Mechanical keyboards are a dime a dozen these days, with a keyboard for almost any budget and set of preferences. But what if none of the readily-available options fit the bill precisely? Well, that’s when you should start looking out for the best custom keyboard.
Custom mechanical keyboards used to be the preserve of dedicated hobbyists willing to spend hundreds of dollars on limited-edition products, but that’s no longer the case. Many companies now sell readily-available barebones kits, and you can even find pre-built “custom” options that let you configure a keyboard to your liking. Let’s get started.
- Best Custom Mechanical Keyboards Overall: Keychron Q keyboards come in all popular form factors, including TKL and 60%, and offer everything a hobbyist will need to assemble a high-quality custom keyboard.
- Best Value Custom Mechanical Keyboards: Glorious GMMK 2 keyboards offer great value and extremely low latency, in both 96% and 65% form factors.
- Best TKL Custom Mechanical Keyboard Alternative: Gopolar Tai-Chi GG86 is a great-value TKL kit that offers great layout flexibility.
- Best 75% Custom Mechanical Keyboard Alternative: Keydous NJ80 is an ideal keyboard if you demand wireless connectivity from your custom 75%.
Our Favorite Custom Keyboards
|Keys||82 (including rotary knob)|
|Hot-swap?||Yes (3- and 5-pin)|
Keychron may have started as a manufacturer of budget-friendly beginner keyboards, but that changed rapidly with its Q series of keyboards. The Keychron Q keyboards stand out for their solid materials, smart design choices, and affordable pricing. If you want to build a keyboard to your liking, these are some of the best barebones options available.
All boards here, whether the ultra-popular 75% Q1 or the full-size Q6, share several design characteristics, all of which make them great choices for the average hobbyist. First, you get good-quality aluminum cases, which look great and give the keyboards a premium touch. They’re not quite as fancy as high-end customs but are good enough for most users.
Keychron also uses gasket mounting for all its keyboards, ensuring a soft and bouncy typing feel that’s all the rage amongst keyboard enthusiasts. Keychron goes one step further with a “Double Gasket” system that uses silicone bumpers between the two halves of the case. This helps improve acoustics by reducing noise even further.
There are also other enthusiast-friendly touches, such as screw-in stabilizers and south-facing RGB LEDs. While neither is necessarily groundbreaking, they’re proof that Keychron has taken the design of these keyboards seriously. Screw-in stabilizers are preferable, as they feel more stable and secure than plate-mount stabilizers.
South-facing RGBs provide better underglow with solid (as opposed to shine-through) keycaps, the predominant style amongst all the best keycap sets. They also ensure you won’t have any clearance issues when using Cherry-profile keycaps, which are common on higher-end keycap sets.
Finally, the Keychron Q keyboards support QMK and VIA, the premier open-source keyboard firmware solutions. While there is a slight learning curve with the former, the upshot is that you don’t have to deal with the proprietary software and drivers common to many Chinese keyboards. You get fully programmable keyboards, all without the hassle of awkward user interfaces.
The biggest drawback of the Keychron Q keyboards is their lack of wireless connectivity. These aren’t the keyboards for those on the go or who want a cable-free desktop. But we don’t think a minor issue such as connectivity is worth giving up all the other great features you get here.
Any of the Keychron Q keyboards will likely be the best mechanical keyboards for the average user wanting to build a custom keyboard. Chuck in a set of high-end tactile or linear switches, and you’ll probably have the last mechanical keyboard you’ll ever need.
|Hotswap?||Yes (3- and 5-pin)|
Glorious arguably kickstarted the hot-swap mechanical keyboard revolution with its original GMMK products. Hence, it’s good to see the company bringing the originals up to date with the GMMK 2 keyboards, available in 96% and 65% form factors. These retain the great-value pricing of the first GMMKs and offer great low-latency performance, making them compelling gaming options.
Intriguingly, Glorious opted against offering the GMMK 2 in common form factors like TKL and 60%. Not everyone will like this decision, of course, but we think it helps the GMMK 2 stand out amongst the crowd. The 65% GMMK 2 is particularly appealing, and it’ll likely be the one that most gamers looking for a low-latency custom keyboard will opt for.
RTINGS tested the GMMK 2 and recorded 6.1 ms of latency in its testing. For context, most of Keychron’s keyboards measure around 10 ms. While four milliseconds isn’t the hugest gap, it’s still an objectively better result that’ll appeal to gamers seeking a competitive edge. In this case, the form factors make sense, as they offer a decent complement of keys while still maximizing desk space compared to 104- and 87-key layouts.
