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How to Build A Keyboard (no soldering!)

So, you have become a keyboard "enthusiast". You might have a few keyboards that you like, but none meet all your requirements. You have an idea of what your favorite kind of switches are, whether that be a sensitive linear switch, or maybe a heavy tactile. Either way, everyone is different, and that's why building a keyboard is useful and also super fun. In this article, we'll be detailing budget, what materials you need, some interesting modifications you can do, and lastly how to put everything together. Enjoy!


Layout

Firstly, you should choose which layout you want for your keyboard. I recommend the 60% layout (numpad, fn keys, arrow keys, function keys all removed) because it saves lots of space on your desk, but more importantly it is the most common layout for keyboard building and therefore you will have the best variety and price on your parts. Since keyboard building is not as big an industry as PC building, parts often go out of stock. Some other popular compact layouts are 75% (numpad removed, function/arrow keys compacted) and, of course, "tenkeyless" (numpad removed).


The DIERYAxKEMOVE DK61 is a 60% keyboard

Materials

Unlike PC building, it is generally more expensive to build your own keyboard than to buy a prebuilt. For a super nice keyboard, it can actually get extremely pricey, so if you are serious about building your own keyboard, be sure to have some serious cash on hand as well.



PCB

This is like the motherboard of a keyboard. On this sheet of silicon, there will be rectangles denoting where each switch will go, as well as 3 or 5 holes for plugging the switch in. Switches can be either 3 or 5 pin. Most PCBs will have 5 pin slots, allowing for both 3 and 5 pin switches, but on 3 pin PCBs you can cut off two of the pins on each switch as those extra pins are for stability and not data transfer. Some PCBs will also include LEDs on each rectangle for RGB lighting. If you want your keyboard to be wireless, you can buy a bluetooth PCB, but we do not recommend this as you will have to buy a specialized case as well, and bluetooth is not very reliable in general. Lastly, PCBs will have a USB port somewhere on the side, because that will be how you connect the keyboard to your computer. The PCB is arguably the most important part of a keyboard.


A 60% brass top plate

Top Plate

The top plate is a protective layer for your keyboard. Your switches actually must be plugged in through the top plate into the PCB. This top plate is great for stability and also keeps dust and other such nasties out of the PCB. See those holes in the top plate? That's where you screw the top plate through the PCB into the case below.



Case

The case is the bottom of your keyboard, and is what protects everything inside. It has standoffs for screwing in the top plate. Your case should match your top plate as well as your keycaps for a unified aesthetic. For cases, there are three variants you can choose from: plastic, acrylic, and aluminum. Aluminum will be quite heavy, but extremely durable. Plastic is super cheap and also is great for travel keyboard. Acrylic is mainly used for boards with aggressive RGB lighting as light can shine through it easily, and looks great when the acrylic is "frosted", or slightly opaque. However, there are also some other options if you wish including wooden and bamboo cases. These are for people who need that kind of case to fit in with the theme of their overall setup.



Stabilizers

Stabilizers, or "stabs" as they are known in the enthusiast community, are a critical part of the typing experience. Since there is only one switch for each key, big keys such as backspace or space would normally become very wobbly. Stabilizers ensure that no matter where the key is pressed, the whole thing will go down evenly. Stabilizers can either screw in or clip in to the PCB. Lastly, make sure you get a stabilizer set for your layout of keyboard, as getting the wrong layout of stabs could make you end up with too much or too little, or in some cases have the wrong size (for example, the right shift key is shortened on a 75% layout).



Switches

Although there are a lot of cool things about keyboards, the main reason most build a keyboard is the typing experience. And there is nothing, not well-lubed stabs, not soft-touch keycaps, not even RGB lighting, that affects your typing experience and performance more than the switches. A lot of thought should go into your switch choice. What do you use the keyboard for? Do you like loud clicks, or are they annoying? Are you a streamer, or do you work at night? Would you prefer an extremely sensitive switch, or do you like some weight behind them? These are questions you should decide for yourself. When looking for switches, remember that the three main variants are tactile, linear, and clicky. Also, although many switches are compatible with each other, there are some that are not. For example, most Kailh and Cherry switches are compatible, but Cherry and Outemu switches are not. You MUST research what kind of switches your PCB is compatible with before buying. The most reputable and common switch producers are Kailh, Drop, Cherry, Outemu, Gateron, and Zealios. If you want a basic guide to mechanical switches, click here.


The fiery Drop+Redsuns Samurai Keycap set.

