In this tutorial, we will be going through soldering, installing sip sockets, spring swapping, and more. I hope you enjoy the tutorial and get your keyboard built soon!
A list of all the tools and parts that are included in this tutorial can be found at the end of this guide.
Chances are you’ll have a PCB, housing, switches, and stabilizers. The remaining parts are all basically add-ons that you don’t technically need to have a fully functional board. However, you might have opted to get some SIP sockets, feet, LEDs, or aftermarket switch springs, just to name a few. In this guide, I’ll try to cover these basic components in a simple way, so you’ll have an easy time, even if this is your first build!
You typically don’t need very many tools to build a keyboard, but I like to be prepared. My trusty iFixit kit has been a godsend for both keyboard and PC building alike. These magnetic bowls are also great to have on standby and are pretty inexpensive on Amazon . com.
Here is what your PCB will look like, though it might be a different size, since there were a few different size options for this group buy. Notice that all of the small components come soldered on already: diodes, resistors, controller and USB port are all already present, which makes our job much easier! Most PCBs on the market these days come fully assembled like this, but a few of them do not.
Here are the Cherry-styled PCB-mount stabilizers. Due to the size of my board and the standard layout I’m using, I needed 4x 2u and 1x 6.25u variants. Depending on your configuration you might need a different amount. Also, depending on where you get your stabilizers, they may come assembled or they may not come assembled. We’ll talk more about assembling them shortly. Note: These should all be PCB-mount stabilizers, but the longer wire (spacebar) was plate-mount, which I corrected later on.
The parts that make up a stabilizer are the housing (larger plastic piece), insert (smaller plastic piece) and wire.
Close up stabilizer insert.
This is what the bottom of a genuine Cherry-styled stabilizer insert looks like.
Clipping Cherry-styled Stabilizers
“Clipping” stabilizers is a 100% optional step. If you notice on the left, I have a “clipped” one, and on the right is the stock version. I’ve marked the legs that should be clipped – The zig-zag leg and the one diagonally across from it. For this, I use a pair of flush cutters. The reason for doing this is that it makes the stabilized keys feel more natural and crisp, whereas people often describe the stock stabilizers as a little mushy. It’s not a world of difference, honestly, but I prefer them clipped, and this step is very fast and easy. Again, this is completely optional.
Assembled clipped stabilizer (bottom)
Once They’re clipped (or not), you can put them together. Here is what they should look like from the bottom. The insert has two possible sides: one with two square holes and the other side with one. The side with two square holes faces the back of the housing (the side that holds the wire). Then the wire gets inserted into the bottom hole of the two and clipped into the back of the housing (easier to see in the next picture).
Assembled clipped stabilizer (top)
Once they are together and look like this, you can move on!
Installing a stabilizer into the PCB
Like most of building a keyboard, this step is pretty simple. The back of the stabilizer has a lip at the bottom where it slides into the larger holes (marked in black). The front of the stabilizer, which has a two-pronged pin on the bottoms, gets pushed into the smaller holes (marked in white) until it clips in. On this PCB, the smaller holes are cut off a bit at the edge of the PCB, but they still function the same way. Once they’re installed, the stab housings should fit flush against the PCB. If they don’t, squeeze the pronged pins under the PCB to remove them and try again.
Take note that some of them might face different directions, which is totally fine. The PCB determines where the stabilizers face, nothing else. You just have to make sure the backs goes into the larger holes and the front pins go into the smaller holes and everything is flush.
Now is a good time to gently put the plate over the PCB and stabilizers, to make sure you have the correct placement for them.
Plate-mount vs PCB-mount switches
One the left, we have a plate-mount switch. On the right, a PCB-mount switch.
Now, there really isn’t a difference in how these perform as switches, but there is a reason each exists.
PCB-mount switches have additional legs on the bottom. These legs push into the PCB and provide extra stability and keep the switch from rotating in any way. These are ideal for keyboards that won’t be using any kind of plate, which also stabilizes switches.
Plate-mount switches are actually slightly more uncommon and do not have the legs. To be honest, these don’t really have a real benefit to them. Even with a plate, the support legs are still nice to have, as some of the slots on the plate that support multiple layouts are much wider, so it doesn’t stabilize the switch the way a 1u-sized slot would.
The only real reason to use plate-mount switches is if you’re using a PCB where the holes for the support legs are too tight for the extra legs to get in, or you’re doing a hand-wired build and think the legs get in the way of the wiring.
Furthermore, you can always turn PCB-mounted switches into plate-mount by simply clipping the legs off at the base using a pair of flush cutters, so there often isn’t much point in buying/using plate-mount switches.
With that said, either variety will work fine here.
Quick tip: On most American sites, they will be clearly labeled as Plate-mount or PCB-mount, but on some translated Chinese sites for example, they may be labeled as 3-pin and 5-pin switches, 5-pin being the PCB-mount variety.
Bent switch pins?