Of course, there’s more to the Glorious GMMK 2 than gaming prowess. These keyboards have the features most of us expect from modern mechanical keyboards, such as full programmability, pre-installed foam, and lubed stabilizers. Those who just want an enjoyable keyboard to type on will still find a lot to like here.
The GMMK 2 keyboards come with 18 pre-set RGB lighting patterns, which you can further customize in Glorious’ Core software. There’s also a subtle strip of lighting down the sides, which adds a bit of flair to the case without going overboard.
Overall, the GMMK 2 keyboards’ good build quality, solid features, and impressively low latency make these well worth considering. They’re great value-conscious options for those who want to build a custom keyboard—provided the 96% or 65% form factors suit your needs.
|Hot-swap?||Yes (3- and 5-pin)|
Gopolar is an obscure name, even by the standards of Chinese mechanical keyboard manufacturers. But its GG86 TKL is an impressively high-quality barebones TKL option ideal for a custom build. It may not have a fancy aluminum case, but there’s much here to compensate for that minor drawback.
The Gopolar GG86’s most obvious feature is the OLED screen, tucked between the nav cluster and arrow keys. To be clear, OLED screens on keyboards aren’t new, but it’s nice to see that they’re no longer limited to gaming keyboards and higher-priced customs. It’s more a gimmick than anything else, but it’s at least a nice-looking one.
But the GG86 isn’t just about gimmicks. One of our favorite aspects of the GG86 is how versatile it is. The included FR4 plate and hot-swap PCB support a few extra layout options without needing any optional parts. You get support for ISO as standard and the choice of a split right or left Shift, all of which are rare at this price point.
My favorite feature, however, has to be the option of a winkeyless (WKL) layout using the included silicone blockers. This gives your GG86 a wonderfully old-school look that few affordable keyboards offer. Unfortunately, the downside is that the Gopolar only supports 7u Spacebars, even if you opt for a standard layout.
Keycap sets with 120 or more keys, such as this 168-key white-on-black set, will likely have the extra-wide Spacebar you need. But double-check before buying just to be sure you’re getting the right keycaps for your GG86.
Finally, the Gopolar GG86 supports QMK and VIA for flexible and effortless remapping and customization. I’m a big fan of using either of these over the frequently awkward proprietary solutions Chinese companies tend to use, so this is a big plus in favor of the Gopolar.
Add to that decent included stabilizers and a substantial silicone muting kit, and it’s obvious that there’s a lot to like about Gopolar Tai-Chi GG86. Its flexible layout options, QMK support, and good-value pricing make it a strong contender if you want to build a custom TKL from a barebones kit.
4. Keydous NJ80
|Keys||81 (including rotary knob)|
|Hot-swap?||Yes (3- and 5-pin)|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth, 2.4 GHz Wireless, USB Type-C|
Keydous’ NJ80 is a compelling alternative to the usual names in the custom 75% keyboard space. Its slightly more affordable price and wireless connectivity make it a great option if you’re not keen on the wired-only connectivity common to many aluminum keyboards.
The Keydous NJ80 is a more conventional 75% layout than the Keychron Q1 V2, with no bonus function-row key and a more cramped arrow key layout. It’s not quite as aesthetically pleasing as a fully “exploded” 75% layout where the arrow keys are separate from the main cluster, but it’s fine and works perfectly well.
The NJ80 uses a somewhat unique plate mounting system, where the top and bottom halves of the case simply clamp it into place. The result is a stiff, firm typing feel that may not be to everyone’s liking. Unfortunately, the mounting style also means you can’t mod this with O-rings or other material to try and alter the sound or feel.
Potential mounting woes aside, there’s a lot to like about Keydous’ design decisions for the NJ80. You get south-facing RGB LEDs for maximum compatibility and keycap underglow, well-tuned stock stabilizers, full programmability via proprietary software, and triple-mode connectivity. Bluetooth and 2.4 GHz support are great, although it comes at the cost of a less-premium ABS case (vs. the aluminum of the Keychron Q1).
Overall, the Keydous NJ80 is a solid, good-value, barebones keyboard that will appeal to many users, those who demand wireless keyboards. Sure, it “only” has a plastic case, but the NJ80 does everything it needs to do at a reasonable price.
Before You Buy
Embarking on your custom mechanical keyboard journey may sound exciting, and it is. But just like buying a pre-built keyboard, you’ll have to ensure you buy the right custom keyboard.
