Custom Mechanical Keyboards: recommendations for barebones, switches, keycaps and mods

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The third and final part of the wondrous journey through the land of custom mechanical keyboards provides concrete recommendations for the implementation of individually assembled and customized mechanical keyboards based on the expertise of the community. The main focus is on keyboards in ISO-DE formatting.

Table of contents

  1. Part III: A crazy tea party
    1. Recommendations for ISO-DE keyboard housing (barebones/fully)
    2. Recommendations for keycaps
    3. Recommendations for switches
    4. Recommendations for modifications
  2. Conclusion

Part III: A Crazy Teaparty

The wondrous and costly journey into the realm of custom mechanical Keyboards (individually assembled and customized mechanical keyboards) goes into the final round.

In front of the house stood a covered tea-table, at which sat the hare and the hatter; a marmot sat between them, fast asleep, and the other two used it as a pillow to rest their elbows on, and talked over its head. “Very uncomfortable for the marmot,” thought Alice; “Now that it's asleep it probably won't care.”

From Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The first two parts of the “Into the rabbit hole” series have already provided an overview and explanation of the most important terms relating to custom mechanical keyboards.

  • Down the rabbit hole I: Custom Mechanical Keyboards – the beginning
  • Down the rabbit hole II: Custom Mechanical Keyboards – the eternal fall

Recommendations ISO-DE keyboard case (barebones/fully)

To get you started, the list below shows selected keyboards in various sizes that meet ISO formatting in the QWERTZ layout. An important prerequisite for this is the ability to be able to swap the switches quickly and easily in the future (“hot swap capability”). The list was created with the expertise and experiences of the community.

Layout Name Version Price Colors Features FullsizeKeychron Q6 Barebone ca. EUR 175 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Barebone Knob Version ca. EUR 185 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Fully Knob Version ca. EUR 205 Carbon Black/Silver Grey /Navy Blue Keycaps/Switches included – QMK/VIA Support Ducky One 3 Fully approx. EUR 150 to EUR 200 many variants Keycaps/Switches included – control via function keys 1800 – 96%Keychron Q5 Barebone approx. EUR 175 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Barebone Knob Version approx. EUR 185 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support GMMK 2 96% Barebone approx. EUR 90 Black/White internal software fully ca. EUR 130 black/white keycaps/switches included – internal software TKLKeychron Q3 Barebone ca. EUR 165 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Barebone Knob Version ca. EUR 175 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Fully Knob Version ca. EUR 195 Carbon Black/Silver Grey /Navy Blue Keycaps/Switches included – QMK/VIA Support CIY X77 Fully* approx. EUR 55 Black/White Keycaps/Switches included – internal software Keychron K8 Pro Fully approx. EUR 120 Black Keycaps/Switches included – QMK/VIA Support – Wireless Ducky One 3 TKL Fully approx. EUR 135 to EUR 190 many variants keycaps/switches included – control via function keys GMMK 2 Compact Barebone approx. EUR 90 black/white internal software Fully approx. EUR 130 black/white keycaps/switches included – internal software Freebird TKL Barebone approx. EUR 240 to EUR 260 Black/White/Olive/Navy QMK/VIA Support – check availability IDOBAO ID87 V2 Kit Barebone approx. EUR 220 Black/White QMK/VIA Support – check availability ZOOM TKL Barebone Group- Buy 10 different colors QMK/VIA Supp ort – Available February 2023 – Wireless Vortex Model M SSK Kit Barebone ca. 240 (Preorder) Black/Silver/Blue/Space Gray QMK/VIA Support – Available Q1/Q2 2023 Monsgeek M1 Aluminum Keyboard Kit Barebone ca. 125 (Preorder ) Black/E-White/Pink QMK/VIA Support – Available from Q1 2023 75%Keychron V1 Fully Knob Version approx. EUR 94 Frosted Black Keycaps/Switches included – QMK/VIA Support Keychron Q1 (Version 1) Barebone approx. EUR 136 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Keychron Q1 (Version 2) Barebone approx. EUR 155 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Barebone Knob Version approx. EUR 165 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support GMMK Pro Barebone approx. EUR 170 Black/White internal software IDOBAO – ID80V2 Barebone approx. EUR 200– Black/White/Silver/Red QMK/VIA Support QK75 Barebone End of November/beginning of December 2022 Black/Mint/Ice White/Milky White/Pink/Lavender QMK/VIA Support – large selection of additional options 65% Keychron Q2 Barebone approx. EUR 160 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Barebone Knob Version approx. EUR 170 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support KBD67 Lite R4 Kit Barebone approx. EUR 115 Black/White/Transparent/Violet QMK/VIA Support RK Royal Kludge RK 68 Fully* approx. EUR 81 Black/White Keycaps/S witches includes – wireless – internal software 60%Keychron Q4 Barebone approx. EUR 140 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Fully approx. EUR 160 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue Keycaps/Switches included – QMK/VIA Support Keychron V4 Fully approx. EUR 80 Black Keycaps /Switches included – QMK/VIA Support RK Royal Kludge RK 61 Fully* approx. EUR 71 Black/White keycaps/switches included – Wireless – internal software Ducky One 3 Mini Fully approx. EUR 130 to EUR 140 many variants keycaps/switches included – Control via function keys Akko 3068B Plus ISO Fully ca. EUR 115 Black, Gold Keycaps/Switches included – internal software Akko 3068B Plus ISO Fully ca. EUR 115 Blue, White Keycaps/Switches included – internal software 40% Keychron Q9 Barebone ca. EUR 139 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Barebone Knob Version ca. EUR 149 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support NumblockKeychron Q0 Barebone approx. EUR 80 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue QMK/VIA Support Fully approx. EUR 90 Carbon Black/Silver Grey/Navy Blue Keycaps/Switches included – QMK/VIA Support KBDPAD Mark II Barebone approx. EUR 90 Gray /Creamy White/White/Light Blue/Red/Black/Rose Gold QMK/VIA Support Fully ca. EUR 110 Gray/Creamy White/White/Light Blue/Red/Black/Rose Gold Keycaps/Switches included – QMK/VIA Support GMMK Numpad Fully ca. EUR 140 Black/White Keycaps/Switches included – internal software – wireless

