Of all the components in a mechanical keyboard, the keycap is one of the most important parts. It not only plays a massive role in determining the aesthetic aspect of mechanical keyboards but also dictates the all-important touchstones of typing experience, ergonomics, and sound for mechanical keyboards. However, it is not easy to choose the right type of keycap.
These little rectangles come in a huge amount of choice and consideration, so it is of utmost importance to have insights into the various factors before choosing the ones most suitable for your needs. This guide will give you a detailed lowdown of all the basics of keycaps which are material, profiles, printing techniques, etc. So, let’s dive right in!
Terms related to different types of keycaps
As the name describes, custom keycaps are fully-customized keycaps. This kind of keycap is widely preferred by people who want to customize their mechanical keyboard according to their specific preferred design with the aim of breathing a new life into it and making it personalized. There are two main custom keycap categories out there: Artisan keycap and 3D Printed keycap.
Artisan keycaps – Desirable type of keycap
Artisan keycaps are miniature meticulously crafted works of art that fit on the switch of a mechanical keyboard with the aim of personalizing and beautifying the keyboard. Keycaps are available in a variety of shapes, colors, textures, and sizes, and can be made using a variety of materials and methods. Themes like cinematography, astrological signs, pop cultures, natural habitat, and more make artisan keycaps desirable for keycaps aficionados.
Keycaps are usually available to buy as part of a keyset. Keys within a keyset share general attributes like profile and color. Within a keyset, there are kits that categorize the keycaps by what keys they cover.
A legend is an inscription on a keycap. Normally it’s the font used, though it can also refer to the symbol for the modifiers, etc. For example, some people might say that they prefer to have legends on my A-Z keys, but others prefer unliganded modifiers (capslock, spacebar, etc).
Novelty keycaps are the type of keycaps whose purpose is mainly for decoration. Most of the time, the key can be colored in different ways or the text on top of the key can be replaced with symbols or logos, setting them apart from the rest. And it’s usually for the special buttons such as the ESC, Spacebar, Enter, Shift, etc.
Family is the basic style of keycap on a mechanical keyboard. Keycap families are defined by their side height, particularly high, medium or low; their side profile, defined as sculptured or uniform; and the contour of the top surface which can be cylindrical, spherical, or flat.
The keycap mount refers to the molded detail on the underside of the keycap that enables the key to be attached to the keyboard switch. The number of mounts depends on the size of the keycaps. Keycaps may have more than one mount if they are larger than a single space size. The spacing of these mounts and the exact location is critical when making an order of keycaps.
Most keycaps need a press fit, being held on solely by friction, while some switches use clip-on keycaps. The switch plunger may offer a slot for the keycap to press into, or it may offer a post for the keycap to press onto. The slot approach which follows DIN standardization became popular as a means of keeping the mechanical keyboard moving up and down.
Row refers to the location of keys on the keyboard and is most important when ordering a sculptured keycap. On a standard QWERTY board, row 1 to row 5 represents the “number” row, the “Q” row, the “A” row, the “Z” row and the space bar row; the upper “function key” row respectively.
Keycap switches are mechanisms under the keycaps on a mechanical keyboard that enable you to have a greater typing speed with more precision. Mechanical keyboard switches are not all the same, though, and the shape and height of the switch literally determine the style of keyboard and what it’s best used for in the same way the kind of motor under the hood defines a car.
Keycap profile refers to the overall shape of the keycap on a given row of a keyboard which helps to reinforce the ergonomics and the aesthetics of keyboards. There are two main types of keycaps profiles: uniform profile and sculpted profile. Some keycap profiles namely the Cherry profile offer better experiences for gaming setup while some are more suitable for typing and other applications, particularly OEM profile, so you have to make up your mind which profile is best suited for your needs.
The stem is the plastic part that helps attach the mechanical switch directly to the keycap. The type of keycaps that can be used on the keyboard is determined by the type of stem. Cherry MX-compatible stems, which is a cross-shaped stem, are the most common.
Keycap Sizes and Its Impact on Layouts
Keycaps are measured in a relative scale where the alphanumeric keys form the basic unit of measurement. These are the smallest keys on the mechanical keyboard, such as the letters, the numbers, and arrow keys, and are considered 1u keys representing one unit of keycap measurement. Every other keycap size is represented in terms of how many 1u keys can fit into their footprint.
For example, the Backspace key measuring exactly as much as two 1u keycaps combined is a 2u keycap. The Enter keycap is 2.25u and the Space Bar is usually 6.25u, in some cases, can be up to 7u. The Tab key is a 1.5u key on the grounds that it is one and a half times as wide as 1u keycaps. However, sometimes, due to form factors and layouts, different keyboards can have the same keys, such as the Space Bar in sizes ranging from 2.25u to 7u.
