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It can be said that aside from the structural characteristics of the keyboard itself, keycaps are the most eye-catching aspect of a keyboard. Pairing a desired mechanical keyboard with one's preferred keycaps naturally resonates with many keyboard enthusiasts.
Custom keycaps, although a very niche field, offer a world of possibilities once explored. The variety and designs available for such small keycaps are truly remarkable. However, the prices of many keycaps can be discouraging for some, leading them to hesitate. In this regard, the "keycap grab bag" is a unique product that has sparked the interest of many players, offering cheap prices and an abundance of options.
Let me introduce the keycap grab bag.
Why is there a keycap grab bag?
During the manufacturing process, the production of defective keycaps is inevitable due to process limitations. Whether it is two-shot injection molding or secondary molding, keycaps are produced in sets rather than as individual pieces. When a set of keycaps includes one or several defective pieces, the entire set cannot be sold or circulated.
Before the concept of grab bags emerged, these defective keycaps were typically either crushed and used as waste material for testing new molds or simply discarded.
Can't the defective keycaps be repaired and sold?
In reality, repairing defective keycaps would require the production of a new set of keycaps. However, when we refer to a "set" of keycaps, it does not necessarily mean an entire set. In fact, we can think of the production process in terms of keycap kits, which are subsets of pre-determined keycap sets. A set of keycaps actually involves multiple sets of molds, with distinctions between different sizes of molds.
Keycap Main Kit
Special Letter Area
Let's assume that some defects have occurred in the letter region of the keycaps. If rekeying is necessary, at least one set of keycaps for the letter region needs to be reproduced in order to complete the replacement. However, the above approach is a rough one. High-level keycap manufacturers would employ more efficient subdivision molds based on their practical experience, thereby reducing overall production costs. Nevertheless, due to the limitations of molds, two-shot keycap manufacturers cannot precisely perform individual rekeying.
On the other hand, for manufacturers specializing in dye-sublimation processes, especially those producing XDA profile keycaps, achieving rekeying at the lowest cost is almost possible. Although dye-sublimation injection molding involves the same set of molds, unlike two-shot keycaps that are restricted by character limitations, dye-sublimation processes leverage flexibility in printing. When defects occur on certain key positions, they can use unprinted materials of the same length to perform printing for replacement. Rekeying undoubtedly incurs additional costs, but it is undoubtedly a cost-effective option compared to scrapping a whole set of keycaps.
What does a keycap grap consist of?
The grab bags from subsequent manufacturers are actually quite similar to the ones initially introduced by SP. If you buy a grab bag, there is a high probability that you will find the following three categories of items:
1. Keycaps that are functional but have defects.
Contrary to what many people may think, although grab bags are called "grab bags," there are actually many keycaps in them that can be used normally. The defects in keycaps typically revolve around issues with surface character injection, printing, and surface scratches. These keycaps are often eliminated during the quality inspection phase or returned through the after-sales channels.
2. Brand new and undamaged keycaps.
The proportion of these intact keycaps depends on luck, but generally speaking, the quantity is not too small. They mainly come from keycaps produced for rekeying purposes. Since they cannot be sold as complete sets, they often end up in grab bags. These keycaps may include unique and personalized keycaps specific to certain sets.
3. Pure garbage
Since it's called a "grab bag," it is expected to contain some "garbage." There is no doubt that manufacturers will include a significant portion of keycaps that cannot be sold through regular channels. After all, grab bags are sold by weight, so the more, the better. The so-called "garbage" may include keycaps with broken bases or surfaces, as well as various unfinished products, such as partially injected keycaps. Whether these items can be considered keycaps is questionable.
The risk of grab bags
Grab bag is risky, so be careful when buying. Due to its characteristic of not guaranteeing quality but only quantity, you may still encounter such problems after sorting out several bags of grab bags:
1. Inconsistent profile
In addition to SP, there are also many keycap manufacturers who have begun to sell their grab bags one after another. The differences between different manufacturers are very obvious, such as different profiles.
There is a significant difference in keycap profile.
SP's grab bags mix several different profiles of keycaps together. On the other hand, other manufacturers may focus on producing keycaps of the Cherry profile. For example, Domikey's grab bags clearly separate SA profile keycaps from the Cherry profile keycaps, selling them separately. Therefore, it is important to consider this aspect before making a purchase.
