Mechanical keyboards and their switches are durable and reliable, but the default keycaps they come with are not.
If you’ve been putting in long, hard hours at the desk working, studying, gaming or chatting with your mechanical keyboard, aside from doing some routine cleaning, you have probably run into one or more of the following:
- paint scratching off
- some keys have a finger-polished shine
- keycap stem has cracked or broken
And now the keycaps need to be repaired or replaced to restore your keyboard to its former glory – or simply to its base functionality. While there are DIY ways of fixing most of these issues (applying paint, soldering or gluing the keycap stem back together), many of them are temporary measures.
Buying replacement keycaps – whether for a select few keys or all of them is a great way to fix these issues, upgrade to higher quality and more durable keys and customize the look of your keyboard. Much like how a car outlives its first set of tires, and it’s very easy to update an old keyboard with new keys.
Where to buy the best keycaps in Canada
- Brand matching – HyperX, Corsair, Razer (so you know for sure they’ll all fit)
- Best budget keycaps – YMDK 104 ANSI OEM PBT Keycap, Banggood 104 Key PBT OEM Pudding Keycap (save some money)
- Best artisan keycaps – Primecaps (own a piece of art)
- Best custom keycaps – WASD keyboards, Max Keyboard (US retailers)
Replacing the keys is the easy part. Here’s how to find what to look for:
What is the stem?
The stem is the coloured (often red) plastic part sticking up from the keyboard base that the keycap snaps onto.
The vast majority of mechanical keyboards use Cherry MX switches, but they can also be Alps or Topre (see below). You can confirm this by removing a keycap with a removal tool.
What are keycap profiles?
The profile of a set of keycaps describes the height, shape, thickness and angles of the keys and greatly affects the feel, appearance and typing speed. There are a wide variety of profiles that fit into two main groups: uniform (all the same angle – eg. flat) and sculpted (profile varies from row to row).
Which is “best” depends on personal preference, but most modern key sets are sculpted and the most popular profiles are Cherry, OEM (Filco), DSA and SA.
The differences are best compared from the side:
As long as you’ve found a set with the same stem and profile, most of the keys will fit. However, the entire bottom row, where the spacebar is found, can differ in size. When the bottom row is different in size, either the “windows” (aka META) key or spacebar is different from standard.
Plastic type: ABS vs PBT
ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PBT (Polybutylene terephthalate) are the two most common types of plastic used to manufacture keycaps.
ABS is cheaper to produce, so it is often used for the default set on new keyboards. It is softer and more flexible making it resistant to fracturing. It feels smoother and becomes shinier with use as you are touching the paint which can fade overtime rather than the base plastic. Has a bit of a ‘stick’ feeling.
PBT costs more to produce, but is 10 megapascals (MPA) stronger and maintains its appearance much longer, making it an excellent material for upgrade sets. but slightly textured and matte. They do not become shiny since your fingers are touching the plastic itself. However, it is more brittle which means it shatters easier upon impact so keep that in mind if dropping it or slamming it in rage is a possibility.
Thickness is not determined by the type of plastic used, but instead by the brand/model and the injection molding process used. Both can be made by either single or double shot injection molding.
|Texture||Smooth, slightly ‘sticky’||Sandier|
|Sound||Higher, louder (clicky)||Deeper, quieter (thumpy)|
Keycaps may also be made with:
- POM (Polyoxymethyleneor) which is higher grade than PBT but also more expensive
- PC (polycarbonate) plastic which is used to make translucent keys
- PVC plastic which is lower grade than ABS and worse for the environment
- Rubber are made of a plastic cap with a rubberized coating which feels nice, but longevity is a concern
Single shot vs double shot injection molding
The difference between single and double shot is that double shot uses in the manufacturing process.
Single shot is cheaper to produce, but isn’t as durable and won’t last as long. The keys are formed in a single-stage injection mold with translucent white plastic. Color is painted on and the legend (letters and symbols) are added by a separate process after: pad printing, laser marking, or engraving. RGB lights shine through better
Pad printing is a popular method for inexpensive keyboards as it simply involves painting the legend onto the surface of the keycaps. It is susceptible to wear and doesn’t last very long.
Laser etching burns into the plastic, leaving a black charcoal colour on the keycap. It’s commonly used on white keycaps for contrast and is more durable than pad printing. On black keys, the laser etched area is filled with paint and a final coat is applied to create a smooth surface.
Sublimated dying infuses the ink with the plastic through a heat press process. It is more durable than laser etching and pad printing. It’s best used with PBT to prevent the plastic from wearing too fast, as the ink sinks in very shallow.
Laser engraving is used to make RGB (backlit) keycaps. A laser removes the paint coating in the shape of each letter, exposing the translucent keycap below and allows the light from the LEDs below to shine through wherever the paint was removed. The process looks awesome too:
Double shot keycaps are made of 2 layers of different colored plastics injected in 2 stages – there is no paint or etching involved. The first layer added acts as the base and includes the letter(s) and symbol(s). The second layer is the outer layer and fills in the gaps. This is a more expensive process but ends up creating a thicker, stronger and longer-lasting key and the letters are higher contrast and do not wear off as they are as deep as the key rather than surface level.
What are pudding keycaps?
Pudding are a double shot (typically PBT) type of keycap for RGB keyboards that have a translucent skirt around the bottom two thirds of the key to allow more light to escape than regular backlit keycaps. It combines the increased strength and improved feel of double shot PBT with a stronger RGB display.
You want to ensure every keycap fits and don’t want to spend time looking for the right retailer, keyboard, profile and stem type.
- Double shot PBT
- Great for RGB
- Trusted brand
- Available and convenient
- Some light leak
- Minor defects
The lower “pudding” layer allows more light to escape around the sides of each key – allow RGB keyboards to really show off and emphasize their colours.
Although it says compatible with HyperX keyboards, they will fit many other (but not all) full-sized mechanical keyboards that have cherry mx switches. However, there sometimes a few keys that are slightly different sizes between brands. For example, if you wanted to put this set on a Corsair keyboard, the two windows keys are shorter and space bar is longer on a Corsair, so those and a few other keys won’t fit – everything else is standard size and would fit.
Comes with a keycap removal tool. They also come in white tops.
Best budget keycaps
You want more durable replacement keys, but also save as much money as possible.
Best artisan keycaps in Canada – Primecaps
You want to adorn your beloved keyboard with a one-of-a-kind work of art.
Hailing from Vancouver Island, BC, Frank and Lisa of Primecaps handcraft absolutely spectacular artisan keycaps full of intricate and impeccable details that are often cosmically themed.
Many of their caps are completely unique and are sold on a first come, first served basis. Since supplies are always limited, they also hold raffle and mystery sales where you enter for a chance to win an invoice that should be paid within 24 hours in order to receive the cap(s).
Be sure to follow them on Instagram or subscribe to their email list to check out their previous designs and to be notified of the next sale.
The wiki of the MechanicalKeyboards subreddit has a wealth of resources on keycaps.
Over to you
What type of keyboard do you have? What kind of keycaps are you looking for? Let us know in the comments below!