Custom keyboards are easy to build. You just need five parts:
- PCB (PCB)
- Board case
- Mechanical switches
I also recommend buying a backplate which increases durability and print stability. If you just want your keyboard to look nice, I have some tips for making things better at the end of this article. But first, let’s look at how you can build your own mechanical keyboard.
Necessary tools for keyboard assembly
At a minimum, you will need two keyboard soldering tools: soldering iron With low power consumption and some Rosin core solder .
If you just want a quick, cheap, and dirty way to get started, check out the soldering deal, which includes just about everything you need to get started:
- Low Power Soldering Iron: If you are a beginner, feel free to buy a cheap low power iron. Hot irons may melt faster, but they are not for beginners. For those who want a little more, buy an adjustable power iron. I have a 900M handpiece compatible Aoyue model and it has never let me down.
- Rosin core solder: Solder is an alloy of tin and lead that melts at low temperatures. The rosin inside the solder is an organic compound designed to remove impurities that degrade conductivity. It liquefies when heated, causing it to spread along the solder joint.
Additional (but recommended) tools
Some additional but highly recommended tools include sucker for rations, steel wool, cotton swabs and 90% alcohol :
- Solder suction cup: If you make a mistake, the solder suction cup can draw out the heated solder.
- Steel wool: Steel wool is used to clean the soldering iron tip without damaging it. The cheaper ones are abrasive, but if you’re using a disposable soldering iron, this is a good choice. Otherwise, invest in a brass cleaning pad designed for a hot iron.
- Cotton buds : A cotton swab is used to apply alcohol to the board.
- 90% alcohol : high-strength alcohol without additives is excellent for removing residues of Rosen flux.
- Key fob remover: Although it is very easy to put the keys on, they cannot be removed. There are two types of keycap removers: wire and plastic. I recommend using a wire stripper. The model above, however, is both in the same package.
You may also need a non-conductive surface that you can work on. I prefer to use a wooden cutting board. Wood is resistive, meaning it does not conduct electricity easily.
Buying Mechanical Keyboard Parts
Everyone needs something different from their keyboard. A printer may want an experience similar to a dull analog typewriter. An interior designer may prefer a colorful aesthetic.
With endless customization options, keyboard creation allows the user to create something that no other manufacturer makes. The only trick is to find the parts to build the cheated blacksmith machine.
There are five (or seven) components you can choose from:
- PCB (PCB)
- (Optional) Plate
- Keyboard cover
- Mechanical switches
- (Optional) LEDs
The Easy Option: DIY mechanical keyboard kits
If you mainly want to learn how to solder and not worry about tuning, get an unassembled mechanical keyboard kit. The unassembled kit includes all major components, so there are fewer problems. A great deal right now is the YMDK71 mechanical keyboard kit. It also includes a rechargeable battery for Bluetooth wireless operation.
The easiest way to get started with a DIY mechanical keyboard is to buy a kit. Each DIY keyboard kit is different, but it includes a printed circuit board (PCB), sometimes a backplate, a case, and mechanical switches. Those who know exactly what parts they want should purchase the components separately from each other. It may cost more, but the customization options are significant.
1. Keyboard PCB
Of the five main components, the printed circuit board (PCB) is the most important. The circuit board defines the layout and functional layers of the keyboard. Generally speaking, PCBs come in several kinds of form factors, most of which are based on the number of keys it can hold.
The most popular of these PCBs is the 60% form factor. As the name suggests, the 60% keyboard includes 60 keys. But there are other types of keyboards, including 40%, 75%, 87% and more.
You can purchase a variety of PCBs from AliExpress, including GH60, YYD75, DX64, and more. (Of these, I prefer the DX64 because it includes a right-hand keyboard and uses the same chassis as most 60-key variants.)
Among the more exotic circuit boards is the ErgoDox mechanical keyboard, which is designed for ergonomics. There are also boards with inverted LED lighting holes, allowing compatibility with front panel keycaps.
Some circuit boards (such as the fully assembled ErgoDox EZ) are solderless «plug-and-play» designs, allowing for easy switching of switches. However, most options do not offer this luxury. I do not recommend building ErgoDox as your first keyboard. While great, it is not suitable for an entry level soldering project.
Important points to note :
- The printed circuit board must match the occasion!
- The circuit board determines if you have an LED backlight.
- If you have LEDs, the PCB determines if you are using the keys with front or top printed information.
The keyboard keypad helps secure the switches and provides added stability and reliability. While plastic stabilizers exist (and they’re OK), the most common are steel and aluminum.
In my experience, aluminum plates tend to warp to bend during shipping, while steel is extremely durable but heavy. I recommend steel if you can find it. But aluminum is a great choice if you prefer portability.
Plates also come in different colors. I suggest that you carefully consider the aesthetics of your build before purchasing any part.
3. Keyboard cases
It’s a good idea to buy the case along with the PCB. Most providers offer the deal as a combo deal. Combined deals are cheaper overall, and buying from the same supplier also guarantees compatibility. In most cases, GH60 cases fit most of the other 60% of keyboard boards.
The telltale indicator of whether the case will fit the PCB is a look at the screw holes. If the screw holes match the PCB, you most likely have the correct case.
4. Mechanical switch
The mechanical switch gives the mechanical keyboard its distinct feel and sound. When pressed, each type of switch has a different feel (or tactile feedback), sound, and springiness (measured in grams required to press the key). Easy, smooth activation is great for gamers like most red color switches. Others are designed to emulate a typewriter. My favorite is the lightest, smoothest and quietest switch (Gateron Clear).
There is a bit of history here. The first small mechanical switches came from Cherry GmbH. But ever since their 2014 mechanical switch patent expired in 2014, competition has arisen. There are now dozens of companies making keyboard switches. Some of these switches are shameless clones of the original Cherry design. Others have improved or modified Cherry’s original design.
Today’s switches include quite a few brands. Of these, Gatheron ranks first on the list for affordability and quality. However, there are several exotic types of switches.
For example, some of the more radical technologies include Varmilo’s Sakura electro-capacitive proximity switches, which dispense with mechanical keystrokes — a fancy way of saying that a switch uses fewer mechanical components.
If you’re interested in learning more, some other examples include Kailh, Razer, Outemu, Greetech, and Zealio. All these switches can be found using the so-called switch tester. Of the testers (or samplers), check out the Gateron 9 switch tester. By putting together many different types of radio buttons, you can find out what suits your individual input style.
Keycaps differ depending on where the letters are printed on the key, how the letters are printed, and the materials used in the key. These features contribute to the durability and visibility of the key (especially when LED lights are used).
LEDs : If your PCB has LED terminals in front of the key, it means you need front key keys. If the holes for the LEDs are on the back, you need top printed keys.