Artisan keycaps are a niche craft wherein artists design and produce keycaps for mechanical keyboards. This can be done in a variety of ways involving different crafting techniques (including — but not limited to — polymer clay, 3D printing, resin-casting, metal-casting, injection molding, CNC machining, and more). I’ve written an article on why I like to make polymer clay artisan keycaps. I’ve also written about how to handpaint artisan keycaps.
Now it’s time to talk about sculpting, mold-making, and casting resin artisan keycaps — and how you can get started making resin artisan keycaps of your very own!
How to Make Resin Artisan Keycaps – Tutorial Series
Learn about tips, materials, considerations, and challenges when making your own resin artisan keycap master sculpt in How to Make Resin Artisan Keycaps – Part 2: Sculpting a Keycap Master.
Then learn how to make your own keycap mold with silicone rubber in How to Make Resin Artisan Keycaps – Part 3: Making a Keycap Mold.
You can also learn about my philosophy and specific style of artisan keycaps in Storytelling Through Keycaps: Mihi’s “Story Keycaps”.
This series of articles assumes the reader’s familiarity with mechanical keyboards and artisan keycaps in general. I presume if you’re trying to find out how to make them, you own a mechanical keyboard (or five) and have already collected a few artisan keycaps yourself from other makers.
This article also assumes no prior experience with resin-casting. If you’re already an experienced resin artisan, feel free to just read the parts pertaining to keycap specifics and skip other sections.
“How to Make Resin Artisan Keycaps” Tutorials
This tutorial series will specifically be about hand-sculpted, resin artisan keycaps. Note that there are many other variants of artisan keycaps (such as 3D printed keycaps, encapsulations, blanks, etc.). I may write more articles about other types of keycaps, but we’ll start out with hand-sculpted artisans.
I’ll do my best to cover each step and go fairly in-depth into materials, supplies, safety, and more. I’ll be releasing blog posts one at a time as I have bandwidth to write them. Here’s what we’ll cover overall throughout the series:
- SAFETY! (resin is toxic, and the very first and most important thing about casting resin is safety and proper handling)
- Minimum equipment and materials (the basic tools and supplies needed to get started, experiment, and make your very first sculpted, resin artisan keycap)
- Enthusiast equipment and materials (what’s needed to go beyond dabbling and do multiple types of high quality castings)
- Making a master sculpt (techniques, tools, clearance, design considerations, etc.)
- Making a silicone rubber mold (to make resin castings of your master sculpt)
- Casting single-shot resin (types of resin, colorants, cold casting, etc.)
- Handpainting resin (priming, types of paints and washes, casting considerations, finishing and varnishing, etc.)
- Casting multi-shot resin (types of resin for multi-shot casting, techniques and considerations, tips and tricks, etc.)
- Finishing your resin artisan keycaps (sanding, polishing, varnishing, etc.)
Resin Casting is Dangerous!
In order to get started with resin casting, there are some crucial things to take under consideration. The first priority is safety. I am listing this above any other equipment because it is so important.
☠️ Resin casting is VERY HAZARDOUS. This is the absolute most important thing to understand. Never, ever cut corners on safety. Much of the absolutely mandatory equipment minimums have to do with protecting yourself and your loved ones from dangerous materials and toxic fumes. But it takes more than PPE and safety equipment: you must be diligent, always.
Here is a list of safety equipment and precautions you will need (at a bare minimum) to cast resin:
- Disposable nitrile gloves
- Safety glasses / goggles, preferably the kind that seal against your face
- Respirator mask
- Respirator cartridge filters for organic vapors / acid gases
- A well ventilated workspace
- Surface protection for your work station: a silicone mat, pane of glass or plexiglass, or even scrap cardboard work well
- Shop towels
- Wear long sleeves / pants / shoes
Adhere to the safety warnings on bottle labels if resin is spilled, gets on your skin, etc. This stuff is serious business. Also, I don’t care if you’ve seen videos on YouTube of people casting resin without wearing a respirator. Wear one. Inhaling resin into your lungs and then having it cure there will cause serious physical harm, and it is never worth the risk — especially when it’s so easily preventable.
Always wear eye protection and gloves in addition to your respirator! Protect your workspace; spilling toxic chemicals all over the place is something you want to avoid at all costs. Trust me. I have done this. Being diligent about my PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is why I didn’t end up in the hospital with chemical burns in my eyes and on my face.
Your workspace needs to be very well ventilated. Resin fumes are toxic. The respirator will protect you, but you will need to ventilate the fumes as well. A garage with the door open, or a full ventilation hood system is recommended. If you can’t manage either of those, working directly near an open window with a powerful exhaust fan that will draw the fumes outside is mandatory. If you can’t manage that… then don’t cast resin indoors at all. Like, ever. I mean it.
You MUST Be Careful!!
Personal Protective Equipment is only a small part of the resin safety story. You MUST take care with your behavior: you can be physically protected by PPE, but still wind up with a complete disaster and severe personal injury if you’re careless or complacent when handling your materials and equipment. Developing cured resin inside your lungs or literal holes chemically burned into your skin, eyes, or tissues under your skin are real things that happen to real people who work with resin (graphic content warning). You do not want it to happen to you (or your loved ones or pets!).
