Getting started with custom keyboards
Welcome to the world of customised mechanical keyboards. While getting started with creating your own mechanical keyboard for the first time may seem daunting, we hope to simplify the process for you at Custom KBD.
There are six key components you will need to put together a functioning keyboard:
Optional components can be installed to change the acoustics of your keyboard including:
- Case Foam
- Stabilizer Foam
- Switch Film
Choosing Components for Your Mechanical Keyboard
The size of your case will dictate the choice of keyboard layout, PCB and associated mounting plate. Cases come in a variety of shapes and sizes to support the various keyboard layouts. Please see information about keyboard layouts here.
Cases come in a variety of materials including aluminium, wood, and polycarbonate. At custom KBD we focus on aluminium cases as they provide a premium feel and provide a great platform for a custom keyboard.
The PCB is the brain of the keyboard. It controls the inputs from the key switches and sends them to the computer. PCB’s in custom keyboards are generally fully customizable, allowing you to assign a key switch to any function required. This flexibility allows for some interesting keyboard layouts, especially at the smaller sizes!
For example, the 75% board shown below removes the accent keys (such as the < > keys) in favour of a number pad.
The stabilizers (often called stabs) provide support for the larger keys on your keyboard – namely the space bar, enter, shift and backspace keys. Stabilizers generally come in two types – clip-on and screw-in. We highly recommend screw-in stabilizers as they provide a solid foundation for your larger keys.
Stabilizers are installed onto the PCB before the mounting plate and key switches. Stabilizers can be seen below highlighted in yellow.
Your case size, layout and PCB will dictate the type of mounting plate for your custom keyboard. Mounting plates protect the PCB and provide a mounting point for your key switches. It also covers the PCB to provide your keyboard a finished look.
Mounting plates come in a variety of materials including: plastic, carbon fibre, aluminium and brass. These all provide the same functionality but will have different acoustic properties.
While the other components affect the weight and acoustics of your custom mechanical keyboard, the key switch you select will determine the “feel” of the key stroke.
There are three types of key switches available – each with different characteristics.
Linear – These key switches are smooth for the entire key stroke.
Tactile – These key switches have a tactile “bump” within the key stroke. The position of the bump will vary depending on the tactile switch.
Clicky – These key switches have an audible click within the key stroke. This also provides a tactile response to the user to indicate when the key has been activated. The position of the click will vary depending on the key switch.
Linear key switches are generally quiet/silent, while tactile and clicky switch will provide audible feedback.
Typically, key switches are colour coded to indicate the differences between the switches.
There is no “best” key switch as this usually comes down to personal preference. If you're still not sure, you can refer to this summary guide to the full range of Gateron key switches here.
Key caps cover your key switches and come in a range of colours and materials. They are a great way to make your keyboard unique. When choosing a set of key caps, please be mindful of the following:
Many custom keyboards (especially the smaller sizes such as 60% and 75%) adopt different sizes for modifier keys (eg. Space, Tab, Shift, Control etc.) Ensure that they keyset you are purchasing include these non-standard sizes.
Keycaps are typically moulded from ABS or PBT. Both are suitable materials for key caps though ABS plastics can develop a sheen after long periods of use. PBT typically has a rougher texture and is considered to be a more durable material.
Lubrication can be used on switches and stabilizers to remove unwanted rattles.
Case foam can be used to change the acoustic properties of your keyboard. It is used to dampen “tinny” noises, especially from aluminium cases.
Stabilizer foam is installed under the stabilizers to eliminate any space between the stabilizers and the PCB caused by manufacturing tolerances. This further reduces any unwanted rattles.
Switch film is used to eliminate space between the key switches and mounting plate caused by manufacturing tolerances.