Learn how to find the perfect set of keycaps for your mechanical keyboard.
Key switches are the core of the mechanical keyboard industry and hobby, but the fun doesn’t end there. By standardizing around an ever-expanding set of Cherry-MX-style mechanical switches, the hobby has played host to an explosion of unique mass market products as well as individual components for the amateur keyboard customizer.
The dizzying array of Cherry MX keycaps created by major companies, boutique makers, and DIYers is one of the most marvelous results of the burgeoning mechanical keyboard community. This article will introduce you to what makes a Cherry MX keycap special, what kinds of keyboards they’re compatible with, and where you can find more of them if you want to start customizing your own mechanical keyboard.
Find the perfect keycaps for every board in your collection with our Essential Guide to Keycaps.
Cherry MX keycaps are keycaps that are compatible with Cherry-MX-style switches, such as the loud-and-proud “clicky” Cherry MX Blues and the quieter, more tactile Cherry MX Browns. We refer to the style of switches because the same caps are also compatible with the many key switches created by other companies to a similar specification. The fundamental element that makes a keycap a Cherry MX keycap is the cross-shaped mount on the underside of the cap, as this is what allows the cap to be securely seated on a Cherry-MX-style switch.
Not all keycaps can be fitted onto Cherry-MX-style switches — for instance, the Topre switches that give HHKB keyboards their beloved “thwock” are made to fit with specially engineered Topre keycaps. However, the majority of mechanical keyboards on the market today use Cherry MX keycaps. Beyond what you can find pre-installed on mass market boards, custom Cherry MX keycaps are one of the most common products for specialist mechanical keyboard creators and retailers. Note that, in the context of keycaps, the term “Cherry” also refers to a specific kind of keycap profile — more on that in just a moment.
Did You Know?:HHKB keyboards are available in multiple colors to suit your desk aesthetics, and you can even opt for a clean, legend-less look. Click here to learn more.
Choosing just the right type of keycaps Cherry-style switches can host is one of the most exciting parts of crafting your perfect keyboard — or if you’re browsing pre-built models, it can be another great way to narrow down contenders. These three considerations serve as the chief distinctions between different types of keycaps
- Keycap material: Cherry MX keycaps are typically made out of plastic, but the particular kind of plastic they use can make a big difference in their feel, durability, and price point. The two most common types are ABS, which tend to be more affordable but can develop an unappealing shine after extended use, and PBT, which tend to be more durable but also more expensive. Other types, such as “jelly” like POM keycaps are also gaining in popularity.
- Keycap profile: This defines the shape of each keycap, and whether that shape is uniform across the entire board or varies by row. For instance, Cherry profile keycaps have angled tops and are sculpted across each row to better meet your fingers, while XDA profile keycaps have concave tops that cradle your fingertips and are of uniform size regardless of row. We cover even more types in our complete guide to keycap profiles.
- Keycap appearance: This is where the fun really starts: Do you want each key to have the same color of body and legend, or do you want a colorful cacophony? Do you want the legends to be a striking solid color or transparent so RGB lighting effects can shine through? More aesthetic choices enter the market nearly every day, making the quest to craft the perfect custom keyboard both endless and endlessly rewarding.
If you want an easy and fun way to give an existing mechanical keyboard a fresh look, start by searching for some Cherry MX replacement keycaps. Numerous retailers sell standalone sets of keycaps; you can find looks inspired by your favorite video games, nature scenes, ocean creatures, or even more wide-ranging source material.
Here are a few places to pick up a beautiful new set of custom Cherry MX keycaps, as well as some videos showing off popular products.
Kbdfans positions itself as a one-stop shop for the mechanical keyboard hobby, selling everything from circuit boards to cases to switches and, of course, keycaps. Its overall selection includes standard stock, clearance, and “interest check” items which will be restocked if enough people join the waiting list. You can still pick up the above NP PBT keycaps set if you want to add a little katakana flair to your typing. They also offer after-market Topre keycaps if you want to go beyond the realm of Cherry MX switches and caps.
Though the selection of keycaps available on Drop isn’t quite as broad as on Kbdfans, Drop’s selection of unique looks and high-quality keys is impressive across the board. Drop even offers some attention-grabbing crossovers, such as the official Lord of the Rings Elvish keycaps shown above.
Kinetic Labs sells keyboard components, accessories, and that’s it — no pre-built kits like on Kbdfans, no audio equipment like on Drop. That narrow focus allows Kinetic Labs to put out some uniquely appealing products, such as the above Seal PBT keycaps set. If you have a hot-swappable board (or don’t mind going hands-on with a soldering iron) be sure to check out Kinect Labs’ selection of custom key switches as well.
Did You Know?:If you’re looking for a pre-built mechanical keyboard model, we have recommendations to suit every kind of budget. Click here to learn more.
We noted above that Topre keycaps offer an alternative to the typical mechanical keyboard experience, and if you want to try a particular take on typing, you should add a representative from the HHKB line to your collection. HHKB began in 1995 when computer scientist Eiiti Wada crafted a new design for a more ergonomic and efficient typing experience, complete with high-end Topre switches to give each keypress precision as well as a satisfying feel and sound. The modern line of keyboards from HHKB carries on that legacy for a new generation of power user.