custom keyboardcustom keyboard

How to make a custom keyboard

Learn how to build your own DIY keyboard for gaming and typing on your PC, with your choice of keycaps, mechanical switches, PCB, and case.

In this guide, we will show you how to create a custom keyboard. Instead of relying on pre-made models, creating your own custom keyboard gives you endless customization options and options, as well as the ability to create a device that provides a premium typing experience.

I’m writing this feature on a keyboard that no standard keyboard can replicate in terms of feel, sound and overall typing experience, and of course the overall design is unique. You can optimize your custom keyboard design for any typing task, including creating a DIY gaming keyboard or custom typing keyboard, or you can experiment with non-standard keyboard layouts to improve your typing speed or avoid repetitive strain injuries.

Having built 22 custom keyboards over the years, I can say I’m in touch. It’s definitely fun, but being able to create a unique keyboard that you’ve designed and listen to is a huge draw. Be careful, you only have to build one.

Make a custom keyboard – the group buy

Because creating custom keyboards is still a specialized hobby, parts are not generally produced. Equipment is manufactured in small volumes and is often purchased in so-called unit purchases (GB). This is where the designer will come up with an idea for the keyboard or keycap in a process called IC (IC). If enough people show that they will be willing to pay for it, GB is created, so that people can put their money and the developer can order, without enough money. The designer works with the manufacturer to bring their ideas to production.

This is usually a long and expensive process, but there are stores that sell other custom keyboard parts, and some key sets are easy to get without long delivery times or breaking the bank.

Likewise, buying standard Cherry MX switches is easy and you can get a free keyboard with a base and switches but without keycaps. It’s just that the end result won’t be personalized or premium-like. Considering the cost of purchasing individual equipment versus participating in a group purchase, this can be expensive.

Those same keyboards cost up to $750 fully built, and that’s about the kind of price you might expect from a limited-edition keyboard made by manufacturers like Smith and Rune, ProtoTypist, and LifeZone. Some manufacturers offer discounts on large quantities, but this is rare: the price is often determined by scarcity and quality.

For where to find more information and get those GBs, Geekhack is your friend. This is a site where producers publish their interest surveys for feedback during the design process, then their group buys comments if everything goes well. Check out the custom Reddit community keyboard.

Which custom keyboard cases, weights, and plates to use

A traditional keyboard consists of six main components: keys, key switches, stabilizers, PCB, switch plate, and case. We’ll get to the first four in due course, but the last two form the basis of your custom keyboard layout.

The switch plate is, as the name suggests, the middle plate on which the keyboard switch is mounted. The plate will offer either a fixed key layout or some variations, so you can choose the layout that suits you best.

For example, on the keyboard I’m currently using, the plate supports a handful of possible configurations, including US ANSI and UK ISO configurations.

Usually this plate is a separate physical part from the one it is mounted on, but sometimes the plate is embedded in the surface of the keyboard as a single piece.

It may be easier to work with a built-in plate, but a separate plate is more flexible. Regardless of the type of board used, many custom keyboards are sold as cases, switch plates, and PCB kits.

When it comes to general keyboard sizes, there are some common sizes, such as 60, 65, 75, and 80% (often called TKL) and full size (sometimes called 1800), they all refer to size. of wood compared to a full 105 key.

There are no absolute standards though, so check carefully what you want. In the same way, for key design, there are some standards, such as US ANSI or UK ISO, but the manufacturers can and play fast and have fun with them, and there many esoteric variations, such as the ortho-linear configuration. in harmony with each other.

The choice of layout depends on how you plan to use your keyboard and how you maximize your workspace. I prefer small boards at 60 and 65% because they allow room for a trackpad or mouse, and because I don’t need numbers or F lines.

However, after trying a bunch of 60 percent cards, where you only get alphabet keys and variable items, my interest changed to 65 percent cards. Having a bunch of handy arrows, and other keys (Del, PgUp, PgDn, Home, End) are useful both on their own and for other work charts.

