How to clean vinyl records? Not with T-shirts, towels, tissues or toilet paper!
All physical storage media requires some care and attention if you want to gain maximum enjoyment from it for as long as possible, and vinyl records are no exception.
In this article, you’ll learn what you need for cleaning your records, as well as the correct techniques to use.
Why clean vinyl records?
For the same reason you presumably shower or bath regularly. To keep them free of dirt and other undesirable substances.
Dust and dirt that has found its way onto your records not only causes crackles and pops during playback, but also damages your stylus over time.
The best way to preserve both is to regularly clean your records – ideally before and after each time you play them. (Yes, really!)
It’s even worth cleaning brand new records before you play them for the first time, as tiny dust particles are often already present.
Bear in mind that while cleaning your records can improve their sound quality, it does not repair damaged records. This really is a case of prevention being better than cure. Handle and store your records properly! For useful tips, see my separate articles on caring for your vinyl records and how to store your vinyl records.
What’s the best way to clean vinyl records?
There is no catch-all best way. It depends how many you have, how well cared for they are, and, if you’re considering buying a record cleaning machine, also your budget. Let’s look at the options, so you can decide which is best for you.
Start with the easiest method, and if that doesn’t bring the desired results, work down the list.
Antistatic record cleaning cloths
Every music lover with a vinyl collection needs the basics, so at the very minimum, one or more antistatic record cleaning cloths.
These are soft microfibre cloths, which also neutralise the static charge that attracts dust to your records. Otherwise, they’re just soft, lint-free microfibre cloths similar to those available for cleaning glasses, if you wear those. But whatever you do, don’t clean your records with the same cloth you use for cleaning your glasses! Especially if you’ve just come in from a snowstorm! Keep separate cloths available for cleaning your records.
Gently wipe around the grooves of the record, in a circular motion – not from the edge to centre or vice versa. The idea is to gradually, progressively wipe any dirt off the edges. Don’t press too hard, as you don’t want to press any dirt into the grooves.
Once an area of the cloth has become soiled, you can refold the cloth so that you’re using a clean portion of it. When the cloth has become so soiled that there are no clean patches any more, don’t wash it – replace it.
You can also get dedicated record antistatic guns. While these don’t clean the record (the topic of this article) they do what the name suggests. Point it at your record before playing it, squeeze the trigger and kill any static buildup!
Antistatic record cleaning brushes
The next step up, as antistatic record cleaning brushes combine a brush and a cloth in one, and are a slightly more high-tech alternative to cleaning with a basic cleaning cloth. You may want to consider these if a cloth on its own hasn’t brought the results you were hoping for.
Antistatic record cleaning brushes have brushes along the edges, with cloth material in the middle. The idea is that the brushes reduce the static charge, and that the brush then collects the dust.
As with standard cleaning cloths, clean your records before and after every time you play them, using the same technique – a circular motion along the grooves.
Similarly, be gentle – don’t press gunk down into the grooves!
And remember to also keep the brush clean.
Some people like to place the record on the turntable, hold the brush over it and then start the turntable. Instead of moving your hand, let the turntable do the work! Aim to move the brush from near the label to the centre, so you can wipe any dirt off the edges.
Still hearing pops and crackles, even after dry cleaning your records? (By which I mean cleaning them using one of the methods above. I don’t mean you should take them to the dry cleaners, like you would a suit or evening dress!)
Or do your records have stubborn fingerprints on them, which dry cleaning won’t shift?
Then it may be time for a wet clean.
(I say it MAY be time, but I’ve been collecting records for 40 years, take proper care of them, and have never needed to do this. Having said that, I can think of a handful I bought secondhand where this may help remove some DJ’s stubborn fingerprints. Perhaps it’s time to give it a go, after all.)
Wet cleaning by hand
You’ll need some record cleaning fluid and water.
What sort of cleaning fluid?
