It seems difficult to believe, but artisan keycaps celebrated their tenth anniversary in 2020. Clack, the first known artisan maker, had his first sale around in the summer of 2010 (although he started making caps at some point in 2009). He created a niche within the mechanical keyboard community, which was at that time itself a fledgling hobby of maybe a few thousand members worldwide, tinkering with homemade PCBs and helping each other advance a shared esoteric interest. A few other artisan keycap makers emerged, from within the community, initially with no more than grassroots, part-time aspirations for creating and sharing art amongst friends and fellow hobbyists to embellish their keyboards.
In the decade following Clack's first artisan sale, the mechanical keyboard hobby exploded and the community grew exponentially. What started as a relatively small subset of the enthusiast PC market, with a few thousand members on online forums such as Geekhack and Deskthority, expanded globally across multiple platforms such as Reddit, Discord, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitch. The MechanicalKeyboards subreddit (r/mk) is now close to 1M members, doubling in the short span of one and half years, between June 2019 and December 2020 (see chart below)1. To put this into context, r/mk is now a top 500 subreddit, and as of mid-2021 had more subscribers than r/beer, r/Fallout, and r/lego.2
While there was always some coverage of "mass-market" mechanical keyboards from brands such as Logitech, Razer, and Corsair, 2020 and beyond saw mainstream coverage of true, higher-end "kustom" keyboards across such publications as The Verge, CNBC, IGN, Smashing Magazine, and Wired. Keyboard builders such as Taeha Types started streaming on Twitch (with over 180,000 subs as of February 2021), making keyboards for popular gaming streamers, which further fueled the growth.
The expansion of the mechanical keyboard community eventually, and inevitably, led to more people discovering artisans. Although still a niche, the corresponding growth in the artisan keycap segment is equally impressive. Some artisan makers, such as Tinymakesthings blew up on social media; as of February 2021, Tiny had over 3M followers on TikTok and 180,000 Instagram followers. In addition to growing coverage of custom keyboards, mainstream media also started writing about artisan keycaps, including The Verge in January 2020, and PC Gamer in March 2021.The increase in demand has also resulted in a surge of new maker entrants: artisan keycap makers now number in the hundreds, with multiple sales occurring every week, and vibrant maker communities such as the Z-butt Discord server. Many artists earn enough to make keycaps their full-time profession, which wasn't a viable option a few years earlier. These full time makers have significantly increased the volume of sales and amount of caps in the market, relative to the early days of the hobby. When we plot the monthly r/mk subscriber count against the r/mm posts with artisan flair (see chart below), we see a clear correlation between community growth and maker activity.3 While the artisan flair posts also include some non-keycap posts, such as cable and wristrest makers, the majority are still artisan makers. Also, there are many makers who, in the past 24 months, announce sales primarily via Instagram and are not reflected in this data. It is interesting to see that maker activity has kept up pretty closely with the community growth rate, but the demand for popular makers still far exceeds available retail supply, as reflected in the number of entries for sales and significantly higher aftermarket values relative to retail for popular sculpts.
The reddit r/mk sub has conducted some annual community polls over the years.4 While there is not a lot of data on artisans, it does provide us with a couple interesting questions around artisan ownership. Keep in mind that the sample size is a small percentage of the community, but nevertheless, provides a the closest representative snapshot. We looked at data from the 2015, 2017, and 2020 surveys, each of which asked the respondents how many artisans they own. After normalizing the response cateogries, we see an interesting consistency (see chart below). Despite the rapid influx of new members in the past 2 years, the number of artisan owners has remained steady at roughly a third of the overall community. One would have expected there to be a lag in artisan ownership, but many new members seem to be acquiring at least one artisan.
Not surprisingly, casual collectors, who own between 1 and 5 artisans, represent the majority: roughly a quarter of the general community and nearly 70% of those who own artisans. The next largest group is those collectors who own more than 16 artisans, at roughly 10% of the artisan owners and 3% of the overall community . There are now hundreds of new artisans sold each month, so I suspect that those who own 16 or more artisans likely have a lot more than 16, and represent the hard core collector base. The 2020 survey was conducted around Jan/Feb 2020, when the overall r/mk community size was around 450,000 subscribers. If the survey results are an accurate representation of the community, it would mean that there were around 13,500 collectors with 16+ artisans in early 2020, which would be larger than the entire mechanical keyboard community only 6 years earlier. So the enthusiast artisan collector community is still a niche, but certainly growing at a similar pace to the overall hobby.
