Step-by-step: Keep a clean keyboard

From basic cleaning to intensive care, here's how to get the dirt out from under your fingers

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.

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.

4. Vacuum the leftover dirt.

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

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.

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.

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.

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