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Sunday, May 12, 2024

The Colorful, Costly World of Custom Keyboard Enthusiasts

On January 19, 2020, Nathan Kim uploaded a video to his YouTube channel, Taeha Types. Within weeks he had more than 40,000 new subscribers and a rush of new commission requests. The content that led to this success? A walkthrough of Kim building a $3,500 custom luxury mechanical keyboard.

This particular commission was for notable gamer and streamer Tfue, and today that video has more than 7 million views. In it, Kim goes through all the steps of creating a bespoke board, from unboxing the different unique parts he ordered for the job to lubricating the switches (the mechanism under each keycap that enables typing) to assembling the outer case. He demonstrates how the keys sound (“pure creaminess”) and shows off the blue-purple sheen of the anodized aluminum case.

The world of customizing mechanical keyboards exists on dozens of YouTube channels, Discord communities, Reddit threads (like r/MechanicalKeyboards), and Facebook groups. Hobbyists share and spread the joys of keyboards, exchanging tips and showing off the boards they build, buy, or collect.

While enthusiasm for custom mechanical keyboards has been growing steadily over the past few years, the last year and a half has been explosive—newcomers (mostly younger) flooded in, mostly from other online spaces, like the gaming community. Several keyboard enthusiasts cite that Taeha Types Tfue video as a pretty significant catalyst in drawing a huge number of eyes in from the gaming world to Kim’s channel, and to the keyboard space at large.

“That one really blew up and brought a lot of people into the space that really didn't even know that there was a space to begin with,” says Betty Van, a cofounder of the mechanical keyboard website, YouTube channel, and Discord community Switch & Click.

“That Tfue video, I think it shot my YouTube channel up from like 60,000 to past the 100K mark, and then it just kind of kept snowballing from there,” Kim says.

Part of that snowball was Covid-19.

Especially during the early stages of the pandemic, Kim noticed a huge influx of newcomers buying up different home office gear, even creating shortages. Part of that influx included mechanical keyboards. “A lot of people started investing in their home work setup,” he says—people started seriously crafting that ideal home office space that they previously would’ve neglected.

Add in the fact that, with everyone at home, people were consuming online content with unprecedented appetite, and it was the “perfect storm” for Kim’s audience to balloon, and to expand the custom keyboard world. Kim now has 195K and 407K followers on Twitch and YouTube, respectively, who tune in to watch him give tutorials, type ASMR style, review keyboard products, or build entire mechanical keyboards from scratch.

There are a lot of variables to consider when building a custom mechanical keyboard. One of the bigger learning curves is getting a handle on all the terminology—there’s a lot of it. We won’t go into all the terms, but here are the most universal components that make up the anatomy of each keyboard:

  • Case: The keyboard case is pretty simple. It’s the outermost shell that holds everything together. Cases are commonly made out of plastics like acrylic, aluminum, or brass, though you also see ones made of steel or even wood.
  • Printed circuit board, or PCB: PCBs look almost like a piece of art, with patterns of holes and wiring. The PCB contains all the circuitry required to communicate between your keys and your computer. If the keyboard has extra features like lighting or bluetooth connectivity, that wiring will also live on the PCB.
  • Plate: The plate rests on top of the PCB. It helps hold all the components of the keyboard firmly together. The material can also sometimes modify the feel of the typing experience—plates of aluminum or stainless steel will create a firmer typing feel than those made of carbon fiber or palm, which will have more flex.
  • Stabilizers, or “stabs”: Stabs keep longer keys firmly level which helps ensure consistency in typing. Stabilizer sizes depend on the lengths of the keycaps you use.
  • Switches: Every key on a keyboard has its own switch. Pressing on a key moves the switch, which makes contact with the PCB which in turn tells the computer what input you’ve typed. There are different types of switches on the market, each with their own typing feel and sound.
  • Keycaps: The literal keys with letters and symbols printed on them.

Building or buying a custom mechanical keyboard is an opportunity to specify your wants and needs in your typing experience, and then achieve those ideals by tweaking all of those different components, and then some. You can choose the size of your board—do you want a compact no-frills board, or do you like numpads and function keys? Does your optimal typing experience include tiered rows of sculpted keycaps, or do you want your keys to be level? Aesthetically, do you want a colorful plastic exterior or a sleek monochrome aluminum?

And that’s not even getting into unconventional keyboard additions (like knobs and sliders) or macro layouts (smaller keyboards that people, often coders, can program to execute specific functions).

Seeing creative, unexpected keyboard aesthetics is definitely the biggest hook for most newcomers, says James Wong, a keyboard hobbyist who builds boards and takes commissions as a side hustle. Which makes sense, he says, given that people first encounter the hobby through social media. “When you consume content and media about something, the only way you can absorb it and understand it is visually, and auditorily,” Wong says. It’s much harder to communicate on an Instagram post how a keyboard might feel.

Another especially important factor for many hobbyists is how the board will sound, Wong adds. Almost everything you do to a keyboard will influence the acoustics, from the material of all your parts to the type of switches you have, how well you’ve lubed those switches, and even whether or not you’re using a desk mat. While everyone has their own sound preferences, Wong says the trend is “thock.” A keyboard that sounds deeper and more resonant is “thocky,” as opposed to higher-pitched, rattly boards that sound “clacky.” These days, he says, it’s all about the click.


