We’ve talked a lot about fancy mechanical keyboards on ExtremeTech, including Star Trek homages, travel boards, and gamepads. That’s just barely scratching the surface, though. You might think it’s crazy to spend a few hundred on building a custom keyboard, but fans of Topre switches will go to greater extremes to customize their mechanical keyboards. You can’t “build” a Topre board, so fans have taken to purchasing accessories and expensive, bespoke housings into which they transplant their keyboards. It’s a fascinating and bizarre part of keyboard culture that warrants some exploration.
What Is Topre, and Why Do People Care So Much?
Before you can hope to understand why someone would pay the better part of a grand for a keyboard case, you have to understand why people love Topre. Most of the non-mechanical keyboards you’ve used have either rubber domes or plastic “scissor” assemblies that hold the keycaps. When you press them, you have to press all the way down so the mechanism can complete a circuit. It seems, at first glance, that Topre would not be considered a mechanical switch. Instead of the flexible metal contacts and linear springs we’ve talked about in Cherry and Alps-style switches, Topre uses rubber domes.
Topre keyboards have rubber domes under the keycap connectors, but they’re much thicker than the domes on those cheap desktop keyboards. Under that, you have a conical spring sandwiched between the dome and the PCB. That spring is basically an electrode — it adds no resistance to the switch. As you depress a Topre switch, the electrical capacitance of the spring changes. When it reaches a given value, the switch actuates. When pressed, the rubber dome collapses, producing a distinctive “thock” sound.
There’s no firm definition of what constitutes a mechanical switch, but most would agree Topre counts for one important reason: It actuates before it bottoms out. That is, you don’t have to press all the way down like you would with a laptop or a cheap desktop keyboard.
All true Topre switch keyboards are either manufactured by or licensed by Japan’s Topre Corporation. There are other “electrostatic capacitive” switches on the market, all of which try to imitate Topre. However, Topre fans will tell you there’s nothing like the real thing. That means you can’t just build a Topre keyboard from scratch — you have to buy one that will undoubtedly have mediocre mass-market manufacturing quality. Still, people happily pay $200-300 for Topre Realforce and Leopold 660c keyboards just to get those switches.
Making Mass-Market Into Custom
Building a keyboard is popular in the community because you can get exactly the feel and features you want. When your favorite switch is only available in retail products, that complicates matters. Thus, the market for boutique Topre modifications.
One of the cheapest and most popular mods is to add small silencing rings to the plastic stems. A set of these only cost $20-40, but you do have to completely disassemble the keyboard. You can also get different stems that support MX-style keycaps for $30-50 if you don’t like the boring stock ones. There are ample custom MX sets, but almost no custom Topre sets.
Silencing rings are particularly common on boards that also have custom domes. Stock Topre switches are usually rated for 45-55g actuation, and you can’t just swap a spring to change the resistance like you can with MX-style switches. So, some companies manufacture small lots of stiffer “BKE” domes that add more tactility. A set of these might set you back almost $100.
If you’re keeping track, you can see how an already spendy $250 Topre keyboard can quickly become a $400 project. We haven’t even gotten to the most expensive upgrade: the housing. Yes, that boring plastic case that comes with the keyboard just won’t do, and designer Ryan Norbauer has a line of extremely fancy cases for the most popular Topre keyboards. I don’t think any other product encapsulated the almost reckless obsessive spirit of the custom keyboard community.
Norbauer has two active lines of Topre keyboard cases. There’s the Norbaforce, which fits Topre’s Realforce 87U family of keyboards. Then there’s the Heavy-6, which supports the smaller Leopold FC660C. There’s also the Norbatouch, which is for the discontinued Cooler Master Novatouch. Each one of these cases costs hundreds of dollars, and that does not include the keyboard you have to strip bare and install inside.
These cases are expensive for a few reasons, mostly because they’re not mass-produced products. In manufacturing, your cost-per-unit is usually lower the more you buy. The Norbauer cases are produced in limited numbers, often low enough to be considered a “prototype” run by most manufacturers.
Norbauer also has an admirable commitment to quality. He only sells products that he has personally inspected and approved, whereas many designers will sell “B-stock” units with minor defects at a discount. He’s also worked to get manufacturing partners in the US, which allows him to do on-site QC of the cases. That wouldn’t be feasible with manufacturing in China. Having personally joined a lot of keyboard group buys with Chinese-manufactured products, I can attest that you don’t always get exactly what you wanted.
In addition to being physically flawless, the Norbauer Topre cases I’ve used are truly beautiful, special objects. Norbauer says his goal is to create a high-end brand for keyboards. “Proper luxury goods are fundamentally about an emotional connection between the end-user and to the product’s artistic qualities, the people who made it, and the ways in which it was made,” he says.
I’m not going to tell you it’s a good idea to spend $500 to $1,000 on an admittedly gorgeous keyboard case. However, if you’re the kind of person who loves distinctive pieces of industrial design, you have to at least understand the appeal here. For those who are already deep into the custom keyboard rabbit hole, a Norbauer case is less of an “if” and more of a “when” type of purchase.
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