Step-By-Step: Keep a Clean Keyboard

Don't look now, but your PC's keyboard may have its own alien ecosystem growing in the dark recesses beneath the keys. Dirt and dust coat the keys and build up underneath. Sometimes the accumulated mixture of spilled drinks and crumbs can stop keys from working altogether.

Keeping your keyboard clean is an easy process that you should perform regularly. Before beginning, determine whether you have a mechanical or a membrane keyboard. Some boards still use a mechanical apparatus underneath the keys, which creates a distinctive click when keys are pressed. But most keyboards today use hard-contact keys that connect with a plastic membrane.

We've divided our tips into two sections: Basic Cleaning and, for stuck or truly filthy boards, Intensive Care. Of course, if you need to start anew, replacement boards start at as little as $10.

Tools and Supplies

Basic Cleaning

Canned compressed air (available at computer and photo dealers), lint-free cloth or photographic wipes, mild liquid dishwashing detergent, vacuum cleaner with soft brush

Intensive Care

All of the above, plus a small screwdriver (for removing keys), cotton swabs, and 90 percent isopropyl alcohol (available at any drugstore). Note: Do not use ethyl-based rubbing alcohol.

More Cleaning Tips

Your keyboard isn't the only part of your PC that could use tidying: Your PC's mouse may need some attention. Also, see "Top Tips for PC Hygiene" for more tips.

Basic Cleaning

1. Tap out the dirt.

Turn off your PC and unplug the keyboard. Put a large piece of old newspaper on a table, turn the keyboard over, and holding it a few inches above the paper, shake out any loose debris.

Photograph: Kevin Candland

2. Blow out the dirt.

This step is best done outside. Use a can of compressed air to loosen and remove dirt by directing the air stream between the keys. Then invert and shake out the keyboard again.

Photograph: Kevin Candland

3. Clean the key surfaces.

To remove finger oils and other dirt from the surface of the keys, make a diluted solution of standard liquid dishwashing detergent. (Do not use any harsh cleaning solutions.) Use a damp (not wet) lint-free cloth to gently clean off the key surfaces. If they're not particularly dirty, plain warm water will do. Then wipe the keys with a dry cloth.

Photograph: Kevin Candland

4. Vacuum the leftover dirt.

To remove loose dirt that the other steps missed, use the dusting brush on any standard vacuum.

Photograph: Kevin Candland

Intensive Care

WARNING: These additional steps are only for truly filthy membrane-type keyboards with sticking keys. Don't use these steps with laptops, or with mechanical keyboards (which have a spring under each key and can be identified by a distinctive click when you press down).

5. Keep track of the keys.

If extreme measures are necessary, access the keyboard's interior by popping off the keys. Before you begin, use a copy machine or a digital camera to record the layout of the assembled keyboard so you can return each key to its correct location.

Photograph: Kevin Candland

6. Remove the keycaps.

Using a small screwdriver, carefully pry up each key. It should pop off easily. Do not remove the spacebar or large keys such as <Shift>, <Enter>, or <Tab>. Putting those back on can be difficult.

7. Go after the stubborn dirt.

Loosen and remove leftover particles using compressed air. Use a cloth dampened with the solution from Step 3 to remove dirt and stains. For stubborn stains, use cotton swabs dampened with 90 percent isopropyl alcohol. Then use the compressed air again.

Photograph: Kevin Candland

8. Replace the keycaps.

Carefully snap each keycap back on. Make sure each one works freely as you proceed. Plug in the keyboard, and test all the keys when finished.

Keeping Your Mouse Clean

Many of today's PC mice use optical sensors, which are much less susceptible to getting dirty than the old rolling-rubber-ball mice. If you have an optical mouse (usually recognizable by the illuminated LED sensor on its belly), follow the manufacturer's directions for cleaning it. The sensor usually needs only a quick wipe with a lint-free cloth.

If your mouse uses a rolling ball, it's likely to pick up more dirt and dust the longer you use it. You'll know it needs cleaning when on-screen mouse cursor movement gets jerky, slow, and/or imprecise. (Note that some stationary mice use roller balls on the top. If you have one of those, follow the manufacturer's directions for cleaning it.)

1. Disassemble the mouse.

Turn off your PC, unplug the mouse, and turn it over. You should see a locking ring around the rolling ball, usually with an arrow indicating the direction to turn to unlock it. Press the ring down, and turn it in the direction of the arrow. Remove the ring and the roller ball.

2. Clean the roller ball.

Gently rotate the roller ball in a lint-free cloth moistened with warm water or a dilute solution of dishwashing detergent. When it's clean, set it aside to dry.

3. Clean the mouse rollers.

Inside the mouse case, you'll see a pair of rollers, usually black with dirt and/or with a "string" made of lint wrapped tight around the center of each roller. Use cotton swabs moistened with 90 percent isopropyl alcohol to gently clean the rollers, making sure to rotate them and clean all surfaces. You may need to use a fingernail or pin to break the lint ring and remove it. Make sure each element is completely dry before you proceed to the next step.

4. Reassemble the mouse.

Place the roller ball back inside the mouse, and replace the locking ring, pushing it down and twisting it to ensure that it's securely locked. Check to see that the roller ball rotates freely. Plug the mouse in, turn your PC on, and confirm the mouse is working correctly.

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