A Guide To Removing Mechanical Keyboard Keys

August 24, 2023

You're tired of your grimy, sticky keys and switches. You've decided it's time for a change. Maybe you're jazzing up your mechanical keyboard with new keycaps or switches.

Mechanical keyboards have woven their way into the hearts---and fingers---of enthusiasts and professionals alike, offering tactile precision and a personalized typing experience. However, beneath their robust exteriors lie intricate mechanisms that can benefit from regular maintenance and customization.

In this guide, we'll show you the best ways to safely remove those keys without damaging your precious keyboard. We will discuss essential know-how for disassembling your keyboard for cleaning your mechanical keyboard, customization, and even advanced repairs. Whether you're seeking to refresh your keyboard's appearance, troubleshoot malfunctioning keys, or explore the fascinating world of mechanical switches, this guide is your compass to navigate the inner workings of your trusted typing companion.

What are Mechanical Keys?

Mechanical keys, often referred to as mechanical key switches, are a type of key switch technology used in keyboards. They offer a different typing experience compared to the more common rubber dome or membrane switches found in many standard keyboards. Mechanical keyboards have gained popularity among enthusiasts, gamers, and professionals due to their tactile feedback, durability, and customization options.

Mechanical Keyboard Switches 

Mechanical switches are installed in a mechanical keyboard during the manufacturing process. Here's a general overview of how mechanical keys are typically installed in a mechanical keyboard:

1. Keyboard PCB (Printed Circuit Board): The foundation of a mechanical keyboard is the PCB, a flat board that contains the electronic circuitry and contacts for each key. The PCB is designed and laid out with precision as it is crucial to ensuring that each keypress is accurately registered and transmitted to the computer.

2. Key Switch Mounting: The mechanical switches are mounted onto the PCB. Each switch has pins or leads at the bottom that align with corresponding holes or solder points on the PCB. The switches are placed into these holes in a specific pattern that matches the keyboard's layout.

3. Soldering: Electrical contacts are soldered onto the PCB and establish electrical connections. Solder is a melted metal alloy that forms a strong bond when it cools down. The switch pins are first inserted into the PCB's holes. Then the solder is applied to create a secure connection between the switch and the PCB's electrical traces.

4. Plate and Stabilizers: Some mechanical keyboards use a metal or plastic plate that sits above the PCB and holds the switches in place. Larger keys like the spacebar, Enter key, and Shift keys often incorporate stabilizers to ensure even keypresses across the keycap's surface. Stabilizers are also attached to the PCB and help prevent wobbling or uneven keypresses on these larger keys.

5. Keycaps: Once the switches are soldered in place, mechanical keyboard keycaps are installed on top of them. Keycaps are the visible parts of the keyboard that users press. Each keycap corresponds to a mechanical switch. The keycap design should align with the switch's actuation point so that pressing the keycap registers a keystroke.

6. Testing: After all the switches and keycaps are in place, the keyboard undergoes testing to ensure that each keypress is accurately registered by the PCB. This testing phase helps identify any faulty switches, soldering issues, or other manufacturing defects.

Some keyboards have hot-swappable switches, allowing users to change switches without soldering.

The exact process may vary depending on the manufacturer and the keyboard's design. The installation of mechanical keys in a mechanical keyboard involves precise manufacturing processes to ensure a reliable and responsive typing experience for users.

Pros and Cons of Mechanical Switches

Mechanical switches are manufactured and engineered with precision. Just like any other computer peripheral, they have their own sets of benefits and disadvantages compared to other types of keyboard switches, such as membrane or rubber dome switches. 