If you ever order switches, chances are you will have some arrive with bent pins. This is totally fine and pretty expected. Just gently bend them back until they’re straight. You never have to worry unless any pins are broken off. For convenience, I typically always order more switches (and other components) than I think I’ll need. It never hurts having extra!
At this point, I like to install a few switches around the edges and solder them in, so we’ll have some stability while installing the rest of the switches. Make sure you’re putting your switches in correctly. The pins should go through the holes on the PCB! If you messed up the orientation, just push in the little tabs on the front and back of the switch, right under the switch-top, using something small and plastic to just release the clips and pry the switch back out. Then fix the pins that inevitably bent, and try again.
There are TONS of guides on the internet when it comes to soldering, so I’m not going to go too heavy into details here, but I’ll cover the basics.
You hold the soldering iron in one hand (usually your dominant hand) and the solder in the other. You then gently touch the pad on the PCB and the pin on the switch simultaneously to heat them up. Do this for no more than a couple seconds, then apply/push solder to the joint until it creates a small dome over the pad and nothing more. You do NOT need to cover the tip of the switch pins.
After that, remove the iron and the solder in your hand. If you leave the iron touching a pad for too long, you run the risk of destroying the pad, which isn’t good. Try not to leave the iron on a pad for much longer than about 4-5 seconds at a time.
Now, you might not have a fancy fume-extractor on your soldering iron like I do, but there are alternatives. The cheapest method is to make sure the room you’re working in is well ventilated. Take a mildly deep breath before you solder. Then, when you start applying the solder, blow on it to remove the smoke and fumes from your area. Another alternative is to place a fan in such a way that it blows all of it away from you.
Some extra soldering tips:
- Make sure the tip you’re using for your iron is the right size for the job. The pads and pin you’re going to be soldering are pretty darn small, especially the LED holes, so you’ll likely want one of the finest tips you can get.
- Having an iron with a temperature gauge is a good idea. I solder at 350c pretty much always, though I will sometimes vary it from 300c-375c, depending on how careful or fast I want to go. It never hurts to start lower and work your way up, if you need to.
- The solder I use is just a basic 60/40 composition with a size of .8mm. I find this size works the best for me overall. Anything larger gets too messy to do things like LEDs, SMD or through-hole diodes.
- Have a clean and open workspace where you won’t be knocking things over. BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS!
- Have water standing by, both for hydration and in case you somehow catch something on fire…somehow!
- After every few switches, briefly clean off the tip of your iron on a damp sponge or brass pad.
First switch soldered
This is what I like mine to look like after soldering – Nice small domes.
Most plates and PCBs these days support a WIDE variety of layouts, particularly the bottom row. Knowing what layout you want beforehand will save you a ton of time here. I opted for a standard bottom row, which consists of the following sizes from left to right, minus the arrow pad: 1.25u, 1.25u, 1.25u, 6.25u, 1.25u, 1.25u, 1.25u, 1.25u
This layout is very common, as a lot of OEM boards use it and thus is supported much more widely by aftermarket keysets. You could opt for other bottom row layouts, but they will require differently-sized modifier caps and/or spacebar, which your aftermarket keyset may or may not support, although a lot of the more popular sets these days support the majority of layouts. Always check for compatibility before you build!
Some other things to notice and consider (assuming the plate/PCB allow it) are:
- Caps lock: stepped or unstepped (I went with the less common stepped version on this build). Nothing wrong with either, but some keysets may not come with the stepped version.
- Short right shift: This is where you use a 1.75u right shift and a 1u cap directly to the right of the shift. These two would replace the much more common 2.75u shift you see on most OEM boards. This configuration would also require one less stabilizer. It’s what you see on the popular Topre board, the HHKB.
- Split backspace: This is another less common practice on OEM boards that involves using only 1u caps along the number row of the main cluster and the “|\” key becomes backspace, so it’s 1.5u in size and is a row lower than backspace typically is. Again, this requires one less stabilizer. This is also found on the HHKB, which is one of the more popular custom layouts among hardcore enthusiasts.
Proper bottom row switch installation
As you saw in the previous picture, there are several places in the PCB and plate to install switches, so using caps to gauge the orientation of each switch on the bottom row is a smart idea. Start with the spacebar and work your way out. Caps should obviously not interfere with each other.
Now that we have our layout, all switches can be installed. Make sure each one is clipped into the plate (where possible) and pushed into the PCB as far as it will go. Due to the plate supporting multiple layouts, there are some spots where switches won’t clip in as well due to the wider slots.
After all the switches are in place, you can solder all of the switch pins, using the method I explained and used earlier. Now is a good time to install the feet on the bottom portion of the case, if you’re using them. You just line up the feet with the hole and screw it in from the inside. Pretty simple!
At this point, you basically have a keyboard. You can close up the housing and plug it in and type away! But, for the sake of this guide, we’re going to do a little switch modding, which is completely optional.