Different kinds of keycaps come in different sizes across varied layouts for reasons ranging from optimization of key density to ergonomics. Placing three different layouts of the same 60 percent keyboard in comparison is the best way to have a quick grasp of this concept. While the first two rows of all three layouts are identical, the special keys such as the Backspace key, Enter key, Spacebar key, and Shift key are vastly different from each other. Depending on the country you live in, you might have different experiences with the key shapes or functionality. Commonly, it’s ISO for European countries, ANSI for America, and JIS for Japan.
ANSI Keyboard Layout
JIS Keyboard Layout
ISO Keyboard Layout
>>> ANSI vs ISO Keyboard Layout, which one fits you the best? Find out the answer here.
ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is a kind of plastic that is easy to mold and produces vibrant and beautiful colors. This is why many high-end keycaps take advantage of it for brilliantly-colored keycaps. It works especially well with double-shot technology and thick walls, as it rarely warps. The drawback of ABS material is that it is not as UV resistant as PBT, making it yellow over the years, and also begins shining after a year. However, as said above, ABS usually has better colors and crisper legends due to the ease of injection molding ABS plastic.
Commonly using the dye-sublimated legends, PBT (polybutylene terephthalate) is tough and rigid plastic. It provides a strong and ear-pleasing sound signature (although this depends more on the profile of the keycap), and is long-lasting without even shining. The drawback of PBT is that it does not present colors as vibrant as ABS, and is vulnerable to warping, making it challenging to produce thick Doubleshot PBT keycaps. However, the toughness of PBT can be beautifully utilized with a dye-sublimation process which can bring color to PBT without having to have double-shot keycaps. (Read more about ABS and PBT Comparison here)
Other keycap materials
It’s worth noting apart from the two main keycap materials listed above, there are many other keycap materials, but they are much less common and sometimes more difficult to afford. Keycap materials such as rubber and brass can be pretty rare and hard to purchase. Usually, you’ll need to order them through a group buy to get ahold of them.
Understanding Keycap Profiles
Cherry profile keycaps
This profile is one of the most popular profiles for aftermarket keycaps. Keycaps of this profile are sculpted making them different from the others in the row rows but also more comfortable compared to uniform keycaps.
They are a bit shorter than the OEM profile but usually have higher prices than OEM as well. If you are familiar with mechanical keyboards of this profile then this height will probably be pretty easy to get used to and even if you are new coming from something at a lower profile, it should only take a couple of days to get acquainted with them.
The keycaps of this profile have a more raspy sound on the grounds that there is less room within the keycap for sound to bounce around. From what we experienced, we found cherry to be one of the most favorable profiles, if not the best, for both gaming and typing.
OEM profile keycaps
OEM, also known as Original Equipped Manufacturer, is the most popular profile of all. The form is cylindrical, flat on top, and a little shorter, around 12mm. Just like SA, OEM is also a sculpted profile.
The design and sculpt of Cherry and OEM profile keycaps are very similar so which one is best for your keyboard? Find out the answer HERE.
SA profile keycaps
From the Signature Plastic (SP), SA profile is the highest of all profiles with a height of around 16mm. Its spherical form puts on it a pretty rounded look.
SA is a sculpted type, there is a bit of difference in the height of rows. A profile like this would help you know which keycap row you’re typing. The sculpted surface of the SA profile keycaps makes the whole keyboard look really curvy and eye-pleasing.
DSA profile keycaps
DSA, a low-profile keycap type, is one of the most popular uniform profiles. It is pretty easy to get used to unless you are coming from a high-profile keyboard, although the fact that it is not sculpted may be difficult for you to use at first.
Many people love the visual aspect of the keycap of this keycap profile type because they really get fond of the consistent height between rows as well as the sound with the most deep-toned sound on this list on the grounds that there is little room within the key please many people.
Of all the uniform profiles, the DSA profile is considered the most favorable for the gaming experience, although sculpted keycaps are usually preferred. In terms of typing, the uniform profile may have an adjustment period required.
XDA profile keycaps
Like DSA, XDA keycaps are low profile and a uniform profile type, which results in this profile being preferred by keycaps enthusiasts for having a stunning look.
This profile is pretty easy to get acquainted with and will be easier than DSA if you are coming from a high profile like the SA profile.
XDA profile keycaps sound pretty similar to the Cherry profile counterparts, just a bit lower pitch.
