When it comes to mechanical keyboard keycaps, ABS and PBT are the most common plastics used to manufacture them. While keycap material is not limited to these two, however, we will only cover the difference between ABS and PBT in this video because they are widely available while the rest falls in the niche and collectable category.
Section 1: What is ABS
ABS stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS). ABS is commonly used in keycap manufacturing because it is low cost to produce while being reasonably durable for general usage. The term “durable” here means it won’t break from your normal keystrokes. That doesn’t change the fact that ABS has a softer characteristic whereby the most commonly known weakness is wearing down after continuous usage.
A lot of people has been referring to this kind of keycap to be shiny or oily. This is not the result of our skin oil ending up transferring to the keycap. The actual cause is our fingerprint sanding and polishing the keycap surface until it loses the texture and become shiny.
There are so many people actually suggesting we wash our hands to keep our keycaps from becoming oily. Please stop it.
Since it is cheaper to produce, ABS keycaps are the most common out there in the market and you can find tones of different designs and colours to mix and match without paying a hefty price tag.
However, there’s also an exception as expensive ABS keycaps actually do exist, for example, GMK sets. What you’re paying is for the thicker keycap, unique design set and better finishing.
Section 2: What is PBT?
PBT stands for Polybutylene Terephthalate (PBT). PBT keycaps used to be less common a few years ago. It was due to the tricky manufacturing process since PBT has a higher melting point at about 220c compared to ABS.
The higher melting point has caused 2 issues for the factory, number 1, more energy consumption and number 2, the longer cooling time increases the chance of plastic warping whereby the keycap would shrink or deform during the cooling phase. That ends up with a lot of unusable or rejected stocks. This is why during the early days, the PBT space bar is so rare and expensive.
Despite the added cost of manufacturing, that doesn’t stop factories from improving the manufacturing process because PBT keycaps are still highly sought after for the following reason – durability.
As opposed to how ABS keycap surface texture can wear off through everyday typing, PBT keycaps has a higher resistance to wear and tear. Keep in mind that it is HIGHER RESISTANT, not 100% immune. But still, that is more than enough to entice the users, hey, who doesn’t want their keycap to look pristine all the time.
Generally, PBT keycaps have a sandy texture and depending on the manufacturer, some of them can have very nice textures while the cheaper ones are extremely rough to the touch. Besides, PBT keycaps also tend to be thicker which affects the overall typing sound.
As for the legend printing, since PBT can withstand higher manufacturing temperatures, it can support the dye-sublimation printing method. In layman’s terms, the machine transfers text and graphics to the keycap surface using heat.
Section 3: In Conclusion
When I first got into the mechanical keyboard hobby, PBT keycaps are more expensive than ABS keycaps. If you have chosen the higher durability path, you will also need to sacrifice customizability since PBT keycaps have fewer aftermarket choices. Then again, things have changed so much nowadays thanks to the ongoing innovation and improvement in the manufacturing sector.
PBT keycaps are no longer as expensive as before. The increased production also brings down the manufacturing cost at the same time introducing more colour and keycap profile options. If you were to ask for my personal opinion about PBT vs ABS, I would straight away tell you PBT is the better option. For low budget mechanical keyboard fans, you will be at least getting a decent PBT keycap set even if it is cheaply produced as opposed to cheap ABS which has atrocious build quality. While I can’t really comment about the rampant cloning of keycaps design that is happening right now, especially by those Chinese PBT keycap makers that clone the colour scheme of GMK ABS doubleshots. Buy what you can afford, and remember to support the original creator if you can.
Where to buy (Affiliate links)
Amazon US: https://amzn.to/3ykhD3c
Amazon US: https://amzn.to/3ESVZWl