MacBook 1, Beer 0: Repairing a Drenched Keyboard

I had a horrible accident this past weekend involving a beer and my MacBook.  It seems that in the course of clearing our dining room table off so my wife and I could eat dinner, a half-full bottle of beer toppled onto my MacBook's keyboard.


Yes, you read that right.  Luckily though, as my wife recounted to me after the fact, it was a mouthful or less of beer that spilled.  Of course at the time I didn't know just how bad the damage was so I freaked out.  I ripped the power cord away from the case, powered down, flipped the MacBook over so the keyboard was flush with the table and grabbed a massive quantity of paper towels.  Just about the only thing I couldn't do was remove the battery, since my Macbook is a unibody-style.  Initially there didn't seem to be much damage.  I cleaned off the keys, wiped down the display and the front and back of the case and it seemed like that would be the best I could do.

The next day the keys were getting extremely sticky.  I did a survey of the trauma to my keyboard and I determined that 22 of the keys were damaged in some way.  The plastic keys themselves were fine, except for a little residue on the bottom.  What the real culprit was, I found out, was the plastic mechanism below the cosmetic plastic we see on the keyboard.

There is a plastic see-saw shaped spring underneath the keys that give the keys their bounce.  When this gets gummed up it will easily affect your typing to the point where you want to either scream, grab the nearest external keyboard or both.

After Googling the crap out of this issue, I determined that the best solution would be to grab some isopropyl alcohol.  That's 91% alcohol, not rubbing alcohol, which has a lesser alcohol content.  I disassembled the affected keys into three parts: the plastic key, the plastic hinge mechanism and the rubber spring underneath the keyboard that sends the key press signal to the logic board.

In the old iBooks and PowerBooks, a user could simply pop two plastic retaining tabs off the top of the keyboard (near the function keys).  The keyboard would come out in a long flat board and the user could simply disconnect the cable running to the logic board to clean it.  I use to do this on my first mac, a PowerBook G3 (Wallstreet), and then again on my 14" iBook, Pismo Powerbook and 12" iBook.  That process worked great for spraying out crud and dirt with compressed air, since it would keep it from pushing it further back into the machine.  I was also able to take a pair of tweezers and remove any larger pieces, stuck pieces and hair that may have fallen into the keyboard.

With the advent of the unibody MacBooks and MacBook Pros, this method is no longer possible.  Each individual key needs to be removed in a very careful manner.  As long as you have a little bit of patience, it is possible to do it without breaking any of the mechanisms or keys.  My method for cleaning the individual pieces was to fill two medium-sized containers with the isopropyl alcohol.  I soaked the plastic hinges in one container while I soaked the keys in the other.  They both soaked for as long as it took me to lightly swab out the recess in which each key sits.  I didn't remove the rubber spring under each key for two reasons: 1) it seemed like it would be too hard to insert them back into the slot again and 2) I didn't really see a need in removing them anyway.  They're easily cleaned by taking the tip of a Q-tip, dipping it in some alcohol and pressing down on the spring while twisting the head of the Q-tip.  I immediately blotted the spring with the other end - dry end - of the Q-tip so I could remove the excess moisture.  I then lightly blew across the recess so as to dry it out further, since alcohol evaporates rapidly when exposed to air.  That's the advantage of using the 91%.

After doing this 22 times for each of the keys that were sticky, I carefully reassembled my keyboard, said a little prayer and turned it back on.  It booted right up and there were no visible issues with the keys functioning.  Everything felt fine to the touch and I could type just like I was always able to.

The only thing I noticed (the next morning) was that my spacebar started to get a little sticky again, yet the rest of the keys seemed to be fine.  The only thing I could surmise as to what was still causing the problem to occur in this key was that:

  1. it was the very first key I started my cleaning process with and as such, I hadn't perfected my technique when it was being worked on.

  2. the spacebar has a goofy mechanism unlike any of the other keys due to it's size - underneath the key, it has TWO stabilization bars and one rubber spring in the middle of the key.  The reason for this is that most people do not press the key exactly in the middle and usually press it from either the right side (if you're right-handed) or from the left side (if you're left-handed).  As such the pressure would be uneven and the key would fail to activate from either side without these tiny stabilization bars running the length of the key.  In addition to this, there are two plastic hinges under about where your thumb would press the key, keeping the key up and ready for the next press.  It is possible that I didn't clean all of these parts well enough (see #1 above) and it may need another good swabbing.

I let these parts sit overnight to dry, after I assembled them back.  However by the next day, the keys were just as sticky as the day before.  Dismayed and depressed, I spent the next day thinking of a solution that would work.  I got to thinking about how terrible it was that beer spilled onto my keyboard and that's when it hit me.  The beer was in a GLASS bottle.  While this might not seem like such a remarkable factoid to remember at the time, it got me to thinking that beer is poured into a glass of some kind.  And what do you wash drinking glasses with?  Liquid dish soap.  That day I decided to try one last ditch effort before ordering 22 new keys for my keyboard.

