So, you’ve decided to take the plunge and build your own custom keyboard. Maybe you already own a name-brand Cherry MX board, and you just want more. Or maybe you’ve been inundated with a flood of YouTube videos of custom-built keyboards.
Trust me, once you get a taste of all that the enthusiast keyboard lifestyle has to offer, you will never go back. A word of warning though, if you’re not careful with setting a budget and sticking to it, you could end up spending a pretty penny.
But, ultimately, it depends entirely on the components you choose to use, which will determine your overall spend.
Guide to Building Your Own Keyboard
Building a mechanical keyboard seems like a daunting task—especially for a beginner. I’ve recently just finished building one for the very first time myself, using the Keychron Q1 Barebones, I’ve also reviewed it.
If you’re thinking building your own is like biting off more than you can chew, don’t worry. You’ll find every bit of information you need to build the keyboard of your dreams right here.
Why build a keyboard?
Before we get started, ask yourself why you want to build a custom keyboard. If you ask me, building your own keyboard is the most intimate upgrade you can do to your setup.
Apart from probably a computer mouse, the keyboard is the number one piece of hardware we interact with daily. So why not invest in something you use so often? By making sure your keyboard feels, sounds, and looks exactly the way you want, your entire setup will feel distinctly like you.
Let’s get into how we go about choosing and then building a keyboard as a beginner. I’ll talk about the following points:
- Size & Layout
- Choosing Your Parts
- Building The Keyboard (Video)
I’ll include a couple of links to my top picks, just as I did with my top 5 keyboard manufacturers article. It’ll take you directly to the item page on either TheKeyboardCo or Amazon.
Components of a Keyboard
There are a quite a few steps separating your vision for a keyboard and it sitting proudly on your desk in all of it’s RGB glory, or no RGB, I won’t judge. But, before we get into that, let’s get acquainted with the anatomy of a mechanical keyboard.
The case is the exterior chassis, or “shell” of the keyboard. It provides structural rigidity and holds all the other components inside it. The size of your case is what dictates the form factor of your keyboard and the number of keys you will be able to fit.
The PCB or Printed Circuit Board is the brain of your keyboard. It carries all the necessary information needed to determine your keyboard’s features. Your switches will connect directly to the PCB. Along with the PCB, you get the plate. This is a flat surface that sits atop the PCB and comes into direct contact with your keys.
I’m sure these need no introduction. There are hundreds of different switch types out there, but almost all of them fall under three main categories: linear, clicky, and tactile.
Choosing a switch is all about how you want your typing experience to feel. I normally stick to Red or Brown switches. To get the right one for you, if you’re really serious about this keyboard thing, you should grab a switch tester.
It’s basically a square keyboard that you can clip in a few sample switches to try them out. If you like them, you can go and buy a full set of the one that you like the most. Simple.
Check out this switch tester from TheKeyBoardCo, hit the link here.
The stabilizers are responsible for making sure larger keys like the spacebar and shift don’t rattle around too much. It’s very important to ensure you have good stabilizers. Cheap, rattly stabilizers can make the entire keyboard experience rather unpleasant.
Finally, we have the keycaps. Aside from the case, these are what make up the overall aesthetic of your keyboard. There are many different kinds of keycaps, so when it comes to designs, you’re spoilt for choice.
You aren’t beholden to one set of keycaps either, keycaps are all removable, so you can swap out your keycap sets (or even mix and match) whenever you want.
You’ll see either ABS or PBT keycaps for sale. The difference will divide a lot of keyboard enthusiasts into one camp or another. There are pro’s and con’s of each type.
ABS keycaps may get a bad rep in keyboard circles, but they’re not as bad as the internet would have you believe. They can sometimes develop a ‘sheen’ after heavy use. Manufacturers have in the past decided to use these keycaps based on the feel of typing using a lighter keycap, which allows much more of the switch characteristic to come through.
ABS is a softer plastic and produces a milder, softer sound. PBT is harder and produces a more tactile sound. It all boils down to personal preference, me personally, I prefer PBT.
Next up is the question of size. Mechanical keyboards come in a bunch of different form factors, but the choice is entirely up to you: pick the form factor that best suits your needs.
Here are a bunch of the most popular form factors:
- 122 Battleship
- Full Size (100%): 1800
- Left-hand Numpad
- 80% (Tenkeyless)
As I said, there’s loads to choose from. I tend to normally stick to either full size or 70% as it suits my typing style and home office set up. I also find those two form factors to be most comfortable.
Pick Your Feature(s)
If you’re new to building keyboards (if you’re reading this, you probably are), then you might not know exactly which features you want in your keyboard. In a nutshell, these are the three main features that everyone looks for in a custom keyboard.
