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Building the RAMA Works KARA: An Accessible and Outstanding Custom Keyboard

RAMA Works' Most Accessible Keyboard Yet

Christopher Coke Updated: Posted:
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Hardware 0

The world of mechanical keyboards runs deep — far deeper than gaming keyboards or even what you’ll find at most retailers. No, if you want something really special and tuned exactly to your taste, a custom keyboard is the way to go. The problem is, building a nice custom keyboard can easily cost hundreds of dollars, and that’s without switches and keycaps. The KARA is RAMA Works' answer to that.

Coming in at only $160, the RAMA Works KARA is an injection-molded beauty of a keyboard. It includes the case, PCB, plate, and RAMA’s brand new MUTE mounting system to quiet those clacks. It also sports the symmetrical HHKB layout that’s popular among programmers and can be completely customized using the QMK-powered VIA platform. 

If you’ve been on the fence about building a custom keyboard, or are just curious what goes into putting one together for yourself, this is an article you won’t want to miss.

Who is RAMA Works?

More than any other hobby I know of, mechanical keyboards are community-driven. Most custom keyboards are designed by individuals or small teams and are purchased through group buys to cover tooling and production costs. In this way, the community stays tight-knit and self-supporting, driven by their shared passion for this admittedly niche hobby. 

From those many small projects, several companies have arisen but few have developed the kind of cache RAMA Works has. Its boards have repeatedly and consistently been acclaimed within the community. The M60-A still stands out as one of the most iconic keyboards in the hobby, appearing on a near-daily basis on the r/mechanicalkeyboards sub-reddit. These days, a new RAMA release is an event unto itself with the kind of grassroots hype most other brands could only dream of. 

In my feature building the RAMA KOYU HAZE, I remarked that RAMA Works is a bit like the Apple of the keyboard world. That holds true today with their products having such uncommon attention to detail and incredibly stylish presentation that they fall closer to pieces of functional art than a typical input device. It also helps that their boards are produced in limited runs and immediately turn into collector’s items. As a result, they grow in value over time. That KOYU HAZE, I linked above? Another seller recently sold theirs for $1200 on r/mechmarket without even including keycaps.

So far, however, buying a RAMA keyboard has fallen into the same category as most high-end custom mechanical keyboards when it comes to pricing. That’s kept the brand more exclusive than the team at RAMA Works would like it, which is where the KARA comes in. 

Introducing the RAMA Works KARA

The KARA is RAMA Work’s answer to the accessibility problem facing custom mechanical keyboards. It comes in at only $160, which may seem expensive when looking broadly, but is quite affordable in the custom world, especially coming from such an esteemed brand. It’s also the most cost-effective way to try a RAMA at the moment.

The KARA stands apart from the rest of RAMA Work’s line-up in more ways than one. It’s the company’s first build to be made with injection-molded plastic. It’s also the first board to use the new MUTE mount, a large silicone mat that sits under the plate (polycarbonate, also available in aluminum) to deaden key presses and make each key press feel a bit softer.

The frame comes together in three pieces, which also allows it to be modular. In fact, the entire “brain” of the keyboard — the PCB, switches, and keycaps — is assembled separately so it can be easily swapped between housings if you want to change up your look. It also means that you can mix and match halves and backplates to create a unique look. All told, there are six different color schemes to choose from, transparent to opaque, and each full of character. 

I was initially concerned about shifting to an all-plastic board since that’s usually a sign of lower quality, but that’s definitely not the case here. While I’m sure it’s the biggest reason why RAMA Works was able to keep the cost so low, there is excellent attention to detail. The plate has a nice soft flex to it by design, but there is no creaking. There are no cracks in the case. No sharp or rough edges anywhere. No scratches or machining marks stood out to me. Screws use metal inserts, so the threads won’t break down over time. Each piece fits together using slots and precision machined fittings, so the final build is flush and solid as one piece. The plastic is also textured to avoid fingerprints, diffuse the RGB light, and feel nice under the fingers.  

The keyboard uses the same layout and circuit board as the M60-A, which is itself modeled after the Happy Hacking Keyboard, which has a unique symmetrical design. Aesthetically, it looks great and carries with it much of the same functionality as a standard 60% keyboard, minus the Windows keys. The layout is typified with the extended 7-unit spacebar which is then flanked by a pair of keys on either side. The Control key is moved in place of the Caps Lock key and Delete takes the place of Backspace.

It’s at this point I should probably remind you that you can remap all of these keys into a control scheme that works for you, including across multiple layers of keymaps. For my part, I’ve always shied away from the HHKB layout because 1) I use the Windows key multiple times a day, and 2) I prefer Caps Lock and Backspace in their usual places. Rest assured, changing things back takes only seconds once the keyboard is built if it’s not your cup of tea. 

