Custom mechanical keyboards: The definitive guide

In La Guía del Mando we have a weakness for 2 things in particular: craftsmanship and gaming, and there is a peripheral that carries the best of each, we are talking about custom mechanical keyboards.

We have dared to assemble one of these keyboards and in this article we are going to try to make a basic definitive guide with all the assembly and purchase process.

If you don’t want to assemble your keyboard from parts and you prefer one that comes already assembled, take a look at this guide to the best gaming keyboards.

Having made the introductions, let’s start with the guide.

Prelude: Chinese stores

I’m going to share all the links where I have personally shopped.

They are mostly Chinese stores and aliexpress. I have not had any problem, but I want to remark that the delivery time is usually longer than in Amazon, we are talking about that it can take from 2 weeks to 1 month to arrive some piece.

A skill I have developed with custom keyboards is to take the process without rushing and enjoy a journey through which I have gone through several stops.

Stage 1: The PCB

PCB - BM60 ISO
© La Guía del Mando

We start with the core of the keyboard, the motherboard, popularly known as the PCB

I can start by saying that the PCB we have chosen is a BM60 ISO, specifically kit 3 which includes the 2.25U Lshift plate, which we will also talk about.

https://kprepublic.com/products/bm60-rgb-iso-uk-eu-rgb-60-hot-swappable-pcb-qmk-firmware-rgb-underglow-type-c

Size

Our PCB is 60%, which means that it only has 60% of the keys of a conventional keyboard. In our case we don’t have the numeric keypad on the right side nor F1,F2,F3…

But that is not a problem either, since we will have the missing keys at hand if we map them in the second layer, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Layout

The 2 most popular layout types are American (ANSI) and European (ISO). Our PCB is ISO, which means that there is one more key to the left of the Z and we have a vertical ENTER.

In addition, the BM60 has a modification that the arrows and an extra key, stealing part of the space that would have the right Shift on a conventional keyboard, which is why the keycaps we buy must have specific measures.

This point for me has been a small cession of the most artistic part for the benefit of a more functional part and that is because the final finish of the keyboard without the arrows is nicer, but I make much use of the arrows and the truth is that it would hurt me to lose them.

Hot-Swap

Our PCB is Hot Swap, which means that it includes sockets so that it is not necessary to solder the switches to the board, just placing them would be enough. It also has support for 5-pin switches, which means that the switches have 2 more legs so that the anchoring to the board is firmer.

RGB

RGB Teclado mecánico custom
© La Guía del Mando

The PCB includes built-in RGB, programmable with the software. We can customize the LEDS or turn them off with a key combination if we don’t like the lights.

Programming

An important aspect of the PCB is the firmware. In our case the BM60 is compatible with one of the most used firmwares to map the operation of the keys, the QMK, which we will talk about later.

USB

The keyboard has a USB Type-C (USB-C) connection. So we also bought us a cable, this one specifically.

Plate

Montaje teclado mecánico custom
© La Guía del Mando

Finally, the kit comes with a plate (important to choose the 2.25U Lshift, as it is ISO layout), which is the structure to which the switches are attached and serves as the interface between the switches and the case.

It is a plate tray mount, which is supported by the switches and is not screwed to the case. The material is aluminum.

Stage 2: The Stabilizers

A fundamental part for the big keys (space bar, enter and shifts) are the stabilizers, which make that when pressing them on a side the whole key is pressed at the same time.

There are the ones that attach and the screw-in ones, which are screwed to the pcb. Ours are Durock screw-in.

Estabilizador Durock
© La Guía del Mando

The pulsation of the stabilizers and switches is smoother if the parts are lubricated.

For the stabilizers they recommend dielectric grease, but to cut back at some point in the process, I have decided to use Krytox205g0, which I have also used in the switches and it does the same function.

Finally, to prevent (it does not have to happen, thanks Dídac) that the screwed stabilizers can cause a short circuit to the pcb, we will put some washers, which are fiber washers that work as electrical insulators.

I bought these in particular (M2 metric).

If you are like me, who bought everything except the washers, I was recommended to use insulating tape or a piece of latex glove to insulate the screw. I waited for the washers, which took me a couple of weeks.

Stage 3: Switches

Switches gateron yellow
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There are 3 types of mechanical switches:

  • Linear: The clicky one has no confirmation feedback of any kind
  • Clicky: Clicky switches do have a sound feedback, as well as tactile feedback
  • Tactile: These switches have no sound feedback but tactile feedback

I have chosen the Gateron Yellow, a 5-pin linear switch with a 50gr resistance, which is neither too soft nor too hard, and they came with a switch extractor. For example, a softer pulsing would be that of the Cherry red, with a resistance of 45 gr.

If your pcb only supports 3-pin switches and you have bought 5-pin switches, you can always cut the 2 extra legs.

Curva Gateron Yellow
Strength curve of the Gateron Yellow of 50 gr

This is a force curve, in which we can see that the force increases steadily in our Gateron Yellow. We can also observe at which moment of the switch pressing makes contact (press) and in which it stops doing it (release).

