If you’re new to the world of mechanical keyboards, you may not know that like putting new tires on a car, you can swap out the keys or keys on your keyboard. Here’s why, how, and some recommended options to get you started.
Why change the keys on your mechanical keyboard?
At first, all computer keyboards were mechanical. That distinctive click-clack sound that people associate with old computers is a sound produced by a combination of the mechanical switches under the keys and the thick plastic caps attached to those switches.
Beginning in the late 1980s, however, the rise of membrane keyboards led to a slow and steady decline in the production and use of mechanical keyboards. Instead of a mechanical switch, a membrane keyboard has a small rubber dome, as the name implies, under the keycap, and when you press the key down, it squashes the conductive pad inside the top of the dome against a circuit pad underneath.
While we could spend an article (or even a modest book!) talking about the differences between the two types of keyboards and the benefits and shortcomings of each, but the key difference that interests us here is the modularity of the keys.
You can’t just remove the little plastic key caps from your laptop keyboard or the standard membrane keyboard that came with your computer because the key caps are designed for that specific keyboard right down to the little scissor lift style under the keys.
But you can remove the keycaps from mechanical keyboards and replace them, a really nifty trick that you might not know about if you’re not very familiar with mechanical keyboards. And given the significant increase in mechanical keyboards on the market in recent years, we have a pretty strong feeling that there are more than a few people who bought a mechanical keyboard but don’t know they can change the caps.
Of course, that begs the question, why would you change the keys on your mechanical keyboard? To return to the car and tire analogy we started with, you change the tires (and rims) on a car for a variety of reasons. Tires wear out long before the car. Use different tires for different seasons and purposes. You want to customize the look of your car to make it more eye-catching or more personalized.
And you do exactly the same with the keys. Mechanical keyboard switches are rated for millions of clicks and will wear out the keys before you wear out the switches. If you want a new look for your keyboard, there’s no reason to replace the entire keyboard when you can just replace the keys. So whether your goal is to keep an old mechanical keyboard forever or customize it to suit your mood or decor, it’s easy to do.
How do you trade them?
We have an extensive guide to replacing the keycaps on your mechanical keyboard, which includes lots of great tips, but let’s briefly talk about it here so you get an idea of what you’re getting into. And while you’re at it, check out our guide to all the mechanical keyboard terms you’ll come across.
The vast majority of mechanical keyboards on the market use Cherry MX-style switches like those seen on the Corsair K70 mechanical keyboard seen above.
Replacing the keycaps on a mechanical keyboard is as simple as arming yourself with the right tool, a keycap puller, and choosing a new set of keycaps. Just gently pry them off the switch posts, slide in the new ones, and you’re in business.
What to look for in replacement keys
When it comes to mechanical keyboard keycaps, there are a staggering number of options on the market. Not only can you buy ready-made replacement kits from major retailers, but there is now a thriving mechanical keyboard subculture with sites like Drop.com offering a dizzying array of keyboards, keycaps, and accessories.
It’s up to you to decide how complex or simple you want a design and whether or not spending $30 or less on a set of perfectly serviceable keys is more your speed or if you’re willing to shell out $100+ for a highly custom ready-made: if you take seriously the hobby, first read about premium keys. But here are some basic questions to consider.
ABS or PBT?
In addition to truly custom keycaps made from various metals, resins, or other materials, the vast majority of keycaps are made from ABS plastic or PBT plastic.
ABS is the cheapest material and most enthusiasts don’t like it. One of the main complaints is that the plastic is soft enough to wear down with heavy use. Eventually, you’ll be polishing the keys to a mirror finish, not only wearing down the key legends in the process, but also changing how they feel.
PBT is more expensive but stronger. Over the years I have used numerous boards with ABS keycaps all the way to mirror polished with no lettering, but still, despite years of use, I have yet to visibly use a PBT keycap set.
What type of printing?
In addition to the material type, there is the way the key legend or lettering is applied. We discuss this in detail in our guide to replacing keys, but a quick summary is in order.
Cheaper keys use pad printing (where the letters are just stamped) which are not durable at all. Laser engraving is slightly more durable, but only marginally. You are unlikely to find any of these styles on aftermarket keys.
More durable than pad printing and laser engraving is dye sublimation, in which the ink used penetrates deep into the plastic and fuses with it. Even more durable than that is a style of printing called “double shot” where the keycap is actually two physical layers of plastic fused together so that the body of the cap is one color and the lettering is of other. You’ll take off your toe pads before you take off your double shot lettering.
With backlight or not?
Finally, consider your keyboard. No LEDs? You don’t need to worry about selecting keys that support backlighting.
But if you have a backlit keyboard, whether it’s with simple white LEDs or a full RGB setup, you need keys with transparent or semi-opaque constructions to let light through. Pudding cap-style PBT keycaps like these keycaps from HyperX are a popular choice with people who want backlit key legends and maximum RGB wow factor.
But no matter how you end up customizing your board, now you know it can be done! Crazy RGB luminous keycaps, olive green keycaps to match your post-apocalyptic theme gaming PC, whatever you want, there is a keycap available for you.