How to clean a mechanical keyboard

Poppy Slater

In addition to the superior quality and typing experience offered by good mechanical keyboards, they also tend to be easier to clean thanks to their removable keycaps. This means you’ll never have to spend years staring at a disgusting, inaccessible underworld of skin flakes and stray hairs hiding below your keys. 

While the cleaning process is a pretty simple one, it can be a little intimidating if you’re new to it. There are also a few things worth taking some extra care with during the job, to avoid damaging the functionality or appearance of your pricey mechanical keyboard. 

This guide will run you through the tools you’ll need (from free, to cheap, to a bit more expensive), the processes you’ll need to go through, and what to look out for along the way to make sure that your keyboard is looking better than ever when you’re finished. 

Also: Mechanical keyboards: A comprehensive guide

Video Guide

Tools

Below is a list of tools that will be helpful when cleaning your keyboard. Not all of them are mandatory, but you’ll at least need a keycap puller and some form of duster. We’ll also note where cheaper, or even free DIY options to replace a tool are available. 

Keycap puller

This is the most important tool in your arsenal. They come in two forms: a small plastic ring with two legs designed to clip around the edge of a key and lift it, or a handle with two slim, flexible wires that slip between keys and under the corners of their caps to help lift them.

We recommend the latter variety, which can be had for about $5 to $7. Those small plastic ones may be cheaper, but they’re rougher on the keycaps, and can scratch some softer caps. The wire-equipped pullers also have the advantage of being better for removing longer keys — like shift, enter, and space — and more adept at sliding into tight gaps between caps and outer cases.

More: The best mechanical keyboards: From mini to macros

Many mechanical keyboards will ship with one type or the other included. For a cheap option, you can also get some flexible, sturdy wire and bend two pieces into the U-shape you see here. Attach them in the middle using some sturdy tape to make them easier to hold. 

Keyswitch puller 

This tool is only necessary if you have a keyboard with hot swap switch sockets. This tool, which can be had for as little as $4, lets you pop your switches out with the same ease the above tool lets you remove caps. Simply place the two tongs at the top and bottom of the switch, squeeze in to depress the built-in clips, and the switch should lift easily away from the mounting plate. 

You should always be careful during this process not to scratch your mounting plate, particularly if it’s a high-polished brass or steel plate. We recommend users with scratchable mounting plates consider a slightly more expensive ($7 to $8) switch pullers that is coated or finished to prevent scratching, like the option below.

More: The best gaming keyboards: All the hits and clicks

Lastly, make absolutely sure your switch’s contact pins are correctly aligned before attempting to push it into place. Even the most expensive switches have very fragile pins that are difficult to straighten if bent when pushed into their board in the wrong position. While it’s possible to bend them back into place, there’s always a chance they’ll snap. An extra moment to confirm the correct orientation can save you a huge headache later. 

Air blower or vacuum 

The options here vary widely in cost and form. At the lowest end, you have the trusty old can of compressed air. It’s inexpensive ($5 to $15, depending on size), usually does a great job, and is readily available, but it can run out at inopportune times, and the cans can get uncomfortably cold or freeze up entirely during big jobs. 

That’s why many companies now produce electric blowers. These range from relatively inexpensive units, around $25 to $60, all the way up to $100+ models that are strong enough to dust off an entire board in seconds. On the opposite side of the coin are desk vacs. They tend to be around the same $25 to $60 price range mentioned above, but they’re usually not very powerful and can leave behind more debris than they remove. For this reason, we’d avoid them. 

A paintbrush

This is a simple, cheap, and readily available option many of you probably already have in your home. Often, it can do just as well as any blower and will last basically forever. Just be careful to make sure the brush you’re using is clean (you don’t want dried-up paint flakes getting into your delicate switches) and neither too coarse, nor too soft. If it’s too coarse, you risk scratching high-gloss surfaces, while being too soft will just make it ineffective. 

