Building a mechanical keyboard from scratch is all the rage nowadays, but it can be difficult to sort through all of the required parts and equipment needed to build one.
The main parts required for building a custom keyboard are shown in the table below.
|Parts Required||The Options|
|Keyboard Case||Plastic, Aluminum, Acrylic, Brass, or Polycarbonate Material|
|Circuit Board (PCB)||Sizes: 40%, 60%, 65%, 75%, TKL, 1800-Compact, or Full-Sized|
|Stabilizers||Options: GMK, Durock, Everglide, ZealPC|
|Switches||Cherry MX, Gateron, NovelKeys, ZealPC, and more|
|Keycaps||Material: ABS or PBT Manufacturer: GMK, Tai Hao, Drop, and more|
We’ll dive a bit deeper and explain each component required in detail and help you choose which ones are best for you. We’ll also go over some required tools as well.
The Keyboard Case: Choosing the Right Material
For your custom keyboard you’ll need a case that holds all of the components together in tight and compact way. The case will need to be the same size as your PCB.
Unless you’re buying for a super popular layout, such as 60%, it pretty standard to buy the case, PCB, and metal plate all together at once so you know everything will fit together.
There are a ton of different material types and mounting styles of cases out there so it can get complex pretty quickly.
Case Material Types
There are three main material types you can purchase a case in: plastic, acrylic, and aluminum.
Plastic cases are the most common being the easiest to manufacture and the cheapest to produce. Plastic cases are usually made from an ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic and come with a metal plate to support the structure of the case.
Plastic is by no means the best material type as it tends to be rattily and unstable and does not have a solid and rigid structure like an aluminum or metal case would.
A plastic case is perfect for those on a budget or who prefer a keyboard that is lighter and easier to take on the go.
Aluminum cases tend to be heavier and sturdier, they are an excellent option for someone who needs a super solid case.
Aluminum cases are more inflexible and rigid than plastic. The quality of the case ranges depending on the grade of aluminum and how precisely the cases were manufactured when built.
These are a great option if you’re willing to pay a little more than plastic, and want a heavy and solid keyboard.
Acrylic cases are super interesting, they are made from a plastic that has the material properties of glass. They are super light and let the lighting effects shine through the case.
Acrylic cases are perfect for someone who enjoys a lightshow everytime they turn their keyboard on, but keep in mind, they tend to more fragile and flexible than other material types.
Other Material Types
There are a ton of other case material types that are super cool such as wood, polycarbonate, brass, and even steel. They are a bit harder to find, but if you are interested in reading about the other material types, you can check out our full guide on case materials here.
Case Mounting Styles
In addition to all of the different material types we mentioned, there are also different mounting styles for keyboard cases.
Some of the different mounting styles include tray mount, top mount, bottom mount, sandwich mount, plateless mount, integrated plate, and gasket mount.
While all of the different mounting styles can be confusing to navigate. It’s generally considered that gasket mount cases are the best as they are dampened, have a nice bounce, and feel the best.
The most common mounting style is tray mount, as it’s the cheapest and easiest to manufacture.
The best way to show you the differences between the different mounting styles is this super helpful graphic by thomasbaart.nl.
Where to Purchase a Case
There are a ton of different sites out there that offer keyboard cases in all sizes and mounting styles, so we’ll link a few below for your convenience.
Circuit Board (PCB): Choose the Right Size
The PCB (printed circuit board) gets placed inside the case and lets the switches communicate with your computer.
Different PCB Sizes
Tenkeyless and 60% layouts are the most common size for building your own custom mechanical keyboard. But there are a wide variety of layouts available depending on what works best for you.
Quick run down of the different possible PCB sizes:
- Full-Size: Comes with number pad and all of the keys.
- 1800-Compact: Smushs the numberpad and keys together.
- Tenkeyless (TKL): Removes the number pad.
- 75%: No numberpad and places the navigational cluster vertically to save space.
- 65%: No numberpad or function row. Usually only half of the navigation cluster.
- 60%: No numberpad, function row, navigation cluster, or arrow keys.
- 40%: Only the alpha keys (A-Z) and some puncutation keys.
We have a more in-depth break down of the different keyboard sizes here.
Hot-Swappable vs Standard PCB
There are two main types of PCBs, hot-swappable and normal.
A hot-swappable PCB allows you to add and remove switches without desoldering which can save a ton of time and money on soldering equipment.
Perfect for those who want a quick assembly upon recieving the parts or for those who aren’t interested in learning how to solder.
Hot-swappable PCBs are becoming more and more common nowadays as people are starting to realize how convienent they are.
Where to Purchase a PCB
As you typically get the PCB with the Case and metal plate unless you’re ordering the components for a super standard layout such as 60%. The places you get the PCB from will be the exact same as the cases.
Switches: Picking the Perfect Feel
Switches are a necessity and can make or break the typing/gaming experience. Make sure you know the basic switch types and have an idea of what you’re looking for.
There are three main types of switches: linear, clicky, or tactile.
Linear: Smooth and consistent keystroke with a quiet noise.
Tactile: A small bump on each keystroke with a moderate noise.
Clicky: A small bump on each keystroke with a loud click noise.
There are a ton of different options when it comes to switches, so we’ll link you to all of our favorite switch guides.
- Best Linear Switches
- Best Tactile Switches
- Best Clicky Switches
- Cherry MX Switch Guide
- Gateron Switch Guide
- Outemu Switch Guide
Picking out a switch is all about finding what feels best and is the most comfortable. Cherry MX switches are the most common, but you can explore around. Make sure the switches are compatible with the PCB.
