An Intro into the World of Mechanical Keyboards

Your first view of mechanical keyboards likely happened like this: You saw a post on Instagram or were watching a YouTube video, and, in either case, there was a keyboard that looked old and new at the same time. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to lure you into the confusing yet magical world of mechanical keyboards.

You probably have a lot of questions. What are these parts? What are these terms? How do I… These are all enough to deter people (understandably). But some are determined to learn, so here is my definitive guide to not only building a custom mechanical keyboard but also getting started in the community.

I’m also going to address these questions that also likely popped into your head: How much do these cost? In money?! I’ll have a special note at the bottom of this article that addresses cost specifically.

This article is broken down into five sections. There will also be some affiliate links in here that give me a small kick back and allow me to make my website ad free. Here we go:

  • Terms/Jargon
  • Layouts
  • Mounting Styles
  • Community
  • Cost

A spread of various keyboards.

Terms and Jargon

Every hobby has a lot of terms that are very confusing, and the hobby of mechanical keyboards is no exception.

Group Buys

I want to get this one out of the way first because you are likely going to encounter this right away. A Group Buy means you pay for the keyboard not only before you get it but before it even exists in the physical world. You are funding the keyboard so it can get made. It surely exists in renderings (sophisticated photo-realistic computer drawings) and maybe even a prototype paid for by the person who created the keyboard. But now, in order to become a product, it needs the funds to get hundreds of the keyboards made. You are definitely taking a chance here that the person is trustworthy and won’t run away with your money. This doesn’t happen often at all, but it has, and you need to make sure the community as a whole hasn’t raised a red flag about this person. With that out of the way, most people in this hobby are excellent and are doing their best to make their dream a reality. With the help of your dollars.

Group buys typically last 2-6 weeks. During this time, you can select from all the different material options, colors, optional extras, etc. Sometimes group buys are limited in quantity, so if there is a keyboard you are interested in, make sure you know if it’s date-based (runs for 2-6 weeks) or quantity-based (100 to 150 units and when that maximum is reached, the group buy is closed).

Once the group buy window has closed, the waiting game begins. All I can suggest is you learn to develop your patience muscles. I’ve waited nearly 2 years for certain boards to come in. Often the person has a Discord, so look into joining that in order to be in the loop of what is happening. Really good group buy runners post monthly updates even if there isn’t much to report. You know, “The (made up keyboard here) keyboard is still in the queue with the case maker, but we’re next, so I should hear something more definitive in November.” If you’re curious about if a vendor or runner is reliable, I would just ask in community server.

The Good News

We are seeing less and less of these with more people pushing for shorter turnaround times and more in stock products. In fact, as of 2023 it’s never been a better time to get into keyboards with the amount of in stock goods you can find. I have a vendor list I made to point people in the right direction of where to find goods close to them.

Now that we are up to speed on how to purchase, let’s talk what to purchase.

Here are some of the basic definitions of the parts of the keyboard:

  1. Keyboard Case
  2. PCB
  3. Plate
  4. Stabilizers
  5. Switches
  6. Keycaps

PCB

The PCB (printed circuit board) is the heart and brain of your board. It’s the computery-looking part of the keyboard that tells your computer which key or key combination was just pressed. This is where you’ll install your switches. plate and stabilizers on. PCBs come in either a hot-swap or solderable version. My build guide goes into more detail.

My recommendation as of 2024: If it’s your first time building something, go with a hotswap PCB, it will allow you to try my switches without the need for expensive tools like a soldering iron.

Plate

The plate basically assists in mounting your switches to the PCB. You don’t technically need a plate, but when using a hot-swap PCB, the plate helps lock the switches into place and stops them from wiggling and falling over. When buying a keyboard, you can usually buy a plate in different materials like carbon fiber, aluminum, copper, etc. Each material possesses different properties and can affect the sound profile of the keyboard. They can also add quite a bit of cost to the keyboard.

My recommendation as of 2024: If you’re confused on what material to pick as your first, I suggest trying either aluminum or polycarbonate.

A box of Cherry Nixie switches

Stabilizers

Stabilizers are a critical part of your build. Without overcomplicating it, they stop the wobble of the larger keys like the shift, enter, and space bar. You can’t skip these, and there are some different brands you can choose from.

My recommendation as of 2023: Cherry Clip-In or Durock Screw-In stabilizers. (I have personally assembled over 700+ keyboards over the last few years, and these are the only two brands of stabilizers that are consistently good.)

Switches

Switches can be a lot to understand because there are SO many of them. To keep things super simple, there are linear, tactile and clicky switches as your mains.

  • Linear: Smooth up and down feeling
  • Tactile: A slight bump on the way down so you can feel when the key is moving down.
  • Clicky: Not only a slight bump, but also an audible click.
 

My recommendation as of 2024: Most people end up switching to linear in their keyboard journey, but I strongly suggest trying everything. For linears, I suggest trying KTT rose switches or Obscura switches. For tactile, I still really suggest the good ol’ Holy Panda switch. For clicky, I recently fell in love with NK Cream Clickie Switches!

GMK CYL Dracula in a container.

