Stuck key? Learn the right way to clean your MacBook's keyboard

The butterfly keyboard on Apple's latest MacBook and MacBook Pro models can put you in a sticky situation.

Matt Elliott Senior Editor
Matt Elliott is a senior editor at CNET with a focus on laptops and streaming services. Matt has more than 20 years of experience testing and reviewing laptops. He has worked for CNET in New York and San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire. When he's not writing about laptops, Matt likes to play and watch sports. He loves to play tennis and hates the number of streaming services he has to subscribe to in order to watch the various sports he wants to watch.
Expertise Laptops, desktops, all-in-one PCs, streaming devices, streaming platforms
Matt Elliott
3 min read
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When I traded my old MacBook Pro for a MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, it took me a few days to get accustomed to typing on the shallow, butterfly keyboard. A few months later, I was merrily typing away -- while wondering how I ever enjoyed the feel of the mushy keys on my previous MacBook Pro -- when the space bar suddenly stopped working. Or, more specifically, when the right side of the space bar stopped working. Unfortunately for me, that's the side I use to, you know, add spaces between words.

I was able to fix my space bar issue, but I'm worried it'll return -- and will do so the day after my warranty runs out next month. After all, I'm not the only one with a faulty MacBook Pro space bar -- songs have been written about it.

Compressed air for the win

When I my space bar stopped working, I discovered numerous tales of woe in various forums about dirt, crumbs or even a speck of dust getting underneath a key and interfering with the delicate butterfly mechanism. Since I use my MacBook Pro primarily at my kitchen table and my local bagel shop (and always opt for an everything bagel), I figured a poppy seed, a piece of dried onion or garlic or a bread crumb got lodged underneath my space bar.

First, I first tried blowing underneath the spacer bar to dislodge any trapped foreign matter. No dice. Next, I consulted Apple Support's guide on how to clean the keyboard. After a trip to Staples for a can of compressed air, I got to work. And, sure enough, it worked. Here's what I did:

  • I held my MacBook Pro at a nearly vertical angle -- Apple says 75 degrees is the magic number.
  • I grabbed my can of compressed air and sprayed all around the space bar.
  • I then turned my MacBook Pro sideways -- keeping it at the nearly vertical angle -- and sprayed some more air. I then turned it around so it was facing sideways the other way and sprayed again.

After thoroughly spraying the space bar with air, I placed my MacBook Pro back on my kitchen table and happily discovered that its space bar was again fully operational. Since this first encounter with a dead -- or half-dead -- space bar, it has happened two more times, and each time a can of compressed air revived it. But what if the time comes when compressed air doesn't do the trick?

When air doesn't work

I called my local Apple Store and asked a technician for an estimate for the repair cost I'm facing if I'm no longer under warranty and my space bar goes kaput and stays that way. He told me that they would need to send it out for repair and couldn't give me an estimate for the repairs. I also emailed Apple, but it didn't immediately respond to my request for comment.

So, my advice to those typing on a MacBook model with a butterfly keyboard -- the current MacBook Pro models and the 12-inch MacBook -- is to keep a can of compressed air on hand. It did the trick for me. If the problem is happening regularly, either switch from everything bagels to plain bagels or visit your local Apple Store -- ideally before your warranty is up.

And if you are already past your warranty, then be prepared to pay a sizable repair bill. I've read that it's not as simple as replacing a single key but that the entire keyboard or bottom half of the laptop may need to be replaced.

One last thing you might try before sending your MacBook out for repair is to follow the method described in the top comment of this 9to5Mac article of using your fingernail to scrape the metal edges of the keyboard deck below a stuck key. Others have responded to this comment with profuse thanks saying it worked for them. Basically, you are removing a build up of grime below the key that is causing it to stick.

If you have a method for fixing a stuck or unresponsive MacBook key, please share in the comments below. And if you've had your MacBook keyboard repaired by Apple, please share that experience and the associated cost, too.