Ever wondered how to clean your vinyl properly?

Good sound starts with a clean and static-free vinyl record. Whether you are a casual listener or a serious audiophile and vinyl record collector, many of us have accumulated thousands of vinyl records over the years. In an effort to digitally preserve your priceless records you may have considered transferring and restoring your vinyl record collection to CD by using your computer and some audio recording / editing software. Before you do, remember that in order to extract the best sound from your discs it’s important to start with scrupulously clean records and equipment including your stylus.

Cleaning Vinyl Records by Hand or with a Machine?
Vinyl discs that are kept clean and free of dirt, dust and oils from one’s fingers will sound much clearer and more importantly last longer. Since clean records have less clicks, crackle and pop you’ll have less work when it comes to the restoration phase and attain much better results. The great thing about cleaning your records is that it doesn’t take a lot of equipment, but there are choices. Let’s discuss some proven ways of cleaning records either with a record cleaning machine or by hand with brushes and ready-made record cleaning solutions. We will start with the preferred way and work our way down.

How To Deep Clean Vinyl Records Using a Record Cleaning Machine
If you have more than a few hundred vinyl records I’m not going to mince words: Use a vacuum record cleaner such as those sold by Nitty Gritty, VPI or Record Doctor. The results are far quicker, safer and superior to anything you could ever attempt to do by hand as the machine will apply the record cleaning solution, safely scrub the record and finally vacuum all the dirt and liquid off leaving you with a dry and pristine vinyl record. It’s the only way to truly deep clean a record.

A record cleaning machine is a self contained unit with a motor that turns a platter with a vacuum and suction tube that has an applicator pad or soft brush. One simply places the record on the platter, primes the pump to apply the record cleaning solution and let the record spin a few revolutions to work loose any dirt and oils that are in the grooves of the record. You then flip the switch and the vacuum sucks up any crud and fluid as well as drying the record. After this, one cleans the pads around the vacuum slot with the supplied brush and then flips the record over and repeats the above. Pretty simple and you now have a thoroughly clean record ready to be played.

While you could attempt making your own record cleaning solution from household items, it is far better to buy ready-made solutions such as the well known Nitty Gritty Pure 2 which is safe for use in record cleaning machines and on modern vinyl records (non-shellac). I have also used Record Research Lab’s “Super Deep Cleaner” as a pre-cleaner for an even cleaner record as it helps to release pressing impurities. As good as a record cleaning machine is, there are times when I will get a really dirty record from the flea market and wash it by hand FIRST before putting it on the machine so as not to foul up the expensive machine.

If cost is a consideration, and why wouldn’t it, then consider getting a new bare bones manual Nitty Gritty machine known as the Record Doctor. It starts at around $199.(US) whereas some of the better automatic VPI’s can go for substantially more. Another cost effective choice is the Spin Clean Record Washer 3 which can be had for under $100. Regardless of which machine you choose, they are a wise and solid investment and strongly recommended.

Once records are clean it is imperative to maintain the cleanliness by doing small touch up cleanings before and after every playing by using a carbon fiber brush 4 to neutralize pop-inducing static and pick up stray dust or lint that can get dragged through the grooves by the stylus.

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How To Clean Vinyl Records By Hand
The Nitty Griitty and VPI vacuum record cleaning machines are expensive so if you want to do it by hand note the following:

Just as with a record cleaning machine, the best way to clean records is by buying a commercially available record cleaning solution such as the inexpensive Discwasher D4, which usually come with an applicator brush or step up to the superior Last Company record cleaners 5, which makes excellent manual cleaning solutions and brushes. You could also use the same cleaners sold for use in machines, but you’ll need to buy a good record cleaning brush to use them.

To begin, you could place your record on a clean flat surface such as a soft towel, but I usually prefer placing it right on the turntable platter as it’s more secure and easier to turn while cleaning. Be certain to secure the tonearm so it doesn’t accidentally swing out across the record and do not apply too much pressure on the platter as you can damage the bearings. Also pay attention not to allow the cleaning fluid to drip on the platter or turntable finish. If it does, wipe it up immediately.

Cleaning your albums with a manual cleaner is very easy and the instructions below apply to most brands including the Last products.

