One of the most important parts of a mechanical keyboard is its keycaps. Sure, the switches are the most defining aspect, but the keycaps play a massive role in determining the sound, feel, and look of a mechanical keyboard. Keycaps come in many colorways, profiles, and materials, so it’s crucial to know and understand all the keycap types so that you can find the right set for you.
Whether you’re shopping for a keyboard or looking for a replacement keyset, you’ll probably see acronyms like “ABS” and “PBT” pop up alongside phrases like “Cherry MX” or “DSA Profile.” If you’re new to the hobby, these will probably sound more like Greek to you than English. Worry not, though, because there really isn’t anything to it. Let’s get going!
Keycap material is arguably the most important part of choosing keycaps. The two most common materials used in keycaps are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polybutylene terephthalate (PBT).
Note that despite what people may say, there’s no definitively “better” material. Yes, ABS is the standard material for cheap stock keycaps, which gives it a bad rep. But manufacturers like GMK make thick ABS keycaps that rival the best PBT keycaps in feel and quality, so it’s more about the keyset and manufacturer than any inherent material qualities.
However, there is one aspect where ABS keycaps are undeniably worse than PBT: durability.
ABS keycaps generally have a smooth surface to begin with, which then gets worse as the keycaps develop a “shine.” That’s when the keycap surface becomes slick with wear (and, allegedly, skin oils) and is an unavoidable part of using ABS keycaps.
Shiny ABS keycaps feel even smoother than stock and have an “oily” look that’s very obvious on darker keycaps. If you use ABS keycaps for gaming, expect to see the wear on your WASD (or ESDF) keys before the others.
In my experience, it seems that cheaper ABS keycaps tend to develop shine more quickly. The stock keycaps on old Cooler Master keyboards, for example, would shine within a few months of daily use. On the other hand, my set of GMK Dolch keycaps pictured above has relatively light shine despite being used on my main gaming keyboard for the past seven years or so.
PBT keycaps generally don’t suffer from either of these issues. They tend to have a rougher, more textured surface that lasts for a very long time (almost indefinitely with normal use). PBT also doesn’t yellow, so they’ll look factory fresh for just as long.
Keycap Printing: Dye-Sub vs. Double-Shot
Now that you have a better idea about ABS and PBT, it’s time to talk about the printing and production methods commonly used in keycaps. The two printing methods most widely seen in higher-end keycap sets are double-shot molding and dye-sub printing. As with most other aspects of mechanical keyboards, neither is definitively better than the other.
There are a few other printing techniques that you’ll find on keycaps, such as pad printing and laser engraving. However, these aren’t that common in mid-range or high-end keycaps, so we’ll just run through them quickly at the end of this section.
Double-shot keycaps use two separate molds: one for the legends and one for the keycap body itself. The legends (letters or phrases such as “Caps Lock”) aren’t actually printed. Instead, it’s actually a second layer of plastic that sits inside the main keycap shape. Here’s a Caps Lock key that shows how a double-shot key is constructed:
The main strength of double-shot molding is that the legends are hard-wearing and won’t fade or be scratched away over time. Color combinations are also essentially limitless, as there’s no dye or engraving involved here. This is why most of the popular aftermarket keycap sets are double-shot.
Double-shot keycap sets can, however, be quite expensive. Each key needs two molds with tight tolerances, and this increases the cost. Double-shot keycaps also tend to use ABS, which means that even if the legends don’t fade, the keycaps themselves will wear down over time.
You can get double-shot PBT keycaps (like this Mistel white-on-black set) now, which resist wear and tear better. However, there aren’t that many companies making them, and colorway options are relatively limited. If you want the really exotic double-shot colorways, you’ll likely have to live with ABS’ lower durability.
Dye-sub, or dye sublimation, is a way of printing on PBT keycaps that uses heat and dye to permanently stain the plastic with a color. The legends don’t fade or wear away since the dye colors the plastic itself and aren’t just a layer of paint on top of the plastic.
Colors, however, are a bit more limited. Since it involves staining the plastic, the dye must be darker than the base material. Up until relatively recently, this meant that dye-sub could only be used to print legends that were darker than the base keycap color itself.
However, the past few years have seen the rise of reverse dye-sub. It’s the same process, but reverse dye-sub dyes everything but the legend. This allows for light-on-dark colorways and adds welcome variety to the PBT keycap landscape.
With the right color scheme, reverse dye-sub can offer an interesting alternative to double-shot ABS. They’re still not quite as common as standard dye-sub keycaps, but we imagine that’ll slowly change over time.
