Custom Mechanical Keyboard: Part 1
I am a person of several hobbies. For the last year, I have been dedicating myself a lot to one of them, more than any other I have ever had.
To be clear, the list of hobbies I had is quite big and most of them were incentivised by my uncle, as he is also a person of many. Some of those remain, some of those are completely abandoned:
- Shooting (just to be clear: I am not a Fascist government supporter)
- Radio controlled airplanes
- Radio controlled hellicopters
- Radio controlled racing cars (this was even competitive)
- Fountain pens
- Coffee brewing
- Video games
The list can go on and on. But yeah, I think you understand now.
But with custom mechanical keyboards things were a bit too fast. Maybe because it's been quite a while I am into mechanical keyboards, so the leap was shorter.
Mechanical keyboard vs. custom mechanical keyboard
Wait, what? Yes. They are not the same thing. All custom mechanical keyboards are mechanical keyboards, but not all mechanical keyboards are custom.
You can buy mechanical keyboard on most of the online stores and electronics retailers, and that's usually the first step. Once you dip your toe there, you have two options: get your legs wet or cannonball into the Customs universe. And that is usually a path with no turning back.
Basically any keyboard with a mechanical switch is a mechanical keyboard. You can find regularly the famous colour Cherry MX trifecta: Red, Blue and Brown. The colour is related to the kind of switch you're getting.
The Red: a linear switch. By "linear", it means that from the moment you push to the moment you release a key, no resistance or force variation will happen.
The Brown: a tactile switch. By "tactile", it means that you will feel something after starting the initial push of the key, like a bump that gives a more tactile feedback. But this is a more quieter switch to use, compared to the next. See, the name is so good that it describes itself 😉
The Blue: ah, the blue. The reason why empires have fallen and civilisations were decimated. Well, not so much, but this is one of the factors that made the GAMER (sic) keyboard. This is a switch that is tactile, just like the brown, but it is loud. It has a metallic, high pitched and sharp noise, that gives some character to keyboards.
I will dig a bit deeper on the Switches topic when the time comes.
A lot of people say they hate mechanical keyboards because it is too loud. The fact is that SOME are loud, but only if you want them to be. The keyboard I'm using right now to compose this post is the loudest I've ever had. To be honest, is probably one of the two or three loud keyboards I have, and this is a deliberate choice of mine. Right now I'm using an IBM Model-M with buckle spring. And oh, this is loud. But also, this feels good to type. It is a piece of history, given this keyboard has set the current standard for what we know as keyboard layout of sorts.
If you want to know more about the IBM Model M, this is a funny video to watch (but not so deep into the details that make it be what it is):
Ok, back to it - as you can see, I get very passionate when I talk about my keyboards.
Custom mechanical keyboards
Here is where my passion lives. The custom ones. And the name is exactly it: you can customise absolutely EVERY single aspect of most of the keyboards. But it is a peculiar universe that I will try to explain.
Basically, the difference between what we call OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) and a custom is how much you can personalise it to your needs or preferences. On an OEM, you can - in most cases - select between a short array of switches, and some times you can also choose a hot swap PCB (Printed Circuit Board), but it is kinda rare. Of course, besides other not-so-important things, light LED lights, connectors and so on.
On a custom mechanical keyboard, you can usually pick a variety of options of the following items:
- If you are going to lubricate switches or not
- Which type of lubricant (lube) you're going to use
- If you're going to lubricate the stabilisers (stabs) or not
- Which lube you will use on the stabs
- Which stabs you will use (screw in, clip in, brand, colour, material etc)
- Material of the plate
- Material of the bottom case
- Material of the top case
- Material of the keycaps
- Kind of legends (dye sub, double shot, triple shot etc)
- PCB, therefore type of connector (USB-C, Mini-USB, Micro-USB, Bluetooth (and all it's variations) etc.)
- Type of feet (bump ons, rubber strip etc.)
- Screws you are going to use
Look, the list is huge. I mean it. Let's move on.
And why all that specificity? Because why not?
You have so many factors like the keyboard weight, acoustics, aesthetics, how it feels when pushing, how it feels when bouncing back, how portable it is and many many other factors.
But all the variety comes with some "caveats" in a way. And I will try to list them, and talk a bit about it.
How to buy a custom mechanical keyboard?
The first fact you need to know (if you don't, already) is that this hobby is expensive. Really expensive, unfortunately. But this has a good explanation.
There are not many companies producing custom mechanical keyboard kits all the time. Some are big for the hobby standards, but not quite big in an industrial way. Still, they are expensive to manufacture. The material used on those keyboards are usually expensive, the machining time to make is expensive (the time put on carving the case out of a solid chunk of metal, for instance), so is the tooling for the machining. There's also the time and dedication put on creating such kits, and this is very important.
Most of the keyboards comes from the community. Users that are on the hobby for years start having strong opinions, and they want to make a keyboard either to satisfy their own perspective, or that they figure how to please another hobbists. They usually have a job, family, you know; they usually have a life.
Nowadays, we can see more custom mechanical keyboards available in stock on some online stores (and there will be links on upcoming posts). Apart from this fact, to buy a custom mechanical keyboard one needs to join what is called Group Buys (GB), and that's how the vast majority of kits are released to the public. This GB have many ways to be conducted:
- First Come, First Serve (FCFS): it is announced that a number of kits will be made - let's say 50 -, and in a specific date and time they will be available to be acquired. So the first 50 people to purchase the kit will get it. This is the most common GB format today.
- Raffle: X people are ready to buy, but there are only X/100 units available, so there's a lottery to pick who will be able to buy that kit
- Closed GB: sometimes one doesn't want too much harassment and annouce that only a few keyboards will be made, and it will be run in a close GB, with hand-picked people that are offered with the kit.
- Time-framed GB: usually when there's a good support behind a GB, like a big brand, store or support, there's a window that can go from MINUTES to some days or weeks, and everyone has that specific time to order their kit.
Many other methods, sometimes even a mix of them like FCFS + Closed (or F&F for Friends and Family).
Also, because most of the GB are not coming from companies, there's a rather "amateur" way of handling things, one may spot at first. It is all done in a trustful way. Imagine: an online form, with no strings attached to anywhere, is fulfilled by whoever is interested. Then, you transfer a big amount of money - usually something that can go from around 250 USD to 500 USD, sometimes even more - to someone's account. With the money transfered, the production starts and if you are lucky, you will receive your keyboard a few months later. 2 months is a super positive time-window, but it is not uncommon that kits ships after 6 months, 12 months or maybe more (of course, not taking the current pandemic situation and is completely understandable).
I will end this first post of a series now. If you feel curious and don't feel like waiting for more posts, you can join several communities on the topic. Reddit and Discord are the most known for this:
- Mechanical Keyboards on Reddit
- MrKeebs Discord: Community in which I'm part, welcomes everyone but we talk mainly in Portuguese and English. My name there is
demonahz. Feel free to reach me in any public channel on the server
In time: here, take this funny video that flirts with the hobby:
Thanks to Felipe Coury, Guilherme de Andrade, Victor Presumido and Pedro Piermatei for reviewing this article, to the amazing MrKeebs community (link above), my main source of education on the topic, and to 001Anthony, the material I found out about building custom mechanical keyboards.