will include an exploded view of a keyboard. -
All parts of a keyboard affect the sound, feeling, and aesthetics of the keyboard.
The keyboard case is what most people think of as the keyboard itself, but I like to think of it as the housing for all of the goodness that a custom keyboard can offer.
There are also cases like this Noah by Matrix Labs that are composed of many more pieces.
The composition of a keyboard case, such as the material, or the construction, wether it allows for tray mount, top mount, burger mount, or gasket mount of the pcb and plate, or how the case diffuses sound and vibrations, affects the overall typing experience and sound. Aesthetics are also highly customizable in this hobby so this is very much a choose your own adventure. Each individual aims for a different experience and sound, and with the right components, plus a little imagination, anything can be achieved!
A fully programmable PCB is a core feature of why custom keyboards are amazing. Again, personal opinion, but I think that being able to set any key to perform any function makes all of the work of painstakingly sourcing parts worth it! Having this option allows for the freedom of different sized boards for aesthetics sake, or for space saving sake, without losing any necessary functionality. Some pre-built mechanical keyboards such as the Ducky One 2 Mini doesn't allow for fully programmable layout, which really gives +100 points to fully custom QMK compatible keyboards, despite the work needed to put one together.
There are several plate options.
No plate: just means that the switches go directly on the pcb.
Integrated plate: the plate is part of the top case of the keyboard.
Most keyboards I've come across are designed with a plate, which can be made out of the following materials:
Aluminum: cheap and versatile, very common, stiff, higher pitched sound.
Brass: very common and very popular, very stiff, deeper sound.
Polycarbonate: very flexy, very thocky sound.
Carbon fiber: very popular, some flex, very crispy and clean sound.
Acrylic: very soft, higher pitched sound.
FR4: I've run out of adjectives and comparisons...
POM: so I'll get to this later.
...and so much more!
Now that we've covered some basics, I'll get into some factors to consider as you're deciding if you should, or how you should, get a custom keyboard.
Choosing a form factor usually depends on what functionality you need. This may come down to an aesthetic choice, a size choice, a functionality choice, but most likely a combination of all three!
GMMK by PC Gaming Race
This is a Full Size layout.
U80-A by RAMA.
This is a TKL, Tenkeyless, or 80 layout.
Satisfaction 75 by Cannon Keys.
This is a 75 layout.
Iron 165 by Smith + Rune
This is a 65 layout.
Tofu by KBDFans
This is a 60 layout.
Adelie by Abec13
This is a 55 layout.
These few boards that I've shown are a couple standard sizes you can find (besides maybe the Adelie, sub 60s are a niche of niche category), but what is available out there is definitely not limited to these sizes! There are variations on form factor such as HHKB or WKL (winkeyless) that remove keys and affect the aesthetics and functionality of your board. Choose a form factor that works for what you do in your day to day, or for your gaming habits, or however you plan on using your custom keyboard.
Once you've decided on your budget and form factor, it's time to choose a keyboard! This is probably one of the hardest parts because there are honest to god so many choices it makes my mind spin. As in, while writing out this post, I had to take a break before I could even address this section. If you are now realizing that the custom mechanical keyboard world is a little too blue blood for you, there are so many great prebuilt mechanical keyboards to buy for much cheaper. Not all of these recommendations apply to all form factors, so I'm really sorry if my recommendations don't cover everything!
MechanicalKeyboards is a pretty great one stop shop to see prebuilt options. Covers options between 60 to Full Size so if you're not looking to dig deep into your wallet for something more custom, that site is a great place to browse for different sizes and brands (Ducky, Varmilo, etc) to find something that fits your budget and form factor.
If you're ready to dive deep into customs, I would frankly recommend keeping an eye out on Geekhack which has forums for IC (interest check) and GB (group buy, think Kickstarter) where designers go to show of their chops and rally support for their projects. Almost all projects are posted there, so you can spend time browsing posts and seeing if there's a keyboard that catches your eye.
One tip is to have patience when going through this process. Of course, if you are one to just have a ridiculous amount of extra cash just burning a hole through your wallet, it doesn't hurt to buy what you'd like aftermarket on Discord market forums or r/mechmarket, but all custom products from boards, to keycaps, and even deskmats, are usually more affordable at group buy price. Yes, this means you will have to wait a while for your purchase, but it is the charm of the hobby . There are so many platforms to stay connected and I'd like to take this chance to extend an invite to my Discord as a place to ask questions and receive recommendations.
I honestly think this subject matter should be another post... but stay with me here! There are 3 main types of MX switches: linear, tactile or clicky. I will update this with an infographic on the general differences between the stems for these 3 types.
Linear switches have no bump on their stem and do not have any sort of feedback when typing (besides when you bottom out which means to completely press down on the switch).
Tactile switches have a bump on their stem and provide feedback when you press down on the switch. Imagine a shopping cart that has a messed up wheel and rattles your arms with a bumpity feeling on every rotation, except the feedback is to your finger when pressing down on your key.
Clicky switches are similar to tactiles but also produce an audible clicking noise when pressed.
For what it's worth, my current favorites are:
Tactile: 67g Zealios v2
Clicky: custom modded speed clickies with 40g click bar and 90g/100g spring
Some others I would recommend are:
Linear: Gateron Yellow, Gateron Ink, Creams
Tactile: T1, Holy Panda
Clicky: anything with a click bar so Kailh clicky switches
Keycaps are the cherry on top of your custom keyboard. There is an amazing range of keycaps available to purchase, some affordable, some not, and so many different places to source. For keycaps on the more budget-friendly end, there are many options on Amazon and Chinese websites such as Aliexpress and Taobao. Tai-Hao and KBDFans keycaps are a step more into the custom keycap territory, but for full custom keycaps you need to enter the GMK, Signature Plastics, Infinikey, Keyreative, JTK, Maxkeys territory. Those are some manufacturers that provide custom keyset production for the hobby. This means that they run designs that members of the custom keyboard community create themselves! My friend Eskimojo has developed Keycaplendar to keep track of past, current, and future custom keysets.
I want to include a small note here that if you want to go into truly custom and truly artistic territory, there are talented artisan creators that create custom, individually made, artisan keycaps that are probably my achilles heel.
There are many ways to accessorize your custom build, with custom deskmats, custom cables, and artisan keycaps to garnish your build with.
In this setup, I've got a Bliss Sakura deskmat, SA Bliss (which I designed myself and you can read about more here) on top of a Rekt1800 designed by Cannon Keys, a cable made by CruzCtrl Cables, and a plethora of artisans from amazing makers: Latrialum, Wildstory, and CYSM.
Hope your head is feeling all right after all of that information! I do not claim to know everything about keyboards, but I hope that some of what I've shared here helps with your decision making process.