6 Best Methods to Clean Vinyl Records
So you have purchased your record player. You have carefully set up your stereo system to get the best possible sound from your vinyl. And you have started a record collection with some classic recordings. But these recordings are expensive and need to be cared for – keeping them clean is important. What are the best methods to clean vinyl records?
The thing about the vinyl record hobby – it requires a little more effort. There is some maintenance involved, both in your turntable equipment and the records themselves. There is nothing worse than having a killer system playing some great records – but over time the sound gets degraded. Snap, crackle and pop is great in your breakfast cereal, not so good in your music.
Maintaining your vinyl is a key part of being a record collector. We have put together what we believe are the 6 best methods to clean vinyl records. There are a lot of procedures and tools available, but we have tried to simplify this to walk through the most simple and inexpensive process up to some fairly expensive semi-automatic machines that may only be appropriate for a very large and expensive collection.
You don’t want this – yuck
Why Clean Your Records?
There are 3 primary reasons to keep your records as clean as possible.
- Sound quality – a record needle is meant to precisely follow a pre-cut groove with very precise depth and tracking. Any contamination can move the needle and create unintended noises, like hissing, snapping, pops, etc. These are not the sounds the musicians intended.
- Groove degradation – much like a dirty wiper blade across a windshield or wind and water erosion, continuous movement of small (or large) particulates across the grooves can degrade the record. Sometimes to the point where it is un-listenable. The vinyl already gets worn over time just from the stylus movement, you don’t want to accelerate this “normal” wear.
- Stylus degradation – typically not as concerning an issue, as the stylus is typically of a very hard material. However, over time the sound can degrade due to wear – this can be remedied by changing the stylus, but there is no reason to accelerate the process.
OK So Let’s Clean Some Vinyl
Before starting any record cleaning, let me talk about a few things I would recommend NOT doing, although (almost) any cleaning method is usually better than nothing. It would be shame to put the effort into trying to maintain your vinyl and have unintended consequences.
- The cheapest and most simple method would be to use any old cloth and tap water. To be honest, when I was young and stupid I did this. Mostly you just push the dirt around and don’t get it out of the grooves. The wrong cloth can also exacerbate scratching. Tap water should never be used as the minerals can deposit in the grooves and the water can leave a film. Even with a nice microfiber cloth, you are mostly just getting the surface. All lot of dust and grime will stay in the grooves, in fact you may make it worse. This is definitely not one of the best methods to clean vinyl records.
- I would not recommend using your turntable as the “spinner” when spraying or wiping, although again this was something I did a lot early on (I had a cheap turntable). Besides stressing the mechanical components and belt, dirt could get into places you don’t want it.
- It is recommended by most not to use pure isopropyl alcohol. It is a very effective cleaning agent and dries cleanly, but for vinyl it can over time remove the protective coating in the grooves. Often it is used in solution for its drying properties, but should be in moderation if at all.
- Household cleaners like Windex, detergents, etc should not be used or with caution if you understand the ingredients. It’s usually best to stick to dedicated vinyl cleaning solutions, although there are ways to create safe solutions yourself. Just be careful out there.
I would not recommend most of what this guy is doing here for example, although he does show a neat fixture for protecting the label if you doing some relatively aggressive wet cleaning. I have never used this before, but might be a good investment if you have a lot of older discs with fragile labels.
Get Started Already
Before doing any cleaning, find a clean area to use – I will assume this will be indoors and not in your garage. Have a clean dry surface prepared. It is usually a good idea to cover the area with soft, clean towels, even if you are using a machine. This will capture any dripping or dirt residues and provide a landing area for any “dropsies”.
The way I have organized this listing of the 6 best methods to clean vinyl records is by simplicity and expense. There are quite a few variations on most of these methods, but I have tried to show a relevant YouTube video on each method and / or tool.
1. Dry cleaning with a brush
Description : There are a number of brushes or pad that can be used with or without cleaning fluid to remove contaminants. I have shown a product below that includes a stylus cleaning brush – although I am not sure how much value this adds. Typically this is used by just running the brush over the surface as a record spins on a turntable (which I recommended not to do, but this is an easy method).
