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Building a mechanical keyboard

Joe Brailsford in Mechanical Keyboard, UK, Electronics, Reddit, Make, Build, How To

Recently I discovered a whole new kind of nerd driven fun, a world that I was dead to, that I didn't even consider could exist, but now I find myself possessed by it, I can't remember a time without it; it's the world of mechanical keyboards.

For most, and for myself back in that dark period prior to my new found life, a keyboard is nothing, just a rectangular piece of plastic that gives you carpal tunnel, few consider that the keyboard (and granted, the mouse) is the single physical link between you and the senseless void that is the digital world.

Mechanical keyboards are different to your everyday keyboard. They're fun and pleasing to type on, they're faster at responding and they can reduce the health impacts that come with computer based jobs. When I first discovered what a mechanical keyboard actually was, and the benefits (and to an extent, snobbery) that comes with using one, I was enthralled, and I wanted one. Admittedly, an inexplicable desire to cut through my money faster than burning it also played a part. But after reading countless reviews and recommendations, I really couldn't decide on which one to buy, there's just so many. So the natural course of action? Build my own. Now, this is by no means a guide, I'm not going to go into that much depth, in fact each part could easily be a post unto itself, but it should help those looking to do the same.

The first issue I ran up against was location, I live in the UK, and ironically, like all great things, some of the best places to get parts is in the US. This is okay, if you're happy to pay import tax, for me that amounted to £60. The other major place to get parts is from Asia, mainly Taiwan and South Korea (both of which one-up the yanks by writing 'gift' on the box, and saving us poor soul’s money.) If you're willing to accept the financial consequences of what you're about to do, you're ready to begin. It only gets worse.

The biggest decision you'll need to make is, what size keyboard do you want, there's a few to choose from:

  • 100% - a full size keyboard
  • 80% - otherwise known as a tenkeyless (missing the number pad)
  • 65/75% - the core set of keys, with an additional column and arrow keys
  • 60% - the core set of keys
  • 40% - a slimmed down version of a 60% with a few less keys

There are other layouts and configurations, for example where the keyboard is split. The below image shows the sort of layouts you can expect from a 60%, 80% and 100% board respectively.

Credit: wikimedia.org

I chose to go with a compact design, a 60% board, I like to keep my desk clear so I can clutter it with lots of little things (food). Note, there is a cost saving with going for a smaller board, however if you're like me the thought "I was going to spend that much anyway" will cross your mind, and you'll spend the money you saved.

Next you'll need to decide what layout you want, there are two base layouts, ANSI and ISO. ISO is the standard international layout, and it looks like so:

credit: /r/mechanicalkeyboards

And the ANSI:

credit: /r/mechanicalkeyboards

I'm in the UK, and thus the ISO-UK format is what I'm used to, but in the grand scheme of things not many people use it in Asia and the US which just so happens to be where we can get most of our parts, as such, it's hard to find good ISO key sets - ANSI is simply more dominant. So for me it was a no brainer, ANSI, I wanted to not be restricted by my layout, and in all honesty it took me about a day to adapt to the different configuration.

Once I had a layout and a size, it was just a matter of gathering the parts. This is where the real decisions are made.


Switches

Switches are the physical, mechanical, parts that actuate to give you your keypress. They're the single most important part of the keyboard, they give it the feel and the click (or lack thereof). There are many vendors of switch; Cherry, Gateron, ALPS, Outemu... and many more. This is the first decision, which vendor? Well, it's hard to say without really trying them, the best thing you can do is read reviews and watch videos of people typing (it's enthralling). For me it was another question of logic, Cherry are the most popular globally, so, again, they're more widely supported by keycap vendors. Other switch vendors do supply switches with Cherry, or rather Cherry MX (for the particular type), 'stems' so Cherry keycaps will fit on them, for example, Outemu, an excellent Cherry MX replica switch found on the MagicForce keyboard.

As an aside, the MagicForce keyboard is an excellent entry keyboard, it really is something else, especially given the price.

Once you've picked a vendor, you have to pick the type of switch. These are colour coded, and for Cherry MX there are many. Blue, Green, Red, Brown, Clear, Black... They all differ on the same set of properties: is there a clicky sound? How much force does it take to press? Do you feel a bump when you press the key? The table on the mechanical keyboards open wiki describes it best.

I chose a mix:

  • Red - no bump, no click, easy to press
  • Blue - bump, clicky, easy to press
  • Green - bump, click, harder to press

This is the single most important decision. As a side note, you'll also need to choose whether to get PCB mounted or plate (see below) mounted switches - if you're going to get a plate, I'd go with plate mounted, just for the secure feel.

Plate & case

The case, or base, is self-explanatory, it's what the keyboard's PCB sits in, and they come in wood, aluminium, plastic, all sorts. The plate is what goes over the PCB and under the keycaps, with the switches going through. The plate is optional (as is the PCB, more on that later), you can leave it out; this saves money and adds more of a deep look below your keys. Adding it however can make your board feel sturdier when pressing keys, it can also act as a defence to dust, dirt, food and water. I went with an aluminium plate and aluminium case, I wanted a sturdy, heavy, nice looking keyboard.

PCB

The PCB does all computer magic. That's it. You solder your switches to it, and it does all the rest. So what's there to decide on? Quite a bit as it happens. First off, you can choose not to use one at all and hand wire it. I didn't fancy that, it looked too complex for my tiny brain.