Overall this kind of keycap profile is a solid option for both gaming and regular typing. The biggest issue gamers might have is that the uniform nature of XDA makes it challenging for them to possess the keycap.
KAM profile keycaps
The profile is a non-curved straight profile and the keycaps have a slighter width and a larger touch surface area for your fingers. The thickness of the edges is estimated at 0.55mm more than the DSA profile which is around 1.65mm in total and the height is 1.05mm taller than the DSA counterpart.
Different types of keycap printing techniques
Now that you have more insight into keycap materials, keycap profiles, etc. It’s time to talk about different types of keycap printing techniques that are used commonly in the making process of keycaps. Below are some of those most common techniques you will see around the keycaps community.
A method of injection molding where the legend and the exterior base of the cap are two separate parts that are molded together. The legend will never fade away, as it goes all the way through the cap. This method of printing is usually done with ABS plastic material.
Dye-Sublimation (Dye Sub)
A method where the legend is a dye that is deepened down into the surface of a solid cap composed of one part. A simple way to give a vivid description of this method is to think of the legend as being tattooed into the keycap. The legend will eventually fade over time as the keycap is worn but it will hold up pretty well as the legend is engraved into the surface of the cap. This type of printing technique is usually done with PBT plastic. (Check out this article to understand how different are Double-Shot and Dye-Sub keycaps)
A technique of digital printing takes advantage of ultraviolet (UV) light to dry or cure the ink. This is most commonly used for legends that are a third color applied into a double shot cap. The legend created by this method will fade faster than the dye-sub method does as the legend is on the surface of the cap. However, some companies have used a high-quality UV printing method that has proven to be false over the last few years.
Reverse Dye-sublimation (reverse dye-sub)
Reverse dye-sub is pretty the same as dye-sub, but the colors around the legend are also colored instead. This enables us to bypass the faded-legend problem while maintaining the wide range of colors available with the dye-sub printing technique. However, you have a lot more surface area to cover as well as the sides of the keycap with reverse dye-sub. This makes it significantly more exorbitant than dye-sub printing keycaps. Reverse dye-sub is mostly used when there are either many novelties, bizarre colors or uncommon fonts.
Pad printing has been the most popular method of keycap printing since the 1990s. The idea is very simple – pads are deepened down into ink, and then pressed onto the keycap to create a layer of ink on the surface of the keycap. The advantage of this method is the flexibility. This means the process can be easily acclimatized to print any character in any color requested. However, the ink is prone to wear off.
The downside of the pad printing technique is the low efficiency which thus results in high cost. Pad print is usually utilized in some high-end mechanical keyboards. Those factories who can afford the laser print machine may also use this printing method because the machine needed is not that suitably pricy to buy.
In this type of keycap printing, a laser is used to burn the requested letters into the keycaps. For this kind of keycap, letters are impossible to fade over time. The track of burning leaves on the keyboard culminates in the appearance of black letters because of the laser. So, this printing is mainly used for white keycaps or gray keycaps. Black keycaps rarely use this method or else letters will be invisible.
Buy custom keycaps
The custom keycap market has boomed recently, especially in the midst of the Covid pandemic when working from home has become a new way of adaptation for almost every corporation.
Hence, there is a great deal of keycaps manufacturers in all segments out there for you to choose from.
Mechanical Keyboards: Avid custom keycaps enthusiasts may already be familiar with Mechanical Keyboards since this online store is known for its wide range of keyboard-related products. Artisan keycaps have their own category on this online shop with the prices ranging from about $20 to $60.
Drop: Drop caters to audiophiles and mechanical keyboard aficionados. While Drop’s selection of artisan keycaps is not as extensive as online shops like Mechanical Keyboards, the quality and design of the keycaps are highly impressive and imaginative. They specialize more in the mid-range keycaps whose price runs around $50-$100.
Hirosart: Hirosart offers a massive number of artisan resin keycap collections so that you can pick up your favorites to spice up your mechanical keyboard. With the vision of becoming the go-to resin art hub for artisan resin products enthusiasts globally, every sculpture Hirosart creates is truly a work of art filled with our imagination, creativity, and massive attention to detail. Check out our website and don’t hesitate to connect with us!
This in-depth guide has covered all the basics relating to different types of keycaps. Mechanical keyboard keycaps might appear daunting from scratch, with so many variables to take into account. Each profile, material, and printing technique has its own features that will have a certain impact on your short- and long-term experience.
Having a thorough grasp of keycap types is useful for comparisons, but at the end of the day, it would be up to you to pick what is in your price range and has an appealing look. That’s the charm of the keycap hobby – it’s all up to you!