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October 7, 2006

Experts' Experts: How to clean your keyboard


Rob Pegoraro writes about computers and related subjects for the Washington Post, and I find his take on things very useful and sensible — most of the time.

His "Help File" feature in the October 1 Business section addressed the vexing problem of schmutz in your keyboard, and follows.

    How to Clean Your Keyboard

    Q. How do I clean my computer's keyboard? I could reassemble an entire sandwich from all the crumbs stuck in there .

    A. Computer manufacturers tend to advise nothing more than shaking out crumbs and vacuuming it. Some users go to the other extreme and stick the entire keyboard in the dishwasher — no soap, only water, followed by several days of drying out before they plug it back in. (Note: That's an especially bad idea if the keyboard is on a laptop.)

    I wasn't prepared to do something that drastic with my home computer's filthy keyboard, but a once-over with a vacuum wasn't going to cut it either. Here's what I did instead:

    1) Unplug the keyboard. So you can remember the key layout, either take a photo of it or find a picture of it in your computer's manual. Shake it out, upside down, over a trash can.

    2) Stick the dull edge of a pocket knife's blade under each key and gently lever it upward until it clicks free of the post below it; it's not glued down and should pop loose with minimal effort. The space bar, Shift, Return and Enter keys, however, will be attached to a secondary metal or plastic support that lends extra spring to them but also makes them trickier to remove and replace. It may be easier to leave those keys attached.

    3) Wash each key in dishwashing soap and water — make sure the drain is closed below them — then rinse them and let them air dry.

    4) Vacuum out the shell of the keyboard, then dip a paper towel in rubbing alcohol (which will dry much faster than water) and swab out the area below the keys, as well as any keys you couldn't remove.

    5) Give everything a full day to dry out. Remember, moisture and electronics mix poorly.

    Once everything is dry, push each key back on its post until it clicks into place and responds properly to your typing. Then try not to snack at your desk so often.


Pegoraro's advice, while well-intentioned, should not be followed.

Here's why.

My philosophy of life centers on the realization, made some years ago, that it is far, far easier to avoid a problem than to solve one.

If your keyboard is working fine, no matter how filthy it is, do not — repeat, do not — attempt to do anything more aggressive than turning it upside down and shaking it.

Because perfect is the enemy of good.

And if you do all the things Pegoraro did, and you are a TechnoDoofus™ like me,

1) You will probably break something while you painstakingly remove each key from its post

2) You may well cut yourself with your pocket knife while doing so, bringing a premature halt to your housekeeping effort and perhaps even resulting in a trip to the emergency room for sutures, a tetanus shot, et al

3) You will find, to your stupefaction after spending hours doing the above, that your keyboard no longer functions properly, as it did before you undertook your ill-advised adventure into the cleaning space

4) You will have had your keyboard out of service a minimum of "a full day to dry out," on top of the time you spent actually cleaning it, which I'd conservatively estimate would take me a minimum of two hours if I did as Pegoraro recommends

5) You will say, "Hey, that joe — he's not as dumb as I thought"

And on a completely different note, "TechnoDoofus™" — do you like it as much as I do?


October 7, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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A usual advice when manipulating and cleaning computer components is to never use a vacuum cleaner which may _swallow_ some tiny electronic components. That's the reason for the use of a pressurized air bottle.

Posted by: Pascal.Boulerie | Oct 8, 2006 1:28:31 PM

I'm with you. Last time I tried to clean a filthy keyboard no matter what I typed it came out like t2020hi#20@2020$#7202020920fds.

A little gentle baby wipe action is okay.

Posted by: Xensen | Oct 7, 2006 11:32:40 PM

Buy the air in a can. Spray occasionally. Very carefully, wipe the key with a cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol. Spray with air again. Type. Type. Type......

Posted by: Mb | Oct 7, 2006 8:07:26 PM

Mine's filthy, but still working. Not like these modern things that die soon as look at you. When it gets too sticky I prise off the keycaps and put them inside a pillow case and shove 'em in the washing machine. First, however, take a photo of the layout and leave it, open, on your desktop. Otherwise it all ends up aeinlkjk akje akfjijaagl; awei-93,vm

Posted by: | Oct 7, 2006 6:45:55 PM

This reminds me of when I was eight years old and I decided I was going to polish up my flute. I had seen Julius Baker playing this gorgeous shiny instrument and figured mine had to look that way, too. Fortunately, it was just an old Artley student model, but still. So I got me a little tiny screwdriver and some little tiny longnose pliers and unscrewed every key and rod and disassembled the whole thing until I had (in addition to the headjoint, which I had also unscrewed the crown from) one long and one short (the foot joint) keyless, rodless, silver tube. I even managed to gouge the pads out of the keys. Then I got some highly abrasive silver polish and gave everything hell. Then I rinsed everything under hot water and dried everything off, and I had these three silver tubes and a big pile of keys and rods and pads and little teensy screws, and not the faintest idea how to make it back into a flute. But I tried, oh how I tried, then I cried, oh how I cried. Then my father noticed he hadn't been hearing me practicing much, and at the confession, I think he actually laughed more than he ranted and raved. The upshot was, I graduated to an old, kind of beat up professional model, which, for a while, my father checked daily to see if I had been trying any remodeling jobs on, and I vaguely remember him threatening to turn it into a lamp or an ashtray or possibly even wrap it around my neck if I did.

I won't be messing with this keyboard. It's trying to grow something, I think, but I just look on it as a biology experiment.

Posted by: Flautist | Oct 7, 2006 5:08:53 PM

Keyboards aren't expensive, instead of wasting time cleaning it, invest the $10 for a new one. Problem solved.

Posted by: David | Oct 7, 2006 4:10:59 PM

Much easier than all that...

Most keyboards have aout 8 to 12 screws keeping them closed (sometimes one or two will be under a strategically placed 'warentee' sticker that is there so that you don't open it).

The electronics on these things have gone down to a tiny circuitboard -- generally up in the area where the keylock lights are -- connected to a conductive plastic membrane under the keys.

Pull the cord conected to the circuitboard out with the membrane (its usually one piece anyways)...put these parts somewhere safe.

Wash the rest. No need to undo any keys...probably won't work on ultra complicated 'media keyboards' -- but it still worked on my $50 keyboard with a dozen programmable keys. Most keyboards can easily be cleaned by even technodolts.

Note: I've taken keyboards that I would have had to throw away because they were so bad (I have one employee that I feel like slapping everytime I see this person with food anywhere near the desk -- and they continually complain, WELL EVERYONE ELSE CAN EAT AT THEIR DESK -- well no one else ruins a keyboard each and every month -- idiot)...the last time this happened, I threw the whole damn thing in the dishwasher and made certain it was set to heated drying to get all the water out). Worked good as new. Not that I cared...I was hoping it would have given me a reason to let the idiotchild go.

Posted by: clifyt | Oct 7, 2006 3:29:01 PM

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