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Best Practices When Building A Keyboard

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I don’t like the phrase “it should go without saying”; if that were the case, there would be so many things that never got mentioned, and a lot of things we’d get wrong because of it. This is also true when building your custom mechanical keyboard: there’s a multitude of best practices out there that can, and will, help guide you towards a cleanly built, good-sounding board and an overall positive experience, provided someone *tells* you what those are.  Here are some that “should go without saying”, but will be said anyway for those who are new to the hobby, or just getting back in after some time away! We’ll be focusing on hotswap mechanical keyboards, as those are by and large the most popular kind of PCB for newcomers and veterans alike, though many of our practices will still apply to soldered builds as well.  As always, if there’s anything you feel we missed and would like to add, or need further clarification on, feel free to leave a comment below! Check All Parts Before Assembly
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It’s easy to take for granted that your board arrived to you the way it was supposed to; I mean that’s part of what you paid for, right?  Fact is, sometimes things happen that aren’t caught by quality checks during packaging/shipping, that no one meant to happen in the first place.  Check to make sure all of your accessories are accounted for (cables, included stabilizers, cap/switch puller, etc), give the case a thorough once-over for blemishes or obvious defects, check the PCB to make sure there aren’t any damaged or missing components (hotswap sockets, diodes, etc), and check your plate for obvious damage or warping.  If your board uses a special mounting system that requires gaskets or o-rings, make sure those are all present and in good shape.
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You want to have these checked before you start building because if it’s discovered AFTER you’ve already built the board, it’s sometimes difficult to tell if the issue is from something that happened before you got it, or during your build. We’ll cover stabilizers a bit later. Figure Out Your Tool Situation
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Some keyboards, like the KBDFans Tiger Lite, come with their own tool for assembling the keyboard, but many do not.  Make sure you understand what tools you need before jumping into your build, and round them up.  Beyond the basic bits, switch puller, and cap puller, be mindful of how the board is constructed, and ensure your drivers can reach their intended fasteners.  Boards like the Idobao ID80 Crystal have cases designed such that the fasteners at the back of the case are sort of hard to get to, so you need a screwdriver with a long, slender shank to reach it.  You’ll also want to have a pair of fine-tip tweezers with an insulated grip for the next bit… Function Test Your PCB
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Your PCB, while not delicate, can sometimes arrive with some of the sockets not registering correctly… but how do you possibly know that without having switches inserted in the sockets to test, which typically requires the board to be mostly built?  The answer: tweezers!  Turns out the PCB doesn’t care if it’s inside a case or not, if it senses a completed-circuit, it will register an appropriate key press, and fine-tip tweezers with an insulated grip are a great way to do this.  If you have access to the internet at the time, you can just plug in the PCB (this may require connecting the JST connector to your Daughterboard and PCB) and access VIA online to use the keyboard tester tab. Just use the tweezers to bridge the connection for your desired socket, pictured above, and check to see if it registers actuation on VIA.  
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If it does, then move on to the next switch, and so on, until you’ve tested every switch! Note that the “Fn” key may not register correctly in the keyboard tester tab.  If you have a hard time bridging the contacts, you can also do this at the back of the PCB. Be Careful Inserting Switches
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Hotswap sockets, while “easier” than soldered builds, can tend to be a bit more delicate if switches aren’t inserted correctly. When setting your switches in the socket, make sure the pins are VERTICALLY straight on the switch (example above), and align the switch so that the metal pins are going directly in the center of the socket contacts, and the plastic pins are all aligned with the PCB.  
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When inserting them fully, you should always support the back of the hotswap socket with your hand, or at least have the PCB on a flat, level surface, though I recommend supporting it with your hand since it helps to feel more precisely how well the switch is going in the socket.  Apply even, consistent force, and you should feel the pins slide into their points with little/no resistance.  If you’re doing this with the plate installed, you should also hear a small clicking sound to indicate the switch bottom housing has clipped into the plate.  Note that some switch and plate combinations may not allow every switch to fully seat in the plate, but as long as the switch doesn’t easily pop out of the socket you should be fine.
