Sweat, Solder, & Savings: A Brief about Custom Mechanical Keyboards
At the core concept, a keyboard is a tool to interface with a device that is normally a computer. To enthusiasts, we have elevated the tool. We have given it a personality by changing its appearance, shape, and feel to make the tool unique to us. I’m not just talking about simple key set swaps or layout choices. I’m talking about ‘custom’ keyboards. When it comes to custom keyboards, it comes down to that first word: ‘custom’.
Merriam-Webster's dictionary provides us a very important definition that helps us examine the scope of custom keyboards. The key behind every and any custom is that it's something you desire for your use. Whether it's function, or aesthetics, customs come in many different flavors. From the inexpensive hardwired acrylic sandwich boards to the kustoms (yes, a k) with cases over $400 before shipping and PayPal fees, there's a custom out there for you. Customs’ don’t always come easy. They aren’t always problem free, and even when they're cheap, they're might not be. Despite that, this community puts a lot of work into custom keyboards. So what’s all of this crazy custom stuff about? It’s about your sweat, solder, and savings.
Sweat. Why Sweat? I chose that word because sometimes I adore all alliteration. Truthfully many people start sweating before even obtaining a custom keyboard. For many who are new to the scene, the research and planning can be quite daunting. When you start researching into custom keyboards, you’ll start sweating over the keyboard angle. You'll start worrying if you know how to solder or not. You'll bemoan your varied choices when it comes to colors. You'll fret over layouts and you'll lose sleep over potential switch modifications. Never before has there been such a plethora of choices. With so many choices, how's one to choose? It's simple. Go with what you want. If you want a simple handwired board that you can proudly exclaim is yours and unique to you, go for it. While many might not treat it as such, in theory it's as custom as any fancy aluminum custom out there because it's tailored to you. If you want to explore the world of switch modding to find the best feel for you, you might head that direction in the custom scene. Possibly you want a custom keyboard tailored to meet your exact desires. This mentality is how so many custom projects started. A designer simply wanted a layout, or look that wasn't available to them, so they created it. So as you sweat about what you want, start researching. You may eventually go down the rabbit hole of wondering about anodization quality, color options, layouts, switch lubing, matching artisans, and matching key sets. Sweating bullets might not stop there if your GB runner decides to not give constant updates, is constantly sick, or even pulls an Ivan or Team Redline on you.
Finding group buys, interest checks, and information on upcoming products isn't the easiest. Combing through /r/mk, /r/mechmarket, GH's IC and GB forums are the most precise way to look through most of the information. Top Clack does try to help with our weekly shows as well as the Weekly News section of our website. In recent years the depth of the custom keyboard world has grown and expanded, but making friends is another way to help keep up with what's happening. Try not to sweat it though; just go at your own pace. There will always be key sets, keyboards, or GBs that you have missed because of when you joined, but just think of all the awesome possibilities ahead.
Solder. In my opinion, one of the best ways to truly make a custom keyboard feel like your own is to build it yourself. Fortunately the DIY spirit is very strong in this community with many members, including myself, learning how to solder just for custom keyboards. While this is something else to sweat about, I think that a big part of what makes a custom keyboard unique. It is the love you put into the construction of your keyboard that makes it for you. From choosing the switch, to the layout and the plate materials, and keycaps, you choose the parts that you end up typing on and displaying on your desk. If you're starting out, here are the things you should be concerned about if you're thinking of making your own custom: Switches, layout, keycaps, and case. Of course there is a lot of fun to be had with making your own board. If you're starting out and looking for equipment to buy, I highly recommended doing your research and finding what fits best within your budget. Our partner Input:Club has a great resource on recommended soldering equipment. At Top Clack, we strongly support the DIY spirit and encourage anyone interested in custom keyboards to learn soldering if they don't know the skill and are interested in creating their own custom keyboards. If you're a bit on the shy side when it comes to soldering, there are individuals you can pay to have solder work done for you. Of course this may eat into your savings. Some people decide to handwire their keyboards, and others prefer using a PCB. Regardless of your choice, learning to solder will come in handy.
Savings. This hobby can range from enjoying a $40 OEM with modded switches and a decent keyset to a $1000 custom masterpiece. It can be a one off keyboard you designed for yourself, or it can be from a groupbuy run for many to enjoy. Regardless of what your goals are, sticking with a budget that is within your means is more valuable than people realize. Even normal customs can go for $300 when building a custom 60% with modded switches, and a $120+ GMK keycap set. Even if you're determined to handwired your own project to save some $, don't forget the equipment you need for soldering if you don't have that yet. Some people like keeping track of every expense, and others cringe at that idea. There are always ways to help cut costs in your build. Often many can source cheaper components on mechmarket or simply asking friends in the community. Sometimes you'll have to bite the bullet and spend multiple dollars per switch if you're going for something extremely exotic. On the other hand, many are happy buying switches stock and using them normally in their builds. In my opinion, it gives good perspective to try out stock switches before really getting into the switch modding game. The truth about savings is a bit similar to basic economic concepts. Many group buys don't have the economies of scale that OEM boards benefit from. There aren't thousands of people ordering custom aluminum keyboards to bring the board down. There may be 100, 50, or even less people involved in the buy. Often you'll be sourcing components from different sources which add in terms of shipping. You may be in an aluminum case group buy, but need to source your switches and stabilizers from somewhere else. At the same time, you might also be involved in a key set groupbuy that you plan on putting on your custom. When you're involved in 1-3 group buys while also sourcing parts for a build, the costs and grow quicker than expected.
In conclusion, you should definitely do your research if you want to pursue a custom keyboard and I highly suggest you consider jumping down the rabbit hole if possible. This was only a shallow look into different aspects of custom keyboards since there are many facets to consider. Like with building a PC, a keyboard can be everything you want it to be from how it looks to how it feel underneath you fingertips. It's a custom keyboard. It's for you after all. We'll have more articles in the future going into more depth about the various aspects of enthusiast keyboards.