If you’re getting into the mechanical keyboard hobby, prepare your wallet for some serious hits. In addition to the hardware itself, the customized keycap sets that you add to the mechanical switches can be shockingly expensive. But why?
The answer is complicated. To be fair, the actual materials in all those little plastic pieces aren’t expensive at all, and there are plenty of cheap options to be had. But between limited production capacity, a healthy secondary market, and the relatively niche nature of customized keycaps, expanding your collection is probably going to include a heavy hit to your wallet.
Cheap Options Are Out There
First of all, the materials that go into keycaps are not expensive. They’re molded plastic, for crying out loud, not rare earth metals. There’s a surprising amount of variation in the plastics used for keycaps, and even more in terms of their production styles, shapes, and written legends, but the actual hardware itself is, well, plastic.
And thanks to the growing audience of mechanical keyboard enthusiasts, there are a few options if you’re short on cash. Scanning Amazon, you can find plenty of options under $30 or so, like this full-size set of doubleshot, backlight-friendly keycaps in the popular PBT plastic for just eighteen bucks. Here’s a collection of sets with that trendy colored modifier look, here’s a set with Dolch-style colors in a copycat DSA profile, and so on, and so on. My point is, if you want a new set of keys and your strapped for cash, there are at least a few options out there.
But as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. These sets are mass produced and not especially high-quality; here’s what the cheaply printed legends on that Dolch set look like after a few months of intense typing.
And of course, cheap sets won’t get you the cool color combinations and custom legends that adorn all those wonderfully geeky posts in the mechanical keyboard subreddit. For those, you need to pony up.
Custom Keycaps Come From a Limited Number of Manufacturers
The cheap keycap sets listed above all come from manufacturers in China and other industrial centers, who aren’t really interested in talking to you unless you want to order ten thousand units. In contrast, the custom-created sets you see in background photos taken by trendy tech bloggers are created almost exclusively in small batches of a few hundred each.
These small batches remove the economy of scale present in almost all retail products. This drives the price up, since the sets need to be designed and made on custom equipment. Custom sets also tend to include expensive manufacturing techniques like double-shot legends or dye sublimation. There are only a few plastic manufacturers that have A) the molding and printing equipment to do this and B) any interest at all in small, customized batches. That goes double for non-standard pieces, like keycap sets for ortholinear designs, split designs like the Ergodox, or rare layouts like 40% keyboards.
The most notable manufacturer in this space is Signature Plastics, a small Washington-based company that’s been making customized plastic parts for business-to-business applications for decades. Signature Plastics got in on the mechanical keyboard trend early, launching a direct retail site called Pimp My Keyboard. In addition to their own regularly-produced sets and keys, Signature Plastics also accepts small batch orders from group buys, working with independent designers to produce the orders and deliver them to the group buy organizer for distribution.
The difference in scale for mass produced sets and a group order of only a few dozen units is massive. It takes a long time and a lot of extra money to get going, to say nothing of the profit margins involved. Speaking of which…
Multiple Profit Margins Add Up
Signature Plastics, and the small group of suppliers that also work with custom designers, aren’t charities. They build in profit margins for their operations, and since the services they offer are so specialized, they can boost those profits considerably. (Signature Plastics even has totally unique keycap profiles that are offered nowhere else, like DSA and G20.)
Now consider that the keycap designers are also hoping to make some money off their product, and of course the time and effort they put into the group buy campaign. Now add some cost for the protective packaging and shipping, shipping for the materials themselves, and more costs if the group buy uses a service like Massdrop (and on and on). Once you get away from the well-established production and retail chains, costs and profits start to add up quickly.
To put it bluntly, even products with conventionally small amounts of finite costs can get expensive at small scales, and adding a bit of necessary profit for all the moving parts makes even the smallest step in the chain more pricey. When you add in premiums from especially successful designers (in the context of the small custom keycap niche, anyway), some sets can balloon to over $200 in price.
What About Artisans?
Artisan keycaps are, to put it mildly, insane. These single keycaps, usually designed in a standard 1×1 size, are handmade by sculptors, often from exotic materials and mixed mediums. Some are simple and stylish, but the more elaborate examples have more in common with custom-made gaming miniatures than anything you’ll see on a conventional keyboard.
Artisan keycaps are often so elaborate that they have to be made one at a time, and their entire production run might be only a few hundred individual pieces. They’re the status symbols of the custom keyboard world, rarely approaching anything practical, and sometimes actively detracting from the ergonomics of the keyboard itself. But that doesn’t matter to the fans of these ultra-niche pieces. It’s like a custom hood ornament or a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry. Only geekier.
Naturally, artisan keycaps are expensive. Individual pieces start at around twenty or thirty dollars, often go up to fifty, and seventy or eighty dollars isn’t unheard of from popular designers in limited runs. If you’re looking for an increased customization factor (and a quick way to go into debt), you could do worse.
Secondary Markets Drive Up Prices
Conventional wisdom says that used goods sell for lower prices. That doesn’t necessarily hold true for keycaps. While standard keyboards and stock keycaps do indeed get cheaper if you buy used, the small batch nature of custom sets and the highly social aspect of the hobby as a whole means that sought-after sets actually get more expensive as time goes forward.
Because keycap designers rarely go back to manufacturers for new batches, someone who spots a cool set on Reddit or Geekhack won’t have any option but to buy used. Supply and demand goes into effect: with more limited sets finding permanent homes, fewer and fewer are available on the secondary market, and prices go higher and higher. Popular limited sets like Carbon or Overcast can go for much, much more than their original price.
How to Find the Best Prices
The best way to get a decent price on a desirable keycap set is to join the original group buy. Odds are good that if you can even find those keycaps later, they’ll just be more expensive. Re-issues are rare, but not unheard of.
The online hubs of the keycap community are the MechanicalKeyboards subreddit and the GeekHack forum. New sets available for purchase are generally posted there well ahead of the actual buys. Alternatively, keep an eye on Massdrop or your favorite designer’s individual site for changes.
MechMarket is a good place to look for secondary sales, though again, you’re unlikely to find any great deals in such a well-traveled community. Sets and artisans sometimes crop up on eBay for a bit less.
If you’re willing to settle for lower-quality plastics or poorer legends, knock-offs are plentiful on eBay and markets like Ali Express. They don’t have the same cachet as the originals, but hey, we’re talking about molded plastic here. Alternatively, there are a few services that let you pick out your own color combinations, design your own legends, and then upload the file to order a completely unique set. Check out MaxKeyboard and WASD Keyboards for these options. Note that less common layouts generally need to add individual key orders for full compatibility.