How I Spent $700 Building a ‘Life Aquatic’ Mechanical Keyboard

Mechanical keyboards are growing ever more popular. In the scant few years since I built my first custom board (the WhiteFox), a huge number of gamers, programmers, and other input enthusiasts have gotten into mechs. That’s great for the community, but not so great for prices or shipping times. I recently waited about a year and a half for my Life Aquatic project to come together, and the total cost was around $700. I know what you’re thinking: “How? Why? Are you crazy?” Allow me to explain. 

It’s a Waiting Game

The high-end mechanical keyboard community relies mostly on group purchases. It’s a bit like pre-ordering a game, but the thing you’re buying doesn’t even exist yet. Your money just secures you a manufacturing slot because there isn’t enough demand (or capacity in the case of keycaps) to produce these products continuously at scale. That means long wait times. Sometimes group buys are run by companies like Drop, and other times it’s a small collective of keyboard nerds on a message board. No matter who’s doing it, delays are common and getting worse as more people get sucked into this hobby. As an example, if you ordered the GMK keyset I used in this build right now, you would be lucky to get it in early 2023.  

I have a lot of keyboards in my collection—more than anyone needs. These days, I only undertake a new build when I think I can do something special. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a movie that I like quite a lot, and a major component of my affinity is the delightful design and colors. So, when Drop launched the GMK Belafonte keyset in spring 2020, I jumped on it. GMK is a German company that bought the original keycap tooling from Cherry Corp. some years back, and they still use it to make Cherry profile keycaps. In my opinion, these are the finest keycaps money can buy thanks to the thick ABS plastic, sharp double-shot legends, and fantastic colorways, but the cost and wait times are getting wild. This keyset shipped a year after the group buy opened on Drop, and that’s without any delays — a year would be a mercifully short wait if you ordered one now. The manufacturing queue is no joke. 

The Belafonte colorway is so distinct, it felt wrong to slap it on a boring black or silver board.  I needed to hunt for something special, maybe a little over-the-top, and I didn’t have to look for long. Shortly after the keyset launched, I spotted the Decent65 group buy. It was available with a light blue cerakote (ceramic coating) over an aluminum chassis, which seemed preferable to anodizing or paint due to the unique look and high-quality finish, which I felt would be a great match for the keycaps. The board was supposed to ship before the keycaps, but well, it didn’t. Unfortunately, the estimated dates are rarely accurate for custom keyboards. A lot of components have to come together before the board is ready, and no amount of complaining to the seller will make a CNC machine in China work any faster. It was about 18 months from purchase to delivery. 

The rest of the parts like stabilizers (the wires that go under long keys) and switches were comparatively easy to find in stock at specialty mech retailers. I used genuine GMK PCB-mount stabilizers, and the switches are Kailh Box Pinks, which are a light but loud clicky switch. That seemed most appropriate given the nature of the project. 

An Expensive Waiting Game

This is an expensive hobby, and it’s getting even more spendy as time goes on. The keyset that set me on this project started at $155, but that was only the base kit, which includes the alphas, mods, and other keys you’d need for a standard keyboard layout. I wanted all the fun novelty keycaps and some additional spacebar options, and that pushed the price to an even $200. Yes, two Benjamins for keycaps, but this is a buy-it-for-life kind of situation, so the expenditure isn’t that outrageous. There are original Cherry Corp. keycaps still in use today that are decades old, and I have enough kits to cover almost any other keyboards I might want to outfit with these caps in the future. 

The keyboard kit (the case, plate, PCB, screws, and other minor parts) was the largest single expense at $430, tax and shipping included. I wish I could say that’s an unusual amount of money for a keyboard kit, but it’s only a little higher than average for limited-run boards. The Decent65 is missing some features compared to boards that have launched in 2021 but 2020 was a different time, and baby blue cerakote is not a common finish on cheaper boards. 

The switches were easier to acquire. I just had to wait a few weeks for them to be in stock as they are moderately rare. You’ll never find Box Pinks in a retail board, but a bag of 70 only costs about $45. The remainder of the budget went to stabilizers (about $12), a new spool of solder, PTFE lubricant, and other odds and ends. 

The Culmination

After dropping seven bills and waiting over a year, I finally had what I needed to put it all together. As I mentioned, the Decent65 is missing some of the nice-to-have features of boards that have gone on sale in the last year. For example, you can’t hotswap switches, so each switch needs to be soldered to the PCB. There are no LEDs, no silencing foam, and no gasket mounting. It’s just a plain old top-mount case made from a chunk of aluminum. 

The PCB from the back, partially soldered. Also visible: the screws holding the backspace and enter stabilizers in place.

The first step, as always, is to test the PCB. This is not optional when you’re working with a soldered keyboard. Desoldering because you found a defect when the build is complete will ruin your day — possibly several days because desoldering takes much longer. After verifying the PCB worked by poking it with tweezers, I installed the stabilizers to keep longer keys like space and shift aligned. This always needs to happen before soldering. Otherwise, you have to desolder the board and start over. I also did what’s known as the Band-Aid mod: thin strips of fabric Band-Aids go under the stabilizers to reduce noise from the plastic hitting the PCB. 

Assembly was surprisingly uneventful. With its simple design, the biggest time-suck was the 130-ish solder points for the switches. Then, I had to use about a dozen screws, mostly to attach the plate to the top case, and the board was done. Finally, it was time for the fun part — installing the keycaps. Thankfully, they were every bit as fantastic as I’d hoped. I was happy with the sound, too. There’s no rattle or pinging from the case/plate. It’s just the sharp, piercing rapid-fire click of those switches (see the typing test below). 

It’s hard to color match these things. You’re lucky to get some Pantone codes in the case of keysets, but keyboard housings are another story. Most of them won’t be manufactured for months after you order, and the final product can look quite unlike what you expected due to the inherent variables introduced by the finishing process. That said, I can usually get pretty close in terms of matching the colors of the keys and the case. With this board, I had hoped for a closer match to the lighter alpha keycaps, but the cerakote shades a bit more “tiffany.” That said, I think it’s a good backdrop to show off the Belafonte caps. 

This is a very loud keyboard. While I usually prefer quieter tactile switches, I went clicky this time because, as I mentioned earlier, it felt like it was a good match for the “loud” aesthetics. Plus, there’s no silencing material inside the Decent65, so if it’s not going to be easily silenced, I figured I might as well make it loud. And boy, is it.

Now for the question that’s probably on your mind; is it worth $700? Technically, yes. The value of all the parts has gone up since I ordered them, so all together, it’s probably worth closer to a grand if I sold it to another huge keyboard nerd. I’m not going to do that, though, because I love it. 

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