The Switch Lab: A living switch modification guide - by Quakemz
Disclaimer: Like any guide containing personal knowledge and technique, this is what I, Quakemz, have learned in my experience. There are many ways to lube and to view lubing. What I will be discussing here is my experience and thoughts. This may work amazingly for you. Or, it might not. There is no substitute for first-hand experience. So, while I would recommend you use this as a starting point, I also recommend you try as many things as you can, whether it be lube type, application method, switch type, etc. You never know what you personally like best until you try it yourself.
Part I: Lubing Theory
If you’ve been active in the community at all in the last several years, you’re probably aware that some enthusiasts opt to lube switches for some of their keyboards. This is slowly becoming more and more common these days. The reasoning behind this is relatively simple: smoothness and, to a lesser extent, sound. More on that later.
As we progress deeper in this community, more and more people are realizing that smoother switches are often a generally better typing experience. Years ago, only the most hardened enthusiasts were lubing their switches, but nowadays, lubing has gotten to the point where even the average keyboard enthusiast has considered it, or even attempted it, themselves.
There are many, MANY theories and thoughts that can and, frankly should, go into lubing. It’s not quite as easy as just having lubed switches or not. There are several things to consider: the switch or type of switch you’re lubing, the lube you’re using, the applicator you’re using, where you apply the lube, and how much lube you’re applying. These are just some of the more important things you need to consider when lubing switches, but the list goes on even more. Seems a little extreme, you say? You’re damn right it is. Lubing isn’t a joke and it can definitely improve your typing experience in many ways, and of course, make you feel like a badass. Plus, let’s be honest, flexing your sick keyboard collection and skills is truly a part of this hobby.
This guide will aim to broaden your knowledge of lubricants to use on switches, why you might want to lube, and how you go about the process of lubing. Here, we’re going to start with the basics of lubing theory, starting with why you might consider it.
As I stated before, the primary reason you might want to lube is for smoothness. Let’s face it, a lot of switches on the market right now are just not that smooth. Do we honestly need smoother switches? Of course not. We could all functionally get by just fine on the scratchiest and sandiest of keyboard switches. Nobody really needs super smooth switches. Just like you probably don’t even need the fancy mechanical keyboard you’re using right now. But, it’s nice, I get it. It’s a luxury, and luxuries can be beneficial. Thankfully here, this luxury can be had for a fairly minimal price and just a bit of time and patience.
Can all switches be lubed? Generally speaking, yes, though for the sake of this, I’m going to assume you’re interested in the primary MX switch design found in Cherry MX switches and the majority of their clones: Gateron, Outemu, Kailh, etc. We’ll get into non-MX switches at a later date.
Let’s get into the common types of lube you’ll see around the community, and what pros and cons they might have. The three most common styles you’ll see are oils, greases, and blends (or mixes), each with multiple options in their genre, and all providing slightly different feels from the last.
Oils are thinner, fluid lubricants, while greases tend to be semi-fluid and much more viscous; think olive oil vs room-tempurature bacon grease, or vegetable shortening, respectively. A blend is exactly what you think it is: a combination of two or more lubes to result in a different product. No matter what realm of the community you go to, you’ll find people that prefer oils, prefer greases, or prefer blends. None of these are necessarily right or wrong choices. It all boils down to personal preference, just like most things in this hobby.
The exact lube you choose can, and ultimately will affect how the finished switches feel. Here are some things I’ve found to be absolute:
The thinner (or less viscous) the lube, the fewer imperfections in the switch will be covered up, though the result will be a slicker and more natural-feeling switch. As in, you feel the lube less, and the natural switch more.
The thicker (or more viscous) the lube, the more imperfections will be covered up, though the result will be a more sluggish, and less natural-feeling switch. As in, you run the risk of feeling the lube more than feeling the naturalness of the switch.
The more lube you use, regardless of type, the more you will feel the lube during use. Of course, the opposite is also true: using less will mean you will feel the lube less.
The attributes of the lube and the methods you use will ultimately affect the sound of your switches and, by extension, your finished keyboard.
Consistency is key, both in lube, technique, and the switches themselves.
The better switches you start with, the better the finished product will be. Lube makes good switch great. It does not make bad switches good. For this reason, I often like to “break in” my switches, before lubing, which just means I like to use them for a couple weeks, if possible.
