Guide: soldering a mechanical keyboard

12. Hotswap Hotswap means you are able to remove switches from your keyboard without the need of soldering or desoldering, making it a plug-and-play modular process. While not without its negatives, hotswap adds a number of conveniences for the modification process. When removing switches from your keyboard, it is much like removing switches from a de-soldered board. All you need is a handy switch puller. When re-inserting switches, it is often recommended to support the hotswap sockets from behind to prevent any bent pins from popping the socket, ripping the conductive trace and leaving your board in need of repair. When inserting your switches, make sure the metal pins on the underside are straight, and that the switch is in the proper orientation. Different hotswap sockets Not all hotswap sockets are created equal. There exist multiple types of hotswap sockets available, both on pre-built keyboards as well as aftermarket modification. The Gateron and Kailh-style hotswap sockets are the most common type, located on the bottom surface of a PCB, soldered directly to conductive pads. Kailh-style hotswap sockets are rated at up to 100 hotswap cycles before failure, and are compatible with all MX-style switches. Kailh sockets can only be installed if the PCB has the space and required pads. Outemu-style hotswap sockets are also found on many budget-oriented hotswap boards, but are only compatible with a small selection of switches due to the difference in pin sizes. Switches that don’t fit in Outemu sockets can be modified by trimming or shaving down the pins with a diamond-file or handheld rotary sander. Mill-Max sockets and Holtites are small metal sleeves that fit within a PCB’s switch socket holes, and must be soldered-in to maintain a solid, strong connection. Mill-Max sockets are rated at 1000 hotswap cycles before failure. Mill Max sockets come in many shapes and sizes, but the most common and recommended ones are 0305 long tin sockets, 7305 short gold sockets, and the newer 3305 which have short tops but long bottoms. Mill-Max sockets are typically not pre-installed in consumer-oriented hotswap boards, and must usually be installed yourself. 13. Maintaining your switches Mechanical switches don’t malfunction a great deal in their basic form. With daily extensive use, a switch will typically not fail…unless it does. When a switch does fail, it tends to be an issue with the contact-leaf. Though a switch is rated to last for tens of millions of keystrokes before failure, things happen, especially if you’re stressing them with games like OSU, mashing in a blind rage, or spilling food and drinks all over your board. Especially when we introduce things like hotswapping and modification, there are a few things to watch out for. Make sure the pins are straight! Before inserting into a switch into your hotswap socket, make sure that the metal pins are straightened. Align your switch before pushing down, and remember not to use excessive force. Bent and misaligned pins will lead to an unusable switch or even worse – a ripped hotswap socket and broken pcb. Don’t bend the leaf! When re-assembling your switches after lubing or modding, make sure the top housing and stem are in the correct orientation, or you may risk damaging or destroying your contact leaf, making your switch unusable without repair. Be careful of flying springs! When removing switch tops, some springs may be extra loaded, and will pop out of the switch if you aren’t careful. Trying to find a lost spring may put a damper on your modding plans. Don’t overlube the leaf. Adding too much lubricant to the leaf may cause your contacts to lose conductivity. This will prevent your switch from completing the circuit and actuating, making your keypresses useless until the lubricant is removed. Don’t pull too hard! When removing your switches from a hotswap board, sometimes the plate will be extremely tight. Using excessive force to pull on these switches may cause irreparable damage to your switches, including completely broken switch tops. 14. Tools + Accessories Tools You Might Need: Keycap Puller – If you want access to your switches in a built keyboard, you will first need to remove the keycaps. Plastic ring-type pullers are common but less than ideal for a full board and may damage your keycaps. Wire keycap pullers with a handle are more ergonomic, and will allow you to remove your caps more easily and efficiently. Switch Puller – In order to remove your switches, two retention tabs must first be pinched in order to release the switch from your plate. Small metal pullers are common, but may not provide the leverage you