Your ultimate guide to keycaps

Whether you’re building a custom keyboard or just looking to spice up your old one, changing keycaps is often one of the main steps in the process. Change your keycaps to add your personal preference and touch to your most used gadget.

To help you, we gathered all the information you may need to address your concerns and make your next steps towards purchasing your new set of keycaps.

What are keycaps?

Keycaps are a small cover of plastic, metal, or other material placed over the key switch of a keyboard. Keycaps are often illustrated to indicate the key function or alphanumeric character they correspond to. Different materials serve different purposes to users and enthusiasts, some offer the luxury of adding a vivid backlight while other keycap materials offer a satisfying distinctive feel, and click.

Are keyboard keycaps universal?

The majority of keyboards have interchangeable keycaps, but it ultimately depends on the type of switch and keyboard manufacturer. Only keycaps of the same profile and layout will actually work on a different keyboard. Below is a chart with various profiles.

Keycap Profiles

 

Keycap Profiles

As the name suggests, the easiest way to compare keycap profiles is to look at them from the side. Keyboard profile refers to the profile shapes of each row of keycaps. Comparing profiles from the top, you'll also notice differences in the shape.

With different profiles, keycaps can vary in size, shape, and thickness. (Most) modern keysets vary in profile from row to row, this is called a sculpted profile.

Different profiles can be preferable for various uses, or aesthetic reasons. Feel and sound are also two main reasons people base their choices on.  Above is a chart displaying different profiles to help you decide which profile you love the most.

Why are keycaps so expensive?

Keycaps come in all sorts of different shapes, colors, and styles that allow you to design your keyboard any way you want. You can build your keyboard around your favorite game, show, or you can just pick your favorite color.

It is not the materials that boost the price tag, as keycaps are usually made from plastic materials, which is a low-cost material. Instead, it is the process of how the keycaps are made, molded, and colored, which can be an expensive process. Along with their limited production, a set of high-end keycaps take lots of thought and are designed with a unique theme in mind. 

So between limited production capacity, a healthy secondary market, and the relative niche nature of customized keycaps, expanding your collection is probably going to bring a heavy hit to your wallet.

What type of materials are keycaps made from?

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) Is the kind of material that your factory keyboard is probably made of. It is the standard in the land of keyboards. They're extremely popular due to how cheap mass-producing them are, and how easy injection molding them is. ABS plastic is better for displaying vibrant colors but is prone to slippery shining with extended use. 

PBT (Polybutylene Terephthalate). PBT keycaps are considered superior to ABS, this material is known to last longer, not develop an annoying shine over time. It’s also known for durability as the materials are thicker with a firmer texture.

POM (Polyoxymethylene) Although this material is not as popular as the previous two we discussed, we’re seeing a tremendous increase in popularity over time. POM keycaps are known for their distinctive waxy aesthetic, and the essence of legends (letters). Although this may be a deal-breaker for many, the sound and look and translucency of POM keycaps are closer to the PBT keycaps and beyond comparison to ABS materials.

PC (Polycarbonate). Is a tough clear plastic used for translucent keys it is uncommon in widely manufactured keycaps. It is most used in clear or translucent keycaps. It is sometimes blended with ABS to make ABS-PC plastic.

PPS (Polyphenylene Sulfide) is a thick, dense, glass-like plastic, somewhat like PBT in its chemical durability. It won't shine, however, it is very susceptible to scratches and is brittle. On a side note, PPS is also is more tend to wrap than other materials.

Dye-sub:

Dye-sublimation is used in the majority of the more advanced keycaps. They aren’t up to the same standards as double-shot keycaps, but they can certainly hold their own. They are a significant step above pad printing but still not as good as double-shot keycaps.

This way of keycap legend printing uses a dyed template wherein heat is applied to transfer the design to the surface of the plastic keycap. The dye is absorbed by the keycap material and is pretty much permanently stained into the keycap.

Double-shot:

Although double shot printing was literally the only common method in the 70s. Nowadays they’re only found in enthusiast-level keyboards. This process combines two different plastic molds with different colors instead of exactly printing the legend onto the keycap. Usually, the first shot of the layer creates the legend; then the second shot is molded around double-shot keycaps which are objectively the best keycaps around. Their advantages include longevity, the flexibility of color, and a smooth satisfying feel.

Dye-sublimation Vs. Double-Shot

Each printing technique has its own advantages and drawbacks, the most popular of these printing methods being Dye Sublimation and Double-shot keycaps. Therefore, there is a vital choice to be made when choosing the printing technique that will be used for your keycaps. The feel of the legends, color availability

  • While both techniques are highly resistant against legends fading, double-shot keycaps will go a much longer period of time before showing any trace of ware-out or use.
  • Double shot keycaps are made from various types of plastic, whilst Dye-Sub are only made from PBT.
  • Double-shot keycaps can be produced in every color, the color options are restricted for dye-sub keycaps due to the process of reverse dye sublimation.
  • There is no color palette limitation on double-shot keycaps. Therefore colors can be as bright or dark as you want the

Both Dye sub and Double-shot keycaps produce higher-quality prints compared to the more widely available techniques such as pad printing or laser etching, making them a favorite among enthusiasts. But depending on the nature of work and personal preference, each enthusiast will advocate for one type more than another.

Ultimately, mechanical keyboards as a hobby would be a lot less appealing if we didn’t have so many custom keycap sets to choose from. The best being Keycaps that are specifically made for your unique taste “Custom keycaps”. But as we explained, custom keycaps can come in various types and materials. After reading this article you should be far more knowledgeable about which one of them best suits your needs.