Vinyl Rules #1: DIY Vinyl Record Cleaning, Super Cheap and Super Effective
With the resurgence of listening to music on vinyl records, there has been a correlating explosion of information out there on how to properly care for all these new records (please don’t call them ‘vinyls’, I beg you.) So I’m starting a new series of articles I’m calling ‘Vinyl Rules’ to make it as easy as possible to care for your treasured records the right way, and without spending a ton of money. The first topic I’d like to tackle is record cleaning. If you’ve spent any time looking for old records in stores or in your grandma’s attic, you’ll see very quickly that people back in the day did not take very good care of their albums. Not at all. But with today’s expensive records, old and new, there’s no excuse not to keep them in tip-top shape, now and into the future.
The internet is a vast treasure trove of information on any subject under the sun, and I can assure you that vinyl record care is no exception. I’ve spent hours and hours scouring websites and message boards to find the best way to get my old (and new) records clean. Companies offer a million and one products promising to get records cleaner than any other product on the market.
But the dirty secret about all of these products? They’re all super expensive. Why? Because people fall for the hype. You see, once you fall down the vinyl record rabbit hole, you’ll discover a whole world of super-obsessive types (records and turntables and high-end audio in general bring them out of the woodwork) who are convinced that unless a product is ridiculously expensive, it’s no good. And they’re not afraid to tell you that whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re buying, is WRONG. (Even if you’re right.)
There are so many products out there for cleaning records, from expensive cleaning solutions, to the classic $80 Spin Clean record cleaner, all the way up to automated record cleaning machines that not only clean records, but they cost thousands of dollars. They must be good, right?
They are good; something costing so much, and that elicits so much praise from customers, absolutely has to work. Of this I have no doubt. But I’m not ashamed to admit that I don’t have a thousand dollars to spend on a cleaning machine. Even if I did, I can think of a lot of other things I’d rather spend money on.
While I’ve wasted a lot of time reading message boards that devolve into virtual shouting matches over which expensive cleaning method works better, I’ve also found a lot of good information from people who aren’t rich, OCD, or trying to sell something on how to clean records on the cheap.
So, having looked at a lot of DIY cleaning methods, I’ve patched together my own cleaning process that works damn well, and is damn cheap.
How to Clean Vinyl Records, DIY Style
If you’ve read this far, you probably love listening to vinyl records as much as I do. Part of the appeal to me is the process of listening to records. It’s not passive; it requires a little bit of work. Digging out a record, putting it carefully on the turntable, sitting back and listening, flipping it over and finally putting it back in its sleeve and cover. It’s relaxing. It demands paying attention. But it also requires some care. I love vinyl records, but I do NOT love dirty records.
Now, if you believe some of the message boarders, you’ll believe that vinyl records are so fragile that unless they’re cleaned with super expensive cleaning machines, they’ll crumble to pieces. But that’s not true. Vinyl is a pretty durable material; it’s why records last so damn long. It’s hard to wreck. It’s also fairly easy to clean.
With just a few household items, and maybe a trip to the auto supply store, you can get even the dirtiest, noisiest records sparkling clean and silent. This is my DIY record cleaning technique. I’ve cleaned hundreds of records this way; I’ve never damaged one.
Vinyl Record Cleaning Instructions
1. Create a solution in a spray bottle containing 1 part isopropyl alcohol to 3 parts distilled water. Add 1 drop of dish soap (nothing fancy, regular Dawn is fine. I just an unscented natural dish soap.) Mix it up.
2. Take your record and put a dent puller of the label on each side. Squeeze ’em shut. This creates a clamp on the record that allows you to run it under water and scrub it without getting the labels wet. There are expensive items called the Groovmaster that does basically the same thing for $50. I paid $16 for the dent pullers, and I think the big handles make them easier to hold.
3. Now that your record is ready to clean. Run both sides under some lukewarm water in the sink to wash any dust, hair, any other large pieces of gunk off. Shake the excess water off.
4. Spray one side of the record with a liberal amount of your homemade cleaner. Let it set for a minute or so, then, with the paint pad, scrub in a circular motion (always go with the record grooves, never against them) around and around a few times one way, then several times in the other direction. The soft bristles of the paint pad get down in the grooves and clean them out. Repeat on the flip side of the record.
