Collecting vinyl records is more popular than ever. We’ve documented several times on this website how despite the overall decline in physical music sales, vinyl records continue to buck the overall trend by growing year-on-year. Last year, in particular, was a significant milestone for the vinyl revival as sales grew for the tenth consecutive year.
It’s rather remarkable to think, that despite living in an age where the average smartphone conveniently stores over 3000 songs, there’s still a market for something as inconvenient as vinyl. It would appear that despite the advantages of digital, many of us still yearn for something a little more tangible.
In my humble opinion, it is the tangible nature of vinyl that draws most people in. There’s just something special about the whole ritual of vinyl: the beautiful artwork; pulling the record from its sleeve; gently dropping the stylus before setting the disc in motion – it’s so much more rewarding than iTunes!
Or is it? With all this nostalgia and analog driven ritual comes a heck of a lot more maintenance. Clean records on a great turntable sound fantastic; dirty records just sound, well, dirty…
To fully enjoy vinyl, you must keep your records clean. Dirty records don’t just sound bad, they’re also bad for your turntable, as the increased stress on your stylus will significantly shorten its life. This, in turn, will also lead to increased record wear.
You can read more about complete record care in our previous post, but for today, we’re going to turn our heads specifically to keeping records clean. Fortunately for record collectors, there are plenty of tried and tested methods for keeping your precious collection clean and clear for many years you come.
But before we get started – a quick note on everyday dry cleaning:
Always clean the dust off your records using a carbon fibre brush before commencing to any of the wet-cleaning methods I’m about to list. Failure to do so will risk pushing dust further into the grooves. As best practice, you should always use a carbon fibre brush to clean your records before and after each play-back. This will help reduce build up of dust that can shorten your stylus life and contaminate records.
Record Cleaning Machines
First up, the easiest and most effective method – using a cleaning machine.
Ok, so they’re a little expensive; but the fact remains, record cleaning machines are the most effective way to clean vinyl records. The reason they’re so effective is because unlike manual cleaning, record cleaning machines work by sucking up the applied cleaning solution, which in-turn takes all the dirt and grime away with it. Cleaning machines have the added benefit of saving you a ton of time when bulk cleaning large collections.
The Project VC-S Vinyl cleaner is great, and will clean your records in just two rotations.
If spending $499 on a record cleaning machine is out of the question, there are cheaper manual machines on the market. The Spin Clean is a more laborious, but effective cleaning machine that works great for bulk cleaning your collection on a budget. The device works by brushing both sides of a record at the same time, while effectively giving your records a bath.
Clean Vinyl Records by Hand
Don’t have the budget or space for a record cleaning machine? Fear not, with a little extra effort, you can achieve great sounding records when cleaning by hand. Here’s how it’s done:
First things first, you’ll need a clean surface on which to place your record. Preferably, you should use a soft, lint-free surface to avoid further contaminating the record with dust, fibres, or other foreign elements. Your best and safest option is to purchase as a record cleaning mat.
With your record safely placed on the appropriate surface, we can now commence to wet cleaning. For this process, you will need the following items:
- Record cleaning solution
- Two microfibre cloths (one for cleaning, the other for drying).
I prefer the Vinyl Revival record cleaning kit, as it’s 100% alcohol-free and features a two-step cleaning process (clean and rinse). There is much debate in the audio industry as to whether or not it’s safe to use alcohol when cleaning vinyl.
According to vinylfactory.com, “Pure alcohol strips away much of the rubbish and gunge from grooves – which is great – but it also removes the protective coating that rests on the groove walls/floor. Once that essential protective layer is gone, music sounds harsh and brittle.”
On the contrary, reliable sources, such as the Library of Congress in the US will use solutions containing purified alcohol to clean records. This is different from high-percentage alcohol such as standard isopropyl, which is much more likely to cause damage.
The alcohol-free Vinyl Revival option is currently only available in the UK. For US readers, the D4+ cleaning solution uses a small amount of purified alcohol – similar to the recipe/formulas used by archivers at the Library of Congress above.
Don’t want to take the risk with alcohol? I completely understand; try Record Doctors alcohol-free option.
Many record cleaning solutions come complete with a microfiber cloth (sometimes even two). If not, you can easily purchase them in bulk. To be honest, it’s a good idea to keep switching them, as repeat usage can risk recontaminating records. The point of using a microfiber cloth is to help penetrate the grooves and remove entrenched dirt and dust.
With the tools in place, let’s now take a closer look at the complete cleaning process:
Step-by-step, here’s the process you should follow:
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.
The Bottom Line
The processes I’ve described above are the safest way to clean your vinyl records. However, the internet hoppers among us might have heard of a few other, less conventional methods recommended by all kinds of sources, from YouTubers to major websites. With this in mind, here are some cleaning methods you should avoid:
Tap Water and Dish Soap
This method should be avoided at all cost – particularly if you live in a hard water area. The reason is, regular tap water contains impurities, such as mineral deposits, which can contaminate and damage records. As for the dish soap, this can leave residue on the record – just don’t go there.
The Wood Glue Method
I’ll be honest, I’ve actually tried this one, and it works – it’s just incredibly risky.
For those who don’t know, the wood glue cleaning method refers to a process whereby you spread a solid layer of wood glue over the record surface (avoiding the label). When left to dry overnight, the glue dries clear – picking up dirt and dust deep inside the grooves. The idea is, all the grim is removed when peeling back the glue.
Like I said, I’ve tried it; it worked pretty well, I just wouldn’t like to take the risk on a rare or expensive record – what if your glue doesn’t peel off in one piece!? It’s also very time-consuming, and at one side per night, it would take you a long time to complete your entire collection. I would save this method as a last resort if all else fails on a highly contaminated record; better still, invest in a cleaning machine.