We may have already covered the painstaking process of building a keyboard from scratch, but there’s always room for refinement in any high-end, custom-built project. This tutorial will show how to improve keyboards keyboards by lubricating and modding the stabilizers. This project will be tackled with nothing but bare hands and some inexpensive tools/supplies.
Modding stabilizers is the simplest and most effective means of making a night-and-day difference to your keyboard. For the uninitiated, stabilizers serve the express purpose of preventing long keys such as Spacebar, Enter, and Shift from simply seesawing around the switches. Stabilizer issues exist because manufacturers are compelled to ensure wider compatibility with all switch and plate types. This forces them to employ looser tolerances which, in turn, makes it impossible to avoid annoying stabilizer rattle, even if you drop upwards of $1000 on custom keyboard parts.
What You Need to Get Started
Using this guide effectively requires you to follow a few prerequisites. For starters, you should have at least read our primer on custom mechanical keyboards to make sense of the basics and terminology used here. Secondly, you should either be in the process of building a new custom mechanical keyboard or willing to dismantle your existing one. Isolating the stabilizers on the workbench is a critical requirement for the process of blueprinting.
Finally, this guide will focus on Cherry-style stabilizers. This is a proven design that’s common across the board, from expensive third-party stabilizers to the ones found in the cheapest mechanical keyboards. If your keyboard employs any other type, you’re simply better off switching to Cherry-style stabilizers. This is also where stock is taken of the requisite tools and parts.
The Bare Essentials: The items in this list are absolutely needed to blueprint your stabilizers. Stick to this list if you’re averse to spending any more than the bare minimum time and money on improving your keyboard. Don’t forget to read our primer on custom mechanical keyboards to familiarize yourself with stabilizers as well as overall keyboard terminology.
- Stabilizer set
- Eye protection
- Flush cutters
- Silicone or dielectric grease
- Small paintbrush
- Small mirror or glass sheet
- Adhesive bandage/medical plaster (woven cloth material)
The Optional Extras: Because this guide is aimed at keyboard tinkerers of all skill levels, certain tools and steps have been marked as optional. These are meant for those willing to spend more time, effort, and money on additional tools/parts and steps. If you want to go about this quick and cheaply, you can safely skip these items.
- Krytox GPL 205 (grade 0) lube
- Craft/hobby knife
- Heat gun or lighter
- Heat shrink (1.5mm)
- Digital or dial callipers
- 320/400 grit sandpaper
- Adhesive tape
Know Your Enemy
Stock, unmodified stabilizers have a number of common problems. Extreme cases manifest in the form of stabilizer binding, which prevents smooth operation of long keys such as the Spacebar. This is remedied by disassembling the stabilizer assembly and reinstalling them correctly. Please refer to the stabilizer installation section in our custom mechanical keyboard build guide to ensure that your stabilizers are in order. You will need it because this guide will not repeat the process of stabilizer assembly and installation, as it is already covered in detail in the aforementioned guide.
If certain long keys such as the Spacebar or Left Shift continue to bind, this might be a sign of bowed keycaps. Pop off the keycap on the faulty stabilizer and place it on a perfectly flat surface such as a mirror or plate of glass. Hold these against a light source and observe the point at which the bottom edge of the keycap touches the glass. Light will leak out of the edges if the keycap isn’t straight and reveal the extent of the bowing. It is imperative to either replace or fix the keycap if the bowing is serious.
Repeat the same procedure for stabilizer wires. Either replace or straighten bent wires. Once we have ensured that everything is in working order, begin typing while watching closely for the feel and sound of the stabilized keys. On stock stabilizers, you will notice the following:
- Compared to non-stabilized (1u) switches, the bottom-out feels excessively mushy or spongy.
- The stabilized keys feel rough or scratchy and make a squeaking sound.
- Excessive wobble.
- Loud metallic rattling.
Now that we have identified the four distinct areas of improvement, let’s tackle each one until we have the closest thing to stabilizer perfection.
