Making intricate artisan keycaps for mechanical keyboards
404artisans talk about why they spend hours making Gengar-themed custom keycaps.
Mechanical keyboards are back in trend, with enthusiasts even getting their own custom-made keyboards for work and play.
Some have even gone as far as to buy artisan keycaps – purely ornamental keycaps that aren’t meant to be used – to personalise their keyboards.
Taking their love for mechanical keyboards a step further, Mauvic Lim, Nicholas Teo and Alan Chan got together to make their own artisan keycaps under 404artisans.
“The allure of custom mechanical keyboards is that you get to personalise and have a unique keyboard. Everyone’s keyboard is a bit different,” said 25-year-old recent graduate Mauvic, who brings his keyboard to and fro work every day.
Mauvic had been gaming since secondary school with his friend Nicholas, who is now a 25-year-old software engineer. They later got interested in custom mechanical keyboards costing over $600 to enhance their typing and gaming experience.
Nicholas enjoyed the customisable aspect of the keyboards, comparing the artisan keycaps on his keyboard to the decorations at his workspace.
He said: “I always liked figurines and little trinkets for personalising my desk, and artisans let me personalise my keyboard. With the detail and effort put into creating them, you can’t help but appreciate them.”
The two of them shared a mutual love for artisan keycaps and were keen on getting more to customise their keyboards. However, such keycaps were far too expensive for them to afford more of.
By chance, Mauvic’s mother knew of a sculptor, who she introduced to the pair. Alan, a 42-year-old who used to make toys, was happy to lend his talent to help design and sculpt keycaps.
Even though his old job as a toy sculptor had been phased out due to 3D printing, he wanted to encourage sculptors to be more hands-on. He warned: “Don’t depend on computers too much.”
So, with the unlikely partnership between two youths who loved keyboards and a toy sculptor who had ironically lost his job due to computers, 404artisans was born.
The tedious task of making artisan keycaps
As Gengar is Mauvic’s favourite Pokémon, they started with making Gengar keycaps. They launched their first series on Sep 19, 2020, and have since branched out into more Gengar keycaps in different colourways.
The tiny keycaps look simple enough, but the process of making them is anything but.
Mauvic said: “At first glance, they simply look like plastic caps modelled after a certain character. What other people don’t realise is the amount of time and effort put into sculpting, casting, colour choices, and the practise that we have to go through.”
Although 404artisans started making these keycaps because it would not be as expensive as buying artisan keycaps, Mauvic was quick to point out that “the real expense is time”.
Each time they paint a new colour for the keycap, they have to cure it in a pressure pot for three to five hours. In total, a single batch of 10 to 20 keycaps takes 15 to 20 hours to make.
As Mauvic was busy with his internship, he would only be able to come over in the evenings. After one resin cycle, he would have to come over the next evening to continue with the keycap, and repeat the cycle about four to five times until they had a proper keycap.
Ultimately, if all the time and effort put in is not reflected in the final result, that keycap is discarded – only about half of the keycaps “pass” the quality check and are eligible to be sold.
The tedious process does not deter Mauvic, who feels making these keycaps is equal parts time-consuming and fun.
He said: “I enjoy the process of it. It’s satisfying when imagination becomes a drawing, which eventually becomes a cap.”
Nicholas shared similar sentiments: “To see my work being well-received, I just want to put out more and show off what we’re capable of.”
Selling the keycaps via exclusive raffles
For those who want to get their hands on 404artisans’ keycaps, it’s not as easy as purchasing them online, as artisan keycap makers typically do not employ a “first come first sale” model.
Instead, the keycaps are made in small batches, and put up for a raffle that closes in exactly 24 hours. Usually international buyers – mostly from the United States – take part in these raffles, though there are some local buyers as well.
404artisans’ raffles currently attract about 100 to 200 interested customers, of which only 10 to 20 can get their hands on the highly-coveted keycaps.
The exclusivity to these limited keycaps is a huge part of their appeal.
Mauvic explained that the exclusivity is similar to that of custom mechanical keyboards.
“Previously, the mechanical keyboard hobby was a very small community of passion-driven people that make 50 to 100 keyboards for sale. The artisan keycap community kind of adopted that.”
When launching a new keycap line, 404artisans usually shares it on Discord, Reddit and Instagram.
Mauvic enjoys using Discord to personally interact with his buyers – he receives feedback from them, and even teases the upcoming launches. Meanwhile, Alan pointed out that revealing the behind-the-scenes process of making these keycaps is something new to him.
He said: “Nowadays, people would like to see all the concrete work.
“During my time, you weren’t supposed to see all this. As long as it was before production, we weren’t supposed to reveal the next toy we were going to launch.”
As 404artisans has currently only been in business for about seven months, their immediate goals are increasing the number of interested buyers for their caps, as well as increasing the volume of caps they can make. They also plan to make some non-Gengar keycaps, possibly of their own characters.
Although it’s early days, 404artisans also hopes to expand the business and get a working space outside of their homes.
“Anything else more concrete will require further planning,” Nicholas said.
When asked if they would consider making artisan keycaps as a full-time job, Mauvic said: “It is a niche hobby, which means the market is quite small. It’ll be difficult but we’re hopeful.”