Membrane, butterfly, scissor switch – all of these are fine for your casual blogger or Web-surfer, but when it comes to gaming and hardcore typing tasks, there can be only one to rule them all – the trusty mechanical keyboard. Long key travel, real resistance, satisfying clicks, whether it’s pwning noobs or writing novels, mechanical keyboards are the PC user’s tool for plying his trade. There are plenty of brilliant gaming keyboards out there, but if you want to make yours just a little bit special, we’ve put together a little guide as to how to customise your keyboard, without all the hassle and expense of making one from the ground up.
Step 0 – What is in a Mechanical Keyboard?
(If you have got all your stuff and just want tips on a build, jump to step 2!)
Now it may be very tempting to build your own keyboard completely from scratch – how hard can it be right?
Well the truth is, not that hard, but it is very expensive.
A Mechanical keyboard consists of 7 components:
- Keyboard Case
- PCB (Printed Circuit Board)
- Key Switches
- USB Cable
In addition, if you cannot find a pre assembled PCB which readily accepts switches, you will need a soldering iron, which adds additional complexity and cost.
To get decent quality parts and other materials you may need, it can easily cost £200+ (about the same in dollars) to put your own device together from the ground up, bearing in mind many are niche and will also require shipping etc. If you have the money and a little DIY experience it is very doable, and getting nitty gritty with a soldering iron can be fun in you are that way inclined. If you would like a slightly easier route to a custom keyboard, I recommend another option.
The problem with starting from nothing; as you are effectively buying single pieces of massively produced and fairly generic parts, so you spend extra on something that manufacturers buy in bulk at a far lower price. This means whilst 3 or 4 separate components can cost us £120 to buy, have shipped etc, a keyboard manufacturer may be spending as low as 20-30 on all of its parts, meaning they can sell the whole thing for even less, and often its going to look just like your expensive separate parts anyway.
For this reason, I’ve based this easy guide on buying an existing mechanical keyboard from amazon or another provider, and switching out the switches and keycaps from here. The case, PCB and backplate are niche, expensive parts, and in all honesty apart from the “I made it myself” factor, you won’t feel a massive amount of difference between them and buying your own. As long as you find one with the key number, material, dimensions and the RGB you want, you can swap out the switches and keycaps to give it your own personal touch.
Step 1 – Planning and Parts
I went with a Techware Phantom RGB 88 that I had lying around, a great value mechanical keyboard with full customisable RGB, a solid plastic/metal backplate and 88 key design (no num-pad keys). This keyboard is a decent purchase for anyones start mechanical keyboard, and often sells discounted for around £45.
The most important thing here is you need a keyboard which is hot swappable. If the keyboard is not hot swappable you will not be able to change the switches readily, so limited to the keycaps only.
The Phantom is particularly good for this project because it has very minimal branding, a solid weight, raisable feet and it comes with a keycap AND switch puller, both of which being needed for your next steps. This being said, any hot swappable keyboard will do, and you can go anywhere from a tiny 60% to a monster 105 key depending on your preference.
For Keycaps I went with this 104 PBT keycap set from Banggood, very reasonably priced at under £15 and with cheap shipping, but you can look for any set that suits the end result you have in mind. Be mindful that keycaps can come in different profile and thickness, as well as some keys being in a slightly different layout. Styles can differ, so compare the keyboard you chose with any keycap set you are about to buy to be safe.
Note: in your search you may see “PBT,” ABS and Double shot come up. PBT and ABS refer to the plastic, in short, PBT is always better and I would go as far to say avoid ABS if you can. Double shot means that the legend (the letters or symbols) on the keys have been filled with another layer of plastic, and so they will last for a very very long time – also a very good thing. Laser etching and other methods can rub off, but most PBT keycaps will be durable for many years to come.
Now this is the controversial one. Key switches are perhaps the most important part of your build and will have the biggest effect on your typing experience. There are three broad types of switch:
- Clicky – What it says on the tin, they have a defined click
- Tactile – No click, but a little tactile bump when you press down
- Linear – No click, no bump, just one smooth motion
Which switch you go for is entirely up to you and your preference. If you don’t know where to start and don’t mind spending a little time and money, you can pick up a switch tester like this one from Amazon. Cherry is held up as the gold standard for keyboard switches, but many cloned brands are catching up, and in some enthusiasts view even surpassing them.
