How to Clean and Renovate a Used Model M Keyboard

The venerable Model M, first manufactured by IBM in the 1980s (and then licensed and sold to other companies), enjoys a hallowed space in the hearts and minds of keyboard enthusiasts. Its relatively simple-but-durable buckling spring switch mechanism has stood the test of time, literally: many keyboards from the original production runs are still functioning and being used by those who love the old-fashioned construction and feel.

Well-preserved examples can fetch over $300 on secondary markets, more than twice the price of the most expensive modern keyboard at retail.

But there’s the rub: these keyboards range in age from just under twenty to over thirty years old. Their mechanical operation is practically bulletproof, but a lot of them have seen better days. You can pick up an authentic Model M for much cheaper than $300, but it’s probably been sitting in a basement or storage room for at least a decade. In order to get it looking presentable again you’ll need to apply some elbow grease, sort of like restoring a classic car.

So that’s what we did. We tracked down a massive terminal-style Model M, the ugliest and most abused we could find, and bought it for a fraction of the price of a mint condition keyboard. Then we disassembled it, cleaned every nook and cranny, put it back together, and the result was a classic bit of computing that would proudly sit on any geek’s desk. Here’s everything we did to bring the old war horse back to fighting condition.

What You’ll Need

In order to restore an old model M keyboard, you’ll need a few things:

  • A 7/32″ nut driver or equivalent: the bolts holding the plastic case of the Model M together are a very specific size, so specific that you might not have a driver or ratchet even if you have an expansive collection of tools. They’re also deeply recessed into the plastic, so even a typical ratchet set probably can’t reach them. I bought this specific tool off of Amazon for $9.
  • Standard cleaning supplies: Dish soap, paper towels, rough sponges…whatever you  have lying around.
  • A toothbrush: for fine scrubbing. Buy a new one, or use one you don’t ever intend to put in your mouth again.
  • Q-Tips: for those hard-to-reach crannies.
  • Rubbing alcohol: for cleaning portions of the keyboard that might rust from normal soap and water.
  • A keycap puller: for removing the keycaps. A knife or ruler can be used to pry them out, but if you want to make sure you don’t damage the plastic, use a specific tool like this one.
  • A few bowls: for loose keycaps and bolts.
  • Retr0bright tools and materials (optional): if your keyboard is particularly old and yellowed, it’s possible to restore the original color with some industrial chemicals. However, this process is long, tedious, and a bit dangerous. See the Retr0bright section below.
  • Tape and cling wrap (optional): for preserving any paper stickers. Canned air is also handy, but not absolutely necessary.

With these things in hand, you’re ready to take your dusty mess apart.

Step One: Remove the Plastic Case

Use your nut driver to remove the three bolts from the bottom of the case. All three of them are on the upper side (the one closest to the computer when it’s right-side up). They’re quite deep, and you might need to flip the keyboard upside down in order to get them out. Place the bolts in a bowl.

Once you’ve removed the bolts, place the keyboard face up on your table and pull the top half of the plastic shell off, pulling from the top area (where the manufacturer logo is) first. There are a few plastic tabs on the bottom portion of the case, but they shouldn’t give much resistance. Set the top half of the shell aside.

If your keyboard is particularly dirty, you might need to do a bit of cleaning here already; our eBay-bought board had about a decade’s worth of dust, crumbs, and even a bunch of pulled staples and paper clips in between the keycaps and the plate. There was so much dust it had actually condensed into little balls in the corners of the case. Remove everything you can, keeping your work area as clean as you can. Godspeed.

Step Two: Remove the Keycaps

Use your keycap tool to remove all the keycaps on the keyboard. This can be a little less than 90 or, as in our particular model, over 120. Before you start you might want to take a photo of the keyboard with all the keycaps in place, for reference later: depending on the particular model, it might be quite different from a modern keyboard layout. Place all of them in another bowl for later steps.

When pulling, try to use the tongs or clips of your tool to pull straight up, perpendicular to the keyboard itself. Unlike a modern mechanical keyboard, there’s only one stabilizer bar on the space bar key, and it shouldn’t be difficult to remove.

Step Three: Remove the Plate

With any loose items on the plate removed, you can now pull it free of the bottom of the plastic shell. There’s a small nut holding the data cable in place, screwed down on the upper-right corner of the steel plate. (That’s where it is on our terminal-style board, anyway—the location might be a bit different for smaller models). Remove it with your nut driver and place it in the bowl.

