An intro to mechanical keyboards: my journey into the shallow end of a deep pool

I discover a new hobby and get sucked into the deep, deep hole of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts. 

If you’re new to the scene, this might help you understand…or scare you away.

Why buy when you can build? And other questions normal people never ask

You can buy anything you need ready-made. Bookshelves, speakers, desks, planters, clothing, computers…even food. You don’t have to lift a finger for any of it if you don’t want to. But save for clothing, at one point or another I’ve crafted all of those things myself.

There’s certainly something to be said for the convenience of an economically and industrially mature society. There’s also something to be said for crafting a product exactly how you want it, and the satisfaction of having built something with your own hands. (To some extent, anyway — I’m not out there sawing down trees every time I build a desk.) For some, selecting the components and building something to be just how you want it is really satisfying. Also, anything that requires lots of research and planning appeals to my mildly obsessive nature. (Cue wife rolling her eyes knowingly.)

It’s a mix of creativity and practicality; of imagination and feasibility. You have to have enough vision to dream it up, and the skills to execute. This mix of art and science is probably why I love cooking sans recipes. And since I spend my professional life creating non-tangible things (software), my hobbies tend to gravitate toward the physical as a means of flexing different mental muscles.

These hobbies also require carving out time. People who know me might be surprised I do this kind of thing; I have two young kids, a very busy job leading the engineering arm of a software startup, a wife who also works (sometimes on the weekends while I solo parent), a house to maintain…a social life correspondingly constrained by the above…so spare time is hard to come by. But I’d say the requirement to make some time for myself to focus is also why I enjoy these hobbies.

So that’s the backdrop for how I wound up building a keyboard that cost much more time and money than just buying one off the shelf. Much, much more. But what’s the first rule of Fight Club? You don’t talk about Fight Club.

Before we talk about the build itself (in another post), I’m going to sum up what I’ve learned over the past couple months of diving into this world of PC peripheral snobs connoisseurs. This is not deep or comprehensive — it’s an orientation. It’s the overview I wish I had when I first started jumping in.

What’s a mechanical keyboard?

Blue “clicky” style switches

There are many articles on this, so I’m not going to rehash this in detail. But in short, if you don’t know what a mechanical keyboard is, you’ve probably never used one — at least not in a very long time. Back in the day (like the 1980s) most keyboards were mechanical, but now most cheap keyboards are of the membrane type. Membrane is by and large the most common keyboard type today — they’re cheaper to build and more physically compact (so they fit in laptops).

Compared to membrane keyboards, mechanical keyboards tend to have the following properties:

  • More durable and longer lasting
  • Better feel (results in faster/more accurate typing)
  • Often louder (depends on the switches; some can be almost as quiet as membrane)

It’s a bit hard to explain, but if you spend a lot of time at a computer (as I do) it results in a better overall experience compared to a cheap membrane keyboard. If you want to get into the details, check out this article on Toms Hardware.

Maybe you’ve never even thought about the “feel” as you type; maybe you’re unlikely to care. That’s fine. To some people, cars are primarily an appliance to get from one spot to another and they barely care what kind they have as long as it runs. Others are incredibly passionate about them. It’s the same with many things including, as it turns out, keyboards. If you’re the kind of person who appreciates details and good tools, you might like mechanical keyboards. Just like someone who does carpentry all day probably doesn’t want the cheapest saw around, some people who work on computers all day want a really good keyboard.

Getting sucked in

A few months ago I decided I needed a new keyboard. I had been using an old Apple one for a long time, and aside from getting a bit iffy (some loose and sticking keys) it just didn’t fit the aesthetic or mission of my new home workstation: I swapped my iMac for a gaming PC that I had built myself.

I had seen a lot of people praising mechanical keyboards, so I read some of those articles, hung out at /r/mechanicalkeyboards, and decided to give it a shot. Initially I was looking at mainstream brands like the Logitech G line or Cooler Master, but decided against those because during my research I found the really knowledgeable keyboard people were, at best, ambivalent about the mainstream brands (“they’re ok”) or trashed them outright. Logitech in particular got a lot of bashing because they invented their own key switch (the part under the keycap that moves up and down) that is incompatible with the “Cherry MX-style” industry standard switch — making replacing parts or customizing keycaps harder.

I learned that you can certainly buy very good mechanical keyboards. Leopold and Ducky are two brands that are routinely recommended by the community. And if you don’t want to build one, you should get one of those and you’ll probably be happy. I actually bought a Massdrop CTRL as my first mech, which is a perfectly fine keyboard, but I decided it didn’t suit me.

