Restoring a 37 Year-Old IBM F Mechanical Keyboard

I wanted to share my journey from start to finish to restore a 1983 IBM Model F XT mechanical keyboard to it's former glory. It includes the steps, mistakes, and additional hardware required to make it functional with a modern computer. This blog post is dedicated to my dad for teaching me about computers.

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Acquisition

A few months ago, my dad asked if I was interested in taking ownership of his IBM model 5150 PC. Without hesitation, I said "yes!". The first project I wanted to tackle was to restore the 1983 Model F XT mechanical keyboard keyboard. In a sentimental and journeyman/apprentice-sense, it felt like my dad was passing on the tools of his craft to continue the family line of computer work and I couldn't pass that up.

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Model F Background

For those of you unfamiliar with the IBM Model F, modelfkeyboards.com summarizes it nicely:

The IBM Model F keyboards not only used the best switches, the materials used in their production (well over 5lbs of steel and other metals) means they will be working as good as new when it’s time to pass it on to your grandchildren. The problem...they just aren't made that way any more. The IBM Model F was discontinued in the 1980's. If you do find a Model F, it will be some combination of dirty, broken and/or expensive, requiring hours of work to get it working again!

This tank of a keyboard weighs in at over 6 pounds, sounds like this, and at the time of production, retailed for $300-400 in 1982 ($800-1000 dollars adjusted in today's dollars!) according to this review.

The restoration did take a few hours and fortunately none of it involved a soldering iron or replacing any of the electrical or physical components because it was already in great functioning shape...a true testament to the design. Even cooler, this blog post was typed up using the restored Model F keyboard!

Hardware support for XT to USB

Before beginning the project, I discovered ClickyKeyboards, a site "Specializing in the restoration and collection of model M keyboards", the successor to the Model F. On ClickyKeyboards, there is a section dedicated to the adapters and converters that may be required to make older 5-pin DIN plug keyboards compatible with modern USB ports. One of the companies mentioned on ClickyKeyboards is Hagstrom Electronics, which sells keyboard encoders and protocol converters. Without looking too closely at the other products, I quickly purchased the KE18-XTAT-PS/2 which "converts an XT keyboard into a PS/2 protocol keyboard" for $55. I was ecstatic that there was at least something to get me into PS/2 land, because at that point I knew I could easily find a PS/2 to USB converter.

After the KE18-XTAT-PS/2 arrived, I quickly fired up an ancient box (yes, that is Windows 2000!) with a PS/2 input on the motherboard. I tested all the keys to ensure they still worked and they did! With confirmation that the keyboard still worked, it was time to start the restoration.

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Deep Cleaning

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The first step was to remove the metal casing and see what the state of the board was underneath the keys. There was years worth of debris, coffee stains, and gunk that had to be removed. In addition, there were a few spots with corrosion on the board that needed to be addressed.

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Once the casing was off, I utilized compressed air to clean out the key bunkers and get rid of any loose nastiness. Next, I tried using rubbing alcohol and Q-tips to try and remove some of the stickier stuff, but that didn't really work.

Removing the Corrosion

I borrowed a rotary tool to buff out the corrosion. I used one of the provided bits that had soft plastic tentacles to try and buff out the corroded spots as gently as possible. There are likely better and more appropriate bits, but it did the job. The rotary tool's power and RPMs were a bit overkill even on the lowest setting. Ideally, I would have used one with fewer minimum RPMs and a more precise bit to get all the spots.

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I was using the rotary tool under a bright overhead desk lamp, and with the way the light was reflecting, I didn't notice it was taking off the black finish and revealing the silver metal base. At that point, I just decided to buff off the finish where I could to make it look more uniform. The silver metal is visible when the keys and cover are back on it, but it looks fine. Unfortunately, with the rotary head and bit size, I wasn't able to buff every last square inch of the board, but I knew it'd be covered so I wasn't too concerned with it looking perfect.

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Goo Gone to the rescue

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There was still some residue stuck to the board that I wanted to remove. I started out using a small eye glass screwdriver to scrape it off, but it took some of the black finish off as well and didn't look that nice. At that point, a chemical pivot was required and I reached for the Goo Gone, which I should have done from the beginning. The Goo Gone and a bit of elbow grease with Q-Tips did the trick in removing the stubborn gunk on the board.

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Key Bath

With the board in good shape, it was time to tackle the actual keys. I first gave them a good wipe-down using desk cleaning wipes, which removed most of the discoloration and stains. However, they still didn't look as good as they could, and I read that just soaking them in a bowl of dish soap and water for a few hours can do wonders...and it did. They keys look brand new.

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One mistake I made after washing them was to not let them completely dry on the inside. I placed the keys back on the board too soon, and some water leaked onto a few of the springs causing a small amount of rusting (slightly visible in the post-Goo Gone image). I gave them another soap soak and used the compressed air to really get out the water. I also let them air dry for 1-2 days before putting them back on the board.

Upgrading the XT to USB converter

After successfully testing the actual keyboard and the restoration almost complete, it was time to search for a PS/2 to USB cable. On a whim, I was back on the Hagstrom Electronic site and noticed they already had a small box, the KE-XTUSB, that converted the XT signal to USB, and it was the same price. They graciously allowed me to return the KE18-XTAT-PS/2 in exchange for the KE-XTUSB which was the same price. A few days later the KE-XTUSB arrived in the mail and I eagerly connected it to my current computer.

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End Result

Everything worked beautifully except for two keys. The "s" key's spring mechanism would either not detect a key press or would be stuck in the depressed state blasting "sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss" across the screen. With a bit of finagling, I got the key cap placed correctly so now it works like a champ. The other key that has issues is the accountant's "+" near the 10 key pad. The spring had come off somehow and I super glued it back, but something still isn't right and it fails to register key strokes. Not a huge loss since "+" can be achieved with another key combination.

Overall, I'm really impressed with how it looks and, when comparing it to this unboxing video of a never before opened Model F, it looks about the same!

If you have any questions or comments, hit me up on Twitter @opsdisk.

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