While building a PC is by far the most popular ‘DIY’ activity for gaming, there is another crafty adventure that is becoming more and more popular: keyboard building. Mechanical keyboards have been around for decades, in fact mechanical keyboards (or keyboards with a PCB and individual ‘switches’ to create electrical contacts to be read by a controller) were the original keyboards, and were only replaced in the 80’s/90’s with the membrane keyboards that are ubiquitous today.
To build a keyboard, you need to be comfortable with soldering (or interesting in learning the basics), interested in working with small pieces, and ready to spend a few hours performing a repetitive motion. But if those things don’t scare you off, the advantages are immense: a fully customized keyboard that you build yourself and that you can invest your own wants and personality into. This guide, in two parts, is meant to first help you choose your pieces, then put them together the right way.
Final note: there are plenty of places to buy pieces, ranging from eBay to Alibaba to specialty stores like KBDfans or NovelKeys. We are going to stick with Amazon for the availability and customer service and look to known sellers in the keyboard world like YMDK or KPRepublic, but if you want to check out others for more exotic choices or to see pricing, do your research and go with a reputable buyer!
Mechanical Keyboard Components
Like a PC, building a keyboard is essentially combining a variety of (compatible) components to create the entire working item. Much of the selection of these components is personal and we can recommend ‘typical’ likes/dislikes, but it will be up to you to choose the most important aspects for your use and applying them to your choices. But the first choice you will have to make is what size you want your keyboard to be: compact (60%), TKL (arrows but no numpad, 75%) or full size (numpad, 100%). Surprisingly, the size with the most choices and the most common for a piecemeal build is the 60%, so that’s what we’ll focus on for this guide, although much of the information can be used at any size!
So, let’s walk through each piece you will need, and the important things to think of when picking out your choices:
1. The PCB
The PCB is the heart of the keyboard. PCB, or printed circuit board, is the easiest way to create the internal circuits and connections that will be completed by switches and read by the microcontroller to interpret the letters/numbers that are inputted. There are other more advanced options, like soldering resistors/diodes/chips to a blank PCB, or even more advanced options like handwiring, but we will leave those aside for now and focus on fully filled PCBs for this guide.
There are a couple of popular options for a 60% PCB, the most common of which are the DZ60 and GH60. Both are great PCB’s, offering a variety of layouts (key configurations) to match what you are looking for, including split-shift keys, shorter/longer space bars, and even some ways of including arrow keys on a 60% board (MiniLa style). Both use the same so-called ‘Pok3r’ screw layout to fix them to the case/plate, and both are equally reliable in terms of build quality. The GH60 has the advantage of coming in a few variations, such as with Bluetooth and a USB-C connector, so for the PCB, we recommend the YMDK GH60, with your choice of Bluetooth/underglow RGB options depending on budget. We would also suggest getting QMK vs bface as it is the open-source standard for keymapping (covered in part 2 of this guide), but both are fully functional.
2. The Case/Plate
One of the great parts of the 60% DIY market is the case selection. While enthusiasts will tell you about how a different case makes the keyboard sound different, and different plate materials will have different feels due to springiness, the main part of selecting a case/plate combo is to find the material you like and the case shape you want. There are two typical case profiles, high or low, that come in different materials and the plate is usually aluminum or brass. For a first build, we recommend getting an aluminum plate as the difference is small and aluminum is cheaper. In terms of case, we like the look of a wood case, but in terms of durability, plastic is always inexpensive and sturdy while there are plenty of high-quality metal cases as well. The choice comes down to your personal needs, and to make sure your case and plate are compatible with your PCB.
Specifically for this type of 60% build, we really love the quality/price of this aluminum plate from the same YMDK (they also have brass available if you want to pay more for the different metal). Important note! These plates support the traditional 60% ANSI (American-style) layout. If you want a more exotic layout or ISO-layout, check out the other offerings from YMDK/KBDfans and find the right plate as no matter what the PCB allows, the plate has to match it. If you aren’t sure, we recommend just sticking with the typical 61-key layout, it has the added advantage of the most compatibility with keycap sets for customization later on.
