How and why I built my first mechanical keyboard

Depending on who is asking questions, there are many benefits to mechanical keyboards. Some people like how long they last, others like the way they feel, and many claim that they can be used more easily through tactile feedback. But for many people, most of their appeal comes from customization possibilities. You can purchase a different keycap, change the mechanical switch, and in some cases change the USB cable or microcontroller to get the right keyboard for your environment.

Fixing an existing keyboard will cause problems only until now. For the ultimate on-demand keyboard, you need to create a new one from scratch. This process is not necessary for everyone. Components can be expensive and require a lot of soldering work, and if you are not careful, you have a chance to ruin something. But at the end of the process, you will end up with something totally personal to you and your needs, such as typing, games, or two terrible Frankenstein mixes (here Dead: Typing of the Dead: Overkill). ).

It was the first time to make a keyboard from scratch, but it is not a complete beginner. I have modified many keyboards in the past. I replaced the switch on the Das keyboard 4, modified the Apple Extended Keyboard II to work via USB, and installed a custom microcontroller on the Filco Majestouch 2. It was a good idea how keyboard assemblies work, even if we did not go through the entire build process in the past.

It's not too tricky, but if you try it yourself, you'll want to have some time. Some of the steps are a little clumsy, and if you are not careful you can break things that are not easy to replace. My soldering is not good at all, but I think most people will get the same because it only works for a few hours and ends up with a working keyboard.


how and why i built my first mechanical keyboard

I created a 75% layout board, so I omit the number keys and compress the arrow keys and feature rows into a compressed layout.
The Vertge picture from Paris Seawell

Necessary items [19659008] The keyboard does not consist of too many parts, but it can not be picked up at the store. Even Amazon is a bit of a stretch. Chinese retailer AliExpress has a huge amount of parts, but if you do not know what you want, you can be a little Wild West. So I found it very helpful to look at the famous keyboard forums such as Mechanical Keyboard subreddit, GeekHack, and Deskthority and find recommendations.


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Clockwise from top; PCB, switch, case, USB cable, mounting plate, soldering and accessories, soldering, stabilizer, screw driver and key cap. (19659011) Keyboard switch
  • Key cap
  • Stabilizer
  • Case and back plate
  • Becca Farsace / The Verge picture

  • Keyboard component is some kind of

  • Circuit board [19659017] USB cable
  • It sounds simple, but where things get complicated is the amount of options available. Different sizes of keyboards (different case and circuit board sizes), different types of ballasts and keyboards may be fitted differently. Do not worry. Let's look a little more.

    To use the board together, you need a screwdriver, a soldering iron (soldering iron holder and accessories such as a solder absorber, for the sake of mistake), soldering.

    Select Part

    There are almost all kinds of options when planning a build. You can not list them all here. But these are the most common choices, and there are some general rules about what will work for you.

    The first choice for the keyboard is the size of the keyboard. There are two main options: a full-size keyboard with almost all expected keys and a cross-key keyboard that removes the numeric keypad. These include large chunks of keyboards that are readily available at liquor stores.

    Customization allows more niche layouts to be used. You do not really need a compact board and you do not have to hunt down a non-standard sized keycap. This board is often described using percentages – the larger the percentage, the larger the board and typically includes 60%, 65% and 75%.

    If you know the keyboard size you want, you can select the PCB and case. I decided to use a 75% board in my build. This is because the size and function are in perfect harmony. It's also very similar to a laptop keyboard, so it gives me a sense of familiarity when switching between a laptop and a desktop.

    When selecting the PCB and case, some other functions of the keyboard, ie two functions, are determined by these components

    so that the large keys on the keyboard are prevented from shaking and the two character keys or the same One of the keys stops the width. Boards with American-style (also known as ANSI) layouts usually require a ballast for the keyboard's Shift, Spacebar, Backspace, and Enter keys. If the keyboard has numbers, the 0, Enter, and + keys also require a stabilizer.