need to remove a switch from tighter plates. Larger dedicated switch pullers will make removeing switches more easy and comfortbale, and specialized pullers like the Gateron switch puller makes the process even quicker and easier. Switch Opener – In order to modify your switches, you will first need to open them. Dedicated switch openers make the process less tedious than using tweezers or screwdrivers (for MX housings), and less dangerous than using a blade (for winglatch housings). Switch openers are avilable in plastic or aluminum. Plastic openers are cheaper, but Aluminum openers work better and last longer. You can even 3D print your own. I personally recommend the Kelowna/Flashquark aluminum switch openers, or any aluminum 2-in-1 Kailh + Cherry Style Opener. Lube + Modification Supplies Lube Brush – For lubing your switches and stabilizers. The most common sizes are 0 and 00 flat and round brushes, as well as makeup micro-applicators. Stem Picker – A pronged tool used for grasping switch stems. These are commonly either jeweler’s tools or 4mm “lead holder” mechanical pencils. Lube Station – A station for you to organize and set up your switch parts for lubing. Especially convenient for “assembly line” process of lubing, filming, and assembling switches, but depending on your methods may make the process a little more tedious. Lubricants – Lubricant oils and greases are used to make your switches and stabilizers feel and sound better. The most often recommended are Krytox and Tribosys from Miller-Stephenson Chemicals, but there are also many community favorites like Gazzew Loob 3G, Christo Lube, and RO-59. Different viscosities are used for different purposes. DuPont Vertrel XF – Solvent for de-lubing switches. Switch Films – Thin sheets of plastic, foam, or rubber that reduce wobble in your switch housings as well help to tune the sound and acoustics. Flush Cutter – If you need to convert your 5-pin switches into 3-pin switches, you will need a tool to do the clipping. Flush cutters are a great option that will clip the plastic cleanly. common alternatives include cuticle cutters and nail clippers. Springs – If you want to change the feeling if your switches, Springs are one of the easiest modifications to make. Springs vary in weight and Stems – Tactile and Linear stems are often sold separately in special materials like UHMWPE, HPE, and JX. They also come in varying lengths, so you can drastically change the smoothness, keyfeel, sound, and tactility with a simple stem swap. Popular choices are Gazzew stems, 415Keys UHMWPE stems, and Durock P3 stems. Other Stuff Switch Tester – If you’re a switch collector or just need a simple way to mount some switches for testing, a switch tester station is a simple solution. Typically made of thick acrylic plastic, they come in various sizes to display all your switches. Display/Storage Containers -Jars, tupperware, overpriced plastic containers, Ikea pegboard….whatever you choose, you may find that you need a solution to store and display all of your spare switches. Of course, you could always buy more keyboards to house all those switches as well. Soldering Supplies Soldering Iron – To melt your solder. You don’t need anything expensive, as long as it has an accurate temperature dial and holds temperature well. Pinecil has been a popular choice for being a lower priced “smart” soldering iron similar to TS-100 and TS-80. Desolder Pump – To suck up your melted solder. Commonly available in Blue plastic for lower-budget options. Kotto Engineer SS-02 is a higher-priced pump, but is more effective and comfortable to use with one hand. Desolder Gun – Aka the “Brrrr Gun”, a Desolder Gun is a tool for desoldering that both heats and sucks up the solder. Can be very expensive ($250 to $300 USD) but is very convenient and fast if you desolder often. Solder Wick – A flat, woven strip of copper and flux used to wick and absorb melted solder. Kester 24/ Kester 44 – A popular leaded solder, most recommended in 60-40 or 63-37 ratio of Tin to Lead. If you don’t get Kester brand, just look for a leaded solder in those ratios. Flux – A liquid, gel, paste, or solution of Rosin, applied to the PCB and solder joints for preparing and wetting/melting solder. Makes Desoldering and Drag Soldering much easier. Many quality solders already contain flux, but this is a helpful precautionary tool. Mill-Max Sockets – Sockets to convert your solder PCB into a hotswap PCB. Comes in multiple lengths. Kailh Sockets – Sockets to convert your solder PCB into hotswap PCB, or to repair an existing hotswap keyboard. “Kailh” is both the brand and the style, with similar styles being made by Gateron and TTC.