keyboard cleaning : Computer Hardware Buyers’ Glossary

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cleaning  keyboard cleaning
The entry tells you how to safely clean your keyboard, with three degrees of thoroughness.
Why Clean Your Keyboard? Desperation Cleaning
Clearing a Glitch Notebook keyboards
Keyboard Cleaning Supplies Caveats
Quick Cleaning Unsticking a Single Key
Thorough Cleaning Links
Drastic Cleaning

Why Clean Your Keyboard?

If you don’t clean your keyboard every few months it will eventually clog with hair, crumbs, bits of grit etc. Keys will start to stick or fail to click. The crud can interfere both mechanically and electrically. It is fairly easy to fix. People often discard keyboards when all they need is a good cleaning and drying. Black keys are obviously better at camouflaging simple grime on the keycaps. How often you need to clean depends on: Any time you spill coffee on your keyboard is a good time to stop everything and give it a good cleaning before the coffee dries and hardens into every cranny.

Clearing a Keyboard Glitch

Sometimes a keyboard malfunction is a software problem. You don’t need to resort to cleaning. You can clear the problem by:
  1. Tapping in turn these keys: capslock capslock-again left-shift left-alt left-ctrl right-shift right-alt right-ctrl then the key giving trouble.
  2. If that does not work, try shut down, power off and restart.

Keyboard Cleaning Supplies

Depending on how thorough you want to be, or how stubbornly your keyboard refuses to work, you will want some or all of these supplies to clean and recondition it.

Keyboard Cleaning and Reconditioning Supplies
Tool Notes What it Looks like
keycap-puller (two loops of wire on a handle). If you try to pry them off some other way, you can easily damage the keys. You need the wire loops to lift straight up evenly on both sides. You can find various suppliers by Googling keycap puller.
This tool is crucial because trying to remove keycaps any other way is very likely to damage the keyboard.
Keycap puller
tweezers for pulling out trapped hair, crumbs and grit. They can also be used to scrape gunk off. I prefer the ones with rounded tips and two pads on the end that clamp over the length of a hair, giving me a good grip to pull it out. If the pads get out of alignment so they don’t meet properly over the entire surface, they will be useless for extracting hairs stuck in the mechanism. Tweezers
tooth brush old, clean, soft-bristle. Old and supple is better than new. You don’t want to apply too much pressure. old toothbrush
Hair dryer Use only on cold setting. hair dryer
cotton pads Cotton pads like women use to clean off makeup. Failing that Kleenices. Failing that a clean microfibre cloth. cottonpad
Paper towels   paper towels
Foam tip swabs that you can at an electrical supply store, or failing that cotton Q-Tips or other cotton swabs. foam tip swap
Q-Tips if you can’t get foam tip swabs. Q-Tips tend to shed shreds of cotton you have to pick out with tweezers. cotton swabs
Sharpie fine tip permanent marker Sharpie marker
isopropanol 99% aka isopropyl alcohol. Get the 99% pure type from your local pharmacy. You may have to ask at the counter to get the pure version. You don’t want methanol, methyl alcohol, wood alcohol or rubbing alcohol. 99% isopropanol
Lysol All Purpose Cleaner This sounds like an ad, but this particular formula is the best for cleaning keycaps I have ever tried. It comes in a spray bottle. It looks like yellow Windex. Lysol All-Purose Cleaner
Windex You can use any brand of glass cleaner, aka blue juice. You want something with ammonia or other strong grease cutter. You can even make your own high quality one you can use on your windows and glassware as well as your keyboards:

You can make a powerful yet environmentally friendly glass cleaner. Here is a recipe for a three 650 mls (1.37 US pints) sprayers full:

water 1.65 litres (1.74 US quarts)
isopropyl alcohol 70% or 99% 240 mls (8.12 fl oz)
sudsy ammonia 60 mls (2.03 fl oz)
Dawn dishwashing liquid 2½ mls (0.51 US teaspoon)
blue food colouring. 1 drop (1 drop)

The blue food colouring is optional; it helps identify the sprayer contents as window cleaner. Use a microfibre cloth.

Windex window cleaner
WD-40 This is a light-weight lubricating oil that comes is a small aerosol can. You can get in at any hardware store, or the mini-hardware sections of almost any supermarket. WD-40 lubricant
DeoxIT D Small bottle of DeoxIT D series, née DeoxIT Red, née Cramomlin Red. This is fairly expensive, an optional luxury. DeoxIT D series contact cleaner

Super Quick Keyboard Cleaning

A super quick cleaning is primarly to free up sticking keys:

  1. Turn the keyboard upside down, and shake the crumbs and hair out of it.
  2. Blast between the keys with a puff of compressed air.

