On a budget: How to build cheap custom keyboards?
Is this hobby really that expensive?
Not at all. You don't need a lot of money to make great stuff. For reference: I've built my first custom prototypes for $40 each and my endgame atm cost me about $140-150.
How to build a cheap keyboard without breaking the bank?
Small form factors
Smaller keyboards require less switches, less keycaps and smaller plates.
If you think the small form factor is too much of a compromise, check my list of benefits of small keyboards.
Btw, Steve Jobs would agree.
A smaller board requires a smaller (=cheaper) plate. Since the price of lasercutting depends on the plate size and the cutting path length, a small plate will cost much less.
Besides, look for a local business offering lasercutting in your vicinity. Many companies may do this in various industries from marketing to car manufacturing.
While online services like lasergist or laserboost may seem comfortable:
- a local company may cut your plate for much cheaper,
- you also spare on shipping.
Pro tip: Cardboard prototyping. I found cardboard superior to acrylic in many ways. I've also used my cardboard prototype as my main keyboard for almost a year.
Handwiring is perfect for prototyping or to build a single keyboard, and pretty much is the most common way to wire keyboards with 3D plates (e.g. Dactyl).
You don't want to mass produce your first design, do you? Then you don't need a PCB either.
To come up with a ripe concept you need some iterations anyway, where dimensions and distances may vary. Handwiring, in contrast to PCBs, offers some room to maneuver in these early stages.
All you need is some wire.
Pro tip: I'm sure there is a ton of scrap wire in your room laying around. I used a HDD ribbon cable to wire my first build.
Switches can go for anywhere between $0.20-$2 per piece, and you'll need between 40-100+ of them depending on the form factor. This can add up quickly, so you really have to ask yourself: how many keys do you really need?
Going with a 60% or 40% board is like an instant discount of 40-60%. Are these people serious by ditching the numpad, F-keys and the arrow and navigation cluster? Yep. You should give it a try too.
Also, many popular switches are overrated. The hype benefits only manufacturers and vendors. You should resist this irrational behavior and look for cheaper but quality keyswitches.
We are talking about a handful of plastic pieces here. Are they really worth $200? I don't think so.
Let's finish the double shot part first. Doubleshot molding makes caps nice and more durable, but the process is more tedious and expensive.
Btw, did you have any problem with the durability of a dye-sub set? Me neither. In the past 20 years I've consumed some keyboards which failed ultimately, but I had no issues with the legends.
Another interesting point: Does it make any sense to argue about durability if people are hoarding keysets? You buy a single doubleshot and are done for the rest of your life, right?
Also, there are dye-sublimated, laser etched or even blank keycaps which are way cheaper than doubleshot sets.
For my first prototype I looked for the cheapest option and I came across blank DSAs from Aliexpress ($3/20pcs). I loved those, however, you have to touch type to use blanks.
My all time favorite Big Bang MDA costs $59. It's a dye-sublimated one. (See my keycap purchase history for details.) Not cheap, but not the usual GMK price tag either.
Pre-Covid, a cheap Chinese $3 Pro Micro from Aliexpress was all you needed. Now it's more in the $6-9 range but there's a new alternative: the Raspberry Pi Pico for $4-5.
I don't get people who pay $20-30 for the same controller (same chip) with USB-C connector and different PCB color.
Durability? Funny, you mention it. I never had an issue with broken USB micros. At the same time, r/mk is full of broken USB-C connectors nowadays. The problem is the user not the construction.
You don't really need a case if you keep your keyboard on your desk.
Even if you travel with your keyboard and need a case, there are cheaper solutions compared to an anodized case CNCed from a single stab of aluminium.
A sandwich case provides some protection for your wires or PCB, but e.g. I go with a caseless/bottomless version at home. A plate standing exclusively on stand-offs or laying on dampening foam is even lower which can be more ergonomic in some situations.
Forget about other parts
Just ignore unnecessary parts e.g. LEDs, rotary encoders, aviator connectors, artisans, OLED displays, sleeves, wrist rests, deskmats.
You'll eventually get bored with these and won't use them anyway.
LEDs. You may need a Caps Lock status LED, but not an array of LEDs dissipating a current worth of the overall production of a nuclear reactor.
Rotary encoders. They look cool. I've built one board with six of them. That said, I never use them and don't think they have any place on an ergonomic board.
Custom cables & aviator connectors. Make a fancy USB cable for yourself ($3) as a practice. But why stuff unnecessary components into a circuitry to make it more error-prone?
The cheap detachable aviator connectors you see in most cables are rated for 500 connection cycles. People arguing about easy change of keyboards will ruin these connectors quite quickly.
Wrist rest. If you feel you need one there's something wrong with your working environment (desk height, armrest etc.).
Artisans, sleeves, deskmats. (Facepalm.)
–- Hey, you just saved $700! Nice. You're welcome.
A $5 macropad is a great first project. Just like making a DIY custom cable. Also, take a look at my custom design, the S.Torm46. You can build something like this for about $40. And of course there is the Keyboard Builders' Digest, a collection of mostly open source keyboards.