How To Build A Custom Keyboard With Mechanical Switches A Complete Guide
Custom keyboards are easy to build. You only need five parts:
- A printed circuit board (PCB)
- A case to hold the board.
- mechanical switches
I also recommend buying a back plate, which increases durability and writing stability. If you just want your keyboard to look good, I have some tips at the end of this article to fix things. But first, let’s explore how you can build your custom mechanical keyboard.
Tools needed to assemble the keyboard
At a minimum, you need two tools to solder a keyboard: a low-voltage soldering iron and some rosin core soldering.
If you just want a quick, cheap, and dirty way to get started, check out a welding deal that includes just about everything you need to get started:
- Low-voltage soldering iron: If you’re a beginner, don’t hesitate to buy a cheap low-voltage iron. Hotter irons may melt faster, but they’re not for beginners. For those who want a little more, shop for an adjustable wattage powerhouse. I have an Aoyue model that is compatible with 900M tips and it has never failed me.
- Rosin Core Solder: Solder is a tin-lead alloy that melts at low temperatures. The resin inside the solder is an organic compound designed to remove impurities that degrade conductivity. It liquefies when heated, causing it to spread over the solder joint.
Optional (but recommended) tools
Some optional but highly recommended tools include a solder sucker, steel wool, cotton swabs, and 90% alcohol :
- Solder Sucker – If you make a mistake, a solder sucker can lift hot solder.
- Steel Wool – A steel wool pad is used to clean a soldering iron tip without causing damage. The cheapest ones are abrasive, but if you’re using a disposable soldering iron, they’re a good option. Otherwise, invest in a brass cleaning pad designed for a hot iron.
- Cotton swabs: A cotton swab is used to apply alcohol to the board.
- 90% Alcohol – High-proof alcohol with no additives is excellent for removing Rosen flux residue.
- Key Puller – While attaching keys is easy, removing them is not. There are two types of key extractors: wire and plastic. I recommend using a wire puller. However, the older model is in the same package.
You may also want a non-conductive surface that you can work on. I prefer to use a wooden cutting board. Wood is resistive, which means it doesn’t conduct electricity easily.
Buying mechanical keyboard parts
Everyone needs something different from their keyboard. A typist might want a clear analog typewriter-like experience. An interior designer may prefer a colorful aesthetic.
With endless customization options, building a keyboard allows the user to create something that no manufacturer produces. The only trick is finding the parts to build a wordsmithing machine.
There are five (or seven) components you can choose from:
- A printed circuit board (PCB)
- (Optional) A plate.
- keyboard case
- mechanical switches
- (Optional) LEDs
The Easy Option: DIY Mechanical Keyboard Kits
If you primarily want to learn to solder and don’t mind customization, get an unassembled mechanical keyboard kit. An unassembled kit includes all the basic components for less hassle. A great deal right now is the YMDK71 mechanical keyboard kit. It also includes a battery for wireless operation via Bluetooth.
The easiest way to get started with a DIY mechanical keyboard is to purchase a kit. Each DIY keyboard kit varies, but they include a printed circuit board (PCB), sometimes a backplate, a case, and mechanical switches. Those who know exactly which parts they want must purchase the components separately. It may cost more, but the customization options are considerable.
Note: I don’t like Bluetooth-only keyboards 6 Reasons NOT to Buy a Bluetooth Keyboard Before you commit to buying a Bluetooth keyboard, consider these drawbacks and issues that can make him change your mind. Read More
1. Keyboard printed on the circuit board
Of the five main components, the most important is the printed circuit board (PCB). The PCB determines the layout and function layers of the keyboard. Generally speaking, PCBs come in various types of form factors, most of which are based on the number of keys they can accommodate.
The most popular of these DIY keyboard PCBs is the 60% form factor. As its name suggests, a 60% keyboard includes 60 keys. But there are other types of keyboards out there, including 40%, 75%, 87%, and more.
On AliExpress, you can buy a variety of PCBs, including GH60, YYD75, DX64, and others. (Of these, I prefer the DX64 because it includes a right-side directional pad and uses the same case as most 60-key variants.)