Here is a link to more switch graphs: https://chart-studio.plotly.com/~haata/#/

The switches can be upgraded a little bit to make the pressing smoother and firmer. To do this the first thing we will need is a switch opener, on aliexpress there are a lot of them.

Teclado mecánico custom con plate y switches
© La Guía del Mando

The upgrade of the switches

Between the switches I have placed some films, which serve to eliminate the play (or wobble) between the top housing and the bottom housing, which are the two pieces of the outer housing of the switch.

Personally I have not noticed much difference, maybe because probably the Gateron Yellow switches already come from home with a more than enough consistency in the housing, so I could have saved this step.

In other switches, like the jwk, the films do provide more consistency in the pulsing and sound than the one that comes from home.

I lubricated the internal parts of the switch with krytox 105 for the springs, and krytox 205g0 for the stem and bottom housing.

Stage 4: The box (or case)

Well, at this point I had a pretty clear idea.

I had seen keyboards in wooden cases and the hype went through the roof, end of story.

I bought this case:

Caja teclado custom
© La Guía del Mando

First contact with reality: The box cost me about 58€ with shipping, but when it arrived it came with a little letter from FedEx saying that if I wanted the package I had to pay another 30€ of customs. F in the chat.

It turns out that some shipments arriving from China may have to go through a tax process, which they charge you cash on delivery, you should keep this in mind.

But what is life without the risk?

With that said, I put on a glass of cold water, splashed it on my face, saw that I was still awake, and went back to the scene.

Between the box and the PCB it is convenient to have a cushioned surface to dampen the sound of the switches, so I bought a sheet of rubber sheeting at the stationery store and cut it to the size of the box and the screws.

Stage 5: Keycaps

We are approaching the end and reality knocks again at the door.

Among the few options I found, I was served by this one, but with a lot of buts.

There are almost no sets of keycaps for Spanish layout!

My ñ, my dear ñ…

It has been hard to say goodbye, which has also brought good things, but first I will tell the bad ones.

Keycaps
© La Guía del Mando

Due to the layout of the BM60, the fact that the arrows go in 60% makes the keys around them smaller than normal, which makes them even more difficult to get.

But well, I found some keys with a nice neutral color, which had 2 additional packs; one with keys for “Spanish distribution” the balls and another with special size keys for modified layouts.

Add that I also had to buy a keycap extractor to be able to remove the keys and suddenly….

Pam! Third host.

When I received the keys, the Spanish pack had the ñ, but not the rest of the Spanish keys, and that is an epic mess, let me explain:

When configuring the keyboard, you need to have ALL the keys of the language itself, since to program the keys goes by country distributions.

What we install in the firmware of the PCB are the place that we assign to each Keycode and each distribution (ANSI, Spanish ISO, British ISO…) interprets those keycodes according to its layout.

You can make the layout recognize characters from different countries, but to do that you have to map it at the operating system level, to recognize one key as another and that is a hassle, plus if you put the keyboard on another computer you would have to reprogram the mapping and that is something we do not like.

Therefore, the only layout we had the keys 100% available was the American one, so we combined a European ISO layout, with the ANSI key layout.

But still, you could say that it ‘s not bad at all, we’ll give it a 9.

Teclado mecánico custom layout
© La Guía del Mando

The best part of the ANSI layout for programmer nerds like me is that many of the characters used in html, css and javascript are now much more handy and that’s a plus.

We’ll talk about the ñ later, as you can see, I can still use it.

Another thing I wasn’t aware of until I got it was the profile of the keycaps.

The profile is the shape, and my keycaps are of a SA profile, which are of the highest keys and each line has a different height, which makes it difficult to make experimental layouts since putting a key of different rows makes the design does not look as good as one would like.

Perfiles Keycaps
Different keycap profiles

R1, R2, R3 and R4 correspond to the row of keys, R1 would be the one for numbers, R2 QWERTY…, R3 ASDF and so on to the last row.

UPDATE: I have found a set of ISO-ES compatible keycaps for American layout. Base kit + Modifier kit + Modifier Pro + Modifier Pro and ES keys

Last step: Programming the PCB

Once we have our custom keyboard assembled, it’s time to map the keys we have chosen for the layout. In this case we use the QMK configurator to load the firmware on the PCB.

QMK Configurator

Normally, in the layouts we usually add a key called fn to do functions, like f1,f2,f3 or also to control the pcb leds.

The damn ñ!

In the ANSI International layout, the ñ comes out by pressing Altgr + n.

Once the layout is chosen, we compile the firmware and download it (from the same web). Finally, we flash the downloaded firmware with the QMK Toolbox, I leave a couple of videos with the process.

Teclado mecánico custom
© La Guía del Mando

For now that’s all, if you want to leave a comment to contribute to the guide, leave it.

And if not, then do not leave it haha.

Última actualización el 2021-06-13 / Enlaces de afiliados / Imágenes de la API para Afiliados

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