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Cable Anatomy Guide

It's incredibly exciting to dream up the perfect cable design to suit your desk setup. But, with so many options for customization it can quickly get intimidating or confusing. 

To help, we've put together a comprehensive breakdown of all the key components that make up a custom cable. In this guide we'll cover everything you need to know to commission your custom cable or start your next DIY project.

Why Custom Cables?

A custom cable gives an extra edge to your dream setup. It's awesome to have a customized keyboard with an ideal keycap set, and adding a custom cable to perfectly go with it is the icing on the cake! Like many things within this hobby, we take pride in making our setup our own, and that's why cable artisans like us are always thrilled to help you express your individual creativity!

Cable Styles

Before we dive into the anatomy of a custom cable, it's important to first define the different styles of cables that are out there. The two most commonly referred to general types are the straight cable and coiled cable.

While there aren't many functional differences between the two, both bolster their own individual die-hard fanbases and will make a great addition to elevate your battle-station.

The Straight Cable

Starting off with the simplest version of a custom cable, the straight cable looks exactly as it sounds. It's your classic cable style with a USB connector on either end (and possibly a quick release connector in-between - more on that later). This go to cable offers all the functionality of a stock cable (like the ones that may come with your keyboard) plus the benefits of increased customization and durability.

While a straight cable doesn't provide that same nostalgic pop that a coiled cable can, this style is perfect as a nice minimal accent piece to complement your device of choice.

The Coiled Cable

Moving into the more complex cable style, the coiled cable offers a greater amount of design freedom while also delivering on that vintage coiled aesthetic. While coils traditionally provided greater functionality through compacting long lengths of stretchy cable for telephones and other devices, many of the coiled keyboard cables you see today primarily deliver on aesthetics and are not meant to be stretched repeatedly.

Coiled cables come with many intricate design choices, and therefore require some more thought when planning out your dream design.

Coil Orientation

One of the first things to decide is what direction you want your coil to go. This can depend on your preferences, but generally you would want your coil to run across the length of the board, and thus depends on where the USB connector port is housed on your keyboard. For example, if your USB port is on the left hand side of your keyboard you may consider a coil orientation that runs towards the right. You can also choose to have a coil orientation that is straight and will thus not run across the length of the board at all.

It's important to remember that there is no answer to what orientation is the best as it's entirely up to your personal preference. For more information on coil orientations, we recommend taking a look at our coil orientation guide.

Coil Length & Diameter

Next up is choosing the length of your coil. Again, this is one of those things that is entirely up to your preference. A good starting coil length is around 5-6 inches, however depending on the total length of your keyboard you may want to go up or down from there to get a perfectly proportionate look. It's important to note however that there is a limit on coil length (and the length of your full cable for that matter) as longer cables may prevent your keyboard from functioning as intended (i.e., dimmed RGB, or not working at all).

One of the other customizable features of a coiled cable is choosing the diameter of the coil. This measurement will almost always refer to the diameter of rod used to make the coil, so for example a 1/2" diameter (or inner diameter) refers to using a 1/2" rod to wrap the cable around. Some standard diameter measurements include 3/8" (9.5 mm), 1/2" (12.7 mm), and 5/8" (15.9 mm), however this measurement is completely dependent on the type of rod (or drumstick) that is used.

Lead Length

Lastly, the lead length refers to the length of straight cable that comes off of the coil and terminates at either a USB connector (e.g., the USB-C that connects to your device) or a quick-release connector. This measurement is usually somewhere between 1"-3". If there is no quick-release connector on the cable, the lead length is the length that goes to the host-end (i.e., the end that plugs into your computer).

Anatomy of a Cable

Now that we've discussed the various styles of cables, let dive into the key components that make up a custom cable.

USB Wire

Firstly, the most important piece of any cable is the USB wire. This wire is what allows for data and power-transfer to your device, and is where you will be soldering your various connectors to. A typical USB wire used for cable making is a USB Rev 2.0 28/28 AWG Double Shielded Wire.

Lets break down that lengthy description:

USB Rev 2.0: This wire is USB 2.0 compliant (while 3.0 may be better, it is slight overkill for our purposes here).