Other Printing Techniques
Pad printing is the standard printing technique for low-end rubber-dome keyboards. It uses a rubber pad to stamp the (usually white) paint on the (usually black) keycap. Pad-printed legends fade very quickly, as the color is exposed to wear and tear without any protection.
If you’ve seen a relatively modern black office keyboard with white legends, that’s almost definitely a pad-printed set.
Laser engraving uses lasers to etch or engrave the legends directly into the plastic. The laser can be used to permanently discolor (or burn) the keycap with the required symbols, or it can be used to cut out a groove that can be filled in with paint later.
Lasers are also used to create shine-through keycaps. Here, a transparent keycap is coated in paint, after which the laser is used to burn away the paint and reveal the base plastic for light to shine through.
Keycap profiles have a massive impact on the typing experience, more so than the material or the printing method. Keycap profile refers to the keys’ shape, angle, and height, most visible when viewed from the side.
There are a ton of keycap profiles on the market, but there are a few popular profiles that we think you should become familiar with. These are Cherry, OEM, SA, DSA, and MT3. Here’s a quick keycap profile comparison that illustrates the differences between them:
The Cherry and OEM profiles are arguably the “standard” keycap profiles, the sort you probably have in mind when thinking of mechanical keyboards. The OEM profile is usually used for the sets that you get with mass-produced, mainstream mechanical keyboards from brands like Cooler Master and Corsair. Several aftermarket keycaps also use this profile, like this YMDK set:
Cherry profile is the “original” profile pioneered by Cherry for their Cherry G80 and G81 keyboards back in the 1980s. They’re lower profile than the OEM keycaps but retain the angled design and cylindrical tops. Several manufacturers use this profile, but the most prominent (and premium) is definitely GMK. Sets like the DROP GMK Redsuns will be Cherry profile:
MT3 and SA are old-school-inspired high-profile keycaps with spherical tops. These offer a very different typing feel and will take some getting used to due to their height. The MT3 profile has become the go-to high-profile shape, undoubtedly helped by Drop putting its weight behind it.
There isn’t any definitive “best” or “worst” profile, and a lot of it boils down to your typing style and preferences. For example, a typist who rests their hands on the desk when typing might find SA and MT3 too tall for comfort. On the other hand, someone who floats their wrists while typing likely won’t find the extra height a problem.
The only way to find out which profiles are the best for you is to try them out. You could just buy a whole bunch and test them out, but that can get expensive fast. Instead, try and look for other enthusiasts local to you; they’ll probably be more than willing to let you try out some keycaps so that you can get a feel for the profile.
Once you’re familiar with the common keycap materials, printing methods, and profiles, figuring out what to expect from a keyboard’s stock keycaps becomes a lot easier. But this knowledge will also help you if you’re diving head-first into the real meat of the keyboard hobby: custom keycaps.
Mechanical keyboards as a hobby would be a lot less appealing if we didn’t have so many custom keycap sets to choose from. From classic beige PBT keycaps to eye-catching colorways like the classic GMK Miami, there’s probably something for every aesthetic preference in the world of custom keycaps.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Once you’ve chosen a keycap set that fits your theme, artisan keycaps can be the cherry on top to really tie things together. Some of the more sought-after artisans are limited-edition items sold either via group buys or raffles, so you’ll have to be alert to grab them.
If that’s not your style, there are still a ton of great-looking artisans available from retailers like MechanicalKeyboards.com.
The same goes for keycap sets in general. While you can purchase a lot of great keycaps from retailers, some of the best and most premium keycaps are usually sold through a group buy process.
In a group buy, the organizer (an individual or a company) collects money in advance to fund the production, which only happens if the minimum order quantity (MOQ) is met. This system exists because factories like GMK only work with bulk orders.
As it’s generally unreasonable to expect a person to fork out the money for 500 keysets in advance, group buys came about as a way to more reasonably fund the production of custom keycaps. The downside to this method is that you’re usually waiting months (if not a year or more) for your keycaps.
Many keysets from factories such as GMK and JTK will go through a group buy process, with leftovers and extras sold through retail channels once the group buy is completed. There usually aren’t that many sets available at retail, though, so we recommend you join a group buy if you find a colorway that really speaks to you.
Mechanical keyboard keycaps might appear daunting at first, with so many variables to consider. Each material, profile, and printing method has its own characteristics that will have an impact on your short- and long-term experience. Hopefully, this article has helped give you a better idea of the right keycap types for you.
Whether you’re evaluating a keyboard’s stock keycaps or shopping around for a new replacement set, remember that there’s often no “right” or “wrong” decision and it all comes down to your aesthetic preferences and budget. I might love GMK keysets, but not everyone can afford them. So don’t worry too much and just take your time.