There’s a small plastic piece holding the data cable in place as it’s looped through the case (again, this design may vary on smaller Model M keyboards); remove it and put it in the same bowl as the keycaps, so that you can get a bit more give in the cable.

On our model, there’s a single four-pin data cable connecting the keyboard cable itself to the circuit board. Gently pull it out, and you should be able to remove the data cable altogether.

You can now pull the steel plate, with the key switch mechanisms and the circuit board attached, free of the bottom of the case. You should now have the following separate pieces: the data cable, the bottom half of the plastic shell, the top half, the steel plate, and all of your loose smaller pieces—the keycaps, space bar stabilizer, and the plastic retention clip.

Step Four: Clean the Case

Take the top and bottom halves of your case to a kitchen or bathroom, and clean them with warm water and hand soap, just like any dish. A rough sponge is good for getting most of the dirt, but you’ll want to switch to a toothbrush for any fine grooves in the plastic. Here’s where you might want to take extra care to protect any paper or plastic labels still on the case, if you’re preserving the original design and aesthetic of the keyboard itself. I covered the manufacturer sticker (Unicomp, 2000, licensed to a company called Affirmative Computer Products) with cling-wrap and some duct tape and took care not to soak that particular area. Otherwise, treat the plastic just like anything else you’d want to clean.

A little scrubbing is all you should need for most of the dirt and dust, but anything that’s permanently stained the surface might need a hit with some of the rubbing alcohol. Dry everything off as best you can by hand, then set the upper and lower shell pieces aside to make room for the keycaps.

Step Five: Clean the Keycaps

If the keycaps you removed are dirty, this is going to take a long time. It isn’t particularly complicated—again, it’s more or less the same as cleaning the dishes in your kitchen—it’s just intricate. A split sink helps here: I started by plugging one side of the sink and filling it with warm, soapy water up to about an inch, then dumping all of the caps on that side. Let them soak for a while and give them a good stirring, and you’ll remove most of the dust and dirt on its own.

On the other side of the sink, I put in a screen on the drain to make sure I didn’t accidentally lose any caps, then took each one and ran it under the hot water, scrubbing with my rough sponge and toothbrush as necessary. Don’t worry about damaging the legends on the keys themselves: they’re printed using a process called dye sublimation, which means the marks are dyed deep into the plastic and can’t be removed with simple wear like on most modern keys. On this particular keyboard, with its massive 122-key layout, it took a quite a while. Be thorough, be patient, and maybe wear some comfortable shoes.

When you have the keycaps clean to your satisfaction, wipe them as best you can, then set them on a towel to dry. Set them so that the stem (the part that actually connects to the keyboard) faces down, allowing gravity to drain any remaining water. This is important: you don’t want any leftover moisture making its way to the steel keyboard plate (which can rust) or the circuit board when everything is reassembled. Let them dry for several hours.

Step Six: Clean the Keyboard Plate

Leave all of the plastic components drying, and switch back to your main work area to focus on the plate. The keyboard’s steel structural plate and the steel springs inside each key mechanism are both vulnerable to rust, and you don’t want to get any water on the circuit board either. So for the deep cleaning process here, switch to rubbing alcohol (which will evaporate almost immediately) and fine cleaning tools like your toothbrush and Q-Tips. Even with the alcohol, try not to let any liquid fall directly onto the circuit board.

Scrub and clean every surface you can, top and bottom. (Don’t worry about flipping the plate over with the keycaps removed, the springs are attached directly to the switch mechanism and won’t fall out.) Depending on how abused your keyboard has been throughout its long life, this may be an intensive process. You can blast the surface with some canned air, but be careful not to let anything fall into the open key switch holes, which can cause actuation problems later.

When all the dirt and debris is cleaned off, which might take several passes of cleaning with your brush and Q-Tips, you’re ready to continue. If the data cable is particularly dirty, you can clean it now with a cloth and some rubbing alcohol.

Optional: Rejuvenate Yellowed Plastic with Retr0bright

Like a lot of ABS plastic from the 1980s, the Model M keyboard includes a fire retardant that is particularly susceptible to yellowing, especially if it’s been in a place that’s absorbed a lot of sunlight. If your keyboard has become an off-putting yellow or brown color, it’s possible to restore the original color of the plastic through a process informally known as “Retr0bright.” Retro technology enthusiasts have been developing a system of chemical treatments for yellowed plastic for years, and the results can be dramatic.