For this, I have a couple things on standby. First, I have a pair of switch openers that can be found on mechanicalkeyboards.com for $7 shipped in the US. I highly suggest investing in these if you plan to mod a lot of switches, as they make the process much faster.
If you don’t have access to these where you are or just can’t wait, you can open up switches with pretty much anything small and thin enough to gently pry open the top from the four clips that keep it attached to the bottom.
Second, I have a nice pair of tweezers. This will be for handling small parts like springs, stems and SIP sockets.
Lastly, I have my modding pieces: SIP sockets and aftermarket springs. Lubing and stickering switches are also options, but a guide for another time.
SIP sockets are tiny piece of metal that go into the switch and then soldered into the board. This results in a fixture where LEDs can be not only housed, but hot-swapped, if desired.
The springs I’ll be swapping into the switches here are just some aftermarket 62g units, which are a tad heavier than the springs that come in the stock Gateron Browns that are on the board, as I don’t personally care for switches that light.
Close up of the switch
Notice the little slots on each of the four corners of the switch?
Opening the switches
That’s where you insert the switch openers and then just squeeze the tools together gently. This will release all four of the clips that hold the top on, and you can just lift the top away slowly. You don’t want to apply too much pressure, because you can warp or break the switch-top, so don’t rush this!
Also, keep in mind that not all boards/plates support being able to remove switch-tops, and if you try this on a board/plate that doesn’t, you can (and will) cause permanent damage to the switch and plate.
Now that you have the top off, you’re free to access the internals. Be careful of how you handle the slider portion of the switch, as a lot of switches come with small amounts of lube on the little legs of the switch that protrude outward.
Also note how the switch was assembled, so you can reassemble it the same way.
Remove the stock spring to make way for the aftermarket one!
With the internals removed, we have a look at the empty bottom.
Now is a good time to install the SIP sockets. There are usually two varieties to choose from, depending on where you get them.
One variety – the ones I have here, are all metal single rods that go in to the little holes designated by the switch. You will need two per switch.
The other common variety are shorter, but encased in plastic, often sold in units of 2, so you only need one piece per switch.
They function the same, either way. Also, there is no incorrect orientation here.
Now you just put the new spring onto the little rod the sticks up in the base of the switch.
Place the stem on top of the spring, with the protruding legs of the stem facing TOWARDS the metal leaf of the switch.
Now place the top of the switch over the stem, which the logo of the top directly above the stem legs and metal leaf in the base.
Now just press down evenly on both sides of the top (left and right) until all 4 clips clip into place. Time to move on to LEDs!
Here is what an LED looks like when you get them, typically. This is the 1.8mm variety, which is my personal favorite. The size has to do with the bulb and housing, not the length of the pins.
With the 1.8mm size, you will never have to worry about clearance issues involving caps, which you often do, if you use BOTH larger LEDs AND Cherry profile keycaps. (Note: I said Cherry profile, not Cherry stem – Different terminology).
There are two pins on an LED. One is longer than the other. The longer one is a positive lead, which will correspond with the “+” on the PCB when installed. The other pin will go in the adjacent hole.
Now, if we were not using SIP sockets, we would just push one of these through the opening of each switch, into the PCB, solder them in, then clip off the remains of the pins and be done with it.
However, since we’re using SIP sockets, we have to pre-clip the LEDs.
On the stock LED on the left, notice there are small bumps towards the top of the pins. Using a pair of flush cutters (ideally), clip right above the top of those bumps. This will be just the right amount of length to be inserted into the SIP sockets.
Soldering SIP sockets
The black marking is where SIP sockets get soldered, the white are for the switches themselves. This will all seem way less complicated when it’s all in front of you.
Installing an LED
Now you just push the clipped LED into the SIP socket! If you got the orientation wrong, just use a pair of tweezers or something to pull it back out, turn it, and put it back in.
Once you clip the LED pins, it’s obviously much harder to tell which one of the pins was the longer, positive pin, however, if you look at the housing of the LED, the internals will not look symmetrical, so you just have to figure out which side is positive, then install all of them the same way.
Just a tip, make sure you have the board plugged in, the software (Bootmapper Client) open, and you’re in the options tab with the lighting effects. Click “connect” to connect your board and then turn the switch brightness meter to anything beyond 0, so that way you know if the LEDs are on while you install them. It’s always easiest to install LEDs via SIP sockets while the board is on, so you can see if they work and you got the orientation correct.
If you’re wondering why I only installed a caps lock LED on this board, it’s because I miscounted my LED inventory, and I didn’t have enough of the LEDs I wanted to install on this board. But, the process will be the same for all of the LEDs.
Barring any further programming or adjusting you would like to do, the board is finished!
Now it’s time to dress up the board with some caps and type away! I went with some nice JTK PoW/WoP caps to match my case.
Congrats on your sandwich build, and I hope you enjoy it!
If you have any questions, feel free to message me on Reddit – username: /u/Quakemz
All the parts you’ll need