First Draft: Choosing And Modifying Keys

(This is the first draft of this subject. No graphics have been added, and it has not been proof read yet. However, feel free to criticize and comment. When the final version is posted, this post will be deleted)

Swapping and Modifying keyscaps and key switches

Some users may be uninterested in the details about the keys on their keyboard. After all, the subject is not one most of us have thought much about. If you are uninterested, you can skip this section unless you are having problems.

However, if you want to customize or to improve the ergonomics of your keyboard, or even if you are simply curious, read on.

The Structure of Keys

Keys are divided into several parts.

Keycaps are the part of the key that fingers press. Beneath them are the key switches, which vary widely in feel and performance.

MX switches are the most common structure for key switches. That is a traditional structure invented by Cherry, which for years had the patent on key switches. MX switches are marked by a cross shape on top of the stem. Between the upper and lower housing, the stem is a two-pronged contact with the circuit board and a spring that moves the stem up and down.

Along with this basic structure other features may be housed. For instance, a Box switch has walls around the stem and other parts to protect them from dust and moisture, while some switches have a clickbar to give louder, clearer feedback as you type.

Whatever the structure of a switch, the keycap should fit tightly on the stem and not wobble. If it does, adding O-Rings mayh help the problem (see below).

All the switches fit into a plate that lies atop a printed circuit board.

Choosing Keycaps

Many hobbyists and small businesses manufacture keycaps in all sorts of sizes, color and LEDs. However, because the Model 100’s key caps are not all the same shape and size, you will not be able to use a complete set unless you buy from Keyboardio or pay for custom work. If you have upgraded frim a Model 01, you will find that some key caps wull not fit on a Model 100.

Keyboardio itself offers several types of keycap sets:

  • A set for a QWERTY layout is included when you buy a Model 100.
  • Blank and QWERTY keys for the Atreus. Blank keys reduce the confusion when there is a difference between the cap and what the key prints because of customization.
  • Linear A keys display an Ancient Greek alphabet, rather than use a blank. They are partly for fun, but also provide a symbol that may make it easier to remember a custom key’s function. For the Model 100 only.

Choosing Switches

If anything, there are too many choices in key switches, especially for a beginner. However, choosing one that Keyboardio ships with or stocks can start to reduce any option anxiety. On the Model 01, these are limited to Matias/ Alps switches. The Model 100 and Atreus ship with Kailh switches, and can use most other MX switches as well.

If you want more choices than the Keyboardio site offers, you should start with Cherry, Gateron, and other switches from Kailh, all of which have good reputations and well-rounded selections. To generalize, Cherry’s switches are the most expensive, with mostly moderate Force and Pre-travel, and a life of 100 million. Gateron’s also tend to have moderate Force and Pre-Travel. By contrast, Kailh’s are the most varied in price and features.

However, these are far from the only choices. Other switchmakers include Akko, Outemu, and Glorious Panda. The Model 01 used Matias/ switches. Sometimes, you can find unexpected bargains from all these manufacturers, but some have short life spans.

Switches are traditionally named for colors, because that was how Cherry originally named them. Strangely, some sites rave about the colors of switches, even though the switches are not seen when their keycaps are on. The only reasons that these color names matter is how they affect back lights’ display and how the names sometimes tell how switches from one manufacturer compare with those of another. However, other naming conventions are common now as well.

Online, you will find many reviews and comparisons that might help you decide which switches to choose. There are even recordings of what many keys sound like.

Most users choose the same switches for an entire keyboard. However, so long as they are compatible, you can use a variety of switches on the same board. For example, you might install speed switches on keys struck by your weaker little finger, and clacky ones on important keys so you know that you hit them.

Switch Type Feel Force (gf) Pre-Travel (mm) Travel (mm) Life (M)
BOX Chinese Red 45±10 1.8±0.3 3.6±0.3 80
BOX Red Linear 45±10 1.8±0.3 3.6±0.3 80
Blue Clicky 50±10 1.9±0.4 1.9±0.4 70
BOX China Ancient Gray Linear 95+/-10 1.8±0.3 3.6 80
BOX Glazed Green Clicky 65 1.8±0.3 3.6 80
BOX Hush Linear Linear 50g ± 10 1.8 ± 0.4 3.6 ± 0.6 100
BOX Noble Yellow Clicky 65 1.8±0.3 3.6 80
BOX Silent Brown Tactile 45 2.0 2.9 80
BOX Silent Pink Linear 35 1.8 2.9 80
BOX White Clicky 45±10 1.9 3.6±0.3 80
BOX White Owl Clicky 46±20 1.8±0.4 3.6±0.3 80
Brown with light pipe Linear 40±10 2.0 3.6±0.3 80
Choc v2 Brown (low profile) Tactile 50 1.3±0.3 3.2±0.25 50
Choc v2 Red (low profile) Linear 50 1.3±0.3 3.2±0.25 50
Speed Bronze Linear,Tactile, Clicky 50±10 1.1±0.4 3.5±0.4 70
Speed Copper Tactile 40±10 1.1±0.4 3.5±0.4 mm 70
Speed Gold Linear, Tactile, Clicky 50±10 1.4±0.4 3.5±0.4 70
Speed Pro Crystal Burgundy Linear 37±10 1.3+0.4/-0.3 1.7±0.6 50
Speed Pro Light Green Clicky 50±10 1.7±0.6 1.7±0.6 70
Speed Pro Purple ClickyTactile 40±10 1.7±0.6 3.5±0.4 70
Speed Silver Linear 40±10 1.1±0.4 3.5±0.4 70
Ultra Clear Sun Clicky 50g ± 10 1.8 ± 0.3 3.5 ± 0. 70