The more I dug, the more I learned that this was a world with a lot of choices. What switches do you want: linear, tactile, clicky, quiet, heavy, light? What form factor: full size, TKL (ten keyless, e.g. no number pad), 75%, 65%, 60%? How about the keycaps: low profile, high profile, flat, sculpted, ABS plastic, PBT plastic…those are the main ones, but it goes on and on. If you buy, your choices (specifically the combinations of those choices) are somewhat limited. If you build…the sky (and your wallet) is the limit.

Decision Paralysis
Source: XKCD

It was a perfect storm. My OCD said, “Oooh neat! Something I can obsess over!” My creative side saw an opportunity to craft a product to my own preferences, and my builder self looked forward to constructing something with my own hands.

And the side of me that can talk myself into anything thought, “If you’re going to spend ~$100-150 on a really nice keyboard, why not just spend a little bit more and make one exactly the way you want it?”

“A little bit more”…yeah. Remember: first rule of Fight Club.

Choosing the ingredients

Size/Form Factor

The decision that influences all the others is what size (form factor) and layout you want your keyboard to have. While there are many variations — especially once you get into really custom builds — there are five relatively common sizes which cover the majority of people’s needs/styles.

Full size

A full-size keyboard

You’re all familiar with this one. It’s the traditional keyboard with a number pad and a row of 12 function keys along the top. Almost every non-laptop keyboard you’ve ever seen is this layout.

TKL (Ten KeyLess)

TKL Keyboard

A TKL layout is just a full size without the number pad. This is a great option if you don’t do a lot of data entry and want to clear up some desk space.

75%

A common 75% layout

At 75% things get a little less standardized. Details vary, but a 75% keyboard generally integrates the “navigation cluster” — arrow keys and home/end/page up/page down/delete/insert — tightly into the right edge of the board, resulting in a short right shift. This further reduces the footprint, but still keeps the function row above the number keys.

65%

One example of 65% layout

Now things are getting interesting. Again, there’s no standard for this, but on 65% keyboards you have round 66 to 68 keys. You lose the top row of dedicated function keys — the F1, F2, etc keys are now only accessible by a “layer”, through a key combination (holding “Fn” and pressing “1” for “F1”, etc). There are still dedicated arrow keys, but only three or four of the navigation cluster make the trip (the exact ones by personal preference), tucked along the right edge.

Spoiler alert: for me, this is the perfect form factor. I almost never use the function keys, so I don’t mind that they’re under a layer, and I don’t need a num pad. But I still like to have my arrow keys and page up/page down.

60%

A 60% keyboard with a “Pok3r” style layout, showing off some nice custom touches like a wooden case and colored accent keys

Now we arrive at the form factor that is probably the most common in the mechanical keyboard enthusiast community. 60% takes up very little desk space, and eschews everything except for the alphanumerics and the modifier keys immediately around them.

Many keys on a 60% are accessed through a function layer, most notably the arrows. Although it’s possible to squeeze dedicated arrow keys onto a 60%, most don’t have them. It involves significant sacrifices (having a 1-unit wide right shift, and scooting the entire bottom alpha row a touch to the left, which is tough for some to get used to) and can be harder to get the right keycaps for unless you buy a lot of redundant kits.

Switches

Other than the layout, the choice that will most impact your day to day use of the keyboard is the switches — the bits that move up and down as you press the keys. When people refer to “mechanical keyboards,” this is really the part they’re talking about.

Image result for cherry mx switches
The action of a Cherry MX blue “clicky” switch

The subject of switches could probably fill a book. People get very serious about these; I’m barely going to scratch the surface here. But essentially, the switch is the biggest factor determining how the keyboard feels to type on. Switch design governs:

  • Tactility (how bumpy or smooth the switch’s motion is)
  • Sound
  • Actuation point (how far you press before it activates)
  • Actuation force (how hard you have to press the switch to move it)

For a long time, Cherry MX (a product by German company Cherry) was the de facto standard — they designed one of the first mechanical switches for keyboards, patented it, and dominated the market. That patent expired relatively recently, which led to numerous other companies offering their own take on the design and, in part, contributed to the rise of building keyboards as a hobby. The majority of these other companies are producing “Cherry MX compatible” switches, meaning their pin layout (for circuit boards) and stem mount (where the keycaps go on) are standardized.

Switches are generally classified into three broad categories that define its overall behavior:

  • Linear — keystroke is consistent and smooth
  • Tactile — keystroke has a “bump” during travel, near actuation point
  • Clicky — tactile, plus a loud “click” sound

Switch models are mostly identified by a color. What the colors mean vary by company, and there are a huge amount of variants out there now, but lots of people draw comparisons back to the core Cherry MX product line. So here’s the basics:

StyleBehaviorActuation forceSound level
Cherry MX RedLinear45g (light)Quiet
Cherry MX BlackLinear60g (moderate)Quiet
Cherry MX BrownTactile45gQuiet
Cherry MX BlueClicky60gLoud

Again, those are just the basics — there are literally hundreds of models of switches out there now, from at least a half dozen major companies. Most enthusiasts don’t even use genuine Cherry switches anymore, usually opting for something from Gateron, Aliaz, Zeal, or Kailh.

