How To Build a Mechanical Keyboard: A Step-by-Step Guide
Updated: December 20,2022
People passionate about their gadgets often like to make the most of each computer component and peripheral, customizing whatever can be customized. If you’re one of them, you know very well that using a prebuilt keyboard is simply not the same as using one created with your own two hands. Aside from the personal value such an item holds, the building process can be a lot of fun!
In this article, we’ll offer a step-by-step guide on how to build a mechanical keyboard, and we’ll also tell you what you need to prepare before setting out on this exciting journey.
Things To Consider Beforehand
Before you start building your mechanical keyboard, you need to decide on its size, features, and when you want it to be finished. Knowing what the keyboard should look like and when you want it built will dictate the building process and your hunt for parts.
Now that you’ve decided to build a custom keyboard, let’s see what keyboard layouts you can choose:
- 40% - This is the smallest keyboard you can get. It doesn’t include number keys, but its portability can be a pretty big advantage. Another perk is that it’ll be easier to clean your keyboard if it’s this small.
- 60% - This is the most common layout for custom keyboards, and you’ll be able to find compatible parts easily. It doesn’t include an editing cluster, number pad, or function row.
- 65% - This is almost the same as 60%, with the addition of arrow keys plus the editing button options for navigation.
- 75% - It has a vertical navigation cluster with a function row above the number keys.
- 80% or Tenkeyless - A common custom full-sized keyboard without the number pad.
- 96% - You can only get this keyboard through group-buy keyboard kits. It has most of the keys of a full-size keyboard, omitting only the least-used buttons.
- Full-sized: You won’t be likely to custom-build a full-sized keyboard, as this layout usually only comes with pre-built ones. On the other hand, most keyboards you can buy are laid out this way.
If you set out to build your own keyboard and are unsure which features to pay attention to, here are some of the most important candidates.
First, decide whether you want a regular or mechanical keyboard. If the latter option seems interesting, it would be wise to learn how mechanical keyboards work first, so you can decide if they’re the right fit.
If you want to be sure you can program and remap the keys, you will want to consider QMK Firmware. Moreover, consider which type of USB Port you want: Most users today choose USB-C, as it’s the most versatile option. Finally, if you want lighting, decide if you wish to go the RBG route or choose something more uncommon for the best glow.
You’ll have to take into account how quickly you’ll get your parts, so that you can sync your keyboard-building process with the arrival of necessary components.
Parts that are in stock on Amazon or in a local store can arrive within a few days or weeks, which is the fastest option. If you want customized parts and choose to group buy the whole keyboard set, bear in mind that you might wait up to nine months for delivery, which is not ideal if you want to use your keyboard soon.
Parts Needed For Building a Mechanical Keyboard
The following are necessary items for building your mechanical keyboard; order these components ahead, as getting them delivered might take some time.
- The Printed Circuit Board (PCB) is the brain of your keyboard that sits in the case and makes communication between the switches and the computer possible. All modern keyboards use the PCB.
- Keyboard case - There are various materials, colors, and shapes your keyboard case can come in, but be sure you get the ones compatible with your PCB and other parts needed to build a keyboard.
- Mechanical switches - Depending on how much you like typing keyboard sounds and tactile feedback, you can choose from tactile, linear, or clicky switches. Linear keyboard switches will make minimal noise, while with tactile, you’ll hear a moderate sound from your keyboard. Clicky ones make loud noises. If you can’t decide, get hot-swappable switches so you can change them whenever you want.
Be mindful of how many pins your switches have: If the PCB supports only three-pin switches, and you have five-pin switches, you’ll have to remove the extra plastic pins with nail clippers to make them compatible.
- Keycaps - Your keycaps’ main qualities are durability and the material they’re made of. The rest falls under your personal taste and what you want your custom-built keyboard to look like. Keycaps are usually made of ABS or PBT plastic, with the latter being more durable.
- The switch-mounting plate holds mechanical switches in place when they get plugged into the PCB. It keeps the switches together, and you can customize your keyboard, so your typing is more flexible or firm.
- Tweezers - Convenient for picking up and placing tiny parts and picking the springs.
- Stabilizers - These components are necessary for normal keyboard functioning; they go under keys such as Shift, Space, and Backspace, to keep them from shaking and tilting. They will be in charge of how your keys will feel and sound while you’re typing. You’ll typically need four or five stabilizers.
- Soldering iron and solder - While making your keyboard, you will need to solder or desolder switches, so these are must-have tools unless you’re making a hot-swap keyboard. These will be particularly useful if you make mistakes along the way.
- USB cable - Getting a USB cable compatible with many different ports is the best choice.
Building a Keyboard in 12 Steps
This comprehensive, step-by-step guide will help you build an entirely new and functional mechanical keyboard. If you like putting things together, you probably won’t find these instructions complicated. Remember that some of these steps can be changed to a certain extent, depending on whether you want to give the keyboard more or less of a personal flair.
Step 1- Lube the Switches
Lubing the switches is the first step in the building process and should be done well ahead. The process is lengthy (it takes several hours) and requires patience, so before doing anything else, finish lubing the switches.
Step 2 - Check if the PCB Works Properly
You’ll need a pair of tweezers for this. Plug your PCB into the computer with the USB cable. Go to one of the Keyboard Tester websites. Using your tweezers, touch the two small holes where each key should be placed to test the connection.