We see additional evidence of this growth in Discord, where some of the most active collectors congregate in the Discord Mechkeys server (over 30,000 members as of Feb 2021) artisans channel, and the Discord Mechmarket server (around 8,000 members as of Feb 2021) to buy/sell/trade artisans. The artisan channels are lively, with probably several hundred members who participate actively in the artisan-related channels, and who anecdotally have many more than 16 artisans in their collection (several have over 100), and often attend meetups. The causal collectors are either not in discord or are more likely to be lurkers in these channels, but represent the silent majority of the overall community.
According to the r/mk surveys, the most that respondents spent on a single artisan has been steadily increasing (see chart below)4. In 2017, the majority (over 35%) of collectors spent $25-$50 on their single most expensive artisan. In 2020, the most spent on a single artisan shifted to the higher-spend categories of $51 and up. This is to be expected since both the average retail price for artisans, and aftermarket prices, have steadily increased over the past few years.
In 2020, many popular makers have hit or exceeded the psychological $100 retail barrier for a single artisan, and the trend seems to be picking up this year. It is good for popular makers to capture more of the aftermarket value, but it will be interesting to see how this plays out. While it was possible to amass larger collections when caps were $20-$30 a few years ago, at over $100 retail per cap there are practical limits to how much money some collectors would feel comfortable tying up in artisans. As newer makers follow suit with increasing retail prices, it is possible that the hobby will start to become self-limiting for many, and large collections of several hundred artisans may start to become less common.
Artisans may have been born in the US, but quickly found homes and centers of origin in various countries around the world. Some early makers hailed from overseas, including GirlDC and Hot Keys Project, setting the stage for future makers. In the past 2-3 years, Asia in particular has seen the rise in popularity of makers in the region, such as Alpha Keycaps, Artkey Universe, CYSM, DC Caps, Golden Star Keycaps, and several more.
By examining visitor traffic to artisan catalogs via Keycap Archivist, which came online in mid-2020, we are now able to get more insight into the geographic distribution of artisan collectors.5 Collectors are most heavily concentrated in three main regions: North America, Asia (primarily South East Asia and China), and Europe (see chart below). The United States is home to vast majority of the community, but at least a quarter of collectors now hail from non-English language countries.
It is interesting to note that Vietnam is home to both a large number of popular makers and the 3rd most active artisan collector community, which is impressive considering their GDP and population size relative to other countries. While the US will remain a central hub for the foreseeable future, we expect to see more growth in makers and collector activity in Vietnam and neighbors like Indonesia and Thailand, all of which have a combination of vibrant artist communities, a growing IT workforce, and relatively low costs of living.
If we continue to see the hobby expand at anywhere close to the current rate, the next ten years is sure to usher in some interesting developments to how artisans are made, sold, and collected. Let us explore a few these potential trends, some of which are already well underway...
In 2018, we saw Brocaps partner with Trovarion, a talented and award-winning miniature designer, sculptor and painter. Trovarion was not from the artisan keycap community, but lent his sculpting chops to several popular Brocaps caps, including the Bowsette and Broshido. In 2020, we started to see popular keyboard designers collaborate with brands outside the hobby, such as Keycult teaming up with Grovemade.
The potential for artisan makers to collaborate with brands or other artists outside of the community is a compelling one. There are amazingly talented artists who can bring creativity and expertise with other materials into the artisan keycap world. This could also lead to the keycap art form gaining more exposure outside the keyboard community. For example, both Trovarion and Grovemade are well-known and widely followed by thousands of fans in their own respective industries (although some awkward interactions can arise if those external vendors attempt to market to the keycap community directly without understanding the nuances of how to message to that group). Expect to see some interesting collaborations from the Asian maker segment as well, with new materials and techniques.
