We Chatted to SwitchDoctorAU About the Joy Of Building Your Own Mechanical Keyboard
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Gaming keyboards come in all shapes and sizes, and there’s no right or wrong choice when you’re looking for a keyboard that will help you lock down that MVP status in a game. That being said, there’s nothing like building your own keyboard.
Mechanical keyboards — which get their name from their spring-activated switches — are slowly but surely solidifying their place in the mainstream. Gamers and typing enthusiasts alike are choosing them thanks to their superior look, feel and sound — and especially because all of these things can be customised to suit very specific preferences. It’s fairly easy to build, mod or commission an expert to make a mechanical keyboard that’s perfect for you.
And it’s so rewarding! To find out more, we spoke to Karly, who builds custom keyboards and streams on Twitch by the name SwitchDoctorAU. She walked us through all the basics you need to know to get into mechanical keyboards and why you should make the switch (pun intended) today.
PS: Hello! You’re a mechanical keyboard modder and also a veterinarian — how do you balance such a demanding job with building keyboards and streaming?
Karly: Being a veterinarian is very demanding — physically and mentally. I actually ended up reducing my hours a little while back because I have chronic illness and chronic pain, but that also gave me more time to do things outside of work and not be just “vet Karly”. I was kind of falling into the keyboard side of things at the time, and it just gave me that outlet I needed.
Now I work about 52 hours a fortnight, and a lot of my spare time is spent building boards for people. So it’s like I have two jobs now, but it’s really worked out. Sometimes it gets really busy — like the next few weeks are going to be intense as I’m doing the creative showcase for Twitch ANZ.
I started streaming on Twitch because it made sense to put myself out there so people could see what I was doing and know that I wasn’t trying to pull the wool over their eyes. It grew organically from there.
PS: For people who might be new to mechanical keyboards, can you explain what the difference is between a standard keyboard and one that you might build?
K: The biggest difference is the quality. A pre-built board normally has a plastic case. They’re cheaply made and they’re fairly straightforward. Custom boards tend to have a metal case or a high-quality, polycarbonate plastic case.
If you pick a custom keyboard up, it has heft to it. It’s like a statement piece on your desk. And then they’re different in that you can fully customise it to your preference. You don’t need to have a full-size keyboard, you can get something smaller and customise the keycaps and the switches and everything about it to make it your own personal thing which is really cool, and that’s probably why a lot of people get into it in the first place.
PS: Why do you think it’s worthwhile to build your own mechanical keyboard?
K: It’s very hard to communicate to people unless they try a custom board themselves. Meetups are a big part of the hobby and they’re a great place to try a board and see what it’s all about. That’s what I’d recommend to people as the first step. Once you feel what a custom board feels like, how the typing experience can differ and how the sound is different, that’s what gets you excited about a custom board. And then of course the accessibility aspects, like if you need lighter switches because you’ve got problems with pain or something like I do, you can make that happen as well.
PS: Are there many meetups in Australia?
K: They happen fairly frequently and we’re looking at having one in each major city a year. Joining the Facebook Groups and Discords is a good way to get on top of it. On Facebook, there’s AU Mechanical Keyboards Australia, and Discord has SNZAGKEYS for Australian and New Zealand meetups.
PS: What parts make up a mechanical keyboard?
K: The most obvious thing is the switch, which can be either linear, tactile or clicky. Then you have the case, which is probably what most people think about first when they’re building a custom. They’ll think about the layout, size and colour they want it to be and then find a case that fits that.
Then you’ve got the plate, which the switches mount into. The plate can be a whole bunch of different materials, from metals like aluminium and brass to carbon fibre and plastics.
Then you’ve got keycaps, which are the main thing you see, and then the stabilisers for bigger keys like spacebar, backspace, enter and shift.
In terms of what parts can change the sound or feel of a keyboard, the simple answer is all of them.
PS: What’s the difference between linear, tactile and clicky switches?
K: Linear switches have a smooth keypress when you push them down. Generally, linear switches are best for gaming. Tactile switches tend to have a bump that you’ve got to push past before the switch actuates. That gives you some feedback as you’re typing so you know that you’ve actuated the switch.
And then clickies are inherently tactile, but they make a very loud noise when you actuate them.
PS: People talk about “thock” and “clack” — what does that mean?
K: It’s about people chasing a particular sound. Thock is like a deeper, creamier sound. There’s a lot of that right now, pre-builts will have extra foam added in to try to get that thick sound. Plastic plates help too. And then clack is typically a higher pitched sound. Everyone has their own preference for what they enjoy.
PS: Why should you lube your switches?
K: Lubing the switches is one of the most important things to do with a custom board. It helps elevate the sound and the typing experience, it makes a switch smoother and it helps tighten up the sound. Typically it’ll make it a bit deeper and less plastic-y.
PS: Is it possible to make a mechanical keyboard that’s quiet enough to use in an office so your coworkers don’t hate you?
K: You can get silent switches! It kind of takes away the sound aspect that some people chase, because it ends up very muted. But if you’re working in an office that may be ideal. And you can combine silent switches with using foam in the case or a plastic plate.
The other thing you can do is go with a linear switch, lube it and add foam, which can make the sound a bit more muted. Although, having said that, some foams will actually amplify the sound. So if you want quiet, I’d recommend silent switches.
PS: How long were you modding keyboards for before you turned it into a business?
K: I got into it at the end of 2019 and I booked my first custom in early 2020. By that time, I had all the gear to mod keyboards and wanted to offer it to other people. Initially, I offered free builds because I just wanted to get my name out there, and then I started organically getting commissions and it grew from there. And then I was able to start charging for it without people feeling like I was ripping them off.
PS: Your Instagram has lots of amazing looking keyboards that all look unique and super colourful. When people commission you, can they also make requests for what their keyboard looks like and what colours you use?
K: Typically when people reach out to me they have a board and switches in mind.
Sometimes people who are fairly new to the hobby reach out and they need some help finding what they’re after. I had one person reach out who specifically wanted really light switches. I went through the process of helping them find a board and choosing the keycaps and switches. We ended up going with 45 gram springs or something ridiculously light.
I don’t source the parts for people but I’m happy to help them find things if they’re not sure what to get or where to get it from.
PS: Generally speaking, how much does it cost to build a basic mechanical keyboard?
K: I’d recommend at least $500 if you want to get your own switches and keycaps. You can make it cheaper, but I image most people will find themselves wanting to upgrade pretty quickly if they go down that route.
For the case itself you’re probably looking at least $300, and then it’s a matter of finding switches. Gateron Milky Yellows are a fantastic budget option for a linear switch.
PS: What’s the mechanical keyboard scene like for women? Have you faced any challenges getting into it and growing your channel or business?
K: It’s been surprisingly good, actually. I get the occasional idiot on Twitch, but I’m lucky that I’ve got a really good community of mods surrounding me, so if anyone pops up they’re banned pretty quickly and honestly, it doesn’t happen that often.
We talk about “endgame” in this hobby — as like the keyboard to end all keyboards. As corny as it sounds, my endgame has been the friends I’ve made along the way streaming and going to meetups. It’s gotten me from being a bit of a hermit to going out and meeting people.
There are definitely fewer of us in the hobby compared to the guys, but I don’t feel like I’ve been disadvantaged being a female.
PS: If someone wants to get into mechanical keyboards, what are some good YouTube or Twitch channels they can watch to learn the ropes?
K: Taeha Types is the biggest of the bunch and he streams regularly on Twitch. Alexotos is another one, and apiarykeyboards. Basically just typing “custom keyboards” into YouTube or Twitch will bring something up.