What I learned from cleaning my keyboard

I decided to clean my ThinkPad‘s keyboard yesterday because it was getting noticeably dirty and I haven’t cleaned the keyboard since I got my computer two years ago. I don’t mean just a surface cleaning, either: I popped off all my keycaps and went in with a toothpick and a vacuum cleaner.

ThinkPad T430 keyboard without keycaps

ThinkPad T430 keyboard without keycaps

(Please excuse the photo quality. My batteries for my camera were dead and I wasn’t going to wait for them to charge, so I used my phone)

The whole thing took about two hours: one hour for taking the keycaps off, 30 minutes for cleaning, and the other 30 minutes for putting the keycaps back.

I learned a few things from cleaning my keyboard:

  • Keyboards accumulate more dirt than you might think. Mine was full of hair and dust, but I guess that’s to be expected from two years without cleaning.
  • Keys closer to you accumulate more dust than those farther from you.
  • Popping off keycaps isn’t as scary after doing a few.
  • My Swiss Army knife was all I needed. I made use of the corkscrew, screwdriver, toothpick and tweezers.
  • Longer keys have metal bars to keep them in place. The space bar has two.
  • Esc and Delete are apparently long enough to have metal brackets, even though Tab and \ don’t have brackets.
  • The keys around the TrackPoint (G, H and B) have their switches sideways, unlike the other alphanumeric keys.
Back of ThinkPad T430 keys

Back of the keys

A shout-out goes to mr82020674 for his video tutorial on how to remove keys on a ThinkPad keyboard, for without it, I probably wouldn’t have tried.

Tutorial: How to remove and replace keys on a Thinkpad Keyboard Laptop in 1080P by mr82020674 [YouTube]

If you’re planning to pop your caps off and clean your keyboard as I did—and make sure you understand the risks before doing so; I will not be held responsible for any damages to your keyboard—here are some tips before you start:

  • Do your research. Learn how your keyboard is put together and find a video or other tutorial for specifics on your model.
  • Know your keyboard layout well. If you don’t know it, take a picture before you start. Taking off the keycaps is only half of the work; you’ll need to be able to put them back (I was close).
  • Relax, take your time and don’t force it if it doesn’t come off. If you’re not relaxed, you’re more likely to make an error. If you’re having trouble getting a keycap off, try prying it from another angle. The last thing you want is a broken key.
  • Work somewhere where you can drop dust on the floor. It’s a lot easier to vacuum or sweep the dust off later rather than to try to collect it all.
  • Keep your key caps in a container so you don’t lose them.
  • When vacuuming, make sure your keycaps aren’t nearby. You don’t want to accidentally suck them in.
  • When putting the keys back, snap them firmly in place. The keys should be level and not loose. If the key has a metal bar, make sure that goes in properly.

I stress again that taking off keycaps is not to be done trivially: the more you do it, the greater the risk for damage. However, if you’re willing to take the risk, enjoy the learning experience!

Have you ever taken your keys off? Have you ever wanted to? Share your thoughts in the comments.

1 comment
  1. I’ve done this a few times and it always grosses me out somewhat how dirty it gets down there, considering that something like 90 percent of household dust consists of human skin cells. It’s much less stressful if you have a cheap no-brand keyboard that’s easy to replace, though. +1 on checking the layout beforehand. The first time I did this I ended up adding keys back through trial and error.

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