Why are mechanical keyboards so expensive
Why are mechanical keyboard keys so expensive?
When you get into the mechanical keyboard hobby, prepare your wallet for some serious hits. In addition to the hardware itself, the custom button sets you add to the mechanical switches can be terrifyingly expensive. But why?
The answer is complicated. To be fair, the actual materials in all of these little plastic pieces aren't expensive at all and there are plenty of cheap options out there. But between limited production capacity, a healthy aftermarket, and the relatively niche nature of custom keycaps, adding to your collection is likely to mean a heavy blow to your wallet.
Cheap options are out there
First of all, the materials that make up keycaps are inexpensive. They are made of molded plastic to scream loud, not uncommon earth metals. There are surprisingly many differences in the plastics used for keycaps, and even more so in terms of production styles, shapes, and written legends. However, the actual hardware is made of plastic.
And thanks to the growing audience of fans of mechanical keyboards are a couple of options if you are tight on cash. When you scan Amazon you can find a variety of options for under $ 30 such as: Take this double, backlight-friendly keycap made from popular PBT plastic for just eighteen dollars. Here is a collection of sets with this trendy colored modifier look. Here's a set of dagger-like colors in a copycat DSA profile and so on. My point is, if you want a new set of keys and your strapped for cash, there are at least a couple of options out there.
But as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. These sets are mass-produced and not particularly high quality; This is what the cheaply printed legends look like on this set of daggers after a few months of intense writing.
And of course, cheap sets aren't exactly the cool color combinations and custom legends that adorn all of those wonderfully geeky posts in the mechanical keyboard subreddit. For those you have to pony up.
Custom keycaps come from a limited number of manufacturers
The cheap button sets listed above are all from manufacturers in China and other industrial centers who are not really interested in talking to you unless you want to order ten thousand units. In contrast, the sets created by trending tech bloggers that you see in background photos are almost entirely made in small batches of a few hundred each.
These small batches increase the economies of scale present in almost all retail products. This drives up the price as the sets have to be designed and manufactured on custom equipment. Custom sets also include expensive manufacturing techniques such as double-shot legends or dye sublimation. There are only a few plastics manufacturers who A) have the appropriate molding and printing equipment and B) are interested in small, customer-specific batches at all. This applies twice to custom-made products such as key sets for ortholinear designs, split designs such as the Ergodox or rare layouts such as 40% keyboards.
The most notable manufacturer in this field is Signature Plastics, a small Washington-based company that has been making bespoke plastic parts for business-to-business applications for decades. Signature Plastics committed itself to the mechanical keyboard trend early on and launched a direct sales site called Pimp My Keyboard. In addition to their own regularly produced sets and keys, Signature Plastics also takes small batch orders of group purchases and works with independent designers to produce the orders and ship them to the group purchase organizer for distribution.
The difference in scale for series products and a group order of just a few dozen units is massive. It takes a long time and it costs a ton of money to get started, not to mention the profit margins. Speaking of what ...
Multiple profit margins add up
Signature Plastics and the small group of suppliers who also work with custom designers are not charities. They build profit margins for their business, and because the services they offer are so specialized, they can increase those profits significantly. (Signature Plastics even has unique keycap profiles not found anywhere else, like the DSA and G20.)
Now consider that so are the keycap designers, hoping to make some money off of their product, and of course the time and effort they put into the group buying campaign. Now add some costs for protective packaging and shipping, shipping the materials themselves, and other costs if the group purchase uses a service like Massdrop (and so on). Once you break away from the established manufacturing and retail chains, costs and profits quickly add up.
In a nutshell, even products with conventionally small amounts at finite cost can become expensive on a small scale, and adding some required profit to all of the moving parts makes even the smallest step in the chain expensive. When you add in rewards from particularly successful designers (in connection with the small niche of custom keycaps, anyway), some sets can reach prices in excess of $ 200.
What about craftsmen?
Artisan keycaps are insane to say the least. These individual keycaps, usually designed in a standard 1 × 1 size, are handcrafted by sculptors, often from exotic materials and mixed media. Some of these are simple and elegant, but the more elaborate examples have more to do with bespoke gaming miniatures than anything you see on a traditional keyboard.
Artisanal keycaps are often so elaborate that they have to be manufactured individually, and their entire production can only consist of a few hundred individual pieces. They are the status symbols of the custom keyboard world, rarely approach anything practical and sometimes actively impair the ergonomics of the keyboard. But it doesn't matter to the fans of these ultra-niche pieces. It's like an individual hood ornament or a unique piece of jewelry. Geekier only.
Artisanal keycaps are of course expensive. One-off pieces cost anywhere from $ 20 to $ 30, often up to $ 50, and $ 70 or $ 80 is not uncommon for well-known limited edition designers. If you're looking for an increased adjustment factor (and a quick path to debt), you could make it worse.
Secondary markets drive prices up
Conventional wisdom has it that used goods sell for lower prices. This does not necessarily apply to keyboard shortcuts. While standard keyboards and keycaps actually get cheaper when buying used devices, the small numbers of custom devices and the extremely social aspect of the entire hobby mean that coveted devices are actually offered More expensive as time goes by.
Because keycap designers rarely return manufacturers for new batches, whoever discovers a cool set on Reddit or Geekhack has no choice but to buy used ones. Supply and demand come into effect: with a limited number of homes, there are fewer and fewer available on the secondary market and prices go up and up. Popular limited edition sets like Carbon or Overcast can cost much, much more than their original price.
How to find the best prices
The best way to get a reasonable price for a desirable keycap set is to join the original group purchase. Chances are that these keycaps will only get more expensive if you can find them later. New editions are rare, but not rare.
The online hubs of the keycap community are the MechanicalKeyboards subreddit and the GeekHack forum. New sets that are available for purchase are usually posted there well in advance of the actual purchases. Alternatively, keep an eye on Massdrop or your favorite designer's custom website for changes.
MechMarket is a good place to look for secondary ones, even if this is the case, you're unlikely to find great deals in such a well-traveled community. Sets and artisans sometimes show up on eBay for a little less.
If you're willing to settle for inferior plastic or poorer legends, imitations are plentiful on eBay and markets like Ali Express. They don't have the same stamp of approval as the originals, but hey, this is about molded plastic. Alternatively, there are some services that allow you to choose your own color combinations, design your own legends, and then upload the file to order a completely unique set. These options can be found under MaxKeyboard and WASD Keyboards. Note that less common layouts generally need to add individual key orders for full compatibility.
Image source: Massdrop, Amazon, Mito RMK, Signature Plastics, Keypress Graphics, Roddenberry Shop
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