5. After you’ve scrubbed both sides, run the record under the faucet again to wash the solution off.
6. After rinsing with tap water, spray or pour pure distilled water over both sides for further rinsing. Tap water often has minerals and other things in them that you don’t want left on your records. A thorough distilled water rinse will wash all that away. Distilled water is relatively cheap; I pay well under a dollar a gallon at the grocery store.
7. Grab a microfiber towel (easily found in the auto cleaning section of any store, again they’re super cheap) and grab the record with it while you release first one dent puller, then the other. Once the suction of the pullers is gone, take care to not drop the record.
8. Grab another microfiber towel and together with the other one, give that record a thorough drying. The soft microfibers won’t harm or scratch the records, and they’re lint-free so they won’t leave any fuzz behind. Many swear that drying by hand is damaging, and that records must be vacuumed dry (either with the aforementioned cleaning machines or with homemade vacuum techniques), but my experience tells me that microfiber cloth drying works just fine.
9. Once you’re done drying, set the record in a dish drying rack or somewhere else elevated (I often set mine on a short drinking glass) and let it air dry for at least 20 minutes.
10. Um, that’s it. You’re done. After drying, your record is ready to play!
Further Vinyl Record Cleaning Suggestions
My DIY record cleaning recipe uses a DIY cleaning solution, which works great. There’s lots of warnings by people online that the alcohol will destroy the vinyl, but it isn’t true. It’s not on the record long enough to do any damage. Again, vinyl’s pretty tough. That said, NEVER EVER EVER use ammonia or bleach!
There are a lot of people who swear by other less-homemade but still fairly cheap store-bought cleaning solution options. I’ve tried them both and they both work really well. One is an ammonia-free glass cleaner. I use ammonia-free Sparkle glass cleaner. The other useful product is regular Scrubbing Bubbles foam bathroom cleaner. Again, make sure it doesn’t contain ammonia or chlorine bleach. Scrubbing Bubbles also does the trick on dirty records.
Whatever product you use, it’s really important to rinse the record well with tap water, then with distilled water.
Once I’ve got a clean, dry record, I put it in an anti-static vinyl record inner sleeve. I ditch the paper sleeve the record came in; paper’s not the best thing to keep records in. Paper can leave little pieces of itself on the record, and it also generates static electricity which will make your records crackle and pop. Plastic inner sleeves (I use THESE) are a much better option and will help keep your records clean and quiet. Paper sleeves are evil; get rid of them!
Finally, once I’m ready to actually play a cleaned record (which is the whole idea, right?) I put it on the turntable and I use a carbon-fiber brush to pick up any leftover dirt or dust as well as help control static before I drop the needle. I do a quick pass with the brush before (and after) every play, always, to help keep my records as clean as possible.
Once a record is cleaned this way, you shouldn’t need to clean it this thoroughly again for awhile, if ever. Handle your records properly by handling them only by their edges and label, and never put your fingers on the grooves! Even clean fingers will leave prints and smudges that will degrade the sound. When not being played, vinyl records should always be stored in their inner sleeves and tucked carefully back into their covers. Store them upright, keep them out of the sun and the heat, and they’ll last forever.
Now, as I’ve said, there’s so much information, and contrary arguments, about vinyl record cleaning out there that it will make your head spin. Every single suggestion is met with a hundred arguments on how that technique will destroy your records. It’s confusing. It doesn’t need to be.
If you want to spend a lot of money on fancy cleaning solutions, or automated vacuum cleaning machines, then by all means do so. If you want to build your own vacuum cleaner, go for it! I just don’t have the time, money, or handyman experience to do so.
My suggestion: Try my cleaning recipe! Or find another one online (there’s tons, all variations on a similar theme.) See what works best for you. Use a really old record you have at home that you don’t listen to anymore, or pick one up at a thrift store or garage sale, and experiment.
Listening to music on vinyl records should be enjoyable, not a huge chore. Don’t waste a lot of time, or money, getting your records clean or keeping them clean. Treat them right, and they’ll treat you right.