In an ideal world, we’d all be able to clean vinyl records with a fancy, purpose-built device, such as a vinyl vacuum system or an ultrasonic cleaning setup. Unfortunately, however, many of these advanced cleaning methods are either cost prohibitive or impractical for the average vinyl record collector. Consequently, many of us must settle for good old fashioned hand cleaning.
I won’t lie, if a record is really dirty, cleaning by hand is often very hard, repetitive work – but it can be done. First, a few caveats.
1) No amount of cleaning – mechanical or manual – will fix a damaged record.
2) The best way to keep records clean is not to allow them to become so dirty in the first place; some basic vinyl care and maintenance is advisable.
3) Regular dry cleaning is also recommended to minimize wet cleaning. (By dry cleaning I mean regular use of a carbon fiber brush).
4) Second-hand records will almost always require wet cleaning.
As you’ll gather from the caveats listed above, there are two hand-cleaning approaches, dry cleaning, and wet cleaning. When combined with the careful handling of your vinyl records, the former should be a regular process practiced each time you play a record, while the latter is an occasional requirement.
For this, all you need is a decent carbon fiber brush. For best results, lightly place the brush on the record surface as the platter spins. Allow the record to spin a few times before slowly moving the brush closer toward the center allowing the brush to make contact with the spindle. Allowing the conductive carbon fiber brush to make contact helps to discharge any minor static charge built up during the cleaning process. Aim to repeat this process for each side before and after playing to minimize the build up of dust over time.
While proper record care and maintenance will help keep your records clean for longer, it’s a fact of life that all records require occasional wet cleaning to remove stubborn dirt built up over time. In fact, I even clean brand new records, as most are contaminated straight from the pressing plant.
There are many ways to wet clean vinyl by hand. The following is a method that I find works really well for me…
Firstly, ensure you have a flat, lint-free surface to place your record during cleaning. You can use a large microfiber cloth, or you can purchase a purpose-built record cleaning mat.
Next, you’ll need to purchase some record cleaning solution and a couple of mircofiber cloths (one for cleaning, another for drying).
As for which solution is best, we could debate this topic until the end of time. My current preferred cleaning solution is the Vinyl Revival cleaning kit, which comes complete with separate cleaning and rinsing solution. I’ve personally found this two-step cleaning process effective at removing any residue left behind by single solution cleaning methods.
I’ve also used Clear Groove in the past with great results, which is a single solution product, but also works really well – there are pros and cons to both products in my experience. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
- Vinyl revival is more effective at removing residue left from the cleaning product – likely due to a two-step process. If using a single step cleaner, you’ll need to be very thorough with your drying process to help reduce any potential residue.
- Clear Groove seems more efficient at reducing static charge.
- As a nice bonus, Vinyl Revival is also alcohol-free.
US Readers: At the time of writing, both cleaning options listed above are unavailable in the US. Since initially writing this article, I’ve been lucky enough to sample a new US-based start-up cleaning solution called Groovewasher that I would highly recommend. Watch this space for a full demonstration coming soon.
Once you’ve selected an appropriate cleaning solution, and a couple of suitable microfibre cloths, the process is relatively simple:
Step 1: Spray the cleaner 2 – 4 times on the record surface avoiding the center label.
Step 2: Using your first microfiber cloth, gently wipe the surface in a circular, anti-clockwise motion (with the grooves) ensuring the fluid thoroughly penetrates the grooves.
Step 3: Repeat step two with your rinsing solution (if supplied).
Step 4: Dry the record surface with a separate microfiber cloth using the same anti-clockwise method.
Step 5: Repeat until clean.
Some recommendations and further caveats:
It’s recommended that you replace the microfiber cloths regularly to avoid cross-contaminating dirt from other records. You can buy suitable clothes from Amazon in bulk.
If a record is particularly dirty, it might take quite a few repeat cleans to hear any improvement in sound quality. In many cases, you may find you’re simply unable to adequately clean the record by hand and will need to consider a machine of sorts to observe further improvement. As we’re looking at budget options for the purpose of this article, I would recommend trying the Spin Clean Record Washer.
How NOT to clean vinyl records
Avoid using tap water to clean records. The impurities found in domestic tap water may not be visible to the naked eye, but they can (and likely will) cause damage to your record. Hard water areas (such as where I live) are particularly troublesome. (Ever seen what happens to a kettle when you boil tap water? The furry limescale that sticks to the kettle surface should be reason enough not to consider using tap water).
Don’t be tempted to try domestic cleaning products – or even pure alcohol – to clean records. Despite what many YouTubers will say, Windex or Mr Sheen do not make good vinyl cleaning fluids. Always invest in a recommended, purpose designed record cleaning solution. If you are tempted to make your own, make sure you research carefully before mixing ingredients.