As soon as I got home I got three containers and filled them with HOT water from the faucet.  In two of the containers I put in a few small drops of liquid dish soap and the third I left as a container of rinse water.  I went row by row, pulling off the bottom row of keys: 2 command keys and the spacebar, then moving up and pulled off the Z through comma keys, then the A through L keys.  On each row, my process was the same: separate the black plastic keys from the plastic hinge and leave the rubber spring intact.  I put the black keys in one container of soapy hot water and put the plastic hinges (left together) in another bin of soapy water.  While a particular row was soaking, I took a Q-tip and dabbed the raised metal o-hooks that the plastic hinges snapped into.  I then removed the black plastic keys from one bin, and scrubbed the underside of them with a toothbrush.  That's right, a toothbrush.  The reason I decided to use a toothbrush on the underside of the keys instead of a Q-tip this time around was that I noticed the reason the keys kept sticking - the minute plastic clasps on the underside of the keys retained the sticky residue from the alcohol.  There is no way that a Q-tip will get into those nooks and crannies well enough to remove everything.  I decided that the only way I would be able to ensure complete cleanliness on the bottom of the keys and on the small pins of the plastic hinges would be to use something with small, but generally non-abrasive bristles that could work their way into those surfaces.

Afterwards, I dumped those into the third bin with the plain hot water.  I repeated the process on the plastic hinges and then added them to the same bin of hot water.  I let them soak for 2-3 minutes to make sure that there was no left over residue on the keys. After removing them from the bin of hot water, I blotted them dry with a clean paper towel and for the underside of the keys I took a clean Q-tip and blotted the area dry.  A few quick seconds to snap back the plastic hinges and some firm pressure to connect the keys and I was in business.  But would it last?  There was no way to really tell until the next day.

I didn't have a chance to use my MacBook Pro the next day until I started to work on my paper for an English class around 10am.  I was extremely nervous as I booted up the machine and started to log in.  I opened Pages to start my dissertation and the familiar soft click-clack of my MacBook Pro's chicklet keys rung out.  "YES!," I said to myself, screaming it in my head.  It's finally fixed.  I'm writing this post two days after using the hot water fix and I can safely say it's a winner!

The only casualty of this process was my left arrow key.  Since the plastic hinge under this key is more narrow than the others due to the key's shape, I had to pry with the more-than-normal amount of force.  On one of the attempts at prying, the small flat-head screwdriver I was using slipped and I slightly chipped a piece of the black key off, and you can see a little white nick.  It's only cosmetic, but when you have OCD like I do, it drives you nuts.

I managed to order a replacement package for the left arrow key and my spacebar (since there are too many mechanisms in this key to make it worth taking apart again).  I ordered the parts from Machina Electronics [LINK], which retails parts like these online from Chicago.  They were running a 10% discount on the parts so I figured why not get some replacements while I was at it.  The total including shipping came to around $18 USD for what I ordered.  I won't review the quality of their products or service yet, since I just ordered it today and the parts haven't arrived yet.  I should also mention that the price of $18 I was able to get USPS Priority Mail shipping for my parts.

What started out being a harrowing experience turned out to be no so bad in retrospect.  Of course, I would have rather not had my beer spilt all over my keyboard, but with being able to fix it so quickly, cheaply and with less fuss than I had originally anticipated, the process was much less painful than I thought it would be.  There doesn't seem to be any damage to the inner workings of the computer, nor is my trackpad mechanism sticky.  I have also been monitoring my battery life and temperatures throughout the computer with the help of iStat Pro [LINK], a very handy dashboard widget.  Two days later from the repair and almost a week from the accident, I've not noticed any difference in performance on my machine, however, I plan to crack open the bottom of the case just to make sure.

Something to point out is that from the teardown I've seen on, there doesn't seem to be any liquid damage indicator (LDI) on the 13" unibody MacBook Pro, like the ones that are infamously inserted into Apple's line of iPhones, iPods and iPads (usually found in the headphone port.  This isn't to say that Apple still won't have a way to figure out there's been accidental liquid damage to your machine should you decide to have your error serviced under AppleCare (which by the way, is considered a non-covered occurrence on your warranty which Apple will promptly void), however, the purpose of this post is to allow others in my situation some hope.  From the estimates I've seen floating around on the Internet, Apple charges anywhere between $450-600 for a simple keyboard replacement.  I have no idea what that price entails or if it's even an accurate amount, but I wasn't prepared to take my less-than-a-year-old MacBook Pro into my local Apple Store and admittedly void my warranty.  I was determined to do everything within my power to keep my warranty (as far as they know) intact, avoid a huge repair bill and still keep my beloved Mac running like a champ.

Mission accomplished!