Refurbish a vintage ball mouse

I wanted a mouse for my IBM 5170 and my 386DX-33 systems, but both of them need a serial mouse. I mean old school RS-232 serial, not USB. Finding a serial optical mouse isn’t easy. Plus I wanted something that would look the part. I got an early 90s Microsoft mouse that matches the end of the 286/386 era, but it worked badly. So I had to learn again how to refurbish a vintage ball mouse.

Vintage, worked when I put it away, honest!

how to clean a ball mouse
This Microsoft mouse was used during parts of the 286, 386, and 486 eras and was good for its time. But if you get a vintage ball mouse like this today, expect to need to refurbish it to make it work well again.

You know what “it worked when I put it away” means. It means it’s broken.

Technically this mouse worked, but it wasn’t smooth or precise. Of course when a mouse gets like that, you clean it. Opening the mouse up, I saw someone had already tried that.

How to clean a ball mouse

I cleaned it again with mineral spirits, since mineral spirits will remove gunk that alcohol doesn’t, but it didn’t really help in this case because the rollers were already pretty clean. If the rollers look clean, they should work. You just dab a cotton swab in a solvent and wipe down the rollers until you can’t see any more dirt on it. If it’s really built up, you can scrape the crud off, but use something plastic, not metal, so you don’t scratch the rollers. Scratched rollers accumulate more dirt faster.

If the rollers are clean and the mouse still isn’t smooth or precise and jumps around unpredictably, the problem is the ball. It will never work as well as a good optical mouse, but you can make it OK.

How to clean the mouse ball

Don’t use alcohol on the ball. Alcohol dries out rubber. It’s usually safest just to use water. Dry it with a piece of denim. I knew I kept that old pair of jeans for a reason.

If it doesn’t work, the mouse ball may have worn too smooth to get a good grip on the rollers. About 20 years ago I used to do some A/V work, and back then we still recorded on tape, so I have some Caikleen RBR rubber conditioner I used to use to fix rollers in tape-based equipment. A bottle costs more than the mouse, but if it’s any consolation, a bottle lasts a very long time. It also works well on printer rollers. I used that on my Microsoft mouse’s ball, and it worked much better after that.

If you don’t have any rubber conditioner and can’t justify buying some, there’s an alternative option. You can scuff up the mouse ball a bit with a green scouring pad. That works almost as well and is certainly cheaper.

That’s the well kept secret of refurbishing a vintage ball mouse. It’s not enough to clean the rollers. You also need to recondition the ball.

2 thoughts on “Refurbish a vintage ball mouse

  • July 27, 2021 at 5:50 am
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    I use Methyl salicylate (oil of wintergreen) on rubber parts, available in many drug stores.

  • July 29, 2021 at 10:06 pm
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    Mouse…. I went trackball around 1992/93. Had serial “agiler” trackball that worked good except when it was freezing it would slip. Got in the habit of screwing a wooden board into the top right bottom of my keyboards sticking out so mount trackball there with screws. Now Logitech trackball (wired or wireless) is the only way to go. Almost everything I use is wireless except internet I like systems cabled.

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