Image 1 of 7

GMMK 2 – 96% (image: gloriousgaming.com)
FreeBird – TKL (Image: candykeys.com)
IDOBAO – ID80V2 – 75% (Image: keygem.com)
KBD67 Lite R4 Kit – 65% (Image: kdbfans.com)
Akko 3068B – 60% (Image: akkogear.de)
Keychron Q9 – 40% (Image: keychron.com)

Many of the keyboards mentioned can also be found in the price comparison or regional online shops listed there, and it can be worth comparing them with purchases from (non-European) suppliers. Because when shopping outside the EU, you have to consider shipping costs, taxes and customs duties.

All keyboards mentioned are also available in ANSI format. For a custom mechanical keyboard in ISO-DE formatting, however, the wallet has to be looser. This is particularly important when selecting the keycaps, since (usually) additional costs are incurred for an additional international keycap set. It should also be mentioned that the selection of barebones and keycaps in ANSI format is simply a lot higher. This justifies the idea of ​​going straight into ANSI-US formatting.

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However, the ISO market is getting more and more attention and many manufacturers are jumping on board. Keychron provides a great overview in this regard. In addition to ISO-DE, ISO formatting for Spain, France, Switzerland, the Nordic countries, Japan and Great Britain is also offered there.

  • ISO-DE collection on Keychron

Recommendations for keycaps

Keycaps round off the overall package and provide the necessary finishing touches. Visually there are almost no limits, but there are sometimes enormous differences in quality.

When putting together a custom mechanical keyboard, one goal is often to set yourself apart from the classic gaming keyboard market. A clear demarcation from cheap ABS keycaps – which become greasy and shiny after intensive use and are also used in higher-priced gaming keyboards – is prioritized and higher-quality ABS and PBT keycaps are the focus. To help get you down the rabbit hole, cheaper PBT keycap sets have also been added to the list. Some of the keycap sets only offer keys for standard layouts. Before buying, you should check whether the desired keycaps are also compatible with the desired keyboard and its layout.

