A minimal approach to optimising Topre.
Topre stands out in the enthusiast keyboard scene in many ways, in a sea of traditional ‘mechanical’ switches Topre is one of the few exceptions from the name most commonly used to describe the scene. An off-the-shelf, primarily plastic construction, with subdued aesthetics, it’s likely that Topre is not the first thing that springs to mind for most when discussing mechanical keyboards.
Many guides on customising your Topre experience lean into the extremely lubricated and silenced trend, however a large portion of the community, including myself, try to maintain a distance from this ideology. Stock Topre is a unique experience, one that deserves to be preserved, and in this post I will be discussing that goal – how to get the most out of your Topre keyboard without losing it’s charm.
There are two major components worth discussing when considering Topre lubrication. The 1u sliders and the stabilised keys. While in my personal opinion, lubrication of the 1u keys is an exercise in futility, I will at least discuss the most effective method below. The stabilised keys however benefit greatly from lubrication, and is in my personal opinion the one modification worth doing on most Topre keyboards.
When it comes to lubricating 1u sliders, less is more. You will want to use a a low viscosity lubricant and apply an incredibly thin layer to the rails of the Topre housings. Tribosys 3204/3203 or other such thin lubricants are often chosen, these are your best bets as they’re the easiest option for lubrication. I sometimes use an extremely thin layer of Krytox 205 grade 00, however it’s easy to over-lube with 205 varieties. A non over-lubricated Topre board will not have a visible change in colour along the slider rails, with only a very minor sheen. A minor detail worth noting is that lubricating a white HHKB is multitudes harder than a black HHKB or Realforces. This is due to the housing colour not revealing how lubricated the slider is, making it much easier to over lubricate.
Stabilised keys are the most important part to consider when lubricating the board, and the way we approach 2u sliders is similar to the way we approach spacebar stabilisers. Essentially what we want to do with both of these parts is apply a lubricant between the plastic of the stabiliser and the wire used to stabilise itself. A thicker lubricant can be used here, your goal is to create a barrier between the part the end of the wire clips into and the plastic with enough lube to prevent rattle. A lubricant like the blend known as GHV4 is generally a safe bet, and commonly available lubricants like Krytox 205 grade 0 will also work, dielectric grease, while effective, has the potential to deform domes it comes in contact with over time so should only be used with the understanding you may need to replace them in the future. In my experience it’s hard to over lube stabilisers, but don’t be too heavy handed, worst case scenario you can reopen and add some more.
Domes and after-market alternatives.
After-market domes are a common ‘upgrade’ people like to try, and understandably so. The option to change the weighting and tactility of your keyboard is something many people are used to with MX and Alps keyboards, and as such it’s not unreasonable to hope for the same with Topre. After-market domes provide this option, but not without pitfalls.
Firstly, and in my opinion most importantly, is dome and spring alignment. Removing your stock domes from the PCB will result in the perfect factory alignment being lost forever. Improperly aligned domes leads to spring crunch, a wholly unpleasant sound caused by the springs not compressing directly down. You may find that you’re able to apply after-market domes in a close to perfect manner, resulting in no spring crunch however this is a very difficult and tedious task. Majority of after-market domes however come in either strips or single dome pieces, resulting in alignment being a much greater task than that of an OEM dome sheet. In essence, you should never remove the domes from your PCB, unless you feel the need to use after-market domes.
Secondly, the major after-market options when it comes to Topre domes (BKE Redux v2 from Keyclack and DES domes from Deskeys except for ‘Carrot’) both have open tops. This is to prevent an unwanted noise (think farting) from the domes expelling air out the side when compressed, this is generally handled in OEM domes with a channel to the side. These open tops however, introduce a lower path of resistance for other undesirable noises like the aforementioned spring crunch. On top of the potential for crunch, these after-market domes tend to have a less ‘full’ sound than stock, with keys sounding much higher pitched in my experience.
If you find that the weighting/tactility of your Topre keyboard leaves something to be desired, there are still options to explore in terms of OEM keyboards. As OEM domes age they reach a greater level of tactility, searching for a keyboard 15 years or more old is a great way to find a more tactile HHKB for example. OEM domes also come in 30, 45 and 55g varieties, so if your board is either too heavy or light, these options may offer what you are looking for.
Without a doubt, the best way to achieve a silenced Topre board is to buy a Type S or silenced variety. This option is designed from the factory to accommodate for silencing rings, resulting in no lost travel or deformation of domes. On that topic; the issues regarding after-market silencing of stock Topre. Precisely manufactured, Topre sliders when stock do not cause any compression of the dome until you initiate a keystroke.
Silencing rings, while minutely, will cause the domes to always be in a ‘preloaded’ state. That is, they will always be somewhat compressed, when installed in conjunction with silencing rings. You may find that this preloaded state results in reduced tactility, and over time the domes becoming deformed. When deciding to use silencing rings this is a decision that needs to be weighed up, as this is essentially a permanent modification after a certain period of time.
These days there are two main options for after-market silencing rings; KBDFans Silence-X and Deskeys DES silencing rings. Both options will encounter the pre-loading issues, and as such the decision mainly comes down to sound. KBDFans come in 0.2mm and 0.3mm varieties, both offer a less muffled sound compared to Deskeys, but still quieter than stock. Deskeys rings come in a wide range of options, however anything greater than the #2 and #3 (0.2mm and 0.3mm respectively) is over the top, as well as being heavily damaging to domes.
Customisation of keycaps. Keycaps are by far the most common option for keyboard customisation, however when it comes to Topre there are unfortunately significantly fewer options. Most third party keycap manufacturers are lower quality than OEM, with generally thinner walls and less crisp dye sublimation. For this reason my personal preference for keycaps is using donor parts from another Topre keyboard. A wide variety of options exists in terms of OEM Topre keycaps, with many boards over the years having different colours, legends and to an extent profiles.
If harvesting other keyboards is not something you wish to participate in, or you’ve found a stunning MX keycap set you are desperate to have, then an option remains in MX conversion sliders. Deskeys offer an MX compatible slider that is largely considered the highest quality MX slider, this options allows you to tap into the huge MX keycap market opening up many premium options such as GMK and Signature Plastics. It’s worth noting however that as of right now there is no option available from Deskeys for stabilised keys, currently you are stuck with KBDFans or JTK stabiliser sliders, both inferior products, and the usage of these requires a permanent drilling modification to the housings in your keyboard.
Picking a keyboard with a pre-existing aesthetic you enjoy will save you lots of money and effort in the long run.
Other popular modifications and final comments.
A handful of other popular modifications certainly exist within the Topre space, from aesthetic choices such as painting cases, functional ones such as ‘gaskets’ and other such products, through to less sensible procedures such as adding weights to affect perceived value. A lot of these modifications, even when justifiable, are best considered on a case-by-case basis and not thought of as a necessity by any means. While worth exploring, if so inclined, I will not be documenting these further, there is however plenty of information freely available online.
My approach when it comes to Topre is a ‘less is more’ mindset. The modifications I choose to make will always aim to accentuate the stock aspects of the board, removing the undesirable traits while maintaining those that are so unique to this offering. Where possible I will choose to use OEM parts, or even avoid opening a keyboard altogether, as this in my opinion is the best way to experience Topre.
While all the suggestions made here are methods and decisions I feel to be best, it’s worth noting that a lot of this is up to personal preference. Hopefully this information will be able to guide you to create the best experience for yourself, and to truly come to appreciate your experience with Topre. This is the exact reason I wrote this post in this way, to leave options open ended and facilitate and encourage experimentation. A guide is simply not suitable when it comes to such a subjective experience like optimising your keyboard. If for any reason you’re unsure of what to do or have any questions, please feel free to reach out through any of my methods of contact.