Soldered vs. Hot-Swap PCBs
Mechanical keyboard PCBs come in soldered and hot-swap flavors. Soldered PCBs are old-school, requiring you to solder your switches to the PCB. On the other hand, hot-swap PCBs let you remove and install switches willy-nilly without a soldering iron.
Generally, most modern custom keyboards and DIY kits have hot-swap PCBs as they’re more flexible and easier to build with. However, you should always double-check, especially when exploring high-end custom keyboards. Some ultra-premium custom keyboards ship with soldered PCBs by default and sometimes don’t even offer a hot-swap PCB option.
Soldered PCBs have a slight reliability advantage, as there’s little to go wrong; hot-swap sockets have a limited lifespan and can fail well before that. However, hot-swap PCBs are much more convenient and allow almost anyone to assemble a custom keyboard.
Generally, hot-swap PCBs are the safer choice for most users, especially those still trying to find the best mechanical keyboard switch for them. This isn’t to say that soldered PCBs are bad, only that they’re much less friendly and are best left to more experienced mechanical keyboard enthusiasts.
Layout and Form Factor
There are two major physical considerations when shopping for a custom keyboard kit (or any keyboard, for that matter): the key layout and the form factor.
There are three common keyboard layouts: ANSI, ISO, and JIS. ANSI is the one most of you are likely familiar with, as it’s the layout used in the US and several other parts of the world. ISO is common in Europe, while JIS is the default layout in Japan. Most keyboard kits come in ANSI, but some offer ISO and JIS options.
Like soldered vs. hot-swap PCBs, there isn’t an outright “better” option here. Instead, it will come down to what you’re used to and prefer. If you use an ANSI keyboard daily, get an ANSI-layout custom keyboard. Live in a country that uses ISO layout? You may want to consider an ISO custom keyboard for familiarity’s sake (although your options will be much more limited).
Head over to our ANSI vs. ISO comparison for the low-down on the two layouts.
The form factor refers to the number of keys on the keyboard. There are four popular form factors: 100% (also referred to as “full-size;” 104 keys), TKL (87 keys), 75% (~80 keys), and 60% (61 keys). There are a few other form factors, like 65% (60% with arrow keys) and 40%, but they’re not as common.
Your choice will depend on how many keys you need or the dimensions you want your keyboard to be. The smaller the keyboard, the more compact and portable it will be; however, you’ll have to make sacrifices such as losing the numpad or resorting to function layers to access nav cluster commands (such as Page Up and Print Screen) and your arrow keys.
Larger keyboards also require more mechanical switches, which will drive up the price of your keyboard. Depending on your budget, you may have to opt for cheaper switches when populating a 104-key keyboard. For example, filling a keyboard with pricey switches like the Everglide Aqua Kings or Gazzew Boba U4Ts will cost a lot more than affordable options like the Gateron Yellows or Akko Lavender Purples.
We have a guide to mechanical keyboard sizes that covers all you need to know about these sizes (and more).
Optional Tools and Equipment
Of course, you’ll need switches and keycaps to assemble your custom keyboard, so we won’t discuss those here. Instead, you head over to our list of the best kecyaps and our linear vs. tactile vs. clicky comparison for suggestions and advice on choosing the right products for your preferences.
But while those are the only components you’ll need, there are a handful of optional extras that you may want to consider having on hand. These mods and tools can improve your keyboard and help you tweak it to your liking.
First up is switch and stabilizer lubing equipment. You can buy all the necessary components separately, but we think the best way is to get a switch lube kit. A good one will include the lube, brushes, and tools to lube your switches and stabs.
Of course, having the correct tools is only half the battle. Knowing how to lube your switches and stabilizers is a whole other matter. We have a quick guide to switch lubing that should point you in the right direction. For stabilizer mods, check out this handy video:
Another option worth considering is sound-deadening foam. Some kits come with a sheet of EVA or Poron, but you can buy keyboard-specific foam sheets on Amazon. Inserting a sheet between the PCB and the bottom casing helps deaden your keyboard and make it sound less hollow and resonant. You may also want a roll of low-tack tape on hand to experiment with the tape mod.
For info on these (and other) mods, check out our list of eight keyboard mods that you can try while you’re building your keyboard.
The idea of building a custom mechanical keyboard may be intimidating, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The hobby’s explosion in popularity means you can easily find mainstream custom keyboards that are both affordable and readily available from online retailers.
Will they have the prestige or exacting build quality standards as the high-end boards custom keyboard enthusiasts love? Probably not. But keyboards like the Gopolar Tai-Chi GG86 and Keychron Q1 V2 show that you don’t have to spend the big bucks if you want a custom keyboard that looks great and feels nice to type on.