Pros of Mechanical Switches

  1. Tactile Feedback: Mechanical switches provide tactile feedback, which means you can feel a distinct bump when a key registers. This feedback can lead to improved typing accuracy and a satisfying typing experience for many users.
  2. Durability: Mechanical switches are known for their durability. They are rated for a high number of keystrokes (usually in the tens of millions) before showing signs of wear, making them suitable for heavy typists and gamers.
  3. Customization: Many mechanical keyboards allow users to customize key switches, keycaps, and sometimes even the keyboard layout. This level of customization can cater to individual preferences and typing styles.
  4. Variety of Switch Types: Mechanical switches come in various types, each with distinct characteristics. These include differences in actuation force, tactile feedback, and audible clicks. Users can choose the switch type that best suits their preferences and needs.
  5. Typing Experience: The tactile and audible feedback of mechanical switches can enhance the overall typing experience, making it more enjoyable and potentially reducing typing fatigue.
  6. N-Key Rollover and Anti-Ghosting: Mechanical keyboards often feature n-key rollover and anti-ghosting capabilities. N-key rollover allows multiple keys to be pressed simultaneously without "ghosting" or missed keystrokes.
  7. Response Time: Mechanical switches typically have faster response times compared to membrane switches. This can be beneficial for gamers and users who require quick and precise input.

Cons of Mechanical Switches

  1. Cost: Mechanical keyboards are generally more expensive than keyboards with membrane switches due to the complexity and quality of the components used in mechanical switches.
  2. Noise: Some mechanical switches produce audible clicks when pressed. While this can be satisfying for some users, it can be distracting or disruptive in quiet environments.
  3. Weight and Size: Mechanical keyboards can be heavier and bulkier than their membrane counterparts due to the individual switches and construction.
  4. Maintenance: Mechanical switches can accumulate debris over time, affecting the typing experience. Regular cleaning and maintenance are required to keep the keyboard in optimal condition.
  5. Learning Curve: Some users might find it takes time to adjust to the tactile feedback and actuation points of mechanical switches, especially if they are used to membrane keyboards.
  6. Limited Travel: Some mechanical switches have shorter key travel compared to certain membrane switches. This might affect user comfort for individuals accustomed to longer key travel.
  7. Stabilization: Larger keys on mechanical keyboards, such as the space bar and Enter key, may require stabilizers to prevent wobbling. These stabilizers can sometimes be prone to wear or noise.

Guide to Removing Your Mechanical Key Switches

Unlocking the potential of your mechanical keyboard's cleaning and customization begins with mastering the art of removing its key switches. This guide will walk you through the step-by-step process of safely and effectively removing your mechanical key switches. From choosing the right tools to understanding the nuances of different switch types, you'll gain the confidence to maintain, customize, and troubleshoot your keyboard without causing any damage. 

Why do you need to remove keys from your keyboard?

It is necessary to remove leys from a mechanical keyboard from time to time.  Removing keys from a keyboard can serve several purposes and benefits:

1. Keyboard Cleaning and Maintenance

  • Dirt and Debris: Keyboards accumulate dust, crumbs, and debris over time, especially in the spaces between the keys. Removing the keycaps and switches allows you to thoroughly clean the keyboard and maintain a hygienic environment.
  • Preventing Sticking: Dust and debris buildup can cause keys to stick or become less responsive. Cleaning the keycaps and switches can prevent this issue.

2. Customization

  • Keycap Replacement: Some users like to replace keycaps with custom or specialty keycaps to personalize the look of their keyboard.
  • Switch Replacement: Certain keyboards support hot-swappable switches, enabling users to change individual switches without soldering. This can provide an opportunity to try different switch types or replace worn-out switches.

3. Repair and Troubleshooting

  • Fixing Malfunctions: If a specific key isn't working correctly, removing the keycap and key switches allows you to inspect the switch and underlying mechanisms for damage or issues.
  • Resolving Stuck Keys: Sometimes, keys might become physically stuck due to foreign objects or damage. Removing the keycap allows you to address these issues.

4. Deep Cleaning

  • Switch Cleaning: If a key feels inconsistent or sticky, you might need to clean the switch itself. This can involve disassembling the switch, which often requires removing the keycap first.

5. Preventative Measures

  • Regular Maintenance: Removing and cleaning keycaps periodically can prevent issues from arising and maintain optimal keyboard performance.
  • Keyboard Longevity: Regular cleaning and maintenance can extend the lifespan of both the keycaps and the switches, reducing the likelihood of premature failure.

6. Curiosity and Exploration

  • Learning About Keyboard Construction: Some enthusiasts enjoy learning about the internal mechanisms of their keyboards and how each key operates.

Proper Tools to Remove Individual Keys and Keycaps 

To remove individual keys and keycaps from a mechanical keyboard, you'll need the appropriate tools to do so safely and effectively. 

