For example, a designer will release concept art for a part, such as a set of keycaps (the plastic cover that sits on each key). Interested enthusiasts can pre-order it and the production process can start with sufficient payment.
This aligns the hobby with “hypebeast” interests like customizing cars or collecting sneakers, in which product runs are limited, sell out quickly and can hit the resale market for thousands more than their retail price. Because of this “group buy” model, consumers can wait more than a year to receive just one part of their keyboard, and often several years before they can even use their build.
Enthusiasts often have three or more different keyboards.
“If I don’t feel a board on a particular day, I can just switch to get a completely different experience. And I think that’s part of the beauty of mechanical keyboards,” says Lu.
“I have a board that is made of plastic, it has a muffler in it. That’s the one I take out so as not to annoy people in the library.”
The hyper-personalized nature of each keyboard makes the hobby particularly conducive to community building. “How someone builds their keyboards says a lot about them. And from there you get to know people better’, says Lu.
The community organizes face-to-face meetings to showcase their builds. Participants wear gloves when handling each other’s boards to avoid leaving an unwanted shine on the keys, and talk admiringly about the time and effort put into each build.
Anson Qiu says that compared to other hype-based hobbies, the keyboard community is “a lot more welcoming and open… When you go to gatherings, nobody discriminates against you for anything”.
Keyboard veteran Xuan Li says the scene used to be dominated by men and programmers, but now “people from all walks of life come to the hobby because you can’t really walk around without using a keyboard these days”.
Contrary to popular belief, many keyboard enthusiasts also appreciate less expensive builds.
“You can have a wonderful typing experience and a good profile with a cheap board,” says Jack Walsh.
But the hobby is not without controversy.
As interest grew, the group buying model was unable to keep up with demand.
That’s why manufacturers from China have started stealing and reproducing designs from small artists. Their counterfeit and poor quality products often appear on retail sites for a tenth of the price of the original.
One particularly popular set, GMK Nautilus, featured deep blue keys with bright yellow accents and water motifs. Customers could pre-order the original set for $286, but before the manufacturer even started production, counterfeit versions appeared on AliExpress for $27.
Zambumon, the set designer and prominent keycap artist, said: The Sydney Morning Herald and The age the counterfeit market undermined designers.
“I enjoy doing everything from designing the kits, preparing the product visualisations, getting quotes from manufacturers, setting up the cost statement spreadsheets… it’s also my responsibility to make sure the 3D renderings match,” says Zambumon.
“I’m proud of the work I do, so it hurts when the product gets cloned and someone else piggybacks on all that work.”
However, some find it hard to condemn because cloning offers a cheap alternative for beginners and can make a prohibitively expensive hobby more accessible.
“It’s quite literal intellectual property theft, but the point is they offer such a discounted price and an option in stock,” says Qiu. “Personally, I think it’s pretty wrong, but it’s hard to blame them when there’s such a limited product.”
Pham is also the designer of the popular pastel set GMK Noel, and while he understands why many hate cloning, he is largely impartial about fakes of his designs.
“My primary goal was never to make money. It was to create designs that people would like, and frankly, if there’s a product that makes design more accessible to people, go for it.”
Some enthusiasts believe counterfeits are a response to the time-consuming and expensive nature of group buying. So Australian suppliers are rethinking the way they sell components.
Ryan Castillo and Eric Song, of Sydney-based supplier Keyboard Treehouse, work directly with manufacturers to bypass group buying by prioritizing production-ready products.
“When this hobby was young, the group buying model was necessary because there weren’t enough people,” Eric says. “But now the hobby has grown to a point where you can reach the minimum order quantity and sell items in stock.”
They establish one of the first Australian brick and mortar stores for custom keyboard parts to make it easier for newbies and seasoned hobbyists to create their perfect build.
“A keyboard is really how many of us interact with the world these days. You don’t touch your computer, you touch your keyboard,” says Walsh. “So why not make it as good as possible?”