Record cleaning fluid could mean commercially available record cleaning fluid, but it could also just mean soapy water. If you use soapy water, the soap or washing up liquid should only be present at a low concentration. Bear in mind that using this method tends to leave film/residue on your records. Use this method sparingly, if at all! Personally, I wouldn’t risk it, as I don’t want film or residue on my records! I’d rather pay a bit of money for some record cleaning fluid.
Don’t use undiluted isopropyl alcohol for cleaning records, as it will damage the surface of the record!
What sort of water?
Only clean your records using distilled, deionised water. Do not use tap water to clean your records, as this contains all sorts of minerals and limescale!
Whichever liquid you choose, first remove any surface debris from the record using a cleaning cloth or antistatic brush. You don’t want to rub dust, dirt and hairs etc into the grooves.
It’s crucial you protect the record’s label! Otherwise, wet cleaning will damage it! Some commercially available cleaning kits also include a label protector, or you can buy one separately. (Other people improvise using drinks coasters or some other round object, but I’m not sure I’d risk that!)
Now it’s time to wet clean the record using a microfibre cloth. Wrap a bit of the cloth around the end of your finger, and dip it into the cleaning solution. Just enough to wet it – not so much that it becomes soaked through!
Start in the centre and clean clockwise along the grooves, moving outwards to the edge. Then move anticlockwise from the edge back to the centre.
Use the flat bit of your fingertips, so you don’t scratch the record with your fingernails, and don’t press too hard.
Repeat as necessary.
When you’ve got the record clean, rinse it in exactly the same way, but using (distilled, deionised!) water – not tap water!
Pat the record dry using a different, clean, soft microfibre cloth. Ensure the record is properly dry before putting it back into its sleeve!
Wet cleaning by machine
If you fancy automating the record cleaning process, even if only partially, then you may want to consider a record cleaning machine. There are two types, one of which is much more effective than the other, but also much more expensive.
Record cleaning machines
Let’s start with the more economical option – record cleaning/washing machines.
These are a kind of rack, into which you stand the record vertically. Rollers then hold it in place by its edge. You then add distilled, deionised water and some of the supplied cleaning solution (following the manufacturer’s instructions!) and rotate the record a few times. The machine’s soft brushes then simultaneously clean each side of the record. Once that’s done, lift the record out, if required pat it dry with the supplied soft, microfibre cloth, then place it on the supplied drying rack to dry.
During the process, the record’s label does not come into contact with the cleaning solution (and nor should it – see earlier in this article).
Expect to pay £50 to £100 or so (or the equivalent in your part of the world) for one of these record cleaning machines. You’ll need to replace the cloths and replenish the cleaning fluids occasionally. See the manufacturer’s instructions.
Vacuum cleaning machines
Not to be confused with the vacuum cleaner you already have at home! Save that for cleaning floors and upholstery etc.
Like record washing machines, vacuum record cleaning machines also apply a cleaning solution to the record, but as the name suggests, they then vacuum it off again. This method is much more effective, as the cleaning fluid – including the removed dirt – is sucked directly from the record’s surface, rather than gradually dripping off. This means your records are cleaned and dried all in one operation – there’s no need to place them on a rack to drip dry afterwards.
These machines are more suitable for people with deeper wallets – and a lot of dirty records. Expect to pay £300–£500, or the equivalent in your local currency, and you will of course need to replenish the fluids occasionally. While their price means these machines aren’t practical for many collectors, those who take the plunge should find they are the crème de la crème of record cleaning machines!
Here’s a video of Pro-Ject Audio System’s Pro-Ject VC-S2 ALU vacuum cleaning machine in use:
How to clean vinyl records – conclusion
Cleaning your vinyl collection needn’t be complicated or expensive, although it certainly can be!
If you get into the habit of dry cleaning your records before and after each time you play them, you’ll be able to obtain maximum listening pleasure from them for a long time to come.
But for second-hand purchases that haven’t been as well looked after as they should, wet cleaning using a machine is definitely worth considering, to remove those stubborn fingerprints (some of which may be years/decades old!).
There’s no reason why you can’t still be enjoying your record collection in your old age!
All photos on this page © musicstuff.info. Video Pro-Ject Audio Systems via YouTube