Keycaps can be anything you want them to be, and the possibilities for customization are practically endless. Still, purchasing keycaps can be very expensive, especially considering they’re collectibles. However, if you have a 3D printer, you can make quality keycaps at home — but are they any good?
3D printed keycaps can be good if you make them using proper materials and ensure their design snuggly fits your keyboard. By ensuring that the keycaps don’t have layer lines or flaws, you can prevent them from sliding off or cracking, resulting in long-lasting, durable printed keycaps.
Let’s discuss 3D printed keycaps and how you can make your own at home. I’ll tell you about the benefits and drawbacks of 3D printed keycaps and teach you about the best materials and steps to use when making your own custom caps at home.
Pros and Cons of 3D Printed Keycaps
3D printed keycaps allow you to make anything you want at home, but they do have some limitations.
So, let’s look at the pros and cons of using 3D printed custom keycaps:
- You can customize and design the keycaps anyhow you like.
- You can choose the color and transparency of your caps to match your keyboard.
- 3D printed keycaps are usually ¼ the price of artisan keycaps.
- You can use 3D-printed keycaps to make molds for more complex reproductions.
- It can be tricky to get the dimensions right the first time.
- Many filaments may feel light and less satisfying to use.
- They may be less durable.
- It takes a lot of time and precision to get the model right.
- They’re less versatile than those made using resin casting methods.
What’s the Best Material for 3D Printing Keycaps?
When making your own keycaps, it’s essential to choose your materials carefully to ensure that your keycaps will last, be easy to use, fit your keyboard, and have that satisfying, bouncy click when you press them.
The best material for 3D printing keycaps is resin. Resin is smoother and more durable than a filament. However, FDM, PLA, wood, ceramic, and aluminum filaments are acceptable options for printing keycaps.
When designing and printing a keycap, you must consider the amount of stress your cap will be under and how much comfort you want when using your keyboard.
Keycaps made with flexible and brittle filaments have a higher chance of cracking or sliding off the switches when you put pressure on them. So, avoid flexible filaments such as TPE when printing custom keycaps.
In addition, 3D printed objects have layer lines and points of contact from support structures. The thin lines could make your key far less comfortable to use, and they could also make the connection between your cap and your keyboard weaker.
So, when choosing a filament or material, you need:
- A material that can withstand hard wear for long periods
- Sandability or a naturally smooth finish
- Little to no flexibility
These criteria are met by resin and filaments such as FDM, PLA, PLA plus wood, ceramic, and aluminum. In addition, these filaments can give your keycaps that signature and desirable “click” when you press on them.
In addition, ABS is a suitable material for keycaps, especially considering that most mass-manufactured keycaps are made out of ABS. Still, home-printed ABS is a bit more flexible than FDM and the others, so it’s best to print thicker with ABS and sand out the difference if you choose to work with it.
I must also mention that you mustn’t use a filament that contains iron or bronze powder when printing keycaps. These metals conduct electricity, and they can shock you if you use them for your keyboard. So, never opt for iron or bronze-infused filament.
How Can I 3D Print Keycaps?
Overall 3D printing keycaps is simple if you ensure that everything will fit. Keycaps are small and intricate, especially when you incorporate other models and designs into them, so paying attention to detail is crucial.
You can 3D print keycaps by recreating your basic keycap to scale, then design another layer that includes your custom design. Before printing, you’ll have to merge the design with the cap and create support structures for the underside.
Before adding the fun parts to your keycap, it’s essential to ensure that you have the modeled basic keycap shape for your keyboard in your CAD software.
Luckily, there are tons of free pre-modeled keycap designs, from simple to elaborate, available on websites such as Thingiverse (follow the link to run a search query).
These pre-made templates make designing your keycap simple since they’re already to-scale and have an accurate underside that’ll easily snap onto a keyboard switch. Just be sure that you measure your keycaps and check the size of your model since the size can be altered when you download and open a pre-made file with any CAD software.
After you have your basic keycap shape, it’s time for the fun part. You can add anything you want to the top of your keycap by adding a second model to your design. Once you have your basic cap and fund design done, merge them.
Then, add some scaffolding to the small stem in the bottom of the cap to ensure that it prints successfully.
Once you’re happy with your model, print away. As I mentioned, resin is usually the preferred keycap material. Still, if you’re using a filament, you may want to use a cooling fan to reduce the appearance of layer lines.
Once your cap has been printed, clip off the support structures and remove them with tweezers or a pick. Then, sand down any areas with artifacts or layer lines for a smooth, stunning finish.
If you’re using resin, dip it in some isopropyl alcohol to cure the material and wait about ten minutes.
Once your keycap looks right, snap on your keycap (hopefully it fits!) and give it a test run.
If you’re a visual learner and want to see an example of what you can do with 3D printed keycaps, check out this YouTube video from Adafruit industries:
3D printed keycaps are fantastic since they’re cheap to make, and you can create your own custom designs to match your keyboard and your sense of style. Still, you’ll have to use the proper materials and do a bit of modeling to ensure that the keycap comes out just right.
Overall, the freedom you have to create the keycaps of your dreams is worth it.