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How to Clean a Mechanical Keyboard

Written by November 5, 2019

Before we dive into the discussion of cleaning, you have to know more about some essential components that make up a typical mechanical keyboard to better understand what we’re talking about.

  • Case

It is the rigid outer shell that protects the inner workings of the keyboard. It most often serves as the chassis as well, where most of the components inside are attached.

  • Keycaps

These are parts of a key that get in contact with your fingers when you type on a keyboard. It’s where you see the identifying symbols of the corresponding alphanumeric characters or function for each key. They can be removed temporarily in mechanical keyboards for easy cleaning of hard to reach areas or for customizing their look.

  • Key Switch

It is the actual mechanism under the keycap that, when actuated by a keypress, sends the corresponding signal to tell the computer what alphanumeric character or function the user is inputting.

There are different types of key switches, but typists and gamers highly favor all of them over membranes of regular keyboards for their more pleasant tactile feedback and responsiveness.

  • PCB or Printed Circuit Board

It is the circuit board where a signal travels on printed circuits from the switch up to the keyboard controller chip whenever the user presses a key. Sometimes the switches are soldered or mounted directly on the PCB. In this configuration, they are called PCB-Mounted Key Switches and secured by guide pins.

  • Plate

Manufacturers sometimes fix the key switches into these plates or frames. Hence they are called Plate-Mounted Key Switches. It’s a more robust and versatile method of securing key switches in place and needs no guide pins. They are more expensive, however.

Mechanical vs. Membrane Keyboards

The most common keyboards out there are membrane keyboards, which people also refer to as regular or standard keyboards. They are called membrane keyboards because they use rubber or a silicone-based top layer that has a tiny dome shape under each key. When you press a key, it pushes down the dome far enough to get in contact with the PCB or Printed Circuit Board. It closes a circuit that enables a signal to travel from that key up to the keyboard controller chip.

Mechanical keyboards use the same basic principle. The difference is that they use mechanical switches for every individual key to take care of all the user input and signaling going to the controller chip. We aren’t going into the nitty-gritty of explaining membrane keyboards, or its pros and cons when compared to mechanical keyboards.

As far as the differences in cleaning both of them go, there are only two things you need to know.

  • First is that mechanical keyboards are way more expensive than membrane keyboards. That’s a good reason you need to take good care of them besides the obvious sanitary and performance issues associated with a dirty keyboard.
  • Second is that more often than not, membrane keyboards don’t have removable keycaps. Cleaning a mechanical keyboard is different because their keycaps can be taken off and reseated back, allowing you to get to dirt that was previously inaccessible for cleaning.

While it is true that membrane keyboards also need some cleaning every once in a while, it would be easier to get all the dirt out of mechanical keyboards because of the removable keycaps. Cleaning the latter can be a bit fussier and require a little more care, and that’s what we want to focus on here.

If you already own a mechanical keyboard or are thinking of buying one, we’ve come up with a complete guide on how to keep them clean and in pristine condition.

Mechanical Keyboards 101

The thing about keyboards is that while they’re awesome input devices and have been around for ages, they can also be awful dirt and dust magnets.

That dirt could find a home under your keycaps, and it could be anything. From pet or human hair, your favorite brand of potato chips, crumbs, to whatever decomposing bits of filth, the disgusting list goes on.

Moisture from lotions or oils, from holding a cold glass of water, sweat, or anything sticky on your fingers and palms, make it worse. They cause dirt and grime to stick to the surfaces and keycaps more easily. It also doesn’t help that plastic is what makes up most keyboards, a material we all know that’s prone to smudging and staining.

Manufacturers designed all their keyboards in such a way that, although very functional, doesn’t help keep them from being dirty. The average computer keyboard has 101 keys arranged close together so that there are narrow gaps between and around them where tiny pieces of dirt can squeeze into. Some of those pieces can get stuck in there, and some even manage to get under the keycaps.

A Modern mechanical keyboard’s advantage is that it’s built to last up to as much as ten times more than an average membrane keyboard. However, the catch with mechanical keyboards is that dirt affects their performance just as quickly, long before their mechanisms start to fail.

A membrane keyboard indeed has a shorter lifespan, but that also means you won’t be able to take advantage of all the durability that a mechanical keyboard brings if they start acting up just as fast because of dirt.

You can’t wait for that to happen with mechanical keyboards. And from a hygiene standpoint, it’s also a good habit to clean any keyboard regularly. These keyboards can get filthy, and you don’t want it to reach the point when it becomes sickening!