Among the more exotic PCBs is the ErgoDox mechanical keyboard, which is designed for ergonomics. There are also boards with inverted holes for LED lights, allowing compatibility with printed front-end caps.
Some PCBs (such as the fully assembled ErgoDox EZ) offer solderless plug-and-play designs that make it easy to change switches. However, most of the available options don’t offer that luxury. I don’t recommend putting together an ErgoDox as your first keyboard. While it is great, it is not suitable for an entry-level welding project.
Important points to note :
- The PCB must match the case!
- The PCB determines if you have an LED backlight.
- If you have LEDs, the PCB determines whether you use front or top printed cap keys.
2. keyboard plate
The keyboard plate helps anchor the switches and provides additional stability and reliability. While plastic stabilizers do exist (and there’s nothing wrong with them), the most common are steel and aluminum.
In my experience, aluminum plates tend to warp during shipping, while steel is extremely durable but heavy. I recommend steel if you can find it. But aluminum is a good option if you prefer mobility.
The plates also come in different colors. I suggest thinking carefully about the aesthetics of your build before purchasing any part.
3. Keyboard cases
It is a good idea to buy the case together with the PCB. Most vendors offer a case as a combined agreement. Combo deals cost less overall and buying both from the same vendor also ensures compatibility. For the most part, GH60 cases fit most other 60% keyboard PCBs.
The indicator that indicates whether or not the case will fit on the PCB is by looking at the screw holes. If the screw holes match the PCB, you probably have the correct case.
4. Mechanical switch
After a PCB, the mechanical switches How does a mechanical keyboard work? [Technology Explained] How Does a Mechanical Keyboard Work? [Technology Explained] For geeks, mechanical keyboards are the holy grail of input devices. They are relatively rare, they are expensive, and they require an explanation for people to understand. It’s everything a geek could ask for. If you’re not… Read More But there are many types to choose from.
A mechanical switch gives a mechanical keyboard its distinctive feel and sound. When pressed, each type of switch has a different feel (or tactile feedback), sound, and elasticity (measured in grams required to actuate a key). The light and smooth action are ideal for gamers, like most red switches. Others are designed to emulate a typewriter. My favorite is the lightest, smoothest and quietest switch (Gateron Clear).
There is some history here. The first small mechanical switches came from Cherry GmbH. But since its 1982 mechanical switch patent expired in 2014, competition has emerged. Now dozens of companies make keyboard switches. Some of these switches are cheeky clones of the original Cherry design. Others have improved or modified Cherry’s original design.
Today’s changes include quite a few brands. Of these, Gateron ranks near the top of the list for accessibility and quality. However, there are some exotic switch types out there.
For example, some of the more radical technologies on the market include Varmilo’s electro-capacitive Sakura contactless switches, which dispense with mechanical key actuation—a fancy way of saying the switch relies on fewer mechanical components.
If you’re interested in learning more, some other examples include Kailh, Razer, Outemu, Greetech, and Zealio. All of these switches can be found with something called a switch tester. Of the testers (or samplers) out there, check out the Gateron 9-switch tester. By flipping a variety of different types of switches, you can discover what matches your writing style.
For a more detailed explanation of switches, check out our mechanical keyboard type. Which mechanical keyboard should you buy? 6 Keyboards for Typists and Gamers Which Mechanical Keyboard Should You Buy? 6 Keyboards for Typists and Gamers While CPUs and GPUs remain essential to PC performance, there is one underappreciated peripheral: the keyboard. Everyone uses keyboards, but few people think of them when buying a new PC. Read more.
5. Keyboard keys
Keys vary depending on where the letters are printed on the key, how the letters are printed, and the materials used on the key. These features contribute to the durability and visibility of the key (especially when using LED lights).
LEDs: If your PCB has the LED terminals in front of the key, that means you want the keys to be typed to the front. If the LED holes are on the back, you’ll want the printed keys on the top.
Lettering: If you don’t have LED lighting, you want dye-sublimated keys. Dye-sublimated lettering won’t wear off over many years of hardcore typing. Double socket letters, where the symbols are made of plastic, are more durable but are designed for illuminated keyboards.
