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When I plug in my USB key, I see this icon on my desktop:

removable disk

I want to customize this, so that the image on the desktop and in Finder will look like the physical USB key.

I was able to find an online image converter to create an icon from my image, and I was able to successfully use the "get info, copy icon, paste icon". As you can see, the far right info window is for the icon itself, and I've copy-pasted that image the middle info window, which is a folder: copied icon to folder icon

Applying that same copy-paste technique to the drive itself (the far-left info window), I get completely different results: copied icon to volume icon

What am I doing wrong here? After an hour spent trying to troubleshoot this (messing with SetFile, manually copying the .VolumeIcon.icns file, etc), I also need to ask: is what I'm attempting even possible?

(I looked at a program called CandyBar, but it would have changed the image for ALL drives, not individual drives; it doesn't help me)

Here's what happens when I tried dragging an .icns file onto the drive icon: no love with icns files

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Create an icon file (.icns) from your PNG image. To create the icon file use Icon Composer.app (if you already have it) or use the new, officially sanctioned tool iconutil as described in this StackOverflow question. After creating the icon file drag/drop the file onto the drive's file info window, same as you did with the PNG file.

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Image2icns may be able to help you. Here's a link: http://www.img2icnsapp.com/

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

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I re-partitioned and re-formatted the drive to the exact same file system (one partition, Fat32), and now it works. Magically. (I even restored all the files that were on the USB drive at the time of the problem.)

I have no idea what the problem was or if it will happen again, but the drive is now showing the proper icon.

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