When considering which mechanical keyboard to buy, you may want to have a look at what goes on top. No, not your fingers or your cat… the keycaps.
There are ways to customize a mechanical keyboard by replacing the tops, or caps, of certain keys. For example, let’s say you remap a key or a combination keypress that you use all the time to make typing easier or more comfortable. It would be nice to have a backlit keycap that matches the new output. What about custom art for your keyboard? Or just replacing worn and shiny keys?
Mechanical keyboard keycaps should be a consideration when picking a keyboard, even if it’s just checking out the cost of long term maintenance. This article will discuss what the keycap situation is on some of the best keyboard switches, and give you everything you need to research keycaps on other switch types.
If you’re already satisfied with your choice of switches as far as actuation point, tactile feedback level, and noise level, then the mechanical keyboard keycaps might be the deciding factor between manufacturers. We’ve chosen the best low profile and best standard profile switches that can be paired with excellent keycap options.
Best Keyboard Switches For KeyCaps - Low Profile: Kailh Choc
A year ago, this wouldn’t have been an option. Before mid-2020, the number of keycaps available for Kailh were minimal, so despite them being some of the best low profile switches on the planet, they weren’t very customizable.
Then interest exploded. By mid 2020, companies were announcing new mechanical keyboard keycaps for Kailh Choc switches every few weeks. First came the high quality clears for custom painting. Then full custom keysets. Just before Christmas, MBK Legends announced a keycap set. Now there are plenty of keycaps to pair with these amazing switches. So your options are fairly broad from this point forward.
There’s also a split, negative tilt mechanical keyboard coming out in 2021 called the Hakkei Riven that will have an entirely custom version of the Choc switches… and replaceable keycaps. It is not yet known what the form factor will be, as far as the keycaps are concerned. It may use the standard Choc caps, or it may need a dedicated ergo kit like the Ergodox.
Best Keyboard Switches For KeyCaps - Medium Profile: Cherry MX Original
The sheer amount of keycaps available for all form factors of Cherry MX Original switches make it the obvious choice for medium profile keycaps. There are several dedicated sites that will allow you to choose from attractive, premade 104 keycap schemas. Or you can order custom keycaps online. Or just order blanks if you feel artistic and want to create your own.
Or, if you have a 3d printer, you can make them from scratch.
It may seem crazy, but the Cherry MX switches are so ubiquitous in medium profile keyboards, people have figured out 3D models that work pretty much perfectly. You can print them out, sand them down, put a layer of primer on, and paint them however you like. When you’re done, a quick clear coat to protect the design, and you’re off to the races. These keys probably won’t last as long as professionally made ones. Expect more rapid fade and wear.
There are certain terms that refer to the size and fit options, and these are critical to picking out the right keycaps, particularly if you’re looking at blanks or customs. If you really want to learn absolutely everything, Keyboard University has a full keycap tutorial that applies to all of the best keyboard switches.
Or you can get the quick and dirty lowdown right here.
Units: The size measurement of a keycap is measured in Units, or just ‘u’. That’s the size of the gap for a letter or number key on a standard mechanical keyboard, around 19.05mm square. The keycaps themselves will be 18mm square, with the rest of the space being used as a gap on all sides for smooth keypress travel.
Except for one or two oddball keys, an increase in Units is referring to horizontal length, not vertical height. So keycaps such as a Control key, Alt key, etc., are 1.25u and measure 19.05mm in height but 23.81mm in width. A 1.5u Tab key is 28.58mm wide, and so on as you encounter the larger key sizes.
Sculpted: This means that the fit and curve of the top row of keys doesn’t match the fit and curve of the middle rows, which don’t match the bottom row either. In essence, each row has been shaped or ‘sculpted’ with its own unique form factor and slant. And though that might look cool, it means the keys aren’t interchangeable outside of their own rows. So if you’re buying sculpted blanks, you need to specify which row and which keyboard type you’re talking about.
The opposite of sculpted keycaps are flat caps. These are interchangeable from any row to any row, as long as they match the Unit size. This is less fancy, but makes buying blanks much easier.
Stems: The spacebar is attached to the mechanical keyboard by three posts with a ‘+’ shaped interface. These shaped posts are called ‘stems’. As you might imagine, if you get the wrong stem placement for your keyboard, it isn’t going to fit.
The standard Cherry spacebar is 6.25u wide with one post dead in the center, and the other two 50mm on each side. If that’s what your keyboard has, you can order a standard blank or replacement. Otherwise, get one specific to your brand of keyboard.
Now that you know how to talk the talk, and you understand which mechanical keyboard keycaps fit the best keyboard switches, you should be knowledgeable enough to make the right keycap decisions. Whether you’re purchasing a new mechanical keyboard that you’d like to customize, or you’re repairing an old one to get the keys back into shape, we hope that this guide was useful to you.