A Niche of Custom Keyboards

Jeffrey Go, Managing Editor

As I was scrolling through my YouTube recommended page, one month into the pandemic, I stumbled across a type of video I’d never seen before. It was a typing test of a vibrant, color-filled keyboard, from a channel known as “TaehaTypes.” I remember it was made of titanium and cost over two thousand dollars. The sound the board created reverberated in my ears, and this marked my discovery of the niche but infinitely vast rabbit hole of the mechanical keyboard community.

A mechanical keyboard is a keyboard that is separate from the computer, unlike a laptop keyboard. Instead of a laptop membrane keyboard, which uses rubber domes to communicate when a key is pressed to the computer, a mechanical keyboard uses individual, cube-like switches that send signals via a spring and copper leaf.

To preface this, no, there is no true “practical” benefit to building your own mechanical keyboard. While there are boards that create a more ergonomic or efficient experience to typing, those benefits do not outweigh the relatively high cost.

So, what is the point in getting into the hobby? Why do people spend so much money when there are other, much cheaper options available? Well, while people have their own reasons for throwing wads of money on keyboards, it largely boils down to four different reasons—sound, feel, looks, and quality of life.

People spend most of their time building a keyboard on tuning the sound and feel of it. The sound that can be achieved from typing on a custom keyboard is unmatched from other off-the-shelf boards. Furthermore, the feeling of any keyboard is not something people think about until they try to build their own, in which case it’s nearly impossible to go back to something store-bought. Many others, myself included, also try to make the keyboard look good so that it complements the rest of the desk or room aesthetic. It can really turn into the center piece of the table that just pops.

However, all these factors ultimately contribute to the user’s quality of life. It’s true that a ten-dollar keyboard can do all the necessary functions a ten-thousand-dollar keyboard can. But while spending countless hours every year writing essays, typing messages, or editing videos, the work can be very mundane. This is where the keyboard comes in. Typing on something that looks, sounds, and feels good is simply satisfying. It helps me deal with the fact that I am still sitting in my room, five hours later, with only my intro paragraph written for my Collegio essay. I have something that feels good to type on, looks good, and sounds phenomenal, which in turn improves my overall workflow.

One of the aspects that makes custom keyboards a form of art is the incredible amount of customizability and uniqueness that is out in the hobby. There are so many options out there for the inside workings of a single board, like the switches, plate, and PCB, which register a signal, hold the switches in place, and send signals to the computer just like a motherboard, respectively. But there are also just as many, if not more options for the exterior of the board, like the case and keycaps. The case keeps everything encased and protected, while the keycaps give a bigger surface to hit each switch and are the biggest source of color and style for the board. Even the size, or form factor of the board can be changed drastically, some even omitting everything but the letter alphas and spacebar (yes, that is actually a real thing).

The hobby ultimately culminates into what the maker wants and what their unique preferences are. I love how there is a keyboard out there that can fit anyone’s imagination of what the keyboard should be. There are boards made of polished shiny titanium that is fit for royalty. There are boards made of a dark, bespoke walnut wood that fits a minimal, natural style. I have even heard of keyboards that are made of marble. The point is, if you can picture the keyboard, there is one out there that matches what you picture. Just like a canvas for painting, a mechanical keyboard is a blank surface that can match the creator’s thoughts—as an art.