Apr. 14, 2015 | By Alec

While some of our younger readers might not be aware of it, the keyboards we all use every day over our lives have changed over the past few decades. While most laptops and modern pcs come with almost noiseless keyboards, the slower, bigger and bulkier computers of old came with mechanical keyboards that made a tremendously satisfying click whenever you pressed a key. Those mechanical keyboards rely on actual physical switches underneath every key, and you could hear them being pressed. While it might not matter to some, many users feel that those boards offer a more satisfying writing experience.

If you happen to have one of those old fashioned keyboards laying around (or are using it for the satisfying noises), then the latest 3D printing project by Adafruit is definitely something for you: 3D printed custom keycaps for mechanical keyboards. These cool keycaps can feature any 3D design you prefer, though the Adafuit team have already prepared three very cool designs for an ESC key (featuring an Adafruit logo), a CAPS LOCK (featuring a skull) and a command key with a cool raised symbol.

As the Ruiz Brothers explain on Adafruit, these keycaps work best for a mechanical keyboard with cherry mx switches, which features LED backlighting for extra effects. As the brothers explain, these mechanical keyboards feature a simple slot mechanism, allowing you to easily press your homemade keys in place. ‘Perfect for customizing keys to match your typing style. You can even use any of our metal filaments like copper or bronze for creating a steam punk keyboard!’ However, it will work just as well on other keyboards without lighting, though the effects won’t be as spectacular.

Now there are two options for making these keycaps. You can either download the premade files from Thingiverse here, 3D print and insert them, or you can design keys yourself. That latter process isn’t as difficult as it looks, though you’ll need some modeling experience. Carefully measure the keys you are trying to replace with a pair of digital calipers and use that data to design new keys in CAD software. As that’s quite a detailed task, be sure to follow Adafruit’s tips here.

Regardless of using the premade designs or your own, both have to be 3D printed. Now if you happen to have a keyboard with LED lighting, then an SLA 3D printer and clear resin are the best way to go. That’s exactly what the Ruiz brothers have done, and it looks very impressive. 3D printing at 25 microns and a 2.5 exposure time will suffice, which takes about 40 minutes to complete.

Most of us, however, don’t have a fancy keyboard or an SLA 3D printer, but an FDM 3D printer will work just as well for regular, non-translucent keycaps. ‘The keycaps can print just fine on FDM printers. Translucent PLA colors aren't completely see through. As layers get stacked on top of each other, objects will start to look more opaque . We definitely recommend using SLA for higher quality prints, especially if you want the see through look,’ the brothers write.

Difference between an SLA print (left) and an FDM print (right).

When choosing for an FDM solution (preferably in PLA), be sure to add support structures to your design. ‘Use the custom support structures found in the 123D design file or import the StemSupport.stl file. You can also build your own by projecting the sketch profile of the connector surface,’ the brothers advise. The best settings for these small keys would be 15% Infill and a layer height of 0.15 mm. 3D printing a keycap should take no more than 20 minutes.

All-in all, these keycaps are very fun and extremely cool 3D printed additions to any mechanical keyboard. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a custom gaming keyboard complete with essential raised logos?



Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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