One of the first questions posed by newcomers to the hobby once they decide to dive in is, how do I buy these things? Most makers do not have an online store much less a web site, and the ones that do show caps from sales that have occurred in the past. So how does one acquire these little keycaps? There are two ways to buy artisans: (1) through the aftermarket, which most people tend to discover first as they browse reddit's mechmarket sub, and (2) from makers directly, through non-traditional retail sale methods that we will cover in this guide.
The reason most makers don't have in-stock artisans is that there is simply too much demand and not enough supply. Remember that these are hand-made pieces of art, requiring a non-trivial amount of time and effort to make. There are also far less makers than there are community members looking to buy caps. More popular and complex artisans are even harder to make, with a correspondingly lower supply and higher demand. With a few exceptions, it is unlikely that you will find artisans from popular makers in-stock, and will have to follow less traditional sale methods to obtain directly from makers at retail prices.
Traditional or first come first serve (FCFS) sales, when they are occasionally employed due to logistical simplicity for the maker, often result in the artisans being sold out in a few minutes or less, typically to the same folks in the same time zone. While there is no perfect sale method, using predominantly FCFS methods may result in disenfranchising some fans. To avoid this situation, many makers employ "raffle" type sales, where you enter for a chance to buy the cap via a random selection mechanism. This raffle or lottery-style method allows makers to give an equal chance to purchase an artisan across a large group of community members across different time zones around the world (assuming the sale window accommodates different time zones). To capture a bit more of the excitement of a FCFS sale, makers may do random time of day, short-window raffles (10 mins or less), which are more difficult to enter but reduce the amount of alternate ("alt") accounts or bots, as Nightcaps did during Poison Summer Part 1. Raffle sales are also used by some sneaker brands, and in other popular artist hobbies where supply is extremely limited.
If this all sounds confusing, do not despair; retail artisan sales are hiding in plain sight, you just need to know where to look. Entering most artisan maker sales require you to keep up to date on when sales are happening, know which platforms they are running on, and entering the sales before the sale window closes. Therefore, when attempting to purchase retail artisan keycaps, it is helpful to understand the various sale types and how they work, notification channels that require monitoring to ensure you catch the sales on time, sale platforms on which the sales are run, and payment methods that are typically supported.
There are ten sale types that makers have used most frequently in the past few years. Some of these methods, such as the raffle sale, are used quite heavily, since they generally help to distribute caps more equitably across the community. Other methods, such as email sales, were used in the past by some earlier makers and are less frequently used now. Commissions and giveaways are also mentioned, since they are methods of obtaining caps directly from makers that is occasionally available to the public. These ten sale methods, in rough order of prevalence, and two other methods of obtaining caps directly from makers, are described below.
FCFS / Flash
Some sale types, predominantly raffle style, can be partially or fully "blind". A partial blind sale means that you will get a random sculpt or random colorway from a selection of sale caps. A full blind sale means that you will get a random sculpt in a random colorway. Blind sales are reminiscent of buying collectible card packs or blister pack collectible toys, where you don't know what variants you have until you open the pack.
Some sales have "mystery" caps, which are completely unknown at the time of sale: you don't see a photo of what the cap sculpt or colorway is. It is usually assumed that mystery caps are typically more sought after sculpts and more complex or unique colorways, given the risk that the collector takes by choosing it.
Blind sales and mystery caps can be interesting and enjoyable, assuming the value of the caps are relatively similar, or the absolute cost of each cap is reasonable. When there is a large discrepancy in value between sale caps, or the cost per cap is high, blind sales can be a turn-off for some collectors due to the risk of receiving a cap variant that is difficult to trade if you prefer something else. Generally speaking, blind sales and mystery caps help to encourage trading and interaction among community members.
Knowing when artisan sales are happening is critical to being able to enter retail sales from makers. You need to be following makers on certain platforms, or paying close attention to channels where sales are announced. The table below lists some of the main notification channels for artisan sale announcements, in order of importance or prevalence. Channels marked with ** are must follow, channels marked with * are should follow, and the rest are optional.
|Instagram**||Instagram is now widely adopted by most makers to notify followers of sales via posts and stories. Stories may have countdowns and reminder options. Make sure to turn on Instagram notifications on your mobile device to keep informed of upcoming sales. Some makers re-post fan pics and engage by commenting on pictures of their caps.|
|Discord**||Several popular makers now have Discord servers where they interact with fans and notify them of upcoming sales. Makers without their own servers also announce sales on popular discord servers, such as mechkeys and mechmarket (not affiliated with the reddit mechmarket sub).|
|Reddit*||The Reddit r/mechmarket sub is where many artisan makers announce sales, since it is one of the most active trading platforms in the mk community. Unfortunately, there are no native notifications for artisan maker posts, but there are some third party notification platforms such as Telegram, IFTTT, and the discord mechmarket bot that can help.|
|Geekhack*||Geekhack was the mainstay platform for many artisans to announce their sales, and some still use it. Social channels and reddit have become more popular among newer makers.|
|Slack||There are a few Slack communities where members and some makers post sales. However, this channel is being rapidly supplanted by discord. The lack of long-term history in free Slack accounts, and rise of Discord adoption, has reduced the popularity of this channel.|
|A few newer makers have facebook pages where they post information. However, this is rarely used as an exclusive notification channel, and many makers do not use this channel.|
Sales are typically run on certain platforms online, from simple Google Forms to more sophisticated e-commerce sites. In some cases, these platforms may require you to register, which you should do in advance of a sale. The table below lists common sale platforms, in order of prevalence, that you should be prepared to use.