Materials: In general, the materials used to build keys are PBT, ABS, and occasionally silicone, metal, or rubber. Although PBT is more durable and does not become shiny after years of use, it is also more expensive. However, I bought a set of double shot PBT keycaps which are $10 for a full 104 keycap set.
6. Stabilizer: Cherry vs. Cost.
Longer keys like the space bar, shift, and enter keys will move when you press them unless you have a stabilizer. A stabilizer connects to the left and right sides of the key.
There are two types of stabilizers out there: Costar, which runs a stabilizer bar above the plate (if you have a plate), and Cherry, which runs the stabilizer bar below the plate. For example, here is a comparison between Cherry (top) and Costar (bottom):
Of the two types, I prefer the Costar stabilizers. Costar is easier to work with, although they sound a bit louder compared to Cherry. Cherry stabilizers suck if your keyboard has a plate. To change the stabilizer bar, you need to desolder the switch.
On top of that, there are two varieties to contend with: the type that works with board-mounted switches, and the type that works with PCB-mounted switches. If you’re building a keyboard for the first time, it’s an easy mistake to buy the wrong stabilizer.
Costar is not without its flaws. In addition to producing more noise, it will also not work with some types of keys. However, most people are probably better off with Costar. Here is a video on how to install them:
7. Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)
If you get a PCB compatible with LEDs, consider buying LEDs. You can double the amount of time it takes to put your board together, but they look amazing!
LEDs come in a variety of colors. There are even color-changing LEDs (although these require three pins). I recommend buying on eBay. You can wait a couple of weeks, but buying from a Hong Kong seller is around $5 for 100 LEDs.
The specifications needed for most boards are flangeless and 3mm. There are two white LEDs with color filters and clear LEDs that produce the desired hue. It doesn’t matter what guy you go with. PCBs are designed to work with different types of LEDs, so don’t worry about voltage differences between different colors.
There are also SIP sockets, which allow you to swap your LEDs without having to solder them. If you plan to change colors frequently, a SIP socket is a good idea. Also, if your board doesn’t indicate negative and positive polarities, a SIP socket allows you to avoid having to desolder if you make a mistake.
Most Related Post: Why you should consider a mechanical keyboard for your Mac
How to build a mechanical keyboard
Before you begin, consider learning basic electronics skills Beginner Electronics: 10 Skills You Need to Know Beginner Electronics: 10 Skills You Need to Know Many of us haven’t even touched a soldering iron but making things can be incredibly rewarding. Here are ten of the most basic DIY electronic skills to help you get started. Read more. For those interested in learning more basic skills, here are some DIY soldering projects to get you started Learn to solder with these easy tips and projects Learn to solder with these easy tips projects Are you a little intimidated by the thought of a Hot iron and molten metal? If you want to start working with electronics, you will need to learn how to solder. Let us help you.
The main scope of this article is not to build a keyboard, but I will cover some essential assembly instructions. In general, the build should occur in the following order:
- Inspection and disposal
- Preparing the PCB
- prepare the dish
- Prepare the stabilizers.
- insert switches
- Insert and bend the LEDs.
- start soldering
- Clean up
- inspection and test
1. Inspection and layout of your PCB
The basic first step is to inspect the motherboard, switches, and LEDs (if you have LEDs) for signs of damage. Then mentally imagine going through the following five steps. By preparing a mental image of what the next steps are required, you will reduce errors and desoldering (a tedious hobby).
2. Prepare the PCB
In this step, you want to examine the PCB for signs of shorts or other odd marks. If you see residue or other marks on the motherboard, you can clean it with a cotton swab and heavy-duty alcohol designed for electronic devices. I know people who use medicinal alcohol, but with that comes the possibility of creating a short.
3. Plate (optional)
If you have a board, the board should sit directly on top of the PCB so it can accommodate the switches. There will be a gap between the board and the PCB.
The switches anchor the PCB in place. In general, the plates make it much easier to mount a keyboard compared to soldering the LEDs and switches directly to the motherboard.
