Last week I introduced you to artisan keycaps, an accessory that adorns and stylizes your keyboard. Artisan keycaps are great, but they are not only expensive but also replace a single keycap. If you’re going to create a unique keyboard that screams, “THIS IS ME,” well, you should consider adopting a new set of keycaps.
Keycaps are what completes the custom keyboard – the ultimate identifier. There are so many different types of keycaps out there, of various shapes, colors, and quality. So we’re going to touch upon the types of keycaps, the most popular brands of keycaps, where to purchase keycaps, etc. just so you know where to start should you consider giving your keyboard a little flair.
So let’s delve into the keycap types, shall we?
The unofficial list of keycap types
We should first delve into the types of keycaps and the terminology used so that you know what you’re going into.
Common types of keycap profiles
First, the profiles. Before you nab that set of hilarious novelty keycaps and that full set of NPKC gradients in an effort to mix and match for your keyboard, you may want to take a step back and learn about the various profiles offered by manufacturers.
The most common profile and a sculpted type. These are similar to the OEM profile but are slightly lower. Alongside this profile are the Cherry MX switches, but you’ll learn more about switches in the following guide.
It’s a specialized profile delivered from Signature Plastics. The acronym stands for Din standard (height), cylindrical (touch area), and sculpted (profile).
These are particularly flat keycaps. Additionally, they are some of the largest keycaps offered in the mechanical keyboard industry.
These are a medium profile with a spherical top and are essentially non-sculpted. You can learn more about the exact DSA specifications thanks to PimpMyKeyboard.com.
High profile (for when you want to do some great finger stretches), complete with spherical top. Sculpted.
OEM profile keys are known as the “Standard Profile.” The OEM profile is rather tall with a flat top (though slightly cylindrical and slanty so that it fits the fingers better). Each row features a different angle and height. You can find this profile on most official gaming keyboards.
KAT stands for “keyreative all touch” and features the same dimensions of tops across all rows. These are a considerably high profile that debuted fairly recently. The interior walls are concave but they fit snugly into your fingertips, equating to a comfortable experience.
KATs are also known to be smooth – we’re talking so smooth, your fingers be able to glide on them. The interior walls of its keycaps are angled so that sound is reflected in such a way that KAT’s high walls are harmoniously intertwined with the interior walls to create sharp clicks but muted bottoms.
MT3, crafted by Matt3o, is a profile welcomed into the world in 2017. MT3s are the answer if you’re looking for vintage-style keycaps.
You can learn more about MT3s on Matt3o.com.
It is neither an SA clone or a replacement if that’s what you might think. The dish of the MT3 cap is slightly deeper compared to the SA dish and the keys are shorter.
Tai-Hao has its own profile, and boy are they sexy. The Cubic profile was introduced just a couple years back with the hope of crossing the Cherry sculpt with the OEM height, resulting in a gorgeous, comfortable layout.
When you want retro, you get retro with the TEX. It’s similar to the DSA profile but it is more cylindrical at the surface with the exception of the spacebar, which is completely flat.
The XDA was unveiled in 2016, bringing a new twist to the Cherry M8 keycap. Compared to the DSA, the XDA is ultimately wide and flat.
It’s akin to typing on books, according to some users of the XDA. For this reason, they may feel incredibly different but you may be able to adapt with time. With XDA, you either love it or hate it.
Keycap plastic types
Otherwise known as Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, ABS plastic is an easily-recyclable, opaque polymer that is not only amorphous but also thermoplastic, making them easily craftable. LEGOs and wall socket-guards often use ABS plastic.
PBT, AKA polybutylene terephthalate, is a type of plastic that is known for low water absorption, moldability, and high-tier strength. It is known for high heat resistance (150C/302F, which is not enough to withstand a fire, unfortunately) but it is fairly easily affected by boiling water.
Polyoxymethylene, otherwise known as acetal, polyacetal, and polyformaldehyde, is a thermoplastic known for high strength, hardness, and resistance to -40C (-40F). You can find this same type of plastic on glasses frames, ski bindings, knife handles, lock systems, and fasteners.
