Mechanical keyboards seem to be gaining popularity nowadays, mostly due to its very passionate, very enthusiastic fanbase.
If you used a computer during the 90s or early 2000s (or even before then), then you probably already have a good idea of what a mechanical keyboard is: it’s the type of keyboard that has a clickety clackety sound, some tactile feedback when you type, and typically raised keys. They tended to be large, heavy and serious, and for many people, much better than the modern (membrane) keyboards we have now.
Confused about PCBs, Cherry MX switches, 205g0, travel, actuation, linear, tactile and all the other keyboard jargon? Check out our newbie guide to mechanical keyboards.
The complete newbie's guide to mechanical keyboards, including keycaps, switches, lubes, film, profiles, PCBs, cases and much more.
So let’s look at some of the most beautiful, custom-made mechanical keyboards.
The coolest overall custom mechanical keyboards
In this section, we’re looking at only the regular mechanical keyboards – although they come in different sizes. These sizes are compared to the size of the full keyboard (which is 100%), and they often come as 60%, 65% and 75%.
Meet the Cajal, named after Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934), the father of modern neuroscience. This is a 45% hotswap keyboard with a detached arrow cluster, a prominent volume knob, and an RGB underglow ring. This was created by walletburner – but, bcause this is a kit, not a complete build, it comes without switches or keycaps.
- Switch preference: “My preference is for Holy Zeals, a tactile frankenswitch using parts of an Aliaz and a Halo True.”
- Keycaps preferences: “I definitely prefer ABS GMK-made keycaps, but I also really enjoy PBT blanks and DSA profile sets from Signature.”
- PCB boards for this keyboard: “There are two PCBs for the Cajal: a hotswap PCB in standard layout and a solder-required ortholinear PCB for those who prefer ortho layouts.”
For newbies and enthusiasts, walletburner had this to say: “Do what you like. We live in a golden age of keyboards of all sizes. For instance: I design primarily 40% keyboards because that is what I buy. But if that isn't your thing, go find it! There is nearly infinite choice when it comes to community kits and custom keyboards, and the only limitation is really cost and how much love you're willing to put into it.”
Milk and honey
This keyboard comes from u/robinson63, and he says it took him roughly 3 hours and $150 to create this board for his girlfriend.
- Switch preference: ”I prefer linear switches rather than tactile since I'm in love with the smooth feel and sound of them. With regards to makers, I don't really have a preference. As long as they sound and feel good.”
- Keycap preference: ”I love the look of high profile of the SA format. It's not the most comfortable to type with because of its height, however, a wrist rest helps with the strain. This build is for my girlfriend and it has XDA. She cares more about looks than feel.”
- PCB boards for the keyboard: ”I fell in love with the 65% format of keyboards because of its minimalism without sacrifice of essential keys. Keeps my desk neat due to its size. I found myself getting used to not having function keys for shortcuts. I didn't really use them that often day to day.”
His advice to newbies: “Don’t get pressured to buy the "high end" keyboard components. As long as you like it and it fits your budget, go for it.”
This beautiful keyboard comes from Bachoo (u/bachuwu), who designs and sells these items. He told CyberNews that it can take him a year to design the boards, although other designs can go even longer.
"I use CAD software (fusion360) to make the keyboard," he said, "and then once the basic board is done, taking a look at the compatibility, plate, etc -- I add in the aesthetics of the case and give it a name." Afterwards, he sends it to a manufacturer to get a prototype made because, as he explains, "this community will not really take you seriously as a board designer without a functioning prototype."
Sometimes, this process can require many rounds of prototyping to get the sound and feel right, especially for a "strict" board designer like Bachoo. "The reason why custom boards are highly coveted," he told CyberNews, "is how we take so much time designing for the best sound and feel out of the boards."
After the board passes his quality checks, it goes into what's known as IC or "Interest Check," where the public places pre-order. "All of these projects are community funded, trust is essential for something like this." This is a good time to see if the community is interested in the board, and if so it goes to manufacturing. Even then, it takes an extra 6-8 months, or even move, for customers to finally get their hands on board.
In that sense, it can take more than two years to design and create your own board. Bachoo tells CyerNews that people are used to the long wait times. However, as this hobby is rapidly expanding, more and more people are looking into in-stock options. Nonetheless, Bachoo reminded me: "There's a phrase used a lot in this hobby: "If it's expensive or good -- you're gonna have to wait."'
