Cheap mechanical keyboards are all the rage these days. People will brag on Youtube or on forums about the cheap (probably tenkeyless) mechanical keyboard they found and how great it is. And for only $25! Or $22. Or $20. This weekend I even found one for $16. Read the reviews and most people are thrilled. But there’s always someone complaining that a key quit working. Here’s what you can do if a mechanical keyboard key stopped working.
Mechanical keyboards went out of style because they were expensive. But now that good-enough mechanical key switches cost around 10 cents apiece rather than a dollar apiece, they’re making a comeback because many people find a mechanical keyboard nicer to type on. I find they help reduce wrist pain.
Try this quick fix first
Occasionally I’ll have a random key on my mechanical keyboard decide to quit working. I unplug the keyboard and plug it back in and it starts working again. If your mechanical keyboard key stopped working, chances are it won’t be this easy, but it only takes a few seconds to try. And if it doesn’t work, you’re not out anything.
This keyboard has a detachable cable. I replaced the detachable cable, and it definitely reduced the issue, if it didn’t eliminate it entirely. Your keyboard may very, but mine uses a standard USB mini type A cable. It’s a little thicker than the connector on the cables we use to charge an Android phone.
Is it under warranty?
Of course, if the keyboard is under warranty, you could consider sending it back for replacement. But that can be a hassle, and you may have to pay shipping one way. The reason some people throw out their broken mechanical keyboards is because they don’t want that much hassle over a $20 gadget. And, of course, you end up having to go without your keyboard for a week while you wait for the replacement to arrive.
What if I told you that you could fix it yourself for about the same cost as shipping the keyboard back?
How to fix a broken mechanical keyboard key or switch
If a mechanical keyboard key stopped working, you can fix it for around $8. You can buy the magic elixir at Home Depot, of all places. The fix is CRC QD contact cleaner, which is critical. You need a contact cleaner that doesn’t leave any residue. CRC QD fits the bill, it’s readily available, and inexpensive.
Fixing a key that quit working just takes a few minutes. First, unplug the keyboard. This is critical so you don’t accidentally short out the keyboard and cause permanent damage.
Insert the nozzle on the spray. After removing the key cap from the mechanical switch, press down on the key stem and push the nozzle down into the stem. Give the can one or two squirts. Don’t squirt in more than two squirts. It doesn’t take much for the contact cleaner to do its job.
Now just press the stem up and down and move it side to side for about a minute to distribute the contact cleaner. Flip the keyboard over and repeat, for another minute or so. Then set the keyboard back down and let it sit. Five minutes is probably more than you need, but be safe.
Replace the keycap, plug the keyboard in, and you’ll probably find the switch works just fine again.
And of course, if it happens again with another key, you already have the spray, so you can fix it for free.
You can also try compressed air, but the problem is more likely something compressed air won’t help. It won’t hurt it though.
Why this happens
From what I am able to gather, during the manufacturing process some of the makers of off-brand switches don’t get all of the plastic parts completely clean. Once enough residue from the plastic parts gets onto the metal contacts, the key can stop working.
Contact cleaner dissolves oily residue readily, restoring electrical contact.
What if it doesn’t work?
Generally there are two things that can go wrong with a cheap mechanical keyboard: dirty switches and broken solder joints. This fix takes care of a dirty switch, but it won’t help a broken solder joint. If you’re comfortable disassembling the keyboard and touching up the solder joint, it’s not difficult. But not everyone will be comfortable doing that.
What to look for in a cheap mechanical keyboard
One trend in mechanical keyboards is user-changeable switches. These keyboards cost more, and the selection of switch types is more limited. But the appeal of a keyboard with DIY changeable switches, such as the Mechanical Eagle Z-77, is that if a single key stops working and you can’t fix it with a squirt of contact cleaner, you can just change the switch. And if you get tired of blue switches and like red switches better, you can swap in red switches. Or a combination if you become a keyboard connoisseur.
If I ever find a DIY changeable keyboard with semi-quiet brown switches like the one I use for work, I’ll buy one in a heartbeat. As it stands, I’m likely to buy one at some point and swap in brown switches.
What to do with a broken mechanical keyboard
If you have a broken mechanical keyboard you can’t fix and it’s out of warranty, you shouldn’t have too much trouble selling it on Ebay or Craigslist. The keycaps are worth $10 and the switches are worth almost as much to someone willing to desolder them from the board to reuse them.
There are people who build their own mechanical keyboards. You don’t save any money doing this. But someone who builds their own keyboards can spend a bit less on their hobby by salvaging switches rather than using all-new switches. When you list it, just make sure you mention that the keyboard doesn’t work, say what’s wrong with it, and that you’re selling it for parts and salvage only. Especially if the problem is just that one mechanical keyboard key stopped working, someone will want it.