Summary : This is a good method for lightly contaminated (dusty) records that are in good condition otherwise. The anti-static nature of the brush will help with “sticking” dust, and the brush can usually do a reasonable job of getting in the grooves with damaging anything. For more thorough cleaning I would recommend a more aggressive clean (with a solution) as shown in the following suggestions. But for basic daily dust removal this is a good option.
Cost : $15-$20
2. Wet Cleaning Using a Kit
Description : This is just a variation of the dry method but using a cleaning solution, usually specially made for vinyl cleaning. There are several methods, but essentially you can clean the record with a dry pad (or compressed air) first. Then you use a wet pad or brush to more thoroughly clean the record grooves.
Summary : This is the most common, cheap method for day-to-day cleaning of your records before playing. Again, this could be done with some household solutions, you will find many methods online, but unless you are very sure what you are doing, I would recommend using the specialized solutions. It may cost a little more, but you don’t want to risk unintended damage to your valuable records. I would show the kit I still use, but it is so old I don’t even know the brand – but they haven’t changed that much over the last 20 years except the introduction of carbon fiber.
Cost : $20-$35 (including compressed air and microfiber cloths)
3. Wood Glue Method (Caution)
Description : Although it seems scary, and I have never actually done it, many have and claim it works great. It makes some sense as far as pulling out deep embedded debris and dirt. There have been some concerns about residues, but I believe if you follow up with a wet cleaning method (like above), it should work fine. I would only do this on some really dirty records that can’t be thoroughly cleaned by the more standard brush methods.
Summary : Using a standard wood glue (like Titebond), the record is thoroughly covered and let dry overnight. It need to completely set and dry to work well and not leave residues. Be careful not to get any glue on the label. It is important to have the glue on thick enough and continuous, or there may be problems peeling it off and could be a mess.
I also would not do this on my turntable as in the video, but to each his or her own. As mentioned, I would have also done a wet clean after with solution.
Cost : Whatever wood glue you use
4. Spin Wash Cleaners
Description : As the name implies, with these units you spin the records (vertically) in a solution bath. Vertically placed brushes on both sides scrub the record as you manually spin it. Can clean all record sizes by adjusting the rollers.
Summary : This is a pretty simple way to deep clean a record on both sides quickly. The initial investment is a little higher, but they are relatively cheap considering the quality of the clean and ease of use. I still use the manual brush method, but I am considering investing in one of these to simplify my life a little.
Cost : $50-$80
5. Record Cleaning Machines
Description : These are the Cadillacs (or Ferraris) of record cleaning equipment. From manual spinning to fully automatic, these are cool, but more costly alternatives to the more pedestrian methods already shown.
Summary : As these can be as expensive as your turntable, these are more for the serious audiophile who likes their toys. If you are type of person who has to have the best stuff, here you go. I am not sure if they are significantly more effective than some of the other, cheaper methods – but you can get big style points. Might be a good investment if you clean a lot of records and don’t mind the upfront cost.
Cost : $200-$600 (or more)
6. Ultrasonic Record Cleaners
Description : Seriously expensive machines that use ultrasonic (high frequency) power to break tough contaminants free for removal in solution. These typically rotate the record(s) vertically through the solution. One advantage is the ability to do multiple records at once.
Summary : A bit esoteric for most hobbyist needs, but probably very effective. Ultrasonic power is often used in industries that require ultra-clean surfaces, so probably would be good for really heavily contaminated records. Would be a good tool for a serious collector or re-seller who gets a lot of heavily used vinyl that was not well-cared for. I do not find a lot of options for the average hobbyist, could mostly find in specialist equipment sellers.
Cost : $700-$??
What Have We Learned
So there you have it – our choices for the 6 best methods to clean vinyl records. Which one is right for you? As in most things, it comes down to cost, ease of use, and results expected.
How often are you cleaning your records? Personally every time I play a record at minimum I wipe it for surface dust. After several spins, it’s probably time for a wet wipe and dry. The goal is to prevent any significant build up of dirt in the grooves, minimizing the pops and crackles.
Also, it is important to handle your records by the edges as much as possible to prevent oily fingerprints over the surface. These are not removable by a dry brush, so a wet clean would be needed at that point.
The message is – keep it clean. Your records will thank you for it.