Once a maker has achieved a certain level of demand and following for their work, their brand can be applied to other items beyond keycaps. Makers like Alpha Keycaps, Artkey, GAF, HWS, and KWK have, either themselves or via fans (eg. Shuangmu and Lucky Demon/Shinzo), created keyboard-related or apparel accessories with their IP and artwork. Examples include deskmats and stickers from Alpha Keycaps and KWK, apparel and pins from HWS, toys and wall art from GAF, and keychains from Artkey.
Expect to see more makers release branded accessories with their IP to supplement their income or just based on fan demand. The use of these accessories at the workplace or apparel in public, may further increase exposure to the art form and bring curious individuals into the community.
Collaborations with artists outside the hobby, expansion into other accessories, and a larger community overall, will result in higher expectations around intellectual property (IP) rights. Whereas in the past, this niche art form has largely avoided commercial IP scrutiny, the involvement of outside collaborators and expansion into more common accessories will likely necessitate more caution around any conscious or inadvertent IP infringement. Nintendo or Studio Ghibli/Disney may not pay much attention to artisan keycaps today, but if unofficial keychains and pins start showing up, their IP protection groups may have concerns. This should be an overall benefit to the keycap art form in terms of more original sculpts and IP being produced.
There is precedent for successful official licensing of popular IP in the mechanical keyboard community, and we expect to see more of this trend continue. In 2017, Rodenberry Entertainment worked with Norbauer to release an officially licensed Star Trek themed keyset called "Galaxy Class", which was even covered in Popular Mechanics later that year. Even more impressive is the licensing by NovelKeys of official Star Wars keysets DSA Galactic Empire and GMK Boba Fett. Finally, in June 2020, S-Craft negotiated the first known commercial artisan license with Nintendo to produce official Pokemon keycaps. Despite a minor hiccup in communication over what this license covered, S-Craft continues to fulfill these caps. These precedents with some of the world's most popular and IP-restrictive brands bode well for future licensing possibilities, further expanding the reach of the community into mainstream audiences.
As more artists enter the community to experiment with keycaps, bringing with them skills and ideas from other craft areas, expect to see more mixed media experimentation and approaches to keycap making. We are already seeing a mix of traditional resin casting with encapsulated pigment ink effects, such as Artkey's popular Sirius with various visor effects, and Shirouu Kaps' Kitsune Masks made from polymer clay on a PBT keycap glazed with UV resin. We will also continue to see more makers leverage 3D printers and modeling software, which has significantly lowered the entry hurdles and will continue to do so as cost, resolution, speed, and ease of use improves.
Mixed media artisans is certainly not a new trend: some of the earliest makers, such as GirlDC and Jelly Key, experimented with different media such as metal and wood. However, expect to see more new entrant makers choose to either complement or eschew the traditional keycap making process, both to lower barriers to entry and find their own unique style in what is gradually becoming a more crowded space.
In addition to the aforementioned trend of collaborations across artists outside the community, expect to see more artisan brands created that bring together artists into a collective business. The precedent was set for this type of brand a long time ago with the formation of Jelly Key in Vietnam in 2010. This was one of the earlier makers responsible for exposing artisans to the mass market, and fulfilling large group-buy sales through channels such as Drop. The structure of collectives is a core group of 3-4 individuals focusing on various aspects of the art: designing, sculpting, casting, and business operations, including marketing. Around this core, other employees are added to help scale production and support, with apprentices being hired and trained, usually in the areas of casting and painting, depending on the type of products made.
Interestingly, two other well known artisan collective brands have also emerged in Vietnam. Artkey Universe was launched in 2017 by a group of friends who had backgrounds in architecture and design, and through a combination of raw skill and marketing, has grown to become one of the most popular makers in Asia. Golden Star Keycaps initially started in 2017 as a maker of metallic artisan caps and expanded to resin a couple years later with Velites as their first cast production sculpt. Expect to see more maker collectives emerge, who are either inspired by the lucrative business model, or trained in a collective and looking to break out to launch their own brands. This is especially likely to happen in Asia, where there is a relatively high abundance of artist labor compared to the west. It is also possible that makers in Western countries, who are mostly sole proprietor or dual partner led businesses, will look to collaborate with these collectives both for their talent and to benefit from their operational scale.
