Depending on who you ask, mechanical keyboards have any number of benefits. Some people like how long they last, others like the way they feel, and plenty of people claim that their tactile feedback makes them easier to use. For a lot of people, however, much of their appeal comes from customizability. You can buy different keycaps, change their mechanical switches, and in some cases even swap out their USB cables or microcontrollers to get a keyboard that’s tailored to your preferences.
Modifying an existing keyboard will only get you so far, though. For the ultimate bespoke keyboard, you have to build one from scratch. The process won’t be for everyone. The components can be expensive, you’ll need to do a lot of soldering, and there’s every chance you might break something if you’re not careful. But at the end of the process you’ll end up with something that’s completely individual to you and your needs, whether it’s typing, gaming, or some horrific Frankenstein mix of the two (here’s to you Typing of the Dead: Overkill).
This was my first time building a keyboard from scratch, but I’m not a complete beginner. I’ve modified plenty of keyboards in the past. I’ve swapped out numerous keycaps, de-soldered and replaced the switches on a Das Keyboard 4, modified an Apple Extended Keyboard II to work over USB, and I’ve even installed a customizable microcontroller in a Filco Majestouch 2. So I have a pretty good idea of how the assembly of a keyboard works, even if I hadn’t gone through the entire build process before.
It wasn’t too tricky, but if you’re going to try it yourself then you’re going to want to take your time. Some of the steps are a little fiddly, and if you’re not careful then you could end up breaking something that’s not easy to replace. My soldering is by no means great, but I ended up with a functioning keyboard after just a couple of hours of work, and I think most people would be able to achieve the same.
What you need
A keyboard isn’t made up of too many parts, but they’re not something you can just pick up in a store. Even Amazon is a little bit of a stretch. The Chinese retailer AliExpress has a huge selection of parts, but it can be a bit of a Wild West if you don’t know what you’re looking for. So I found it really helpful to look on popular keyboard forums including the Mechanical Keyboards subreddit, GeekHack, and Deskthority to find their recommendations.
The keyboard components will vary based on what kind of keyboard you’re building, but in simple terms, here’s what you’ll need:
- A circuit board (also called a PCB)
- Keyboard switches
- Case and backplate
- USB cable
It sounds simple, but where things get complicated are with the sheer amount of options available. You can get different sizes of keyboards (which means different case and circuit board sizes), different kinds of stabilizers, and differing ways that keyboards mount their switches. Don’t worry, I’ll get into all these options in a little bit.
To put the board together I’ll need little more than a screwdriver, soldering iron (plus accessories like a soldering iron holder and a solder sucker in case you make any mistakes), and solder.
Choosing your parts
When planning out your build, you have an almost bewildering array of options, and it would be impossible to try to list them all here. But these are the most common choices out there, along with some general rules about what might work for you.
The first choice you’ll have to make about your keyboard is its size. There are two main options: full-size keyboards, which include pretty much every key you’d expect, and tenkeyless keyboards, which strip out the numpad. These cover a big chunk of the keyboards you can readily buy from mainstream retailers.
Since you’re going custom, though, you’re able to get into the more niche layouts, which are great if you want a really compact board and don’t mind having to hunt down some keycaps in nonstandard sizes. These boards are often described using percentages — the larger the percentage, the larger the board — and common ones include 60 percent, 65 percent, and 75 percent.
Keyboard layouts are sometimes given in percentages
Once you know which size keyboard you want, you can pick your PCB and case. For my build, I decided to go with a 75 percent board because I think it strikes a nice balance between size and functionality. It’s also very similar to many laptop keyboards, so it feels familiar to me when I switch between a laptop and my desktop.
Your choice of PCB and case will also determine a couple of other features of your keyboard — namely the kind of stabilizers it uses and whether your keyboard is plate-mounted — since both these features are determined by these components.
Stabilizers stop the bigger keys on your keyboard from wobbling, and any key that’s the equivalent width of two letter keys or wider needs one. On a board with an American (aka an ANSI) layout, that typically means you’ll need a stabilizer for the keyboard’s shift keys, its spacebar, backspace, and its enter key. If your keyboard has a numpad, you’ll also need stabilizers for its 0, Enter, and + keys.
