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Building My $800 RAMA Works Mechanical Keyboard

The Underground World of the MK Faithful

Christopher Coke Updated: May 7, 2020 5:55 PM Posted: Apr 29, 2020 4:00 PM
Category:
Hardware Reviews 0

My love affair with mechanical keyboards began in late 2014. I purchased the Logitech G710 and was enamored. When my former editor, the inimitable Bill Murphy, asked me to review the Roccat Ryos TKL Pro early the next year, little did he know that he would be starting me down a path more than 75 keyboards deep and lead to a collection worth upwards of $3500. Still, there was one thing I’d never done. Something keyboard forums like Geekhack and r/mechanicalkeyboards had been tempting me toward for years and that would finally make this hobby feel “real.” 

I had never built my own mechanical keyboard. It was too esoteric, too niche to cover on a site like ours. But then things changed. The mechanical keyboard market began to skyrocket. Everybody started making mechanical keyboards. Everyone wanted a mechanical keyboard. Still, there was a clear divide between the likes of Corsair and even enthusiast pre-builts like the Mistel Sleeker

Then things changed again: the Ducky One 2 Mini happened. In what seemed like a fell swoop, eSports and niche world of enthusiast mechanical keyboards collided and finally, finally the mainstream began to see the wider world of mechanical keyboards that had existed under the surface for so long. 

Or at least part of it.

Major Keyboard Communities

Welcome to the Underground

It’s been a journey, these last five years of covering the mechanical keyboard scene. But while the mainstream is only just now beginning to discover other form factors and brands, the pool goes much deeper. Take a tour of forums like Geekhack or r/mechanicalkeyboards and you’ll discover genuine communities brimming with creativity and excitement.

Mechanical keyboards are, for many of us, a genuine hobby. These forums are filled with like minded fans from different corners of the internet: gamers, writers, coders, DIY builders, and engineers. Even though there are clear lines that separate them, each group is drawn together by their appreciation of keyboards. Browse either board and you’ll quickly find discussions or switches — more than many of us probably knew existed — keycaps and their different plastics, case materials and mounting plates, and reviews of countless keyboards, both custom and pre-built. 

You’ll also find photography. Lots and lots of photography. r/mechanicalkeyboard users often joke that their subreddit has become a place to subtly flex rather than discuss and it’s easy to see why. Many of the pictures posted are from experienced builders showcasing keyboards that often cost well over $500 and, more often than not, look like they’ve been taken by professional photographers. Yet, this is certainly not the case. The quality of the shots is a reflection of meticulousness, a dedication to aesthetic. Make no mistake, a huge part of this hobby is appearances and creating something uniquely your own.

Example Keyboard PhotographyImage Credit: u/walletburner, reddit.com/r/mechanicalkeyboards sub-reddit

The mechanical keyboard community is a bristling marketplace for new ideas and keyboard designs. Every week, new Interest Checks are posted where independent designers share their designs and hope to gain support. If they do, they move on to the Group Buy phase, where users can pay up front to secure their place in limited run builds. The same is true of custom keycaps sets. Without mainstream support, the mechanical keyboard community is by necessity a self-sustaining ecosystem of designers and eager customers willing to pay large premiums for extremely rare keyboards. If you miss out, there is a very good chance that you’ll never be able to get that keyboard again without spending hundreds of dollars more. 

Even buying in from the beginning, it’s not uncommon to see start-up costs topple $400 without including switches or keycaps. Instead, these users pay the whole cost for tooling and creation of each board, and often wait months before ever laying hands on that keyboard or keycap set. The payoff, for these fans, is worth it. In the end, if all goes according to plan, they have a keyboard that is also a collector’s item, an art piece, and is entirely their own. 

And yes, usually they are far higher quality than your average pre-built keyboard. Not only are they exactly to taste for the builder, but they often feel better to type on and are made from higher quality materials. Very frequently, that also includes a heavy metal case or a polycarbonate for a weighty, high-end look and feel.

RAMA Works Logo

Enter: RAMA Works

This is where RAMA Works comes in. Based out of Australia, RAMA Works is a small team of industrial designers and artists that strike me as nothing less than the Apple of the mechanical keyboard world. They also make custom mechanical keyboard kits and accessories, but you need look no further than a single product page to note what sets them apart: at their heart, this is a team of artists that have set their focus on keyboards. I hope they stay there, because their work is elevating.

