So, what kind of keyboard are you using?
It’s not the most common conversation starter but as artisan keycaps and mechanical keyboards continue to gain popularity, maybe we’ll hear debates about Cherry MX blue switches at a Starbucks queue. Though few of us give little thought to what keyboard we use, being particular about your computer’s peripheral devices can pay off, especially if you’re working from home.
The tactile feel of mechanical keyboards isn’t just there for show. Their clicky switches reduce the amount of force you need to use when typing, making them easier on the hands. Plus, mechanical keyboards can be customized with the cutest custom keycaps. What’s there not to love?
Mechanical Keyboards vs. Membrane Keyboards
Mechanical keyboards are every writer, programmer, encoder, and audio transcriptionist’s best friend. Their heavy-duty builds and loud switches are unexpected saviors from the dreaded Carpal tunnel syndrome.
For those unfamiliar with the term, Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that causes numbness and strange tingling sensations in the hands and arm; kind of like that static-y feeling you get when you sleep on your arm, except CTS requires surgery to release the pressure that’s been put on nerves.
The condition is caused by repeated hand motions, making it common among people who work in typing-intensive jobs. Before I made the switch to a mechanical keyboard, I’d end every workday feeling like my hand was about to fall off. My RK61 keeps my hand attached firmly to my wrist, no surgery required. So, if your job requires typing day in and day out, getting a mechanical keyboard is a no-brainer.
That is, unless a membrane keyboard still suits you better.
As with any tool, buying a keyboard should fit your personal needs and lifestyle preferences. The first thing that potential buyers will notice is that mechanical keyboards often hover around three digits, making them wildly expensive compared to run-of-the-mill membrane keyboards. Depending on what customizations you get, a mechanical keyboard can be as cheap as $40, as in the case of my Royal Kludge 61, or as pricey as $3,500, the price Twitch streamer Turner “Tfue” Tenney’s custom made keyboard.
The eye-wateringly expensive keyboard was designed by Tae Ha Kim, a keyboard cult YouTuber who designs custom mechanical keyboards for the internet’s biggest stars. He’s also built a keyboard for Lilypichu, another streamer with over 2.8 million Twitch subscribers.
The cherry blossom-themed keyboard used a 65% Kyuu Rose Gold keyboard as its base and incorporated Cherry Sakura artisan keycaps made of PBT plastic, a material popular among keyboard enthusiasts for its consistent texture and finish that doesn’t fade over time.
Second, mechanical keyboards are often louder than membrane keyboards. Pop into r/mechanicalkeyboards or YouTube and you’ll find that a good portion of the mechanical keyboard and artisan keycap obsession is centered around finding the perfect sounding keyboard. Membrane keyboards, on the other hand, are so quiet that mechanical keyboard enthusiasts will joke that they sound broken.
Loud and expensive. Aside from the potential health benefits, there seems to be little to recommend mechanical keyboards over membrane keyboards. Unless you realize how much worse membrane keyboards are.
Though they work for casual, infrequent use, the lack of tactile feedback from membrane keyboards makes it harder to touch type, a kind of typing where users don’t look at the letters on their keyboard but instead rely on their muscle memory and touch to produce faster typing speeds. This makes work more efficient for frequent types and, if disturbing co-workers is an issue, any mechanical keyboard can be altered to have silent switches which produce roughly the same amount of noise as average membrane boards do.
While the high initial investment cost of mechanical keyboards, and their multi-colored artisan keycaps, can be off-putting, you have to think of the cost in a longer time frame. Mechanical keyboards don’t wear out as quickly as membrane keyboards, if at all, making them perfect for continuous, heavy use. Mechanical boards also have better anti-ghosting, letting you press more keys at a time than membrane keyboards. It’s a gamer’s dream which is why gaming brands like Razer have come out with their own mechanical keyboards, one of which is the Razer Huntsman Mini, a popular starter budget keyboard.
Artisan Keycaps, PBT Keycaps, and More
If you’re going to pull the trigger on getting your first mechanical keyboard, consider the aforementioned Royal Kludge 61 and Razer Huntsman. Other popular starter picks include the Anne Pro 2 and Ducky One 2 Mini, both of which are 60-65% keyboards. For a bigger starter board, you can look into the Ajazz K870T which features 87 keys. It’s not quite a full-sized board but it gets you all the essentials on a budget.
After the board come the keycaps. Artisan keycaps are often what pull people down the keyboard cult rabbit hole. They come in a variety of colors, layouts, and materials that can be overwhelming to go through when it’s your first time shopping for custom keycaps. So, to give you an idea, here’s a rundown of common materials used in artisan keycaps.
ABS plastic is often used in lower-end keyboards, like the RK61, and in cheap custom keycaps. ABS stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. Its unique chemical make-up and low melting point make it a popular choice for injection molding, the kind of shaping process used for making keycaps.
Even cheap ABS artisan keycaps have fairly reliable legends, the letters and numbers on keycaps, and shine through, meaning they allow backlighting from your keyboard to “shine through” the letters. This produces a very eye-catching effect that gets you the most out of your keyboard lighting.
The problem with ABS is that, while it’s strong, keycaps made of the material develop a shine that’s coupled with a slippery texture that makes your keyboard surface feel greasy to type on.
