Finding frags: My quest to build the perfect gaming keyboard

I spend a great deal of time pecking away at a keyboard — it’s an occupational hazard. I’ve gotten quite into the custom mechanical keyboard scene as a result. A few months ago, I talked about building a WhiteFox keyboard in an attempt to attain my perfect typing experience. That board continues to be great, but it’s geared so aggressively toward typing that I felt I needed something separate for gaming. Thus, I embarked on a quest for the perfect gaming keyboard. I think I’ve gotten there.

Why would I do this?

I could, of course, go to Amazon right now and buy a gaming-oriented mechanical keyboard. Many of them cost upward of $ 150, which doesn’t seem like the best deal when you look at what you get. I don’t want to lump all gaming mechs together, but by and large, they’re not attractive devices. There’s so much shiny plastic, lighted accents, and sharp edges that I feel like I’m looking at a neon stealth fighter. The same goes for the cheap ABS keycaps — they’re not attractive.

More importantly, mainstream gaming boards don’t have the features I want. They almost always rely on desktop programs to control their features, rather than the firmware on the keyboard itself. The layouts are also only marginally customizable — the best you can hope for are some macros. I’m accustomed to having a fully programmable board after using the WhiteFox.

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C’mon, this is pretty ugly.

Full-size boards still rule in the mainstream gaming space as well, and I’m just not down with big keyboards. With full programmability, you can get away with a much smaller footprint. For example, the WhiteFox is a 65% board and it does everything a full size one can do. Even the few tenkeyless gaming boards out there are too big for my tastes.

I’ve become rather picky about switches recently too. These are the mechanical components under the keycaps that register presses. The way these are designed and built affects the feel of the board. Some gaming boards use Cherry switches, but an increasing number are using lower-cost “custom” versions of Cherry switches. More often than not, I haven’t been impressed with them.

The only option I could see that would make me happy was to build a board, so I kept an eye out for any custom kits that caught my attention. When Massdrop ran a group buy for a variant of the Red Scarf II+ ver.b, I knew that was the one. It has a 65% footprint plus a block of ten keys on the left. These are mapped to F1-F10 by default. This gives me the perfect place to access game commands without fiddling around in function layers in the middle of a game. I like having these on the left because they’re easy to reach without pushing my mouse further out. It also has a high-quality aluminum case with an acrylic bottom for built-in underglow lighting. It even has a remote control for the lights.

Planning and parts

The Red Scarf is a more difficult build than the WhiteFox in a few ways. The kit didn’t come with keycaps that struck my fancy, so I ended up ordering those separately. Because custom boards like the Red Scarf II+ have unusual layouts, some keycap sets won’t fit. Those that do sometimes look strange because having keys in different places makes the sculpting of the keys inconsistent. I got around this by going with a keyset in the DSA profile. Each key is the same shape, so it’s easy to cover a custom board. I also like the lower profile for gaming. I ended up ordering the “gaming” themed Overcast DSA set from Massdrop. They’re double-shot ABS, so the legends won’t fade over time.

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The un-assembled parts. Note the lighting remote.

I also had to decide which switches I would use for a gaming-oriented board. The reason I don’t like using my WhiteFox for games is that I chose very heavy switches that are pleasant for typing, but they’re fatiguing to hold down for long periods. I needed something lighter, but what?

Switches mostly fit into three categories: clicky, tactile, and linear. The original Cherry patents on mechanical switches expired a few years back, so there’s a lot of innovation in the switch market. I knew I needed something light, but I also like having tactile switches on a board so I could still enjoy typing on it.

Cherry MX Browns are a fit based on their specs. I’ve used them in the past, but recent batches of these switches feel more scratchy than they used to. Gateron is one of the companies that has made excellent Cherry clones, and its switches have a reputation for being very smooth. So, I decided to base this build on Gateron Brown switches. They’re fairly light with a moderate tactile bump when you press them.

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A Gateron Brown switch

Since the Red Scarf is a kit, assembly involves soldering. The small surface-mount components like LEDs, diodes, and resistors are already on the board. I was more confident with soldering this time around, having refreshed my skills with the WhiteFox. Still, the Red Scarf has a universal switch plate, making the assembly process trickier.

Putting it all together

The first step in assembling the board is to plug the switches into the plate and line them up. Because this is a universal plate, several areas don’t have dividers, You need to space the keys out so they hit the right contacts on the PCB for your chosen layout. If you solder switches into the wrong spot, you could end up unable to fit keycaps on them or program the board correctly.

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Checking switch spacing.

The best way to avoid this is to use keycaps to verify spacing, then gently set the plate with switches down on the PCB. To keep it in place as I prepared to solder the first few switches, I used a highly specialized PCB stabilizing system (also known as a rubber band). To keep the switches from shifting around, I soldered five switches right away  — one in each corner and another in the middle.

Because this PCB has built-in LED underglow, I decided not to add in-switch LEDs at this time. I could drop them in later, but I’m trying to avoid that gawdy gamer aesthetic. Too many lights would probably take it in the wrong direction. With the first few switches in place, I (carefully) plugged the PCB in and set it on a static bag to test. The first few switches and the LEDs worked, so I went through and soldered the others.

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Highly technical.

The Red Scarf uses Cherry stabilizers, which mount directly to the PCB. These clips are used on larger keys like the space bar and shift to keep the keycaps straight. Cherry stabilizers are easier to deal with if you’re swapping out keycaps compared with Costar stabilizers, like those used on the WhiteFox. However, they jiggle a little more, and are a pain to mount the first time.

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Solder points for the switches.

The last steps in getting the board assembled were screwing the case together and putting the keycaps on, which showed up several weeks after the kit. It was worth the added wait, though. They look fantastic and have really fun novelty legends. I also acquired a braided USB cable that matches the keycaps to finish off the look.

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Programming the Red Scarf is a bit more tedious than the WhiteFox. It runs the TMK firmware, so the easiest way to to build a layout on Keyboard Layout Editor and add legends to each of the keys. You can create a function layer by putting legends on the “front” of the keycaps. You can have the keys do anything you want, but for the time being I have the left 10-key block as dedicated F buttons. It’s important the layout you build matches the spacing of the board exactly, which is tricky as the Red Scarf II+ ver.b supports so many different layouts. The layout can be flashed with an online TMK tool. It took a few tries to get everything recognized, but the flash was successful.

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I’m quite pleased with the final product. The lighting is a bit goofy with the remote control, but it’s the right kind of goofy. The board itself works perfectly, and the switches are just right for gaming. They’re also acceptable for typing (for me). The total cost of the build was… significant. Let’s just say I could have gotten two Razer boards for the cost, but I wouldn’t have liked them as much.

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