Area Name Price Colors Features IntroductionYMDK PBT* ca. EUR 25 Black/White PBT – Shine through – pay attention to layouts! Corsair PBT Pro* approx. EUR 30 Onyx Black/Artic White/Elgato Blue/Origin Red/Rogue Pink/Mint Green PBT – pay attention to the layouts! YMDK PBT* approx. EUR 35 Carbon German ISO/Godspeed German ISO PBT Tonner Solution PBT Pro * approx. EUR 45 White PBT – pay attention to the layouts! Keychron ISO/ANSI PBT Set approx. EUR 45 Carbon/Blue/Iceberg/Retro PBT – suitable for Q3/Q4/Q6/K8 Keychron ISO PBT Set approx. EUR 45 Carbon/Blue/Retro PBT – suitable for Q1/K2 Tai- Hao ISO-DE approx. EUR 45 to 65 different selection ABS/PBT – pay attention to the layout! Glorious GPBT ISO-DE approx. EUR 65 Black Ash/Carribiean Ocean/Rainforest/Artic White/Nebula/Olive Green/Pastel-Coloured PBT High qualityTeleport Basis Set approx. EUR 65 to 75 Black/White PBT – pay attention to the layouts! – Accent/Modifier Set as an additional purchase WhackyDesks Ozzy ISO-/ANSI-DE approx. EUR 80 Turbo green, canary yellow, smooth black PBT – pay attention to the layouts! – first batch with small errors XMI Japanese Purple Set NorDeUk approx. EUR 110 beige PBT – RGB mods as additional purchase XMI NorDeUk approx. EUR 120 beige PBT – RGB mods as additional purchase PBTFans Doubleshot WOB approx. EUR 100 to 130 White/Black PBT – International -Kit as an additional purchase – check availability! PBTFans dagger approx. EUR 100 to 150 grey, brown PBT – international kit as an additional purchase – check availability! PBTFans Twist approx. EUR 100 to 150 grey, light blue, yellow PBT – international kit as additional purchase – check availability! PBTFans Kabuki-Cho approx. EUR 130 to 160 Yellow, various shades of blue, pink PBT – International Kit as additional purchase – check availability! GMK Minimal II approx. EUR 130 to 200 White ABS – International/Accent-Kit as additional purchase – check availability!

Image 1 of 15

PBTFans Twist (image: kdbfans.com)
PBTFans dagger (image: kdbfans.com)
GMK Minimal II (image: mykeyboard.eu)
PBTFans WOB (Black) (Image: kdbfans.com)
XMI Japanese Purple Set – NorDeUk (image: kbnordic.eu)

< figure class="thumbs__figure thumbs__figure--has-caption"> XMI NORDE (image: kbnordic.eu)

WhackyDesk's Ozzy (Image: whackydesks.com)
Teleport Base Set (White ) (Picture:  theteleport.de)
GPBT ISO DE (Picture: amazon.de)
TAI-HAO PBT (Image:  tai-hao.com)
< img src="/wp-content/uploads/be614ecfdb392f08e2c521c7d7658a97.jpg" /> Keychron ISO-DE PBT (image: keychron.com)
YMDK PBT II (image: amazon.de)
Corsair PBT Pro (image: amazon.de)
YMDK PBT (image: amazon.de)

Keygem is a good place to go for available keycap sets from for example PBTFans, DCS and more. A newcomer in this area can also be found in the list: WhackyDesks from Germany primarily supplies the ANSI/ISO-DE market with high-quality PBT keycaps. The first delivery of the Ozzy set did not meet the company's quality standards and was therefore passed on to the customer at a lower price. The quality defects were communicated transparently and openly to the customers in advance. However, other projects by WhackyDesk should be kept in mind. An open ear for the community, high quality standards and competent support speak for themselves to date. If you are looking for GMK keycaps, you are in good hands with Oblotzky. For extraordinary designs, we recommend checking out Drop.

Image 1 of 3

DROP – Iron Man (Image: drop.com)
DROP – Noctua (image: drop.com)

Recommendations Switches

A very important point of a custom mechanical keyboard is and remains the switches. They not only contribute to the soundscape, but also to the typing feel and the characteristics of a keyboard. An explanation of the various switches can be found in the first part of this series.