  1. Keycap Puller: A keycap puller tool is a specialized tool designed to safely lift keycaps off the switches without causing damage. It typically has two wire loops that fit under the sides of the keycap. This tool is especially useful for standard-sized keys.
  2. Switch Puller: A switch puller is specifically designed for removing mechanical switches from a keyboard. These tools are often referred to as "switch pullers" or "switch extractors." They are similar in concept to keycap pullers but are designed to safely lift entire switches from the keyboard PCB.
  3. Flat Tool: For larger keys like the space bar, Enter key, or larger modifiers, a keycap puller might not be as effective. In such cases, a flat and thin tool such as a plastic spudger or a flat-head screwdriver can be used to gently pry up the keycap from one side and then the other.
  4. Tweezers: In some situations, tweezers with a fine tip can be helpful for carefully grasping and removing stabilizer components or detached pieces.
  5. Compressed Air: While not directly used for removing keycaps, compressed air can be handy for blowing away debris and dust after the keycaps are removed, ensuring a clean workspace.
  6. Soft Brush and Microfiber Cloth: These tools are useful for cleaning the keycaps before reattaching them. A soft brush can help remove dirt and debris, while a microfiber cloth can wipe away residue.
  7. Soldering Iron: If your keyboard does not have hot-swappable switches, you might need a soldering iron and desoldering tools for more advanced customization.

It's important to choose the proper tools that won't damage the keycaps, switches, or the keyboard's surface. Always exercise caution and use a gentle hand when working with your keyboard components. If you're uncertain about which tools to use or how to proceed, it's a good idea to refer to the manufacturer's guidelines or seek assistance from knowledgeable sources, especially if your keyboard is still under warranty.

Step-by-step Guide To Removing Keycaps

To remove the mechanical switches, you need to remove the keycaps first. Here's a complete guide to removing keycaps from your keyboard properly and safely:

Step 1: Gather your tools and prepare.
Before you begin, gather the necessary tools: a keycap puller, a flat tool, and a clean workspace. Ensure your keyboard is unplugged or turned off if it's wireless.

Step 2: Identify the keys to remove.
Choose the key you want to remove. Start with a key that you use less frequently to practice the removal process before tackling more commonly used keys.

Step 3: Use the keycap puller.
Insert the keycap puller's wire loops underneath the keys and under the sides of the keycap you're removing. Gently press down on the keycap puller while lifting up the keycap. The keycap should pop off without excessive force.

Step 4: Remove larger keys and stabilize keys.
For larger keys like the space bar or Enter key, the keycap puller might not work effectively. Use a flat tool, such as a credit card, to carefully lift one side of the keycap, then the other, while applying even pressure.

Step 5: Take note of how the stabilizers are installed.
If you're removing keys with stabilizers (e.g., space bar, Enter key), observe how the stabilizer components are attached before fully removing the keycap. Some stabilizers have small clips that need to be detached first.

Step 7: Repeat the process for keycaps you want to remove.
Practice the removal process on a few keys until you feel comfortable. Keep in mind that different keys might have slightly different mechanisms, so take your time to understand each one.

Step 8: Clean the keycaps.
Once the keycaps are removed, you can clean them with a mixture of mild soap and warm water. Use a soft brush or cloth to scrub away dirt and grime. Make sure the keycaps are completely dry before reassembling.

Step 9: Reassembling the keycaps.
Align the keycap properly over the switch stem. Press down firmly until you hear or feel a click, indicating that the keycap is securely attached.

Step-by-step Guide To Removing Mechanical Keys

Once the keycaps are removed, you can now take the switches out. Here's a step-by-step guide to properly and safely removing your mechanical keyboard's switches:

Step 1: Gather tools and prepare.
Prior to everything, ensure you have the necessary tools: a soldering iron, soldering wick or vacuum pump (for desoldering), a desoldering pump, safety goggles, and soldering flux. Make sure you're working in a clean workspace with good ventilation.

Step 2: Unplug and disassemble your keyboard.
Unplug your keyboard from the power source and flip it over to access the backside. Depending on your keyboard's design, you may need to remove screws or other fasteners to access the PCB (Printed Circuit Board).