Criteria for choosing switches

Choosing keywitches is highly subjective, and there are hundreds of choices. Even if you stick to the switches offered by Keyboardio, the choice can be overwhelming – especially if, like most people, you never thought about switches before. However, there are several ways to give you some direction.

Choose by how the switches feel or work

Traditionally, switches are divided into three categories:

  • Linear: A smooth and even keystroke with little noise. Linear switches tend to require less force to press, and to travel less distance to activate.
  • Tactile: A small bump on each keystroke, with moderate noise. They are often seen as a middle choice between Linear and Clacky switches, but their statistics can vary widely. Their distinctive feature is Tactile Force, the strength of the tactile bump.
  • Clacky: A small bump (or two) on each keystroke, with loud noise. The feedback might help to increase typing accuracy. Clacky switches tend to require more force to press, and to travel more distance to activate.

Hybrids between also exist between these categories. In addition, within these traditional categories, Kailh keys (and many others) have several other types of switches:

  • Silent: Usually super-linear switches. Sometimes used for tactile switches.
  • Box: The internal mechanism is protected by an interior box, making it dust and water resistant, and minimizing any keycap wobble, as well as possibly reducing the sound.
  • Speed: Speed switches have low activation force and travel. Expert typists find them ideal, and some gamers claim they give an edge to their reaction time. Others may find them too sensitive. They may also be more ergonomic if you type for hours at a time.
  • Super Speed: Ones even faster than speed switches.
  • Low Profile: Switches shorter than average. Their smaller height lowers Pre-Travel, but some may only last for 50 million presses, and not be compatible with custom keycaps. See Low-Profile Switches: Explained - Switch and Click.
  • Clickbar: Clicky switches with a mechanism for stronger, cleaner feedback.
  • Super, v.2: Improved versions of older switches.

Increasingly, switch summaries also mention how back lights shine through them., but so far there are no general terms to describe the alternatives.

Choosing by Switch Statistics

In choosing key switches, you should also consider statistics on manufacturer sites and in reviews. The exact name of each feature may vary from page to page, but is usually easy to figure out. These statustucs are especially important:

  • Force (Actuation): the amount of energy needed to press the key, measured in grams. Obviously, this force is small, but a high number can be reassuringly solid to some users, while for others a lower force might be more ergonomic during long keyboard sessions.
  • Pre-Travel: How far the stem depresses before it prints a character, measure in millimeters. Gamers and fast typists often prefer a lower number, while others find a lower number too sensitive. Low Profile switches with a lower height than average will usually reduce the travel time, too.
  • Travel: How far a key depresses then rises after being pressed and can be used again.Closely related to Pre-Travel.
  • Life (Cycles): How many times the switch can be used. Kailh switches’ lives are between 50-80 million. With hot swappable switches, this statistic is perhaps less important than it used to be, since replacements are reasonably cheap and easy to make.
  • Spring: The length and material of the spring that moves the stem.
  • Light Transference: How a switch affects backlights.
  • Factory PreLubed or Self Lubricating: Whether the parts of the switch are lubricated. Many modern switches are one or the other. If neither, see “Lubing Switches” below before you buy.
  • 3 Pin or 5 Point: The number of plugs on hot swappable switches. A 3 pin switch has a central plastic pin in the center of the bottom, and two thin, staggered electrical connector pins below it. A 5 pin switch has these 3, plus 2 plastic legs on each side of the central pin to help reduce wobble when the key is placed.

The Model 100 and Atreus boards are set up for 3 pins, but you can snip off the 2 additional ones on a 5 pin switch to make them fit into a 3 pin socket. However, it is less work to simply choose an equivalent 3 pin switch. The majority of switches today seem to have 3 pins, so the chances are you will find one with similar characteristics to a 5 pin switch you want.