Quick Keyboard Cleaning

A quick cleaning is primarily for appearance and sanitation. For a quick cleaning you will need the following:

  1. Isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol without massage oil). You can get this at any drugstore.
  2. Some Windex.
  3. Foam swabs that you can at an electrical supply store, or failing that cotton Q-Tips. Q-Tips tend to shed shreds of cotton you have to pick out with tweezers.
  4. Replacement foam wrist pads if you keyboard uses them.
Now you are ready to start the quick cleaning:
  1. Turn the keyboard upside down and shake it to shake out crumbs.
  2. If you have a vacuum cleaner, hose between the keys.
  3. Take a Q-Tip soaked in isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol without massage oil), and run it between the keys.
  4. Wipe the top and side of each key with the Q-Tip.
  5. Clean the entire outside of the case with Windex.
  6. Replace any foam wrist pads. You can use moleskin from the drugstore if you don’t like paying the preposterously high prices for replacement pads.
  7. Don’t give up on the keyboard until it has had two days to dry.

Thorough Keyboard Cleaning

Now you are ready to start the drastic cleaning:
  1. Draw a map of the keyboard key layout or print one out on paper. Mine looks like this.

    dvorak_layout_of_kinesis_keyboard

    You could also create the map by photographing your keyboard with a digital camera and printing it out as large as possible. You will need this map when it comes time to put the keycaps back on. Even if you are a 100WPM (Words Per Minute) 8 CPS (Characters Per Second) touch typist, you will still need this. Having a layout diagram in the computer is of no use because: your keyboard will not necessarily be functional enough and because pressing keycaps back on at random will drive your computer insane and your computer won’t sit still displaying the map, constantly scrolling away from showing the map.

  2. Shut down and turn off your computer.
  3. Unplug the keyboard.
  4. Remove each keycap with a keycap-puller. You need the wire loops to lift straight up evenly on both sides. If the key does not come easily, check that you have not inadvertently snagged part of the key base post.
  5. Don’t pull off very small or very large keys such as the space bar or backspace. These are often tricky to get back on.
  6. For keys like Shift, Alt and Ctrl that have left and right versions, mark which is which on the back with a Sharpie fine tip permanent marker.
  7. Write on the back of the four arrow keys which they are U D L R. Mark each one as you pull it off. If you get confused, you can figure it out by looking at the symmetries of the surrounding keys which goes where.
  8. Let the keycaps soak in isopropyl alcohol or a little Lysol All Purpose Cleaner and water. Put them in a jar and shake. Lysol All Purpose Cleaner is absolutely amazing for this job. The orange variant smells nice and it gets the keycaps clean without even scrubbing.
  9. Clean all around the key base plugs daubing isopropyl alcohol with a foam Q-Tip and scrubbing gently with an old toothbrush at the recalcitrant gunk.
  10. Use the tweezers to pull out trapped hair and grit. The grit is usually the crucial thing causing a key to fail or stick.
  11. Scrub the keycaps with an old toothbrush, dry on a paper towel.
  12. Replace your keys according the map. You will find the job goes easier if you first do numbers, then letters, then punctuation, then control keys, then finally the left and right Shift, Alt and Ctrl and finally the tricky arrow keys, referring to the markings you made on the back later and ensuring their contours match their neighbours. It is easy to get an arrow key on upside down, or in the wrong spot.
  13. If your keys are still wet, some keys may not work properly. Just let them dry and hour or two and they should be fine. Don’t panic if some keys fail to work properly after a cleaning. Overnight drying clears many problems. Check them for bits of recently disturbed hair or gunk.
  14. Just try jiggling an unworking or intermittent keycap. If that does not work, give the mechanism under the keycap a tiny dab of WD-40 to lubricate it. If you cleaning was too thorough, the mechanism will have lost any lubrication it had.
  15. Reconnect your keyboard.
  16. Power up and logon.
  17. Test that you got all the keycaps in the right place. If not, just swap them while inside some program than does not mind random keystrokes, such as a text editor.
  18. If some key still does not work smoothly, or does not feel right, pull it off with the keycap-puller, clean its base further, wiggle the inner plunger mechanism, and replace the keycap squarely.
  19. Don’t give up on the keyboard until it has had two days to dry.