Step 3: Remove the keycaps. 
Remove your keycaps as per the steps above. 

Step 4: Heat up the soldering iron.
Plug in your soldering iron and allow it to heat up. The optimal temperature may vary based on the solder type, but a temperature around 350-400°C (660-750°F) is commonly used.

Step 5: Desolder the connections.
Place the tip of the heated soldering iron on the solder joint that connects the switch's pins to the PCB. Once the solder melts, use the desoldering wick or vacuum pump to remove the molten solder. Alternatively, you can use a desoldering pump to suction the melted solder away.

Step 6: Remove the switch.
With the solder removed, gently rock the switch from side to side while pulling up to release the pins from the PCB. Be careful not to pull too hard, as this could damage the PCB or the switch pins. Using a switch puller is better and safer.

Step 7: Clean the area.
After removing the switch, you may want to clean the PCB and switch mount to remove any excess solder or debris. Use a clean, dry cloth or a specialized PCB cleaning solution if needed.

Step 8: Inspect the PCB.
Check the solder pads on the PCB. Look for any damage or lifted traces. If you notice any issues, you may need to repair the PCB before installing a new switch.

Step 9: Install the new switch.
If you're replacing the switch, align the pins of the new switch with the solder pads on the PCB. Gently press down on the switch until the pins fit snugly into the solder pads.

Step 10: Solder the new switch.
Heat up the soldering iron again. Place the tip of the iron on the switch pin while applying a small amount of solder. The solder should flow smoothly and create a shiny joint. Repeat this process for each pin.

Step 10: Trim the excess solder. 
After soldering, you can trim any excess solder with diagonal cutters to ensure a neat and tidy appearance.

Step 11: Reassemble and test.
Once all the switches are replaced and soldered, reassemble your keyboard by securing the PCB in place and replacing any screws or fasteners. Plug in the keyboard and test each switch to ensure they're registering properly.

Step 12: Final check and cleanup.
Check that all keys are working as expected. If necessary, touch up any solder joints that don't look secure. Clean your workspace and store your tools properly.

Desoldering and soldering require some skill and practice. If you're unfamiliar with the process or unsure of your abilities, consider seeking assistance from someone experienced or watching tutorial videos to become more comfortable before attempting it on your keyboard. Note that soldering or desoldering keys might void your keyboard's warranty.

Important Things to Consider When Removing Mechanical Key Switches

The ability to remove and replace individual key switches opens up a vast array of customization and maintenance possibilities. However, this process demands careful attention to detail and a few crucial considerations. Before embarking on the journey of removing your mechanical key switches, take a moment to explore these vital aspects. 

Precautions to Observe When Removing Key Switches from a Mechanical Keyboard

When removing your mechanical keyboard switches, whether for cleaning, maintenance, or customization, it's important to take certain precautions to ensure you do so safely and avoid causing damage to your keyboard. Here are some precautions to keep in mind:

  1. Unplug the keyboard: Before you start removing any keys, make sure the keyboard is either turned off or unplugged from your computer. This prevents accidental key presses and ensures your safety.
  2. Use the right tools: Use proper tools such as a keycap puller or flat tool to remove the keycaps. Avoid using sharp or metal tools that could scratch or damage the keycaps or switches.
  3. Be gentle: Gently pull and apply an even pressure when removing keycaps. Avoid excessive force, as mechanical switches are delicate and could be damaged if handled roughly.
  4. Start with less critical keys: If you're new to keycap removal, start with less critical keys such as the function keys to practice the process before moving on to more frequently used keys.
  5. Document the layout: If you're removing many keycaps, consider taking a photo or video or making a diagram of the keyboard layout. This helps ensure that you can reassemble the keycaps correctly.
  6. Remove large and long keys carefully: Larger keys like the space bar, Enter key, and Shift keys might have stabilizers. Pay attention to how these stabilizers are attached before removing the keycap.
  7. Avoid bending the keycaps: Avoid bending keycaps excessively, as they can become deformed and not fit back properly.
  8. Work in a clean environment: Choose a clean, clutter-free workspace to prevent debris from falling into the keyboard.
  9. Stay organized: If you're removing multiple keycaps, organize them in a way that you can easily match each keycap to its correct position during reassembly.
  10. Clean thoroughly: Once the keycaps are removed, use compressed air or a soft brush to clean the exposed switches and PCB. Make sure there's no debris left behind.
  11. Handle switches with care: If you're removing switches (not just keycaps), take extra precautions to avoid damaging the switches, PCB, or solder joints.
  12. Reassemble carefully: When reassembling keycaps, align them properly and press down gently until they click into place. Check that they're seated evenly.
  13. Test before finalizing: After reassembling, test each key to ensure they register correctly. This helps identify any issues before fully securing the keycaps.
  14. Know your warranty: Check your keyboard's warranty terms. Some warranties might be voided if you open the keyboard or remove keycaps/switches.

