How to make your keyboard beautiful with custom keycaps

(Image credit: Tinymakesthings)

You've built your dream gaming PC. Awesome specs, enough LED lights to brighten your entire room, and it's always running at a cool temperature. But with your top-notch build ready to chug along for the next few years, what are you going to modify in the meantime?

How about jazzing up your gaming keyboard? Customizing a few keycaps, or your entire keyboard, can give your battlestation a unique and personal feel. But it can be hard to figure out where to start. We'll get you started on the path to making your keyboard beautiful. 

What exactly are keycaps?

Keycaps are the part of the keyboard we use to type with. They cover the key switches, which send the signals needed for the computer to type what you see on the screen. Keycaps are detachable from the keyboard itself, which allows you to clean them and, of course, customize. 

(Image credit: Drop+MechKeys)

Keycap types 

Keycap customization is typically limited to mechanical keyboards. Mechanical keyboards are preferred by gamers due to the better feel of the mechanical switches. They tend to be more expensive than membrane keyboards, though they also tend to last longer and are easier to repair. When repairs need to happen, the keycaps are most often the part that need to be replaced since they wear out after constant use—so enters a market of replacement and custom keycaps. 

However, not all mechanical keyboards are the same. Different companies use different mechanical switches to build their keyboard, and not every switch is compatible with every type of keycap. The most common type of keycaps are for Cherry MX switches, but some companies like Razer have their own colors and names for their switches. These switches can vary in functionality and how the keycap is attached. While the Cherry MX switches have a + shape that keycaps need to fit onto for proper replacement, other companies may opt to use a different shape.

Even then, most of them at least offer an MX Cherry keycap adaptor of sorts. The color of the switch doesn't matter: Red, blue, or brown, provided they all have the same + shape, they can all use the same cap set. Almost all custom keycaps are for MX Cherry switches, as they're the most common.

(Image credit: Flashquark)

Where can I find new keycaps?

Places like Amazon and Newegg have some of the more popular keycap types and won't break the bank. However, sometimes it can be hard to tell the quality of the keycaps—flimsy keycaps can ruin the feel of a mechanical keyboard. On top of that, if you have a spacebar or enter key that's different from the norm, you might be out of luck if you want to replace every key on your board.

If you want truly custom keycap sets, you'll have to pay custom prices. The website Drop has a mechanical keyboard section where you can check out all manner of custom sets, available with add-ons for those keyboards that might have some abnormal keys. There are also sites like Pimp My Keyboard, which has a wide selection of sets and even offers a grab bag of random caps if you're feeling adventurous. The higher price almost always means higher quality, meaning that these custom keycaps are a more surefire purchase overall.

Finally, there are novelty keys, those crafted to look like an animal or character or keys with fidget spinners. If you're a keyboard enthusiasts, you might love these novelty keys as they can make your keycap set truly unique. But generally these caps are often only placed on keys like ESC and the function button; it'd be awkward to type with a regular key that was shaped like a penguin or something else. 

(Image credit: CherryFestival)

Most of these novelty keys are usually custom jobs by artists, and oftentimes they can cost more than a full new set, but they give your keyboard the extra flair to make it really stand out.

Keycap Recommendations 

What keycap set you'll want will depend on your personal taste. For example, I love pastel colors, but I'm also not a big fan of LED lighting, so the key sets I generally gravitate toward are brightly colored and will not allow the backlight to shine through. Others might prefer using the lights in their keyboards, and others still may only want a specific color. There is something for everyone out there.

That said, there are still some general recommendations. YMDK is a brand that sells a variety of keycap sets on Amazon, and they're both on the inexpensive side and have good reviews. Tai-hao is a high-quality mechanical keyboard company that also sells rubber keycaps for gaming purposes. If you're looking for those really crazy custom caps, browsing sites like Esty or scrolling through Instagram are your best bets. Instagram is great for inspiration on how to customize your keyboard as well. 

How do I replace the keycaps? 

Replacing keycaps is relatively easy, even if it's a bit nerve-wracking at first. Your mechanical keyboard should come with a pincer-like tool to take the keycaps off. If not, almost all keycap sets will come with this tool. All you do is press straight down on the key (make sure your keyboard is off or disconnected from the computer first) so the tool clicks into place, and then pull straight up to remove the cap.

(Image credit: HyperX)

It does take a little force to remove the cap, though, so don't be worried if you have to pull a bit to get the keycap off. After all, mechanical keyboards are typically more sturdy than a normal keyboard. The most important thing is to not twist or pull at an angle, as that poses a greater risk to snapping the key stem. Once the old keycap is off, replace it with the new cap by slipping it straight on.

If you really don't have this tool, you can use a fork or butter knife to get the keys off, but you risk damaging your keycaps and even the keyboard as a result, so it's not recommended. Try a straight edge that isn't sharp, like a ruler, to get underneath one side of the key and lift it up.