Made with premium injection-molded plastic, see for yourself why PBT keycaps are the cream of the crop
Writers, coders, and gamers are increasingly turning to mechanical keyboards for their comfort, pleasant typing action, reliability, and endless customization options. While much of the mechanical keyboard experience comes down to the quality of the board and switches, it’s important not to discount how keycaps factor in.
Keycaps are the defining visual trait of your keyboard and your canvas for self-expression. Depending on what they’re made of, they’re either the first thing to wear out or one of the last. Learn how PBT keycaps provide a premium typing experience, how you can upgrade your keycaps, and some great examples to inspire your creativity.
Find the perfect keycaps for every board in your collection with our Essential Guide to Keycaps.
Jump to a section…
PBT keycaps are made of polybutylene terephthalate plastic — that’s what the PBT stands for. PBT plastic is used in a wide assortment of applications, from auto part connectors to television accessories, toothbrush bristles, and yes, even keyboards.
So why does that matter? For one, PBT plastic is very durable, making it a perfect choice for components in a device meant to be struck repeatedly. PBT keycaps tend to be thick, sturdy, and have a gritty, almost sand-like texture, giving them a premium, weighty feel while typing.
PBT plastic is also chemically resistant to solvents and oils, ensuring keycaps won’t build up a greasy shine after extended exposure to the natural oils generated by your skin. It’s also highly resistant to extreme temperatures and discoloration from UV radiation exposure.
PBT plastic’s unique properties make it more expensive to produce than its acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic counterparts. ABS plastic makes up the majority of keyboards currently in use because it balances durability and cost. It’s easier and cheaper to mold than PBT plastic, making it perfect for mass production.
ABS keycaps are generally lighter and smoother than PBT keycaps and will typically wear down faster. They’re also not as resistant to UV radiation or oils, often causing keys to develop a tell-tale shine after a few months and gradually turn yellow over several years. By contrast, PBT keycaps usually look great after decades of regular typing.
PBT keycaps are made through a process called injection molding. Factories take thermoplastic compounds (like PBT), melt them down into a liquid, then inject them into molds that form the plastic into a keycap. This process is more difficult and expensive for PBT keycaps because of the compound's superior resistance to heat and chemicals.
Marking keycaps with lettering and characters — also known as the legend — requires additional processes that can happen either during or after the injection molding process.
Pad printing involves pressing letters directly onto keys with ink. It’s the least expensive and durable method of printing characters onto keycaps, as the ink tends to wear away after extended use. Commonly found on commercially produced ABS keycaps, pad printing is rarely found on PBT keycaps.
Laser etching uses a laser beam to burn away the top layer of plastic to either color or engrave the legend onto keycaps; the grooves can be filled with additional coloring to make the legend stand out more. Manufacturers can also use laser etching to burn a colored top layer off a translucent layer hidden underneath, allowing RGB lighting to shine through.
Dye-sublimation looks similar to pad printing, but the process involves using heat to inject the ink directly into the plastic, resulting in lettering that doesn’t wear away over time. The only wrinkle is that the dye must be darker than the plastic keycap, so you’ll never see white dye-sublimated lettering on black keys.
Double-shot injection uses two sets of molds during the injection process. One color of plastic is injected into the legend mold, and another dye is injected around the legend to form the rest of the keycap. It’s the most expensive process of the bunch, but it produces the highest-quality keys (since the coloring is physically part of the keycap). Double-shot injection can also be used with a broader array of colors, creating better contrast ratios between legend and keycap coloring.
Did You Know? The HHKB uses premium textured PBT keycaps and durable dye-sublimated labels, ensuring your keyboard looks and feels great for years to come. Click here to learn more.
Swapping keycaps is simple and is a handy way to upgrade from ABS to PBT keycaps without replacing your entire keyboard. All you need is a keycap puller. Wrap both wires of the puller underneath the keycap on opposite ends, then gently but firmly pull the keycap out. Voila! Now you can build your own PBT keyboard.
Before picking up new keycaps, ensure they’re compatible with your keyboard’s switches. Cherry MX switches have been cloned by several companies, including Gateron, Kailh, and Outemu, and are essentially interchangeable. Topre switches, however, feature a different design than Cherry MX switches and require Topre-specific keycaps. Check the keycap product description and confirm they fit your keyboard before purchasing — be sure to read our guide on custom keycaps for recommendations and additional installation instructions.
The popularity and enthusiasm around mechanical keyboards are primarily due to the level of customization keycaps offer. Bold colorways, intricate designs, and RGB light diffusion allow anyone to find a look they can instantly fall in love with.
These keycaps may feature the traditional Windows/Mac function keys and QWERTY lettering, but they’re anything but boring
The most popular PBT keycap set on mechanicalkeyboards.com as of this writing, the Joker set from Ducky combines electric blue, deep purple, and neon pink for a killer aesthetic. The seamless plastic build ensures lighting won’t bleed through the keys, and the PBT quality is top-notch.
Keychron’s Retro Keycap set looks like it was teleported right out of the 1980s. Inspired by the Apple Standard Keyboard introduced with the Macintosh II, this set features dye-sublimated italic lettering, a classic colorway, and even a few bonus keys calling back to the golden age of Apple marketing and design.
If you want to show off your keyboard’s RGB lighting, you need a set of pudding keycaps. These keys feature translucent sides that allow more light to shine through, and the HyperX Pudding Keycaps are some of the best PBT backlit keycaps on the market. They’re made of durable double-shot plastic, and the understated black and white options make your keyboard’s rainbow-colored lighting the star of your desk.
Did You Know? Customize your HHKB with additional colors, wrist rests, travel bundles, and a 25th-anniversary function key. Click here to learn more.
Because mechanical keyboards allow for such a wide range of self-expression, all kinds of custom PBT keycaps go beyond the standard QWERTY set-up. These options are the tip of the iceberg — chances are, if there’s a design you want, someone out there has made it.
If you’ve been brushing up on your Sindarin, you may want to snag this keycap set offered by Drop, which replaces the entire standard legend with Elvish. It even comes in a couple of flavors, such as Training for those who need backup English lettering or Hardcore, which forgoes English altogether.
Look to the stars with Drop’s Astrolokeys. You get the standard QWERTY lettering, but all other keys are replaced with comets, planets, and constellations. Use the standard number keys, or replace them with astrological signs — the power of the universe is in your hands.
If you’re a DIY type of person, Divinikey offers a set of blank keycaps that come in white, black, and milk-white colors. Make them a canvas for your designs, or leave them blank for the ultimate in minimalism.
Originally designed by Dr. Eiiti Wada over 25 years ago, the HHKB represents the pinnacle of computer engineering keyboard design, ensuring coders have easy access to all the keys needed to get the job done. Whether you’re a dedicated software developer or simply want to add another board to your collection, the HKKB is a fantastic choice for typists looking for a truly premium experience.
Made out of high-quality PBT plastic and featuring ultra-smooth Topre switches, the HHKB is built to withstand years of typing. HHKB also provides wired USB Type-C and wireless Bluetooth connectivity to four different devices. Check out the full range of high-end keyboards from HHKB and pick up a piece of computer history for yourself.