This enables your keyboard to be fully programmable. A QMK firmware is not necessary to have a good keyboard experience, but boy is it ever convenient.
QMK is basically the keyboards operating system made specifically for the keyboard. You can think of it like being either Windows, Linux or macOS for your computer. You can program it yourself, which enables you to use your keyboard for more things.
For example, you can use it to program every key to do what you want; Send a keystroke, enable a macro, switch to another layer with a lot more keystrokes etc.
QMK compatibility is not the be all and end all of keyboard building, and for a beginner it may be best to not try and re-program keys just yet. But, you can future proof your board by ensuring you get one that’s compatible.
Ah yes, the light show. You can choose the extent of lighting you want, from per key, side only, or under glow. In my opinion, it’s always nice to have some kind of lighting on your keyboard depending on the situation or locale.
RGB has been incredibly popular with gaming keyboards in recent years. But, if you want to build something for the office, it’s probably best you keep it subtle or not have any RGB lighting at all.
The Keychron K2 has some wild options for RGB patterns and is most definitley suited to a gaming setup that’s dripping in RGB. On the other hand, the Filco Majestouch-2 doesn’t have any, making it perfect for office use.
Most custom keyboards feature a USB type-C port with a detachable cable. It’s become quite the trend to use a coiled, braided cable. I’m not a huge fan of those style cables, but each to their own I guess.
Whatever you decide to go with, USB-C has become the new standard and I personally, wouldn’t build a keyboard without it.
There are literally thousands of different styles available, so take some time and decide which one to go with,
Pick Your Parts
Now comes the fun part: getting everything together. There’s nothing like the excitement of waiting for a parcel, knowing it contains a bunch of cool keyboard gear.
As a first-time builder, I’d recommend sticking to a simpler build, so you won’t be overwhelmed and end up making a costly mistake.
First up is the PCB. There are two main types of PCB you can get—standard and hot swappable. The former requires you to solder the switches onto it, so I recommend going with a hot swappable PCB for your first build.
The reason I suggest getting the simpler of the two options is because it’s super convenient to set up as all you need to do is to press the switches into the holes of the PCB. If you’ve ever played with lego, you’ll get on just fine.
PCB Top Picks:
When it comes to the case, you can get it in ABS plastic, Aluminium, or if you’re feeling fancy, wood or acrylic. I don’t suggest going for a plastic case, as I tend to feel they sound a little bit cheap and super rattly.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some super high quality plastic cases. But, if you’re building your first board, go for something a bit more fancy.
An ideal case should be dense and rigid; so if you’re willing to pay a little extra, an aluminium case is definitely the way to go. I really enjoyed building a keyboard with the Q1 Barebones, it’s a CNC’d metal case and is incredibly well made.
Case Top Picks:
There are different materials for the plate as well. Basically, a soft plate feels nice to type on, but a hard switch makes it much easier to install switches. You can do away with the plate, but that increases the flexibility of the keyboard, so I don’t recommend it.
Go for a hard plate to make life easier, it also gives extra rigidity to the build.
Plate Top Picks:
Next comes the stabilizers. There are three main types of stabilizers: plate-mounted, screw-in, and snap-in.
One thing to keep in mind is that your choice of stabilizers will be limited by compatibility with the PCB and the plate. If you’re going for a hot swappable PCB, chances are you will need plate-mounted stabilizers.
Stabilizer Top Picks:
Now it’s time to pick your switch. The best way to decide the switch that works best for you is to check out online reviews. Watch some sound tests on YouTube, and if you can, experience the switches for yourself—you can order a switch tester kit online. For a beginner, I suggest going with Cherry Reds or Gateron Yellows.
There’s no wrong option here, just pick what you like best! For my recent Q1 build I used the Keychron K Pro Brown Switches. Just be careful the pins are straight before you try and clip them into the PCB board.
Switch Top Picks:
Most switches use Cherry profile keycaps, but make sure you double-check whether your keycaps are compatible with your switches. Keycaps vary a lot in price. You can get a standard set for under $30, but there are specialized sets for over $200!
What you need to keep in mind is the quality of the switches. I recommend picking a set of ABS double-shot keycaps. You might pay a little extra, but it’s definitely worth it in the long run.
Keycaps Top Picks:
Building Your Keyboard
If you’re wondering where you can buy all these parts, my go-to place is TheKeyboardCo and if your chosen component isn’t in stock, check out Amazon
Now that you have all the parts ready, it’s time to build! It’s very important you don’t jump in blindly, especially as a beginner. Hopefully this article has shed some light on the process.
If you have any further doubts, I suggest going over this excellent video by LinusTechTips as a starting point.
Building a mechanical keyboard for the first time can feel pretty overwhelming. But take it from me, it only gets easier.
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CodeWithMike is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to www.amazon.com.