There are two main kinds of stabilizers, Costar and Cherry, which sit underneath a keyboard’s bigger keys and stop them from wobbling from side to side when you press them. There are big debates in the keyboard community about which of these are better (some people say that Cherry stabilizers feel mushy and that Costars are rattly), and I won’t try to resolve the debate here. What I will say is that Cherry stabilizers are a little less fiddly when you’re trying to replace keycaps, so I personally tend to prefer them when I have the option.
My choice of PCB and case determined many of my keyboard’s features
Then there’s the choice between a keyboard with plate-mounted or PCB-mounted switches. In a plate-mounted keyboard, the weight of your switches is taken by a metal plate that sits above the PCB, while with a PCB-mounted board your PCB takes all the weight. I’ve found that plate-mounted keyboards can feel more sturdy, but they can be a little harder to work with because it’s harder to remove just a single switch when something goes wrong.
You’ll sometimes see switches referred to as being plate-mounted or PCB-mounted, because the latter will have an extra couple of plastic legs on their bottom for stability in the absence of a plate. However, in reality, the two kinds are a little more flexible. A lot of PCBs designed for a plate-mounted keyboard will still have holes for these plastic legs, and if they don’t you can make a PCB-mount switch fit by simply snapping off these legs with a pair of scissors.
For this build, my choice of stabilizers was made for me by the specific kit I bought, which was plate-mounted and used Cherry stabilizers mounted directly onto the PCB. It came with an aluminum case, which included a transparent acrylic layer in the middle to let the LEDs on the underside of the PCB shine through.
The most significant choice you’ll make while building your keyboard is which switches to use. Switches define how a keyboard feels and sounds, they’re the thing that literally makes it a mechanical keyboard, and there are an almost endless amount of options.
There are plenty of different kinds of mechanical switches generally (including buckling spring, Alps, and Topre), but Cherry MX-style switches are generally what people mean when they refer to a keyboard as being “mechanical,” and they’re what most DIY kits are designed to use.
There are also a huge number of different kinds of Cherry MX switches, each of which takes a different amount of pressure to press and actuates in a different way. Some are clicky, some are smooth, and some sit in between. You’ve got Cherry’s official models (of which the red, brown, and blue variants are the most common), but since the company’s switch patent expired there are also a lot of third-party switches available based on the Cherry MX design.
I’m going with one such switch for this build, a 65g Zealio switch. These Zealios have this really nice tactile bump when you press them, kind of like a Cherry MX clear but without the stiffness and scratchiness. There’s more resistance than a Cherry MX brown, but there’s none of the click of a Cherry MX blue. Personally, I find this design usable for either typing or gaming, making them a good all-around switch for my needs.
Keycaps are a very personal preference
The final choice you’ll have to make with your board are the keycaps. Like the switches, you have a huge amount of choice here, and which ones you go with will ultimately come down to your personal preference about the way they look. That said, there are some general rules which will be helpful to bear in mind, namely what kind of plastic your keyboards are made out of, and how their lettering (or “legends”) are printed.
In terms of materials, your two main options are ABS plastic and PBT plastic. PBT keycaps are generally a bit more resilient, and they won’t wear away and become shiny as easily. The downside is that they tend to be more expensive.
The way a keycap’s legends are printed will have a big impact on how much or how little it wears away over time. Double shot is generally considered to be the gold standard, because the coloring for the legend runs through the keycap, meaning even if the top layer of plastic wears away, the lettering won’t disappear. Dye-sublimation is also good, and is unlikely to wear off anytime soon. Try to avoid laser-etched keycaps if you can. I’ve seen these keycaps start to lose their lettering in as little as a year, and you deserve better. Alternatively, you can avoid these dilemmas by opting for entirely blank keycaps if you’ve completely taken leave of your senses.
I prefer an understated keyboard, so for my build I went with a set of EnjoyPBT 9009 keycaps. What’s important for my build is that this kit came with plenty of non-standard keycap options, which will fit this weird layout. I’ve got a shorter shift key for the right, and the Windows, alt, and function keys to the right of the space bar need to be smaller to accommodate the arrow keys.
