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The World at Your Fingertips: How Vietnamese Studios Lead the Art of Artisan Keycaps

Although custom keycaps are somewhat of a recent development in Vietnam, some local artisan studios have become key players in making these tech-art fusions that bring the world to your fingertips.

For most people, the humble keyboard belongs to the realm of mundane office gadgets, which one doesn’t expect much out of apart from it being intact and functional.

But to tech aficionados, a keyboard means a whole lot more than that. Just like how musicians are meticulous with their instruments, some tech fans are very particular when it comes to finding their ultimate keyset.

A supposedly proper keyboard should offer a "buttery" typing experience, produce ASMR-like "click clack" sounds, and have a dependable build quality. Some typists have even gone the extra mile by switching to mechanical keyboards, a past iteration that some believe can outperform its successor.

Many tech enthusiasts drop big bucks to upgrade to mechanical keyboards. Photo courtesy of Jelly Key.

While most common keyboards use a rubber dome and membrane to allow for the depression and recording of keystrokes, mechanical keyboards have a physical lever or switch that activates when the key is pressed. This feature not only makes mechanical keyboards more durable and pleasant to use, but also optimal for disassembling and modifying according to one’s needs.

Such ease of customization has given space for a sub-segment to form in the mechanical keyboard community. These enthusiastic users hunt for keyboards with rare and distinctive designs, which they are willing to drop a fortune on, as a way of imbuing individuality and colors into their typewares.

Over the past ten years, that sub-segment has grown into its own robust community, where people make and trade with one another unique sets of keys, called artisan keycaps, custom keycaps, or keycaps for short. The movement is said to have originated in the US and was initiated by a number of mechanical keyboard users with expertise in toy manufacturing and industrial design. By 2015 and 2016, keycaps had made their way to Vietnam and carved out a niche in the local market.

The Moondust collection embodies the spirit of space exploration. Photo courtesy of Dwarf Factory.

Keycaps are highly sought-after for different reasons. Not only are they an emblem of good craftsmanship and design, which even laymen find alluring, keycaps are also trademarks of their owner's interests and aesthetics.

Dwarf Factory, one of the leading keycap makers in Vietnam, told Saigoneer that they once received an order from an employee at NASA. To no one’s surprise, the product in question was from the studio’s Moondust collection, which embodies humanity's passion for exploring the cosmos.

As their products revolve heavily around world-building elements, keycap makers can be considered both artisans and storytellers. Just a quick browse of prominent Vietnamese keycap studio websites, such as Dwarf Factory, ArtKey Universe or Jelly Key, can prove that the concept of the product is just as important as the manufacturing quality.

Each keycap is a miniature world, like a post-apocalyptic metropolis, or a tiny hamburger restaurant. Photo courtesy of Jelly Key (left), Dwarf Factory (right).

Each collection comes with its own lore, inspired by a multitude of diverse subjects like fantasy tales, mythical creatures, popular video games, a post-apocalyptic metropolis, or even a tiny hamburger shop. It is no exaggeration to say that each keycap is a portal to a miniature world.

According to Dwarf Factory, in order to build these details into a keycap barely bigger than a knuckle, the makers have to go down a road strewn with “turnarounds.” Lancen, a representative of the studio, said: "We start by drawing all the ideas out on paper, then render them in 3D, then 3D-print the design to make the mold, then use the mold to make the detailed workpieces and then fit them into the tiny slot."

The process of making a keycap, from coming up with the concept to adding the finishing touches, is a tedious journey. Photo courtesy of Jelly Key.

So where is the first “turnaround”? It’s when a concept that looks good on the blueprint doesn’t translate to a desirable real-life result. “When that happens, we have to adjust the size and the shape of the design. Or we get a new idea so we add something in and take something out,” Lancen explained.

After modeling and coloring the components, makers will pour over a clear layer of resin as a protective coating. “This is where a lot of ‘turnarounds’ take place. Due to the light-bending effect of the resin, the internal parts might end up looking odd. So we have to go back to the 3D rendering to fix the dimensions. It’s a back and forth struggle until we have a perfect demo.”

“It’s been difficult for us to manage international orders during the pandemic. Keycaps are made by humans so they’re prone to human errors. It’s one thing to fix these errors while they’re still in the studio, it’s another thing when they’ve been shipped out across the world. Fortunately, most of our customers are collectors who are knowledgeable about keycaps, so they are somewhat understanding of the situation,” says a representative of ArtKey studio.

Steps to making a keycap. Photo courtesy of Jelly Key.

While most Vietnamese are still unfamiliar with keycaps, many local studios are already making a name in the global market. In 2016, when Deskthority, an exchange forum for mechanical keyboard enthusiasts from all over the world, held a poll for the best artisan keycap maker of the year, Vietnamese representative Jelly Key took the top spot for its stellar customer reviews.

ArtKey Universe commented: “Good craftsmanship is a tradition of our people. We preserve that tradition through different practices, artisan keycap making is just a small part of that effort. With their creative and ingenious nature, Vietnamese can hold their own in the keycap game.”

With their creative and ingenious nature, Vietnamese can hold their own in the keycap game. Photo courtesy of ArtKey Universe.

As production often requires tremendous resources, expertise and artistry, the price of a keycap tends to fall on the higher side. Moreover, the process of making a custom piece, from product conceptualization to customer delivery, is complicated, making it difficult for the keycap community to extend its reach.

Still, with the rise of e-sports and remote working, mechanical keyboards and keycaps have more chances to succeed now than ever. Dwarf Factory said that the studio is looking into reducing manual processing, which would help it rely less on manpower and speed up production, thereby making it easier for the general public to access this exclusive art form.

But apart from their economic potential, the mainstay of keycaps is still the joy that they bring to their makers and collectors. “The greatest joy is probably being able to do what I love every day, to play with ideas, and to take it seriously. When we see our idea go from the blueprint, the computer screen to the finished product, which can be attached to the keyboard and used immediately, the feeling is indescribable,” Lancen says.

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