This particular build comes from user jennybear (who also posts her keyboards on Instagram). The specs for this keyboard:
- keyboard: polycarbonate KBD8X from KBDfans
- keycaps: GMK Olivia++
- Cable: from luxecables
The Ditto themed keyboard
This Pokemon-inspired keyboard comes from a board creator named Quen. You can check out her Instagram account for more of her creations.
The specs for this piece:
- SA Vilebloom (Ortho edition)
- Custom cut Acrylic case (bubble gum Pastel)
- Zlant Pcb (by u/ziptyze)
- Koala switches
The lunar setup
This build comes from Frankie who goes by the name u/sleepyboylol on Reddit but mostly by @Nyhilest on Instagram/Twitch.Tv/Twitter where he builds keyboards whenever he gets a chance. It took 6 hours to make this, and cost about $450 CAD (but $800 CAD for everything in the picture).
Frankie told CyberNews: “The keycaps you see in my current build are temporary. They're called NP Simple, and are from KBDFans. They're temporary, because in the world of custom keyboards, the most sought after keycaps are ones made by a company called GMK...I'll be getting them some time in Q1 or Q2 of 2021 and they're the GMK Minimal set, and KAT Refined White set, that I was considering for this build.”
As for his other preferences:
- Switch preferences: “My favorite have to be the Tealios v2 and the Tangies. They're both linear switches and are very satisfying as well as much quieter than the tactile Hako Violets, which I don't actually like anymore. I just ripped out the Violets, and replaced them with the Tangies a few days ago and I'm much happier. The Tealios v2, I lubed with Krytox 205 Grade 0 lubricant and filmed with the Deskey switch films, however the Tangies come factory lubed, and are extremely smooth out of the box!”
- PCB board for the keyboard: “The solder version is the one I prefer as it gives each switch a nice sturdy place on the PCB. I also enjoy soldering.”
This keyboard comes from user Doblehache, who also goes by the name Ivanobeatzzz on other sites. This is a HHKB Professional 2 (black edition) modified by Doblehache, with the original sliders lubricated with a mixture of Krytox 205g0 and 105, and silenced with Silence-X rings. The keycaps are Extended-2048 for Topre EC switches designed by biip. The vinyl is like the one that was on the Toyota AE86 Trueno in the Initial-D anime.
When we asked about the price, Doblehache told CyberNews it cost roughly $320 : "I bought the keyboard in /r/mechmarket for €170 (new costs about €205 in amazon), the Silence-X rings for €20 in keygem.store, the Biip keycaps for $90 in KBDfans and the sticker in Aliexpress for just €1."
His advice for newbies: “The advice I can give to people who want to start in the hobby is to get informed and not get carried away by the hype (there are people who take advantage of this and resell pieces much more expensive than their original price). Also to have patience both in learning and when they decide to buy pieces because it can take months (even years) to complete a custom keyboard.”
The Crayon Tofu65 build
This soft and fluffy keyboard took the creator u/cyberjake $550 to complete. It also happens to be his first ever build.
The keyboard is the Tofu65 kit from KBDfans. The keycaps are the Crayon set from KBDfans, but he bought them off of eBay. He lubricated them with 62g Zilents and claims “it’s like pressing cloudy marshmallows.”
The orange board
This build comes from user holynickepic. It is a Tofu acrylic 60%, soldered DZ60 RGB PCB, Zeal Roselios switches and GMK Skidolcha keycaps. He built the cord himself, which is a Type-C coiled cable with an aviator.
The coolest split and ergo mechanical keyboards
"Split" or ergonomic ("ergo") keyboards are also popular. Although they are often combined, split keyboards are literally split in half (sometimes in two separate pieces), while ergo keyboards are curved or angled in such a way to fit the user and reduce muscle strain, fatigue and other problems.
Do androids dream of electric sheep?
This keyboard features a GMK Analogue Dreams on a Lavender pastel Alice PCB, while the case is custom-made by its Belgium-based creator, Quen.
Chimera Ergo 42
This build comes from user cxcxcxcxcxcxcxcxcxc (yep).
This is a Chimera Ergo 42. The switches are retooled Cherry housings with Gateron Yellow stems. It’s been spring-swapped to 55g cww springs and lubricated with 205g0.
So, with these tiny ergo mechanical keyboards, newbies might be wondering about the other keys, like the number and function keys. This is all handled here by dividing them up into layers. One user explained:
“If he presses one of the thumb keys (you can program it to be anything) it will switch the keyboard to a whole new keyboard where you can program another 41 keys to do anything you want them to be. So under the QWERTYUIOP he could have 1234567890 for example. But you can literally make them be anything you want.”
Here’s a diagram to help explain the concept.
