How to Clean Keycaps for Optimal Keyboard Performance

Follow these practical tips to keep all different kinds of keycaps clean

Is there any sight as lovely as a keyboard adorned by rows of immaculate, neatly labeled keycaps? Alright, we’ll make some exceptions for a sunset on a tropical beach or the first time a parent sees their newborn child, but as aesthetically pleasing computer accessories go? We’re standing firm.

Even if you’re the kind of typist who is strictly about function instead of form, it’s still a great idea to learn how to clean keycaps. It’s one of the most proactive ways you can maintain your keyboard’s operation for the long haul, and it will also make it easier and more pleasant to use.

There are many kinds of keycaps out there adorning many different kinds of keyboards. But with the handy tips in this guide, you’ll learn how to clean keycaps in a way that’s safe and effective for your board.

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Why and how to clean keycaps

For most keyboards, cleaning your keycaps is a fairly easy task that shouldn’t take more than a half hour or so. Naturally, if you have a 60% keyboard with fewer keys or a large full-size keyboard with more than 100 of them, that will impact how long cleaning takes. But before we get into advice on how to clean keycaps, you may be wondering why they really need their own special treatment in terms of cleaning.

Here are a few reasons why it’s worth taking the time to give your keycaps a deep clean:

  • It’s hygienic. The average computer user types about 200 characters per minute. Assuming you spend an hour per day typing, that’s around 12,000 keystrokes — 12,000 times your fingers come into contact with the same surfaces. It’s worth keeping those surfaces clean to prevent the spread of germs, especially if anyone else ever uses your keyboard.
  • It can protect the rest of your board. Your keycaps are the first line of defense between your keyboard and grit, grease, and other contaminants that could potentially impair its functioning. If your keycaps stay cleaner, the rest of your board likely will too.
  • It’s an important part of an overall keyboard care routine. To keep your keyboard working better for longer, you need to take care of it. Learning how to clean keycaps and doing so regularly is a great first step toward regular keyboard maintenance.

You also need to make sure you follow the right process for your particular board. If your keyboard is built into a laptop, uses low-profile, scissor-style switches (such as Apple’s Magic Keyboard), or has a traditional, all-in-one membrane design, consider the steps under the next header. If you have a mechanical keyboard that allows you to easily remove and replace its keycaps, skip to the section after that.

Always make sure you consult your keyboard’s instructions and warranty information before doing any kind of work on your board. If your keycaps are made of metal, ceramic, or some other less-common material instead of plastic, you should make sure you follow their care instructions instead.

How to clean non-removable keycaps

First, gather your cleaning materials:

  • Duster or compressed air
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Cotton swabs
  • Handy container of water, either tap or distilled
  • Dish soap (optional)

Start by unplugging your keyboard from your computer. If your keyboard is part of your computer, such as with a laptop, power off the entire unit. Don’t plug it in or turn it back on until it’s had the chance to completely dry.

First, use either a duster or compressed air to remove any loose dirt from the surface of your keycaps. Then dampen a microfiber cloth with water and gently wipe the surface of each keycap. If you have trouble reaching the sides of your keycaps with a cloth, revisit those parts later with dampened cotton swabs.

Either way, do not use a cloth or swab that is dampened to the point of dripping. You may wish to use distilled water to reduce the chance of leaving unsightly water spots behind, especially if your keycaps have a glossy finish.

For a deeper clean, consider adding a few drops of dish soap to the water you use to dampen your cloth or cotton swabs. If you do, you may need to give each keycap a second pass with pure water to avoid leaving behind a soapy film once they dry.

How to clean keycaps on a mechanical keyboard

Since most mechanical keyboard keycaps can be removed and replaced by their users, it’s easy to give them regular deep cleanings. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • Keycap puller
  • Bowl full of water
  • Dish soap
  • Colander, mesh strainer, or similar draining container
  • Towel

Unplug your keyboard, then take a top-down picture of the board that shows the position of all the keys. This will help you return them to their proper positions later on. Even if your keycaps don’t have legends, they may not be interchangeable — look at your keys from the side to see if the shape and height of their keycap profile varies between rows. This is the case for HHKB keyboards and many others, so be sure to account for this as you plan.

Next, use your keycap puller to remove each keycap one at a time. Pay special attention to extra wide or irregularly shaped keys, such as the spacebar and Enter, as you may need to disconnect their keyboard stabilizers before removing their caps.

Now, it’s time to give your hard-working keycaps a relaxing bath. Mix a few drops of dish soap into a bowl full of water, then drop in your keycaps (you may want to use separate, smaller bowls for each row if your keycaps are blank and have varying profiles). Let them soak overnight for a deep and easy clean. In the morning, or at least six hours later, carefully pour your soapy keycap concoction into a colander or similar draining container, then rinse the caps well with water. Place them on a towel to dry for a few hours.

While your keycaps are soaking or drying, now is the perfect time to give the rest of your keyboard a deep clean. Once the keycaps are done drying and the rest of your keyboard is pristine, consult your reference image to replace each cap one by one.

Try a keyboard with a clean form and proven function

At HHKB, we appreciate a keyboard that’s clean in more ways than one. That’s why we made a keyboard with a sleek, minimalist look that’s also easy for users to take apart and clean. But the HHKB Professional HYBRID Type-S doesn’t just look good on the outside; its electrostatic Topre key switches provide an unparalleled typing feel, and its intelligently designed layout promotes more efficient and ergonomic usage for those who type to live. Find your next favorite in the full line of high-end keyboards from HHKB.

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