Keycaps 101: Find the Perfect Set for Your Mechanical Keyboard

Keycaps 101: Find the Perfect Set for Your Mechanical Keyboard

Mechanical keyboards have taken the PC gaming community by storm. Enthusiasts have been sharing photos and videos of their latest acquisitions, attending keyboard meetups, and joining communities to stay on top of the latest trends.

For some, simply buying a mechanical keyboard isn’t enough. With so many varieties and options available, sometimes the only way to get your dream keyboard is to take the DIY approach and select your own keycaps. There are many factors to consider, but one thing is for sure: in addition to wanting your keyboard to sound and feel great, you also want it to look amazing.

Find out what type of keycaps you need

When buying keycaps, it’s crucial to ensure that the set matches your keyboard’s layout. So before diving into the rabbit hole of mechanical keycap shopping, take a minute to find out the following about your keyboard to know what to look for. Or, if you’re already familiar with your keycap basics, feel free to skip ahead to my keycap picks.

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The two most common keyboard layouts are ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and ISO (International Organization for Standardization). ANSI layouts typically have a wide rectangular Enter key, while ISO keyboards have a taller Enter key that spans two rows.

Once you’ve determined whether you have an ANSI or ISO layout, finding a matching keycap set with the same keys is usually straightforward. Common keyboard sizes usually have the same key sets, and you can use the size to help in your search:

  • 100% indicates a full-sized keyboard, complete with all QWERTY keys, function row, navigation and arrow keys, and the numpad.
  • 96% models eliminate the navigation keys but include all other keys.
  • TKL, or tenkeyless, keyboards eliminate the numpad but retain all other keys.
  • 75% squeezes the navigation and arrow keys closer and drops the numpad to save some desk space.
  • 65% is basically 75% without the function row. Instead of the usual F1, F2, etc., you use the Fn button (e.g., Fn+1 for F1).
  • 60%, or compact size, omits the function row, navigation and arrow keys, and the numpad.

When replacing your keycaps, you’ll need to snap them onto the keyboard switches for each key. Switches are not a universal shape, so you must find out what type of switch your keyboard has. Check the manufacturer’s site or search for your keyboard name and “mechanical switches.” While there are various switches, most third-party keycaps are made for Cherry MX switches.

Choosing your keycap architecture

When choosing keycaps, you’ll find various key heights and shapes. Here are the important terms:

  • Sculpted rows: If you type a lot and want to maintain a comfortable hand position, sculpted keycaps are your best bet. They vary in height from one row to another, matching the natural typing angles of your fingers for enhanced ergonomics and comfort.
  • Flat rows: Ideal for those seeking a straightforward, minimalist look, flat keycaps are the way to go. With a uniform height and surface area, they provide a consistent feel across all keys, making them perfect for your custom keyboard projects. If you appreciate a sleek, modern look, flat keycaps are for you.
  • Angled keycaps: If you want to reduce strain during prolonged typing periods, angled keycaps are slightly tilted to facilitate a more natural hand position. They offer you the best of both worlds, combining the benefits of flat and sculpted styles without the pronounced ergonomic features of fully sculpted keycaps.

You’ll also run into keycap profiles that match height and shape. One of these five common profiles should match your needs:

  • Cherry Profile: Cherry profile keycaps strike a perfect balance, offering enough height at 9.4mm to be comfortable without slowing down your keystrokes. The keys have slightly convex and angled tops arranged in sculpted rows. They’re a go-to if you want one keyboard for all tasks.
  • DSA Profile: Gamers and custom keyboard fans who crave consistency across keys will appreciate DSA profile keycaps. They are arranged in flat rows with an average height of 7.6 mm and the keys have a slightly convex top.
  • OEM Profile: If you’re looking to replicate your current keyboard experience, the OEM profile is for you. This profile is the standard choice for general computing and provides a familiar feel. The keys are flat with angled tops, and the rows are sculpted, each with an average height of 11.9mm.
  • SA Profile: If you love a retro vibe, consider the SA profile. With sculpted rows of angled, slightly concave keys averaging 16.5 mm high, it’s a choice of style over comfort and speed.
  • XDA Profile: Featuring flat rows of 9.1mm-high, slightly concave keys, the XDA profile is designed for speed and accuracy.

Keycap material choices

When shopping for keycaps, you’ll encounter specifications listing either PBT or ABS. They refer to the two common materials used in the production of keycaps.

ABS plastic is used in everything from kids’ toys to automotive parts. ABS plastic can be manufactured in a wider range of colors than PBT and has a smooth finish. Over time, ABS plastic becomes shiny. Since ABS keycaps usually have a thinner construction than PBT, they also tend to be higher pitched. PBT keycaps have a perceptibly rougher texture while typing and a matte finish that doesn’t shine over time, unlike ABS keys.

Generally, PBT keycaps are considered higher quality than ABS. However, don’t just dismiss keycaps made from ABS. You’ll find high-grade ABS used for keycap sets that cost the same or even more than PBT, and you should expect they will last a long time.

