It’s a common misconception that building a custom mechanical keyboard is expensive and laborious. While some do spend a lot of time and money on their keyboards, it’s not necessary.
There are a ton of budget keyboard kits and parts you can buy and assemble for cheap. You can even get a pre-build like the famous Royal Kludge RK61 and customize each part. Instead of teaching you to mod a pre-built keyboard, this guide will focus on building a custom mechanical keyboard from scratch.
Part 1: Plan Your keyboard
Planning and research are the hardest part of your first keyboard build, especially if you haven’t experienced custom mechanical keyboards yet. You might not know exactly what you want yet but here are some things you’ll need to consider.
Your keyboard can either connect wirelessly or via a cable to your computer. If you care more about aesthetics or you just want to keep your table clean, I recommend a keyboard with wireless Bluetooth or USB dongle transmitters. If you care more about quick response times, I think you should stick with a detachable USB-C cable for a stronger, more stable connection.
The comfort, price, and availability of parts compatible with your keyboard build depend on the layout and size. Here are the main sizes you’ll choose from:
- Full-size: This is the most common size you can find on most pre-built keyboards, but it’s hard to find custom keyboards and parts for this size, which is why customizing a pre-built keyboard can be hard.
- Ten-Key-Less (TKL): This is essentially a full-size keyboard but without the number pad.
- 75%: A more compact version of the TKL layout, it’s very functional and comfortable to use.
- 65%: This layout removes the function row keys and integrates them with the number keys. However, it still keeps the arrow keys.
- 60%: This is the layout I recommend for beginner builders. The parts for this size are cheaper and easier to find than for other sizes. But it doesn’t have arrow keys, which may be a dealbreaker for some gamers and designers.
Lighting options range from a single color backlight to help you see your keyboard in the dark, to full-blown RGB LEDs which have the best appeal for aesthetics with their different light show modes.
Some custom keycaps might not even support backlights and some keyboard cases like aluminum and wood will also prevent light from passing through rendering your fancy RGB useless. So, if you do want lighting, you need to factor that in when choosing the other parts of your keyboard.
Beyond the basics, you can also find some cool options like programmable keys and rotary encoders that improve the functionality of the keyboard. There are also keyboards with USB hubs and headphone jacks that offer cleaner cable management. OLED screens make it easier to navigate settings, programs, and other features in your keyboard.
Part 2: Choosing Parts
Now that you have an idea of the keyboard you want to build, it’s time to pick the parts.
Printed Circuit Board (PCB)
The circuit board is the brain and heart of the keyboard. It holds all the electronics together and determines all the features, connectivity, and lights that your keyboard will have.
While there are tons of options to choose from, I recommend hot-swappable PCBs on your first build. This allows you to swap out your switches if you don’t like how they feel. It’ll also be easier to make modifications later on as you learn more about mechanical keyboards and your own preferences.
The plate is an optional component but I like them because they hold the switches in place and contribute to how bouncy or rigid your keyboard feels. Plates come in different materials like aluminum, brass, steel, carbon fiber, and polycarbonate. It’s also available in tons of colors to match whichever aesthetic you’re going after.
This will house and protect your keyboard. Some are built to be more durable and practical while others are designed to add to the aesthetic. Some are designed to make the keyboard more “thocky” — a term for keyboards that make that satisfying popping sound when you type.
This is the most crucial factor affecting what your keyboard will feel and sound like. There are generally three types of switches: Clicky, Tactile, and Linear. For beginners that would like the best feel, I recommend tactile or clicky switches. Linear switches are better for those who want a more thocky keyboard.
Stabilizers — often abbreviated to “stabs” — are especially important for larger keys like the enter, spacebar, and backspace keys. It helps these larger keys press down evenly to provide the best sound and feel.
Keycaps are the part of the keyboard that you interact with the most. This also has a huge contribution to how your keyboard feels and sounds. There are tons of keycap profiles, materials, and designs that you can choose from so you’ll be able to add a lot of personality and style here.
Part 3: Building Your Keyboard
If you made it this far, congratulations! You have gone through the hardest parts of building a keyboard. The actual assembly is the most therapeutic part of the process in my opinion. Here’s what it involves.
Step 1: Check and Test Your PCB
What’s the use of a beautiful keyboard if it doesn’t work?
To check for functionality, connect your PCB to your computer, and open this site or any keyboard tester you know. If your PCB has lights, they should turn on the moment you plug it in. Make sure each LED is on.
Now, take a metal tweezer and test the contacts on each switch socket. If not all keys respond then you might have a problem with your PCB. If everything’s working, proceed to the next step.
Step 2: Install Stabilizers
There are two types of stabilizers: plate mount and PCB mount. Either way, mount your stabilizers before installing switches. The longest stabilizer goes to the spacebar, and four similar-sized stabilizers go to the enter, backspace, and two shift keys.
Once the switches are installed, it’ll be difficult to go back to access and adjust the stabilizers, so take extra care that you get them on right before moving on to the next step.
Step 3: Install Switches
To install switches, you just need to push the switch into the plate, and if all goes right, the pins of the switches will simply fall into their respective sockets. If the pins can’t go in all the way or if it’s misaligned with the sockets, you might have a problem with the compatibility between the plate and PCB. Avoid inserting the switch into the plate at an angle because this can damage both your switch housing and the switch pins.
Step 4: Solder Switches
If you got a hot-swap PCB as I recommended, you don’t need to do this part. If you got a normal PCB, though, you need to solder the switches in place. Don’t worry. It’s not as hard as it sounds.
Once the switch pins are all in their respective sockets, flip the PCB over. Take your hot soldering iron and some solder. Put the soldering tip on the socket so it touches the PCB contact and the pin at the same time. Wait for a second, and while the soldering tip is still on the socket, put some solder in and it should melt and attach itself easily.
Soldering iron in, solder in, solder out, soldering iron out. It’s as easy as that!
Granted it may take some practice to get things perfect so test it out on another surface until you feel comfortable doing it on your keyboard.
If you still think that sounds way too complicated, get a hot-swappable PCB so you can skip this part.
Step 5: Final Assembly
Once everything’s in place, test each of the keys on your board. If a key doesn’t register, check the corresponding switch to make sure it’s fully connected to the PCB. The most common issues are not enough solder or pins that didn’t go in the socket or got bent.
Resolder failing switches, and if problems persist, swap out switches for fresh ones. Once every key and feature is working properly, it’s now time to put the assembled PCB into the case, put your custom keycap set on, and you’re good to go!