How to Clean your Model M Keyboard

If you buy a used Model M keyboard off of ebay or from an electronics recycler, or even if you just pull one out of a corner in your garage after it has been forgotten and unused for a few years, you'll probably find that it could benefit from a good cleaning before being put back into use. The materials used in the construction of the Model M were quite durable and the overall design was quite good, so most of the time a thorough cleaning is all that is needed to make one serviceable again.

Following are the steps that you can take without disassembling the keyboard. We will be opening up the shell of the keyboard anyhow for our project, but its a good idea to clean what we can first so that debris does not make its way into parts of the keyboard that previous were protected. These steps are also good to perform every so often to take of any grime from normal use.
Start by removing the key covers. Most Model Ms have two-part key caps that consist of a cover and a stem. The cover pops off pretty easily just by pulling on it with your fingers. If yours has two-part keycaps, remove just the covers and place them in a bowl or jar for cleaning.

Some have one-piece integrated key caps - mostly later models, models that were branded for other companies (such as Lexmark and Dell), and the "quiet touch" (rubber dome) models. If your Model M has one-piece keys, you might find it easier to remove them by prying them off as shown in the next step.
No matter what model you are working with, the keys that are 2x width or greater (left shift, right shift, backspace, etc) are one-piece keys that are easiest to remove if you pry them off as in the picture. Remove these keys and add them to the jar with the key covers for cleaning.
The spacebar is pried off just like the 2X keys, the only difference is that there is a metal stabilizer bar. Just pop off the stabilizer and put the spacebar in the cleaning jar.
Once all of the covers and large keys have been removed, proceed to remove the remaining key stems, but don't add them to the cleaning jar unless they are particularly dirty. It is very easy for water to find a home inside of the key stems and you have to be careful to make sure they are completely dry if you soak them with the rest of the keys. The stems don't usually get dirty enough to make it worth the extra effort, so keeping them separate can save you some time.
At this point all of the keys should be removed from your keyboard. The springs should not fall out even if you turn the keyboard upside down. Try not to let anything fall into the "barrels" as any debris in there could start to cause problems after repeated actuations.

If you look closely at the photo, the spring that was under the "grave" key (`) is caught on the barrel. That's not uncommon, so take a moment to look for anything like that and straighten it out.

This particular keyboard has a lot of crud on the barrel frame so I'm going to go over it quickly with a vacuum before I do anything else.
Fill the cleaning jar with warm water and add a small amount of liquid laundry detergent - the cheapest, mildest stuff you have is probably best. You can use the use the spacebar to gently stir and agitate the keys until the detergent is evenly distributed. Let it soak for about 30 minutes, and give a quick stir every 10 minutes or so. The detergent will do its work and after 30 minutes the keys will be surprisingly clean.

The Model M's keys are made of durable PBT plastic and the legends are applied via dye sublimation, so cleaning them like this should not cause any damage or fading.
Remove the keys from the wash, giving each one a quick wipe with a clean, slightly wet rag to remove any residue. Give the key a quick rinse in some clean water and let it sit out to air dry. The integrated keys with the small crevices can take 24 hours or more to completely air dry. It is important that the keys be completely dry before putting them back on the keyboard.

Pro tip: Apparently the previous owner didn't like the Page Up key or something, and put an X on it with permanent marker that didn't come off in the wash. I was able to remove it by applying some alcohol-based hand sanitizer and letting it soak for a while, followed by light scrubbing.
At this point, if I wasn't planning on disassembling the board I would just clean the exterior of the shell and the barrel frame, put the keys back on, and be finished. You can clean the exterior with mild soap and water, and stubborn grime can usually be removed with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer gel if necessary. To clean the barrel frame without disassembling the board, cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol work well.

In order to remove the keyboard's shell, continue to the next page about disassembly of the Model M. It is a bit easier clean the shell and the barrel frame when the keyboard is taken apart, so if you are going to take it apart anyhow you might as well wait until it is in pieces before you do that.
Last updated on 2015-05-04 at 04.25.25 PM Published on 2014-05-06 at 10.06.42 PM