In addition to the pandemic and the Taeha Types video, changing costs is another reason for the boom in mechanical keyboard interest over the past year. When the hobby was more niche, even just a few years ago, the barrier of entry to get a mechanical keyboard was quite high. “It was definitely more of a rich man’s hobby,” says Kim.

But as more sellers entered the market and more keyboard hobbyists swelled demand in tandem, prices began to drop. A bigger market also meant greater innovation. One such innovation that changed the space is the advent of hot-swappable keyboards.

Previously, the only way to attach switches to PCB plates was by soldering them together. If you made a mistake or wanted to change out the kinds of switches on your board, you would need to desolder and resolder those every time. Hot-swappable keyboards have PCBs with special sockets that make it easy to exchange switches without any soldering required, making them popular among hobbyists who like to switch things up (no pun intended) from time to time without going through the longer, more arduous soldering process. Popular models include the Drop CTRL or Drop ALT, as well as boards by GMMK, Keychron, and Tecware, among others.

Betty Van says that “over the past year, year and a half, the entire space just sort of changed where even the more budget keyboards started having hot swappable features.” And prices have changed in a shockingly short time. Van’s first hot swappable board was $200, but “nowadays, you can get a nice hot-swappable keyboard, that may not be made of aluminum and all that fancy stuff, for like 50 bucks now. So it's super accessible.” For comparison, you can get a mass-market, non-custom mechanical keyboard on Amazon or Best Buy for as little as $20.

All that said, cost can still be a prohibitive factor for some. On the lower end, you can buy parts and build your own custom keyboard for $100 to $150. But people can, and do, spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a board. Nathan Kim, for example, offers a full bespoke, luxury package that starts at $1,800. Wong, in comparison, charges around $75 per commission, not including the costs of the parts. The Keyboard Concierge offers services like personal shopping ($150+), building ($100+), and basic modding ($50+).

Custom keycaps provide another opportunity for creativity and expression on a keyboard, while also hitting your wallet. Tiny Makes Things is an artisan keycap maker based in San Jose, specializing in cute keycap designs. Her own retail designs go for $50 to $100 per keycap, but she also does one-of-a-kind custom commissions for a base rate of $300. While that may sound expensive, Tiny says that custom artwork should be expensive. “If you can get this anywhere else, then you can totally go and buy it cheaper anywhere else.”

After getting into keyboards about five years ago, Tiny quickly began collecting boards (she has approximately 60 or 70 that she keeps on an industrial bread rack) and keycaps for herself. But keycap artisans were in short supply, she says, “and there weren’t as many people doing cute keycaps. So I just made my own. And that's kind of how it started.”

Tiny makes keycaps out of resin or clay. Popular commission requests are for keycaps of people’s pets, or their favorite TV or video game characters. Now, she’s probably best known on TikTok, where she gained notoriety for her “Smorgasboard,” a keyboard full of food-themed keycaps. Her caps are colorful and whimsical, and she likes pushing how creative she can be within the confines of a keycap.

TikTok content

This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

“I feel like the biggest thing is, people don't know the possibilities of what you can do with a keyboard,” Tiny says. So when a person sees one of her TikTok videos or pictures of her keycaps online, they’re blown away by the possibility of using something so unconventional to type with.

When your eyes are opened, Tiny adds, it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole. Especially since creators and companies are coming out with new builds and designs all the time.

“FOMO is very big in the hobby,” says Kim—that plus hype culture drives up the prices for certain boards or parts. Certain companies, like Keycult, for example, have built up reputations as premium, high-end brands, and release products in “drops.”

An increasingly common way to buy keyboards is through “group buys”—a seller announces an idea for an exclusive keyboard design, people pay for the product in advance, and then the seller uses those funds to manufacture and then distribute the product months or even years later. Sites like The Key Company and Drop are popular places to discover new gear sold in limited runs.

But group buys have a downside, and create feelings of exclusivity, says Van, which people use to resell those builds at inflated values. And if you’re not especially knowledgeable, it can be easy to waste money on nonessentials. That’s why finding a community with other, more experienced hobbyists is so valuable.

When you first enter the space, it’s easy to feel like you’re drowning in information, says Wong, especially since there’s so much specific terminology and so many options these days. So find some sort of online community: hop on a Twitch stream and join a Discord.

“What I tell people is, after they have something they really like, it's best to stop paying attention to everything that's going on. Because that creates feelings of dissatisfaction with what you have,” Van says.

Wong seconds that, semi-jokingly: “A lot of people talk about ‘endgame,’ which is the board, the one that's going to make you satisfied for life, take it to your grave, that kind of thing.” But when new gear comes out all the time, it’s hard to decide what endgame is for you. So, he says, “find out what you need to make that one really good keyboard, and then just delete your accounts.” Because, at the end of the day, there’s really no practical reason to own more than one mechanical keyboard, he says—“but we’re dumb and we do it.”

That said, if you want to collect something personalized and expressive, why not make it something useful like a keyboard, says Tiny. People hoard all sorts of collectibles—with keyboards, at least they serve a function, especially since we spend so much time at our desks.

And as the world settles back to normality and offices reopen, it’ll be interesting to see people maybe bringing in their gear to work and showing it off to coworkers, says Kim. He considers himself a custom mechanical keyboard evangelist, and he’s always looking for cool new ways the hobby might grow in the future. “I really do have a passion for it and I think everyone, if they have the financial means, should look into building their own.”

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