RAMA takes the fear out of investing in a custom mechanical keyboard and has earned an incredible reputation within the community. They follow a similar pre-order phase as other projects but eliminate the uncertainty about whether the designer will actually be able to follow through on their design. RAMA has the experience. They have the tools. They have the track record. In essence, RAMA blends the best parts of the enthusiast keyboard world with the reliability of buying from a major brand. Yet, as a small team, RAMA is able to be nimble. They take risks with their designs and push the envelope. They communicate with their fans and customer base. In the end, they follow through and rarely disappoint. 

As a result, it’s not a stretch to say that RAMA Works keyboards are the BMWs of the custom keyboard world. Every single one is built to the utmost high standard and every single one is a limited run collector’s item — right down to their custom keycaps sets. As a result, their boards are pricey. Their new M50-A Grid Keyboard is $300. The 65-percent Jules is $390. The new Thermal is $360. Each of those is without keycaps or switches. The KOYU, which I’ll be sharing today, starts at $360 but can go all the way to $1000 with the 9.7-pound TANK version.

When I set about doing this project, building my own custom keyboard and sharing that with you, the reader, I knew I had to reach out to RAMA to see if they would be willing to partner with us. They agreed and sent over the KOYU Haze, a beautiful gold and purple, all aluminum 65-percent keyboard kit. 

Let’s build.

Packaging

Building my $800 Custom Keyboard: the KOYU Haze

Starting off, as I’ve said, these keyboards typically do not come with switches, stabilizers, and keycaps. RAMA Works sells these separately as part of their Starter Kit bundles and independent keycap sets. RAMA was kind enough to send these along, so I would have everything I needed to get started. When I tallied up the cost, I did not include these, however, as I eventually settled on other parts to really make the KOYU my own.  

Let’s go over each part.

The Case

RAMA Works KOYU Haze Case Top

RAMA Works KOYU Haze Case Side

RAMA Works KOYU Haze Case Back

RAMA Works KOYU Haze Case Bottom

The case for the KOYU is milled from a single piece of aluminum. I was sent the Haze version, which blends a gold top plate with a gorgeous purple base. It’s also available in a variety of other colors to suit your taste. Assembled (without switches or keycaps ), the total weight is just under four pounds. Right from the get-go, however, the case has that weighty, high-end feel of many custom keyboards.

The PCB (total with case: $360)

RAMA Works Koyu PCB

RAMA Works KOYU Hotswap Switch Sockets

Next up is the PCB: the main circuit board. The PCB here is extremely clean (it’s far cleaner than any other keyboard I’ve disassembled). It supports full, per-key RGB and hot-swappable switches. That last point is especially important because it makes assembling the keyboard much simpler. With the KOYU, you simply plug the switches in where typically you would need to solder. 

Internal Dampener: ($45)

RAMA Works Internal Dampener

One of the pitfalls of using an all metal case is the dreaded “ping” sound as sound reverberates. RAMA sells an internal dampener to deaden the sound, which I included in this build. Alternatively, you could swap it out for an internal weight to add more heft. 

The Switches: Zeal PC Purple Zealios 67g ($70 - kit of 70)

ZealPC Zealios 67g Switches

For switches, I reached out to Zeal PC to see if they would sponsor this build with some of their storied Zealios switches. Zeal switches aren’t something you’ll find in any store-bought keyboard but are downright legendary in the keyboard community. Zeal makes many different types of switches — linear, tactile, silent — and are regarded are some of the absolute best you can buy.

I opted for the tactile Zealios version for this build. As a fan of Cherry MX Browns, I like a good tactile bump in my keypress. The Zealios has a much more pronounced bump than browns. By comparison, browns feel almost linear. You can buy Zeal switches in different weights, too, to custom match to exactly your preference. I opted for the 67g (bottom-out force), which are only slightly heavier than Cherry MX Browns. 

Zelios 67g switches feel outstanding to type on. The tactile bump is higher in the press and is more pronounced, which gives them a poppiness that I haven’t felt on a switch before. They also somehow manage to stay extremely smooth past the bump without any scratchiness.

Zeal switches are expensive at $1.00 or more per switch, but they’re worth it.

Stabilizers: Zeal Transparent Gold Plated PCB Mount Screw-in Stabilizers V2 ($30)

Along with switches, you need stabilizers. Any key that is two units or more, needs one to keep it from tilting and not returning correctly. Zeal sent over some of their PCB mount screw-in stabilizers, which retail for $30 as pictured. Screw-in stabilizers are absolutely preferred to reduce rattle and to properly apply the band-aid mod, which I’ll show you later. This keeps them secured to the PCB with less overall movement. 