28/28 AWG: Both the two power conductors and two data conductors (i.e., the internal wires) are of the size 28 AWG (American Wire Gauge). You may also see 28/24 AWG wire being used as well.

Double Shielded: Contains a foil covering and metal braid to provide maximum protection against corrupting EMI/RFI.

As mentioned above, the USB Wire contains four internal small wires for power and data transfer. While the colours of these wires may not always be the same, they typically are:

Black & Red: Power delivery

Green & White : Data delivery

However, the colours themselves do not necessarily matter, as long as you match the colours on both ends of the cable when soldering (i.e., Purple is power, yellow is data, etc.).

Sleeving Materials

Paracord

Arguably one of the most important components that makes a cable unique is the choice of inner-sleeving that is used. Inner-sleeving refers to the material that is used over the bare USB Wire, but under the outer-sleeving (i.e., under the Techflex).

The most common choice for inner-sleeving is the durable and stylish Paracord rope. Typically made of nylon (although sometimes polyester) this rope has traditionally been used for parachute suspension lines, but, has since then become a general use utility cord that is known for being lightweight and durable.

The favourable qualities and expansive line of colour options makes Paracord the ideal material for sleeving custom keyboard cables. With over dozens of colours to choose from, any keyboard cable enthusiast should have no problem finding something to perfectly match their setup.

Typically Paracord 550 is used in this application as its 0.16" (4mm) diameter makes it optimal for sleeving 28 AWG USB Wire.

MDPC-X

Another popular choice is the german made cable sleeving offered by the MDPC-X company (commonly referred to as MDPC-X). Offering something thats in-between Paracord and Techflex, MDPC-X is a highly expansive and densely woven PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) sleeving that is legendary in the custom PC building community. The density of the weave means that this sleeving material is a perfect choice to take the place of Paracord as the inner sleeving, and is also rigid enough to not require Techflex for coiling.

Offering a vast range of unique colours, MDPC-X is an optimal choice for single-sleeved cables for premium and artistic builds. In terms of cable sleeving options, it doesn't get more premium than MDPC-X. The downside however, is that MDPC-X sleeving comes in at a higher price point than Paracord.

Techflex Double-Sleeving

The outer-sleeve material of choice is the Techflex branded PET sleeving. Commonly referred to as simply Techflex (the most well-known PET sleeving manufacturer), this uniquely braided sleeving is built for maximum expandability while simultaneously remaining rigid and durable. These properties alongside the braiding style create the perfect material for outer-sleeving keyboard cables as it is both easy to work with and provides a mesh-like texture that allows the inner-sleeving (i.e., Paracord) to shine through.

For these reasons, Techflex is only ever used as the second level of sleeving since it can be used to expand upon the colour shades and designs that Paracord or MDPC-X offers.

Looking again at the outstanding physical properties of Techflex, its excellent rigidity allows for tighter and more elastic coils. As such, we recommend always adding Techflex when coiling a cable made with Paracord, while it is not necessary for MDPC-X based coils.

Quick-Release Connectors

You either love them or hate them. Quick-release connectors (QRCs) provide an extra design element to your cable that serves the purpose of both aesthetics and functionality. There are many different styles of QRCs, however, they all functionally serve as a way of splitting a cable into two parts so that they can become more portable, while also allowing for the ability to mix and match different cables, coils, or USB connectors.

Aviator Connector

Arguably the most common form of QRC, the aviator connector is well-known for it’s hefty form factor and affordability. While traditionally used in the aviation and navigation industry (among other commercial electronics applications), aviator connectors have quickly gained popularity in the customer keyboard scene as the connector of choice for custom cables.

Typically aviators are seen in either a 4-pin or 5-pin variant (corresponding to the number of internal USB wires), and feature a circular design with the two halves securely attaching in place with a threaded metal locking ring.

Standard aviator connectors come in a silver/aluminum or gold style, however it is becoming increasingly common to see an application of Cerakote paint applied to the connectors to better suit the wide variety of keyboard and keycap themes available. In terms of sizes, the GX-12 and their larger sibling the GX-16 are generally the most used for custom cables.