It’s also worth nothing that even non-clicky switches classified as “quiet” are still going to be substantially louder than your average membrane keyboard. For that reason, several companies have also produced so-called “silent” versions of their switches that substantially reduce noise at a small cost of tactility. If you’re working in a shared office, keeping your clacking to a minimum may be important. Also, there are other factors that affect the sound level — namely case design and keycap thickness.

PCB and Case

While the switch industry is fairly standardized, things get a little more wild west when it comes to picking out a PCB (printed circuit board) and case. For that reason, the selection of a case and PCB are usually very intertwined. While in the 60% world there is a decent amount of interchangeability (you can put many PCBs in many different cases), that’s a little less true in in 65%, 75%, and TKL land. It’s far from guaranteed that every PCB will work in every case.

So most niche vendors who sell parts to keyboard enthusiasts will sell kits that match up a PCB, case, and mounting plate (what the switches snap into) so you don’t have to worry about compatibility. One of my favorite vendors, KBDfans.cn, has a bunch of these kits.

The Tada68 kit from KBDfans.cn: mounting place, PCB, and plastic case

The selection of a case, as it turns out, is more than an aesthetic decision. Aesthetics is a big part of it, sure, but the case material also contributes greatly to the overall experience. For example, plastic cases are inexpensive (and better if you’re doing a rare wireless build, so they don’t block the Bluetooth signals), but aluminum cases are much heavier, generally feel more solid to type on, and don’t slide around on your desk as much.

When it comes to PCBs, there isn’t a huge amount of variance once you pick your size (60%, 65%, etc). Most PCBs support a variety of layouts (variations in the key arrangement). This is accomplished by having lots of possible holes to mount the switches that can be utilized in different combinations. One of the most popular 60% boards, the DZ60, has a huge variety of possible key layouts (mostly variants of the bottom row):

KBDfans

The most important consideration is to choose the PCB and case combination that supports the layout you want. After that, other attributes to consider include connection type (typically USB Mini or USB C), LED support, and programming ability. Most enthusiast boards support programming; the most popular method is with a framework called QMK. It allows you to assign any key to any function you want, and to setup your layers. But that’s a subject for another post.

Keycaps

The final major component involved with designing your ideal keyboard is the keycaps. This is really where the majority of personalization comes in for most people; not only are they the most visible component (aside from maybe the case), but their profile and construction affect the typing feel and sound.

Profile refers to what you’d expect — the profile shape of the keys when viewed from the side. There are a half dozen or so common profiles. I found this image a long time ago on Aliexpress that I saved for reference:

Key profile comparison

This is a good quick reference but not comprehensive. Notably, of all those profiles, only the XDA and DSA are uniform height and shape across all their rows. You see a hint of this above, in that the leftmost keycap is labeled “SA” while the one next to it is “SA Row 3”. That’s because SA — like OEM, Cherry, and DCS — varies height and shape from row to row. That means that for those profiles, the keys are not interchangeable between rows unless you’re OK having mismatched heights.

To see what I mean, take a look at one of my keyboards that is Cherry profile (probably the most common):

Cherry profile keys

You can see that from row to row, the keys are not uniform. This means they’re not really interchangeable, and you have to keep the keys on the rows they were designed to be in originally.

Now compare that to the DSA keys I used on my first custom build:

DSA profile keys

The DSA profile is uniform from row to row. This makes it easier to move keys around to customize your layout to your liking, a common practice on smaller boards. Also, DSA keys have a lower overall height than Cherry, and are much lower than SA. I prefer the lower profile. Some like the look of SA keys, but find them uncomfortable to type on. But it all comes down to personal preference.

Where to get this stuff?

Ha, good luck. Part of the pain wonder of the custom keyboard world is that it is niche, and not all of the most desirable parts are always available. However, with the hobby gaining significant traction in the past 4-5 years, there are some established shops that try to keep the most popular items in stock. Some of the ones I frequent:

There are numerous smaller shops too but those are the ones I personally use and see most often mentioned in the community.

We’re in the shallow end of the pool

As I’ve said, this post barely scratches the surface.

For instance, we haven’t covered:

  • Switch mount styles: plate/PCB, soldering vs hot-swap sockets
  • Switch lubing (yeah…that’s a thing)
  • Stabilizers
  • Firmware programming
  • Lighting
  • Cables
  • The pain of group buys

If it piques your interest and you think you might want to build a keyboard…you might want to make the rounds at the popular community sites.

Image result for we have to go deeper

Great community resources include:

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you…two months ago I thought these people were nuts. Now I’m one of them.

If you have questions, post them below. Stay tuned for the details on my first keyboard build!

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