1. Clipping to Improve Bottom-Out
Problem No. 1 creates a jarring disparity between the positively solid bottom-out of the rest of the non-stabilized keys and the limp and spongy bottom-out of the stabilized ones. This phenomenon is caused by a pair of spring-like protrusions at the bottom of the stabilizer posts. Refer to the image below for more clarity.
Their sole purpose is to soften the bottom-out, so it’s best to remove these protrusions for a consistent typing experience. Grab a pair of quality flush cutters and follow these simple instructions.
1. Be sure to correctly identify the parts you’re supposed to trim. That would be the two thin spring-like legs at the bottom of both the stabilizer posts highlighted in green.
2. The cleanest way to remove these plastic springs is by cutting them flush with the vertical faces of the stabilizer post. Align the jaws of the flush cutters such that they grip one of the springs while sitting flush with the vertical face of the stabilizer post as shown in the image below. Snip away.
3. Repeat the process for the other plastic spring and all remaining stabilizer posts. The stabilizer post should resemble the letter Z when viewed from the bottom.
4. The bottom of the stabilizer post isn’t flat yet. The last remnants of the springs continue to poke out from the bottom, as highlighted in green in the image below. It’s important to make the bottom completely flat for achieving optimal bottom-out sound and tactile feedback.
5. Grip the tiny nub in the jaws of the flush cutter while it sits flush with the bottom of the stabilizer post. Snip away and repeat the process for the remaining nub. Don’t forget to do this for all remaining stabilizer posts.
Optional Extra: Perfectly Flat Stabilisers
If you followed the instructions to the T, your stabilizer posts will be virtually perfect. However, if you want to go the extra mile, you can sand the bottom of the stabilizer posts to achieve true perfection. Grab a flat surface such as a mirror or a sheet of glass, a pair of digital or dial callipers, and at least 320/400 grit sandpaper.
1. Tape an appropriately sized piece of 320/400 grit sandpaper to fix it securely to a mirror or a glass sheet. Don’t go lower than 320 grit, because you may then risk removing too much material and/or render the surface too rough.
2. Sand the bottom of the stabilizer post with consistent motion. Be sure to hold the stabilizer post perfectly orthogonal to the sandpaper, or you may end up with a slanted bottom.
3. The idea is to remove any tiny remaining protrusions that may have been left behind by the flush cutter and get the bottom of the stabilizer post perfectly flat. Take a break from sanding often to check if the objective has been achieved, or you may end up significantly reducing the height of the stabilizer post. Under no circumstances should you sand away more than 0.5mm of material.
4. Once all stabilizer posts have been sanded to perfection, whip out the digital/dial callipers and measure their heights. Measure them by gripping the stabilizer posts exactly as depicted in the image below.
The idea is to ensure that all stabilizer posts have been sanded to the same height. If you find any height discrepancies, sand the taller posts down to match their counterparts. Don’t get carried away sanding and forget the 0.5mm rule. Pay attention to how the sanded stabilizer post is a wee bit taller than one that hasn’t been sanded down. That’s why it pays to measure all stabilizer post pairs for uniformity.
2. Lubricating for Smooth Operation
Problem No. 2 is common to all but the most exotic stabilizers that make the rounds in exclusive group-buy production runs. All reciprocating plastic surfaces have some degree of friction, and the stabilizer posts sliding up and down the housing are no exception. In some cases, this is also the source of annoying squeaking sounds.
Lubrication is the easiest way to fix this problem. Silicone or dielectric grease is a relatively inexpensive solution that works great for cheaper stabilizers which tend to have looser tolerances between the stabilizer post and housing. Expensive stabilizers could potentially benefit from a higher quality lubricant such as Krytox GPL 205 (grade 0). This lubricant, however, doesn’t come cheap.
Make sure your workspace is clean and devoid of dust or lint that could stick to lubricated components. This will make matters worse, and the stabilizers will end up feeling rougher than they would have otherwise. Use clean containers to hold lubricated components to prevent them from picking up contaminants.
1. Use Q-tips to thoroughly clean all stabilizer components (post, housing, wires) with distilled water. Dry all parts before proceeding further.