I know these all sound like really elementary discoveries, and they really are, but they’re still something you must keep in mind when lubing, as something as small and intricate as an MX switch can be somewhat overwhelming and tedious to lube, if you’re not used to it. Even the slightest mistakes or missteps can cause inconsistency or a feeling you might not want at all. Having the proper knowledge and mindset before going in will dramatically increase the odds of you producing a nicer and more consistent finished switch. When it comes to lubing, I subscribe to the theory that less is more. I like when the finished switch is much smoother, but still feels like itself, and not just like lube. It’s very easy to go overboard with lube and use too much, which can result in a sluggish or mushy switch with very little character.
Finally, let’s talk about the sound of lubed switches. Sound has, for better or worse, been an increasing fascination in the community over the last couple of years. For me, this is awesome, because it’s something I’ve long been into. With regards to lube, it will almost always alter the sound of your keyboard. The viscosity and amount you use will directly affect the sound. In general, proper lubing will make the switches sound more precise, and often noticeably quieter. The thicker the lube or the more lube you use, the quieter the switches will be, generally. If you use too much, however, you run the risk of hearing a mushy sound instead, like when you step in slush. For people that prioritize silence, lube is definitely a good “less official” form of silencing.
Part II: Lubing Technique
So now that you have some more knowledge about lube theory, let’s get into the actual act of it. Similar to professional chefs, it’s very helpful to have your mise en place. Basically, have everything you need prepared for use in your immediate area and be aware of it all, so you can utilize everything properly and efficiently, as needed. Here is generally what you will need for a session of lubing switches:
Your desired switches
Your desired lube(s)
Your desired lube applicator (my weapon of choice is a 5/0 Spotter’s point brush)
Your desired method of holding switches (optional - switchmod station, etc)
A clean and open space to work - it’s important to not get dust, dirt, etc into finished switches
More time than you think you’ll need
Tweezers, or something else to hold small switch parts with
Assuming your switches aren’t opened, something to open them with (I like fine-tipped tweezers or this fancy aluminum KiiBOSS tool. If your switches are already in a plate or keyboard that supports switchtop removal, this is a good tool to have.)
To start, open up your switches, if you haven’t already. We’ll start with the bottom housing of the switch, and work our way up, one part at a time, until it’s completed and closed.
This is what my brush looks like after being dipped into lube and wiped off on the side of my bowl, which contains my lube. Unless I’m after a very specifically different feeling, this will be enough to lube everywhere I want on a single switch.
The two inside rails of the bottom housing where the stem/slider move up and down on, will be our first targets. A light coat on each rail is all you need.
Next on our list in the leaf, where the legs of the stem/slider will make contact and actually actuate the switch during use. As you can see, I’m lubing the face of the right side, where it has some curve in it. Apply a light coat to this face on the right, as well as the left. A lot of “scratchiness” comes from this point, during actuation. Note: non-linear switches can suffer a reduction of tactility by lubing this area, so if you’re not using linear switches, you might consider going extra light on the lube here, or not lube this part at all. Experiment until you find what works best for you.
Now that the bottom housing is lubed, let’s move on to the spring. Using tweezers, I hold one end while l lube the spring. I generally just lube the tips of each end, but you might opt to lube the entirety of it. I’ve even seen some enthusiasts that completely dip a spring into knife oil and just let the excess drip off. For me, the ends are good enough.
Place the lubed end into the bottom housing. With that in, it’s easy to lube the other end of the spring.
Finally, we’ll move on to the stem. There are multiple targets for lube here, but my method involves both sides that slide up and down on the rail in the bottom housing, the one we already lubed earlier. Along with those sides, the two “legs” that protrude outward (that touch the leaf during use) are the next major target. Apply a light coat to both of the aforementioned sides, as well as the legs.
At this point, my stems look like this. Note: I have not re-dipped my brush in lube at all during any of this single switch.
Continuing the use of tweezers, place the stem onto the spring and then apply the top housing to complete your lubed switch.
It’s as simple as that! Now that you have hopefully tried my method, please don’t hesitate to try to make it your own. One of the best parts of lubing is there are seemingly infinite styles and theories on what is and is not the best. You’ll only find out what is best if you put in the effort in to try new things.
Thank you so much for reading! This guide will be updated with other switch modifications and types of lubing as time goes on, so don’t hesitate to check back every so often!