Replacing the keycaps on your mechanical keyboard is one of the easiest ways to customize it. All you need is a keycap-pulling tool and some snazzy replacement keycaps. Maybe that’s a full set of keycaps, or perhaps just one or two extremely pretty ones.
Some of the most popular so-called “artisan” keycaps are so rare that you can’t even buy them outright. Sometimes an owner might offer to sell one for hundreds of dollars, but more often it’s a question of trades. The barter system is alive and well in this insular, and sometimes obsessive community of keyboard enthusiasts. But why is it like that?
Artisan keycaps come in all shapes, sizes, and materials, but most they’re commonly composed of plastic resin and occupy the same volume as a 1-unit key on your keyboard. What makes them artisan keycaps is that someone (the artisan) designed and produced them by hand.
Most artisan keycap start with a sculpt created in clay, and the designs are surprisingly varied. There are skulls, animals, and various types of abstract art. The sculpt is used to create a mold, which is where the actual keycaps are casted (usually under vacuum).
Some keycaps are created with a single color of resin, whereas others contain multiple “shots” of colors. Casting these designs can consist of a dozen or more steps, so it’s a time-consuming process. Even so, because these caps are handmade, they sometimes have imperfections that make them unsellable.
Most keycaps are produced to fit on the standard MX switch “cross” stems, but there are also plenty compatible with less common Topre switch stems. A few even have hybrid “TMX” designs that fit on either stem. If you’re wondering which type of switch your mechanical keyboard has, it’s almost certainly MX. Topre boards are more expensive and harder to find, so there’s virtually no one on the planet using a Topre keyboard who doesn’t know they’re using one.
Artisan keycaps are often cast in colors that match popular keyset colorways (that is, a specific range or combination of colors). Put the right things together, and they look like they were meant to be.
In order to get a popular artisan keycap, you need to be actively watching sites like the “mechmarket” keyboard subreddit and the Geekhack forums. Makers of these caps post raffles, sometimes completely without warning. Winners are usually selected by a random number generator (RNG).
If you “win” a raffle, all you get is the chance to buy a keycap, usually for around $20 to $80. The cost and number of winners varies from one sale and artisan to the next. One thing is certain, though: The demand always vastly outstrips supply.
A full keyset comes with its own distinct supply issues. Producing a full set of keycaps requires machinery that regular people simply don’t have. So, companies that exist to produce keycaps for industrial machinery and retail POS consoles are contracted to make the fancy custom sets enthusiasts are after.
Even the most popular sets are a drop in the bucket compared to keycaps made for enterprise customers—enthusiasts are a tiny percentage of the business of making keycaps. So, we need to resort to group buys.
A group buy is a bit like a pre-order, except it’s the buyer (you) taking the risk instead of a retailer. Many group buys are run by individuals on forums, but there are also group buys operating on sites like Massdrop and a myriad of smaller operations like KeyClack and The Van Keyboards.