Some recommended switches are listed in the following overview. In addition, it should be said that the topic of switches involves a very subjective preference. There is a very large selection of different switches and this makes a recommendation difficult.

Type Name Manufacturer Bottom-Out Pre-Lubed LinearAlpaca V2 Durock/JWK 62g × C³Equalz Tangerine Durock/JWK 62g/67g ✓ – Gateron CJ Gateron 60g shift carriage only × Gateron Box CJ Gateron 60g ✓ – Spring base lightly lubricated Gateron Milky Yellow Pro Gateron 65g ✓ Gateron Ink Black V2 Gateron 70g × Boba LT Outemu 55g/65g × Aflion Tropical Waters V2 Keebhut 60g ✓ Tactile Boba U4T Outemu 62g/68g × C³Equalz Kiwi Durock/JWK 67g ✓ – Shift Slider only Tecsee Purple Panda Tecsee 67 g × Gateron Baby Kangaroo Gateron 67 g ✓ Akko CS Lavender Purple KTT 55 g both variants Corsa Switch Tecsee 60 g × Silent Linear Bobagum Outemu 52 g/62 g/68 g × Gateron Silent Ink Gateron 70g × Silent TactileBoba U4 Outemu 62 g/65 g/68 g ×

The switches can mostly be found on Keygem, Candykeys, splitkb.com, mykeyboard.eu and a small selection on WhackyDesks. Always consider the intended use and location when selecting the switch. If you are looking for cheap but good switches, you will be happy with the quality of Akko switches.

Akko Switches Overview (Image: akkogear.de)

In order to improve the soundscape, to eliminate an existing “scratchy” typing feel or the reverberation of the switching springs, it is inevitable that the Lubricate the switches and oil the springs. If you want to save yourself the work, you can use pre-lubricated switches, which at least give a softer and more pleasant typing experience.

There is no clear recommendation for the “best” switch!

There is no clear recommendation for the “best” switch. Depending on the keyboard housing, the keyboard plate used (brass, aluminum, polycarbonate, fiberglass) and the keycaps used, the sound can vary greatly. Your own preferences can also vary greatly here and ultimately the modifications made to the keyboard also play a role.

Clicky switches tend to get little attention in the custom mechanical keyboard scene and are therefore not included in the list of recommendations. However, if you are looking for exactly such switches, you will find them in the Kailh Box (Jade, White, Navy), MX Blue/Green or Gateron Blue/Gold/Bronze.

Recommendations modifications

An interplay of keycaps, switches, the plate used (brass, aluminum, polycarbonate, FR4 (mixture of epoxy resin and glass fiber fabric)) and keyboard housing ultimately result in the very individual soundscape of your keyboard. With a few modifications, the sound and the typing feel can also be changed to suit your own taste.

The following modifications are available for an aluminum housing.

< ul class="text-ul text-width">

  • Force-Break-Mod
  • Tape-Mod
  • Polyfill (wadding) or soundproofing mat
  • PE-Foam-Mod (polyethylene)*
  • The modifications aim to dampen an existing high pinging noise from the keyboard when it is pressed and to ensure a deeper soundscape. Here you can act freely according to taste in order to implement your own preferences and wishes in the best possible way.

    PE-Foam- Mod by Bored Bear (Image: youtube.com)

    As you can see in the picture, the PE-Foam-Mod uses a polyethylene foam and attaches it to the top of the PCB. If the optical RGB effects of a keyboard are important to someone, this modification is not recommended.

    The biggest challenge is a clean-sounding spacebar. “Alexotos” offers perfect instructions for this on its YouTube channel, after which the stabilizers of the keyboard used in the article were modified.

