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An introduction to mechanical keyboards

Last weekend, our developer Oliver ‘Olli’ Granlund organized a keyboard meetup in Helsinki. In case you’re wondering if that’s a real thing and if there’s a whole community for it, he can confirm – building mechanical keyboards is a beloved hobby for many.

Roosa Säävälä, September 9, 2019

Let’s have Olli tell us what building keyboards is all about. Clickety-clack!

Home-built pastel-colored keyboard

Pastels and ponies.

So, is this really a thing? 

It’s a thing! Think about it this way: your keyboard is something you use almost daily, so why settle for a bad one? There is a reason why people buy ergonomic chairs and electric tables – why wouldn’t you get a keyboard that makes a difference?

There are keyboards for different needs and purposes. By building your own, you can have something that’s designed for your needs, whether it’s typing, coding or gaming. You can buy different keycaps, change the mechanical switches and get a keyboard that’s completely tailored to your preferences. Also, mechanical keyboards last for ages if not mishandled.

Of course, building keyboards is also a nice hobby for a lot of people. There are a limited number of keyboards at the shops, so if you make one by yourself, you can build it exactly the way you want. 

What is Helsinki’s keyboard community like?

Our first meeting was in December 2017, and I think we were three people. At the last meet, we were 30, so this community has definitely grown! We also have a chat on Discord with more than 120 people, and we talk every day about all kinds of stuff. I have met interesting people through this group, and there are a lot of developers just like me. 

Evermade kindly sponsored our last event by giving away 3 gigantic switches. These can be programmed to work any way want – the most common thing is making them a lightswitch or function as an Enter-key. 

Members of the Helsinki keyboard community

Are there online shops or any specific brands that you recommend for people looking to build their first keyboard?

First, you need to decide what size you want and if you’re ready to do some soldering. There are ready-sets where you just plug in the switches you want, but most enthusiasts prefer soldering and creating their own software for the board.

When building fully custom, you’d first want to select what kind of PCB works for your purpose and key layout, and after that select all the other components to fit around it. There are a lot of good online stores to get parts from, like the European Candykeys and Chinese KBDfans. There are also premium parts (double-molded plastics, CNC-metals, etc.) that will cost you slightly more.

Home-built keyboard split into two for ergonomy

A keyboard called Iris, split for ergonomy.

How long does it take to build a keyboard from scratch?

After your parts have arrived, you should be able to build your custom non-overkill keyboard in one evening, however, you might need some extra time with your first builds. Any special customization you’d love to have in your new keyboard requires changing something, which again takes time. Also if you burn a solder-pad you’d maybe have to play McGyver to make it work.

I’ve built three keyboards over time, my favorite being a 4.6kg board – it’s super sturdy and won’t move on my desk at all. Also, its layout is quite special, no other keyboard seemed to have European-standard with split backspace and right-shift. 

A 4,6 kg keyboard

The 4,6 kg beast keyboard by Olli Granlund.

If everyone at our office had a mechanical keyboard, wouldn’t there be a lot of noise?

It depends on the office policy if clicky switches are allowed or not. Personally, I prefer the feel and sound of mechanical keyboards and wouldn’t be bothered by coworkers clickety-clacking – it’s like music to my ears! However, it is also possible to build a mechanical keyboard that is more silent than your average MacBook keyboard.

We’ll organize the next big meetup in late 2020. Before that, you could drop in our Discord channel.