“it’s completely possible and more normal than people think to build a custom keyboard that cost over $400…”
Here at TLR Technology, we love most things tech and one piece of tech that everyone interacts with on a daily bases is a keyboard. If you think about it, most people use some cookie cutter OEM rubber dome keyboard that was cranked out by the hundreds of thousands. I’m here to tell you friends there is a better way.
Welcome to part one of a guide that will lead you into the land of individuality, functionality, and style. I’ll just put this out there, it’s completely possible and more normal than people think to build a custom keyboard that cost over $400… Yes, you read that right, A lot of keyboard enthusiast frequently own in some cases multiple keyboards that cost $200-$400. I’m not saying that it’s not worth it but most of those enthusiast own keyboards that cost much less as well.
In this guide, I’m going to show you how you can build a very custom keyboard that can be modified to fit personal style and preferences. We’ll first choose a platform with which to start. Then we’ll look at mechanical keyboard switches, Lastly, we’ll look at the cosmetic aspect of the keyboard to set yours apart in a group.
I’ve chosen to use the GK61 as the keyboard base of choice, You can read our review here, at a cost of around $50 it’s a fantastic base. The GK61 is a 60% keyboard that comes in 2 flavors. The first uses traditional mechanical key switches, this version uses Cherry MX style with metal terminals that are easy to find and typically run about $10 for 10 and you’ll need to get a set of 70 because most places won’t sell you exactly 61 that we need. The second version of the GK61 is using Cherry MX style switches but the optical type. ( Reference our key switch guide for more info on key switch) This is the Version that we’ll be using.
Optical switches have been on the market for a few years now and a hand full of companies now make them. One such company is Gateron, they have been making Cherry MX style switches since the original patent expired. Here is what you need to know about Gateron, first their switches are often said to be smoother than original Cherry MX switches, so this isn’t a cheap rip off. Gateron took Cherry’s design then took it another step further in the quality department. I’m not knocking Cherry switches, I own multiple keyboards with them, but Cherry doesn’t make an optical switch and Gateron are cheaper.
It’s this reason that we’re using the optical variant of the GK61. We can get a full set of optical Gateron switch for around $20-$30 on www. epathbuy.com versus the $70 for the traditional mechanical/ electrical variant. My goal is to create a quality keyboard that performs on par with top of the line custom builds but at a fraction of the cost and the optical switches will get us there.
Another useful fact about optical switches. They are rated at nearly twice the lifetime compared to the mechanical/ electrical variant of the switches. This is because the optical switches lack most of the moving metal parts that are required to complete a circuit and register the keypress.
If that benefit alone wasn’t enough to convince you on the optical variant how about this one. The GK61 (both variants) are hot-swappable! What that means is that physical switch can be replaced without the need to unplug the keyboard. However, the optical also have an advantage here as well. The optical switch has no metal terminals that need to be aligned into the keyboard, this reduces the chance of bending or breaking a terminal. It also means optical switches are easier to remove and replace even by persons with little mechanical knowledge.
So you know know that we’re using the optical version of the GK61. You know why we chose to use harder to get optical switches, the cost, durability, and ease of swapping. All that said I just stated the negative. The optical version is harder to get, especially if you want version other than the wildly popular blues, reds or browns.
Yep, that really about to only negative, and the software is janky and hard to use at first as it is English and Chinese but you should be able to figure it out if you want deeper customization.
Let’s Get Started!
Step one is to order your GK61, I’ve provided a link to Amazon, this may get TLR a small kickback that cost you nothing and helps us greatly and we truly appreciate all those that use our product links or even set amazon to permanently use our links.
If you don’t want the smaller 60% form factor of the GK61, I’d advise that you do research or comment here for some help selecting the best keyboard that fits your needs. There are 65% keyboards that have the arrow keys. 85% or TKL (10 keyless) these are full keyboards minus the number pad or you can pick up a full-size version. Ducky makes great keyboards in all these sizes but so do cheaper no-name Chinese company as well. A company such as Drop.com produces a series of really high-end models in various sizes. The sky is the limits.. BUT this is building on a budget.
Before you click the order button you need to first choose a key switch, the GK61 is sold with 3 switch options. The first is the blues, these are the super clicky switch that you may have heard before, if not check youtube, you can find tons of videos of people clicking away. Search Cherry blue or Cherry switch comparison. If you want a more hands-on sound test, Walmart and Bestbuy typically have a few keyboards with Cherry blue and reds on display.
Anyway, back on task. The blue switch has a slight tactile bump when the key is pressed when you reach this point the switch will audibly click and actuate. This gives your fingers and ears cues that the switch has been actuated. Many people like them for typing and they have been a staple in gaming keyboards for decades, the downside is the clicks could annoy people. Blue switch actuates after being pressed 2.2 mm or ruffly about half way down.
The next version is the Reds, these are a linear switch. This means you don’t get that tactile bump. The feeling is the same when the key is pressed, it’s just one smooth button push, no audible click, and no finger feel. Many people like these because they are much quieter compared to the blues, they actuate slightly faster at 2.0mm and require slightly less pressure to push down. Blues require 55g of pressure vs the 45g of pressure to move the reds. Another reason the reds are so popular is the mechanical feel is closer to the cheaper OEM rubber dome keyboards that many people are familiar with. (The reds feel WAY better than rubber dome switches)
The last option and the one that I chose are the browns. The brown key switch is the best of both worlds. They have the tactile bump so your finger can feel when the switch is activated, but they don’t have the audible click of the blues. They require the 55g of pressure to activate the switch but it has the same actuation distance of reds 2mm. It’s easy to see why the Browns are quickly becoming a popular choice. It’s a great tactile switch to type on and it actuates faster like the red. The Browns might actually be my key switch of choice if I could only use one switch.
If you want to go more extreme Gateron has more switch choices that have to be purchased separately. I personally will be installing a set of the silver/ speed switches that will take the actuation distance down to 1mm. This is half the distance of the reds and more than half of the distance required to actuate the blues. The silvers are designed for speed when that millisecond of actuation could be the difference between getting the kill in a First person shooter or casting a spell in a MOBA. It’s worth noting that the silver/speed switch has a learning curve when it comes to typing. Due to their quick and hair-trigger like activation its easy to double press a letter or type a letter you didn’t intend on. I can only explain it this way if you’re typing and think that you brushed against another key you probably pressed it. You need to be accurate, if not you’ll learn to be. It’s this reason that silver/ speed switch isn’t for everyone.
Woohoo… Ok… Got all that out. So NOW click that buy button and get the switch that seems the most appealing to you.
Keep in mind one of the main benefits of the GK61 is the switches are swappable. (welcome to the world of custom keyboards) There are no hard rules that say all of your switches have to be the same. If you wanted you could swap switches based on the game you play. You could install blues or switches that are harder to press in the Esc and windows keys if you wanted. You could make the WASD keys speed for performance in FPS games while leaving the other red, or brown. The sky is the limit, but this only steps one so go ahead and order that keyboard.