Putting it together
It’s a good idea to test that your PCB is working before you solder anything to it. You can do that by using something metallic to connect each switch’s contact pads. Something like a paperclip works just fine. There’s an online keyboard testing tool I like to use, so just plug your PCB in using a USB cable, load up this site, and test each switch position one by one.
How you put your keyboard together is going to depend a lot on the specific parts you’re using, but here’s the method I followed for my specific board.
Take your time while installing your stabilizers
First, I needed to install the stabilizers into the circuit board. Make sure you’re putting them in the right places, since many PCBs will support multiple layouts, meaning there’ll be certain stabilizer holes that you won’t use. For my build I went with a UK layout, meaning it has a shorter left shift key that doesn’t need a stabilizer, and an enter key whose stabilizer is mounted vertically. Because it’s got a 75 percent layout, the right shift key is also a little shorter to accommodate an arrow key to the right. Make sure you know what layout you’re using when you’re installing your stabilizers. It’s not the end of the world if you get it wrong, it’s just quite annoying to have to undo your work.
The Cherry stabilizers used in my build came disassembled, so I had to place a stabilizer stem into each housing, before clipping the metal bar into both sides. It can be a little fiddly, but once you work out which way the stabilizer goes, it’s a simple process to put them together. Then, you take the stabilizer and clip it into its two holes in the PCB.
Next up are the switches, and just like the stabilizers, you’ll need to pay attention to where these are going to make sure that you’re using the right holes for your layout. I found it helpful to test this by preinstalling a keycap onto any switches with multiple placement options, and then guiding it into the right holes. Then you just need to remember which holes to use for the switch.
For my plate-mounted board I needed to place each switch through the plate and into the PCB. Then, once they’re all inserted, you can flip the PCB over and get to soldering.
If you’re new to soldering, then I’d thoroughly recommend watching this YouTube video to get started. Otherwise, here are the basic rules to follow. Apply heat evenly to both the switch’s pin and the electrical contact, and then apply solder so it connects the two. You’re looking for a nice neat cone; don’t use so much that it turns into a dome, but use enough to get a good solid connection between the two. Take your time. If the solder isn’t flowing properly, then don’t continue to apply loads of heat because you could break something. Take a moment to let things cool down, re-adjust, and try again.
With all the switches soldered on, it’s time to assemble the case. Again, this will vary based on your components, but for me the process was to unscrew the two halves of the case, screw the PCB to the bottom of the case, and then reassemble the case with the circuit board and acrylic installed within.
Finally, you can install your keycaps. This is probably the easiest part of the build, and it’s only time-consuming by virtue of how many keys there are. Just line up each key with its switch, and press down.
Be sure to test your keyboard once everything is soldered in
Now that the keyboard is assembled, it’s time to plug it in. There are some amazing custom braided USB cables out there, but in my case I just went with a fairly traditional USB cable. My particular PCB uses a Mini USB cable, but depending on what you get, yours might support Micro USB or even USB Type-C. I like to check that everything’s working using the same online keyboard testing tool I used at the beginning of the build, but you’ll realize pretty quickly if anything’s not working the way it should.
If your keyboard supports it, now is a great time to customize its layout. The process works differently on every board though, so honestly this one’s on you. I wouldn’t do anything crazy like swapping around the letter keys, but you might want to change around keys like Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down depending on what you use most on a regular basis. This process differs for basically every keyboard, so you’ll have to refer to your manufacturer’s instructions for the best way to go about doing it.
There are exceptions, but for the most part technology gets better and better every single year. Screens get higher resolution, battery life gets longer, GPUs get faster, voice assistants get smarter, but besides fancier flashing lights and maybe macro keys, keyboards from the early ‘90s are almost as functional today as they were back then. If you’re talking about mechanical keyboards made with Cherry MX switches, then you’re talking about a design that fundamentally hasn’t changed much since the early eighties.
Good keyboard design is timeless, and if you can resist the lure of becoming a bona fide keyboard collector then the right model can last you for the rest of your life. At the very least it will outlast every computer you plug it into. That’s what I find so appealing about building your own; you can tailor something perfectly to your needs, without worrying that it’ll become outdated in a couple of years’ time.
It’s not for everyone, but if you’re far enough down the mechanical keyboard hole, then building your own is the final step in following this hobby through.
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