If you’re new to world of mechanical keyboards, you might not know that—like putting new tires on a car—you can swap the keys, or keycaps, on your keyboard. Here’s why, how, and a few recommended options to get you started.
Why Swap the Keycaps On Your Mechanical Keyboard?
In the beginning, all computer keyboards were mechanical. That distinctive clickity-clackity sound that people associate with old computers is a sound produced by a combination of the mechanical switches beneath the keycaps and the thick plastic keycaps attached to those switches.
Starting in the late 1980s, however, the rise of membrane keyboards led to a slow and steady decline in mechanical keyboard production and usage. Instead of a mechanical switch, a membrane keyboard has a little rubber dome, as the name implies, beneath the key, and when you push the key down, it smooshes the conductive pad inside the top of the dome down against a circuit pad below.
While we could spend an article (or even a modest book!) talking about the differences between the two types of keyboards and the benefits and shortcomings of each, but the key difference we’re interested in here is the modularity of the keycaps.
You can’t just pull the little plastic caps off the keys on your laptop keyboard or the stock membrane keyboard that came with your computer because the keycaps are designed for that specific keyboard right down to the style of the little scissor lifts under the keys.
But you can pull the keycaps off mechanical keyboards and replace them—a really neat trick that you might not know about if you’re not super familiar with mechanical keyboards. And given the significant increase in mechanical keyboards on the market over the last few years, we have a pretty strong sense that there are more than a few folks out there who bought a mechanical keyboard but don’t know they can swap the caps.
Of course, that begs the question, why would you swap the keycaps on your mechanical keyboard? To return to the car and tires analogy we opened with, you swap the tires (and rims) on a car for various reasons. Tires wear out long before the car does. You use different tires for different seasons and purposes. You want to customize the look of your car to be flashier or more personalized.
And you do the exact same things with keycaps. The switches in mechanical keyboards are rated for millions of clicks and you’ll wear out your keycaps before you wear out the switches. If you want a new look for your keyboard, there’s no reason to replace the whole keyboard when you can replace the keycaps. So whether your goal is to keep an old mechanical keyboard going forever or to customize it to fit your mood or decor, it’s easy to do so.
How Do You Swap Them?
We have an extensive guide to replacing your mechanical keyboard keycaps, including a lot of great tips, but let’s talk briefly about it here so you have a sense of what you’re getting into. And while you’re at it, do check out our guide to all the mechanical keyboard terms you’ll come across.
The vast majority of mechanical keyboards on the market use Cherry MX-style switches like the ones seen in the Corsair K70 mechanical keyboard seen above.
Replacing the keycaps on a mechanical keyboard is as simple as arming yourself with the right tool, a keycap puller, and picking out a new set of keycaps. You just gently wiggle them off the switch posts, slide the new ones on, and you’re in business.
What to Look for In Replacement Keycaps
When it comes to mechanical keyboard keycaps there are a staggering number of options on the market. Not only can you buy off-the-shelf replacement kits from major retailers, but there is such a thriving mechanical keyboard subculture now with sites like Drop.com that a dizzying array of keyboards, keycaps, and accessories.
It’s up to you to decide how complex or simple of a design you want and whether or not spending $30 or less for a perfectly serviceable set of keycaps is more your speed or you’re willing to shell out $100+ for a highly customized set—if you’re getting serious about the hobby, read up on premium keycaps first. But here are some basic questions to keep in mind.
ABS or PBT?
Aside from really custom keycaps made from various metals, resins, or other materials, the vast majority of keycaps are made from either ABS plastic or PBT plastic.
ABS is the cheaper material, and most enthusiasts don’t care for it. One of the primary complaints is that the plastic is soft enough to wear under heavy use. Eventually, you will polish the keys to a mirror finish, not only wearing off the key legends in the process but changing how they feel.
PBT is more expensive but harder wearing. Over the years, I have worn numerous ABS-keycapped boards down to polished mirrors with no lettering left, but I have yet—despite years of use—to visibly wear a PBT keycap set.
What Kind of Printing?
In addition to the material type, there is the manner in which the key legend, or lettering, is applied. We discuss this in detail in our guide to replacing your keycaps, but a quick summary is in order.
The cheapest keycaps use pad printing (where the lettering is just stamped on) which isn’t durable at all. Laser etching is slightly more durable, but only marginally so. You’re unlikely to find either of these styles in aftermarket keycaps.
Corsair PBT Double Shot Pro
The PBT keycaps with double-shot printing are durable enough to outlive the purchaser.
More durable than pad printing and laser etching is dye-sublimation wherein the dye used soaks pretty deeply into the plastic and fuses with it. Even more durable than that is a printing style called “double shot” whererin the keycap is actually two physical layers of of plastic fused together such that the body of the keycap is one color and the lettering is another. You’ll wear the pads off your fingers before you ever wear double shot lettering off.
Backlit or Not?
Finally, consider your keyboard. No LEDs? You don’t need to worry about selecting keycaps that support backlighting.
HyperX Pudding Keycaps
These ultra-durable PBT keycaps will let your RGB keyboard glow bright.
But if you do have a backlit keyboard, be it with simple white LEDs or a full RGB setup, you need keycaps with clear or semi-opaque constructions to allow the light to pass through. “Pudding cap” style PBT keycaps like these keycaps from HyperX are a popular pick among people who want backlit key legends and maximum RGB wow-factor.
But however you end up customizing your board, now you know it can be done! Crazy RGB glow caps, olive drab caps to go with your post-apocalyptic-theme gaming PC, whatever you want there’s a keycap set out there for you.