Nubbinator is one of the earliest popular artisan makers, who entered the scene in March 2013. Like Binge, who started later that year, Nubbinator shared many of his casting learnings and experience with the community on Geekhack, inspiring many other makers to follow. He took a break from the hobby in 2015, gradually returned back to the hobby as a collector years later in 2021, and recently had his first sale since returning, much to the excitement of many old and new fans. Nubbinator shares some of his history, inspiration, favorite makers, and his thoughts on how the hobby has evolved...
I wish I had some great story about being inspired by another person’s work or wanting to create something for others to appreciate, but the truth is far simpler than that. It was borne out of a desire for a creative outlet and experimentation. Artisan cap making is my playground. It is a place where I can experiment with materials and let my mind run wild while I sculpt. It’s why I’ve made artisan caps from resin, metal, and wood. I’ve always had a burning desire to create, to do things with my hands, and to be playful while doing it. The fact that people enjoyed my work too was just an added bonus and further funded my experimentation and play.
I first started casting in 2013, went on a hiatus around 2015, and drifted back into a dramatically different landscape. I never thought I’d see so many talented and creative makers. It’s incredible to see how far things have come since I started.
My very first cap was a monstrosity that was way too tall and poorly cast, but I showed it off anyways. At that point, the only people really selling caps were Clack Factory and Bro Caps, so people were intrigued by the novelty of it.
Editor's note: A glimpse into the early DIY casting process in 2013. Excerpts from the Nubinnator Geekhack thread, in the Making Stuff Together forum...
I never really intended to go from experimentation and sending the results to friends, to selling artisans. At some point, however, enough people asked to buy caps that I decided to go ahead and start selling. I believe that first sale was in late 2013. Some of those early caps like Cycap, Rageinald, Andre the Fly, and Hard Knock Waz, were really rough sculpts, but provided a basis for future sculpts.
My sculpting gradually improved, and I released Dolly, Shadow Stalker, and Deckerson. Eventually I created my own 3D printed sculpting base that allowed me to swap in MX, Topre, TMX, and Alps stems, so I could have identical sculpts and only had to swap the mold top when casting Dolly V2 and Harder Knock Waz for different platforms. It also gave me the freedom to do a live edge on the cap and not be constricted to a flat bottom.
Sculpting is this beautiful, organic process that I just get lost in. Every sculpt starts with a vision of what the final product will look like. I lay out reference photos and inspirations, lay out a plan of attack for how I will create my vision, and then, inevitably, throw it all away. Ideas I had for the final product fall apart as I discover that I do not have the technical ability to do something, that the material I’m sculpting in is not conducive to certain techniques, or that the clay is pulling me in another direction. It’s what I love about the creative process. You can have a perfect inspired vision, but discover something totally different, but equally inspired, along the way. Those surprises are just as wonderful to me as when I am capable of executing my vision.
I also love creating colorways. Since almost every cast I’ve done to date is a one off not designed to match any particular existing cap colorway, it gives me a ton of freedom to play. I love fun and bright colorways and playing with contrasting colors and color combos that probably should not work, but do. When I create colorways, I hope that they inspire a feeling of whimsy or make someone laugh and smile when they look at the results. I hope that they make someone reconsider how they view color and opens them up to the idea that color can be fun and does not have to be fifty shades of beige or grey.
My least favorite part, by far, is the waiting and how time intensive the process is. Waiting for your molds to finish curing, waiting for your resin to gel, learning when exactly to pull it out of the pot to cast another layer and waiting for that moment, waiting for your caps to finish curing before demolding. The waiting is by far the most painful part of the process. If you don’t wait long enough though, you can totally ruin something that you have already put hours of work into creating. So even though I hate it, it’s an essential part of the process.
I would be lying if I said there was any single place I draw my inspiration from. Sometimes it comes from something I see while walking, sometimes it’s a story I read or hear, sometimes it’s something I stumble across on the internet. When I am inspired, I try to grab it and run with it before it flutters away.
Stylistically, I have been heavily influenced by street art. When I started, I often perused Wooster Collective and was blown away by artists like Conor Harrington, C215, ABOVE, Banksy, and other talented street artists. The use of color and whimsy by street artists is just phenomenal.
Thubberkeyro. I know Dolly V1 and V2 is the one everyone probably expects, but Thubberkeyro is just a sculpt that makes me laugh. Beyond the humor of it, the casting process was totally different [from my other sculpts] and required multiple molds. At the time, most of my sculpts were multishot all in one mold. Thubberkeyro required doing three shots in one mold and then an additional two shots in another mold. If not done right, it would end up wasting a ton of labor and a ton of time. (Editor's note: this is what is known as "yield"; the number of successful a-stock caps from a given casting batch. Generally speaking, the more complex the cast/mold, the lower the yield.)