    If you are dissatisfied with the built-in stabilizers, the following alternatives are available:

    • TX-Stabilizers
    • Durock Stabilizer V2
    • C³ Equalz Stabilizer V3
    • AEBoards Staebies V2 Stabilizer

    Then it appears a Keychron Q3 the modification tests. The following components were used:

    • Barebone: Keychron Q3 TKL ISO
    • Switches: Gateron Box CJ (China Joy)
    • Stabilizers: Gateron V2< /li>
    • Keycaps: PBTFans Kabuchi-Cho
    • Lubricant: Krytox 205g0 (for switches/stabilizers), Krytox 105 (oil – for shift spring), G-Lube (for stabilizers)
    • Mod: Force Break Mod, Tape Mod
    • Plate: Brass

    Image 1 of 2

    Keychron Q3 – RGB Effect

    < /figure>

    Due to the hollow aluminum housing of the Keychron Q3, the sound structure without modifications is very weak, high and has a typical metallic sound. In order to create a more pleasant soundscape (always in the eye of the beholder), the modifications mentioned above were used.

    The existing aluminum plate was exchanged for a brass plate. A PE foam mod was not used due to the desired RGB effects. To get a better handle on the high and metallic ping noise of the Q3, a clean “force break modification” is recommended. The lower and upper parts of the housing are equipped with additional rubber pads and crepe tape strips in addition to the rubber pads that are already present in some cases. A polyfill, i.e. filling the bottom of the keyboard with cotton, was ultimately not used. The soundscape became duller or deeper with the use of polyfill, but brought tonal disadvantages with the bottom and top rows of keyboards. After various attempts and a different amount of cotton wool, this modification was abandoned. Instead, the lower part of the case was equipped with additional layers of masking tape (a silicone soundproofing mat could also serve as an alternative) and the PCB was improved with a tape mod – the underside of the PCB was fitted with a few layers of masking tape.

    The default stabilizers have been swapped and edited and improved as shown in the Alexotos video above. However, it should also be mentioned here that the already existing and factory-installed stabilizers are delivered well lubricated by Keychron. The Gateron Box-CJ switches used are also lightly lubricated (pre-lubed) as standard, at least on the lower side of the spring you will find a small amount of lubricant. The switches themselves are very smooth and already give a good and pleasant typing experience out of the box. Lubricated, there is at least a small improvement in terms of sound, in that the switch then sounds a little duller and richer. However, there is no need here. Oiling the springs is essential to eliminate a slight, but present, pinging noise from the springs.

    Image 1 of 4

    Gateron Box CJ – View (Image: keychron.com)
    Gateron Box CJ – opened
    Gateron Box CJ – Oiled Springs
    Keychron Q3 – delivery status – Gateron Box CJ Switches
    Keychron Q3 – Modified – Gateron Box CJ Switches (lubricated/oiled)

    As you can hear in the sound samples, a few modifications have a big impact on the soundscape of a keyboard. Since here too, as with the switches, one's own subjective preferences are in the foreground, everyone has the freedom to design the modifications as desired.

    Conclusion

    A clear selection of keyboard housings in ISO-DE formatting, various switches and keycaps offer the opportunity to dive into the rabbit hole and the world of custom mechanical keyboards behind it, even with a small budget. The sound samples and the presentation of the modifications round off the package and result in an individual soundscape tailored to your own taste with an individual typing feel. However, caution is advised this time too: once you've dived down the rabbit hole, it's almost impossible to escape.

    ” It's a rabbit hole” from Mindhunter (Image: tenor.com)

    A little tip: sound samples of different switches on YouTube (or other portals) should not be given too much attention before buying, because too many different components have an impact on the soundscape.

    If you want to sniff deep down the rabbit hole, the best thing to do is to drop by Max's discord (whnkeys). There is a lot of information about keycaps, keyboards and switches, sound samples of individual switches and much more. Anyone looking for a lively exchange within the ComputerBase community will find what they are looking for under Mechas – the general discussion thread.

    There is also a separate keyboard area on the Discord of the Ryzen RAM OC community and Chris from WhackyDesks communicates via this platform. Existing Custom Mechanical Keyboards can be featured in the ComputerBase community under Show me your input devices.

    Previously published in this series

    • Down the rabbit hole I: Custom Mechanical Keyboards – the beginning
    • Down the rabbit hole II: Custom Mechanical Keyboards – the eternal fall

    The recommendations should be kept up to date in the future.

    (*) The links marked with an asterisk are affiliate links . In the case of an order via such a link, ComputerBase participates in the sales revenue without increasing the price for the customer.

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