Like Tenkeyless mechanical keyboards, Custom keycaps are a natural progression for many mechanical keyboard enthusiasts.
Sites such as Massdrop often sell standard Cherry MX keycaps, but with a unique color, theme applied. But just changing the color or font of the keys isn’t what we’re talking about today. Instead, we’re talking about custom keycaps, which completely change the form of the standard keycap you’re used to.
There are two main custom keycap categories out there today – Artisan and 3D Printed. Let’s dive into the two and look at the differences, advantages, and disadvantages of each.
Artisan keycaps are what their name suggests – works of art! There are several steps to making an artisan keycap. The typical design process goes like this – first, the artist sculpts some sort of design out of clay (or some similar material) onto a standard keycap. Once satisfied with their design, they make a two-part silicone mold of their sculpt.
Once the mold is complete, they can begin the next step – casting resin (or some similar plastic material) into the mold, which is a process that has many points of failure. The artist must make sure any dyes are mixed completely and that no air bubbles remain in the casting material, for starters.
Some keycaps also require two different casting pours timed properly to pull off a multi-color keycap. Further embellishments can be added as needed, for example, KeyKollectiv‘s Snackeys seen on the left which look like fruit.
3 Artisan keycaps on a backlit mechanical keyboard.
3D Printed Keycaps
3D printed keycaps are a newer entrant to the custom keycap market. Using 3D printer technology, a designer can now design their keycap on a computer and have their design printed without having to touch any physical materials. The results can be very detailed and precise keycap designs that might be difficult to capture with clay. However, 3D printing technology itself isn’t perfect in terms of precision or smoothness.
Here’s an example of one such 3D printed keycap that you may recognize, which is a two-piece model –
Now that you’ve got a little background on artisan and 3D printed keycaps, let’s run down pros and cons.
Note: All 3D printed keycaps displayed in this article came from Tasker’s Gizmo Bazaar. You can purchase any of these models from his store as well as many others.
Advantages of 3D Printed Custom Keycaps
More Color/Material Choices
When it comes to artisan keycaps, the original artist has complete control over the finished product. Unless you’re crazy enough to try altering it or painting it (and ruining its value), every keycap is going to look exactly how the artist intended.
When it comes to 3D printer keycaps, this isn’t the case. The designer puts the model out there, and the buyer gets to choose the material and color. Shapeways has numerous material choices – metals like gold and silver, at least 10 colors of plastic, and even weird things you wouldn’t think you could 3D print like porcelain, sandstone, and wax.
As you can see below, I selected a traditional red and green Petey Piranha – probably the way the designer intended – as well as a unique orange and purple Petey.
No Limits to Production
When it comes to artisan keycaps, the artist must physically make every batch, which means making multiple molds, mixing the casting materials and dye many times, injecting the dye as needed, waiting hours for it to harden, removing the finished product, and repeating the process. It’s very labor-intensive, which means there’s a limit to how many they can produce.
With 3D printed keycaps, there is (in theory at least) no limit to the number of keycaps that can be produced. If you notice your friend has a cool 3D printed keycap you like, you won’t need to sift through classified listings on forums hoping to find one, and you won’t be paying a huge markup because you missed the initial sale. Below I have two identical monster designs in two different colors.
Much More Affordable
One of the greatest advantages of 3D printed keycaps is the price! Since the cost of materials is lower, and there’s no manual labor that goes into the crafting, you’ll get a keycap for only 20-50% of what you would pay for an artisan keycap brand new. The two monsters above? Less than $6 each. Petey Piranha is less than $10 for the body/head combo.
Artisan keycaps, on the other hand, will cost you $20-40 if you can get it brand-new from the artist. If you miss the initial sale, you might be paying 2x that or more in the aftermarket.
More Intricate Designs
Since 3D printed caps are designed using software that have precise, calculated units of measure, it’s possible to pull off some pretty cool multi-piece tricks that would be much harder with an artisan keycap. You can also get some pretty thin pieces, which would be very difficult to mold and cast.
In Tasker’s Astronaut, you can see he executes a 3-piece design that would be extremely difficult if not impossible to do as an artisan keycap.
The keycap uses an astronaut helmet shell (I tried one in matte metal coated with some sort of gold sheen – the gold didn’t stick to 100% of the surface), inner skull, and cracked visor.
Here you can see the set with all frosted plastic pieces and the visor in place.
And here, you can see them with a white LED backlighting from a CODE keyboard applied. It should be noted that the current visor design is still in “beta”, and if you want to make the skull show more obviously you can polish the visor before assembling. Also seen below – the unspeakable 3D printed Cthulhu!
Disadvantages of 3D Printed Keys
Most of the disadvantages of 3D printed keys are just viewing their advantages through a different lens. I’ll explain –
Less Artistic Touch
When you get an artisan keycap, you can really view it as a work of art from top to bottom. You know that the colors were exactly what the artist intended, and the design was hand-crafted. It can give artisan keycaps more of living feeling to them. Also, artisan keycaps can be multiple colors, which mass-production 3D printers just can’t do right yet.
Many people make a hobby out of collecting artisan keys. For them, hunting down the keycap they want and finding a reasonable deal on it is much of the fun. Many people also trade artisan keycaps within the community.
Since 3D printed keycaps can be purchased for a cheap price by anyone, this takes away the “limited edition” feel of artisans and it doesn’t feel like something you would feel as strong of an urge to collect since they can always make more.
3D Printing Plastic Quality Not as Nice
I think the 3D printing market still has a bit further to go before they catch the quality of plastic that resins create. The 3D printed plastics from Shapeways has a bit of a “powdery” feel to it. Granted, the keycaps are only around $5 each, but it would be nice if they offered a more premium plastic option in the future.
Due to the less “solid” feeling of the 3D printed keycaps, you likely wouldn’t want to use them on any keys that get heavy use, especially not on a gaming keyboard. The plastic likely wouldn’t hold up over the long haul, so it’s best to use them on lesser used keys.
Final Thought on 3D Printer Keycaps
I think 3D Printed keycaps occupy a different market from artisan keycaps, and the two don’t really compete as much as you may think. For people who just want an interesting or different looking keycap but don’t want to spend the money on artisan, they will love going the 3D printed route. For others, they’ll rather pay a premium for something they feel is more of a collectible work of art. It’s really just a matter of preference at this point.
Where Can I Get Custom Keycaps?
For 3D Printed keycaps, you can find many options on Shapeways, and Tasker’s shop has all the keycaps you saw on this page.
For artisan keycaps, you’ll need to do more hunting. Reddit has /r/mechmarket and geekhack has its own marketplace for aftermarket sales. To catch sales as they come up, I would browse geekhack forums often or follow us on Twitter and we’ll do our best to keep you updated. MassDrop also occasionally has some artisan sales.
That concludes our comprehensive comparison between the differences of artisan and 3D printed keycaps.
For more mechanical keyboard related stuff, check out our buying guides: