There’s a lot out there on the internet and beyond about mechanical keyboards, and it’s a large and complex place. But it needn’t be, here’s a little intro into why you might want to venture down the mechanical keyboard rabbit hole and what the fundamental building blocks of mechanical keyboards are.
Why build a custom mechanical keyboard?
- Personalization: Building your own keyboard allows you to customize the typing experience to your own preferences and needs. You can choose the type of switches, keycaps, case, and plate that you like the best, and create a keyboard that is unique to you.
- Quality & Durability: Mechanical keyboards are generally considered to be higher quality than standard rubber dome keyboards. By building your own keyboard, you can ensure that you are using high-quality components and that the keyboard is built to your specifications.
- Aesthetics: Custom mechanical keyboards can be beautiful works of art. You can choose from a variety of colors and designs for your keycaps, case, and plate to create a keyboard that is not only functional but also visually appealing.
- Typing experience: Mechanical keyboards offer a different typing experience than standard rubber dome keyboards. By building your own keyboard, you can choose the type of switches that provide the feel and feedback that you prefer, resulting in a more satisfying and comfortable typing experience.
- Sheer enjoyment: Mechanical keyboards are a perfect blend of hardware and software, and physical and digital. They’re super fun to build and even more enjoyable to use.
The building blocks of a mechanical keyboard
There’s a couple main parts to a mechanical keyboard, and when you’re building your own you should consider what you want and how they work together.
Switches are the mechanical components that determine how each key press is registered. They are a key factor in the overall feel and performance of a mechanical keyboard.
There are several different types and hundreds of different manufacturers of switches available, each with their own unique characteristics. These variations can include the footprint of the switch (MX vs Kailh vs Choc, 3 pin vs 5 pin), the feel (tactile vs linear vs clicky), actuation force (how hard you have to press for the keypress to be registered), the material (POM, Nylon etc.), the sound, the colour and even more!
The keyboard kits that we sell at STHLM kb are compatible with MX footprint switches and work with both 3 pin and 5 pin varieties.
Keycaps are the plastic or resin covers that fit over the switches and give each key its shape and color. They can have a significant impact on the aesthetics and feel of a mechanical keyboard.
As with switches, there are many different types of keycaps. They are typically differentiated by material type (ABS, PBT), manufacturing method (dye-sublimated, double-shot), profile (OEM, Cherry, SA, MT3, DSA etc.), compatibility (MX or Choc) and theme. One of the most popular manufacturers of keycaps Is GMK
Printed Circuit Board (PCB)
A PCB is a board that contains the electrical components that allow the keyboard to function. It is a crucial component in a mechanical keyboard build.
There are several different types of PCBs available, they can be differentiated on size (full-size, tenkeyless, 60%, and 40%), requirement to solder (hot swap or solder), layout (ISO, ANSI, split space etc.), controller type (ATMEL, STM32, RPI, discrete or integrated), firmware compatibility (QMK, Via, Vial) and more.
The PCBs in the keyboard kits that we sell at STHLM kb are available in a couple different sizes (65% and 40% for now), soldering only (though you can make them hot swap compatible with Millmax sockets), and compatible with many different layouts. We support a discrete microcontroller for maximum compatibility and customisation.
Case and plate
A case is the housing that contains the PCB, switches, and keycaps. It provides protection and stability for the keyboard, as well as contributes to its overall look and feel. A plate is a sheet that holds the switches and the PCB, providing additional stability and helping to evenly distribute force when a key is pressed. It also determines the switch layout and can have an impact on the sound and feel of the keyboard.
Cases can be differentiated by style (top mount, gasket mount, sandwich etc.), material (plastic, aluminum, FR4, wood), shape, weight and sound. Plates can be made of many different materials too (brass, aluminium, polycarbonate, FR4), and some are designed to be more flexible and absorb more sound, while others are stiffer and provide a more solid typing experience.
All STHLM kb kits include a sandwich style FR4 case where the PCB is sandwiched between the plate and the base. This is a simple, easy to build and effective case for a keyboard.
Stabilizers (or stabs for short) are components that keep larger keys, such as the spacebar and shift keys, from wobbling or sticking when pressed. They can have a significant impact on the overall feel and sound of a keyboard.
Stabilizers can differ based on mounting style (plate-mounted, PCB-mounted, screw-in, clip-in), brand (Durock, TX, Cherry), and modifications done to them (lubing, band-aid mod etc.). You choice of stabilizers will impact how your board feels and sounds in day to day use.
STHLM kb kits are compatible with PCB mounted (either screw-in or clip-in) stabilizers.
All in all there’s a lot to consider when building your mechanical keyboard. But we’re always here to help and answer questions. So please get in touch if you’re not sure where to begin when you start your mechanical keyboard journey.