For the case, we are very partial to the design of the wooden cases, which are very difficult to find outside of the 60% format and are somewhat unique in that respect. For a light build, a bamboo case such as this one is always classic and the top closure is a nice touch, while the options for a darker wood like these cases are also very attractive (and include a wrist rest!). Of course, if that is a little too pricey or you simply want to show off the underglow/circuitry, a clear plastic case is inexpensive and transparent to show off the insides.
3. Switches & Stabilizers
The PCB may be the heart of your build, and the case will define the aesthetics (along with keycaps), but when it comes to typing experience, nothing is more important than the switches There are three main switch types: clickies (e.g. blue switches), tactiles (e.g. brown switches), and linears (e.g. red switches or black switches). Clickies offer a loud click on actuation, so by nature, they are not silent and should be avoided! Tactiles have a small bump or feedback on actuation, but no click. Linears have no bump or click and offer no physical acknowledgement of actuation.
For gaming, the linear switch is by far the most popular as the lack of feedback on actuation can be easier for repetitive motions that often accompany gaming. The smooth travel and relative quietness are also well-liked as spamming ‘W’ on a clicky switch can get annoying quick! And within the linear switch family, Cherry MX Reds are by far the favorite and the classic choice due to the medium switch weight (not too hard to press and not too easy) and their quality. There are tens if not hundreds of other choices that can be heavier, lighter, ‘silent’, shorter travel to actuation, longer travel, etc., but Cherry MX Reds are the original and popular for a reason, so if you aren’t sure, these are a great place to start.
For mixed use or more typing heavy usage, some people prefer the tactile switch for the slight feedback that helps them type more accurately. Similar to linear switches, there are a huge diversity of tactile switches to choose from with different style feedback of differing size, shape, sharpness, and weight. But also like linears, Cherry has created the classic tactile equivalent to MX Reds: Cherry MX Browns. Similar to the Reds, these are not too heavy, not too light, and have a relatively light feedback that can be felt but isn’t too strong. If you like noise, you can of course consider Cherry MX Blues that are similarly tactile but with the audible feedback as well.
Finally, and relatively easily, the stabilizer choice is simple: original Cherry screw-in PCB mount stabilizers. You can occasionally find cheaper stabilizers, but they are almost always of lower-quality and rattle constantly when the key is pressed, which gets very annoying. So, keep it simple, and go with your preferred vendor but Cherry original screw-in stabilizers.
4. Keycaps & Cable
With all of the internal components and case selected, you’ve now arrived at the part that will dictate (along with the case) the look of your keyboard. Keycaps come in two main materials (ABS or PBT plastic), in a variety of profiles that are either shaped (sculpted) or flat, and either printed/lasered, dye-sublimated, or doubleshot for coloring/design. The choice between them is personal preference, although we would recommend to avoid printed/lasered as they tend to fade. ABS will eventually have some ‘shine’ that comes from oils on your fingers degrading the plastic, but will be smoother than the textured PBT plastic. There are high-quality choices in almost any profile/material, so once you’ve thought about how you want your keycaps to feel, you can get to the fun part: how they look.
Keycaps are the pinnacle of personal expression, and the best part is, they aren’t permanent! Due to the standardization around the MX stem, most keycaps are compatible with all major mechanical switches. Be sure to double-check that you are using an MX or MX-clone switch and MX compatible keycap, but 95% of the market is standardized around the MX format at this point. All this means you have a ton of choices at a variety of price points for keycaps. You can join a group buy and get a special design from a site like Drop, or go with a classic like the pink Sakura keycaps. There are knock-off options of famous designs like the ‘Carbon’ set, or the even older colorways that follow classics like the Dolch set that come from mechanical keyboards from the 80’s. No matter your choice, you can always swap later and keep things fresh so feel free to be creative and go for the type that best fit your aesthetic!
Similarly, don’t be afraid to go for a colorful cable to connect your new ‘keeb’. Be sure to get the right connector (USB-C, USB-Mini, etc.), but then go wild. We love some of the more exotic keyboard cables, like this USB-C/Aviator blue cable.
Next Steps: Building & Assembly
Now that you’ve chosen all the individual components, check out the part 2 of this guide to get to the building and assembly to put it all together!