Keycaps

There's not too much to say about keycaps. The main thing in terms of quality is making sure the keycaps are PBT and not ABS, as this will make them higher quality. Other than that, keycaps are mainly cosmetic, and if you can find a set that matches your theme it will add a lot to the aesthetic of your keyboard. Some keycaps can also be rubber, which makes them softer. Again, this is your preference.


A braided and coiled USB-C to USB-A cable

Cable

You will also need a cable for your keyboard. Most keyboards use a generic, stiff rubber cable, but you can do better than that! You could get a coiled and braided cable, or an awesome retractable USB cable to save space. Space Cables is the most premium manufacturer of cables, but unfortunately all of their cables are limited edition, so you have to buy at the right time to get your favorite one. Additionally, if you can get a cable that matches the theme of your setup, this can also add a lot to the aesthetic.


Tools and Other Materials

You'll need some specialized tools for building a keyboard: a switch puller and a keycap puller. Both of these are very affordable on Amazon. If you want to apply lubricant and make your typing silkier (keep in mind, not everyone wants this!), you should purchase some Krytox Grease or dielectric grease and you need a tiny paintbrush. Other than that, all you need is a small Philips Head screwdriver.


Pricing

I've said it before and I'll say it again: building your own keyboard is an expensive undertaking. Probably $90 at the least and it can get up to $600 or more if you use the nicest components. Prices are for 60% keyboards, and won't vary too much across sizes. The most complete store for keyboard components is KBDfans, however you can definitely get some parts on Amazon as well. Lastly, you can also buy kits that come with multiple parts at a discount.

PCB

PCBs are pretty cheap; you can get one 60% with USB-C and RGB. Make sure to get one compatible with your switches!

Top Plate

Additionally, top plates are inexpensive, with an aluminum one costing $15-$30. You can also get rarer top plates in carbon fiber, polycarbonate, and brass. You're probably not going to find a case on Amazon, so I recommend kbdfans.

Case

The price of your case varies hugely based on material, and just in general. You can get an adequate plastic case for $15-$25, a bamboo/acrylic/wooden one might be around $50, and an aluminum case could be anywhere from $50-$150. Really nice cases can cost up to $250, like the Grid 600 case.

Stabilizers

These are super cheap and will only cost $20 at most.

Switches

The price of your switches will vary a lot depending on which type and brand you get. However, I would not recommend paying over $1 per switch, which is how much Cherry charges. You can get a 65-pack of excellent Kailh box switches for just $35.

Keycaps

The price of keycaps can fluctuate a lot, but the least amount you'd have to pay for PBT keycaps is $20 and the most could be $100.

Cable

This should not be more than $20, $30 if you have one from Space Cables.

Tools

Lube is $20 at most for a tube, keycap puller and switch puller are $10 each at most, although in the tools section I included a link to a $5 keycap/switch puller hybrid. Hopefully you have a paintbrush at home but if not you can find a pack for $10.


Modifications

The assembly of a keyboard can be fairly painless, but some modifications can take long amounts of time. If you want to lube your stabs and switches, expect upwards of 5 hours of work (depends on how used to building keyboards you are). Lubing switches is very hard to explain in words, but here is an excellent video by keyboard connoisseur Taeha Types. The other modification you can do is the band-aid mod. Get some adhesive medical tape, and cut it into strips the width of your stabilizers. Stick it onto the PCB below where the stabilizers should be, then put the stabilizers on. The purpose of this is making your stabilizers less rattly. Lastly, you can lube your stabilizers. Take out the metal wire, dip the ends in your lube of choice, then snap them back in.


Assembly

If you want to lube your switches or stabs, do that first. Then, screw or clip in your stabilizers, applying a bandage first to the PCB if you want to band-aid mod your keyboard. Take your top plate, and snap 7 or so switches in, evenly spread out about the plate. Line up the pins on the switches with the holes in the PCB, then push all the switches in. These switches will hold the top plate in place while you add in the rest of the switches. The top plate should not be touching the PCB, but parallel. Put the rest of the switches in once this is done. Now that the inner workings of the keyboard are assembled, slide it into the case (unscrew the screws in the case first if they came screwed in), making sure to be careful of the USB port and making sure it fits with the case's USB port hole perfectly. The standoffs in the case should also now line up with the holes in both the PCB and top plate. Screw them both in with the screws included with the case. Put on the keycaps, plug in the USB cable, and you're done! Congratulations!




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