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How to Clean a Mechanical Keyboard, and Keep It That Way

Last updated May 26, 2020

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how to clean a mechanical keyboard

Has your cat made a game out of playing with cups of coffee? Perhaps you’ve purchased a second-hand device that needs a little restoration work. Or maybe you just want to keep your favorite mechanical keyboard feeling new forever. Whatever the case, we’re here to help.

We’ll be covering a couple ways on how to clean a mechanical keyboard. One is a light pass that can be repeated monthly, quarterly, or however often yours starts to feel a little gunky. This won’t involve tearing into every possible nook and cranny, but it’ll keep your keyboard clean and functioning well. Then we’ll dive into tips for deeper cleaning mechanical keyboards that may be necessary for anyone who has experienced a nasty spill.

We’ll start with the simpler approach since that’s where you should begin anyway if you’re looking to clean up after an unfortunate accident.

Before You Begin

Important Notice

If you’re dealing with a spill, disconnect your mechanical keyboard immediately. Leaving it connected might damage the keyboard or even your computer.

Pouring a bunch of liquid on the electronics board inside your keyboard has the potential to connect circuits that shouldn’t be connected, and that can wreak some real havoc. Detach everything. Fast.

With everything disconnected, use a towel to soak up any excess liquid. If some of it spilled inside your keyboard, it wouldn’t hurt to flip the board over with the keys down on a towel so it can start draining while you clean the surrounding area.

When the keyboard is relatively dry, it’s time to start the real cleaning process.

Tools for the Job

Cleaning your keyboard properly is going to require some materials and perhaps even tools. Depending on what just happened, you’ll be happy you grabbed all of this:

  • A keycap puller (check our “MacGyver Maneuver” for a DIY alternative)
  • An electronics cleaning brush or an old toothbrush that isn’t filthy could work
  • A mini vacuum cleaner
  • Cotton swabs AKA Q-tips
  • Towels or microfiber cloths
  • A small screwdriver
  • Lukewarm water and something to put it in. A large bowl or similar container would work
  • Dish soap

Unless you plan to keep your keycaps organized throughout the entire cleaning process, or you are confident that you can put them all back without misplacing any keys, you should grab your smartphone and take a quick picture of your keyboard’s layout before you begin tearing everything apart. A full-size keyboard has more than 100 keys and you probably don’t use all of them too often. As an added bonus, you’ll also have a picture to remind you of how dirty the keyboard looked before cleaning it.

Bonus: The MacGyver Maneuver

If you don’t have a keycap puller and don’t plan to buy one, you can MacGyver one up with some paper clips. To make your own DIY keycap puller, bend two paper clips so they’re shaped like an open rectangle (like this: Π) and then bind them together at their ends with some electrical tape.

how to make a DIY keycap puller

However, we highly recommend you purchase yourself a keycap puller. They’re inexpensive, will last you forever, and allow you to grab multiple keycaps in succession, making the removal process much quicker.

Doing a Basic Clean on Most Mechanical Keyboards

To do a basic clean on your mechanical keyboard, you’ll have to strip it bare by removing all of its keycaps. Then you’ll have to clean both the keycaps and the base/keyboard plate. Finally, after the water you used to clean everything has long dried, you can reattach all the keycaps. Not so bad.

Removing standard size keycaps from mechanical keyboards tends to be easier than larger keys like Shift, Space, and Enter. Larger keys can have a stabilizer underneath them made out of metal wire and a little plastic nub under the keycap. These can break when removing them if you aren’t careful.

In general, you should be able to put a keycap puller under two or more edges of smaller keycaps and then lift them off with little force. Sometimes twisting or prying a tiny bit can help get things going but you shouldn’t be muscling through anything.

removing keys with my diy keycap puller

If you start by removing all of the smaller keys, you’ll free up enough space to make the larger keys less of a hassle when detaching them from their stabilizers. Gently pull the larger keys with your hands under opposite ends. They should lift off the keyboard switch they’re sitting on but remain attached to stabilizers. You may have to use a small screwdriver or something similar to pry the metal stabilizer bar away from plastic hooks under the keycap.

Don’t go overboard with brute force and you shouldn’t break anything. The main concern is damaging the switch that’s underneath the keycap — the part that actually makes the key work. You’ll have enough trouble on your hands if you’re dealing with a spill. Don’t add a broken keyboard switch and soldering lessons to the list.

All keycaps removed, exposing Cherry MX switches

Things can get a lot more complicated if you need to tear down into the key switches and clean the circuit board, but we haven’t made it that far yet — stick around.

Cleaning the Keycaps

You could scrub each keycap individually and nobody’s going to judge you for that, but we suggest letting them soak in a bath of lukewarm water mixed with a few drops of dishwashing soap. This is doubly recommended if they’re coated with some half-dried sugary drink.

keycaps soaking in a bowl of soapy water

Some people also suggest using isopropyl alcohol, but we don’t recommend this unless you are absolutely sure it won’t damage your keyboard. Depending on the material your keycaps are made out of, isopropyl alcohol might make them look like new or could turn them see-through. We suggest just sticking to soap.