  • Some manufacturers may also suggest the sort of typing a switch is most useful for. Common audiences mentioned include gaming, office, and typists. These categories can overlap; for instance both gamers and typists might prefer light switches for their fast response time.

Replacing Hot Swappable Switches (Model 100 and Atreus)

Hot swappable switches started to become common around 2020. Their appearance has opened up the choice of switches to the average user.

At first, changing switches may seem a formidable task, but so long as you are patient and do not try to force switches into place, there is little that can go wrong other than the occasional non-functional switch – and that is easily replaced. By the time you swap switches on an entire keyboard, you should find the task easy. You might buy one of the switch testers available online to practice before working on your keyboard.

When you are ready, follow these steps:

  1. Unplug your keyboard so you are not distracted by the key printing characters as you work.

  2. Either swap keys one at a time or work with a copy of the default layout up on your computer or printed out. You can also carefully arrange keycaps as you take them out. Any of these choices will help you put the keycaps back on when you are finished.

  3. Ready the switch puller and the keycap remover that came with your keyboard. You can work with your fingers, but doing so can be awkward and increases the risk of damaging switches and keycaps.

  4. Using the keycap remover, pull gently on a cap to remove it.

  5. Using the switch puller, remove the current switch. Some types of switches like Gateron have notches on the top and bottom to make the job easier In any case, work carefully, or you may bend the electrical legs. If you do, you may be able to straighten them with tweezers, but for now put damaged switches aside to examine later.

  6. Insert the new switch. The 2 electrical legs /connections should be at the side closest to the top of the board. The holes for them are clearly visible. When the key is inserted properly,you will feel and hear it click into space. You may need to press down on all four corners of the switch to position it properly.

  7. Repeat for each key to be replaced. While the switch and cap are removed, you may also want to clean the board with a dry cloth.

  8. Test all the new keys to make sure they are properly installed. Examine those that do not work, repositioning or replacing them as necessary. When swopping all the switches on a board, it is easy to not install all the switches properly, especially the first time you do so.

  9. Put the keycaps back in place.

Should any keys print the wrong character after swopping switches, check that that it is properly installed. Also check that the key for the mispriknted character is properly installed, If the problem persists, replace the switch.

Replacing Non-Swappable Key Switches (Model 01)

On non-swappable keyboards like the Model 01, switches are soldered on a plate attached to the printed circuit board. Until the last few years, this arrangement was the norm, and more than many users cared to attempt. Today, however, the chief reason for soldering is probably to repair keys that no longer work. Sometimes, though, a malfunctioning key can be restored simply by brushing it with rubbing alcohol, so try that first.

If soldering is necessary, consider finding someone to do the work for you, such as a local phone repair service or open source group. An experienced solderer can repair a key in half an hour at a cost of $20-50.

If you choose to do the work yourself, it is less difficult than many think. Before repairing your keyboard, you can buy a practice kit on Amazon for $25 or less. You will also need:

  • a soldering iron with a fine tip
  • a de-soldering pump
  • lead-based solder
  • steel wool to clean the tip of the soldering iron
  • padded clamps or a vice to hold the PCP and plate in position as you work.

You can get away without using some of these items, but beginners will find using them all makes the task easier. Your total cost can be as little as $70-120.

Choose a work area that is well-ventilated and large enough that you will not accidentally knock something over – especially a hot soldering iron. Use a stand for the iron. You might want to wear a face mask because of the lead fumes from the solder.

  1. Remove the keycap on the first key to replace. If necessary, remove the surrounding keycaps to make room to work.

  2. Unscrew the back of the case and lift out the plate and PCP.

  3. Clamp the mechanism or place it in the vice. Depending on where the malfunctioning keys are positioned, you may have to shift the clamps or reposition the plate and PCB in the vice as you work.

  4. Heat the iron. How long this takes depends on the quality of the iron, and the temperature you work with Start with 325º Celsius, and increase as needed to melt the solder. Experts often work at 380-410º.

  5. On the bottom of the key switch, the two wire legs are soldered to a metal rim. Using the soldering iron, melt the solder that connects them.

    1. Place the desoldering pump over the melted solder, leaving a little space for air, and remove the solder. The switch can now be poked loose.
  6. Insert the new switch, and poke the solder so that it bridges the wire leg and metal rim. Apply the soldering iron to the solder to melt it, being careful not melt the metal rim… Remember that too little solder is better than too much. More solder can easily be added, while too much may interfer with other switches, and require resoldering.

  7. Repeat as neccessary, and reassemble the keyboard when done. Remember to clean your soldering tools immediately.

Additional Customizations

Hobbyists have developed several methods that are supposed to improve how switches perform: lubricating switches, adding a film to them, and using O-Rings. Which switches benefit from these treatment, and the best methods of making these improvement are hotly debated. In fact, yhou might wonder if the improvement each offers is worth the effort. For this reason, you should start by experimenting with one or two switches, and reach your own conclusions.