One important note about this option: I wouldn’t recommend using it in direct contact with your keyboard’s electronics. Brushes can build up a static charge that could result in a spark that damages the onboard circuitry. It’s an unlikely outcome, but as anyone that’s tried to build a PC without proper grounding can tell you, seeing that spark jump from your fingertip to an expensive component will stop your heart nonetheless. 

The cleaning process

Below we’ll list the steps to giving your mechanical keyboard a good, deep clean, from start to finish. 

  1. Remove your keycaps – the ability to do this is what makes mechanical keyboards much easier to clean than models with keycaps that were never designed to be removed by the end user.

    To do this, first grab your cap puller of choice. The plastic kind will need to be pushed onto the keys until its legs click into place below the sides of the cap. The dual-wire kind can either be pressed over the top of the cap until its wires spring into place, or gently guided around the cap with your other hand. The latter approach is best for longer keys like enter, shift, or space. The ideal position for the wires is at opposing corners, pushed in as far toward the cap’s center as they’ll go.

    More: How to clean and sanitize your AirPods

    Once you’ve got your plastic legs or wires positioned, simply lift gently to remove the cap. Depending on the tolerances of the caps or key switches, this might take more or less force. Never force the cap off. Doing so could damage it, the switch, or even the board itself. Instead, stubborn caps can be wiggled gently side to side, while lifted. This usually frees even the most stuck caps with a little patience. 

  2. Remove your switch – This is only possible if your board has hot swap sockets for its switches, and only necessary if you have some specific reason to believe dust or debris has actually infiltrated inside the keyboard’s casing.

    Most switches fit so tightly that it’s very hard for dirt to enter the board itself, so this is best done only if you’ve been using the board for a very long time, or know for a fact dust managed to squeeze in.

    To do this, put the tips of your switch puller into the indents at the front and back of your switch and squeeze. The clips located there that keep the switch locked into the mounting plate should disengage and allow the switch to be lifted easily. 

  3. Dusting – If you’re using a blower, like compressed air or an electronic air duster, this is the time to blow the dust, hair, and other small debris out of all the crevices of your board. I like to start from one edge and dust toward the other, much like you’d use a leaf blower to gradually sweep in a single direction.

    The same strategy works just as well with a paintbrush. Just avoid allowing your brush’s bristles to enter the keyboard’s enclosed case to protect any static from reaching delicate internal electronics.

    Once you’re satisfied that you’ve blown/vacuumed/dusted away any dust or debris, you can begin the reassembly process. 

  4. Reassembly – If you’ve removed your switches, now’s the time to reinsert them. Once again, ensure the pins are correctly aligned with the slots provided by the hot swap sockets before pushing them into place. If done correctly, the pins should slot into the sockets, and the plastic clips on the switch’s casing will engage with the mounting plate, locking the switch into place.

    If your board doesn’t have hot swap sockets, or you didn’t feel the need to remove your switches, you can skip right to reapplying your caps. This can be done by correctly aligning the +-shaped stem with the hole on the bottom of the cap and pressing downward firmly.

    Make sure to completely bottom out the key and hold it down for a moment or two. Failing to do so could lead to some tighter caps not being fully depressed, giving you an uneven surface to type on. As a final check, take a look across your board from one side, sighting along the top surfaces of all of the caps. If any look like they’re sticking up above the others, that cap likely isn’t pushed all the way down.

    Longer keys can be particularly finicky about this, and often require one or two extra presses to ensure the switch and any stabilizers to its left and right are fully seated. Just take your time and be gentle. It’s better to remove the cap and realign it than trying to force it on and end up cracking your keycap. 

Once you’ve done this, you should be good to go. Just plug your board back in, or turn it back on if it’s a wireless model, and get typing away. If you’re still confused, or you just want some extra guidance, be sure to watch our included video where we demonstrate all of these tools and each included step. 

https://www.zdnet.com/home-and-office/smart-office/how-to-clean-a-mechanical-keyboard/

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