Look at your keyboard. Do the keycaps excite you? That’s what we thought. You pound on that thing day in and day out. Shouldn’t it at least be attractive? Or even happiness-inducing? You don’t necessarily have to replace every single keycap to spark joy. When it comes to artisan keycaps, the point is to have something that stands out.
How about an Escape key that looks like a tall stack of flapjacks or a tiny, intricate cream puff? From a practical standpoint, how about a spiky Escape key that makes you think twice about rage quitting?
If you’re into games or anime, chances are good that there are more than enough artisan keycaps out there to keep you cash-poor for a while. The same goes for scrumptious foodstuffs with Cherry MX-compatible stems.
In this day and age, you can get just about any type of keycap you want, especially those encapsulating pop culture phenomena and fads. Yes there’s a fidget spinner keycap, and it’s adorable.
There’s a Slight Catch (Unless You Prefer Linear Switches)
Before you go crazy, keep in mind that these fancy keycaps are only going to fit mechanical key switches, and we think it’s safe to say that most artisan ‘caps are designed for switches with a Cherry MX-type stem. Most of your newer gamer-aimed keebs have exactly that.
But aren’t mechanical keyboards expensive? Yes and no. In trying to build a portable word processor, I found a great 60% keyboard with MX blue clones for about $30 over at the Bezos Barn. The switches are even hot-swappable, so it’s a great little all-around portable starter keeb, and it’s probably not the only one out there.
If $30 is still too high, you could always get a switch tester, turn it into a macro keyboard, and put your fancy caps on that. Switch testers can be had pretty cheaply, depending what kind of switches you want and how many.
With a tester you get x number of switches, all with different feels, a set of blank keycaps, and some kind of acrylic or plastic to put the switches in to approximate the keyboard setting for testing purposes. Cherry and Cherry clone testers (Kailh, Outemu, Gateron) are pretty cheap; testers for higher-end switches like Pandas and Halos are less so.
Some switch testers don’t want to be functional, so you’d have to drill out the bottom plate to access the switch pins so it can be wired up. That actually makes them sound like even more fun, right? Here’s an example of someone turning a six-switch tester into a macro keyboard using a Teensy.
Okay, So Where Do I Find Them Already?
Artisan keycaps are pretty much everywhere on the internet. Do a search for
(interesting thing) + artisan keycap and you’ll probably find something. Interestingly, I pull up a different keycap than the one shown above when trying the
Xenomorph + keycap image search. If you get possibilities paralysis like I do and forget all your interests when put on the spot, hit up a large keycap seller pool like Reddit’s MechMarket or wander the increasingly diverse virtual aisles of Etsy.
The keycaps and mechanical keyboards subreddits are good sources of leads for fresh ‘caps, as is the r/mk Discord channel. Lots of artists sell through Instagram. If you don’t mind the pain of relying on your fellow clackers to meet some minimum quantity before you can even part with your money and start waiting, plenty of places offer group buys.
Between these guideposts, you should be able to find more than enough ‘caps and leads to get going. It’s easy to be inspired by all the amazing artisan caps out there, so don’t be surprised if you want to join in the fun.
Or, Just Make ’em Yourself
A lot of the artisan keycaps you see out there will be cast in polyurethane resin, crafted in clay and mixed media, or 3D-printed in resin and then painted. Some are carved out of wood. It really doesn’t matter what a keycap is made of, as long as it’s strong enough to last and won’t hurt the switch.
As far as resin casting goes, you can buy keycap molds pretty cheaply, or build a mold-casting box out of LEGO. Then you can use whatever keycaps you already have to make silicone molds. Full disclosure and fair warning: I have never done resin casting, but I really want to. I’ve looked far enough into it to be able to tell you that a decent setup will cost at least a few hundred dollars.
Resin cast objects look fantastic when the process is done right. Unfortunately, there’s a lot that can go wrong along the way. You need a vacuum chamber and a pressure pot unless you want a million tiny bubbles in your molds and casts, and that’s just the beginning.
The good news is that you don’t really have to start from zero. Get some blank keycaps and experiment, or pop the caps off of a cheap rubber dome keyboard and there’s 104 or so chances to practice before you try it on caps that are designed to fit mechanical switches.
There are a ton of ways to express yourself with keycaps. Glue a tiny trinket on top, or craft something from clay. You could also paint them, dye them, subject them to Plasti-Dip, or score the tops with hot nichrome wire or a Dremel.
When it comes down to it, the greatest keycaps are the ones that make you happy. Here’s a handful that make me happy.
Gallery of Greatness
- Koi fish by @KeycapSky
- Companion cube by @Clackeys
- Mt. Fuji by @MechanicalKeycap
- Cream puff by @PixyHandmade
- Coffee by @keylabskeycaps
- Jellyfish by @DekopiaHandcrafted
- Throne of Rage Quitting by @capsmiths
- Fidget spinner by Hammer
- Cherry MX processors via Massdrop
- Hamburger and hot dog by @tinymakesthings