How to clean vinyl records
Why you need to clean your vinyl
Vinyl records are well known for their sound reproduction abilities. However, what is less well known is their hidden skill as dirt magnets. Vinyl records attract grease, grime, dust, powder, skin cells, and who knows what else in a way that make vacuum cleaners look amateurish at gathering household detritus.
There are two main causes of this: your greasy little hands, and static electricity. Neither are, practically speaking, avoidable. But the importance of maintaining clean records is undeniable, and the benefits are numerous: extending vinyl life, improving playback, preventing needle wear, maintaining value. As such, every responsible vinyl lover will at some point need to confront the question: how do I clean my records?
The optimal approach to cleaning your vinyl records
TLDR: be really rich and buy a record cleaning machine.
Feeling rich? If so, stop reading and just go and buy yourself a record cleaning machine. You can pick up a Project Audio Vinyl Cleaner for a trifling £400, or splash out on a Klaudio Ultrasonic Cleaner for more like £4000 if money really is no object.
Not feeling quite so rich? Join the club, and read on.
The everyday approach to keeping your your vinyl records clean
TLDR: invest in anti-static kit to fight dust, and get into the habit of using it.
Unlike vinyl, static is not your friend.
Static is invariably present on brand new records – that supernatural force that seems to want to drag the record back into its sleeve, wrinkle the inner bag, and generally make it hard for you to get your new slab of wax onto the turntable as quickly as possible.
You can buy anti-static record bags (we sell them) but, in their cost-cutting wisdom, most record labels fail to use them by default. As such, you need to tackle the static yourself. And for very good reason: the same force that makes it hard to get the record out of its sleeve is just as good at sucking up all the dirt and dust from your slip mat or platter, even dragging dust from the air as you tenderly carry the record across the room.
So here's the first tip: get yourself some decent anti-static kit and form a habit of using it regularly. It's worth the investment:
- the brushes last for ages and, unlike vinyl cleaning machines, take up virtually no space
- the fibres used in the brushes help drain the static that attracts dust in the first place
- whilst also getting right into the grooves to remove it
- anti-static mats not only improve playback (allegedly) by reducing hiss, they help prevent dust reattaching whilst your record spins
- finally, by placing your record into an anti-static sleeve straight after playing you'll do yourself a favour next time you come to play it.
When cleaning your vinyl using an anti-static brush use gentle, long strokes. Work in the direction of the grooves, not across them, and avoid pushing down or applying pressure. Even on a record straight out of shrink-wrap you will see a fine gathering of dust collect (static will mean your records will have picked up particles from the factory they were pressed in). Just be sure that you sweep it all off and away from the record.
A decent micro-fibre cloth will help remove everything the brush has dislodged, as well as helping to absorb excess oils from any poor handling, so keep one to hand by your deck. If you are on a really tight budget, a micro-fibre cloth of the type you can pick up at your local pound store will do a job. But you do get what you pay for, so a purpose-manufactured cloth is worth the extra few quid. Again, soft and smooth strokes is the name of the game here: apply too much pressure and friction will cause fibre fragments to slough off, undoing all your hard work.
Step-by-step guide to deep cleaning your vinyl records
TLDR: choose a safe vinyl cleaning solution; remove dust and static; inspect your vinyl; clean it with your chosen vinyl cleaning solution; dry it; put it away again.
'Dry cleaning' with an anti-static brush - but without use of any solution - is a good minimum standard to keep your records in decent shape. Get yourself into good habits: keep your brush near your deck, and use it each time you are about to play a record. If you only buy new records, handle them carefully, and don't play them to death then basic anti-static brushing might just get you through. Your records will stay pretty much dust-free and will sound great for years to come.
To really stay on top of the situation, though, you need to do a bit more that keeping your vinyl free of dust. Imagine if you only ever swept your kitchen floor and never mopped it. The same principle applies to your vinyl.
Even the most careful among us are prone to touching the vinyl surface, particularly if you DJ and are therefore manipulating the discs manually. Your fingertips invariably leave deposits of oil, sweat and dirt which can wear away the material on the discs over time. And if you are regularly trawling car boot sales, charity shops and record fairs for those prized second-hand gems then you will also be bringing home records that will need more TLC.
Before we get started, a quick word...
Choosing a cleaning solution
Trust us, you need to enter the mysterious and sometimes contentious world of vinyl cleaning solutions - one of the most highly-debated topics amongst vinyl collectors.
Using the wrong kind of solution will damage your vinyl. Naturally, we know you're sensible enough to avoid using normal household cleaners (right?). And we trust you know not to run your vinyl under a tap (yes?). But what about alcohol-based solutions? What about deionized water and Tergitol, as used by the Library of Congress? What about wood glue (we kid you not - check out YouTube)?
Find what works for you, of course, but if you want to chance your arm with your own mixtures and techniques then may we suggest that you conduct your experiments on records that you really don’t care about? Alcohol-based solutions, for example, can deliver fantastic initial results - but they can also strip the protective coating that sits on the grove floor/wall, and within just a few plays alcohol-damaged records will start to sound harsh. Wood glue...again, you might see fantastic initial results but you might also end up clogging your grooves and/or equipment with more crap than you started with.