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    Since Cherry stabilizer is used, it must be assembled before connecting to PCB.
    Becca Farsace Picture / The Verge

    There are two main types of fixtures, Costar and Cherry, that sit under the bigger keys of the keyboard and do not sway either when pressed. There is a big controversy in the keyboard community, which is better than either of them (many say that the Cherry ballast is cloudy and the Costars are rattling). I will not try to solve the argument here. What I'm saying is that cherry stabilizers are a little less demanding when you try to replace the keycap. Therefore, when you choose an option, you tend to prefer it personally.

    There is a choice between a keyboard with a sheet metal or a PCB mount switch. For a sheet metal keyboard, the weight of the switch is taken by the metal plate on the PCB, and all the weight of the PCB is used for the board mounted on the PCB. Keyboard-mounted keyboards may feel more robust, but it can be harder to work with because it is more difficult to remove a single switch when something goes wrong.

    Because there are a few extra plastic legs on the floor for stability even without a plate, there may be a switch called plate mounted type or PCB mounted type. But in reality, the two types are a bit more flexible. Many PCBs designed for plate-mounted keyboards have holes in these plastic legs, otherwise you can mount the PCB-mounted switch by tying your legs with a pair of scissors.


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    On such a plate mounting board, the switch must be mounted on the mounting plate and the PCB.
    Becca Farsace / The Verge picture

    We selected stabilizer in this build. For my particular kit I bought, this is a plate-mounted, cherry ballast mounted directly on the PCB. It has a transparent acrylic layer in the center, so there is an aluminum case that illuminates the LED on the bottom of the PCB.

    The most important choice while creating the keyboard is the switch to use. The switch defines the feel and sound of the keyboard and is literally used as a mechanical keyboard and has almost infinite options.

    While mechanical switches are of various types (buckling springs, Alps, and TOFLs), Cherry MX style switches are generally what people call keyboards "mechanical" and are designed for use with most DIY kits .

    There are various kinds of Cherry MX switches. Each switch operates differently with different pressures. Some are abrasions, others are soft, others are in the middle. There are official models of Cherry (most commonly used in red, brown, and blue variants), but the company's switch patents have expired and there are many third-party switches based on the Cherry MX design. 19659040] 65g Zealios was the favorite switch on this board. Becca Farsace / The Verge picture

    This build has one switch like the 65g Zealio switch. These Zealios have a really good tactile bump when you press them, clear but without the toughness and scratchiness of a kind like the Cherry MX. There is more resistance than Cherry MX Brown, there is no Cherry MX Blue. Personally, this design can be useful in typing or games and can be used as a switch to suit my needs.

    The last thing you have to do with a board is the keycap. Like switches, there is a tremendous choice here. Which switch ultimately depends on the user's personal preference. In other words, there are some general rules that can help you keep in mind what kind of plastic is made of keyboard and how to print letters (or "legends").

    Two major options in terms of materials are ABS plastic and PBT plastic. PBT key caps are generally more resilient and do not wear or shine easily. The disadvantage is that they tend to be more expensive.


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    My key caps are made of PBT plastic and feature a retro beige design.
    Becca Farsace / The Verge picture

    How the legend of the keycap is printed has a big impact on how much or how small it is. Over time wears out. Double shots are generally considered gold standard because coloring for the legend is done through the key cap. In other words, the characters do not disappear when the upper part of the plastic is worn. Dye sublimation is good and can not be taken off soon. If possible, do not use laser-etched key caps. I have seen this keycap lose letters in a year, and you are worth more. Alternatively, you can avoid this dilemma by choosing a completely empty keycap if you completely leave your senses.

    Since I prefer a trimmed keyboard, I used the EnjoyPBT 9009 key cap set. The important thing about my build is that this kit includes lots of nonstandard keycap options. This option is suitable for strange layouts. The shortcut key to the right of the space bar should be smaller to accommodate the right arrow key.

