So the mechanical keyboard bug has bit you and you have looked and looked and want your very own keyboard now. Where to start? From start to finish you will encounter a lot of steps and pieces that fit together to make the final product. But have no worries, we all start somewhere. After doing my own research I have put together a beginner’s guide to mechanical keyboards.
I have always liked custom things, from being able to change the color of my cables to the color of my setup. It started when I saw a custom aviator cable and I wanted one for myself. One problem, my keyboard did not have a removable cable. So I researched and I stumbled down the rabbit hole into the world of mechanical keyboards. I started watching builds on YouTube. I heard the switches clicking away, I saw all the beautiful cases and plethora of keycaps and I wanted my own. I mean we’re at our keyboard a good chunk of time, why not spend some money on a key piece of equipment
Keyboard – Components
While all mechanical keyboards have the same parts they are not all the same.
The PCB is the brains of the operation.
The case is where everything is housed. You can go wood, aluminum, plastic, etc…
The plate is can be metal or plastic and is sandwiched between the switches and your PCB.
The mechanical switches register every keystroke every time your fingers click away.
Stabilizers, which are sometimes called ‘stabs‘, are parts that prevent larger keys like the space bar and “enter” key from rattling around when being pressed. Stabs help bind the keycap to the switch.
Keycaps are what go placed over the mechanical switches. There is a wide variety of keycaps to choose from.
The USB Cable is what connects your keyboard to your PC or hosting side.
What size should I get?
This all depends on what you need and what buttons you cannot live without. I opted for a 65% keyboard because I needed the arrow keys for writing and excel and other programs. Still compact enough and built to what I wanted. Apart from the sizes below there are also split layouts for a more ergonomic feel.
Switches – So many choices . Clicky, Tactile, Linear?
Clicky mechanical switches have a tactile bump that when pressed make a loud clicking noise.
Tactile mechanical switches include a small bump that is felt but not heard when registering keystrokes.
Linear mechanical switches remove the bump which in turn results in less noise and a much smoother key press.
What switches should I get?
Now with so many choices available, what do you get? There are little items called switch testers that you could order online which would help you better decide. It’s always nice to have the switch option at your fingertips in order to feel and hear it beforehand.
Here are a couple of switch testers:
You’ll also see terms like “Actuation Force” or “Bottom Out”, don’t let this intimidate you. Actuation Force is just how hard you have to press the key for it to register the keystroke. Bottoming Out is what happens when you press a switch all the way down.
If you find yourself having tired fingers then you should opt for a switch with a lighter spring or actuation force in order not to have to bottom out.
Plates – Materials and Sounds
Keep in mind that the material you choose for your plate will affect the overall sound your keyboard will have when you press your keys. Plates also help keep your switches aligned properly on the PCB.
Some different plate materials:
Brass – stiffer feel with a deeper metallic noise profile
Aluminum – has a softer feel and a higher pitched noise profile
Polycarbonate (acrylic) – soft feel and a more neutral sound profile
Carbon Fiber – softer feel and a more neutral sound profile
Plateless – no plate involved.
Different plate mountings
Just are there are many case, keycap, switch options, there are also different plate mountings.
Tray-mounted the PCB is secured to the case by screws in the case standoff. Holes in the plate allow for screws to be mount through the PCB into the case.
Plateless-mount PCB mounts to either top or bottom frame of a two-piece case. This is also known as a PCB mount since there is no plate.
Top-Mounted this method uses a two-piece case. The plate is attached to the top frame of the case. The top frame is then attached to the bottom frame of the case.
Bottom-Mounted this method uses a two-piece case. The plate is attached to the bottom frame of the case. The top frame can be left off or attached to the bottom frame of the case.
Integrated-mount It is a two-piece case. Plate and top frame of case are integrated and created from one piece of material.
Gasket-mount A dampening material such as a gasket is inserted in between the top frame and case in order to sandwich the plate.
What tools will I need?
Most of the tools needed can be bought off Amazon and will not cost you a lot:
Soldering Iron Kit (if PCB is not hot swappable. Can also be used if you make your own USB Cable.)
Solder Extractor (Comes included in this kit.)
PCB and Switch Installation – To Solder or Hotswap?
Before installing any switch please make sure to test it first. You can test out your PCB by connecting it to your PC and placing the ends of a metal tweezers the 2 pin holes where your switch will be installed. I used keyboardtester.com to test out each socket of my PCB.
Hotswap vs. Solder? I believe this comes down to preference. A hotswap PCB is a little more expensive but you have the convenience of not having to solder all your switches in, or desolder if you want to change them.
Hotswap pros: Swap defective switches or whole switch profile. no soldering needed. best for trying out switches/layouts. I went this route as a beginner to save myself the headache of soldering since I was new at that too.
Soldering pros: A cheaper and more permanent solution. If you know how to solder this might be the route for you..
A hotswap board can eventually wear out but it would take hundreds of swaps of your mechanical switches in order to break down eventually.
Lubing Switches & Stabilizers
If you want a smoother feeling experience and less rattle in your stabs then it would be a good idea to apply lube to each of the components.
Just keep in mind not to overload your switches or stabs with lube or they will not feel right. I accidentally overloaded my left shit stab with lube and lets just say the first time I pressed it down, it stayed down. Whoops.
If you need a reference point see How to Lube MX Style Switches or How to Clip, Lube, and Band-aid Mod Your Stabilizers by Taeha Types.
You can look online and buy a premade cable to fit your color scheme. Or if you’re like me and thought the pre-built route for cables was too expensive you can head over to Zap Cables or CruzCtrl and buy DIY kits. Soldering required.
It’s Time! Ready to Build Your Very First Board!
After all the time spent researching and picking out the perfect parts for your build the time has come to put it all together. Just keep in mind that patience is a virtue when it comes to your build. Some parts might take weeks or even months to arrive at your doorstep. Have no fear because if you have any questions like I did you can always head on over to YouTube or the Mechanical Keyboards subreddit or ask me. You will find the answer you seek. If I don’t know the answer then I’ll do my best to help you in your journey.
I’ll leave you with some links you can check out below.
Reddit Mechanical Keyboards have a question or need inspiration?
KBDFans PCB’s, Cases, keycaps, switches, plates.
NovelKeys great place to buy keycaps, switches, and DIY kits
CruzCtrl custom DIY cable parts
I just want to say thank you for taking the time to read another one of my posts. Have anything to say? Just leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
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