The purple and blue split
This is a combination split keyboard with what’s known as an ortholinear (ortho) layout. An ortho layout is one where all the keys are aligned, and not staggered like most keyboards.
The creator, u/trash_dumpyard created this custom board with a local maker’s help. The keycap set is the GMK Laser by MiTo. On its specs, he used “box navies for all the alphas and thumb clusters, and mx browns for the edge columns, largely so that pinky stretches don't need as much actuation force, and because the stems on my artisans won't fit box switches.”
LZ-Ergo with GMK Cyrillic
This is one of the more impressive ergo mechanical keyboards. It’s an LZ-Ergo keyboard which is made in Korea plus a GMK Cyrillic keycap set.
Notice the custom keycaps on opposite ends of this ergo keyboard.
The split laser
This is a Supreme PCB with keycaps from GMK Laser with Gaijin alphas.
Creative but bizarre (and impractical)
OK, so these keyboards may not be the most practical, but they are all pretty cool, they all work and they all took a lot of creativity, time and passion to create.
This is definitely one of the most interesting mechanical keyboards we’ve ever seen. And, yes, in case you were wondering – it does actually work. Your typing speed may end up being 10 WPM, but at least you’ll be able to type away in style.
This piece was created on a Ducky One 2 Mini with reds. Each keycap is custom-made by Tiny who enjoys making “cute and derpy keycaps.” Here, all the keys here correspond to a letter of the alphabet, so that where the Q would be is queso, A for avocado, E for egg, and so on (try to guess what the "U" is).
We asked Tiny about the time and money it took to create this board: "Well the board took about a year to complete, but because I wasn't solely focused on building it. I basically did like... 1-2 keycaps a week. Each keycap takes a couple hours (some took longer because of resin casting process)."
When it comes to cost, she calculates it based on if she were commissioned to do the piece: "Material cost wouldn't be that much but I kinda have to consider each keycap a commission and would probably put the cost of each key at $50-$100 and there are 61 keys so somewhere like $3K-$6K?"
You can watch the awesome video of her getting 38 WPM on her foodie keyboard:
The 450-key ortho keyboard
Remember when I mentioned how smaller mechanical keyboards have layers so that their users can use all their keys with the same number of keys? Well, this is the opposite: all the possible keys you would need, all on the same keyboard.
Besides that, it’s also ortholinear, so all the keys are aligned in neat rows and columns. And yes, this keyboard actually works.
The specs for this particular keyboard:
- PCB: ScrabblePad
- Microcontrollers: Teensy2.0++(x2)
- Switches: Gateron Yellows
- Keycaps: xda 9009 from kpreublic (98), dsa dark gray blanks (90), xda light grey blanks (12), cherry relegenadble keycaps (tipro rebrand) (120), dsa "retro beige" (26), cherry beige keycaps (52), dsa black blanks (38), and stroke and structure set keycaps (14)
You can read more about this keyboard project here.
The ‘unnecessary’ standing keyboard
You’ve heard of the standing desk, but now you can have your very own standing keyboard – a keyboard that you can put on your regular desk and use while standing. It definitely works,although because of the height of the keys, there’s a teeny tiny wobble.
This creation comes from user rightcoastguy, who admittedly creates “unnecessary inventions”
You can watch the video of how he created it here:
What's the difference between mechanical keyboards and modern (membrane) keyboards?
On membrane keyboards, the sound is minimal and the tactile feedback, when you press down on the keys, is pretty soft. So those two aspects, sound and tactile feedback, which can be adjusted at will, are the basic reasons why people prefer mechanical keyboards.
Many enthusiasts will also say that mechanical keyboards have other benefits over membrane keyboards is that they minimize typos, they’re more durable and they’re easier to clean.
Now, even though membrane keyboards can also be customized, mechanical keyboards are where hobbyists are spending their time and money, creating beautiful keyboards with parts from here and there (even making parts themselves). So what components can be customized?
- A printed circuit board (or PCB)
- The keyboard switches (these define how the keyboard feels and sounds) and stabilizers (which stop the bigger keys on your keyboard from wobbling)
- The keycaps, which are most visible and give the most character
- The case and backplate, which also provide very visible character
- USB cable and other things
All these great results – even the bizarre ones – came from these hobbyists’ great passion and dedication to their craft. If you’re a newbie looking to get into the craft, be sure to check the subreddit that served as inspiration for this article, r/MechanicalKeyboards.
And, if you want to show us your own mechanical keyboard builds, be sure to tweet at us @CyberNews_com.