|Google Web Form||Submitting a google form is the most common artisan sale method. Often, a google/gmail account is needed to complete form.|
|Maker Web Site||Some makers sell caps directly through an e-commerce site, so make sure you are registered on their web sites for faster checkout. Make sure you have a fast payment method for FCFS sales.|
|Discord Chat Servers||The plethora of maker and hobby-related discord servers means more giveaways that happen in discord channels, typically by reacting to a giveaway post for random selection.|
|eBay Auction||Makers will occasionally auction caps to raise more funds for themselves, charities, or other reasons. When they do, it is almost always on eBay. Make sure you have an account (and a big bank balance) if you want to bid on these.|
|Twitch Stream||The hobby now has plenty of streamers, especially ones who build and review keyboards. Some of them occasionally invite makers who do giveaways on the stream. Also, 2020 saw several virtual events, including Keycon, due to the coronavirus, where makers did sales or giveaways.|
|Geekhack Forum||In the past, some makers ran sales via post method on Geekhack. In the early days, some makers would require a minimum number of posts to enter certain sales.|
|An old school sales method where you email a maker using a specific format at a specific time, which occasionally gets use from some OG makers. Everyone has an email account, so you should be all set on the rare occurrence of an email sale.|
|Online Marketplaces: Drop, Etsy, Amazon, TaoBao, etc.||
There are some less well-known and more mass-market makers who sell caps on e-commerce marketplaces such as Drop, Etsy, Amazon, and Taobao. These are often 3d printed, painted, or, in some cases, knockoffs of more critically-acclaimed maker sculpts. Drop sometimes hosts sales by mass market makers, such as Dwarf Factory, JellyKey, and Hammer, who make original artisans.
Generally speaking, however, caps sold on these platforms are typically high-quantity sales, do not hold much of their value, and are not highly sought after among serious hobbyists. Etsy and TaoBao are markets where unscrupulous sellers often list unsanctioned knockoffs (dupes, copies, etc) of popular makers' sculpts. Purchasing a knockoff is frowned upon among serious hobbyists, and could lead to a negative reputation.
Joining artisan sales and raffles requires you to pay the maker online using one of the methods in the table below.
|PayPal||PayPal is the most common payment method for artisan sales, and is pretty much mandatory for the hobby at this time. It offers some protection to buyers and is generally convenient for sellers to use. You can deposit funds in your PayPal account, link to a bank account, or link to your credit card.|
|Credit Card||Some makers who sell through web sites offer several methods of payment that their underlying e-commerce platform supports, including credit card.|
|Google Wallet||Google Wallet is another payment method supported by some makers who sell via web site, depending on the underlying e-commerce platform.|
|Shop||Shop is another payment method supported by some makers who sell via web site, depending on the underlying e-commerce platform.|
|Venmo||Venmo may be used by makers in private sales, but you should only use this method with trusted individuals.|
General Structure of an Artisan Raffle Sale Form
The general factors that effect retail price are: maker experience, maker popularity, and casting complexity. Makers can price caps at whatever price they want, and the market will determine the price. However, retail prices are generally higher for makers that have more experience and popularity, with a correspondingly larger hard core fan base.
Within a sale, you might see different prices for different colorways in the same sculpt due of casting complexity. More sophisticated colorways requiring multiple shots or casting challenges due to the geometry of the mold, require more time from the maker and often might have a lower success rate, or yield. To make up for their time, a smaller batch of a complex colorway might have a higher per cap price than an easier one.
Some makers in the past have experimented with a “Buy it now” option within a raffle sale, where a subset of the caps are available on a first come first serve (fcfs) basis at a much higher price than the raffle. This is rarely done now and is not viewed favorably due to the maker setting a separate listed market price during a retail sale, which might further encourage people to enter just to flip the cap if they win.
One of the hardest things about this hobby, maybe the hardest thing, is consistently losing raffles. Popular makers receive thousands of entries for a small number of caps, and the odds of winning are low. This leads to people entering sales to get caps to use for trades (in addition to people entering to flip for a quick profit), which further lowers one’s chances of winning.
It’s natural to feel discouraged after losing multiple raffles, but don’t let that deter you from enjoying the hobby or becoming overly “salty”. It’s easy to be critical or complain when you lose raffles or fcfs sales often (I know, I’ve been there myself, a lot). Find a group of friends, build your network, and you will eventually win or trade for caps that you are looking for. This process takes time: not a few days or weeks, but months. Whether you are collecting keyboards or artisans, this hobby is an exercise in patience; it truly is a marathon not a sprint.
You might occasionally hear of makers doing private sales, sending gifts to friends, or similar stories. As unfair as this may seem, it is their art and their prerogative to occasionally do things for their friends. We are not entitled to their work. Focus on making your own friends and helping people out – you might be the beneficiary of this some day. And if you are lucky enough to be in this situation, or just have great raffle luck, be humble not boastful. Help your friends when you can, you never know when the situation might be reversed.May the RNG gods be ever in your favor!