Backlighting options

If your mechanical keyboard has backlit keys, you’ll need a set of keycaps that lets the light through. There are two types, double shot and pudding, which deliver different types of backlighting. Double shot keycaps use two layers of material. The bottom layer is translucent, so it lets light out around the edges. This makes it a good choice for gamers that want the RGB lighting to shine through. Pudding keycaps have a translucent design that makes the letters, numbers, and symbols light up.

You can also opt for pudding, double shot keycaps that allow light to pass through both ways, such as this HyperX Pudding Keycap set ($24) below.

HyerpX Pudding Keycap set showing the double shot layer.

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Picking your keycap theme & colors

Choosing a keycap set is all about color matching and selecting a theme that resonates with you. When done right, it leaves an impact and can make you feel more inspired and productive.


We all have our preferences, and when it comes to color palettes, our tastes may range from monochromatic, cool, warm, and other specific tones. If you’re like me, you’ll enjoy planning your set-up. My obsession with cozy games made me look for white peripherals with pastel green touches. The Sumgsn Botanical keycap set ($32) matches what I was search for: a nature-inspired and calming design.

Sumgsn Botanical keycap set

Black and White remains the classic pick. The stark contrast between the two hues is something that minimalists would enjoy, especially with how easy it is to pair the theme with any set-up. For starters, the Mintcaps Black and White keycap set ($26, shown below) is a neat choice for those who value simplicity, while the JSJT Ink Lotus keycap set ($37) is for those who also enjoy designs inspired by Japanese culture.

JSJT Ink Lotus keycap set

Gray gives vintage vibes. Like black and white, it’s classy and timeless. The Akko Warm Gray keycap set ($34) remains one of my personal favorites because it works well in a retro set-up.

Akko Warm Gray keycap set

Pink and purple definitely scream gamer girl. It’s difficult to beat these colors if you are going for either the cute or cool mood. One of Amazon’s best sellers is the Womier Pink Cherry keycap set ($26, shown below) which showcases a pastel pink and white look. For light purple, there’s the Dagaladoo White/Purple keycap set ($20) and for dark purple, you can have the Dagaladoo Purple keycap set ($20). And if you’re looking for fun fonts and doodles there’s the Gliging Purple Rabbit keycap set ($32).

Wormier Pink Cherry keycap set

Red is something you’d pick if you want to spice things up. The DROP + Redsuns GMK Red Samurai keycap set ($115) definitely evokes the loud and bold mood that red is going for. This is an example of thick, high-quality ABS plastic that commands a high price.

DROP + Redsuns GMK Red Samurai keycap set

These are some of the most popular picks but there are lots of other colors to choose from. If you’re feeling creative, you can mix and match different sets of keycaps. Think of colors that work well together and you can have a creative piece of chaos like the Gekucap Candy Bear keycap set.

Gekucap Candy Bear keycap set


Aside from colors, picking a keycap theme can narrow down your choices. When done right, it makes a significant impact and can inspire greater productivity.

Retro, though simple, has a unique appeal. Think of typewriters, games like PacMan, and old designs of PCs. This theme is all about nostalgia. For subtle colors, consider the Mintcaps Grey Beige keycap set ($29). For some early gaming nostalgia, you can get the YMDK Gameboy keycap set (shown below, $32) that features a pixel font.

YMDK Gameboy keycap set

Japanese-inspired designs often feature elements like the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa, cherry blossoms, and Japanese characters. Good examples are the Womier Shine Through Japanese keycap set (shown below, $32) and the SDYZ Coral Sea keycap set ($23), which showcase Japanese scenery and Japanese characters.

Womier Shine Through Japanese Keycaps

Space themes draw inspiration from the cosmos – galaxies, moon and stars, planets, and the history of space flight. DROP +MiTo GMK Godspeed keycap set ($160) is one of my favorites for its minimalist take on the theme. Mind the price though. It is expensive, particularly if you also want the novelties kit (shown installed with Godspeed keycap set, $58) to complete the Apollo 11-inspired design.

DROP + MiTo GMK with novelties kit

Pop culture-inspired keycaps are a thing, too. To satisfy your fanboy or fangirl side, you can look for keycap sets inspired by your favorite movies, books, series, or anime. I know I’ve been eyeing the Monogatari-inspired TMT Story keycap set for a while now.

Custom keycaps

If you are interested in further personalizing your keyboard, look into limited-edition artisan keycaps. Usually, these are sold individually to replace a keycap or two. For example, the KXRORS Classic Retro Custom Keycap is a miniature, retro-styled computer keycap that pays tribute to the PC IBM 5150. It’s a design that computer nerds would definitely appreciate. For a more artistic approach, there is a wide range of keycaps on Amazon made of resin to choose from, featuring design like koi fish, Mt. Fuji, or galaxies.

With a mechanical keyboard, you can express your creativity, experiment, and have fun. Happy typing! (And welcome to the rabbit hole.)

[Image credit: DROP, YMDK, Gekucap, Sumgsn, Womier, Akko, JSJT]

Reign Reyes has spent the last several years covering technology, energy, and finance news and writing gadget reviews.

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