Note: For the Phantom and indeed most hot swappable keyboards you will need a three-pin connector, as shown above (2 metal, one plastic pin). This is standard, but it is important to check you have the right connection or it will not be compatible.
The switches that come with our Phantom Keyboard are very competent Outemu switches, but I fancied something clicky rather than the linear reds that I initially purchased, so went with these Kalih White switches. The eagle eyed may see that this is only a 70 pack for an 88 keyboard – I did this intentionally to keep the costs down as the Function row and lock/page up/down section I rarely use. Personally I don’t mind keeping the Outemu reds there rather than pay a premium for more switches just to keep them all the same, but if I just triggered your OCD, sorry! Get more switches!
If you would like a little more guidance on which switch to buy without spending any more money on a tester, Linus Tech Tips did a great, comprehensive video that showed their staff blind testing many of the markets most popular switches, it is a great place to start.
There are two main extras you may consider. O Rings or lubricant. No we are still talking about keyboards, get your mind out the gutter.
O Rings are tiny tubber rings that go on the inside of your keycaps to give them a quieter, softer bump at the bottom, whereas applying lubricant supposedly gives a smoother quieter switch. In my view O rings make a pleasant typing experience, whereas lubricant feels like a lot of work and gunk to be able to proclaim you have lube on your keyboard. I used O rings on this build, but if you wanna lube up, be my guest.
I spend just over £100 for all of these parts, including the keyboard that I had spare from when my girlfriend rebelled against mechanical keyboards on her workstation (noob). This project can be as cheap or expensive as you want it to be, and if you snoop around it is likely you can find even better deals on sites like Banggood, AliExpress, Newegg, Ebay etc.
Step 2 – Get your Gear ready
First things first, lets get our tools together:
- Original Keyboard
- New Switches
- New Keycaps
- Keycap Puller
- Switch Puller
- Tool kit (optional, good for some tougher switches)
- Warm Soapy water (if cleaning)
- Kitchen Town (if cleaning)
- Toothbrush (optional, Good for cleaning)
- Q tip (optional, Good for cleaning)
Note that the only necessary parts are the base keyboard, the new caps/switches and the pullers, but some of the other items will help if you have them!
Step 3 – Disassembly and Cleaning
Lets get started with disassembling the base keyboard.
As you can see, this is a used keyboard, and could use a little clean – if you are on a brand new keyboard you can ignore these steps. Also the Keycaps and key switches that come with the Phantom are good quality, so its a good idea to keep them just incase you want to switch back, or if you want them for another project down the line.
Note: If this is an old keyboard and you don’t have the box, take a picture so you can remember where all the keys go!
Either way, we need to remove the keycaps. Take your keycap puller, and place it over the cap as shown below, and remove depending on your puller;
Generally speaking keycaps should come off with only a little force, and make a little “pop” as they disconnect. It is very unlikely that you will end up damaging any of the parts when removing the keycaps, but if you do hear any cracks inspect the keycap and switch for breakages.
Once the keycaps are off, this is the best time to clean the board itself, if it’s needed. I use a q-tip to go between the keys and collect up any dust and dirt that does’t come off with a good ol’ shake. The toothbrush is handy for anything really unpleasant, and you may want to get in between with a cloth before calling it a day.
The reason you should clean now is that when the switches are out, the only place all that dirt is going is inside the case itself, which to be honest, isn’t the most hygienic place for your 2 year old mouldy Dorito fragments to find themselves.
Keycaps Cleaning (Optional)
If you do want to hold on to your keycaps, cleaning is a breeze. Its rare that really gross stuff gets up inside the keycaps, but still if you wanna use them in the future it will be better to do so with them all shiny.
Simply drop your keycaps into a bowl of warm water with washing up liquid (dish soap) in. The water shouldn’t be hot, as although warping the plastic is rare, it can happen.
Swirl them around and leave them for a few minutes to soak, it won’t do any damage to them. When the water has cooled, swirl them around some more and take them over to a basin where you can replace the water a couple times until the soap is rinsed out.
When clean, leave on a towel for a couple hours to dry. Best to get as dry as possible, putting wet things away in storage is bad for a whole bunch of reasons.
