Swapping iPod 5G+ clickwheel plastics

When I happened upon both a 7G and 5.5G iPod, a dilemma came up. I really liked the 7G’s chassis, but really like the 5.5G’s sound and OS responsiveness. Thus was born the idea of swapping the chassis components around to build the 5.5G iPod into the 7G’s chassis. It was a little difficult (having to get everything to line up and all, but this post isn’t about the actual build) but it all eventually went back together. Save for one thing: The clickwheels.

They’re the same dimensions as far as actually fitting into the hole in faceplate, but they’re not the same thickness. This creates some problems because the clickwheel is no longer flush with the faceplate. In the case of the 5.5G, the 7G’s clickwheel was noticeably recessed and the opposite was true of the 7G chassis: the 5.5G clickwheel stuck out like a sore thumb.

Now, before you ask, the obvious thing to do here doesn’t work: The 5/5.5G clickwheels aren’t compatible with the 6G+ models, and vice versa. So just swapping the wheels was out of the question. But…what if it were possible to swap just the plastics over kinda like the iPod mini?

Well…we can! But it takes a little more legwork than an iPod mini. Before we get into it though, I want to thank reddit user Rhyn67 for setting me down this path, and Elite Obsolete Electronics for sending me extra clickwheels when I replaced my 7G’s bum wheel a while ago. That said, let’s get into it:

What you’ll need:

  • The wheels/plastics you want to swap (obviously.)
  • a thin metal/plastic pry tool. I used an iSesamo.
  • a method of applying heat without melting anything. I used an iOpener.
  • Some thin double-sided tape that has a strong hold. I tried mobile phone tape, it didn’t work but I could have a bad batch. YMMV.
  • a sharp razor blade of some sort or some straight snips (to cut the aforementioned tape
  • 90% isopropyl alcohol (to clean leftover adhesive)

Step 1: Separating the delicate Oreo cookie

The iPod’s click wheel is comprised of 3 main parts: The two plastic pieces on the front and back with a touch layer sandwiched between them. Our objective is to separate the two plastic pieces from the touch ribbon, and place that touch ribbon inside the new plastics.

And to start, we’re going to go to the back. Get your means of applying heat ready, and apply it to the back of the clickwheel. You CAN do this without heat, but I find it a lot easier with heat, and you’re less likely to damage something in the process.

Once the back of the wheel is sufficiently heated you’ll want to slip your thin pry tool in between the back of the touch ribbon and the backing plastics (or is it metal? I dunno. Either way, you know what I’m talking about.) 

Slowly maneuver your pry tool around the perimeter of the back of the clickwheel, or you can go straight across where the center button usually sits, either or. Just don’t press into the back of the touch ribbon, or you’re gonna have a bad day.

After enough persuasion, the back plate should come off. Now begins the fun part.

We need to get between the front plastics and the touch ribbon, but if you try to come in from the sides you’ll quickly notice that the raised lip of the plastic front makes going in that way a risky affair. Rather, what we’re going to do is go in from where the cable to the logic board comes out. Of course, do not forget to reheat the back of the clickwheel before attempting this.

Once you’ve got the end of your pry tool between the front plastics and the touch ribbon, carefully push it in little by little. Your goal is to get the tip of the tool up against the center of the clickwheel. Do not hesitate to reheat the back of the wheel every so often to keep the adhesive softened.

After you’ve reached the center, you can begin working your way around the clickwheel. You may have to twist your tool lightly to clear the little plastic nubs. Just pass over them with your tool, they’re not connected to the wheel in any way.

Again, I cannot stress this enough: Keep the thing heated! I’m sure if you insisted you can do it with it moderately cooled, but why risk it? Why make it harder on yourself? Eventually after running the entire circumference of the wheel with your pry tool, the touch ribbon should come free!

At this point, the hard part is mostly over. Get your iPod logic board, connect up the naked touch ribbon to it, connect your HDD and battery, and boot it up! We want to check to make sure the wheel wasn’t damaged. Just drag your finger along the adhesive-ridden surface of the ribbon. The iPod should respond, albeit a bit weirdly, as is usual. If the iPod works, congrats! It’s smooth sailing from here.

Now we just need to get it all put back together. In my case, there was enough residual adhesive on the touch ribbon and replacement plastic front for me to just press the ribbon into place and have it hold securely. This may not be the case for you. In which case you’ll probably want some 90% isopropyl alcohol to clean off the adhesive and apply some of your own. You’ll need something thin and strong and I cannot emphasize this enough.

Once the ribbon is pressed back into the front plastics (minding the orientation; the cable to the logic board should be coming out the same side as the back button), we need to secure the back plate, and this is honestly the more annoying part of the process because you’re gonna need some really good double sided tape to make this work. Otherwise the clickwheel of your iPod will just start popping out the front because the back plate is what keeps it secured against the iPod’s faceplate.

Put your (strong) double sided tape of choice over the rear of the touch ribbon, then press the plate onto the clickwheel minding the nubs at the back making sure they’re clear of any tape or blockage. There’s a short part of the rear plate, this should go where the cable to the logic board is.

At this point, you should have a fully assembled clickwheel! At this point I would hope and pray to the iPod gods that whatever adhesive you used is enough to hold, and you’ll know pretty quickly if the front of the wheel begins popping out the front of the iPod a few hours later.