Besides the arrangement, the utensils and dishes are important. Plates made of hard metals, such as copper, will be very hard when tapped, and will have a different sound than aluminum. Non-metallic materials are also becoming common for plates, including carbon fiber and some thermoplastics. The entire keyboard case can be made from medium polycarbonates or dyes.

High-end keyboards also have internal weights to give them some weight and prevent them from moving around on your desk as you type, affecting the sound of the wood. And even though you don’t look at the bottom of the keyboard, designers often use heavy materials to provide hidden external details.

The most common design for a traditional keyboard, called a mount, involves placing a switch plate on top of it and connecting the bottom of the case to the assembly, but there are many variations. The most complex climb in entertainment today is a variety.

They use an insulating material that surrounds the plate and suspends it well in the case, so when you write, the noise is not transferred to the case as much and the impact is reduced.

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Which custom keyboard PCB to use

Next on our shopping list is a custom keyboard PCB, which is there to take input from your switch and convert it into something your computer can understand.

Although you can get housing and switch plates to fit different PCBs – and vice versa – PCBs usually come with housings and plates, creating a complete kit that you’ll need to get an adapter. for. , switches and keys to complete. If you buy separately, you can expect to pay more than $25, with some high-end PCBs costing twice as much.

Most PCBs, or at least most designs made outside of Japan and China, are programmable and use open source keyboard firmware called QMK. QMK supports several embedded microcontrollers that read signals from switches when you press them, calculate how long you pressed and convert that information into a USB Human Interface Device (HID) signal.

Some PCBs have built-in lights, which you can also make things from QMK, and work and change with a combination of keys and wood. Some PCBs also have key components that you can solder yourself, including built-in LEDs that light up under the keys.

There are a variety of options here, from a handful of single-color LEDs to well-integrated, variable RGB lights. The last thing to consider about the PCB is whether or not you want to solder the lights.

Most of the PCBs require trading, but if you are not comfortable with trading, there are also hot-swappable PCBs with switchable holes. They are easy to assemble, but they are usually more expensive and cannot accommodate many structural changes.

Which keyboard switch to use

The world of custom keyboards is almost entirely made up of Cherry MX compatible switches, and most keyboards and keyboards sold today support them. Many PC companies such as Logitech, Razer, and SteelSeries have made their own gaming machines, but you won’t see them used in the traditional market.

However, there is also niche support for high-end rubber dome switches from a Japanese company called Topre, used in pre-built keyboards such as PFU, Leopold, and Realforce.

There is also a small niche for boards that accept Alps switches, but since these changes are not made and you have to extract them from old boards, it is not a good place to start.

The selection of Cherry MX compatible switches has also exploded, especially in the last year. There are a growing number of companies other than Cherry that make MX switches in all kinds of plastic and spring styles and you’d make the Cherry line seem boring.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the traditional keyboard community has completely abandoned cherry switches, although in fact their ready availability makes them a good starting point for beginners.

When it comes to style, there are three main types of keyboard switches: linear, tactile, and clickable. Linears don’t have any tactile feedback of any kind on the shift travel, other than when you turn off the ignition.

The touchpads make a hand noise when you pass a point on the switch before exiting. This is usually where the switch works so that you can get feedback that you press hard enough to activate the key without making it appear. Clicky switches are also tactile in nature, but touch programs also have an audible click.

There are three things to consider for a spring: the amount of force needed to turn the switch, the amount of force needed to go down, and the increase in water hardness as you turn it on.

Each of these characteristics affects the effect of the switch, so that you can buy a tester, to try anywhere from a handful to around 100 different types of switches, to see the best like you.

Exchanges cost between $0.20 and $1.50 each, depending on availability. Some switches have reached meme status, usually when a popular decker creates a card for a high-ranked player to use.

A strong part of the community also likes to create Frankenswitches (two examples above), using parts from two or more switches to create a new one.

It is very difficult to know if some hybrid switches are really better than a product switch, but some hybrids appear with enough exposure that you can tell they have something to do.