ZealPC Gold Stabilizers

Why gold? Because it looks cool, and as you’re probably discovering, that’s a big part of the keyboard hobby.

Keycaps

We’ll talk about keycaps after the build, but these are obviously a pivotal part of any build.

Cable - Dream Cables Device-Side Aviator Cable ($60.75)

Dream Cables Aviator Keyboard Cable

The KOYU ships with its own USB Type-C cable, but when you’re building your own keyboard, custom cables suddenly become important. I followed the trend and purchased an aviator cable from Dream Cables. They did such a good job, I purchased a second one when I swapped keycap sets. I customized mine to match the purple of the board and my preferred keycap set. What you see here is a neon pink cable with a neon blue techflex wrapping and purple heatshrink. The aviator cable allows it to break away to easily swap devices but, let’s be honest, it’s another nod to aesthetic.

Assembly 

RAMA Works KOYU Haze Assembly

I was a bit worried about assembly since I’d never built a keyboard before, but with the help of YouTube the process was quick and easy. In the picture above, you see everything I laid out for my first steps. On the right, I have some DuPont Teflon Silicone Lubricant and Permatex Dielectric Grease to lube the stabilizers, as well as a paint brush to apply the Teflon. Above, you’ll find two fabric band-aids for the band-aid mod. Below is a pair of tweezers, a keycap puller, and a switch puller.

Lubed Stabilizer (ZealPC Stabilizers)

The first step was to prepare the stabilizers. This is one of the most important steps and makes a profound difference in the overall sound of the keyboard, lowering the pitch of the stabilized keys and making them feel much nice to use. I began by taking them apart and painting the inside of the slider housings with the silicone lubricant. Then, I dipped the ends of each wire in the dielectric grease before reassembling them. This makes for a smooth slide and deadens out rattle.

Band-aid Mod

Next, I applied the band-aid mod. This is a simple, but impactful mod I would highly encourage new builders to try. You begin by cutting strips of the band-aid fabric that match the area where the stabilizer will touch the PCB. Note that because of the LEDs on the space bar, I had to use four smaller strips. Then, you coat the band-aids in dielectric grease until they change color before screwing the stabilizers in place. 

Between the lubrication of the stabilizers themselves and the cushioned surface where they meet the PCB, the stabilized keys on the KOYU felt entirely different and much better than any pre-built keyboard I’ve used in the past. It was well worth the extra 15 minutes to do both steps. 

Internal Dampener

Next, I removed the base and attached the internal dampener with three screws.

Installing the PCB

Testing the PCB

After that, it was time to screw the PCB into place and connect the USB cable to the port on the right on the back of the PCB. I plugged it in to make sure it was receiving power and it lit right up.

Installing Zealios 67g

With that said, it was time to install the switches. With hot swap sockets, this is a simple process of pressing them into place. Usually, there is a bit of backtracking to correct any pins that became bent during installation, but since the PCB supported alignment pins, I was surprised to find all but two switches were perfect. Easy installs for the win!

With all of the keys working, the only thing left to do was…

RAMA Works PBT Heavy Industry

Install the keycaps (RAMA Works PBT Heavy Industry Seq 2)…

VIA Keyboard Configurator

And remap any keys I wanted changed.

All told, it took longer to psyche myself up enough to build the KOYU than it actually took to build it. The entire process was incredibly easy with no soldering required. I shouldn’t have been intimidated in the slightest. It was easy, fun, and rewarding.

The end result is one I am beyond happy with. The KOYU feels amazing to type on. The dense case with the internal dampener really deadens out typing sounds and lends the keyboard a very light typing sound that is incredibly satisfying. The form factor is also perfect for me. 65-percent is my preferred layout, and I was able to map the keys to match my prior Massdrop ALT, so it was instantly familiar. 

The keyboard also supports layering, so you can create custom layouts for different programs or games. I like to keep things simple, so I moved everything I needed (including media, lighting, and function controls) onto the first two layers. The customization potential here is really fantastic and the provided VIA software is very user friendly.

The Great Customization Rabbit Hole

After I built the keyboard, something happened. I fell down the rabbit hole. This was my journey.

I loved the Heavy Industry keycap set but longed for something purple to match the rear plate. I searched and searched, eventually settling on a set from Tai-Hao. 

