What you need for a Custom Keyboard!

You decided to build your own custom keyboard, but don’t know where to start?
No worries I got you!

Basically, you need:

  • Printed Circuit Board (PCB)
  • Case
  • Plate
  • Switches 
  • Stabilizers
  • Keycaps
  • Cable

While you got the shopping list, the following will go into the details of each part and will highlight things you should have an eye on! There are a few things you have to look out for in terms of compatible.

Let’s get into it!

The Printed Circuit Board (PCB)

It is the heart of your keyboard and will decide what size your keyboard will be and what kind of features it has. While key features come with the size you should ask yourself, do you want dedicated arrow-keys, navigation-keys, function-keys, or a Numpad?  

The most known sizes are 60% (it has non of the listed key-features), 65% (has dedicated arrow-keys and navigation-keys), TKL (as the name says, it has no Numpad), and Fullsize (everything you need).

There are also 40% and less. They have certainly more of a novelty character than a useful one.

Decision made! Choose the right PCB.

While key features were set by size, you also want to choose the right layout and extras like RGB and hot-swap.

Most European people are used to the ISO-Layout, while most Americans are used to ANSI. The biggest difference is the “enter”-key. In ISO-Layout it is differently shaped. There are definitely more ANSI PCBs because the niche is bigger in America than in Europe, but either you get used to ANSI which is fine or you find one with an ISO-Layout. PCBs like the DZ60 from KBDFans offer both. However, I would recommend going with an ANSI layout. There are simply more keycap-sets to choose from and most of the time ISO-Layout keycaps come with an extra cost.

Many people coming into the hobby are afraid of soldering the switches. I can say it’s not so difficult at all. I just built my own with the DZ60 this year and had no issues what so ever. Considering it was my first time. 

If you still don’t want to solder or want to have RGB you can go with a hot-swap. There are no major disadvantages to using a hot-swap other than a fixed layout. Soldering will improve the lifespan of your keyboard by a small amount though. 

You are all set to choose now!

Case

When choosing a case it comes to compatibility. As a recommendation, you should get your case from the same vendor as your PCB. This will more likely guarantee to be compatible with your PCB. Other than compatibility you should get the right material. The material will have an impact on the feel, durability, and sound. Having an aluminum case will make your keyboard heavier and gives it a slightly more premium feel. Most enthusiasts want a heavy keyboard. 

Choosing an acrylic or plastic case will make it less durable and more light. Plastic cases are also the cheapest if you’re tight on a budget.

Then there is wood. However, I have never tried wood, so I can’t say anything about it.

If you want to buy a keyboard case from a group buy it will most likely ship with a plate and a PCB because no other PCB will fit.

When going for a pricy group buy PCB you should read about different plate mountings. 

Plate

First of all, the plate is not necessary. You can build a keyboard without, but it will lag durability and will decrease the lifespan of your PCB. Just imaging hitting the PCB with your keycap every time you use it. I definitely recommend a plate!

Plates also come with different materials. The material has a similar impact on the sound, feel, and durability as the case. Brass plates are the go-to for plates. They are heavy, durable, and look pleasing. You could also choose aluminum.

Switches

Switches are so important! Choose it wisely, it will have the most impact on typing feel and sound. Get yourself a switch tester and try them out before going all in. You should know there are 3 types of switches. First the standard “linear” switch then the “clicky” one and last but not least the “tactile”.

Switches can be plate mount or PCB mount. PCB mount switches are often referred to as 5 pin switches. On the other hand, plate mounts are 3 pin switches. You can easily make a PCB switch a plate mount switch by clipping the two extra feet.

Linear switches have a linear actuation and recovering, they simply go straight down and up. An important factor is the actuation force. It defines the strength needed to actuate the switch. The actuation force is determined by the force of the string inside the housing. Linear switches are heavily used for gaming, because of actuation time you can achieve with it. An evolution of the linear switches are the speed switches. They are ultra-fast.

Clicky switches are similar to the tactile switches. In terms of actuation, there is no major difference. As the name suggests they make an extra click when actuated. This gives additional feedback to let you know, you have successfully pressed. 

Tactile switches are the most anticipated switches. The stem inside the housing has an extra “tactile” bump to increase the actuation force needed. The bump gives you feedback as to how hard to press the switch. With tactile switches, you won’t press the keys all the way through. The most popular switches are the “holy panda”. 

Stabilizers

They are needed for your longer keycaps like the space-bar. For a normal 60% ANSI keyboard you need 4 in total. Three of them should be 2U (1U = 1 alpha keycap), there are for the left and right shift, enter, and backspace. The fourth is for the space-bar and is most commonly 6.25 U. However, there are bigger ones like 7U. 

Like the switches, there is PCB and plate mount. Most people go with PCB screw-in because they have less rattle and overall more stable.

Keycaps

ABS Keycap

They are often the most expensive thing when going on a budget mechanical keyboard. Standard sets are ranging from 50$ to 160$. You can buy cheaper ones on aliexpress.com or banggood.com. However, they won’t feel as good and premium. When building a custom keyboard you should not go for the cheapest things available. Premium keycaps will make your keyboard look the smoothest. 

Like everything in the mechanical keyboard scene, there are different materials used to manufacture keycaps. You probably will hear PBT or ABS. ABS is the more common plastic. It is used for all the stock keyboards but you will also find many group buys with ABS.

Generally, ABS is not as sturdy as PBT. Keycaps made from ABS will often generate a shiny surface when well-used. Premium keycaps made out of ABS won’t get shiny so fast. They are Doubleshot and should work fine.

Cable

Last but not least, a cable. You can use whatever you want. Just make sure it has the right connection to the keyboard side. Many PCBs are shipping with USB Type-C nowadays and a USB-C to USB-A cable is not the most common combination.

When you want to go all out, there are artesian cables on the market. It often has a special aviator connector and is curled. This has a distinct look and will elevate your setup to a new level. 

There we have it guys!!!

Now you know just enough to go out and shop a few parts. 

If you have any thoughts on how I can improve this post or myself as a whole, comment down below!!!

Cheers Tom.

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