Maintaining your keyboard

by Scott Gartner ([email protected])

If your keyboard is not working properly, has keys that stick down, has keys that bounce (you get two ore more of the key in your computer every time you press it), etc. then you may have neglected cleaning the keyboard for a little too long.  The keyboard is often the most-used and most-neglected part of a computer (the next is the mouse).  The cleaning techniques below work for standard desktop keyboards, but use your judgment if you try this with a laptop keyboard.

If you are careful you can bring almost any keyboard back to life using these techniques.  Note that these techniques rarely work if the keyboard is not responding at all.  One way to tell if your keyboard is talking to the computer is to watch the “Num Lock”, “Caps Lock”, etc. lights.  They should flash when the computer initializes the keyboard during the boot process.  If these lights never flash between turning your computer on and your operating system starting then you probably have a deeper problem (beyond the scope of this article).  If the lights flash, then at least the computer and the keyboard are talking to each other and a typing problem could then be attributable to dirt, spilled liquid, cat or dog hair, etc.

The first step (and the easiest) is to get a can of compressed air or use an air compressor (but if you use a compressor don’t get carried away and use too much pressure).  You can buy compressed air at a computer store, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, etc.  Turn the keyboard upside down and blow out the debris (cookie crumbs, dirt, cat/dog hair, etc.).  You might want to try a little banging with your hands to loosen the gunk before you blow it out (and blow it out in both directions).  You can use a toothpick or tweezers if there are clumps of stuff like cat hair.  This may be enough to get your keyboard back in working order.  If you are doing this in your office you might want to put down a towel to catch the gunk (or better yet do this outside or in your garage).

If the problem is worse than that, like spilled coffee or coke, you can wash the keyboard out with the kitchen sink sprayer, a little dish soap, and a brush, like a toothbrush or fingernail brush, to get the gunk out of it (no kidding).  If you are getting dried coke or coffee out of a keyboard you can use hot water (as long as you can stand your hands being in the water you won’t hurt the keyboard).  You must let it dry completely before plugging it back in (this may take a couple of days, but at least 24 hours in a warm well-ventilated area).  People have even put them in the dishwasher (which can work), but the water can be very hot in there and it takes longer to dry (since the dishwasher does a better job of soaking the keyboard) and you certainly wouldn’t want to use the “hot dry” setting as the heating element will damage, melt, or at least distort the keys (and maybe the whole keyboard if it’s cheap).  Dishwashing detergent is OK (make sure you rinse well) but don’t use any solvents (Windex is OK if you only use it only on the key tops and don’t soak the keyboard).  The key plastic is not safe against solvents or heat.  Don’t use a blow dryer (if you do, I want to see a picture of the keyboard after; it will likely look like a Salvador Dali painting). 

If you plug a keyboard in that has not completely dried the most common occurrence is that many keys will simply not work.  You probably haven’t ruined it (or your computer), just turn the computer back off and unplug it right away and let it sit for a while longer.  You can speed up the process by rotating the keyboard, shaking excess water off occasionally, and using a small fan.  You might also sit it next to a heating/cooling vent, but not directly on it (see blow dryer remarks above).

Note that if you have a cheap keyboard the letters are simply painted onto the key tops (rather than molded into the key using a different color plastic) and you shouldn’t even use light solvents on the tops of the keys as you can clean off the letters.  If you are starting to see fading of the graphics on the keys you can (carefully) paint clear nail polish onto the keys to protect the images on common keys (like SDF and JKL).  Be very careful not to spill or drip nail polish into the keyboard.  If you have completely lost some of the letters you can get a sticky lettering kit from an office supply, stick the appropriate letter to the appropriate key, and then use clear nail polish to cover both the letter and the key.  You may need to redo the nail polish once a year or so to keep from wearing down to the sticky letter (or just buy a better keyboard).

If it is specific keys (and not the whole keyboard) that is having trouble you can pop the key off and clean it out individually, but be careful with any of the odd-sized keys (like Enter, Space, Shift, Tab, and on most keyboards Backspace, Caps Lock, etc.) because they use a metal part to even out the key press and you can break it (or if you get it off you may not be able to get it back on right, it’s tough).  Any key that has a light built into it should not be tampered with for the same reason.  The other keys will pop right off.  Of course you can pop off all of the keys (except the odd-sized ones) and it will allow you to clean the keyboard even more thoroughly, but if you are going to attempt this make sure you know where every key goes before you start so you don’t put them back wrong.

You can create a tool to remove the keys by using a paperclip and bending it in the shape of a capital U.  Then use a pair of pliers, dikes, teeth, whatever is handy and bend the top of the U inwards about an eighth of an inch on each side so that the ends point towards each other (see the photo).  Put the open end under the key and pull up evenly on the key top.  Some people suggest you use a screwdriver or knife and pry the keys up, but I find that can break keys (since you are prying one key and pressing hard on a neighboring key).  The paper clip method is more reliable (you can also buy an actual keyboard key removal tool through a computer repair store or using the link below).  To put the key back on, just put it over the slot (watch the alignment and that the letter is right-side-up) and press down until it clicks (you don’t need a lot of pressure, if it’s not clicking you don’t have it aligned).  Note that your keyboard may not look like the picture as there are many, many designs for how keys go onto keyboards.  Also, laptop keyboards can be significantly different from this and you may not be able to pop the keys off of your laptop keyboard this way.

Do I have to mention that you shouldn’t be doing this kind of thing with the keyboard connected to the computer?

If you buy a tremendous keyboard (like the Avant Stellar that I use, see link below) you will get extra keys and a key puller with the keyboard.  Also the keys graphics are molded into the keys so they will never rub off and the “action” on the keyboard must be felt.  The only downside for some people is the “clackiness” of this keyboard (which I happen to like).  Most of the current crop of keyboards are mushy and don’t have the positive feedback (called “tactile feedback) that the Avant Stellar has.

Keyboard removal tools like the one to the right (if you don’t like using a paper clip):

Last updated Saturday, August 30, 2003.
Send mail to me at [email protected]
Copyright © 1997-2003 M. Scott Gartner