Step 4 – Switch pulling
I strongly believe that the phrase “it’s like pulling teeth” can be replaced with “it’s like pulling switches,” because trust me, this part requires a bit of patience and maybe some sore fingers.
The switch puller included with the Phantom is handy but hard to use. if you can get a longer puller with more leverage and a better grip, it would likely make this a lot easier.
Align the puller over the switch with the two indents where the switch meets the base like in the picture above. If you have a strong hand you can use the puller almost like tweezers, otherwise you can put your index finger through the puller using your middle finger and thumb to apply pincer pressure to the switch as shown below.
The switches do not come off nearly as easily as the keycaps. You will likely notice a few things here:
- Some switches will be tougher than others and require more force, this is normal.
- You may feel that a switch requires way too much force; that is fine. It will come out, but some of these buggers are stubborn.
- Resist the temptation to “lever” the switches by aggressively wiggling. Some may need a little wiggle, but aggressive wiggling may damage the case or worse, the PCB connectors, which could render that key completely broken.
- Depending on the quality of switch, the plastic may break on the point you are grabbing it by. This will not render the switch useless, but it may be a bigger pain to remove/use again.
- For really tough switches you may need to grab a screwdriver to leverage it out, just try to edge it out evenly from both sides to avoid “wiggling.”
This part will take the most time of the whole project, and like me you may end up with an achy hand and some marks where the puller digs into your fingers. it will be worth it though, honest!
Step 5 – Replacing Switches
Thankfully the switches are easier to put back in than they were to remove. This is however one of the areas where the answer to everything can’t just be brute force – a little nuance is required to make sure that the switches line up with the PCB.
Note: If you do want to lube your switches you should do so now. its a very involved process, so a good idea to go and check a full guide on it.
The 3 pin connector above is exactly how the switch should look when inserting, none of the metal pins should be bent in any way and should be as straight as possible.
The pins will line up exactly with the case and PCB board, and though the receptors on the PCB board are narrow, due to the shape of the case the switches generally go in quite easy. Just line up the switch and gently lower it down. it will take a small amount of force to get it fully in, but if it is resisting or if its uneven, one of the metal pins has likely missed its hole and bent.
Don’t panic, almost all of the time the pin can be straightened using a pair of tweezers by pressing at it from each side and you can try again. If a pin somehow twists off that is unfortunate, but you can always use an old switch and swap it out to a key you don’t use so often.
Remember, I saved a little money by buying a 70pc switch kit and not replacing my less used keys, but if you want to do the whole board all you gotta do is finish it off!
Step 6 – Replacing Keycaps and O-rings
Most of the hard work is done now, all that’s left if fitting on the new keycaps and any little extras that you want to do.
If you bought O-rings to soften the thud of your switch, they are applied now. The process is simple, just take your O-ring and place it on the inside of your keycap around the circle. When you insert this onto the switch it should just push the O-ring up to where it needs to be, and if you like you can use tweezers to achieve the same thing.
Fitting the keycaps
Another great benefit of the Phantom is the built in stabilisers that the board offers, as opposed to metal wire solutions that many boards use. This means that placing keys is really very simple, provided that you remembered a reference photo or have the keyboard box as a reference.
There is no real penalty for accidentally putting a key in the wrong place, just pop it off and re apply. Some keys can be a little tricky, such as the correct shift side or for a full layout board the number pad and arrow keys, but with enough time it should fall into shape.
Step 7 – Testing and RGB
So you are all but done, but before you put your stuff away, just connect it up to a PC or laptop to make sure all the keys work and everything is functional. it would be a pain to pack away only to find out a couple of pins missed the PCB.
As for RGB, the Phantom comes with some great shortcuts involving FN and Insert/Delete/Page Up/Page Down etc, all covered in the accompanying booklet. Your device may have its own software, just find something that suits the look of your new build. I went with boring old white because I like the orange keys for colour, but the world is your oyster!
There we go! It was a simple mod job, and though many will like the simple black and RGB combo the original board came with, after years of this combo on my main board I wanted to try a colourful and contrasting key set to go with my new clicky keys.
I hope you found the guide useful, how did your project turn out? Got any tips or tricks that I missed out? Post them below for others to use if they need help customising their keyboard!