Always make sure resin bottle caps are screwed on tightly. Always use safe dispensing methods. If you spill resin, always clean yourself before cleaning surfaces. Never place resin containers in precarious places. Never leave any resin anywhere it can be accessed or spilled by children or pets.
Basic Sculpting Supplies
In order to make your very own sculpted artisan keycap master, you’ll need the following:
You’ll need clay to sculpt your master. You can use Super Sculpey Firm, which is a sculpting grade polymer clay if you prefer to be able to cure your sculpt in stages and build upon it (or cure the sculpt when finished to prevent marring). This is my personal preference. Polymer clay cures in the oven. If you use polymer clay, you will need a heat-proof sculpting base made of metal so it won’t melt during baking.
Alternatively, you can use Monster Clay, which is a sulfur-free, oil-based modeling and sculpting clay. To reshape, use heat to soften the clay. This clay will never cure to a point that it becomes rigid and unworkable, but is still good to use with silicone for making molds. If you want to be able to reuse or reshape clay later, Monster Clay should be your medium of choice. However, it is susceptible to marring or damage if not protected after the sculpt is complete.
To work with the small surface area and real estate of a 1u keycap, I strongly recommend that you acquire some sculpting tools. Your basic silicone sculpting tools and a set of dental picks will serve very nicely to do both smoothing and texturing. I also strongly recommend an exacto knife for sculpting and also for trimming and cleanup.
In order to clean the sculpt and remove dust and fingerprints, you should also get isopropyl alcohol and lint-free foam swabs or applicators (like those used for cleaning electronics or applying makeup). Do not use cotton swabs; they will deposit cotton fibers that will stick to your clay sculpt.
In order to design your keycap in the correct size and clearance, you’ll need something called a sculpting base: get a heatproof metal one if you are going to use polymer sculpting clay like Super Sculpey so you can cure the clay right on the base in an oven. You can buy a plastic one, or 3D print one yourself if you’re using Monster Clay and you won’t be baking your master sculpts.
There are a few sculpting bases available. Personally, I like to use the Z-butt system to make keycaps, so I have several aluminum sculpting bases. This way they can be used equally in the oven, or without, if needed.
Currently, we’re just covering equipment.We’ll go into the considerations and requirements for making your sculpted master in this blog post.
Basic Molding Supplies
In order to make resin copies of a clay master sculpt, next we’ll need the appropriate supplies to make a two-part silicone mold. Since we already talked about the sculpting base above, all we really need now are silicone, a stem cavity master, and a mold box.
A mold box is simply the space you’ll put your master sculpt into in order to pour silicone over it (and over a stem cavity) to create a two-part mold in which to cast resin to make your keycaps. Mold boxes can be purchased from makers, made by hand with things like plexiglass and hot glue, 3D printed, or built out of LEGOs.
I strongly recommend buying a mold box container because it’s less of a hassle to put together and take apart, and is reusable. However, if you have LEGOs on hand, that is also an excellent solution. Sculpting platforms fit perfectly into a 4×4 LEGO pip space.
Note: I have found that the no hassle containers do tend to leak a bit, so I like to put packing tape around the seams and tighten the whole thing up with a hairtie or rubber band while curing.
In order to mold the bottom part of the keycap (also called the “butt”) that attaches to the switch on a keyboard, you’ll need to create a second mold of the stem cavity.
You’ll want to either buy or 3D print yourself a stem cavity. Because we’re making two-part molds, it’s very important that the stem cavity has sprues. Sprues create holes in the mold that provide a place for overfilled resin to escape in order to prevent trapped air bubbles in your casting.
The stem cavity and the sculpting platform have registration marks on them to ensure a tight fit between the two pieces of your two-part mold.
In order to make the mold, you’ll need silicone. I strongly recommend MoldStar 30 from Smooth-On, which is a harder two-part silicone with a 6 hour cure time and pot life of 45 minutes, making the worktime very generous. Silicone is not hazardous, but it is messy, so you’ll want to wear gloves and have cleaning supplies handy.
Mixing and Measuring Supplies
Silicone is two parts, so you’ll need to mix the parts together thoroughly before pouring to create your mold. Disposable plastic cups and plastic, glass, or wooden swizzle / stir sticks will be needed. You’ll also want to ensure you have a method of accurate measurement.
Due to working with small volumes, I measure all of my resin and silicone by weight rather than by volume. Smooth-On products list weight and volume mixing ratios on the packaging. Please note that these are different ratios, so don’t confuse your ratios or your silicone will not cure! You can buy a small kitchen scale, which should easily handle any measurements you’ll need for creating small volume objects like keycaps.
Again, we’re just covering equipment in this introductory article.We’ll go into the techniques and how-to instructions for using the molding components in a future blog post.
Basic Resin Casting Supplies
Once you’ve made a two-part mold of your artisan keycap master sculpt, you’re ready to cast resin into the mold and make a keycap!
This section will cover the very basic supplies you’ll need to make simple, single shot resin castings. Multi-shot techniques will be covered later in another blog post.