Some Dos and Don’ts before You Start Cleaning

  • It’s always a good practice to consult your keyboard’s manual first to see if they may have included some cleaning instructions that are peculiar to their brand or to the particular model that you are using.
  • Don’t use paper towels to wipe your keyboard. They are rough and can leave tiny scratches on the surface, and they also leave minute paper particles behind. It’s highly preferable to use a lint-free microfiber cloth.
  • Avoid using canned compressed air. Some people may think this is a great cleaning tool to have for keyboards. But there’s a risk of them blowing some of the dirt into the key switches themselves, which could severely hamper their operation.
  • Prepare the things you would need beforehand. We listed the things you will need for the extent of the cleaning job you’re planning to do. Just make sure you have them within arm’s reach first before you start.

Cleaning Essentials

Here’s a shared list of things you can choose from that we think are essential to have around you, depending on the extent of cleaning that your keyboard requires.

  • Microfiber cloths

It has become the standard cloth to keep your car or motorcycle’s fenders clean, then why not your keyboard as well? They don’t scratch keyboard surfaces when you wipe them with it, and they’re lint-free as well.

  • Keycap Puller

Why use a flathead screwdriver or something as invasive when removing keycaps? The reason for using a puller is how you can avoid twisting and possibly damaging the cap as well as the stem of the key switch. They also don’t leave nicks or marks on the caps.

You can buy them online or in some computer stores. The simpler ones with thumb holes are cheaper and smaller, costing less than a dollar. The best ones are wire-pullers with handles that cost about $4 or more.

  • Vacuum Cleaner

A vacuum cleaner is your friend for a lot of cleaning jobs around the house and even for keyboards. They’re great at sucking out loose dirt. It’s as simple as that.

  • Contact Cleaner or 100% Isopropyl Alcohol

You will need these to clean and disinfect the plate and PCB.

  • Denture Cleaning Tablets or Dish Washing Fluid

When mixed with water, denture Tablets are the most convenient way of cleaning the keycaps you removed. They don’t leave any residue and even act as a disinfectant. Dishwashing fluid is the next alternative, although not as good. Just make sure that any detergent you use is mild.

  • Bowl

It is where you soak your keycaps once you’ve removed them from the keyboard.

  • Smartphone

You need your phone’s camera to take a picture of your keyboard that would serve as an easy reference later on when you start putting those keycaps back in the correct layout.

Preventive Maintenance

Have you ever tried to type a document or a chat message, and one or more characters always keep missing from your text? Or maybe the opposite happens when you try to type the word “the,” and instead you get “theeeeeeeeeeeee,” as if he keyboard had a life of its own. Sometimes typing doesn’t feel as good as the way it used to, and something is off.

The chances are that your keyboard is already too dirty and needs some severely overdue cleaning. Dirt may have started to get on the contact points so that pressing a key doesn’t close or complete the circuit for the signal to reach the control chip. Or it could be a situation where a piece of dirt lodged into the mechanism and began to affect key travel so that a key might get stuck and not spring back up as quickly as before. Sometimes this makes tactile feedback and response feel sluggish and uncomfortable.

But you don’t have to let it reach that point. If you keep putting off maintenance, sometimes even cleaning it might not get your keyboard working normally again, and that could be costly.

Regular Exterior Cleaning

For hygienic purposes, it’s best to clean the exterior of your mechanical keyboard at regular intervals when you start feeling that it’s getting icky again. Just as you would take a shower at least once a day and wash your hands regularly to keep yourself clean, you want to make sure that all the outer surfaces of your keyboard that come in contact with dust, dirt and your hands are kept nice and clean as much as possible.

Keep in mind, though, that there would still be some dirt buildup happening on the plate and under the keycaps. There’s nothing you could do to prevent it, even if you can try to slow down the accumulation of dirt Sooner or later, your mechanical keyboard would need a more thorough cleaning.

Before I get into that, however, let me first explain to you how to keep your keyboard’s exteriors clean.

Some things you’ll need:

  • Damp microfiber cloth
  • Dry microfiber cloth
  • A vacuum cleaner

1) Turn off your computer if you’re not using it. It’s okay to leave it running for background tasks without requiring keyboard inputs. Just keep them on as long they’re needed, but don’t forget to log off with the mouse as soon as they’re finished.

2) Unplug your keyboard from the computer. If they’re the wireless kind, turn them off first with a switch that is most likely underneath the base. You want to avoid any accidental keypress if your computer is still on.

3) Use the vacuum cleaner to suck out all the dirt it can from the surface, the bottom, and especially between the gaps around the keycaps. If you have a small brush attachment, it will be more effective loosening up some of the dirt that got stuck in there.

4) Flip your keyboard upside down and shake it vigorously, alternating from side-to-side and up-and-down motion. It may free up more dirt that the vacuum may have missed. Just make sure you don’t hit anything that could damage it or vice versa.

5) Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary. Just be sure to vacuum and wipe off any dirt that fell out on the surrounding area like the desk, chair, and the floors.

6) Take one of the microfiber cloths and soak it in water. Wring it thoroughly to remove the excess water out. Make sure it’s not too wet as you don’t want water seeping into and damaging any delicate parts.

Take your damp microfiber cloth and start wiping all the grime off any surface of the keyboard you can reach, including areas around the case, the top and all the sides of each keycap.

7) Finally, wipe off any of the excess moisture with a dry microfiber cloth.

8) Once you have made sure that everything is dry, you can plug your keyboard back into the computer.

Dealing with spills

So you’re working on a document and typing along without a care, and then you suddenly want a sip of water. Without taking your eyes off the screen, you try to grab a glass of water beside you. Instead, you accidentally tip it over and spill most of its contents on your keyboard.

As soon as this happens, the first thing you should know is NEVER to press any of the keys. There’s a chance of damaging the 8-bit microcontroller and the USB port that you want to avoid. That means to avoid getting any piece of cloth or a rag to wipe off the spill while the keyboard is still plugged in. It would be the first impulse of people who aren’t aware of the risk of damage to the hardware.

1) Unplug your keyboard as soon as possible. If it’s a wireless one, switch it off immediately and remove the batteries.

2) Just take it to an area like a sink or the shower where you can turn it over and let the liquid spill out of it. You can leave it or wait for a while and let gravity do its job.

3) As soon as it stops dripping, shake the keyboard vigorously while it is still upside down to remove as much of the excess liquid out of it as you can.

4) When you’re satisfied, you can wipe off any of the remaining liquid that you notice on the surface areas with a dry piece of cloth. Be aware, however, that there would still be some leftover on the plate and under the keycaps. It’s best to let it evaporate overnight to be sure there’s no moisture left before you start using it again.

5) If you think it’s completely dry, then you can plug it back in. The chances are that your keyboard should still work.

For other types of liquids like tea, sodas, coffee, etc., you’ll have to do a more thorough job of cleaning the keyboard.

Thorough Cleaning

Sometimes regularly cleaning the exterior isn’t enough. It’s a very hygienic practice, but over time the bits of dirt can build up in harder to reach areas and may cause severe issues with performance. You have to get in there to reach the more stubborn dirt. You also need to clean the keyboard more thoroughly if you accidentally spill something that’s sticky or will leave some residue.

And for that, you need to remove the keycaps to do a more thorough job getting rid of all the muck on the plate and mechanical switches. It also allows you to clean spaces inside the keycaps so you might as well do that while you have the opportunity.

But first, you’ll need to prepare some things before you can proceed.

Things you’ll need:

  • Damp microfiber cloth
  • Dry microfiber cloth
  • smartphone
  • A keycap pick
  • A bowl
  • Denture or dishwasher fluid
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Soft-bristled toothbrush
  • Contact cleaner or 100% Isopropyl Alcohol
  • Q-tip

1) Again, if you’re not using your computer for other stuff, then turn it off to conserve power.

2) Unplug the keyboard from the computer or switch it off if it’s wireless.

3) If you’re not exactly sure with the key placements, get out your smartphone and take a picture of your keyboard with it before removing the keycaps. You can use the photo later on as a layout reference.

4) With the keycap puller, remove the keys one-by-one as gently as you can. Put them all in the bowl. Again, it is advisable to use this device rather than a flathead screwdriver or a knife.

Be aware too that some of the bigger keys like the space bar or return key may be using metal stabilizer rods or wires that would make it more difficult to remove. If you are having problems with those, you can leave them there and wipe them with a damp microfiber cloth later on. In the meantime, don’t touch them yet until you get to Step 7.

5) Fill the bowl with water and rinse off as much of the loose dirt as you can. Repeat this process if necessary.

6) Again, fill the bowl with water, and this time add some denture cleaning tablets. You can substitute dishwashing liquids for it. Leave the keycaps to soak for at least 6 hours.

7) Use a clean toothbrush to further clean and rinse each keycap thoroughly. Wipe each with a microfiber cloth and lay them upside down to allow any moisture left to evaporate. It’s best to leave them that way overnight, preferably in a safe area where nothing can tamper with them.

8) In the meantime, you can work on the keyboard body that has now been opened up without the caps.

Use the vacuum cleaner, preferably with a small brush attachment to suck out the loose dirt from the plate or PCB. Then work your way out to the rest of the case at the sides and the bottom.

9) Brush the surrounding plate and key switches with a soft toothbrush if you have plate-mounted type key switches. Be careful not to depress the stems of the switches as this may force dirt into the switches. You don’t want any dirt interfering with the mechanism inside later on.

10) Vacuum the plate or PCB thoroughly one last time.