Keycaps: Get the Right Aesthetic and Shape
Keycaps are another part where you can be creative. You’ll be interacting with the keycaps the most and they are the most visible part of your keyboard. There are a ton of different keycap options out there.
Keycaps are interesting because there so much customization involved. You can pick the perfect design, thickness, material, and profile to fit you.
We have a few different guides on picking out the perfect keycaps that we’ll link you to:
In general, we prefer Cherry profile keycaps as they are sculpted to be the most comfortable and ergonomic profile out there.
Stabilizers: Keep your Larger Keys Nice and Stable
Stabilizers are super important for your larger keys such as the space bar, enter, shift, and backspace. We have a full guide on stabilizers here.
There are different price points for stabilizers with a variety feels and quality.
You’re going to need one longer stabilizer for the space bar, usually 6.25u, nd four smaller stabilizers for the other ones. If you have a full-sized keyboard, you will need 7 2u sized stabilizers.
There are different mods you can do, such as the band-aid, clip, and lube mod, which will vastly improve the feel and sound of the stabilizers.
Now that we’ve gone over the part required, let’s dig into all of the tools we recommend.
Soldering Kit: Attach your Switches to the PCB
A soldering kit is needed to attach your switches to the PCB. If you have a hot-swappable PCB, you can skip this step, as there is no soldering required.
We usually recommend a variable temperature soldering station rather than an iron that plugs straight into the wall to keep it at a safe temperature. Make sure it has an iron holder to avoid burning things or yourself.
The best soldering iron available is the Hakko FX888D-23BY Digital Soldering Station. Currently, it is priced at around $100 on Amazon, and is a great price.
We also recommend a solder sucker from Hako to fix up mistakes as if you’re new to soldering you are bound to make mistakes.
Solder: Feed your Soldering Kit
An additional component you’ll need to complement your soldering kit with is solder. Solder is metal wire that is would up into a spool for easy usage.
To attach the switches to the PCB, you’ll need solder to feed into your soldering kit. Solder is relatively inexpensive, you can find it on Amazon for a pretty good price.
Keycap Puller: Easy Removal of Keycaps
To easily remove your keycaps, we recommend a keycap puller. Keycap pullers make taking off keycaps a breeze and are an excellent tool to add to your arsenal.
We recommend a wire keycap puller instead of plastic, because a plastic keycap puller can scratch/damage the keycaps on your keyboard.
This is the keycap puller we recommend on Amazon.
Switch Puller: Remove Hot-Swap Switches Easily
If you have a hot-swappable PCB, a switch puller will make removing switches from the PCB very easy. You simply hook into the switches, squeeze, and pull them out.
Easy as pie. You can actually get a 2-in-1 keycap and switch puller if you’re feeling fancy, or just get a switch puller by itself.
Tweezers: For Handling Small Objects
Tweezers are another great tool to have. They are excellent for handling small objects such as switches, screws, and the small stabilizer components.
Tweezers are used to test the PCB before adding the switches, so they are very helpful.
We recommend getting anti-static tweezers, as they are the safest option, and prevent damaging your keyboard.
Keyboard Kits: How They Can Save Time
For the beginners out there, there are keyboard kits out there with a hot-swappable PCB. A popular place to buy these keyboard kits is KBDfans. Kits include all of the main components required to build a keyboard.
Inside most kits, you get the USB-C cable, switch remover, and keycap puller. The kit itself includes stabilizers, the PCB, case and aluminum framing.
Depending on pricing, the case can range from plastic to aluminum to wood.
When looking at these kits, make sure the switches that you want to use are compatible with the PCB.
These kits enable you to build a fully customized keyboard without having to solder anything. There are only three steps.
Building a Keyboard Using a Keyboard Kit
- Open the keyboard kit and gather your keycaps and switches.
- Match the switch to the PCB and push your switches in.
- Put the keycaps on top, and tadah! All done!
If you were to do all this yourself, you would need to clip on the stabilizers, mount the aluminum frame to the PCB, insert switches, solder it, put it into the casing, and then keycaps.
Having a kit saves you a ton of work if you know what you’re doing and are experienced.
If you are a beginner who is not interested in soldering, a hot-swap kit can save you from many mistakes when soldering and from buying the incorrect parts.
Another Option: Customizable Pre-Built Keyboards
I know you’re here to build your own keyboard, but if you’re looking to make a customized keyboard without going through the effort of putting it together yourself, you can go this route.
Certain manufacturers such as WASD Keyboards give you the option to customize a keyboard online. They’ll send you the completed product in the mail, and you can start typing right out of the box.
On WASD Keyboards, there are many options such as choosing your case color and choosing the switches.
When picking out keycaps, you can select your colorways. For example, my letter and number keys and the space bar could be mint green. The modifier keys could be, hmmm, royal navy blue. And together, you have a beautiful work of art. It’s possible to add specific colors for the engravings on each key.
For the more creative people, you can upload image designs for the keys and even pick your own engraving fonts and styles.
We’ve looked at all the essential parts to building your very first mechanical keyboard. You’ll need a case, PCB, switches, keycaps, stabilizers, soldering kit, solder, tweezers, switch puller, and keycap puller.
It may be overwhelming with all of the different parts and tools required, so if you ever get flustered, it can fun to watch a few people build keyboards live on Twitch.
Another option would be to customize your keyboard online from a manufacturer and having them build the keyboard to ship to you.
Or you can try another route by building a keyboard from a kit that comes with the PCB, frame, and case all put together so all you must need to do is install the switches and keycaps.
As always, happy typing!