A more important consideration with this layout is that you’ll need a keycap set that supports it. Most cheaper kits on Amazon will not feature the longer 7 unit spacebar. Likewise, you have a shorter Right Shift and Backspace. The keys flanking the spacebar are also larger than a standard bottom row at 1.5u instead of 1.25u. You’ll need to find a good all-in-one kit that includes these additional keys or find yourself ordering single units from sites like Pimp My Keyboard or WASD Keyboards. I would recommend checking out KBDFans, which is where I usually buy my keyboard gear. 

Before we move into the assembly section, I’ll out the lede: this is one of my hands-down favorite keyboards ever. Yes, even over my KOYU HAZE, which I still love. The build came together so well, feels so good, and allowed me to try a couple of new mods, that I really couldn’t be happier. Here’s how I did it.

Unboxing the KARA

At this point, I would like to take you through the process of unboxing and building the KARA. I’ll show you exactly how I built mine and why I made the choices I did. Above, you can see the box the KARA ships in with some neat artwork on the outer sleeves. 

The entire kit comes in two boxes, however. In the first box, you’ll receive: 

The case. I was sent the HAZE version, which I find to be the most attractive of the bunch. I love the frosted look. The lighting doesn’t illuminate the whole case, as you’ll see soon, but has a nice surrounding glow that’s very a e s t h e t i c.

The polycarbonate plate. This is what the switches snap into. The polycarbonate allows the plate to flex slightly under each keypress, which gives typing a softer feel than boards using aluminum (like many gaming keyboards). 

This is the MUTE, a new tool in RAMA’s line-up. It goes between the plate and the PCB. It also aids in the softness of typing but doubles as a dampener for some of the typing noise and reverberation you might otherwise experience. In the second picture, you can see that there are channels cut into it to allow free movement of the stabilizer bars. 

In the second box, you’ll receive your PCB. This is a Wilba PCB, which are known for their high quality and excellent design. It also just looks cool, which, let’s be honest, is a big part of this hobby. It supports per-key RGB lighting with a good amount of preset effects, two levels of saturation control, as well as a separate hue, brightness, and effect speed adjustments. The KARA is only available in hot-swap form, which I think is a good choice for an entry-level custom like this. No soldering is required, which makes assembly fast and easy, even for a complete newcomer.

The second box contains all of your accessories. My kit included all of the hardware, including hex wrenches, a cable, switch puller, stickers, and a set of screw-in stabilizers. I’m not sure if the stabilizers come in the normal package since they’re also available in the KARA Starter Kit, but they were in my box.

RAMA was also kind enough to send me a silicone dampener. This is a separate and very optional purchase but works well to further deaden typing sounds by screwing into the bottom of the chassis. The difference is minor but noticeable, so if you want the board to be as quiet as possible, I’d recommend picking it up. Alternatively, RAMA sells a weight you can add to lend your board more heft, or you could go with nothing at all. Again, this is just a “nice to have” but isn’t required for a great typing experience.

Preparation and Assembly

Getting ready for this build, I picked up a set of NovelKeys Cream switches. These are linear switches, like Cherry MX Reds, but heavier and much smoother. They’re also made entirely of POM plastic, are described as “self-lubricating,” and have a very nice light typing sound that is very unique to my ear. They’re some of the nicest linear switches you can buy today.

For the first time ever, I set out to lube and film my switches. This is the process of painting industrial lubricant on the inside of the switch to increase smoothness, as well as adding a small plastic film between the top and bottom of the switch housing to increase the tightness of both halves. Yes, this is excessive and, yes, it takes hours, but it also makes a keyboard feel really nice to type on. Depending on the switch, it can be a night and day difference. NovelKeys Creams are some of the very best after lubing and filming. 

I picked up a lube station (giggity) over the summer, which is useful for lubing a lot of switches at one time. I also purchased some Krytox 205g0 lubricant, which is one of the most popular switch lubes in the community. Lubing switches is a lengthy process, so I broke it into three days. Day one was disassembly. Days two and three were lubing and reassembling 35 switches each. 

With that out of the way, I moved onto actually building the keyboard. I started off by preparing the PCB with a band-aid mod. To do this, you put small bits of band-aid under each stabilizer and coat in dielectric grease. This softens the sound of the stabilizers hitting the PCB on downstrokes. 

Next, I painted the inside of the stabilizers with Krytox, just like the switches. The ends of the wires and where they meet the housings were coated in dielectric grease to eliminate any “wire on plastic” noise.