Lubing Switches

Many switches ship already lubricated or are self-lubricating. However, some hobbyists claim that additional lubing can improve a switch’s performance beyond its officials specs. You may not need to lube new switches, but as switches age, lubing may coax extra life out of a switch. You might prefer to only lube each switch as it becomes necessary, or simply to buy another set of switches when existing ones become less responsive.

Tools for lubing switches are for sale online.You will need:

  • a flathead screw driver or a switch opener. A switch opener prevents the parts of a switch from scattering, but be sure to get one for the brand of switch you are using.
  • tweezers or a jeweller’s claw for holding a switch.
  • a thin paint brush to apply the lube.
  • a lubricant. Start withn a thin lube and experiment to find the most suitable lube for the switches yhou are working on. Too thick a lube can be as bad as no lube.

Lube stations are sold as well. Mainly, they help to keep the parts organized.

Before you start, research the best way to lube. Opinions vary wildly. Some say that Clicky switches should never be lubed. Some suggest lubing the bottom and top housing, while others favor lubing only the spring and the top of the stem. Which lubricant to use for which switches is also debated. Because of this lack of agreement, you should experiment on a few switches before lubing an entire board, starting withn the least amount of lube.

Sometimes, all that is needed to improve a switch’s action is to remove the keycap and lube the stem. Other options involve opening the switch, following these instructions:

  1. Open the switch with a screw driver and twezeers or with a switch opener and disassemble it. Be careful that the pieces do not scatter.
  2. Brush the switch with the lube, using the method you chose. Whnatever thne method,sWhite blobs are a sign that you have spread too much lube, so wipe the excess off. Be careful to avoid lube on your hand.
  3. Place all the springs in a ziplock bag. Add a few drops to the bag, then shake the bag.
  4. Set out the switch pieces to dry a bit. You may need to untangle the springs.
  5. Reassemble the switches.

Lubing is a tedious job, especially on your first attempt. If you can find anybody to help, make it a social occasion. Better yet, consider paying an expert if you can find one.

Filming Switches

A film is a thin sheet, usually made of transparent plastic. Its purpose is to reduce a key’s wobble, which could cause your finger to slip from the key, and to reduce the sound thnat the key makes. Some switches, like Kailh Box switches do not need films, and not all switches of the same kind may need one, either. Older switches may develop wobbles.

Films of all kinds are for sale online. Start withn thin films, and experiment until you find ones that make a difference.

To add a film, you need:

  • films
  • a flathead screw driver or a switch opener. A switch opener prevents the parts of a switch from scattering, but be sure to get one for the brand of switch you are using.
  • tweezers or a jeweller’s claw for holding a switch.

To add a film:

  1. Wriggle each stem to see which switches might benefit from a film. Some wobble is natural, but if you cam move the stem enough to see beneath its top, the right film should improve it.
  2. Remove the switch from the board.
  3. Open the switch with a screwdriver or switch opener.
  4. Taking a film in tweezers or a jeweller’s claw, drape the large square on the film over the stem. Be sure that the smaller rectangle does not droop over thne edge of the bottom switch housing.
  5. Press the top and bottom switch housing together. The fit may be a little tight. However, if the housing does not fit together, you need a thinner film. Try again.
  6. Replace the switch and test the result.

Adding O-rings

O-Rings are inexpensive optional rubber or silicon collars placed around the bottom of the key cap that connects to the top of the stem. to reduce any wobble and to deaden the sound. They are usually used for Linear or Tactile switches, but might be used with Clacky switches if people around you complain about the noise. O-Rings come in thin and thick choices, and varying degrees of hardness. Thin ones might be doubled on some keys. Many O-Rings are flexible, and can be stretched around a switch once the keycap is removed(.

When you add O-Rings, test the first one before doing the rest. Some O-Rings may not fit under some keycaps, especially thick ones. Some may also decrease Pre-Travel distance, which might make Speed Switches too fast for you, or dampen Clacky switches more than you prefer. You may need to try different O-Rings to find one that works with a particular switch and keycap – if one does.

You might decide that some keys do not need an O-Ring.

To add an O-ring:

  1. Remove the key cap.
  2. Stretch the O-Ring around the bottom of part of the keycap to the stem.
  3. Place the key cap back onm the switch.

Deciding What to Modify

Doing all the actions described in this chapter will take a few hours. They can also be expensive. Thne good news is once set up, you will probably not have to do most of these actions again for a year or two.

If you need more help. There are many videos online that may help you.

If you would rather not do all that work, that’s fine. So long as you are satisfied withn your keyboard’s performance, nothing else matters.