When it comes to choosing a PCB, you're choosing features, you can buy a basic keyboard PCB which you'll need to solder a controller to (harder than soldering switches as they joints are much more close together) as well as diodes and resistors for the switches (and then your switches and LED's...). Or you can buy a pre-soldered PCB, this generally speaking comes with the resistors and diodes soldered on, and the controller on too. This means you only have to do the switches and LED's. There's a fair few options, the WinKeyLess, the GH60, the Nerd 60, the JD40... All offer different layouts, but more importantly, they all offer different features. Technically they're all close, they'll all do N'key roll over, they'll all respond at the same speed, what sets them apart is how many 'layouts' you can have, how many macros, is on-pc software required to store macros, how customisable are the LED's.

I went with the GON Nerd60, an excellent PCB, pre-soldered, supports three layouts, lots of macros, it's well made, supports SMD LED's and stores all macros on-board (no on-pc stuff required.) GON is an excellent resource for all keyboard parts, just be aware of long shipping times. Very long.

Keys, LED's, stabilisers and USB cables

The final bits I needed were some keycaps, some LED's and a USB cable (it's no good if I can't actually plug it in!) For the keycaps, there are many vendors globally, and they usual come from 'group buys' - a method of buying something, as a group. More people = lower cost. These take place on Mass Drop. That said, group buys take time, and even longer to ship, you, like me, will want something quick, enter Pimp My Keyboard. Pimp My Keyboard is an offshoot of Signature Plastics, a custom plastic vendor, who often manufacture the parts for the group buys - they have sets and individual keys for sale on their site. Pick one. Or Two. Or several. It's like a Pick'N'Mix only much more costly.

LED's are optional, and will require more fine soldering than the switches, but they look good, and let's be honest, why are you doing this if not to whack it out on the table and flash everyone. You can buy all sorts of colours and put them in any layout you want. You can also buy them pretty much anywhere.

Stablisers sit on your wider keys, so that you get a determined and solid press even if you're not hitting the switch directly. You can pick these up all over, I got mine from GON.

USB cables can be overlooked, but if you're splashing out on the rest why not this too? Listen to your inner demons, you don't need to eat next month. Pexon PC's are a vendor in the UK that make bespoke cables, and most importantly, will coil them for that sweet hipster look. I went for a black on black Teflon coil to display my inner retro-emo. Note: the coil serves no purpose, if uncoiled, they will not recoil. This is aesthetic only. This is how deep you are now.


Once I had all my parts it was time to make like an Avenger and assemble. Before continuing, this is a list of the parts I initially ordered:

PartName
BoardNerD 60 Ver2.0 PCB - USB w/Diodes & Resistors
Case60% Aluminum Case - Orange
Plate60% Aluminum Plate - Black
SwitchesCherry MX Blue Keyswitch - Plate Mount - Tactile, Click - 10 Pack (Cherry)
 Cherry MX Red Keyswitch - Plate Mount - Tactile, Click - 10 Pack (Cherry)
 Cherry MX Green Keyswitch - Plate Mount - Tactile, Click - 10 Pack (Cherry)
KeysDSA Sublimated Keycap Sets - 60% Base - Grey
 DSA Sublimated Keycap Sets - 60% Mod - Black
 DSA 1 Space - Red
SpacersPCB Mount Stabilizers - TKL - Winkey
CablePEXON PC - USB A to Mini USB - Coiled - Black/Black
LED'sBlue
 Red

The total cost of this was about £400-£450 after import tax.

Once all the parts had arrived, just under two months after ordering, it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea how to solder. A significant issue given that between the switches and LED's, there were around 244 joints to solder (61 keys, 4 joints per key) - my advice now: it's not that hard. Seriously. I'm pretty sure I could've set my PCB alight and it'd have worked. If you've no idea what you're doing: you'll need an average soldering iron, not one of those cheap 20W things, but something with some level of temperature control. You'll want a sponge, some small wire cutters (for the LED legs), a solder sucker, and of course, some solder. You can pick all of this up on Amazon for around £40. This was the iron I bought, and the solder. Make sure you get 60/40 and nothing too thick, 7mm will be fine. Then read the guide found here. It tells you everything you'll need to know. One thing to remember, which I didn't, ventilation and/or something to cover your face, I neglected both and the next day my throat felt raw, and during the soldering I started to feel ill.

For assembly, with a plate, the first thing to do was put a switch through each corner of the plate, and into the PCB. Solder these first, this makes it easier to line your switches up with the PCB holes, if you put all of your switches in the plate first and then try and slap it onto your PCB, you'll bend the prongs (and if you do what I did and solder a switch prong in and then realise the next one a long is bent and not through the hole, you'll cry a bit, or a lot.)

Below there are some photos of the build process and finished product. I'm immensely happy with the outcome and am actively looking into doing another as soon as my bank will allow. I'm happy to answer any questions, just comment below or email me via the contact form on my main site, brailsford.xyz, but for the best answers head over the /r/mechanicalkeyboards they're an awesome community full of very knowledgeable people.


Here are all my parts laid out on my mothers lovely table cloth.

All my parts...;)

We got switches, we got switches, we got switches:

Terrible jokes are my forté

My switch configuration was blue for alphanumeric (a-z, 1-3, symbols), green for modifiers (ctrl, alt, etc) and esc, red for the rest (backspace, caps, etc.). Here's a blurry picture of that:

Apologies for the potato camera

Did someone say Mr. Burns?

Much regret will be felt about posting this

Soldering, switches done now doing LED's - many of these joints were later re-soldered as I was too sparing with the solder, as such, the contact was weak. You want a nice shiny finish for best conductivity, but you also want a strong an firm hold. Criticism is welcomed but will be disregarded. I am aware doing this on cloth was a fire hazard, it's okay, there was wood under it.

Please, no criticism

LED's on, let's test:

Shiny things...

Assembled, and in the case:

Photo one... And photo two...

And some final vanity shots:

And another one. And another one. And another one.

Just another guy who happens to be into tech & current affairs.

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