YC8 Connector

A lesser known connector, the YC8 is slim and compact while offering the same functionality as an aviator. Featuring a sophisticated (yet imperfect) push-pull system for securing the connection of both halves, YC8s require less work than aviators to attach and detach both halves of your cable. On the contrary however, the slim build of the connector results in an extremely tight fit on double-sleeved cables, and thus requires an extra amount of care when assembling.

Similarly to aviators, YC8s will typically come in 4-pin or 5-pin silver variants, and can occasionally be Cerakoted for added colour options.

FLEMO Connector

When it comes to luxury connectors, the LEMO connectors take the cake. For a quick history lesson, LEMO connectors are revered for their exceptional build quality and tight manufacturing tolerances, and have traditionally been used in military and telecommunication applications. LEMO style connectors utilize a push-pull connecting system (similar to, and better than YC8) that is quick and efficient for attaching and detaching. Premium quality comes hefty prices, with LEMO connectors costing upwards of $80 CAD each.

Of course for the applications of custom keyboard cables, it is extremely overkill to use such a premium quality connector (although they are very cool!). As such, most of the times you will see a non-genuine (fake-LEMO, or FLEMO) connector being used as a substitute. That is not to say that genuine LEMO connectors are never used, as they still provide a sense of prestige and exceptional build quality to those who value these characteristics in their cables.

Available in a wide variety of standard colours; silver, black, gold, rose gold, white, blue are most common, while Cerakoted options are becoming increasingly available. Size wise, 0B and 1B (smaller and larger, respectively) are standard, with the 0B size generally being to small to accomodate the diameter of a double sleeved cable.

WEIPU Connector

Another great push-pull connector, the WEIPU is a new addition to the QRC lineup with its unique design that gives it a industrial look. While slightly larger in diameter than an aviator GX-16, they are actually lighter in comparison due to their aluminum housing (also available in the SF variant, made of brass).

WEIPU connectors are generally available in the slim SA10 and chunkier SA12 styles (or SF10 and SF12 for the silver coated brass variants), with a few different colour options to choose from.

USB Connectors

We can’t talk about the anatomy of a USB custom keyboard cable without talking about the different USB connectors available.

The side that plugs into your keyboard is referred to as the the device-side connector, while the end that connects to your computer is the host-side connector. Traditionally, many custom keyboards were built with mini- or micro-USB ports, however current designs now commonly use USB-C connectors (because nobody likes having to figure out which direction the connector needs to be to plug in correctly).

On the host-side, most computers will use USB-A connectors, although many new devices now offer a USB-C connection port as well. In regards to USB-C connectors on the host-side of a cable, its important to note that in order to function properly, you would need to use a specific type of USB-C connector that is capable of receiving data (rather than sending).

In addition to standard USB connectors and their traditional housings, premium CNC’d aluminum housings are a new trend within the custom cable market, and offer a premium and professional addition to your cable if that is something you desire.

Heatshrink

Last but not least, the final accent piece for your cable lies in the heatshrink colour you choose. As far as descriptive names go, heatshrink means exactly as it says - it is a piece of thermoplastic that shrink as it heats. In the application of custom cables, heatshrink is an excellent way of securing USB connectors, filling the void between the housings of some connectors (i.e., aviators) and the cable itself for a tighter fit, or simply serving as an accent piece.

With a wide range of colours available, heatshrink is perfect to provide that small amount of colour popping you need to accent the rest of the cable.

In addition to the applications mentioned above, heatshrink is also used to cover exposed USB wiring that has been soldered to connectors as a way of preventing electrical shorts. In fact, this is the intended use of heatshrink in its traditional application.

Final Thoughts

With this new information added to your tool-kit you're now fully equipped to better understand what goes into you're commissioned cable or to tackle you're next DIY project. If there's one key takeaway for you to remember, it's that custom cables are extremely intricate and detailed in nature, and that you can have complete control on every element. 

Still confused about what some of the terminology means or how you can apply this knowledge to your own project? Feel free to contact us so that we can help bring your dream cable to life!