You probably put a ton of thought into which switches you use in your mechanical keyboard, but have you given much thought to the keycaps themselves? There’s a good chance your keyboard uses ABS plastic, but that’s not the only option. In fact, you might be better suited by a set of more durable PBT keycaps instead.
Most off-the-shelf keyboards use Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic for their keycaps, which isn’t necessarily bad—but they can vary pretty widely in quality. Cheaper keyboards will use thinner, cheaper materials, with pad-printed legends that fade quickly, while pricier keyboards may use thicker, more durable ABS plastic. But there’s one particular quality that most ABS keycaps share: they wear down and get shiny very, very quickly. If you’re a heavy typist, you’ve probably noticed this phenomenon before, and it can make your keyboard look pretty gross.
Polybutylene terephthalate (PBT) keycaps, on the other hand, are more durable than standard fare ABS, and it takes them much longer to wear down and shine. They’re often textured—though not always—leading to a less smooth, slippery feel, and they produce a lower-pitched “thock” when typing, which a lot of keyboard enthusiasts prefer. PBT does have a few downsides to ABS—it’s harder to make doubleshot PBT keycaps, so they’re rarer, and thus have a bit less variety in colors and designs. PBT also shrinks as it cools, so some larger keys can sometimes warp during the manufacturing process, though I’ve yet to notice this myself. Despite these few drawbacks, many prefer PBT keycaps for their longevity and feel.
PBT keycaps often have a subtle texture to the surface.Photo: Whitson Gordon
Don’t mistake the lack of shine for a lack of dirt and grime, though—they’ll still build up some filth if you don’t clean them occasionally—but it’s much harder to see it, which to me is huge. With ABS keycaps, I feel like they’re never truly clean because I can see every tiny fingerprint, even after washing my hands.
PBT keycaps do tend to be more expensive than their ABS counterparts, but there are plenty of affordable options. You just need to make sure your keyboard uses a standard layout before you go swapping keycaps—some gaming keyboards use enlarged Alt and Ctrl keys in the bottom row, meaning third-party keycap sets won’t fit properly.
Vortex (also known as iKBC) is known for well-made affordable PBT keycaps—particularly their $30 double-shot backlit set, which comes in black (shown above) and white, and is perfect for the RGB keyboard in your life. I’ve personally used two sets of these on boards over the years, and while my most recent set came with a few quirks in the legends on the function keys, my first set was pristine, and Amazon reviews are quite solid.
An inexpensive, generic set of side-printed PBT keycaps. (Autobot keycap not included.)Photo: Whitson Gordon
NPKC also sells lots of sets on Amazon, from $30 blank sets in multiple colors to a pink-and-teal “Miami” color scheme, a black and grey dolch-themed scheme, and a variety of gradients at $50. Other popular patterns include this orange-and-beige Carbon set, this backlit “pudding” set, and its non-backlit brethren in a variety of colors. While similarly priced to Vortex’s sets at around $30, some of these more off-brand sets can be a bit thinner and cheaper feeling. But I’ve found that even cheap PBT keycaps—like this $30 teal and grey set I own, pictured above—feel better to me than many of the cheap ABS caps that come on certain boards. They aren’t as nice as the nicest ABS sets out there, but they’re decent.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. Plenty of the most popular PBT keycaps aren’t easy to buy at just any retailer—you usually need to wait for a group buy on a site like Massdrop, which rotates through sets like Tai-Hao’s pink-and-teal Miami set, Tai-Hao’s Hawaii set, Galaxy-themed sets, and plenty of others. If you fall in love with a set that isn’t easy to find, you may have to wait for it to pop up on one of these sites, or get lucky with an Amazon listing from a third-party seller. Give one of the affordable Amazon sets a try to see if you like the feel before you stress over the hard-to-find unicorns—I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.