If you’re into the mechanical keyboard hobby, prepare your wallet for some hit songs.
Aside from the hardware itself, the custom keycap sets you to add to a mechanical switch can be quite expensive. But why?
The answer is complicated. To be fair, the actual ingredients in all those little plastic pieces aren’t expensive at all, and there are plenty of inexpensive options to be had.
But between limited production capacity, a healthy secondary market, and the special nature of customized keycaps, expanding your collection will probably deal a heavy blow to your wallet.
Cheap Options are Out There
First of all, the materials that go into keycaps are inexpensive. It’s a plastic mold, to scream loudly, not a rare earth metal.
There’s a surprising amount of variation in the plastic used for keycaps, and even more so in terms of their production style, form, and written legend, but the actual hardware itself is, well, plastic.
And thanks to a growing number of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts, there are a few options if you’re short on cash.
Scanning Amazon, you can find plenty of options for under $30 or so, like this full-size set of Doubleshot, backlit-friendly keycaps in popular PBT plastic for just eighteen dollars.
Here’s a collection of sets with that trendy color modifier look, here’s a set with Dolch-style Colors in copycat DSA profiles, and so on, and so on.
What I mean is, if you want a new set of keys and are short on cash, there are at least a few options out there. Several mass-produced keycap sets are available at low prices.
But as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. These devices are mass-produced and not very high quality; here’s the legend printed cheaply on that Dolch set after several months of intense typing.
And of course, cheap seats aren’t going to give you the cool color combinations and custom legends that grace all those super geeky posts on the mechanical keyboard subreddit. For that, you need bangs.
Custom Keycaps Come from a Number of Manufacturers
The cheap keycap sets listed above are all from manufacturers in China and other industrial hubs, who aren’t particularly interested in talking to you unless you want to order ten thousand units.
Instead, the custom-made sets you see in the background photos taken by trendy tech bloggers are made almost exclusively in small batches of a few hundred each.
This small-batch eliminates the economies of scale that exist in almost all retail products.
This pushes prices up, assets need to be designed and manufactured on special equipment.
Custom sets also tend to include expensive manufacturing techniques such as double shot legend or dye sublimation.
Few plastic manufacturers have A) the molding and molding equipment to do this and B) have any interest at all in customized small batches.
That goes double for non-standard parts, like keycap sets for ortholinear designs, split designs like Ergodox, or rare layouts like 40% keyboard.
The most well-known manufacturer in this area is Signature Plastics, a small Washington-based company that has been manufacturing custom plastic parts for business-to-business applications for decades.
Signature Plastics got into the mechanical keyboard trend early on, launching a direct retail site called Pimp My Keyboard.
In addition to routinely produced sets and locks, Signature Plastics also accepts small batch orders from group purchasing, works closely with independent designers to produce orders, and sends them to group purchasing organizers for distribution.
The difference in scale for mass-produced sets and group orders of only a few dozen units is huge.
It takes a long time and a lot of extra money to get started, not to mention the profit margins involved. Speaking of…
What About Craftsmen?
Artisan keycaps are, to put it mildly, crazy. These single keycaps, usually designed in a standard 1×1 size, are handcrafted by the sculptor, often from exotic materials and mixed media.
Some of them are simple and stylish, but the more elaborate examples have more in common with custom-built gaming miniatures than anything you’d see on a conventional keyboard.
Custom printed and hand-painted artisan keycaps from Keypress Graphics.
Craft keycaps are often so complex that they have to be made one at a time, and the entire production process may consist of only a few hundred parts.
They are a status symbol of the custom keyboard world, rarely approach anything practical, and sometimes actively detract from the ergonomics of the keyboard itself.
But that’s no problem for fans of this ultra-special piece. It’s like a custom hood ornament or a unique piece of jewelry. Just seekers.
Usually, handyman keycaps are expensive. Individual pieces start at around twenty or thirty dollars, often going up to fifty, and seventy or eighty dollars is not unheard of from popular designers in limited numbers.
If you’re looking for an improved adjustment factor (and a quick way to get into debt), you could do worse.