As discussed earlier in the artisan spend section, there is a clear increase in retail artisan prices over the past few years. Makers who were selling caps at around $25 to $30 per cap a few years ago, are now pricing their work at $80 or more. Many of them are now full time, have earned their reputation as sought-after makers whose work sells for much higher in the aftermarket, and have built up experience and casting process efficiency towards justifying higher rates. However, this can also contribute to "retail inflation" as newer makers start to view experienced maker retail prices as the norm, and price their art accordingly. As more experienced makers then try to capture more of the after market value, this results in a perpetual price increase cycle. Expect to see retail prices surpass the psychological $100 barrier more often in 2021 and beyond.
As the community has grown, the available inventory of caps has expanded, but not enough to keep up with the seemingly insatiable demand. Therefore, aftermarket values have also continued to increase for many popular sculpts and colorways. Price increases are particularly visible in public auctions, which, in the past year, have set progressively higher records for per-cap values as collectors compete for a chance to pick up popular sculpts outside of raffles. Expect to see a sustained rise of both retail and aftermarket prices as long as the community continues to expand at the current rate. Makers will also offer commissions more openly and frequently than in the past, both in response to demand and also to get higher return for their time while capturing more of the aftermarket value. (We will explore commissions and auctions in more detail, and their corresponding effects on the market, in future guides and articles.)
While the average artisan retail prices continue to rise, we also expect to see some innovative makers find an opportunity to capitalize on lower price sales to meet demand. For example, Hunger Work Studio (HWS) ran a weekly series of "singles nights" on Fridays that offered collectors single-shot versions of the popular Earl Esc and Deathcaps collaboration Revthulhu sculpts for only $19.99 each in a first-come first-serve sale. This provided an opportunity for more fans to enjoy HWS art at an affordable price, while also enabling the maker to follow an easier production path, test color samples, forgo ID cards, and reduce the stress of more complex casts and raffle sale logistics. Another maker, Brewcaps, has created some incredibly detailed sculpts and taken a different route to market: make prices and the art as accessible as possible, with single shot, in-stock caps at amazing $19.00 and $17.99 price points.
Some makers who experience significant demand for a sculpt, and notice correspondingly high aftermarket prices that prevent people from enjoying their art at affordable prices, have found ways to get their sculpt to more fans via lower cost, high-volume fulfillment sales. Alpha Keycaps has run both fulfillment sales and blind bag sales, at higher volume (~100 per colorway), for the Keypora sculpt, enabling more fans to enjoy the cap at retail prices. Artkey ran a group buy for their popular Sirius sculpt, which despite hitting their high limit twice within 15 minutes of the sale opening, enabled more hardcore fans to nab a Sirius at close to half the price of retail. We expect to see more makers offer these types of sales in the future, if they can find methods to scale production affordably.
Finally, as the overall body of released artisan keycaps continues to grow, we will see a larger number of previously released products come down in aftermarket prices, as newer "hyped" sculpts and colorways gradually shift community attention and evolve to meet trends over time. So bargain hunters take heart: even though retail prices are ticking upwards, there will still be opportunities to own some great art at reasonable prices. And makers take note: it is ok to occasionally explore lower production complexity, lower price casts, without sacrificing artistic integrity, while bringing your art to a wider audience or simply making it more accessible to fans.
The start of 2021 kicked off a craze in Non-fungible token (NFT) art, with musicians, artists, and media companies releasing digital collectibles across a variety of online marketplaces. In March, we saw artisan makers release the first NFT art via platform called Rarible. China Keycap Clones, the parody maker, released his animated "Fandal", followed by the maker who inspired him, HipsterPunks, who released a dibs ticket and a series of "KWK Mummy III" pieces. Finally, GAF Caps released a couple digital deskmat format pieces and a "Typebeast" series.
This is still early days for NFT and its corresponding platforms, so we expect to see some exploratory projects by makers before finding a sustainable use case, if one arrives at all. Possible artisan keycap scenarios include NFTs that are related to physical instances of caps via serial numbers or some other visual element, which can be transferred to new owners as a means of tracking authenticity, chain of custody, passing residual value to the maker, or some combination of these capabilities. With high crypto transaction fees and platform longevity concerns, it remains to be seen whether this medium will achieve widespread adoption, but expect to see some experimentation from enterprising makers and adventurous collectors.