In reality, many people do not expect to assemble a complete set of keycaps of the same profile from a grab bag. However, for players who exclusively use a particular profile, this distinction is crucial.
2. It is difficult to open a complete keycap Kit
The presence of missing keycaps is indeed an inherent attribute of grab bags. After all, if there were no missing keys, would it still be called a grab bag? As for a solution, it may involve buying more grab bags. The most frustrating situation is when there are missing keycaps in the letter area. Once keycaps are missing in the letter area, it becomes incredibly difficult to complete the set. Even in the larger keycap areas, there is no guarantee that you will get the specific keycaps you need to complete your desired layout.
Missing the letter Z
3. A large number of repeated keys
4. Defective products
The defective products referred to here refer to the broken keycaps and completely unusable garbage.
5. No after-sale guarantee
Due to the particularity of the product, the grab bag cannot be returned or exchanged. After buying a grab bag, it is very difficult to sell the common buttons in the second-hand market. You still have to think twice before buying grab bags.
Target audience for keycap grab bags.
1. Research-oriented players
These types of players are typically interested in keycap craftsmanship and want to acquire a large number of keycaps for disassembling and comparison purposes at a low cost. In that case, keycap grab bags are definitely the ideal choice as they fulfill the requirements of low cost and quantity. The risks associated with keycap grab bags are not a significant concern for them.
2. DIY creative players
These players typically require inexpensive keycap materials for painting and creative purposes, including dyeing and polishing. However, it's important to note that if you intend to do keycap dyeing, it is advisable not to purchase ABS keycaps. ABS keycaps have poor heat resistance and tend to deform during the boiling process. ABS is often used as the raw material for two-tone keycaps, which can be used for polishing. Using two-tone keycaps from a grab bag as practice materials is also a good option.
3. Collecting and entertaining players
These players are the primary audience for keycap grab bags. They collect unique keycaps and enjoy the thrill of uncovering treasures and opening mystery boxes. It is for the sake of these personalized keycaps that they purchase these grab bags.
4. Garbage guy
For these players, the keycap requirements are simply that they are functional and have consistent profiles. They don't mind the order of keycap characters. It is quite easy for them to assemble a complete keyboard using keycaps from a grab bag.
The source of keycap grab bags
The sources of keycap grab bags can be traced back to the production process, where they primarily consist of keycaps that did not pass quality inspection or were excess stock. Another portion comes from after-sales returns, which depend on sales performance and manufacturing quality.
These keycaps can be considered as unselected and are gathered together without differentiation by workers on the assembly line. Logically, for the factories, meticulously selecting the grab bag contents would be like searching for pearls in a trash can. It would be more efficient and cost-effective to produce new high-quality products. Even for the selected keycaps, it is not guaranteed that they can be sold as complete sets to distributors and the market, resulting in reduced profits. Factories often face limited sales channels, inventory accumulation, and time constraints. Therefore, keycap grab bags from factories are usually subjected to minimal manual intervention and are considered "all-natural."
From the perspective of distributors, it's a different story. The defective keycaps they have mostly come from after-sales returns, including items that have been returned and resold. Unlike many other products, keycaps cannot be refurbished, and once they are worn or scratched, the damage is permanent. Some products may be considered "defective" due to such reasons, and the process of keycap replacement can also result in distributors accumulating some "defective" items.
Now, you might think that buying keycap grab bags from distributors is a guaranteed win. However, for distributors, the value of different keycap regions varies. For example, individual keycaps and alphanumeric key regions hold higher values compared to numeric key regions and other kits. Distributors also have more channels and methods for selling their products. They may include high-value individual keycaps and alphanumeric key regions as small prizes or giveaways in lotteries and promotions to stimulate consumption. The keycap grab bags they curate and sell may have a higher rate of quality items, but they often lack the surprises we desire, such as unique keycaps. Of course, distributors may also sell grab bags directly from factories, and in these cases, there is usually no need to worry about any tampering since the cost of manual intervention is much higher than the potential value generated by these grab bags.
3. Individual sellers-produced
And when it comes to selling grab bags in the secondary market, the contents inside are entirely at the discretion of the seller, regardless of whether they are "unopened" or under any other conditions. It all depends on the seller. Of course, if you just want to buy some miscellaneous keys at a low price as spares, such as large keycaps, then it might be worth considering some low-priced grab bags sold by individual sellers. However, in reality, purchasing a bag of garbage will provide you with enough large keys to serve as backups for several keyboards.