Cleaning up a venerable and battle-worn IBM Model M keyboard

I scored an IBM Model M keyboard recently. Usually when you find 30 year old keyboards, they’re pretty dirty. Here’s how I clean an IBM Model M keyboard.

I’m notoriously picky about keyboards. My weapon of choice is an IBM Model M, also known as the battleship or by its model number 1391401, which went out of fashion sometime in the mid-1990s. You either love them or hate them, and I love them.

People keep trying to tell me that I won’t be able to use them with new computers, but USB adapters from Belkin and Adesso cure that. I’ve used Belkin adapters and can vouch for them, but the Adesso adapters are cheaper and some Amazon reviewers say they work better.

I’m moonlighting writing a contract proposal, and one of the terms of my agreement is that I can use whatever keyboard I want. So I brought in a spare Model M. But it was filthy, so I spent some time this weekend cleaning it up. Now the prince of keyboards is ready to party like it’s 1989.

If the keyboard isn’t too bad, you can wipe it down with baby wipes. I do that with my daily-use Model M once or twice a year, and that’s all it takes to keep it looking nearly new. If you smoke around it, you may need to do more. Since my keyboards only deal with human hands and dog fur and normal household dust, baby wipes do the trick.

This particular keyboard needed more than that. It took about an hour of work and a longer wait, but it was worth it. Model Ms are expensive and not as easy to find as they once were, so they’re worth cleaning up.

First, I put a few drops of dish detergent in a 32-ounce cup. I pop off all of the keycaps and put them the cup with enough water to cover them all, swirl it around, and let it sit for about half an hour.

While that’s sitting, I rinse the mechanism with tap water in the kitchen sink. The water causes the decades of debris to clump together into waterlogged dust bunnies in the corners. I spray the keyboard down and turn the keyboard in both directions to let the water out. Then I repeat a couple of times. If anything remains in the corners, I fish it out with a straightened paper clip.

If there’s dirt in the grooves, scrubbing them with an old toothbrush takes care of it. Any dirt that remains on the surface typically doesn’t survive the toothbrush treatment either.

Once it looks clean, I towel-dry it as best I can. Then I swirl the keycaps around in their water bath one more time, then drain the water, pull the keycaps out, dry them off, and place them back on the board. Any remaining grime should come off easily with the same toothbrush you used on the rest of the keyboard.

I let the keyboard sit for a day or two in a hot car to dry. As long as the keyboard is thoroughly dry, the bath treatment won’t harm it. I’ve revived a good half-dozen boards this way over the years.

There are a lot of things I like, and if you take them away from me, I won’t be happy. But if you tried to take my Model M away from me, I’d be apt to hit you with it. And since it contains about seven pounds of old-fashioned Detroit steel beneath that plastic veneer, you’d feel it.

One thought on “Cleaning up a venerable and battle-worn IBM Model M keyboard

  • May 27, 2012 at 10:18 pm
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    I thought I knew what keyboard you were talking about, but I went looking, and I found more.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Model_M_keyboard
    I did know the basic keyboard, but of more interest they’re still being made. Direct descendant, hand to hand, through two sales of plans and rights-to-manufacture, but now in a variety of models. While not cheap, probably cheaper than buying original.

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