Sacred Pandas is the canonical example, taking the tactile stick of one switch and using it with the house, water, and blade of the other. These are the highest quality touchscreens ever made.

Which custom keyboard keycaps to use

Keyboard is the starting point for many keyboard enthusiasts. All it takes to customize a typical MX-switched keyboard is to remove the keycaps and buy a compatible replacement.

There are great colors, styles, legends (alphabets/alphabets), and building materials, making it fun to play with just this part of the custom keyboard.

Besides the concept of style, the type of plastic and the production process are important factors, as different types of plastic wear differently during the production process, which can determine how long the keycap story will be good.

The most obvious thing is what happens with the double PBT cover, which uses a strong, resistant PBT plastic (compared to ABS) and is molded twice (double layered) so that the news is not painted. is in the hat instead of being created. from plastic with a second color that extends the depth of the cap, so that it does not get old.

Plastics are still the best choice for key covers due to their light weight and ease of molding, but some manufacturers have tried to create smaller volumes with other materials, including metal. The last aspect to consider when it comes to keys is their profile or shape.

The most common are the Cherry profile keys, which are found on many pre-built boards, and most of the keyboard purchases are also found in this profile. However, cherry profile keys are shorter in height (compared to other key profiles) and they are made of less plastic, so they are lighter and thinner, which affects their sound.

Instead, many keyboard manufacturers prefer larger key profiles. The MT3 and KAT profile keycaps are my favorites because they have a higher profile than the cherry keycaps and are smaller than the cherry profile, so they sound different.

If you want to see what kind of plans and profiles are out there, check out Keycap’s calendar.

Custom keyboard stabilizer options

Most keys connect to the bottom switch through a storage space in the middle of the cap, which is suitable for single-width (1U) key switches.

However, for larger keys, such as normal width Backspace (2U), ISO installation and especially open space (usually 6U+), a stable system is required. Without a stabilizer, the switch will vibrate a lot, and if you press in the center, the switch may not work.

Stabilizers hold the end of the cap and hold the rod connected to the wire, so the assembly moves with the switch when you turn on the cap. This helps the long hat feel more stable and allows you to take them out of the middle without any problems.

Stabilizers take two main forms: Plate mount and PCB mount.

How to make a custom keyboard: Space 65

Plate stabilizers are more common on pre-made boards than custom boards, but you’ll find them on custom boards as well. They are not as stable as PCB mounts due to the poor quality clips that are often used to mount them. PCB mount stabilizers are usually mounted on the PCB and the PCB from below, allowing for greater stability.

Since the stabilizers are just a few pieces of plastic and some wire, they are relatively cheap, at around $4 for 2U and $5 for the longest ones for open space. That said, some vendors sell stabilizer adapters that are considered by locals to be superior, and cost more.

Build your custom keyboard

1. Test the custom keyboard PCB

How to make a custom keyboard: Test PCB
As soldering is hard to reverse, always test your PCB first. Plug it in to your PC using a USB cable, then short each switch by touching the two switch pads with a pair of tweezers to see if the switch activates. Using a program such as Switch Hitter will let you also see if the keys that don’t print anything, such as the Shift keys, are also working properly. It happens rarely, but it pays to be careful. The suo PCB by TX Keyboards was my choice for this build. It supports in-switch and underglow LEDs, and is compatible with the HJ75 kit.

2. Fit stabilizers to your custom keyboard

How to make a custom keyboard: Fit Stabilizers
Next, you need to attach the stabilizers to the PCB for all of the keys that need them. On a UK ISO build without a numpad, that’s usually two 2U stabilizers for backspace and enter, and one 6.25U stabilizer for the space bar, but double-check the layout you want to build to be sure. Push your stabilizers into the right mounting holes on the board and screw them to the PCB through the bottom with the provided screws.

3. Mount your switches on the plate and PCB

How to make a custom keyboard: Mount switches
The next step is getting all of the switches into the switch plate and pushed into the PCB. Some plates are tight due to the fine machining tolerances, so don’t be afraid to apply a fair amount of pressure, to make sure your switch is securely planted. Make sure the metal legs on each switch are straight before you push them, to minimize the chance of bending them.

