A kit-built sandwich keyboard with purple aluminum top plays the perfect host to GMK’s Skeletor set.

Between my keyboard-centric posts here on Kotaku and my Twitter feed, I’ve been posting a lot of pictures of very pretty keyboards lately, which leads to people asking me where they can buy those keyboards. For the most part, you can’t. You have to build them.

I’m not saying you need to buy a kit and learn to solder, though those are excellent things to do. What I am saying is that recieving your keyboard from Amazon or MechanicalKeyboards.com or someone on Reddit’s MechMarket is just the beginning.

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Take my Saber 68, for example. It started off as a barebones board I grabbed from a seller on Reddit. Just a case, a PCB, some MOD-M switches and that was it.

While searching for a nice set of keycaps for a completely different keyboard, I picked up an EnjoyPBT Valentine set.

The set ended up not quite going with the keyboard I bought it for (you’ll see that one in a bit), but being a full set with tons of extra keys, it did have the distinctive short shift key that was making fitting my existing key caps on the Saber 68 so tough. Between that and the aluminium Saber 68 case the folks at Originative briefly had up for sale, I wound up with one of my favorite keyboards.

Putting together a good look can be a bit of a process, but the results are pretty stunning.

Know Your Switches

Before you go purchasing a half dozen set of keycaps in one week (something I’ve not done since at least last week), make sure your keyboard can handle the caps. Pop one of the smaller keys from your board (the larger ones often make use of stabilizers, which can be a bit tricky) and see what sort of switch lies beneath.

If you see this cross under your keycap, then congratulations, you either have Cherry MX switches or one of numerous MX compatibles. Gateron, Greetech, Outemu, Kailh and even Razer’s proprietary switches use the cross pattern as well. The majority of keysets are made for this switch profile, so your choices are vast and varied.

Image via Deskthority.net

If you see a circular hole like the one above, you’ve got Topre switches, but then you probably already knew that. Used in some of the most coveted and beloved mechanical keyboards, no one who has a Topre-switched board is unaware that is what they have, and will mention it at every turn. I have two of them. Finding full keysets for these can be tough and expensive, though some Topre switches come with MX steams in the center for keycap purposes, and there are adapaters available.

This is an Alps switch. I don’t know a lot about Alps switches, other than the fact that Canadian company Matias makes clone switches and the keyset options are limited (but they are out there).

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You may see switches in other shapes. My Ultra Classic from Unicomp uses IBM’s classic buckling sprint design—if you’ve got a hole with a spring sticking out of it, that’s you, and your options are even more limited. If you’ve got a Logitech board that uses its own Romer-G switches, enjoy the caps that come with it, because that’s all you’re getting.

My Ultra Classic makes good use of the colored buckling spring caps I could find.

Besides knowing which sort of switch you have, you’re also going to take into account your keyboard’s keycap profile. If you’re replacing the entire board it’s not a big concern, but if you just want a few vanity caps you’ll want them to match the height of your existing keys. The Mechanical Keyboard Reddit has a handy picture guide that’s far too long to post here. Have a look.

Keycap Materials

There are several different materials used to make standard keycaps, but there are only two you really need to worry about when it comes to buying custom keys and keysets.

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ABS: Most keycaps on the market are made from good old acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. In fact a whole lot of computer peripherals are made out of ABS. It’s everywhere, even out in the sun, where it is prone to yellowing.

PBT: Polybutylene terephthalate is stronger, more heat resistant and doesn’t yellow under ultraviolent light. It’s also more expensive, but you get what you pay for.

Which is better? I don’t know, man. Some people swear by PBT, but some of the most sought-after sets going are ABS. Find yourself a keyboard swap meet or event and see how you like the feel of each.

Start Slow

You don’t have to replace every single keycap on your keyboard, at least not at first.

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Singles: The journey of several million strokes begins with a single cap. Do an internet search for “novelty keycaps” and you’ll find a whole bunch of pretty little things to add to your keyboard one at a time. The escape key is always a good choice.

Want to take things a step further? Sites like WASD Keyboards sell custom UV printed keycaps featuring your own graphics or clipart.

Image via WASD Keyboards.

Modifier Sets: If you want to give your keyboard a splash of color, consider just getting your modifiers done.