The stabilizers should be inserted into position at this point. There are two cherry and Costa Rican-style stabilizers. As noted above, the basic difference between the two is that Costar stabilizers are easier to install, but cause some noise when typing. Cherry produces less noise but requires a somewhat difficult installation process on some boards.
You will notice that the Costar stabilizers come with plastic bits that plug into the keys. These bits hook into the stabilizer bar.
The stabilizer cable then fits into the stabilizers that are attached to the board.
This is where things get a bit more complex. To reduce the amount of circuit board flexing during installation, it helps to first install a switch at each corner of the board. You must fully push the switch into the board so that the switch pins appear on the other side of the board. If the pins don’t extend all the way, you’ll have trouble getting electrical conductivity.
If the switch pins are bent before insertion, they will not extend to the back of the PCB. You need to make sure the pins are straight before inserting the switch into the PCB. As you place more switches, spread them evenly around the keyboard. By doing so, you reduce the amount of force exerted on the circuit board.
If you chose to anchor the switches directly to the PCB, this step is less difficult as the switches press down on the board with little effort.
6. Insert and bend the LEDs.
Single-color LED lights include two pins. The longer pin is positive and the shorter pin is negative. On most PCBs, you’ll notice that the holes for the LEDs on the board are marked with positive or negative symbols. When inserting the LED into the holes, make sure the longer leg of the LED is inserted into the hole that is marked positive.
The tricky part here is that many times the LED holes for the bottom row keys (such as Space, Alt, and Ctrl) are reversed, meaning the terminals are on the opposite side. I made the mistake of soldering the bottom row LEDs in place incorrectly and had to desolder them.
After inserting each LED, make sure it is fully inserted and bend the legs. Bending the legs will prevent the LED from sliding back into the board. Even a slight slip can cause the LED to protrude enough to prevent a key from being fully pressed.
Now flip the board. It’s time to solder.
7. Start soldering
A good way to solder is to move the way you read a book. Start at the pins on the top left side and move from left to right. If you take breaks, be sure to use a cotton swab and rubbing alcohol to remove the organic residue left behind by the Rosen flux. If you leave it to dry overnight, the Rosen hardens and then requires a scraper to remove.
I have a warning about the video above. Extinguishing welding can be dangerous. I recommend using, at a minimum, the steel wool designed for solder removal.
Because Rosen Core solder is potentially conductive once caramelized, cleaning is necessary. Remember that Rosen will harden if left exposed to air for too long, so clean it immediately after you finish welding. Otherwise, you will have to scrape it off.
Finally, you’ll need to inspect each solder point for signs of weakness. A good solder joint will last the life of the product. A bad joint can eventually crack and split. A “cold weld” cannot conduct electricity properly.
However, most bad solder joints can be readjusted (or reheated) to correct problems. So don’t worry too much about making mistakes. The goal of this project is to learn, not to be perfect.
Other tips for custom mechanical keyboards
You can continue to customize your keyboard with other features like noise-reducing tweaks, color-changing LED filters, and more.
Vinyl wrap – The easiest way to customize a keyboard is with a vinyl wrap. Vinyl wrap is a thin layer of adhesive vinyl. It comes in a variety of colors, patterns, and textures. In general, the vinyl application requires a hair dryer, soap and water, and a cutting tool.
Color Filter – Color filters can appear on the LED of a Cherry mechanical switch (but not on most other brands). They are most useful for white lights, although they can pass over any colored LEDs.
Noise dampers: You can find O-ring style dampers or more expensive models like QMX clips. I’ve found that both reduce sound by a small amount, but are not insubstantial. QMX clips come on PCB and are board mounted.
Your custom mechanical keyboard is finished!
Anyone who uses a keyboard most of the day needs a mechanical keyboard. Whether you’re a stenographer, a gamer (keyboards for gamers), a programmer, a writer, or anyone who spends a lot of time typing, the right keyboard can work or play a little more comfortably and productively.
But what are you going with the perfect keyboard? Look no further than an ergonomic mouse What type of ergonomic mouse should you buy? 6 wrist-friendly mice What kind of ergonomic mouse should you buy? 6 Wrist-Friendly Mice When you imagine a computer mouse, you probably think of the traditional mouse with two buttons and a scroll wheel.