As both the demand (consumer) and supply (vendor) side of the community grows, we will see it shift and adopt the most convenient platforms available for efficient communication. The early days of the hobby, from around 2007 to 2012, saw the community utilize classic online forums such as Geekhack and Deskthority. Eventually, the limitations of those platforms for marketplace listings, coupled with more staid moderation policies, resulted in the adoption of Reddit for sharing content and creating a vibrant aftermarket. Within a year of launch, the Mechanicalkeyboards Subreddit had overtaken Geekhack membership, to become the dominant community platform.
As the community continued to grow, a desire emerged for groups of members to create their own sub-communities, especially with a focus on artisan collecting or fans of specific makers. This need was met with the adoption of Slack as a messaging platform, with some private communities that, like Geekhack and Deskthority, still exist today. Slack, however, is an expensive enterprise solution with several limitations in the free plan, including storage and history restrictions. Discord, on the other hand, provided a robust, free alternative for easy private and public community creation, with unlimited history, plenty of administrative and collaborative features, including voice chat and screen sharing. Discord is now home to numerous large and small, public and private sub-communities within the hobby, and has become the dominant messaging platform, alongside Reddit for less transient content.
However, with every new artisan maker, keyset designer, keyboard group buy, and every vendor creating their own Discord server, there is a scalability problem starting to appear on the horizon. There are now literally hundreds of discord servers within the community. This results in a lot of duplicative effort: each server has a market place channel, a channel to share photos, a food channel, a pets channel, and so forth. Members must move across multiple servers to keep up with information, and there is no way to search across servers. As the community grows even larger, there will be a natural proliferation of private communities, each with similar channels. Eventually, people will hit server limits, get overloaded with notifications, and start to realize there might be a more scalable, manageable approach to private communities. This could potentially be solved through consolidation of Discord servers. Or, more likely, the community will eventually find another platform that provides a better solution, just as it has done multiple times in the past.
The other area of the community that has long suffered from platform limitations are the market places. Objectively, neither Geekhack, Reddit, Slack, nor Discord make for an ideal buy/sell/trade marketplace solution. These platforms are transient, unstructured, and provide few capabilities for realtime search-based alerts, automated supply and demand matching, transactional integrity, history, and other useful marketplace features. As the community grows, and the volume and value of transactions continues to skyrocket, expect to see newer, more market-optimized platforms emerge to solve these problems.
In 2017, just a few years ago, there were maybe a dozen active makers and a couple dozen artisan sales in an entire year. In 2021, there are probably close to a hundred makers and a dozen sales each week. The amount of options in terms of artisan styles, colorways, materials, and even sale types, is more varied and plentiful than ever before.
We are in what I believe to be in a "Golden Age" of artisans. Many of the well established makers, and even some recent entrants, are now producing fantastic art full time. Many new makers are coming onto the scene each month, brining diversity of choice for all types of collectors. While some veterans may lament that the increasing demand for artisans has resulted in more of a focus on the commercial aspects, and attracted some bad actors who enter sales purely for the profit motive, this demand is also what enables makers to focus more time and effort on their art and be compensated at a level that enables them to do it more sustainably. This also means collectors can choose between almost limitless sculpt styles and colorways, and no longer need to wait months between sales. This growth will enable new collectors to find the hobby more accessible than ever before, and have many choices to find their own path to satisfaction. Enjoy this time.
The earliest days of this hobby consisted of a close knit community who simply shared a passion for mechanical keyboards, and the indie nature of artisan making was far less commercial than it is today, with members primarily investing time to help each other customize their setups.
Change is inevitable; the hobby has grown tremendously, and seems to have become simultaneously more sophisticated, approachable, and commercial. However, there still are, and hopefully will remain, pockets in the community that follow some of the niche hobby traditions and close-knit spirit of developing relationships, hanging out at meetups, and helping each other out. Hopefully, new collectors and makers will continue to cultivate, support, and enjoy those traditional aspects of the hobby, alongside the inexorable commercial growth that is taking place. Either way, the next decade will likely usher in some fascinating developments to the art and hobby.