So you have a pretty dusty graphics card and you would like to clean your GPU? Or does your card run louder than you think it should? Well, then we both had the exact same problem. Let me tell you how I solved mine and learn from my mistakes, so you can avoid them yourself.
Preparations before cleaning my GPU
First of all, it was my very first time cleaning any GPU with unscrewing the whole thing. Earlier I was too scared because I thought that even just touching a chip could easily destroy it. And I can not afford to buy a new one because I decided my next card will be a 1080 TI and as a student, this purchase would pretty much make me broke. But I had to do it and as I know it is much easier than I though. My old HD 6870 was loud even when scrolling through some websites. I could literally hear the fan big speed spike every time I scrolled through a page. So I prepared as much as I could before starting.
I prepared my working space - a clean empty table, very good light conditions and no one around to sabotage my little project. The important thing to note here is that you really want to avoid carpets, wool sweaters etc. Basically, you want to be sure you don't carry any static electricity charge as it may easily break your device. The best for this job would be an (ESD) wrist strap but most people don't have one and I as well didn't. If you are afraid that you can easily build up a static electricity charge in your surroundings and can't avoid it then I would suggest finishing your mission at this point. To ground myself I touched a big chunk of unpainted metal on my balcony (not the best way, but good enough for me).
Screwdrivers, of course. Those were not a problem for me as I often repair different things in my house. Every video card can (and is) build a little differently so you would have to make sure what kinds of screwdrivers you will need for your model on your own. My card required just a few basic ones.
The next thing on my list was a non-conductive thermal paste. This is very important because when you take off your heatsink and you would put it back on without reapplying new layer you could very easily create air pockets. Those air pockets are as you probably imagined places between your GPU shiny surface and your heatsink that trapped air. Air is isolator so you could pretty much consider those places as not having any thermal paste at all. Soon in this article, you will discover what happens to places not covered with thermal compound.
Just do it already
Time has come to pull the graphics card out from the PC. I'm familiar with assembling and disassembling my PC so it was an easy task. Disconnect power from the PC, disconnect any cables attached to your video card and gently pull it out from the case. You probably have a PCI slot lock wich you would have to press before pulling out the card. If you don't feel familiar enough with your computer, then you shouldn't do this kind of GPU cleaning anyway.
Next steps will be rather specific to my card. I could immediately without unscrewing anything remove the plastic cover. If you can see those little plastic "latches" (if you know how they are called in English, please let me know in the comments) on the picture then those were the only things that held it to the rest of the card. All of them were accessible from the outside but were also a little hard to press and pull the cover out at the same time so they don't lock again. After few minutes I managed to take it off.
Now I was left with the PCB with heatsink and a black metal frame attached. This was the part of the fun when I literally even choked with dust. If or when you remove the frame remember to detach the fan connector and reattach it later. You could have more cables if your card has more fans or led strips. I removed the frame but the only thing to tell here is to keep thermal pads where they were. They are quite stretchy when moved.
I could easily remove the heatsink and access thermal paste now just by unscrewing the 4 standing out screws at the back of the card. That's exactly what I have done. All of those have springs underneath to help spread the pressure evenly on the PCB. When you screw those back you should tighten screws diagonally and crosswise.
And soon after I cleaned the old paste from the GPU chip with denaturated alcohol using cotton pads. This was a mistake. Cotton gripped to components surrounding the chip. I had to remove each single strand of this cotton manually wich was quite laborious.
While unscrewing everything I also vacuumed all the dust I could. All the photos were made after vacuuming of course. We would agree there is no point in showing you dust. Unfortunately, I didn't make a photo of the thermal paste after applying it. And I didn't know if I had enough paste for the second application. But it is the most crucial part of this article.
The most important part
I will not discuss what kind of shape should you create on your chip out of thermal paste. It does not matter. THE WHOLE CHIP (the shiny part, not transistors surrounding it) has to be covered after you push the heatsink back on it. Each square millimeter of the silicon has to be cooled and parts wich will not be covered will burn out. That's what I have learned before disassembling the card and I wasn't going to check if that's true. Would you?
You may have a question now - what if I cover surrounding parts like those visible at the first image in this article? Good question. If you use non-conductive thermal compound as I mentioned above you should, then it will be ok. You can and most likely will spill some paste out of the shiny chip area after pressing the heatsink. I know I covered those surrounding parts and my GPU works all good now. It's better to give too much than too little. Wich does not mean you should flood transistors in thermal paste just cuz you can. Use your intuition or watch more youtube videos before you do it.
Effects and summary of GPU cleaning
I didn't know I was going to write this article so I didn't make special measurements before the cleaning. But I can tell that there was a lot of unnecessary dust. And now my GPU does not make noises when scrolling through web pages. Actually, I don't hear it at all now when it's idle. I've learned that cleaning it is not so hard and I should've done it years ago. But probably I will sell it soon or even give for free to make a place for the new 'one and only' - 1080 TI 😛 But you will read about this card and tests of it in another article. If you want to see any specific tests leave them in the comments.