Gently place the tweezers on the metal tips, and don’t push too hard - if everything works well, the symbol will change color on the Keyboard Tester, no matter how lightly you press. Adding extra pressure might cause damage. Each key should be checked, and if any of them don’t respond, you should contact the seller and replace the PCB for your new custom-built keyboard.
Step 3 - Assemble the Stabilizers
You’re likely to get your stabilizers disassembled, so they’ll need to be put together before the installation. They’re made of housing, stem, and wire. More specifically, there will be two stems, two housings, and one wire.
The best way to assemble them is to insert the stem into the housing through its bottom. The side with two holes should face the front side of the housing, which is the larger side. The tiny guides should be holding the wire.
The wire should go through the housing to the bottom hole, but it should go entirely down the stem. Once you insert it, the wire should be pressed into the guide until you hear the clicking sound once it’s snapped into the housing.
Step 4 - Mount the Stabilizers if You Use PCB-Mounted Ones
Next, in our custom keyboard guide, we’ll see how to mount the stabilizers. Around the edges where the larger keys should stand on your PCB, there will be two circles. The larger hole is used for the clip, and the smaller one is for the threaded portion of the stab if we’re talking about screw-in stabilizers. In case yours are snap-in stabilizers, the bigger holes are on the side where the wire is.
Step 5 - Mounting the Plate on the PCB
Sometimes, the plate and the PCB can be put together and assembled as a whole unit. In many cases, you’ll get a kit with threaded stand-offs for the plate. If this is the case, screw down the plate after you line it up to fit over the stabilizers. If you got separate stand-offs, now is the time to screw them down.
Step 6 - Install the Plate-Mount Stabilizers
If you ordered plate-mounted stabilizers, they should be installed before the other switches. If you’re unsure how to find them, look for the little line in which you can fit the wire and little cut-outs for each stabilizer’s housing. You should slide the wire into the slot till every housing is in the appropriate cut-out. Finally, press down from each side. Sliding the wire is one of the most delicate tasks to complete when you make your own mechanical keyboard.
Step 7 - Installing Switches
There are two ways you can go about this. Some keyboards will require soldering, while others will use hot-swap sockets.
We’ll explain the installation that requires you to solder switches first. A good strategy for starting is to solder switches on all the corners of the keyboard.
When you’ve warmed up the soldering iron to around 716 degrees Fahrenheit, place some solder on the iron's tip. Then, touch the contact pad, pin it with the iron, and let it warm up for a few seconds before adding more solder. The goal is for the solder to flow onto the contact pad and the pin to make a solid connection between the contact pin and the PCB.
The way to go when building a keyboard with hot-swappable sockets is to align the central mounting pin with the corresponding cutouts. You should press them, but not too hard, especially if they’re not aligning. If they don’t fit, check if the switch pins are bent (if so, straighten them), and if they are, repeat the step.
Step 8 - Preparing the Gaskets and the Case
The next step is to take the case apart. If your case has gaskets, put sound-dampening foam strips on the specified parts of the PCB or the case. You should also add pre-cut case foam at the case’s bottom. As the name suggests, this is done to eliminate the unnecessary sounds your keyboard might make while you’re typing.
Step 9 - Mounting the PCB Assembly
The next step in building your own keyboard should be re-inserting the assembled part of the keyboard into the case. If you can’t remember the specific procedure, refer to the kit you bought, as it will usually have instructions.
Step 10 - Reassembling the Case
After you’ve mounted the keyboard, and installed the switches, you need to reassemble everything. In most cases, you’ll need to screw both halves of the keyboard in place.
Step 11 - Installing the Keycaps
Now that we’re coming close to the end of our keyboard-building task, let’s see how to install the keycaps. The procedure is quite simple - you need to look for the cross on the switch and find the exact cutout underneath the keycap. They will be a perfect match, so simply press the keycap until you hear the clicking sound.
Step 12 - Check if All the Keycaps Work
You can check if all the keys work by going back to one of the keyboard tester websites. If you notice that some keys don’t change color the way they should, their pins could be bent, or the connection with the solder joint might be impaired. If you soldered your keyboard, check if you can add more solder or repeat the procedure.
If your keyboard is hot-swappable, put the key out, and check if the pin is bent. If it is, straighten it. Put it back and check if it works.
Building your own custom mechanical keyboard might seem complex, but if you stick to the instructions and enjoy using things you crafted with your own hands, you’ll probably have fun in the process.
It’s essential to plan everything ahead and not rush. By the time you’ve read this article, you’ll know how to put everything together, but our advice is to have these guidelines nearby while you’re working on your new keyboard. Good luck!
Frequently Asked Questions
You can build a custom mechanical keyboard for approximately $100, but bear in mind that for that money, you can get a prebuilt one that could be better than the one you’d build, and you won’t have to do any of the labor. To make a great mechanical keyboard with custom keys, you should spend around $200-400.
Yes, you can, but you should know that it can be costly and that you should prepare well before you start building. If you’re learning how to build a mechanical keyboard, know that it can be challenging for those without prior experience handling hardware, especially soldering irons. That’s why it’s best to have someone experienced on standby to help you if you get stuck or do something wrong.
Sometimes referred to as niche keyboards, these keyboard types have no number rows, punctuation keys, or arrow clusters. They’re small and portable, which is why some users who got used to this layout prefer them over other types.
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With a degree in humanities and a knack for the history of tech, Jovan was always interested in how technology shapes both us as human beings and our social landscapes. When he isn't binging on news and trying to predict the latest tech fads, you may find him trapped within the covers of a generic 80s cyberpunk thriller.