2. Start by lubricating the housings. Use a fine paintbrush to pick up a small quantity of lubricant of your choosing: silicone, dielectric grease, or Krytox. Less is more, so take a small amount of lubricant and wipe the brush a few times on a clean surface (such as the sides/lip of the container) to take off excess.
3. Apply a thin coat of lubricant to all four interior faces of the housings. Refer to the images below to figure out exactly where to make the application.
4. Don’t forget to lube the channel that houses the stabilizer wire.
5. Use a pair of tweezers to hold the stabilizer housing by the cross-shaped end. Apply a thin coat of lubricant to all four faces depicted in the images below.
6. Applying lubricant to the bottom will improve the bottom-out noise. Skip this step if you like your clack loud and pronounced.
3. Eliminating Wobble with Band-Aid Mod
Wobble is problem No. 3 in our list, and it affects certain types of stabilizers more than others. For example, the screw-in variety of PCB mount stabilizers are immune to this issue. Refer to our keyboard build guide for detailed information on all types of stabilizers.
Test your stabilizer housings for wobble (wiggle them as depicted below) after they have been installed on the PCB/plate. Most PCB mount (non-screw in variety) stabilizers exhibit some degree of wobble. Proceed with this step only if you notice any wobble, because it also tends to dampen the bottom-out by design.
The Band-Aid mod involves filling the gap between the stabilizer housing and the PCB with adhesive bandage or medical plaster. This works the best when the plaster used is of the woven cloth variety, which is thick as well as compliant enough to serve the purpose.
1. Measure the length and breadth of the stabilizer housing footprint.
2. Use the measurements to cut strips of medical plaster – one per housing. Cut appropriately-sized holes for the stabilizer mounting posts.
3. Apply the strips of plaster to corresponding stabilizer mounting points on the PCB.
4. Mount stabilizers onto the PCB.
Optional Extra: Heat Shrink Mod
The heat shrink mod is well worth the trouble despite the need for extra tools and materials. Performing this modification makes a significant improvement to the sound, feel, and refinement of the keyboard. Because this mod is designed to push the limits of stabilizer tolerances, it may cause stabilizer binding in rare instances. Either replace the binding stabilizer with a spare or skip the mod in that case.
1. Grab a craft/hobby knife and heat shrink tubing of 1.6mm diameter. Cut the tubing into 6mm sections. Prepare two tubes per stabilizer wire.
2. Slip the two 6mm sections of heat-shrink tubing over each end of the stabilizer wire. Slide the tube over the stabilizer wire up to the point where it bends at a right angle.
3. Use either a heat gun or lighter to shrink the tubes in place. Make sure the heat shrink tube doesn’t move out of position. Heat until the tube has shrunk securely onto the wire and cannot be moved. If you’re using a lighter or any other open flame, don’t shove the heat shrink tubing into the naked flame – use its radiant heat instead.
4. Eliminating Stabilizer Wire Rattle
Problem No. 4 can be found in 100 percent of stabilizer types. This absolutely cannot be skipped because I haven’t found a single stabilizer type that is immune to this annoying design limitation. The solution is fairly simple as well. Using a thicker, more viscous variety of lubricant is the secret to success here.
That’s also why I recommend using silicone or dielectric grease instead of the more expensive (but relatively thinner) Krytox GPL 205 grease. This method is even more effective when combined with the heat shrink mod. But it works without the mod as well.
1. Grab a brush and prime it with lubricant using the technique mentioned previously in step 2-2. Apply a liberal, but uniform coating of lubricant to both ends of the stabilizer wire as shown in the image below. Don’t forget to lubricate the tip of the stabilizer wire as well.
2. Lubricate half a centimetre of the wire past the corner. This will ensure that it rotates freely in the channel within the stabilizer housing devoid of any friction or noise.
3. Reassemble the stabilizers as illustrated in the “Assembling Stabilizers” section of our custom mechanical keyboard build guide.
That’s basically it. Once you have reassembled your keyboard, you will notice a day-and-night difference in the overall feel and sound. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the next installment of this advanced keyboard modification guide, where you will learn how to modify switches.