Start with the corner switches and a few in the middle, to ensure the plate and PCB are aligned and nicely anchored. This should mean the rest of the switches slide into place easily, reducing the chance of any pinch points. You can choose to solder those initial switches, if you’re comfortable they’re perfectly in position.

Something to look out for when fitting the switches is that mounting points may be ambiguous on plates or PCBs that support different layouts. In such situations, the trick is to fit the required keycaps onto the offending switch and its neighbors and use those as a guide on where exactly to affix the switch. This scenario is especially common on the bottom row where it’s most common for people to tinker with the space bar size and key layout.

When you have all of your switches in place and you’re happy that they’re snugly in place, lift up the whole assembly and eyeball that everything is lined up perfectly, and that all of the switch legs are through their holes and that none of them is bent. Making sure switches are flush to the plate and against the PCB is the most important job when building your board.

For this build I chose the TX Keyboards HJ75 case and switchplate kit, which is a 75 percent size layout and includes the aluminum top, and several clear acrylic plates. I also used C3 Tangerine linear switches lubed with Krytox 205 Grade 0 grease.

4. Solder your custom keyboard PCB

How to make a custom keyboard: Solder PCB
The next step is to solder all of the switches to the PCB. There are just two pins per switch so there’s very little to be done other than work your way across the board, taking your time until you’ve soldered each switch. Double and triple check you’ve done them all, since it’s surprisingly easy to miss one.

After you think you’ve got them all, test your PCB again. With all the switches installed, this is a much easier process than before – just plug it in and press each bare switch and make sure it registers.

5. Assemble your custom keyboard case and fit keycaps

How to make a custom keyboard: Assemble case
Every board is different here because of the variation in potential mounting options, but the basic idea is to get the switch plate retained to the top case first, before assembling the rest of the case.

Some cases only have a single piece and the PCB screws into it with nothing else to do; others are more intricate with top and bottom pieces, gaskets to lay in the right place for isolation and damping, and some have outboard USB ports that you have to mount separately, that connect to the main PCB with a small connector.

Follow the instructions for the case and other parts that you have and just proceed with caution. Now is also the time to add your keycaps, and for this build, I used GMK Olive keycaps and a metal RAMA Works enter key.

6. Program your custom keyboard

How to make a custom keyboard: Programming software
Most custom keyboards have a PCB that supports the QMK firmware. QMK is a highly flexible system that allows for almost endless remapping and configuration of your board. There’s an online QMK configurator that lets you remap your board and generate the new firmware file to flash the PCB once you’ve set it up, and the QMK documentation site has loads of useful guidance on how to get started flashing and programming your board.

If you’re lucky, your board might also have a QMK-based firmware that supports a great configuration tool called VIA that requires no extra flashing to remap your layout. Not all QMK-compatible boards support VIA, so head to the VIA website and take a look at the board and PCB list to see if the one you’re interested in is supported. New boards are being added to VIA regularly, so even if your particular board isn’t on the list today it might be soon enough.

7. Your custom keyboard is done

How to make a custom keyboard: Finished keyboard with keycaps
There’s so much variation in builds that it’s impossible to show you examples of every possible combination of ideas. However, almost every board you’ll find online will come with an associated guide or thread somewhere that explains the build process, or you’ll find that one of the major keyboard streamers has built one on Twitch or YouTube and you can watch how they did it.

That’s a wrap for our keyboard building guide, and we hope you enjoy assembling and using a board that’s been specified to your exact requirements. If you’ve decided that the DIY route isn’t for you, make sure you also check out our guide to the best gaming keyboard, where we run you through all the best pre-built options we’ve reviewed.

Several of the big names in keyboards are also now starting to integrate DIY features into some of their designs, such as the hot-swappable switches on the new Razer BlackWidow 4 75%, and Glorious’ range of bare bones kits.

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