How to clean vinyl records
30 / Mar / 2020
In these strange times, we have the opportunity to take a little more time over things and get around to some of those jobs that we’re been putting off for an aeon.
And to accompany those tasks and ease the pain of doing something we secretly hoped we’d never get around to, we’re going to want a soundtrack pumping out of the stereo, loud and clear.
If, however, you are, like me, a collector of vinyl but not with a capital C, you will have a few examples that are, let’s say, in less than in perfect condition. They might be a little scratched or a little dirty (or even both). The thing is that I like to buy new vinyl and old vinyl, and I like trawling through charity shops and boot fairs from time to time, flicking through the scuffed and unloved records in an old battered box until I come across a gem I simply have to buy. The issue there is that those little gems have often been as unloved all the rest, and so they can be dusty and a little the worse for wear. They might even have a brownish patina that I know for a fact means won’t play well. But I have to have them.
So I take them home, hoping not to damage the (probably) tatty cover any more than it already is, and I clean them as best as I can with my normal antistatic cloth and hope that the poor needle doesn’t get too trashed as it fights it’s way along the clogged groove. Once it’s played, and I’ve heard the tracks in their crackly and muffled unglory, I blow the dust off the needle and put my new acquisition guiltily away, vowing to clean it properly before I play it again.
But how? This is a question that has bothered people, it would seem, as there are a fair few sites out there discussing how best to clean vinyl records and even some talking about how to fix scratches and broken discs. I recently read one that advocates covering the surface of the record with wood glue as it revolved on the turntable and then peeling it off when it had dried. No matter the logic, that seemed a little risky to me.
This all came to a head recently when I bought an old copy of Band of Gypsies by Jimi Hendrix, and to say the sound quality was poor is an understatement. It was as if someone was rattling a back of nails next to my head every time I listened to it, and all of the subtlety was surely gone as I couldn’t hear any.
I was thinking about what I could do about that when I remembered a holiday I took when I was a teenager to see my Dad (he was living in France at the time). On the first morning he told me he had a job for me: To clean his entire record collection, which had been in several boxes since he moved in and, as a result of the house only having recently stopped being a building site, were covered with dust.
As I started to protest, he told me it was nothing to worry about. He had a fail safe and simple method that was, above all, effective for cleaning records. And sure enough it was, although I got a little bored of it after the tenth one.
I tried it again this week on Band of Gypsies and, hey presto, the record was restored. Hardly a crackle to be heard, all the swooping guitar lines clear as a bell. I repeated it on disc one from a slightly worn copy of The White Album I bought recently, and the result was the same: A melodic revelation.
So, my dear readers, I make my father’s technique for cleaning records available to you, in full confidence that it will be a revelation to you too.
Take one clean, ideally brand-new, kitchen sponge. Squeeze a little washing-up liquid onto the soft, yellow side of the sponge. (I prefer eco-friendly washing-up liquid, for obvious reasons.) Next, run a little lukewarm water over the sponge and work it into a lather. Then gently run the sponge in circles over the surface off the record, following the line of the grooves as best you can and sparing the label in the middle. Repeat on the other side, making sure you cover both sides with plenty of suds and using just enough pressure to get into the groove without stressing the vinyl.
Run the tap until it is lukewarm and then rinse all of the suds off both sides, again taking care to miss the label in the middle. Once you are satisfied the washing-up liquid is gone, let the excess water run off. Then take a clean dish towel and carefully take the record in your hands before turning it in the towel like a steering wheel, using gentle pressure from your fingers to dry it. You should flip over the record two or three times and turn it in the towel until you are sure that you have got all of the water out of the grooves. You will notice that the lustre has returned to the vinyl and the grooves are clear. Finally dab the table dry on both sides and leave the record for a few minutes before playing.
And when you do play it, you will hear a whole world’s worth of difference.
L. A. Davenport