In our opinion, whilst they may cost a few pounds more the purpose-designed vinyl-cleaning solutions are worth sticking with. There are plenty of options to choose from (VPI Record Cleaning Fluid, Vinyl Revival, Spin Clean, Near Mint, etc.) but we like the AM Clean Sound range:
So, with that in mind...here's a step-by-step guide to cleaning vinyl records. Please bear in mind that this method is best suited to records with moderate cleaning needs. If you've just picked something up really mucky from a record fair or similar that needs a more thorough clean then a different approach (e.g. involving some kind of pre-washing) might be better.
1. Remove static and dust
2. Inspect the record
Once you've got rid of the initial layer of grime you need to know what horrors lurked beneath. Good light is your best friend, so find a well-lit spot and look carefully at the surface of of the record for any fingerprints, greasy patches, smudges, etc. Rotate the record round to vary the angle of viewing, as you will see more of the dirt and grease in doing so.
Problem areas may need several treatments before they're ready to play again, so it is worth performing this step carefully to know exactly what you’re dealing with.
Oh, and before letting used vinyl anywhere near your set-up then remember that the entire record should always receive a good clean. Contain your excitement and do the necessary. You never know what murk is on that attic find: don't risk transferring it via, well, a dirty needle.
3. Spot-clean problem areas
Once you have identified sections of a vinyl record that require intensive cleaning you need to apply your chosen cleaning solution.
Place your record on a flat, clean, solid and stable surface. A table or desk is fine, but make sure to rest your record on a soft, clean and non-abrasive surface to avoid warping or damaging it as you apply pressure to it. Buy a micro-fibre towel, or a dedicated record cleaning mat, or even use a spare turntable platter if you have one - but whatever you do, make sure that your non-abrasive surface can handle your chosen vinyl cleaning solution.
If your solution doesn’t have a spray function then either transfer the liquid into a new receptacle that does (i.e. a thoroughly cleaned and dry spray gun with a fine nozzle) or dab liquid onto your record with a micro-fibre cleaning cloth. (Don't overdo it: no need to drench your record in solution.)
Once the cleaning solution is on the surface of the record, apply a gentle pressure in circular movements to rub away the blemishes you identified when inspecting the record. Don't scrub across the grooves: concentric arcs, following the direction of the grooves, are the name of the game here.
Note: vinyl cleaning solutions and the inner label of your record don't play nicely together. Take great care to avoid touching the label with liquid of any kind. Loosening the label glue, or simply staining the label, will both ruin your aesthetic enjoyment of your record and devalue it. You can buy record label protector discs to help avoid this problem, but even then you need to be careful that your cleaning solution doesn't leak underneath.
4. Dry the record
Some people prefer to allow a just-cleaned record to dry in the air. We can see why: anything that minimises contact with the surface of a vinyl record is usually a good idea. However, the counter-risk is that allowing your record to air-dry might also see dust resettle on it.
Whatever method you choose, be careful that whilst your back is turned no solution seeps away and touches the inner label. And if you're short of time - or have used a lot of cleaning solution - then using a different, clean micro-fibre cloth to dry your record is probably the best option. Rushing the cleaning of a record will only lead to short cuts being taken, which is never optimal.
It goes without saying that your record needs to be completely and utterly dry before you tuck it away again (especially important if you're using any kind of alcohol-based solution). You absolutely do not want to file away a record that is even slightly damp.
5. Store your record safely
Remember what we said about records being dirt magnets? In the time it takes between drying your record and tucking it away in its sleeve it will probably have recharged itself and will be busily sucking up dust from the air.
So, give it one final light sweep with your anti-static brush and - handling by the edges, obviously - gently ease it back into its anti-static sleeve.
Cleaning your kit
Finally, it hopefully goes without saying that you need to keep your turntable itself in good, clean condition.
In particular, you need to make sure that your cartridge/stylus aren't just returning particles to your newly fresh vinyl. Ever seen a close-up shot of a dirty cartridge? Urgh.
Of course, magnify any surface by 100x and you're gonna see cruft like that. But if your needle has picked up a small piece of hard grit without you noticing then you don't want it coming into contact with your vinyl. A turntable arm doesn't exert a huge amount of downward pressure, but it does exert some. And whilst vinyl isn't the softest plastic known to man, it only needs to be softer than said piece of grit for trouble to occur.
Think long-term. Playing a record once on dirty kit is unlikely to do much immediate damage, unless you're very unlucky (or very unclean). But playing it dozens of times?
It's beyond the scope of this guide to go into the ins and out of maintaining your stylus. Read the article we cribbed those images from: How to Clean Your Cartridge Stylus Needle. But we do offer a nifty little stylus cleaning kit, as well as some non-abrasive equipment cleaning wipes, from the AM Clean range again: