Tech – for Everyone

Tech Tips and Tricks & Advice – written in plain English.

My “e” key doesn’t “e”, and other keyboard tips

There seems to be some weird alignment of the planets that is causing a spate of keyboard problems recently — accounting for about a third of my support calls this week. So today I’m going to tell you some basic keyboard maintenance and repair techniques, just in case your “e” key decides to start rebelling too.

Tip of the day: Cleanliness is the “key” to happy keyboards. Aside from your hard drive, your ‘input devices’ are the most (physically) hard-working things on your computer. And unlike the platters, motors, and read/write heads inside your HD, keyboards do all of their work by getting touched by oily, sweaty, dirty, jelly-covered human hands. And they get sneezed on too.
Yes, we humans (even the cleanest of us) manage to do rude things to our keyboards. Smokers drop ashes, and nibblers drop crumbs. We give them Diet Coke baths. We spit on them when we cough, or laugh too hard at YouTube videos. And some of us take our laptops to the beach.

Almost two-thirds of the keyboard-related calls I took at Aplus Computer Aid were concerning laptops, and all but one was cured by cleaning (the sole exception required replacement, it was age related). Laptops, for various reasons, require more frequent cleaning than desktop models. The first thing to do when you have a quirky and misbehaving keyboard is blow the collected dust and debris out from under the keys.

Tip your laptop or desk keyboard on its side, so that gravity can help us. Then use a can of compressed air (like DustOff), or blow through a straw, along all the gaps and depressions around the edges of the keys. Start at the top and work your way down, vary your angles a few times. Now turn your laptop/keyboard upside-down and give it a a couple of gentle taps. Then lay it flat in its normal position and repeat a quick gaps blow. It may surprise you how much stuff has collected under your keys.

Next we go after the more stubborn dirt and oils with a vacuum. A canister vacuum with a brush attachment is the best tool here. If you don’t have a vacuum cleaner that has a hose with a brush, you can try a paint brush (or a basting brush), and brush out as much as you can that way. I have also used a bent piece of insulated wire to go ‘fishing’ under misbehaving keys. It was this method that recently cured a “stuck” key (it wouldn’t depress) on a laptop — fishing around under there produced a grain of uncooked rice. (The laptop’s owner was baffled by this discovery…)

In some cases, you may need to pop the keycaps (or keys) off. This is a somewhat tricky undertaking, usually accomplished with gentle prying pressure with a small screwdriver. Each manufacturer and type of keyboard has its own methodology for keycap removal, and I strongly advise you to look at the manufacturer’s documentation before you start removing caps. (If your laptop is still under warranty, removing keycaps may void your support — look before you leap.) With the keycap off, use a Q-tip and isopropyl alcohol (or water with a smidgeon of liquid dishsoap) to clean the exposed area. Use gentle pressure to ‘snap’ the keycaps back into place. As a final step, use a lint-free cloth moistened with water and mild dishsoap to gently wipe the tops of the keys to remove finger oils and grime.

For more advanced techniques, see also Troubleshooting Problem Keyboards & Mice

For really problematic desktop keyboards there is one more thing to try before going out and purchasing a replacement: soak the keyboard overnight in your bathtub, occasionally swirling the water a little to create current-motion (not much, just a little). Hard to reach oils and other grime will loosen and float away. Let the keyboard air-dry thoroughly (another 24 hours) before plugging it back in.
If all of these methods fail to produce results, good desktop keyboards can be found for as little as $10. Most, if not all, laptops can have the keyboard unit replaced as well: the manufacturer being the source for these parts.

Today’s free link: I don’t want you to think that I’m a boring and all-business geek, so today’s link is the place to get started building your digital music collection … for free. The music department at download.com is an entirely free collection of music of all genres. Check it out. Have fun, and relax … it’s completely legal, and doesn’t use any of that questionable “file sharing”.

Copyright © 2007 Tech Paul. All rights reserved.

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August 6, 2007 - Posted by | advice, computers, hardware, how to, keyboards and mice, PC, tech, Vista, Windows, XP

30 Comments

  1. Thanks for the tip.

    Comment by richard | August 24, 2008

  2. Please Help,

    I don’t know who to ask.
    In short, my “c” key doesn’t work.

    Only, I don’t think a Cleaning will help.

    I can use shift+c to create a ‘C’ just fine.
    I can use CapsLock + shift + c to create a lower case ‘c’.
    Only typing just a normal ‘c’ does nothing!

    More testing.
    I remote-desktop to another computer. The ‘c’ key works.
    I load a virtual machine on my computer. The ‘c’ key works there too.

    Any ideas on what I should do?
    Mike

    Comment by Mike | June 1, 2009

    • Mike,
      It is possible that either an “accessibility option” – such as StickyKeys – has become enabled, and you want to check those and turn them off (see http://techpaul.wordpress.com/2007/10/24/keyboard-troubleshooting-is-sticky-keys-on/)…

      Or a recently installed program has “mapped” the key, in which case you want to uninstall that…

      Or your device driver has become corrupted.. in which case you would go to Device Manager, right-click on the keyboard and choose “Uninstall” and then reboot…

      Or, possibly something else. But try those things, in order, first.

      Comment by techpaul | June 1, 2009

      • Fixed!

        So this issue was really a problem with running a Virtual Machine on my computer (VMWare).

        For those who use such virtual machine software:
        I was apparently copying things from my virtual machine to my actual machine using Ctrl+C. Somewhere with VMWare if you are moving back and forth between your actual machine and your virtual machine you can confuse your system into thinking such keys are pressed when they are not.

        The Fix: There is a VM setting to enhance the virtual keyboard. Check this setting. I don’t know exactly what this does, but it does fix these keyboard problems.

        Comment by Mike | January 12, 2010

        • Mike,
          I am glad you figured out your issue, and I thank you for posting the ‘fix’ here for others to see.

          Folks, my article on “virtual machines” is here.

          Comment by techpaul | January 12, 2010

  3. While opening a bottle of carbonated water a few days ago, a bit of it sprayed on my laptop keyboard. I soaked most of the liquid up with a tissue and everything worked fine, except for the “s” key. I popped off the keycap and tried to clean the area with rubbing alcohol. The key is working somewhat better but “only when it wants to,” maybe 1/4 of the time. I have to keep tapping the key in order for it to work.

    Suggestions?

    Thanks!
    Sue

    Comment by Sue | June 11, 2009

    • Sue,
      Boy, it’s a good thing it is a key you never use!
      Aaargh.

      My D-I-Y suggestions are limited to completely powering down the machine and removing the battery, and then popping the caps off of Q,W,E, A, S, D, Z, X, and C and using a Q-tip and the “purest” alcohol you can find, giving that area a careful cleaning – again. (Be sparing with ‘dampness’)

      If that doesn’t work, I would suggest having a qualified notebook repair tech look at it. (That pretty much precludes the big box stores.) If it is still under warranty, contact the manufacturer.

      Comment by techpaul | June 11, 2009

  4. Help! My “delete” key and “down arrow” key have suddenly stopped working. I got it to work intermittently if I hit them hard, but they have stopped altogether now. What is the best solution? Are these keys related in some way? Everything else on the keyboard works fine except those 2 keys! PLEASE HELP! I can’t access my task manager or shut down programs which don’t work. Ugh!

    Comment by Dave Parker | September 14, 2009

    • Dave Parker,
      It sounds like a mechanical issue (assuming you have followed the steps above) which you can verify by plugging in another keyboard.
      You don’t tell me much here (is this a laptop?), but it may be that you need to replace the unit.

      Comment by techpaul | September 14, 2009

  5. Thanks for this.

    Needed a little encouragement to start work with a keycap missing problem on a friend’s inherited notebook.

    The “W” is missing. Pressing on the rubber keydome works fine. So, scavenging a keycap from an old spare notebook keyboard seems like a good idea. :D

    Comment by spenser | September 16, 2009

  6. Spencer,
    While this is probably overkill for a single missing key, you (and anyone reading this) might also want to consider that most times you can order a whole set of caps from the manufacturer for a very reasonable price. (And the keyboard units themselves are not too too pricey.)
    This solves the faded/rubbed off letters that older laptops get.

    Comment by techpaul | September 16, 2009

  7. my number one on my keyboard stopped working. I used one + cmd button ( command) + shift as my shortcut button for turning on voice over. But now voice over doesnt work and neither does the button one!

    Comment by Mick | November 10, 2009

    • Mick,
      If you have followed the steps in the article with no success, the options are to:
      * have a qualified technician look at it (and/or)…
      * replace the keyboard.

      Keyboards are complex mechanical devices which often see a lot use — like any other complex mechanical device, they wear out.

      Since it is just one key … you might want to use “keyboard mapping”, and move the functionality to a different key/keys.