Keycaps

There’s a chance the keycaps are what first caught your attention when noticing mechanical keyboards. They are almost always plastic and have legends to explain what the key is going to do. But because this hobby is weird and awesome, sometimes the keycaps are blank, only have dots, or have icons (which are sometimes hard to decipher… but it also means you can have the key do whatever you want it to do). Keycaps come in different profiles, but that’s another article. There’s a really good chance your gaming keyboard uses OEM keycaps, so the Cherry profile is likely to be the easiest transition for you.

My recommendation as of 2024: I think keycaps are important, either grab a set of good quality PBT keycaps from brands like Cannon Keys, Novelkeys, or KBDFans. Or invest in a quality set of ABS plastic caps from GMK. I personally love the sound of ABS caps and if you are a fan of my builds I do, I tend to strictly use these.

Layout

Some people would suggest picking a layout or keyboard size first. But with so many layouts, knowing where to start is hard. I suggest thinking about what you are going to use the keyboard for most of the time. Is the arrow key cluster important? Is space at a premium? Do you use the F-row every day? Is this for gaming or day-to-day typing?

Typically, keyboards come in these layouts (there are more layouts, but I’m going to cover the most common):

  • 65%
  • 75%
  • TKL

My recommendation as of 2024: Consider trying a TKL or 75% layout to start. I find most people come into this hobby already using larger keyboards, and these are perfect sizes so you don’t feel like you’ve lost keys you’ve already come to rely on. I strongly suggest the Sonnet from Mode. It’s a great first board with this layout.

Keyboard Mounting Styles

You’ve likely noticed keyboards have been built using weird phrases Top Mount or Gasket Mount. Basically, this is how your PCB and plate assembly mount inside your keyboard case. This will affect how your board feels and sounds. Keep in mind there are more mounting styles, so rather than overload you with too much info, I’m just going to explain the most popular ones. I am also going to leave out the ones you don’t see very often as of 2023.

Top Mount

This style screws into the top of the case. It’s usually rigid, and, depending on the plate you use, usually has a louder sound profile. It will for sure have some of the metal characteristics of the case as well. You’ll also feel some of the feedback and vibrations of typing.

Keyboard example:  Suisei 65 from Kibou

Gasket Mount

The most popular mounting style. Instead of screwing this in, you apply foam or silicone pads on your plate and sandwich the case together to have a gasket-mounted area. If you were to see through your case from the side, it would look like this:

  • Top Case
  • Gasket
  • Plate & PCB
  • Gasket
  • Bottom case

Typing feel varies heavily on this depending on how well it was implemented, but is usually a semi-rigid typing experience that leans more into being softer. Sound varies the most here compared to other mourning styles depending on the plate, switch choice, and keyboard case.

Keyboard example:  Singa Kohaku

Singa Polycarbonate Kohaku

Gummy O-Ring Mount

This is one of my favorites. This method utilizes a single o-ring that surrounds the PCB/plate assembly and simply drops into the case and mounts via friction. It’s typically a soft typing experience and leans more towards the higher-pitched or “clacky” side of sound profiles.

Keyboard example: Bakeneko or Unikorn boards use this mounting style for reference.

Tray Mount

A super common mounting style for cheaper prebuilt keyboards or cheaper cases. They can be stiff to type on, and the sound profile can vary widely on these. But, these are the most fun to mod and usually have tons of flexibility for sound, you just need to put in some leg work.

Keyboard example: OG Tofu or Mekanisk boards.

My recommendation as of 2024: If you’re new and still overwhelmed, go for a gasket mount. It’s in the middle ground for typing, and sounds are typically pleasant from this.

Toronto Keyboard Meetup 2023

Community Is Key

Half the fun of the mechanical keyboard hobby is the community. You have Discord, Twitch, YouTube, and Instagram to see and interact with others in the hobby. It’s fun to see what others have built, and hear how some keyboards sound. It’s really great to be part of something regardless of where you live. It’s how social media should be used. Of course, there is a dark side to communities, especially social media. You know, hiding behind anonymity and being absolutely awful to others. If your first inclination is to mock someone or someone’s build, take a step back. If you reconsider and do it anyway, you are not a good member of the community and I want nothing to do with you. If it’s my community, you’ll be banned, and you can cry censorship to your mirror. This hobby is preference-based, and just because one person likes A and you don’t, doesn’t give you the right to say A is stupid and the person dumb.

I’ve met some wonderful people thanks to this hobby and even when we disagree it’s civil and fun. I learn from them and they learn from me. We share what we are doing, and how we did it, and simply appreciate each other. Do the same and you’ll find a lot more satisfaction from this hobby.

Mechanical Keyboards Are a Luxury

Before I let you go, I want you to know something that is incredibly important to me: being financially responsible. It doesn’t matter what the hobby is. You can easily overspend and get yourself into debt which is hard to dig out of. If an “awesome” keyboard comes out and you can’t afford to buy it three times, then it’s out of your price range right now. Don’t feel bad if you can’t afford your first or your fifth luxury keyboard. Put your priorities in order and when you, one day, have saved up enough, there will be -I guarantee this- a keyboard you simply must have will come around. Do not get into debt because of any hobby, especially mechanical keyboards.

Also if you’re looking for the next page in this series of intro into keyboards, check out my “how to build a keyboard” guide!