I recommend using urethane liquid plastic resin. This is not the same as the art epoxy resins widely available on sites like Amazon. Urethane resins have shorter pot life and cure times, and often have lower viscosity (they’re more “watery” and less thick).
Smooth-On makes several different liquid plastic resins. My favorites are the Smooth-Cast product line; in particular, the ColorMatch series. These are excellent resins for making artisan keycap castings in various colors.
- Smooth-Cast 325 (2.5 minute pot life / 10 minute cure) – Basically panic-mode resin. The work time is very short… but this is a great option for simple single shots. You’ll need to be fast and deft though.
- Smooth-Cast 326 (7-9 minute pot life / 60 minute cure) – A good middle-ground. You have a few more minutes than with 325, but still a quick cure time.
- Smooth-Cast 327 (10-20 minute pot life / 2-4 hour cure) – This is my favorite resin for multi-shot keycaps, or for doing several castings at once.
Smooth-On says that ColorMatch Smooth-Cast resins cure a translucent amber color if no colorant is added. I have actually found them to cure fairly clear, but I would not stake a claim on the clarity or try to do a clear encapsulation with it.
Unless you want a clear or slightly amber-colored keycap, you’ll need colorants for your resin. Be mindful when choosing colorants, since many types of resin pigments or dyes result in translucent colors vs. opaque. Other kinds of colorants have different properties.
Note: Do not use water-based colorants, or colorants that aren’t intended for resin-casting (such as acrylic paints). Such additives may cause cure inhibition and prevent your resin from hardening properly.
Liquid Pigments and Tints
If I’m trying to get an opaque color, I like to use Smooth-On UVO pigments. For the most part, these pigments are opaque, though some are slightly translucent (e.g., green, blue, yellow, orange). The different colors can be mixed to create additional shades.
For translucent colors, I like Smooth-On So Strong tints. These are translucent tints, with the exception of white which is opaque.
I also have a lot of other colorants from other makers (mainly craft brands available on Amazon), and they’re fine for casual use and experimentation, but if I’m trying to achieve a specific shade or opacity, I generally default to UVO or So Strong.
You can also use alcohol inks with resin, as basic translucent colorants, or to achieve special effects such as petri dish.
Mica powders and metal powders can also be used to color resin. Many mica powders are colorshift or two-tone, yielding a sparkly, color-changing effect. Metal powders are used to create cold casts: resin castings that have the appearance and some properties of metal (can be burnished, polished, or patina’ed, for example).
Additional Resin Casting Supplies
Similarly to silicone, you may want to use a digital kitchen scale to measure your resin and hardener. Generally, Smooth-On products are pretty tolerant of volume measurements, but because keycaps are so small, I always get more reliable results measuring by weight.
You’ll need the following additional materials:
- Digital kitchen scale: I use one that measures to the hundredth of an ounce
- Pouring and mixing containers: silicone cups or disposable plastic cups
- Stir sticks: drink swizzle sticks or popsicle sticks work well
- Disposable pipettes: for transferring resin and hardener into measuring vessels
- Shop (or paper) towels
- Protective surface to pour resin into molds on: I like using porcelain tiles because they’re small and I can easily remove spilled, cured resin from them with a razor, but a silicone mat, glass, or plexiglass work well too
- ALL THE SAFETY EQUIPMENT AT THE TOP OF THIS POST!
Enthusiast Resin Casting Equipment
There are a few pieces of equipment that you will want to add to this list if you choose to get serious about making resin casted keycaps; namely, an air compressor and a pressure pot. Curing resin under pressure prevents visible air bubbles in your resin castings. While it is totally possible to cast keycaps without a pressure pot, if you want reliable, consistently bubble-free results, you will need these additional pieces of equipment and the knowledge of how to use them properly.
If you’re just getting started, however, I recommend trying a few castings first to see if you’re committed to the financial and equipment commitment of scaling up your casting operation before running out and immediately buying an air compressor and pressure pot.
Note: I plan to add more information on selecting, modifying, and using this equipment in this section in the future.
Once you have your keycap demolded, you’ll need to trim, sand, and possibly polish or otherwise finish your piece. At a bare minimum, you’ll need:
- Flush cutters: to trim sprues and edges
- Wet/dry sandpaper, grit size ranging from ~300 to ~800 (or finer, if you want): you will need to wet-sand the bottom edge of your keycaps
- Soap (hand soap works fine)
- An old toothbrush: to wash/scrub resin dust off the keycap after sanding
I’ll cover more finishing supplies in the hobbyist blog post, such as materials for burnishing cold casts, polishing tools and compounds, etc.
Ready to Get Started!
Once you have the above equipment, you’re ready to sculpt and cast your very first artisan keycap! As this blog series progresses, I’ll go into much more detail on each step of the process. You can read Part 2: Sculpting a Keycap Master now. Let’s make a resin artisan keycap together!
I make artisan keycaps, miniature foods, charms and jewelry, dioramas, digital art, and sell things in my shop. I also write blog articles describing my process and showing tutorials, and announce new products, limited raffle sales, giveaways, and more on Instagram and in my email newsletter.