Your standard cheap keyboard for your PC or Mac is just that – cheap! If something wears out or breaks on it, you’re going to likely just replace the whole keyboard. If you have a mechanical keyboard, however, you’re in luck! These keyboards are built to last. Sure, the keys can wear down, but we have 3d printers and can print new ones!
You can 3d print replacement keycaps for a mechanical keyboard on your home 3d printer. DLP resin printers are better for this compared to FDM filament printers due to their higher resolution, and thus better surface texture. You can always sand and polish for smoother results.
3d Printing Keycaps – What You Won’t Get: The Limitations
The limitations of 3d printed keycaps are the same limitations of 3d printing as a whole. If you’re printing with an FDM filament printer, you’re likely going to have noticeable layer lines. If you are willing to take some time, and put in some elbow grease, then you can sand these off, and give your keycap a smooth finish. One suggestion is to print the keycap on its side, so that the key surface is vertical on printing. Since it’s essentially flat, you should reduce the amount of layer distortion that you will have to clean up.
DLP resin printers have higher resolution, and you can likely print out the keycap which will need very little in the way of cleanup with the sand paper or files. The added advantage with a DLP resin printer is that you can print a bunch of keys simultaneously and they’ll take no longer to print than just printing one. This isn’t true with FDM filament printers. The more that you print, the longer the print time.
You’ll also have to ensure that you print with fine resolution, regardless of the printer type. The reason for this is less about the surface (which you can sand and paint) and more about the stem. First, ensure that the keycap that you’re printing is the correct stem style for your mechanical printer. Once printed, it’s the stem that fits into the keyboard to attach the keycap. This is a pretty tight tolerance and there’s not a lot of space to file or sand the underside of the keycap to clean it up. So the cleaner and more accurate it is when you print it, the easier it will be to pop the new keycap into place.
3d Printing Keycaps – What You Can Get: The Possibilities
Keycaps printed on a 3d printer are still monochrome and don’t have high visibility letters and symbols on them. But they don’t have to just be straight flat keycaps either. Let your imagination run wild! You can print raised symbols on your keys, or bobble-head style miniature heads, or any other miniature 3d object that can be printed on top of a key. As a gamer, I was quite taken by the 20-sided die (icosahedron, or 20-sided regular solid) that’s very typical of gaming dice used in role playing games. I could see replacing the escape key with something like this – not because it needs it, but because it looks cool.
Remember, also, that both filament and resin can come in translucent or clear color. It means that your backlit keyboard that you paid extra to have shine can have the light show through your designs. Maybe you put a skull on your keyboard on the run-up to Halloween, and a snowman on your keyboard for the winter season, followed by a bunny head for the spring. You get the idea!
PC gamers, of course, will enjoy customizing their keyboards with custom keycaps. For first person shooters, for example, you could print silhouettes of the different weapons for those keys that correspond to switching to them. Click the BFG silhouette key for your character to switch to that weapon in-game. The same concept could be used for those keyboards that support macros. If you have a certain sequence of keystrokes to do a task (in EVE Online, for example, I have a macro that will select my home station and immediately warp and dock – I use it when baddies come after my mining ships while in space. I haven’t yet, but a big explanation mark symbol that kicks off the “get the hell out of here” macro would actually be a rather cool thing. I could paint it red with a big yellow symbol for ease of finding it in those oh-so-tense situations!
The Blended Approach to 3d Printed Keycaps
The best method, in my mind, on how to use 3d printed keycaps is to blend purchased replacement keycaps with 3d printed keycaps. The regular A through Z and 1 through 0 keys are great with their symbols professionally printed on them. I would purchase these as replacement keys. They will match what I have, and they will have the smooth surface I’m looking for when I speed touch-type.
I’d use 3d printed keycaps for those specialty keys like I mentioned above. Either I’m looking to enhance the look of my keyboard without actually changing the key function underneath, or I’m changing the function of the key and wanting a keycap that better describes what the key will do when I hit it. Either are valid (after all, it is MY keyboard) and customizing for my own uses will make me happy!
For inspiration, look online at what others have done with 3d printed keycaps to get ideas and methods of how they did it.
How To Colorize Your 3d Printed Keycaps
When you 3d print keycaps, you have to remember that, unless you’ve got one of the fanciest and most expensive printers available, you’re going to be printing in a single color. And that color, depending on your filament or resin color and your keyboard, may not be the right color. Once you’ve printed a keycap, however, you can spray paint the keycap to match the color of the keyboard. Use two or three light coats of spray paint to color the keycap. It’s better than one heavy coat.
You still, however, won’t have any letters showing on the surface of the keycap. There are several ways around this. You could purchase stickers that can go onto the keycaps, or you could paint your own. Only the most calligraphic-minded out there will consider hand-painting letters onto keycaps.
To make things easier, however, you could 3d print a raised letter image on the surface of the keycap. You could leave it at that or you could then hand-paint the raised letter. Being raised, the letter will be relatively easy to paint. You could emboss the letter into the keycap, too, and then just fill the depression with paint. This will give a smoother surface for the keycap top (where your finger will tap), and feel more natural (from a plastic keyboard point of view).
Once painted (in whatever method you choose), it’s best to spray with a coating lacquer For shiny keys, use a gloss coat. For mostly dull keys with a hint of a shine, use a satin coat. It’s rare, but there are some keyboards with dull, flat keys. Use a dull coat to match these. Of course, they’re your keycaps, so use any combination that you like!
You could color the keycaps, and then purchase keycap stickers to add crisp, clear letters to the keycaps. This is only really good for black or white keycaps, as these are the most available sticker sets out there. First, you need to know if you have an ANSI or ISO keyboard (most North American keyboards are ANSI and most European keyboards are ISO). Buy the correct set of stickers, and stick away! The advantage is that they’re cheap, but the downside is that they wear away rather quickly, defeating the whole purpose. Plus, it’s a pain getting the stickers lined up straight!
Here’s an example of a sticker set on Amazon.Com: Link
Where can I find 3d print templates for keycaps?
Keycaps, it turns out, are quite popular as subjects for 3d printing. You can, of course, design your own using CAD software, but there are many downloadable STL files out there. Search on these sites for keycaps (and specify the type of mechanical keyboard that you have):
Do I need a keycap puller for my mechanical keyboard?
Yes you do. Removing the keycaps using a small screwdriver and or pliers can work, but it’s just as likely that you’ll damage the keycap (or worse, the switch underneath) and send parts flying. Keycap puller tools are cheap and can ensure that you get the keycap to come off easily. This one on Amazon.Com comes with extra O-ring sound dampeners for a Cherry MX mechanical keyboard. Amazon link here: https://amzn.to/2W36NfX