Aug 30, 201856 views

What components are needed to assemble a mechanical keyboard? Can I modify pre-built boards?

First off, sorry for the broad question; noob here. I've had an interest in mechanical keyboards for some time and always enjoyed a good DIY project.
It's my understanding that you need
  • Case (60% or Full)
  • PCB
  • Plate (optional - by build)
  • Switches (and related stabilizers)
  • Keycaps
Is this accurate? Individually, these sets and pieces can be expensive. More expensive than a pre-assembled board.
Is it possible/ recommended to buy a pre-assembled board and modify it with different switches to save money?

Backstory:
That said, I saw that the mass drop community had an interest in the Gateron Switches so I committed blindly. I did some research and committed to the plate mount switches, as it seems like they are a good starting point for people who are new to the game and don't want to run the risk of breaking solder joints and their pcb.
I've looked into a couple of how-to's and generally understand the process, but was concerned with the price.
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Starius
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Your list covers the basics. Regarding a USB cable, you should be able to find plenty of options on Amazon. There are many vendors (Donut Cables, Mimic Cables, WASD Keyboards, etc.) that sell custom cables as well, if that's what you want for your build.
I think any PCB that has an accompanying GUI for programming is a good place to start (e.g. Bootmapper client, NerDy GUI, or any of the preset QMK layouts on https://kbfirmware.com/).
Yes, it's possible to modify off-the-shelf keyboards. It's just a matter of desoldering the switches and LEDs (if there are any) and replacing them with what you want. It's tedious, but feasible. This approach can be cheaper, but it really depends on what layout and features you are after. Keep in mind, however, that it's unlikely that you'll be able program an off-the-shelf keyboard to your liking. So if you go this route, pick a keyboard with a layout you like.

Tools and materials that I use:
- temperature controlled soldering iron This doesn't have to be super fancy. Mine cost <$50 and all that mattered to me is that it went above 400F because I use SAC305 lead-free solder.
- solder Your pick. Lots of people still use Tin-Lead solder. I use lead-free because I choose to be RoHS compliant. Lead-free solder has its issues and disadvantages compared to Tin-Lead, but this is a nonissue because through-hole joints are very robust and keyboards are not meant to be used in extreme environments. If you plan to eventually hand solder all the SMDs yourself, then I recommend you read up on this. If all you are doing is soldering in switches and LEDs, lead-free is fine. Regardless of what you use, make sure you solder in a well ventilated room. Solder fumes are not good for you.
- soldering iron tip cleaner (https://www.amazon.com/Soldering-Iron-Tip-Cleaner-Black/dp/B00J66FSY2)
- solder sucker for desoldering/rework You may want to invest in a heated solder sucker or dedicated desoldering station eventually if you foresee yourself doing lots of mods or rework. I use a cheap one and simply replace it when it breaks (https://www.amazon.com/Vastar-Solder-Sucker-Desoldering-Removal/dp/B074ZDCTLV/). It works fine for me, but it took a little practice to get my technique down.
- voltmeter For testing PCBs and LEDs prior to assembly. I usually don't test everything before a build, but it's useful to have.
- flush cutters For snipping LED and/or switch leads. Also useful for converting PCB mount switches to plate mount by snipping off the two plastic legs.
- headlamp Extra illumination for your work area and small spaces. Depending on your room and lighting conditions, there could be shadowing that makes it hard to see exactly what you're doing.
- toothpicks and small paintbrush For applying lube to stabilizers and switches.
- tweezers
- thimble Useful for installing PCB mount switches with a plate. Otherwise your thumbs may feel a bit sore/tender after pushing in lots of switches.
- screwdrivers Phillips for screws, flathead for prying (opening snap-closure cases, removing switches, etc.).
- switch top removal tool For opening switches. https://mechanicalkeyboards.com/shop/index.php?l=product_detail&p=1363
You may also need a USB cable as well. Often one is included it kits, but not always if he PCB was purchased separately.

Also, certain tools will be required. Small technical screwdriver kits are handy. Soldering kits if you're not using a hotswap PCB. Tweezers might also be helpful in some situations. A small tube of dialectic grease if you want to put a bit of lube on your stabilizers.
Im just a custom keyboard kit newbie too, so I imagine many others here can make more suggestions.
Starius
Thanks for the suggestions - I'll add these to my list. From your experience so far, do you have any brands you'd recommend?
Check out Taekeyboards on YouTube
erickong
I second this.
I think tae also recommends the tada68 as a good starter board for first time builders.
Jino74
Thanks! I'll check it out.