Drastic Keyboard Cleaning

If a thorough cleaning and drying fails to revive your keyboard, you can resort to a drastic cleaning. For a drastic cleaning you will need in addition the following:
  1. DeoxIT (née Cramolin) contact cleaner and preservative from Caig Labs.
  2. a suitable screw driver.
Now you are ready to start the drastic cleaning:
  1. Once you have the keycaps off and everything thoroughly cleaned, take the keyboard apart by removing the screws that hold it together. Put the screws into a jar or bowl.
  2. Don’t use force. Keyboards are delicate.
  3. Clean the plastic parts inside with your toothbrush and pads and alcohol. Avoid touching the delicate electronic parts.
  4. Clean the electronic parts with a foam swab moistened with a little Cramolin. Any debris or gunk could cause a short.
  5. Press any socket-mounted chips firmly into their sockets.
  6. Make sure there is no loose debris rattling around inside.
  7. Reassemble the keyboard.
  8. Don’t give up on the keyboard until it has had two days to dry.

Desperation Keyboard Cleaning

If a drastic cleaning and drying fails to revive your keyboard, you can resort to a desperation cleaning. For a desperation cleaning you will need the following:
  1. Dawn dishwashing soap.
Now you are ready to start the desperation cleaning:
  1. Put the complete disassembled keyboard in a sink of warm water with little Dawn Dishwashing detergent in it.
  2. Let it soak for a while to remove grease that may have worked its way inside. Everything is submersed, including the electronics.
  3. After it has soaked an hour, give it a going over with the toothbrush but don’t scrub the electronics.
  4. Rinse, rinse, rinse, rinse in clear, soft, warm water. You don’t want any soap residue fouling the contacts.
  5. Let it dry overnight. If you are in a hurry, you can use a hair dryer on warm or the lowest setting of your oven.
  6. Replace the keycaps and continue as per a thorough cleaning.
  7. Don’t give up on the keyboard until it has had two days to dry.

Notebook Keyboards

Notebook keyboards are quite delicate and the inner mechanism are exposed. Even pulling the keycaps can disassemble or break the tiny little plastic parts that form the mechanism. I suggest just a blast of compressed air in the cracks between the keys and wiping with isopropanol without ever removing the keys. If you bravely want to pull the keycaps anyway, hold the keycap puller with a finger pressing the key so that when it comes loose, the light flimsy keycap won’t go flying off. You will see dust packed around the mechanisms like felt. You can get rid of it with a blast of compressed air or a clean Q-tip. Be careful not to get any Q-tip lint in the mechanism. If you break one of the keycap mechanisms, examine the mechanism from a similar key to see how it works. Pick a similar key. Different keys may have different mechanisms. Dell uses a mechanism that looks like two intersecting trapezes pinned together to allow rotation around microscopic plastic pins. Needless to say, these are extremely delicate. Don’t force anything! Make sure you study the various parts carefully in a strong light to make sure you don’t try to reassemble them upside down. I am mystified how anyone could assemble such a keyboard in less than a week.

The problem is, if you damage the keyboard, you can’t just buy another one; you have buy a whole new notebook!

Caveats

Unsticking a Single Key

  1. Using a keycap puller, pop the cap off the offending key.
  2. Jiggle the key plunger up and down to make sure it is moving smoothly.
  3. Give the key a blast of compressed air, both in the up and pressed position.
  4. Use tweezers to remove any hair or grit stuck between the plunger and its enclosing cylinder, or anywhere nearby for that matter.
  5. Clean the plunger and cylinder with a Q-tip soaked in isopropanol.
  6. Use tweezers to remove any fluff from the Q-tip.
  7. Replace the keycap and test the key.
  8. If the keycap feels wobbly or off kilter remove it and replace it.
  9. If that does not work, take the keycap off again using the keycap puller.
  10. Given the key plunger and cylinder a very quick puff of WD-40 from an aerosol can.
  11. Use a paper tissue to wipe up all the oil except that on the sides of the plunger.
  12. Replace the keycap and test the key.
  13. If that does not work, it may be because some water or alcohol has gone down inside the key mechanism. Use a hair dryer on the cold setting to dry it out. If that does not work, just letting it sit overnight to dry will often be all that is needed.
  14. If even that does not work, you will need a new keyboard. Consider a higher quality one designed to reduce strain and increase you typing speed and accuracy. Wrecking your old keyboard can be the excuse you need to get a decent keyboard.

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