After cleaning your keycaps and they’re all wet, wipe them each down with a microfiber cloth and then place them on a towel to air dry. We suggest pointing the bottom of the keycaps up for better air exchange. You can speed the drying process up with a fan, otherwise, they’ll take a few hours to dry.

cleaning mechanical keyboard keycaps

If you’re dealing with a spill, your full attention should be shifting to cleaning the inside of your keyboard.

Cleaning the Base Plate

mechanical keyboard with keycaps removed, ready to be cleaned

With all the keycaps removed from your keyboard, use a damp microfiber cloth to clean up any leftover liquid that made it inside. Careful with using wiping motions because they can cause scratches. Dabbing is better.

Use your mini vacuum to pick up any large debris like crumbs and dust sitting between the switches. Then, use a damp brush and/or cotton swabs to scrub away the more resilient grime. Afterward, pay everything another visit with the vacuum cleaner to get any remaining debris you knocked loose.

Doing a Deep Clean, Tearing Everything Apart

If that spill made it into the guts of your keyboard, you’ll probably have to do a little surgery to get everything going again. Compared to most keyboards, mechanical boards are usually made with enthusiast-level users and mind and they’re often easier to take apart.

Depending on the model, there are generally four main parts to the body of a mechanical keyboard:

  • A front plate
  • A back plate
  • An electronics board
  • The keyboard housing itself

Note: During disassembly, it’s a good idea to take pictures along the way so you can remember how everything is supposed to be connected.

To get inside your keyboard, you’ll generally need to remove all the screws from either your exposed keyboard plate or from its underside. We recommend Googling the model name of your keyboard along with the word “disassembly” for the best instructions on getting everything torn down.

mechanical keyboard disassembly

Once you’re inside, use your microfiber cloth or other towels to dry everything inside, including the underside of the keyboard plate and the electronics board. If you spilled something worse than just water, you’ll need to clean that drink out of everywhere it managed to go.

This could involve separating and individually cleaning all four parts listed above. You may very well have to wash them the same way we discussed cleaning the keycaps: lukewarm water with a few drops of dish soap.

After everything is clean and dry, you can put the whole base tray of your keyboard back together the way it came apart. The trickiest part about this whole process is probably re-attaching the cables. They can involve short wires, finicky connectors, and cramped spaces. Not fun, but possible. Hang in there.

Putting Everything Back Together After a Deep Clean

After screwing the keyboard body back together (P.S. you should have kept track of whether any screws were different sizes), you may want to feel the keyboard switches before putting the keycaps back on to make sure they all move as expected.

If the switches feel weird after putting your keycaps back on, they might need a little lube. Here’s a full guide on that, including details on whether you should go with oil or grease (spoiler: it doesn’t matter that much – each one is easier to apply to different parts).

reassembling mechanical keyboard

We suggest skipping the lube if you can but if you have to use some, go light and maybe look into whether the type you’re going to use is known to damage the materials used in your keyboard.

Ideally, you will be able to put all of your keycaps back on and they’ll feel great.

Testing and Tips for Routine Maintenance

Your keyboard might look and feel brand new but it should also perform like it. Keyboardtester.com can help you confirm this by opening a virtual interface with an on-screen keyboard that shows visuals and makes sounds when a key is pressed.

screenshot of keyboardtester.com

It should be easy to tell if a key feels off on a mechanical keyboard. A common issue where keys are harder to press than usual is often described as a “crunchy” feeling. You might need to remove and reseat these keys or dig a little deeper for potential obstructions – perhaps some remaining soda residue.

It’s a constant battle to keep keyboards free of dirt and grime, but barring any spills or accidents, a quick clean should only take five minutes, especially if you’re staying on top of things. Here are some quick pointers to help you with that:

  • Vacuuming: Use a mini vacuum to gently press each key down until it actuates, releasing chunks of dirt stuck on the switch underneath. Carefully run it over all keys, one by one, to collect dust and debris.
  • Electronics cleaning brush: This thing is great for getting into spaces between keys. Making a thorough pass with this tool should help dislodge some dirt from underneath keys, so we suggest following up by making a second pass over the keyboard with your vacuum cleaner.
  • A damp microfiber cloth: Great for cleaning anything that can’t be knocked loose with a cleaning brush or sucked up with a vacuum. Be mindful of the damp part. If the cloth is dripping, it’s way too wet for a routine cleaning.
  • Cotton swabs (aka Q-tips): These can be indispensable for wiping inside keycaps, which is generally going to be too cramped for a cloth to get at. Especially helpful for spot drying super tight spots. Expect to blow through them faster than you think, so grab a lot.

Brigii Mini Vacuum Cleaner

Good for getting into keyboard crevices

Now You Know How to Clean a Mechanical Keyboard, What’s Next?

Cleaning a mechanical keyboard isn’t hard, but it can be time-consuming, especially after filling one with Mountain Dew. Running through the steps we outlined above has a high recovery rate, just be careful when disassembling everything.

Assuming you never spill anything on your keyboard, you can postpone having to do a deep clean by making a habit out of doing light maintenance somewhat regularly – a few times a year is probably fine, especially if you don’t eat or drink near your keyboard.

Are you in a total cleaning mood now? Clean your mousepad next.

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