      Comment by techpaul | November 10, 2009

  8. Totally got my ‘m’ key to unstick. Thanks!

    Comment by Alyssa | April 14, 2010

    • Alyssa,
      Thank you for letting me know you found my article useful. I hope you will visit often.

      Comment by techpaul | April 14, 2010

  9. My U key doesn’t want to work. I have press it really, and I mean really hard…multiple times to get it to work. I’ve taken the key off and sprayed with compressed air. Dunno what else do to. One minute it was working and the next…ZIP!! Any suggestions for one non-working key? Thanks much!

    Comment by Kim | July 18, 2010

    • Kim,
      Since keyboards are mechanical, they do wear out and break.

      You may be able to (or have a tech do it) open the keyboard up and bend the contacts back into place.. but usually mechanical failures mean replacement, as plugging in a new (USB) keyboard is quite a bit cheaper than a tech.

      Comment by techpaul | July 18, 2010

  10. ..my ctrl,alt,and shift keys doesn’t work
    can anybody help me?

    Comment by john | January 10, 2011

  11. plsss??

    Comment by john | January 10, 2011

    • john,
      There is just me here. And all I can suggest, if you (already) tried what was written in the article, is to read the comments (& answers) above.

      Also, (please don’t take this the wrong way!) it is customary to help the “forum members” out by proving some basic information about the device you’re hoping someone will tell you how to fix.
      I don’t know if you have a Apple iPad or some fancy gaming keyboard on a new, Windows 7, high-powered desktop PC, or what (not that it would change my reply in this instance).

      … oh, yes. If you suspect a recent software change may have affected your keyboard mapping, try unistalling the suspect program, or using System Restore.

      Comment by techpaul | January 10, 2011

  12. Paul, just want to thank you for these tips that may very well have solved my problem of “T” key not always working. Since I cleaned around and somewhat under it, it has consistently worked in things I’ve typed since — yahoo!!! Hope this will be a permanent fix. (all the “T’s” in this little post worked perfect as normal) Thx again!!

    Comment by patenergy@yahoo.com | January 17, 2011

    • patenergy,
      Thank you for letting me know you found my efforts here useful.

      And, please, feel free to look around the site some (maybe try my Search widget) as I have over 1,200 articles here so far.

      Comment by techpaul | January 17, 2011

  13. Hello.
    The interesting name of a site – techpaul.wordpress.com, interesting this here is very good.
    I spent 5 hours searching in the network, until find your forum!

    Comment by Popsyisofe | February 24, 2011

    • Popsyisofe,
      I hope you will look around some. There are over 1,300 articles here.

      Comment by techpaul | February 24, 2011

  14. My three three key doesn’t work! I’ve tried everything. It doesn’t work!

    Comment by Susan | February 28, 2011

    • Susan,
      Please read my answers in the comments (above).

      Comment by techpaul | February 28, 2011

  15. Hello, i read your comments above and i couldnt fix my problem yet. my “m” key dont work unless i press caps lock n the shift key. i dont believe i have any virtual machine i installed on here.. the button worked about 10 minutes ago just fine.. you also said unistall the keyboard on the device Manager. and then reboot. i have to devices for keyboards tho one is
    HID keyboard Device the other is
    Standard PS/2 Keyboard
    do i unistall both or what should i exactly do?
    any suggestions.?

    Comment by Ty | March 7, 2011

    • Ty,
      What were you doing ten minutes ago? (When the keyboard stopped working) Did you do any keymapping? Or.. install a new driver? Maybe undo that.

      A PS/2 keyboard will have a round plug (frequently purple). The HID compliant is probably USB (or internal).

      Do not unplug/plug a PS/2 unless the computer is off, or you can damage your machine.

      Comment by techpaul | March 7, 2011

  16. Hi i have a rather anoying problem…
    basicall my “i” key doesn’t work… it was working fine an hour or so. but now it just doesn’t

    i currently have “i” as a ctrl+V shortcut so i can past it when needed… but i can’t keep doing that long term. if anyone can help… please please do!

    Comment by Girl with a broken "i" key | March 17, 2011

  17. Girl with a broken “i” key,
    I hope you read the comments, above, as they contain answers. But keyboard problems can be mechanical or software… and you don’t give me any basic information about your system. Or what you were doing right before the failure.

    For more advanced techniques, see also Troubleshooting Problem Keyboards & Mice

    If the techniques posted in these articles (and comments) do not resolve your issue, you may (probably do) need to replace your keyboard. Or have a tech help you.

    Good luck.

    Comment by techpaul | March 17, 2011


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