11) To sterilize the plate of any bacteria, use a Q-tip with isopropyl alcohol. Note that the Q-tips can get snagged on anything sharp and leave cotton fibers behind. Be careful that doesn’t happen. Dip them in Isopropyl Alcohol and start swabbing away at the plate and the sides of the switches.

If you want to clean the PCB as well, especially if the switches are PCB-Mounted ones, then you can use Q-tips dipped in contact cleaner.

Same as with the toothbrush, we can’t emphasize often enough how important it is not to get dirt into the switches through the stems when cleaning the plate and the PCB.

12) Cover your entire keyboard with a clean and unused microfiber cloth to prevent it from picking up dust while you are waiting for the keycaps to dry. It’s not advisable to flip the keyboard upside down as it may press on the stems and allow dust to enter the switches.

13) The following day, you can reseat all the keycaps using the picture you took as a reference. Double-check to make sure you didn’t mix things up.

14) Wipe the entire keyboard again with a clean and damp microfiber cloth.

15) With another dry microfiber cloth, wipe off any excess wetness thoroughly, and that should be it!

16) Connect your keyboard back to your computer and test to see if everything is in good working order.

With all the cleaning done, it’s important to store most of the cleaning items you used here in a single place so that you’ll remember where to get them every time you clean your keyboard.

Other Nifty Stuff

There is other nifty stuff you can buy to keep your keyboard in tip-top shape. These items aren’t mandatory, but we certainly think they are worth your consideration.

  • Keyboard covers

The first thing that comes to mind is a keyboard cover and is the simplest but surefire way to keep dirt and dust away while you’re not using it. It’s very practical, and we think it’s one of the essential things you could get for your keyboard. If you can only acquire one of the stuff mentioned here, then this has got to be it.

  • Brush Kit

There are also cleaning kits that have a set of specialized antistatic keyboard brushes that come in many shapes and sizes. They are more effective than an unwieldy toothbrush. These specialized brushes allow you to get to smaller and narrower areas that otherwise a toothbrush can’t reach.

  • Cleaning Gel

You might also want to try out cleaning gels. It’s a brightly colored chunk of adhesive goo that you can squeeze into the smallest gaps between the keycaps, and it picks up dust and bits of debris that it comes in contact with. It’s reusable until it becomes filled with too much dirt. You’ll know this when it loses its color and turns gray. Some of these contain disinfectant that kills germs.

  • Keyboard Vacuum Cleaner

If you find an ordinary household vacuum cleaner too bulky, there are tiny rechargeable ones that are designed exclusively for keyboards. Of course, they’ll have the advantage of portability and ease of use, and they’re sturdy enough for cleaning keyboards whereas a household vacuum would seem like overkill. And because of how portable they are, you can store them in a smaller space along with your other kit.

Good and Bad Habits

It’s always to our benefit, adopting some good habits for anything we do and drop the bad ones.

With keyboards, it’s sensible to do some thorough cleaning every couple of months or so. Less than a 3-month gap between heavy cleaning seems very reasonable.

If you can do some easy wiping before you use your keyboard, then why not? Just don’t let a week go by that you don’t do some light cleaning at least once. Make it a routine practice, and it would seem more manageable once you get the hang of it. You have to take a proactive rather than a reactive cleaning stance, so don’t wait until it’s too dirty before you do something about it.

Another thing you want to practice is proper eating habits. Sometimes you have to work with your keyboard for hours on end. You could be typing something lengthy, or you could be having a marathon online gaming session. You’re only human, and you also have basic needs. You will be hungry or thirsty at some point during those long hours.

However, you can’t be picking up nachos or Cheetos, or any food for that matter, and start licking your fingers with your lips while you’re typing. It mucks up your keyboard, not to mention how unhygienic that is. You’ve got to stop that. Studies have shown that the foodstuffs that get under the keys can be a breeding ground for bacteria. That means you have to wash your hands before you eat and wash them afterward before you use your keyboard again.

It’s best to have a little towel or a clean piece of cloth nearby that you could use to dry your hands. The same goes for drinking, especially cold beverages that get your hands wet. You have to keep your hands as dry as possible before you touch the keyboard and begin typing.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, you don’t have to do some deep cleaning every time, unless you allow your mechanical keyboard to get too filthy. The task becomes easier if you clean your keyboard’s exteriors more often. It would only take a few minutes, but it can prolong the time before you have to open it up again for a complete cleaning job.

Keyboards can be the most neglected piece of computer hardware, but they’re also the most used and abused. With more expensive mechanical keyboards, it is vital that they also receive some TLC. We hope we were able to shed some light on mechanical keyboards and how you can properly keep them clean. If you follow this guide, your keyboard will become more reliable, and you will enjoy them for many years to come.

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