If you’re open to a slightly pricier set of artisan keycaps, then PBT is the material for you. It’s still plastic and it doesn’t shine through as well as ABS keycaps do, but well-made PBT keycaps will still have clear legends and amazing lighting. PBT is often thicker than ABS and holds up well even if the PBT keycap isn’t doubleshot. Doubleshot here refers to the injection molding process, meaning that a keycap has two layers of plastic molding.
A less common material for artisan keycaps is rubber. Rubber keycaps have textured surfaces that provide a better grip surface. This feature doesn’t mean much for workplace use given that your fingers often flit from key to key when typing, removing the need for a grip. But for professional gamers, that extra grip feature helps them edge out the competition.
Last, but not least, is resin. Resin is a crowd favorite for artisan keycaps and most keycap makers choose resin as their medium with polymer clay and 3D printing coming in at far second and third places.
Resin produces some seriously gorgeous artisan keycaps. Its clear material allows for a blank canvas where keycap artists can go ham on bringing the keyboard cult the most breathtakingly beautiful keycaps. Popular designs include starry galaxies and water-based themes, like koi ponds and beaches, which let keycap artists show off their extreme attention to detail and ability to layer resin.
I hope that doesn’t sound too complicated because there’s more to keycaps than just its material. Like, say, making sure the keycaps actually fit your keyboard.
Buying Artisan Keycaps (The Right Way)
If you don’t have a mechanical keyboard, do not buy yourself artisan keycaps. Custom keycaps like the pretty koi cap you see above are made only for mechanical keyboards. While you can definitely tear off the keycaps on your membrane keyboard, no amount of hot glue is going to get artisan keycaps to stick on it and still let it work.
Now, let’s move forward. Assuming that you do have a mechanical keyboard, the next question is figuring out whether a particular set of artisan keycaps fit your keyboard. Yes, as confusing as this sounds, not all keyboards have the same switches meaning that you have to be careful about getting keycaps that match yours.
Thankfully, most mechanical keyboards feature Cherry MX stems, meaning most artisan keycaps are made to fit switches with that kind of stem. If your keyboard has an Alps switch, which uses a rectangular stem rather than the plus sign of the Cherry MX, you’re going to have a harder time looking for a set of artisan keycaps.
Remember to ask keycap crafters whether their caps will fit your keyboard. If you haven’t changed the switches, which you likely wouldn’t have if you’re new to all this, then they’ll be able to look up the switches that come with your keyboard to confirm whether their artisan keycaps will fit.
After that, it’s just a question of what keycap profile, meaning a keycap’s height, you’d prefer. Cherry height and OEM height keycaps are the most common, followed by XDA. OEM, Cherry, and SA profile artisan keycaps have a more dramatic slant. XDA and DSA have lower heights and, supposedly, this height difference produces a less ‘hollow’ sound when a keycap is pressed.
Artisan Keycaps You Can Cop
You didn’t think I’d send you out into the overwhelming world of mechanical keyboards without an artisan keycap recommendation, did you? Take a look at these awesome artisan keycaps that you can buy online today. Well, maybe not all of them. There’s a reason members of r/mechanicalkeyboards often pull together for a group buy, after all. That said, these artisan caps are fairly easy to obtain on AliExpress, Amazon, eBay, and Etsy.
These Adorable Cat Paw Keycaps
Who wouldn’t want to give a cat a high-five every time they pressed the escape key? These cute cat paw keycaps let you slap toe beans onto your mechanical keyboard. These come in a variety of color combinations ranging from more realistic colors, clear bases, and even pudding style keycaps. Yes, I mean pudding as in the dessert. I have a pudding cat paw keycap on my escape key right now.
There are hundreds of these artisan keycaps over at Etsy and while I didn’t see anything like mine, you might be able to commission a resin crafter to do a pudding color combination.
Or Pacman Ghost Keycaps
Here’s a set of artisan keycaps for gamers who’ve been playing since the ’80s. These rad Pacman-themed keycaps feature all of the ghosts from everybody’s favorite retro arcade game. There’s the titular Pacman in yellow and the other ghosts, Blinky, Clyde, Inky, Pinky, and Sue, on the remaining four.
This would make a cool combo where you use Pacman for the escape key and the ghosts for the arrow keys. Or just put them anywhere you want. Your mechanical keyboard, your artisan keycaps, your rules.
Maybe You’d Like Food Themed Keycaps?
Don’t they just look good enough to eat? If you like snacking at your computer, these food-themed artisan keycaps might be right for you. Made of polymer clay, each of the food keycaps features a type of food requested by fans of Youtuber tinymakesthings who took suggestions from her followers on TikTok.
It took her over a year to finish this artisan keycap set. The smorgasbord of plastic looks to have been installed on a 60% sized mechanical keyboard. You must be wondering if the board is actually usable and tinymakesthings does show off her typing skills on it in this video. She affectionately calls it the Smorgasboard and really, there is no better name for it.
You don’t have to painstakingly make food keycaps for a year to get your own. Just hop on any online shopping platform and you’ll be able to find a cute ramen-themed keycap or two.
And Dreamy Resin Artisan Keycaps
These highly detailed koi fish keycaps were posted to r/mechanicalkeyboards by u/Joinhandmade who was showcasing the then fresh stock of artisan keycaps they had over at Jelly Kelly. Jelly Kelly produces, and I quote, “keycaps purely handcrafted by talented artisans.” so if you fancy yourself ready to join the keyboard cult, you can check their keycaps out.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a set of Jelly POM keycaps to order off AliExpress.