I don't think you can really start talking about a single sculpt without first acknowledging certain bodies of work. There are artisans who I feel are deeply skilled, who maintain a unique voice across their work, and/or who have pushed boundaries in technique, color, or style. Four really pop out to me in that regard: GAF, Binge/Hunger Work Studios, Cap A Cop, and Stonekeys.
Whenever I look at a picture of a GAF cap, I can’t help but smile. Trash Panda, Garbo Puss, TypeBeast, Fvccboi, there is so much whimsy and fearlessness in the designs and the color choices. There is so much joy and humor in the style and it's something that I feel the community really could use more of.
Binge/Hunger Work Studios' Hunger Key and Popsi Skull are wonderful, humorous, and fun designs, but what sets them even more apart to me is the technical skill in the casting of the cap. Each cap is skillfully made and the process of casting them is thoroughly thought out. It’s a level of technical precision that not many people have and one that requires an absolute devotion to the art. If you were to ask me who I think has impacted the artisan world the most, I would, without hesitation, say Binge.
Cap A Cop’s caps remind me of Sean Aaberg’s Dungeon Degenerates and the whole punk/heavy metal zine feel. I love how the caps just lean into that grimey and grungy feel. In a space full of other artisans, it’s not easy to be able to have such a clear and cohesive voice, but Cap A Cop manages to do it. (Editor's note: When Cap A Cop first released their artisans, I felt they evoked the same organic aesthetic as Nubbinator's work, so it is interesting to see it called out here.)
Stonekeys is another artisan with a totally unique feel that fully embraces their aesthetic. The style makes me think of the punk/grunge revival of Ed Roth's Rat Fink. Beyond the style, I love the playfulness and boldness in the casting. There's never an attempt to imitate keysets with the colors. Instead, the caps are fun experiments in color and materials.
And if you're not one of those four, it's not because you're not an incredible artisan. There are so many people whose work I love and deeply respect, like Booper, SodieCaps, Nightcaps/ETF, Bludgeoned Kaps, Fraktal Kaps, Deathcaps, Phage, Bogan Caps, Gooey Keys, Sludgekidd, Primecaps, Frumpzkeys, Hello Caps, Click Clack [Clack Factory], and many many more.
To answer the original question though, Primecaps’ Lurvana and Blud Kaps Kevin both just make me feel some kind of way. They're cute and humorous and all around fun sculpts.
Hunger Works Studio's Hungrkey, in addition to being a great sculpt, is a technical masterpiece that pushed the boundaries of what could be done when it was released. It will forever remain as one of my most favorite sculpts.
I love how the hobby allows a level of individualization and customization you really can’t find elsewhere. There are hundreds of custom boards for you to find your favorite layout, hundreds of different ways of customizing switches to tune them to your exact preference, a multitude of different key sets in different colors and profiles, and, of course, artisan keycaps.
Editor's note: Nubbinator was one of the earliest artisan makers to design and run a group buy for a GMK keyset called Skeletor, which also had matching accessories, including artisans from multiple makers and stickers. This was an innovative concept in 2016, which has now become a standard practice in today's keyset group buys.
Then you have the communities. There are so many welcoming and fun communities and on multiple platforms. It’s inevitable that you’ll find one where you feel right at home, whether it’s on Discord, Geekhack, Deskthority, Reddit, Keebtalk, or somewhere else.
The one major thing I wish I could change is the subset of the community that’s about flipping for profit and taking advantage of other community members. It’s incredibly disheartening to see people flipping GMK sets for triple what they paid for them and to see retailers having to install bot filters to weed out flippers. It’s depressing to have someone come to you and say they really wanted a cap you sold for $40, but the person who won is asking for $200+ or a ridiculous trade. If I could have it my way, the predatory component of the hobby would be gone.
For those joining the mechanical keyboard realm, don’t get caught up in the status symbol game and don’t fall into the “endgame” trap. There will always be people who have cooler stuff than you do and who have more money to spend than you do. There’s no joy in having more, bigger, and better than everyone else. Instead, find the things you love and build on those. I have keyboards, keycap sets, and artisans people think are corny or lame, but they bring me happiness. Likewise, the “endgame” trap will have you chasing after a myth. While there is always new, fun, and different, you will never find that perfect beast.
For those wanting to get into artisan making, I would say don’t cheap out and be prepared to fail. Casting under pressure can be dangerous if your equipment isn’t up to snuff. Once you get quality equipment, you will need to experiment until you find what works for you. Just because one mold making material or resin works for someone else does not mean it will work for you. You will need to experiment with resins, dyes, pigments, and silicones. You’ll need to do research to find out what is compatible with each other and what isn’t. You may very well use up a whole bottle of expensive resin and have nothing usable to show for it. That’s part of the process though. You will fail when you are learning, but every failure teaches you your material that you’ll be crafting with and teaches you the nuances of your medium.