Massdrop 101: Intro to Keycaps
Keycaps: What Are They?
Think of keycaps—the things you touch with your fingers when typing—as the clothes that tie a keyboard together. Without them, a keyboard is naked. With them, a keyboard takes on a personality of its own. That’s because keycaps have become much more than the plain-Jane, off-white, basic pieces of plastic from keyboards past.
Now, there are keycaps in every shape and color imaginable, plus a variety of different textures. Some are glistening gold. Others fade from light to dark. Some are perfectly round, and others are shaped like everyday objects. There are even keycaps that look like characters from comic books and movies. Indeed, like clothing, keycaps are a form of self-expression. What do your keycaps say about you?
Keycaps: What Are They Made Of?
Most keycaps are made by injection molding thermoplastic. The process involves melting plastic and injecting it under pressure into a steel mold. The most common types of plastic are ABS and PBT.
ABS plastic, short for "acrylonitrile butadiene styrene," is the most commonly used plastic, mainly because the material is less expensive and easier to work with.
PBT plastic, short for "polybutylene terephthalate," is one of the community’s favorite materials for keycaps. Hard and durable, it lasts decades. In fact, a PBT keycap from the ‘80s looks much the same today as it did when it was first used. PBT’s durability comes from its resiliency to heat. However, this resiliency also makes it difficult to mold, which increases manufacturing costs.
3D-Printed Keycaps: With the advent of the 3D printer, keycaps are fairly easy to make using thermoplastic polyurethane. With a little bit of practice (and access to a 3D printer), you can produce a keycap in the shape of, well, whatever you want. We’ve seen keycaps shaped like jack-o’-lanterns, potatoes, robots, movie villains, memes, and more.
Hand-molded Keycaps: Hand-molded keycaps are highly sought-after for their unique construction. The process begins with clay. Artisans will develop a clay mold in the shape of their choosing, then make a silicone mold of the design. The mold is then cast with resin to produce the keycap. This is an incredibly time-consuming method of production, which is why artisan keycaps fetch top dollar.
Legends: What Are They?
Legends are the letters, numbers, or symbols printed on the keycaps—the markings that tell you which character will appear on your screen when you touch that key. Just as customizable as the color of the keycap, the legend can be printed in a variety of fonts, colors, and sizes. It can be printed on the top, front, or side of the keycap, or it can be absent from the keycap entirely.
Legends: How Are They Made?
There are a few different ways to mark a keycap with a legend, including pad printing, dye sublimation, laser etching, and double-shot molding. There are also a few other methods, such as UV printing, but these are less often used.
Pad printing is the most commonly used method, and for good reason: It’s fast and cheap. But pad-printed legends—made by dipping a pad into ink, then transferring it onto the keycap—are quick to fade and are therefore less desirable.
Laser etching is exactly what it sounds like: A laser beam is used to burn the legend into the keycap. Though it does a good job of creating lines, it has a harder time creating solid-fill legends, like the one on the Windows key. Laser-etched legends are also quick to collect dirt.
Dye sublimation uses heat to impregnate the keycap with dye. The dye actually becomes part of the plastic keycap, ensuring the legend will never fade like pad-printed legends do. Dye-sublimated keycaps are among the most desirable.
Double-shot molding is another one of the most sought-after methods of keycap printing. As its name implies, double-shot molding is a two-step process, and it results in a couple of different benefits. For one, legends will never fade from double-shot keycaps. They’re also bolder and more vibrant, and they can be colored a distinctive hue different from the keycap itself. What’s more, a keycap with a double-shot legend is uniformly smooth—no raised or indented textures.
Keycap Mounts & Compatibility
Not all keycaps work with all keyboards. Turn the keycap over and you’ll see the mount. This is the attachment point between the keycap and the key switch. Because different types of switches feature different types of stem shapes, you’ll have to be sure the keycaps you use are compatible with the switches on your board. Cherry keycaps, for example, will not fit on Topre boards unless you’ve added a slider to the switch. Stay tuned for more on sliders in future articles!
Changing Your Keycaps
To switch out your keycaps, you’ll need a keycap puller. Most of these basic-but-handy tools consist of two pieces of wire and a handle. Slip the two pieces of wire beneath each side of the key and pull. Voila. You’re ready to switch out your keycap.
The Right Keycaps for You
This article touches on the basics of keycaps—plenty to get you started on your first set. But there are a lot of nuances, such as keycap profile, that we’ll cover in future tutorials. Until then, as you explore the wide world of keycaps and the Mech Keys Community at large, remember that it’s all about customizing the keyboard to your liking. There’s no good or bad, right or wrong keycap. The keycaps you choose should feel and look good to you—nobody else. Because that’s what mechanical keyboards are all about: a better user experience.
Questions, Comments, or Recommendations?
Leave ‘em below, and someone from the community will be happy to help. Have personal recommendations or a keycap tip to share? We’d love to hear about them—and see pictures, too! Want to learn more? Read another Massdrop 101 article here: https://www.massdrop.com/talk/88/massdrop-101-intro-to-key-switchesHit the "Follow" button to get notified about future articles from this account.