Modifier set via a recent Massdrop. Note the side-printed legends.

Leave the alphanumerics alone for right now and let the shift, ctrl, alt and enter keys strut their stuff. It’s a classy look for a keyboard that frames the alphanumerics quite nicely.

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Replace your WASD keys or arrow keys. Find a cool way to highlight some of the keys you use the most. It’s good, relatively cheap fun.

Full Keysets

This is where things get dangerous for your wallet. You start off small, maybe picking up a set made by Tai-Hao, one of the most prolific and reasonably-priced keyset makers out there. Most sets run between $30 to $50 in the States, though you can find them on eBay from sellers in Hong Kong for much lower if you don’t mind waiting for shipping.

You’ve just changed the entire look of your keyboard for $50! But, hrm, maybe it’s not quite the look you were going for. You know what would really look good? That Devil set from JT Keycaps. The colors are but sharper, the plastic a little thicker.

JT Devil image via Originative. 

Next thing you know you’re dropping close to $200 on a set from GMK, the German company that procured Cherry’s double-shot tooling technique. Double-shot molding is when the bulk of a key is molded in one plastic, leaving spaces for additional plastic to be molded, forming a two-tone cap that doesn’t wear. (Update 4/24 10:20PM: I had that backwards. The insert is molded first, then the cap.) Many companies do this, but GMK is widely considered one of the best.

GMK Skeletor set, purchase for $180. It arrived in a plastic bag, making it the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased in a plastic bag.

This is exactly the process I went through as I discovered the joy of keysets. Not only is collecting and trading the different colors and combinations compelling, the act of pulling off keys and placing new ones is quite relaxing.

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Fun, rewarding and expensive! Here are some tips for buying keycap sets to help lessen that last bit.

Know your keyboard: Does your keyboard feature a special layout that might not be covered by the keyset you are purchasing? Larger, more expensive sets often feature plenty of extra keys to keep this from happning, but a $30 Tai-Hao will not. Also be mindful of your keyboard’s coloring—what looks good in on someone else’s board might not be the same on yours.

Look at pictures: One of the reasons I love shopping for keysets on Reddit’s Mechmarket sub is that people there post pictures of their sets in real situations, often near shoes for some reason. A picture of the keys on a keyboard in a workplace is a far better indicator of what you’ll be getting than a marketing shot.

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Don’t expect a pretty package: As I mentioned above, the most expensive keyset I own came shipped in a clear plastic bag. This was not the retailer’s doing either—this was a bag from the original manufacturer. I have a special place in my office where I stack bags of keycaps sets, just waiting for the right keyboard to come along.

Go blank, or at least topless: Can you handle a blank keyboard? Do you know the keys well enough to type without printed legends? Well then you are a fancy, fancy person who deserves a fancy, fancy keyboard. When you don’t have to worry about which key goes where and does what, they sky is the limit.

My Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional 2, featuring custom dyed keys.

And if you’re not ready for blanks, there’s always side-printed keycaps, which keep the tops clear but leave a little reference.

My Varmilo came with a lovely blue case and these side-printed Miami-style keys. I want to eat them.

Can’t find what you want? Go custom: Online keyboard shops like WASD Keyboards and Max Keyboard offer customers the chance to fully customize their own keysets, picking colors, choosing fonts and even adding their own custom graphics. They aren’t the highest quality keycaps you can buy, but a full custom set runs something like $50, which is pretty ridiculous.

Advance Mode Keycaps: Artisans

Want an even more expensive way to customize your keyboard? Artisan keycaps are specially crafted in small batches, generally sold via group buys, raffles or flash sales. We’ll get more into these in a separate article down the line. For now, know that the generic robot head below ran me $15, and the Growler (pirate kitty) was $35. They get much, much worse.

Left: A Growler from Cozcaps. Right: A robot from I don’t know.

Now Go Play

Now go forth and hunt for your perfect keys. Search eBay, search Reddit. In fact, Reddit has a lovely page on keycap sellers that’s a great place to get started. Get in on group buys on expensive new sets so you don’t have to pay a premium later. Don’t go crazy, unless you have the means—then by all means go crazy.

I may have gone a little crazy.