That said, with a hundred or more plastic pieces in most Model M keyboards, it’s an intense and time-consuming process. Applying the chemical treatment to every surface would take hours, possibly several days since it requires long exposure to UV rays via sunlight or bulbs. Some of the chemicals are also strong eye irritants, requiring the use of thick rubber gloves and safety goggles.

I did a test run of Retr0bright on a portion of our example keyboard, but the change in color of the plastic wasn’t particularly noticeable; since this licensed Unicomp Model M is less than 20 years old, it apparently doesn’t have the same kind of yellowed effect as some older units. I decided to forego a full Retr0bright coat, but here’s our very detailed guide to the process if you think your keyboard needs it.

Step Seven: Reassemble Your Keyboard

Check to make sure each component is completely dry, then proceed with the reassembly. First, thread the data cable through the hole in the bottom half of the shell, then reattach the 4-pin data cable to the circuit board and screw the retention wire in place with the nut you removed in Step 2. Place the plastic piece for holding the cable in back into its slot on the bottom half of the shell. If you want to make sure you’ve got the data connections correct, plug the keyboard into your computer, put on the Scroll Lock or Num Lock keycap, and see if you can get the LED indicator to light up with a press. Remove the keycap when you’re finished.

Slide the main plate into the bottom half of the shell, bottom-first. There are several plastic tabs that you need to slide it under in order for everything to fit. Once it’s in the correct place, you should be able to place the top shell above it with all of the key switches corresponding to the correct spaces in the shell. Press down firmly on the bottom edge of both the top and bottom shells to re-insert the plastic tabs. When correctly joined, you shouldn’t be able to see into the interior cavity through the join groove in at the bottom of the keyboard.

Flip the keyboard over and screw in the bolts you removed in Step Two with your nut driver. At this point the shell, keyboard plate, and data cable should be well joined, with little give in any of the components.

Flip the board over once again and begin re-inserting the keycaps, giving firm pressure straight down onto the spring. You want the center of the stem to “catch” each of the springs as you apply the keycaps—it may help to tilt the keyboard up as you insert some of the number or function keys, to make sure the spring rests in the center of the key mechanism instead of sagging down to the bottom of the plastic circle. Take care to put the correct cap on the correct switch; refer to the photo you took in Step One if necessary.

The spacebar is the only key that needs a bit of finesse to insert: attach the retention bar to the bottom of the keycap, open side down. Then place the bar into its clips just beneath the second-to-the-bottom row, while also pressing down on the stem. It should slide into place.

Using Your Keyboard

Most of the Model M keyboards still in circulation use a PS/2 connection, an older standard that isn’t available on modern laptops (and also isn’t included in many desktop motherboards). You may need a PS/2 to USB converter to connect the keyboard to your machine. These are readily available at just about any electronics store and online retailer—all you need to do is plug them in.

Some of the oldest Model M designs use a 6-pin or terminal connector, which quite literally won’t work with anything made this century. These require more exotic work, sometimes using multiple converters or a custom-made cable. Do a little Googling if you can’t find any obvious solutions to your connection woes; with hundreds of thousands of these keyboards made and a modern resurgence in their popularity, you certainly aren’t the only one with your particular combination of hardware needs.

Once you get your keyboard plugged in and working (your computer may need a reboot to detect the older connection), you’re off. Enjoy that legendary bucking spring key feel, and be mindful of the older layout—a tool like Sharpkeys might help you adjust to the odd layout and add some missing functionality like the Windows key.

Modern Alternatives to the Model M

If all this seems like a bit much just to get a keyboard that feels nice to type on…well, it kind of is. There are hundreds of mechanical keyboard models manufactured today that will give you a similar typing experience, if that’s what you’re after. Most of the Cherry MX-style keys don’t feel quite the same as buckling springs because the mechanical action is smoother and more linear, but some of the keys with stronger springs feel pretty close; you’ll want “Black” or “Clear” key switches for the strongest, stiffest springs.

You can also buy a modern Model M direct from the source: Unicomp. The company is still selling the original designs with their iconic bucking spring mechanisms today! For about a hundred dollars you can get a modern “Ultra Classic” model with the same key switch design, premium PBT keycaps, and even more modern conveniences like Windows keys and a USB connection. It’s certainly a better deal than trying to hunt down a mint condition Model M, and if you value your time (as I clearly don’t), it’s better than trying to renovate a cheap clunker, too.

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.