Legends and Printing Methods
Those letters you see on the keycaps that come in various fonts and sizes? Those are known as legends. They are simply the text you see applied onto the keycap.
Of course, what goes alongside legends are also types of printings. What are the various printings available? Well, let’s go over them.
Types of printing
Backlit keycaps allow light from the LED of the keyboard to pass through the legends. They’re absolutely perfect for RGB-based keyboards, as they provide the coolest effect.
They are typically crafted with an initial translucent plastic before painting. The legends are then laser-etched onto the caps. They can also be crafted using the double-shot technique.
Doubleshots sound like they’re an impressive espresso-based pick-me-up, don’t they? Well, they’re not. The doubleshot is a type of printing when a second plastic is actually “shot” into the first mold to fill up the remainder of the keycap’s space, causing a “full” look. Unfortunately, with doubleshot, only two colors can be used.
This is largely self-explanatory; blank keycaps do not feature any legends whatsoever. If you’re a master at using home row and such, totally recommended, then again, this is purely subjective.
You know how legends are usually on top of the keycap? Well, not if they’re front-printed. Front-printed keycaps feature legends in the front of the keycap, not the top.
Dye-sublimation caps, or dye-sub, involve a laser engraving of the legend before a dye or clay material is molded onto the void, making the legend incredibly visible. This method is only used for PBT keycaps, which, as noted above, are incredibly sturdy and resilient. Best of all, you don’t feel the legends as you type. Plenty of novelty keycaps feature dye-sublimation work.
A legend that is printed in ink and thus protected with a layer that is “baked” onto the keyboard. Furthermore, the legends are printed simultaneously. Pad printing tends to be more popular with laptop keys compared to desktop keys. They are also typically printed on ABS plastic.
As the name suggests, laser printing involves keycap legends being laser-cut, but at the same time, the ink adorns the keycaps. This causes the legend to be permanently bonded to the surface of the keycap.
There are two types of laser printing – Laser engraving and laser etchings. They’re incredibly durable but the legends aren’t all that sharp.
Laser-engravings are commonly used to create backlit keycaps – the keycap is coated with a UV black paint mixture before a laser removes the paint to establish the desired legend.
On the other hand, laser-etchings craft legends onto keycaps by using a laser that heats the plastic to the point of charring.
Keycap Sizes (Using a Stanard Full-Sized Keyboard)
For reference, in case you half a standard full-sized keyboard and need to know the sizes of specific keys.
Row 4 standard (R4): 1u
Row 4 backspace (R4 Backspace): 2.00u
Row 3 standard (R3): 1u
Row 3 tab (R3 Tab): 1.50u
Row 3 backslash (R3 Back Slash): 1.50u
Row 2 standard (R2): 1u
Row 2 caps lock (R2 Caps): 1.75u
Row 2 enter (R2 Enter): 2.25u
Row 1 standard (R1): 1u
Row 1 left shift (R1 L-Shift): 2.25u
Row 1 right shift (R1 R-Shift): 2.75u
Row 1 control (R1 CTRL): 1.25u
Row 1 left ALT (R1 L-ALT): 1.25u
Row 1 Windows (R1 Windows): 1.25u
Row 1 right ALT (R1 R-ALT): 1.25u
Row 1 function (R1 FN): 1.25u
Row 1 right menu (R1 R-Menu): 1.25u
Row 1 right control (R1 R-CTRL): 1.25u
Space bar: 6.25u
Where to purchase keycaps
An unknown frontier, just waiting to be traversed
Overall, there is a vast world of keycaps that are of various materials, shapes, sizes, legends, colors, and more. There’s a keycap set for everyone out there.
For me, I’m currently building a theme that’s based on the elements, utilizing a koi fish pond keycap (hopefully), a snowy keycap, and some sunset blanks. Now that you know a little more about keycaps, are you planning to get your own keycap sets? What are you interested in for your theme?
Next week, we’re going to delve into the mechanical key switches territory. Then, you’ll be learning about actuation force, tactile feedback, switch types (like topre switches, alps switches), buckling springs, and everything else basic about mechanical switches.