By following these precautions, you can safely remove and reassemble keyboard keys without causing any damage and enjoy a successful maintenance or customization experience

Can I Use a DIY Keycap Puller?

You can use your resourcefulness and creativity to create a DIY keycap puller if you don't have access to a commercial keycap puller. While specialized keycap pullers are designed for the task, a homemade keycap puller can also be effective if crafted carefully. 

Materials Needed

  • Paperclip or thin wire
  • Pliers
  • Electrical tape or heat shrink tubing

Steps

  1. Prepare the wire: Straighten out a paperclip or use a thin wire. It should be long enough to comfortably reach under the keycap from both sides.
  2. Shape the ends: Using pliers, bend both ends of the wire at a 90-degree angle to create hooks. These hooks will slide underneath the keycap.
  3. Add a grip: If the wire ends are uncomfortable to hold, you can wrap them with electrical tape or use heat shrink tubing to create a more comfortable grip.
  4. Usage: Slide the hooks of the DIY keycap puller beneath the key cap. Gently press down on the wire while you pull up on the keycap. Apply even pressure on both sides to avoid damaging the keycap or switch.

While a DIY keycap or switch puller can work in a pinch, keep in mind that commercially available tools are specifically designed for this task. They often have features that make the process smoother and minimize the risk of damaging the keycap or switch. If you plan on frequently removing keycaps or if you're concerned about potential damage, investing in a proper keycap puller might be a worthwhile choice.

Can I Remove Mechanical Keyboard Keys Without Tools? 

Removing mechanical keyboard switches without the proper tools can be challenging and risky. While it's technically and theoretically possible to remove switches using improvised tools or your hands, it's generally not recommended for several reasons:

  1. Risk of Damage: Mechanical switches are sensitive components. Attempting to remove them without proper tools can result in bending or damaging the switch pins, switch housing, or the keyboard's PCB.
  2. Difficulty: Mechanical switches are designed to fit snugly into the PCB. Trying to remove them by hand can require excessive force, which can potentially damage your keyboard.
  3. Inconsistent Results: The force required to remove switches without tools might not be evenly distributed, increasing the likelihood of bending or breaking switch pins.
  4. Potential Injuries: Applying excessive force or using sharp objects can lead to slips and injuries to your fingers or eyes.
  5. Voiding Warranty: If your keyboard is under warranty, attempting to remove switches without proper tools could void the warranty if any damage occurs.

Proper tools ensure a controlled and safe removal process, reducing the risk of damage to both the switches and the keyboard. If you're planning to replace or customize switches, investing in the right tools is a wise choice to preserve the integrity and functionality of your keyboard.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this guide has sufficiently described the intricacies of safely and effectively removing keyboard switches and keycaps on a mechanical keyboard. From understanding the tools required to mastering the techniques, you're now equipped with the knowledge to deeply clean or customize your mechanical keyboard.

Whether you need to thoroughly clean the mechanical keyboard, experiment with new keycaps or switches, or replace your keycaps or switches, a thoughtful approach and gentle touch are paramount. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you'll not only maintain the health of your mechanical keyboard but also discover the joy of making your keyboard experience truly your own. 

Erickson, a certified Interior Designer and Ergonomist, has cultivated a unique career blending aesthetics, functionality, and well-being. Holding a Bachelor's degree in Interior Designfrom a prestigious institution, Erickson is well-versed in creating spaces that are both visually pleasing and conducive to human comfort and health.
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