Getting Started: Custom Mechanical Keyboards

Here’s my quick guide to how to get started on mechanical keyboards! This is not conclusive, but it’s what I usually ask when someone tells me that they want to get a mechanical keyboard.

First Question: What’s your budget?

The difference between a $50 dollar keyboard, and a $500 keyboard is worlds apart. But realistically, not everyone has the budget to throw in $500 into a keyboard, even thought they might only have one. Therefore, the usual starting budget I recommend for most is $150 SGD (approx $120 USD) for their first keyboard. This is especially if the person is going in blind, and not sure anything specifically about keyboards.

Starting build recommendation: KPRepublic XD 64 Kit, with Gateron Milky Yellows, and standard 1.25U L Shift Plate, and with Acrylic case. Topped off with Gliging White on Black or Black on White keycaps.

Key points of this build:

It is a 60% Keyboard. This takes away the function row, number pad, and arrow cluster. We are most familiar with this layout, because all of our laptops are currently a 70% keyboard, because of the function row. Some of our laptops do include our arrows, and this build can actually accommodate the arrow cluster. You will need a bit of skill or tinkering around before you can build it in yourself. But any keyboard enthusiast worth his or her salt should be able to build this for you no problem.

The standard 1.25U left shift would result in a normal ANSI layout, which stands for American National Standards Institute. This is what we commonly see in mechanical keyboards, but not what most of our laptops have.

This is also a good segue into the next question:

Second Question: What size keyboard are you comfortable with?

Based on the size of the keyboard, you have a few things to consider:

  1. The case
  2. The plate and configuration
  3. The keycaps

For the case, a basic custom mechanical keyboard build would be a tray mount design. Mounting is how you secure the PCB – the controller board – to the case. Some cases have an integrated plate, and that’s where the plate isn’t needed, because its part of the case. Some cases have this really hype word called Gasket mount. In those cases, the case and plate usually come together, because they would need to fit perfectly. Gasket mount means that the plate is not mounted or screwed down onto the case, but floats between two poron pieces, above and below the plate.

The cheapest cases are 60% acrylic tray mount cases, at about $15-$20, or even less. The next level of these would be 65%, and then it goes upwards from there. Unfortunately, 40% keyboards usually cost the same amount as a 80% board, because the manufacturing quantity is less. Unless, the board design is popular and there are cheaper alternatives to it.

For the plate and configuration, it depends on what keys you think are necessary. It also relates to functional use. For example, I am quite happy to have my backspace closer down by one row. My backspaces are usually at the Pipe or Backslash key. This makes it less of a stretch for me to reach. I tend to not use my right shift key too much, so I usually make the shift key smaller, and place a function key next to it.

All these adjustments are done with the PCB first, meaning the PCB must allow that configuration. If the PCB does not have that slot, no matter what you do, it cannot be placed in.

This is the full functionality of a XD60 PCB, and the full range of configurations it could do.

Lastly, the keycaps you buy need to cover these configurations. Most keycaps at the cheaper prices do not cover the full scale of all configurations, and you will need to check. However, the 60% ANSI layout is the easiest and cheapest to find. It does mean that when buying another keyboard of a different configuration after that, you will need to buy another keycap set.

All keycaps are measured in 1u and quarters from there, example being 1.25, 1.5, 1.75, 2, 2.25, 2.5, 2.75, and some spacebars are 3, 5, 6, 6.25, 6.75, 7, 10.

Key things to look out for in configurations:

  1. Length of the shift keys on both sides
  2. Length of the bottom row function keys, like Alt, Ctrl, Win key.
  3. Length of spacebar.
  4. Backspace configuration

Third question: How deep into the hobby do you think you will get into?

This is an important question because of the deep rabbit hole of mechanical keyboards. If you might want to go very deep into mechanical keyboards, then the build above is a great start, because you will also need to solder the keyboard together. This gets you going on soldering, tweaking things, and basically going through the range of trial and error that a lot of us deep in the hobby face.

On the other hand, if RGB and trendy switches is your thing, I would strongly recommend picking a hotswap keyboard with RGB. This might cost a little bit more, but will allow you to test many of the switches, and do some simple modding to your keyboard for the long run of it. Most of the time, hotswaps last pretty well, but do stay away from MillMax sockets if given a choice. They can work well, but I find their friction fit doesn’t as long as Kailh or Gateron Hotswaps.

There’s also no shame in just getting any standard Keychron, or something along those lines. I do throw shade sometimes at Keychron keyboards, because I feel that for the price of a Keychron, you could pick up a better custom set up with Royal Kludge or other smaller brands that are better built.

Along with the depth of how much you want to get into the hobby, it will incur some amount of waiting time. Which brings us to…

Last question: How long can you wait for your keyboard?

The time duration is one of the key things in the world of mechanical keyboards. If you need a keyboard immediately, and the mechanical keyboard idea was popped into your head from a friend, I would recommend getting a pre built keyboard.

For the beginner basic build that I suggested at the top, the wait time for all the pieces to arrive for me was 3-4 weeks. This is shipping from China to Singapore, ordered from AliExpress.

For group buy boards, the usual wait times are within a year. This is because each board is individually made per order. There are no huge factories making these luxury keyboards, and it’s usually one or a few people working their own machines to get the keyboards out.

For keycaps, there are many clones that can be ordered immediately. I don’t support these because the designs are usually ripped off. The finishing isn’t great, and the quality is questionable at times. The famous GMK keycaps are currently on a 3-4 year wait time, from the time the group buy ends. So that’s another long wait.

If you want a high end custom board immediately, you could probably get it. But it will cost you a ton. Boards like the Alice (ergo split keyboard on a single case) run for about USD4000 or 5000. Keycults go for about USD2000. These are just for the boards. Original GMK keycaps would also cost you another few hundreds. And then you add on the switches which would ring you another hundred if you’re getting one of expensive fancy switches. You would have a great time typing, but you would probably be broke for a few months at least.

In conclusion:

  1. How much money do you have to spend?
  2. How much effort do you want to put into keyboards (for the layout, and for maintaining and keeping your board updated with switches, keycaps etc)
  3. How much time do you have to wait?

Custom mechanical keyboards are definitely not for everyone, and its totally okay to admit that. I think that knowing when to stop is important, and if you’re looking for a voice to tell you that, then you should not be looking at this post in the first place, and you should talk to your friends about your obsession. They would give you the strange looks that I also received, as I ranted for a few hours about why Creams needed breaking in, or why Nixies cost so much.

Jokes aside, my hope is really for people to find the keyboards that fit them, and what they’re keen on in life. Many people don’t need fancy keyboards, and that’s alright. I know I’m not many people, and at the end of the day, I’m really okay with that. I’ve sunk in way too much time and effort into keyboards already, and I’ve accepted that as something that part of what makes me click.

So gather your motivation if you’re gonna stick it in the long haul, and hopefully, I’ll see you when you get your GMK keycaps.


Leave a Reply