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To visually check and see that everything installed correctly, check the back of the hotswap socket to see that the pins went through correctly. If it looks like one of the metal pins didn’t make it through, carefully remove the switch and inspect the pins.
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If you somehow manage to bend a pin, you’re in good company; I guarantee it will happen to you at least once.  Usually this results in the pin curling under on itself, but I’ve had some pretty gnarly breaks!  Pins can usually be repaired using tweezers or a small flat head screwdriver to get under the bend and start straightening, and a set of pliers to finish the job. We’ll cover this process in more detail in a future content piece.   Test Your Stabilizers BEFORE You Finish
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This one may not be so obvious… until you complete a build that has the worst stabilizers known to this or any other world spinning, and the sinking reality of having to fully disassemble the board to re-tune them hits you like a sucker punch, thus ruining your day.  Don’t let that be your future, and test your stabilizers before you finish the build!  While I won’t cover the entire process here, you should check out my stabilizer tuning guide on all the steps to take to get the best sounding and feeling stabilizers possible.  Once you get them all prepped and installed, CAREFULLY insert a switch, using the method mentioned in the “Be Careful Inserting Switches” section, into the sockets for the stabilized keys, then install the cap on top of the switch and tap the key at various points all across the cap while listening for ticking or rattling from the stabilizers, and feeling for sluggishness, which could indicate you’ve over-lubed things… or possibly just don’t have the cap on all the way. 
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Some keyboards, like the NK87, may come with pre-lubed stabilizers: these are especially important to check since, in my experience, most pre-lubed stabilizers need some work done, or need to be fully cleaned off and re-done for them to work right.  I don’t like to use pre-lubed stabilizers for this reason, but your mileage and budget for buying additional parts may vary. Remember, you can always clean them off and re-lube them!  Also bear in mind, sometimes it’s the switch or the cap that’s causing the problem, NOT the stabilizer, but we’ll cover that in further detail in a future content piece.  Try changing the switch to one from another socket to see if the situation improves.  Be sure to comment on any boards whose pre-lubed stabs worked well for you! Check Plate/PCB Alignment in the Case
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Some keyboards may require you to shift the Plate/PCB assembly around a bit to ensure everything lines up correctly in the case.  This is an important thing to pay attention to: if things aren’t aligned correctly, you may get some caps interfering with the case in a way that makes them unusable, or could cause your board to otherwise perform, look, and feel a bit off.  This can be as simple as checking that any alignment nubs, like those on the Idobao ID80 Crystal, are matching with their slot on the plate, but what exactly you’ll need to do will vary from board to board, and with some simpler designs may be a non-issue. DON’T FORCE YOUR PARTS TOGETHER
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If something is fighting you, don’t fight back!  It’s easy to get really excited about finally nearing the end of your custom keyboard build, but it’s even more important to get everything assembled correctly in the first place, so don’t try to force anything together unless the directions for the board indicate there may be extra force required.  If a fastener is giving you strange resistance, stop, back it out, and check the threads to make sure nothing is cross-threading.  If your case is facing resistance when you try to tighten everything down, stop, take everything apart again, and make sure all of your case foams and cables are properly in place.  If a switch is fighting you to go into a socket, back it out and check that none of the pins are bending or misaligned. Also be sure to double check gasket installation since boards like the Tiger Lite are kind of particular about how they’re set in the case.  Occasionally, resistance can be a quality control issue that you otherwise wouldn’t have caught during initial parts inspection, but manifests in a full build; if you’re ever in doubt and can’t wrap your head around what the issue maybe, reaching out to the vendor is always a good call, as is asking around in the keyboard community. Keeping all of these things in mind will become second-nature after a while, so if it seems like a lot now, it won’t be when you build your next board, and even easier for the one after that!  Just be sure to not fall into the trap of taking for granted that everything will always be fine, as that can lead to bad habits which, in turn, can lead to a bad building experience and overall finished build.  If there’s anything you’d like to add it in the comments, please do so!  The more information is shared with the community, the better.  Thanks for reading, and we’ll catch you next time!
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The_Manic_Geek
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Jan 19, 2023
Thanks so much for reading our article! As always, if you have any questions, need some clarity, or want to add to the discussion, feel free to... drop... us a comment!
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