Next came the process of attaching the standoffs and fitting the MUTE and plate. This is incredibly easy as it is just pressed into place and attached with six screws. 

With that done, I was able to add switches which revealed a hidden benefit to this mounting system. It seems almost impossible to install the switches incorrectly. I’ve swapped hundreds of switches across keyboards at this point and almost without fail, pins get bent on at least a switch or two. This isn’t a big deal, but you don’t find out about that until you plug the keyboard in, which is always an annoyance. Here, the MUTE and plate perfectly align the switch. I haven’t experienced even one bent pin in four separate swaps (120+ switch installs), which is fantastic. 

In RAMA Works’ assembly video, the next step is to install keycaps (usually this is done at the very end). For this build, I chose the KBDFans NP Crayon key set. It is fairly cheap at $69 (though, +$18 shipping from China), PBT, and has a fun color scheme that I thought would work well with the HAZE chassis. The layout you see above is incorrect, mind you. Notice how standard Alt keys are too small for either side of the keyboard. 

With the bottom of the case removed, you can see that the back is held in place with four additional hex screws. The PCB assembly slides in and fits into place along six tracks that slot into notches along the top and bottom of the MUTE. The back of the board actually tightens down on the silicone to hold it in place along the top of the board, whereas the bottom case secures it on the opposite side. Also, note here that I installed the silicone dampener by screwing it into the bottom half of the shell. 

With that done, the only thing left to do was plug in the USB Type-C port and screw the back into place. Voila! 

Well, not quite. I had to go through some back and forth with the included keys in the NP Crayon keyset to come to something I liked. In the end, I wound up ordering a set of blanks to fill in the opposite sides of the keyboard, which you’ll see soon. 

Making the KARA Work for Me: Programming

Like I mentioned previously, the HHKB layout really isn’t one I’m fond of. I use the Windows key far too often and I’m one of the strange people that uses Caps Lock more than Shift. Thankfully, the KARA is fully programmable and I’ve learned a couple of cool tricks to make these ultra-compact keyboards work for me, even keeping all of the same functionality of a TKL keyboard. Plus, a dedicated gaming setup! Here’s how.

The KARA, like RAMA Works’ other keyboards, uses a program called VIA for all of its programming. It’s very full-featured and since it’s based on QMK, another very popular computer programming tool, it writes to the keyboard’s firmware, saving your changes to the board itself. That means, once your programming is locked in, you won’t ever need to open the software again unless you want to, and every change will work on every computer, regardless of what is or isn’t installed.

QMK and VIA also allow you to do some neat things, like have keys perform one function when held and another when tapped. Here, I started by restoring a standard layout, minus Windows keys. Then, I set Caps Lock as a Layer Tap, sending Caps when tapped (used normally) but accessing all of the second layer commands when held. Next, I did the same thing but in reverse for the bottom right key, where it would send the Windows key when tapped and access the second layer when held. This also works for Windows combination keys. Finally, I set the key next to it to Ctrl because I never use Alt on that side anyway.

On the second layer, I mapped my arrows and navigation/editing keys to the right-hand side. On the left lives all of my lighting controls. I was even able to map volume controls to the far right, allowing me to quickly mute or adjust my music. All of the upside-down triangles indicate transparent keys that send whatever was on layer one. This layout allows me to access everything I need without ever having to move my hands into awkward positions to trigger Fn combinations. Try as I might, I could never get used to holding Fn and IJKL all with my right hand for arrow keys. Here, I stay right on home row, hold Caps, and have a much easier, more natural time.

What’s not pictured here is my gaming layer, which is on Layer 3. There, the right-hand side is mapped to hotkeys and macros. When I launch WoW or one of my other games, I can keep my hands on WASD and have full functionality while keeping a whole set of macro keys. Swapping layers to go back to a normal layout is as easy as another quick key combination. 

Complete Build Pictures and Typing Test

Here are some pictures of the final build. I typically keep the backlight a light purple. 

And here we have a typing test so you can hear how it sounds. Sorry for the quality of the footage. This was done with a webcam. The board is not that bright in real life.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the RAMA Works KARA is simply a phenomenal keyboard. It feels, sounds, and looks great. At $160 for the base kit, it’s one of the best launching off points into the world of custom mechanical keyboards today and the most accessible way to try a RAMA. Make no mistake, that’s still expensive compared to your average Logitech or Razer, but the quality and feel of this board are leagues ahead of any production keyboard I’ve ever used. Plus, there’s no substitute for the satisfaction of having a board that’s entirely custom that you’ve assembled and modified all on your own. The KARA lives up to the hype.


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