Except, that’s when I discovered one of the biggest challenges to custom keyboards: finding keycap sets that match the size of every key. The KOYU has a longer, 7-unit, space bar than most keyboards, which forces the surrounding keys to be smaller. Likewise, other keys were just slightly off, like the smaller right shift to accommodate the right-side column of navigation and editing keys.

Twenty-five dollars later, the Tai Hao set arrived. I combined it with the Heavy Industry set and came up with this. 

It looked good! Except… the left Ctrl was a little off. And the keycaps were ABS instead of PBT. And they were thin… too thin for a keyboard of this caliber. And that right Control wasn’t Control, it was still Shift, it was just the only key I had left that would fit and look good.

So I searched for another. And searched, and searched, and searched. As it happens, purple sets are hard to find without making major sacrifices. Most don’t have the right size space bar, for one, others are more pastel. Others, like the Mitolet set, approached $200 and were sold out anyway. 

Eventually, I became frustrated and abandoned purple. Instead, I picked up the Drop + Redsuns GMK Red Samurai set for another $95. Yet, what about the purple base? I pushed it out of my head. Gold, black, burgundy… this set should look great.

Drop + Redsuns GMK Samurai

And you know what? It did! I really liked it. Except… it didn’t have the right space bar and the bottom row wasn’t size right (just like the Tai-Hao) and the backspace was too big. After kicking myself for not doing enough research, I turned to third party sites to get blanks for the missing keys. It worked well, with the exception of the 7u spacebar which was out of stock everywhere in the profile of the rest of the keys. I was forced to pick up a much taller one.  The end result, however, was pretty darn good. I even picked up a second Dream Cable to match the new scheme.

So, here I am, loving this keyboard that was now worth over $600. And it started to grate at me that I didn’t have a proper keycap set. I loved what I had but, for this much money, I shouldn’t be settling. 

Drop + Mito SA Laser

That’s when I got an email from Drop that the Drop + Mito SA Laser keycap set was temporarily back in stock. It was the perfect color. It was my favorite profile: nice, tall, SA. It was… out of stock for the bottom row keys I needed.

I was disappointed, but it was money saved. Still, I would be stuck without my perfect purple keycap set for this perfect gold keyboard. Then, as I longingly browsed the Drop + Mito SA Laser product page, the Cyberdeck set was in stock! I quickly went to add it to my cart, hoping to secure it. Success! Only, that set was $178. Too rich for my blood. I removed it from my cart and someone else quickly snatched it up.

Drop + Mito SA Laser Cyberdeck

I continually checked the page for the next two days, hoping the stock sets would return with everything I needed. They didn’t, but Cyberdeck did, ever so briefly. As luck would have it, I had just gotten a bit of extra money. I bit the bullet. I bought Cyberdeck. And because I didn’t like the dual legends, I bought the Alphas too.

Tallying Up and Rounding Out

This was, my friends, my biggest money splurge in months. On keycaps. I would never have done this before, but I got caught in the same drive that pushes people to support Group Buy after Group Buy. All told, the value of the keyboard and everything I bought to go with it is close to $1000. The cost of the keyboard as built with the SA Laser keycap set is just over $819.  

This is a fantastic amount of money, but mechanical keyboards are like any hobby. You can buy a kit that’s less than $60 or one that’s $600. You can go as shallow or deep as you want to. When you’re done, you’ll have something that’s uniquely your own and, if you spend a lot of time at a keyboard, you’ll have a tool that feels better than anything you can buy in a store today.

Is it for everyone? Surely not. But if you’re the creative, DIY type, building your own keyboard is a fun project with a rewarding result you can actually use. Just as importantly, it’s a learning experience that opens the door to other DIY projects in the future. 

I want to thank both RAMA Works and Zeal PC for sending along materials to be able to share this fascinating hobby with you all. It’s not every day that I’m able to build “the BMW of mechanical keyboards” and provide an inside look at a growing, yet still very much underground, community. I sincerely hope we can do this again in the future with another feature or formal review.

Disclaimer: This article is categorized under Hardware Reviews for sorting amongst our Hardware and Tech content but is not a review (clearly). The keyboard kit, switches, and stabilizers were provided by their respective manufacturers. 


GameByNight

Christopher Coke

Chris cut his teeth on MMOs in the late 90s with text-based MUDs. He’s written about video games for many different sites but has made MMORPG his home since 2013. Today, he acts as Hardware and Technology Editor, lead tech reviewer, and continues to love and write about games every chance he gets. Follow him on Twitter: @GameByNight