On Saturday, August 12th, I took a trip to Birmingham to investigate the wonderful world of mechanical keyboards. And when I say mechanical keyboards, I don’t just mean a run of the mill Razer or Corsair gaming board that you bought from Amazon – I went to look at some seriously high-end stuff from a community where having a custom-built board is the standard and it is not uncommon to spend thousands of pounds on the hobby.
I’ll admit, despite reviewing plenty of ‘off-the-shelf’ mechanical keyboards for KitGuru these past few years, I’ve only recently begun to explore the realm of proper custom boards, and some of the things I saw at the r/MechanicalKeyboardsUK event were truly mind-blowing.
With that in mind, I set out to try and answer two questions – how do people get into this very niche market segment, and why are they not content with standard mechanical keyboards that are widely available online?
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To answer the first of these questions, I first spoke to a young chap named Ian from Greenwich. He told me his first mechanical keyboard (affectionately known as ‘keebs’ in the community) was a Corsair K70 with MX Red switches, but he quickly decided to experiment with other switches. That, he says, is how he ‘fell down the rabbit hole’ and started looking into custom keycaps, artisan caps and even replacing a keyboard’s pre-installed switches. Ian tells me, over the past three years since he got into keebs, he has likely spent over a thousand pounds on the hobby.
And, in all honestly, that story is typical of how most folks got into the high-end mechanical keyboard segment. Many of those I spoke to started with a gaming board and began to tinker and wanted to customise the board to a level which off-the-shelf keebs simply don’t allow. For that reason, those more ‘average’ boards are referred to as ‘gateway drugs’ as they act as entry points to the really high-end stuff.
The niche keyboard market isn’t all about the most expensive components, however – though that is definitely part of it! I spoke with with Matt from Mechbox, an e-tailer which sells a variety of smaller ‘bits and bobs’, like individual caps or switches for people to try out. Matt reckons his average order is only £12, and that includes multiple items, suggesting at least some of the niche keyboard market isn’t all about the most high-end hardware, but more about having a truly personalised product.
That also goes some way to answering the second of my questions, as many punters I chatted with explained that buying custom keycap sets, as well as obscure mechanical switches from the likes of Zeal PC and Gateron, allows them to really create something very personal – a trait which is lacking when you buy an off-the-shelf Razer BlackWidow, for instance.
The reasons why people go for the high-end custom boards are a bit more varied than how these folks got into the market, though. As we’ve seen, creating something personal is one reason. However, many others told me how they are constantly looking to get the best ‘feeling’ board, suggesting the hobby is also somewhat practical – even if that search for the ultimate switch/keycap/chassis combo ends up costing thousands of pounds. To illustrate this, I was shown a TX-87 board – a TKL keeb, it must’ve weighed at least 2KG due to the immaculate aluminium and steel construction. Part of a limited run, and manufactured by the esteemed Kin25, buyers would’ve had to stump up $300 for one, and those boards now fetch up to $900 in the used market.
Other than that, and most interesting for me, is the fact that some people simply collect artisan caps and custom boards as a hobby, like some folks might collect vintage action figures or model trains. From what I heard, this is where the megabucks are really spent – stories were shared of some folks being offered $300 for a single artisan cap which wouldn’t even be used on a board – it is just for show.
In sum, the niche mechanical keyboard segment is a really interesting community to be a part of – new switches, cases and caps are constantly coming out designed to cater to one group or another, and the quest for the ultimate personalised board seems never-ending.
It is certainly an expensive business when you do ‘fall down the rabbit hole’, but the folks I met admit that is just part-and-parcel of the hobby – if you are looking for a one-of-a-kind product, then you have to be prepared to pay. Personally speaking, I’m not too sure I’d ever want to spend hundreds of pounds on a mechanical keyboard – I’m perfectly happy with my Cooler MasterKeys Pro S – but now I certainly want to tinker a bit more, perhaps by getting in some custom caps or even de-soldering some switches. Maybe that’ll be the beginning of my rabbit hole…
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