Keyboards

Building A Custom Mechanical Keyboard On A Budget PART-3 Cosmetics (Keycaps)

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Photo: mechanicalkeyboards.com

    Welcome to part 3 of TLR’s custom mechanical keyboard on a budget build series. This is my favorite part when I get to see the final product and show off what I’ve built. Before we jump into it though I advise you to check out the first 2 articles in the series along with the review of the platform that we chose, the GK61.

    First, we chose a platform on which to build. We chose the GK61 as it has an affordable price, decent parts and its full of features including per key RGB light control. Read about why we chose it here.

Read our full review about the GK61 here

    Next, I’d advise you to read part 2 where we talked about the wide world of mechanical key switches. Read that here.

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Now on with the show

    So this is what you came for, the Cosmetics. The icing on the cake. The ability to set your keyboard apart from the crowd, but where do you start. Well, fear not I’m here to help. Let’s start with the very basics… Will this keycap fit.

    If you’ve spent any time around mechanical keyboards or read part 2 of this series you’ll know that a company in Germany named Cherry created the mechanical key switch as we know it. Yes, they existed before Cherry but as we know it today most switches will have what are called Cherry stems. They look like a + symbol. See below

 

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    Most keycaps set that you’ll find today use the cherry stems the inside of the keycaps will look like this.

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    It is important to note that there are multiple profiles of the keycaps that you can choose, there are a few different profiles. The profile shouldn’t effect fitment but it can affect the typing feel. I really don’t worry about the profile of my keys but if you find a profile that feels good to you I say stick with it.

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     Now that me we know what keycaps will fit, let’s move onto the keycaps themselves. All keycaps are not created equal, and expensive doesn’t always mean better. When it comes to the materials used to make keycaps you will mainly find 2 types of plastic.

    ABS- This is the normal run of the mill plastic that you can find in everything from toys to food containers. The plastic is cheap and MOST not all ABS keycaps sets should be cheaper. ABS is the weaker of the 2 plastics but you shouldn’t break ABS keycaps from normal use. ABS keycaps are typically less dense and don’t feel as premium as keycaps made of the other plastic PBT. The last thing to mention is ABS key shine, this happens over time with ABS keycaps. As you type fingers actually buff the surface of the keys which leads to shine… See below

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    PBT-The second plastic is PBT, PBT is considered to be the superior material when it comes to keycaps. Keycaps made from PBT are going to be slightly more expensive compared to ABS but it’s possible to get PBT keycaps sets for under $20. Things to know about PBT, PBT keycaps are denser and have a premium feel. You’ll be able to tell the difference going from the premium feel of PBT if you go back to ABS. Another feature of PBT is texture, all PBT keycaps will have some degree of texture, see the picture below. The amount of texture will vary by brand and unlike ABS they won’t develop shine over time. Also, note that PBT keycaps will have a slightly different sound profile due to the difference in material density.

corsair pbt2

    We now know what fits and what the heck ABS and PBT is, so what’s next… Well, the way keycaps are made and the way the legends (letters) are applied to the keycap can vary. So you’ve decided on a set of keycaps but what the heck does double shot mean. Well, let’s get to it.

    Keycaps come in many different flavors and prices, and this is where paying more really pays off.

    The cheapest keycap set will be a keycap with the legend (letter/symbol) that are simply printed on, over time the legend can be worn off with normal use.

    The next best option are going to be laser engraved keycaps. This method uses a laser to engrave the legend then ink is applied into the legend. This means as you type your finger isn’t really coming into contact with the ink as much so the legend will last longer than simply being printed, Also when the ink is removed over time the engraving will still be there allowing you to see what the key is.

    The best way that legends are applied is the double shot method. When double shot keycaps are made 2 different colors are SHOT into the mold… hence the name double shot. The 2 colors represent the key color and the second the is the color of the legend. What this all means is the legends are NEVER going to wear off the keycap, its molded throughout the entire keycap. Another benefit of the double shot method is the ability to create “SHINE THROUGH” keycaps by injecting translucent plastic in the legend. This is what allows the light from out RGB to shine through. See the example below, the white is the shine through legend and the black is the second shot which is the keycap color

corsair pbt

    Whew… that was a lot. I’m not done yet though. All of these methods of creating keycaps can be used with ABS or PBT, so read the listing fully and ensure you are ordering the plastic type that you want. PBT keycaps normally don’t come with the simpler, cheaper just printed on legends. From what I’ve seen its more than likely the basic PBT keycap will be at least be laser engraved.

BUT wait there’s more!

    You can get blank, top printed, shine through, or side printed keycaps in both materials and most colors. Choices, Choices, Choices.

Putting your money where your hand is.

    So by now, I’m assuming that you’ve decided on a keycap set. Well, if not we did.

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    I decided to go with a single shot, NONE shine through PBT 2 color (gray and teal) side printed keycap set. Then I added a set of Tai Hao rubber shine through keycaps on the WASD keys. It’s a huge difference when compared to the run of the mill RGB black keyboard that we started with. Whenever I take this easy to tote 60% keyboard around it turns heads everywhere that I go.

Bonus

    I need to quickly mention cases. There are a ton of case options for 60% keyboards. In fact, I have a clear plastic one in route to me as we speak. Replacement case can be made of wood, carbon fiber, plastic, or aluminum. Plastic, aluminum, and carbon fiber case can be found in many different colors.

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Final Thoughts

    Well, this has been a journey, starting with the Gk61 keyboard for around  $48, we then bought a set of the Tai Hao rubber keycaps in blue… I suggest that you scour the web for a good price on these, around $20-25 is fair. Next, I ordered a set of gray/ blue keycaps for about $30. Lastly, I finished off the build with a blue/ black braided USB C to USB A cable.  I got a 5 pack for $13, so about $2.60 per cable

 

Let’s add this up. $48+ $23+$30+$2.60=$103.60

     $103.60 for a Custom 60% RGB keyboard with a per key RGB, 3 macro/lighting profile storage on board, 2 sets of keycaps( I still have the originals), 2 Braided USB C cables (original and blue/ black), a total of 3 (lol) keycap removal tools, and probably best of all the GK61 is hot swappable. If I get bored or want a different feel I can just order a new set of optical mechanical switches.

Most importantly, you’d be hard pressed to find another keyboard exactly like mine and that does make me feel pretty special.

 

I’ll just leave this here

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