The Best Way to Clean Vinyl Records
There are many ways to clean a vinyl record, specially-formulated cleaners have become very popular over the years. So let’s get down to the question everyone wants to know – how do you really clean a vinyl record?
The truth is that no one way can be endorsed without causing other, possibly worse problems. That said, there are a few generally accepted ways to clean a record, and the method you choose depends mainly on your situation and preference.
So, how do you clean vinyl records? The standard procedure for cleaning records before the 1980s was to apply a liquid cleaner diluted with water to a lint-free cotton cloth and wipe the surface of the record in straight lines from the center towards the edge. No circular scrubbing motions needed to be used as this could irrevocably damage any vinyl record by gouging into it with one’s finger or stylus.
This method seems sensible enough provided that we know precisely which fluids we should be using and how we ought to use them; though looking back, this seems to have been a dangerous assumption. The thing is, distilled water was not used for cleaning records before the 1970s. Instead, tap water was all that was available. And considering how hard our tap water can be here in the UK, one shudders to think what kind of filth it could leave on the grooves of their precious LPs.
The Cheapest Way to Clean a Vinyl Record
The cheapest way to clean a record is with distilled water. The practice of cleaning vinyl records with water can be traced back for decades. That old-fashioned ‘wet disc’ brush was just that: a wet nylon/wire brush on the end of a stick designed to scrub off dust without damaging the grooves.
Cheap versions of these brushes still exist today, they often come as part of cheap turntable kits. Those simple devices are widely available and cheap enough that many people have them lying around their house or garage.
Since the real risk in a wet cleaning is the water getting into the grooves and causing damage, distilled water makes sense – it’s pure water with no ions that could attach themselves to anything. Again, just be sure you’re not using hard tap water (use distilled or filtered/spring if possible).
In general, this method gets good results and can potentially cause no damage. However, over time repeated use of a wet brush will wear away the bottom of your vinyl record where the stylus would go during playback. This could lead to too much wear on your records, but it will usually take many years before there is any noticeable degradation. If you are going to try this method using a brush make sure it is dry so you do not add any extra wear to the low parts of the record.
Wet Cleaning Using a Specially Formulated Brush
You can also use wet cleaning with a specially formulated brush. These brushes are already being sold as part of turntable kits, but their availability is just increasing. They work the same way as any brush on a stick, only they have some special chemicals in them that help dissolves particles and oils in your grooves.
Cleaning records with these brushes will not harm your records – but it’s still wise to brush from inside-out (i.e., lightly scrub first towards the center, then outwards). This will help you avoid causing damage by scratching your vinyl surface. Avoid using much pressure when you brush: let the chemicals do all the work!
The main downside of this method is that you will sometimes have to scrub a record two or more times before all the dirt is gone. And if you’re not using distilled water then there’s a whole host of other things floating around in your bathroom sink – soap, hair oils, and so on (plus it might be hard to scrub inside-out from beginning to end). But as long as you’re careful with how much pressure you apply and make sure not to soak the label area where possible then this should be an acceptable way to clean vinyl records.
Using Cleaning Fluid to Clean Vinyl Records
Cleaning fluid became commercially available in the early 1970s after being invented by Keith Monks. Many artists and record labels at first refused to use it believing it impaired sound quality. However, soon they were forced to reconsider when dirt got so bad during tours that previously un-listenable recordings started sounding crystal clear after being cleaned with distilled water and a drop or two of Keith Monk’s fluid.
The reason for this was that in Britain, one would typically find a high concentration of magnesium and calcium ions within their tap water which is known to adversely affect the performance of the magnetic cartridges used in turntables back then.
These ions cause a build-up of gunk on the stylus’ coils by making it more likely for dirt molecules from the vinyl record grooves to stick when passing over them. This not only gives records an unclean sound but also severely reduces tracking ability resulting in increased wear & tear on both your stylus and records themselves. It was not just British audiences who were at risk. American records cleaned with British tap water came up sounding just as bad.
How Water Quality Affects Sound of Vinyl Records
It was not just the hardened muck of the UK’s hard water that could affect sound quality either. It is recorded from America and elsewhere in Europe that it was cleaned with “proper” distilled water that started to reveal more about their own home-brew cleaners’ inadequacies. Vinyl records never had 100% cleaning efficiency.
No matter what one used to clean them there would always be some kind of dirt left within the grooves no matter how much one tried to get out. However, what became apparent when comparing records cleaned with different fluids was that while American and some European records sounded fine after being cleaned with tap water, British ones came up sounding muffled and dull.
Using Rubbing Alcohol to Clean Vinyl Records
Another audio preservation method gaining popularity is using either pure alcohol or diluted rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol in combination with a carbon fiber brush. The carbon fiber brush works better for removing dirt than the nylon brushes do and these other alcohols act as a surfactant solution that breaks up dirt and brushes it out of the grooves. This is equivalent to using distilled water but without worrying about causing any structural damage to your vinyl records.
This is a good method, because once you’re done scrubbing the record with either alcohol or distilled water (or both) then all you have to do is dry the record off with a lint-free cloth. The results from this cleaning will be noticeably better than when just using distilled water.
Dirt and debris will no longer be caked into your vinyl’s grooves which greatly increases sound quality. It also looks great! Something is satisfying about watching these formerly dirty records become spotless after going through this process!
Use Neutral Grain Spirits to Clean Records
Of the two, using alcohol is a better solution because it’s more versatile – you can use multiple types of cleaners to remove different things (e.g., dust vs fingerprints). Vodka or gin will likely work OK as long as you don’t leave them on too long. However, it’s probably better to use a brand of neutral grain spirits that are specifically designed for cleaning records. There are even some pure organic cleaning solutions being sold now which should be safe to use to clean your records without causing any damage.
Use Diluted Rubbing Alcohol to Clean Records
If you’re going to try adding some rubbing alcohol to your distilled water make sure you only use about 10-20% rubbing alcohol. Using too much could damage your vinyl over time. It’s generally better to dilute any cleaning solution than make it stronger.
Using Facial Toner to Clean Vinyl Records
If distilled water isn’t doing a good job on its own (or you want to avoid having to go out and buy the more specialized alcohol cleaners), a third popular alternative is using either facial toner or a professional record cleaner. Toner will often work just as well if not better at removing dirt from your grooves.
If you’re going this route then it might be worth researching which products work best for different situations. The best solution is to visit your local Tulsa record store for suggestions based on your unique needs.
No matter which cleaner you use, just make sure it’s safe for records before you start applying it to your vinyl. This means avoiding anything too lint-heavy (like paper towels) and letting the record dry before playing it again. Most cleaners will leave behind a residue that can interfere with playback if not taken care of properly.
And last, always be careful when handling or cleaning records! Your grooves might seem hardy but they are very sensitive to damage (just like the rest of the record), so learn how to handle them carefully right from the start.