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Switch Materials Are a Bit Complicated

Ever wonder what switch materials are made up of? This blog post will go into detail about the main types of switch materials used in most switches!

Disassembled Gateron Quinn MaterialsDisassembled Gateron Quinn Materials

Disassembled Gateron Quinn Materials

Nowadays, it feels like every new person fresh into the mechanical keyboard hobby is focused on building a keyboard that captures a certain sound aesthetic. “Thoccy” this, “Clacky” that, everything seems to be focused on how the boards sound. As for me and many other older mechanical keyboard enthusiasts, I am more focused on how our keyboards and switches feel rather than how they sound. In spite of this generational gap in keyboard-building core principles, there is one thing both old and new enthusiasts alike share a fascination with – switch materials. Yes, even before the explosion of switch offerings that started in 2018 and has since ballooned into what we’ve all known to come and love to date, constant debates would be had on the benefits of using nylon switches in this board or of using polycarbonate switches with this profile of caps.

Unfortunately, even after over 6 years of experience with collecting switches, as well as a master’s degree that was literally focused on fundamental polymer research, I realize that we still don’t really understand switch materials as well as we’d like to think that we do. While vendors and manufacturers across the board have been more than willing to share their marketing points saying what materials make up their switches in recent years, you’ll have to trust me that there’s a lot more nuance and depth in this subject that many people don’t stop to consider. And, in the event that you don’t believe me at all, I’m going to lay out all the things that you had never considered about switch materials before in the next couple of paragraphs!

Iconic examples of switches with different materials including Cherry MX Red (nylon), Novelkeys Cream (POM), and Zealio V1 (polycarbonate).Iconic examples of switches with different materials including Cherry MX Red (nylon), Novelkeys Cream (POM), and Zealio V1 (polycarbonate).

Iconic examples of switches with different materials including Cherry MX Red (nylon), Novelkeys Cream (POM), and Zealio V1 (polycarbonate).

Switches are largely comprised of three main different types of polymers/plastics: POM (polyoxymethylene), nylon (polyamide), and PC (polycarbonate). Differences in the properties of these various plastics – such as their hardness, strength, scratch resistance, and density – all play a role in producing the different feelings that we have come to associate with each of them. However, the community largely likes to chalk up all of the feelings in a switch with nylon housings as being caused by just ‘nylon’, and the reality is a lot more complex than that. In fact, the vast majority of modern, MX-style switches that have ever been produced actually have stems made of POM and housings made out of one or more plastics that aren’t POM. In spite of this fact that does slightly complicate our connection between what we feel and the material used to make switches, the attributes that have commonly been associated with switches that have nylon or polycarbonate housings still don’t exactly come out of thin air.

The claims of nylon housings having “deeper, more firm, and muted” sounding housing collisions, or polycarbonate housings having collisions that sound “thinner, higher pitched, and sharper” are all born out of old, classic switches which most people have exposure to and have been around for long enough to shape the direction of the hobby. These classic switch examples include anything produced by Cherry for attributes of nylon housings; original Zealios switches for attributes of polycarbonate housings, and most recently, Novelkeys Creams for attributes of entirely POM-based switches. In fact, these specific switches are often still cited today as the comparative ideal when describing the nature of newer, lesser-known switches that have materials or constructions of a similar type. However, there are even more details than just the combination of stems and housings of different materials that are conflating our understanding of what a “nylon” or “polycarbonate” switch feels like…

In addition to considering the differences between the various materials that could be listed on the sales page for the stems or the housings of any given switches, we should also start taking into consideration that not every nylon, polycarbonate, or POM switch is exactly made the same. While no manufacturer to date has ever been 100% forthcoming and transparent about these details, I can tell you pretty confidently from firsthand experience that Cherry’s iconic, deep-sounding nylon housings are definitely nowhere near the same in feeling or sound as newer-age nylon switches. In addition to Cherry’s housing material likely having a different grade or percentage of nylon in it than this other hypothetical newcomer, we also have to consider that the physical molding and design details of these two switches are also different as well! Differences in how dense the housings of a switch are, what details the manufacturer uses in their molds, and even where they source their material can all directly affect the feeling and sound of those particular switches.

To make matters even more confusing than they already are, manufacturers have also begun marketing switches as having their own, bespoke blend of different plastics to produce a particular feeling or sound profile in the final product. As if they weren’t already vague enough, some of these blends don’t even have names that correspond to their component parts, making them more or less a complete gamble as to what the housings or stems are actually made of. For all we know, they could be blends of nylon and polycarbonate that are different than all other grades of such that we’ve tried before and have been injected into entirely new housing molds that have different acoustics than other switches!

To date, nobody really knows what 'Ink Thermoplastic Material' is in the classic Gateron Ink switches.To date, nobody really knows what 'Ink Thermoplastic Material' is in the classic Gateron Ink switches.

To date, nobody really knows what 'Ink Thermoplastic Material' is in the classic Gateron Ink switches.

In spite of all of the confusion that this article has likely kicked up in your mind, there are a few caveats to these claims that are a bit of a saving grace. First and foremost, in my experience, most brands or manufacturers tend to be pretty consistent in their material usage across all of their switches. So, while Cherry’s nylon may feel different than Gateron’s or Kailh’s nylon, you are probably okay to assume that all Kailh switches share the same nylon housings. Secondly, it’s likely that not all of these nuanced details drastically impact the anecdotes about certain switch materials you’ve come to pick up during your time in the hobby. I think that it is useful to consider that there is, in fact, more depth behind these claims in order to prevent yourself from getting screwed by assuming something like ‘all polycarbonate switches are the same as each other.’ Still, it’s not like you need to forget everything and start over completely from scratch.

Finally, the confusing depths of switch materials do not invalidate your experience or feelings about certain switches or types of switches. Just because you can not correctly identify what every single component of the plastic is in every single type of switch doesn’t mean that you can’t try switches out, form opinions and trends in your mind, and make decently informed purchasing decisions based on those ideas. (In fact, I would argue that testing switches out for yourself is the only way to form good, sound opinions that can better influence your purchases.) All I’m telling you is to be careful of those sweeping claims out there because the reality is a lot more complex than you know!