    If you write together

    Good news. Test the idea that your PCB works before soldering it on it. You can do this by connecting the contact pads of each switch to the metal. Something that works just like a clip. Since you have an online keyboard test tool you want to use, connect the PCB using a USB cable, load this site, and test each switch position one by one.


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    We recommend testing the PCB before attaching anything.
    Pictures of Becca Farsace / The Verge

    How to use the keyboard together depends a lot on the specific part you are using, but here is how to get to my specific board.

    First, the stabilizer had to be installed on the circuit board. Many PCBs will support multiple layouts and should be placed in the right place. This means that there are certain fixed holes that you do not want to use. In my build I went to the UK layout. That is, since the left shift key is shorter, the stabilizer is not necessary, and the enter key is installed vertically. Because it is a 75% layout, the right shift key is a little shorter to accommodate the right arrow key. When installing a stabilizer, check which layout you are using. The world is not over if it is wrong. It is very annoying to have to cancel the operation.

    The Cherry Stabilizer used in my structure was disassembled so I had to place the stabilizer stem in each housing before clipping the metal bar to both sides. It can be a bit of a mistake, but it can be done simply by sorting out how the stabilizer works in what direction. Then take the stabilizer and insert it into the two holes in the PCB.


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    Cherry blossom ballast on circuit board
    Photograph: Becca Farsace / The Verge

    The following is a switch. As with the stabilizer, you should be careful about where this element is or whether you use a hole suitable for placement. We found that it is helpful to pre-install the keycap on a switch with multiple placement options and then guide it to the correct hole and test it. Then you need to remember which hole to use for the switch.

    For plate mounting boards, each switch had to be placed on the plate and PCB. Then, once it is fully inserted, the PCB can be turned over and soldered.

    If you're new to soldering, we recommend watching this YouTube video to get started. Otherwise, there are the following basic rules: Apply evenly to both the pins and electrical contacts of the switch, then attach the solder to the two parts. You are looking for a nice neat cone. Do not use too much. It turns into a dome, but it is enough to connect both sides correctly. Take your time. If the solder does not flow properly, do not apply too much heat, as it may break something.


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    Use caution when soldering to prevent component damage.
    Becca Farsace / The Verge picture

    With all the switches soldered, it's time to assemble the case. Again, this will vary depending on the component, but I need to loosen the two parts of the case, screw the PCB to the bottom of the case, and reassemble the circuit board and the case with the built-in acrylic. 19659066] Finally, you can install the keycap. This is probably the easiest part of the build, and it can be time consuming depending on how many keys you have. Align each key with the switch and press down.

    Now that the keyboard is assembled, it's time to plug in. I have a USB cable, but in my case I used a fairly conventional USB cable. My specific PCB uses a mini USB cable, but depending on what you get, it may support micro USB or even USB Type-C. I would like to use the same online keyboard test tool I used to start builds to make sure all features are working,


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    My PCB is divided into three parts.
    Pictures of Becca Farsace / The Verge

    It is a great opportunity to customize the layout if your keyboard supports it. This process works differently on all boards, but frankly this board is up to you. You will not be crazy like changing a letter key, but you can also change keys such as Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down depending on what you use regularly on a regular basis. Because this process is basically different on every keyboard, you should refer to the manufacturer's instructions to find the best way to do it.


    There are exceptions, but most technologies can get better and better every year. The screen gets a higher resolution, longer battery life, faster GPUs, and a smarter voice assist. But the keyboard of the early '90s has the same function today. Speaking of mechanical keyboards made with the Cherry MX switch, I'm talking about designs that have not changed much since the early '80s.

    Good keyboard design is timeless, and if you are tempted to become a true keyboard collector, you can stay in the right model for the rest of your life. At least you can connect any computer. That's what I found. You can perfectly fit your customers' needs without worrying that they will be outdated in two years.

    Though not for everyone, building your own building is the last step to keeping your hobby if you are far enough away from the mechanical keyboard holes.

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