Why are custom keycaps so costly?
Prepare your pocketbook for some big knocks if you decide to dive into the mechanical keyboard pastime. Aside from the hardware, the customized keycap sets that you add to the mechanical switches might be prohibitively costly. But why is this so?
To be honest, the materials used in all custom keycaps aren’t particularly expensive, and there are lots of low-cost choices available. However, due to limited production capacity, a thriving secondary market, and the somewhat esoteric nature of personalized keycaps, growing your collection is likely to come at a high cost.
There Are Low-Cost Options Available
To begin with, the materials used to make keycaps are not costly. For screaming out loud, they’re molded plastic, not rare earth metals. The polymers used for keycaps vary a surprising lot, as do their production techniques, forms, and textual legends. But the basic hardware is, well, plastic.
If you’re on a tight budget, there are a few choices due to the expanding community of mechanical keyboard aficionados. Scanning online websites, you’ll find lots of alternatives for less than $30, such as this full-size set of doubleshot, backlight-friendly keycaps in the popular PBT plastic for for $18. My point is that if you need a new set of keys but are short on funds, there are at least a couple choices available.
However, as the saying goes, you get what you paid for. These sets are mass-produced and of low quality; here are the poorly printed legends on the Dolch set after a few months of hard typing.
Of course, inexpensive setups won’t get you the beautiful color schemes and personalized legends that decorate all those fabulously nerdy posts in the mechanical keyboard subreddit. You’ll have to pay for those.
There are just a few manufacturers who make custom keycaps
The inexpensive keycaps are all from manufacturers in China and other industrial hubs . And they aren’t interested in speaking with you unless you purchase thousand pieces.
Small batch sizes eliminate the economies of scale found in nearly all retail items. Because the sets must be developed and manufactured using bespoke equipment, the price rises. Custom sets may also feature costly production processes such as double-shot legends or dye sublimation. Only a few plastic producers have the necessary of molding and printing technology or any interest in small, bespoke quantities. This is especially true for non-standard items such as keycap sets for ortholinear designs, split designs such as the Ergodox, or uncommon layouts such as 40 percent keyboards.
Signature Plastics, a tiny Washington-based firm that has been producing bespoke plastic components for B2B applications for decades. This manufacture is the most famous manufacturer in this sector. This manufacture was among the first to capitalize on the mechanical keyboard craze, creating a direct sale site called Pimp My Keyboard. Signature Plastics takes small batch orders from group buys in addition to its own regularly-produced sets and keys, partnering with independent designers to create the orders and distribute them to the group buy organizer for distribution.
The scale gap between mass-produced sets and a group order of a few dozen items is enormous. It takes a long time and a lot of extra money to get started, not to mention the profit margins. And speaking of which…
Profit margins from several sources add up
Signature Plastics and the limited number of suppliers that also deal with bespoke designers are not non-profit organizations. They plan for profit margins in their operations. And because the services they provide are so specialized, they may significantly increase those profits. (Signature Plastics even offers whole unique keycap profiles that are not available anywhere else, such as DSA and G20.)
Consider that the keycap designers are also expecting to profit from their product, not to mention the time and effort they put into the group buy campaign. Now include in the cost of protective packing and delivery, as well as shipping for the items themselves, plus any additional expenses if the group buy makes use of a service like Massdrop (and on and on). Costs and revenues tend to mount up rapidly if you break away from the well-established production and retail networks.
To put it plainly, even items with traditionally tiny quantities of finite expenses may become costly at small sizes. And adding a little of essential profit for all the moving parts raises the price of even the smallest step in the chain. When premiums from very successful designers are included (in the context of the tiny bespoke keycap niche, at least), some sets can cost well over $200.
What About the Artisan keycaps?
To put it plainly, artisan keycaps are crazy. These single keycaps, which are typically created in a conventional 11 size. Besides, they are handcrafted by sculptors using unusual materials and combined media. Some are basic and elegant, but the most intricate ones seem more like custom-made game miniatures.
Artisan keycaps are frequently so intricate that they must be manufactured one at a time, with a total manufacturing run of only a few hundred unique pieces. They are the status symbols of the custom keyboard world, rarely reaching anything useful and occasionally actually detracting from the ergonomics of the keyboard itself. But it doesn’t matter to the collectors of these ultra-rare artifacts. It’s similar to a one-of-a-kind hood ornament or a one-of-a-kind piece of jewelry. Only nerdier.
Naturally, handmade keycaps are not cheap. Individual pieces start at twenty or thirty dollars, frequently reach up to fifty dollars, and seventy or eighty dollars is not unheard of from prominent designers in limited editions. You couldn’t do much worse if you want more personalization (and a quick way to fall into debt).
Secondary markets raise prices
According to conventional knowledge, worn items sell for less money. That isn’t always the case with keycaps. Conventional keyboards and stock keycaps do get cheaper when purchased secondhand. In the other side, the small batch nature of custom sets, as well as the highly social nature of the pastime as a whole, means that sought-after sets actually get more costly with time.
How to Get the Best Deals
Joining the initial group buy is the greatest method to obtain a good deal on a coveted keycap set. The chances are that if you do locate such keycaps later, they will be more costly. Reissues are uncommon, but not unheard of.
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