Re-Keycap-ing My WASD Code Mechanical Keyboard
After yesterdays post about mechanical keyboards, I thought it may be cool to talk about one specific part of a mechanical keyboard, and that’s the keycaps themselves. There are TONS of keycaps out there, and many of them are manufactured in different ways, so let’s talk about them! If you didn’t know, you can re-cap just about any mechanical keyboard so long as you order keycaps that are compatible with the layout of your keyboard, and will fit your switches. Now, let’s talk about what I consider the 3 primary factors that make keycaps differ from each other: material, profile, and legends.
Keycaps can be made from a variety of materials, but the two most common are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polybutylene terephthalate (PBT). Of the two, ABS is much more common, but there are a lot of PBT keycaps out there. Let’s talk about the two plastics characteristics that make them unique.
ABS – Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene
ABS is the most common keycap material, and is used by most large keyboard manufacturers for all their keyboards, and the reason for that is cost. ABS is one of the cheapest plastics that work well for keycaps. ABS feels great, and the keycaps have a satisfying high pitch click when the keys are pressed. Despite the positive aspects, ABS has the drawback that over time, they will start to develop a shine where your fingers sit. This is just how they wear.
PBT – Polybutylene Terephthalate
PBT is a more durable plastic than ABS, and is resistant to becoming shiny like the ABS ones do. They also have a different feel due to the texture of the key being slightly rougher. Despite this fact, the keys actually feel smoother to the touch. This means they will not change in appearance or feel anywhere near as fast as ABS keycaps do. If you haven’t personally tried a set of PBT keycaps, it’s worth checking them out!
The profile of the keycap is the overall shape that the surface of all the keys will form. The profile is a user preference, and each user will have their own profile they prefer. It’s important to note that any one isn’t necessarily better than the others. The below image has a bunch of different keyboard profiles. The pictures are viewing the profile from the escape side of the keyboard.
The legends on keycaps are the markings that you look at to know what character they will produce on the computer. Legends are sort of part of construction as well, since some legend printing methods are actually totally different manufacturing styles. There are 4 primary kinds of legends: pad printed, laser etched, sublimated dye, and double-shot
Pad Printed Legends
Pad printed legends are the most common in mass produced keyboards. The blank key-caps are produced, then a stamp like device prints the legends onto the keycaps, often in one press. These legends are obviously one of the cheapest to create, and will often hold up for the shortest of any legends.
Laser Etched Legends
Laser etched keys are most commonly found on backlit keyboards. This is because the keys are produced from a translucent plastic, then coated with a black UV paint, which a laser then removes to create a legend. The light can shine into the translucent plastic, and back out where the laser etching removed the paint, giving you the backlit effect. One neat thing about laser etching is that you can do it at an angle to achieve legends on the fronts of the keys:
Sublimated Dye Legends
This method is mostly only used on PBT keycaps, and it infuses the ink into the surface of plastic with a heat press process. These legends are known to last the longest of any printed on legends. I personally think these legends look incredibly crisp and precise. My Vortex Race 3 I posted about yesterday has dye sublimated PBT keycaps!
Double-Shot Keycap Construction
Double-shot is often considered the best, and is, not surprisingly, also the most difficult and expensive keycap/legend to produce. The double-shot process uses two different colored plastics to create a keycap and legend. The outer surface of the keycap will be one plastic, and the legend and part of the inside of the keycap will be another plastic, often in a contrasting color. The result is a keycap that the legend is literally built into. Look at this image to see what I mean:
You can see that the legend isn’t just a marking on the key, but an actual part of the key. It’s easy to understand why they’re the most difficult to produce, and the most expensive.
New Keycaps for my WASD Code
I decided, after much consideration, to get double-shot keys made with translucent white and black PBT. These switches will provide me with the many benefits of double-shot keycaps, while still maintaining the ability to back-light. The process of changing keycaps is simple, but it takes time and patience to do properly. I’ll walk you through it!
Step 1: Remove old keycaps
First, you’re going to want to remove your old keycaps. Be careful with wider keys, as they will have some kind of stabilization system, that differ by keyboard. These should be handled with extreme care to prevent they from breaking. There are many YouTube videos that walk you through the process in depth. I recommend checking one out to learn how to remove stabilized keys from your own keyboard.
Step 2: Clean
Once you’ve removed the keys, use some compressed air to gently blow any dust and dirt off of the keyboard. If anything doesn’t come off with compressed air, I tend to use a Q-tip that’s been dipped in a bit of rubbing alcohol to very carefully clean any spots, without leaving any liquid behind.
Step 3: Dampeners (Optional)
One cool thing you can do with Cherry MX switches, is use small O-rings to prevent the keys from bottoming out. The keys instead hit the O-ring, which gives them a softer feel, and dampens any vibrations you may get from the key bottoming out. This is an optional step, but I decide to do it, because this keyboard had a tendency to audibly ping when certain keys are pressed and no dampeners are installed.
Step 4: Install the Stabilized Keys
Very carefully, reinstall your stabilized keys. Again, they are different for every keyboard, and YouTube has lots of great videos about removing and replacing keycaps.
Step 5: Install the Rest of the Keys
I have a process of reinstalling keys that works rather well, for me at least. The function keys and modifiers are the easiest to pick out of the pile, so I will install them first, along with the number pad. Once these are installed, I like to sort my remaining keys into categorized stacks: alphas (or letter keys), punctuation, and the number row:
Step 6: Test
Last step is to plug the keyboard back in and make sure all the keys are working, and that the keycaps are seated onto the switches properly. It’s also important to make sure all the keys make it back into the proper positions.
And that’s all she wrote folks! I really enjoy the new keycaps, and they will be on this keyboard for many years to come!