  • apply the liquid from one end to the other on the applicator brush and not on the record itself
  • take the brush and place it on top of the record so that it runs across the record from the inner to outer edge
  • while gently holding the wet brush at a slight angle against the record, turn the platter counter-clockwise a few times to work the dirt loose
    alternate between clockwise and counterclockwise to remove stubborn dirt
  • After going around your record two or three times, scrape off any lint or dirt on the brush using a wire pipe cleaning brush 6 reapply the liquid to your brush and go another round cleaning the record till no more dirt or crud appears on the brush
  • Since alcohol is the primary ingredient of most record cleaning solutions the record should dry fairly quickly, but do let it air dry before flipping it over to clean the other side or place it back in its sleeve. Before you flip the record over though make sure the surface or platter is clean as the dirty uncleaned side was just there!

Once records are clean, it is easy to do small touch up cleanings before and after playing by using a carbon fiber or soft camel hair brush.

Using Homemade Record Cleaning Solutions
Don’t want to spend money or mind experimenting? Then try using some household items instead. For light cleaning you can use Isopropyl 90% alcohol or higher. Do NOT use rubbing alcohol or witch hazel as they contain additives that can harm your records. Another option for cleaning dirty records is dishwashing liquid without any moisturizers such as plain versions of Joy or Dawn. It cleans dirty records well, but it’s a pain to rinse off thoroughly. Try not to get the label wet as it can destroy the label or make the inks bleed. If it does get wet then blot it gently and let it air dry. Do NOT rub the label.

Using normal tap water to rinse off the record is fine provided your water is not unusually “hard.” If this is the case then you will want to finish up by using distilled water as a final rinse. Distilled water can be easily found in your supermarket. The real trick is to properly rinse all this stuff off your vinyl records and get them dry without scratching them. Drying means using a microfiber type of cloth and blotting the record. Once this is done you can followup with a quick pass with a brush dipped in Isopropyl alcohol to get rid of any impurities that may still be on the record.

With inexpensive ready-made record cleaning solutions easily available on the internet, it really doesn’t make sense to deal with the hassles and risks of making a homemade solution. Proceed with extreme caution if you opt for a homemade method and stick with the time tested solutions outlined above. The vinyl album has been with us since 1948 so it’s highly unlikely that you are going to stumble upon some miracle cleaner.

What NOT to Use on Your Vinyl Records
Someone once asked about using lighter fluid to clean records. The answer is simply no. Do NOT use lighter fluid, bleach, WD40, Armor-All or baby lotion on records. If it doesn’t say specifically for records then do not use it.

Is Wet Playing Your Records OK?
In years past, some individuals would wet their albums before playing in hopes of reducing static and noise with varying results. Never “wet play” your vinyl records. Thoroughly clean AND dry them before playing. “Wet playing” sounds like an ideal solution-at first. In reality the liquid starts to evaporate as the record is played and the needle just starts to dig the junk further into the grooves and now contaminates the entire disc. It clogs up the styli muddying the sound and can cause damage to the styli and cantilever as water seeps into the cracks and erodes the glue that holds it together. As this crud starts to dry it just makes it more difficult to now properly clean the record. Once a record is “wet played” it needs to be played that way again to sound acceptable.

With thousands of records in our music collections the last thing one wants to do is ruin them. Please don’t “wet play” a record unless you know that you are going to discard the disc and want to get one last shot at archiving / restoring it to a digital medium.

How To Store and Care For Vinyl Records
Cleaning your vinyl records is only part of the equation. Properly storing and handling those records are just as important so here are some quick tips.

  • Always make sure to have a clean, properly functioning and aligned phono cartridge. If the styli is bent or chipped then it must be IMMEDIATELY REPLACED to avoid PERMANENTLY damaging your records. These should be replaced every year or two depending on how much use they get.
  • Never touch the record with your fingers as the oil and dirt can transfer to the record.
  • Once a record has been thoroughly hand or machine cleaned, resist the temptation to rub any new dirt off with a T-shirt or other clothing. Use a DRY record cleaning brush for daily use instead like a carbon fiber record brush. Remember, that these carbon fiber brushes are for a quick DRY wisk in-between plays and are NOT to be used for deep cleaning with wet solutions.
  • After cleaning your vinyl records make sure to put it into a new paper or anti-static plastic inner sleeve as using the old sleeve will just put the old dirt right back. Mobile Fidelity and the Discwasher VPI sleeves are very nice.
  • Store your record jackets inside heavy gauge plastic outer sleeves and use poly inner sleeves. This really helps in reducing the round scuff marks on the outer jacket and keeps it looking like new for years.
  •  Store vinyl records vertically on a shelf or record storage cabinet like you would a book. Never stack or lay records flat as this will almost certainly cause them to warp.

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Damion Pell
About the Author

Loves long walks along the beach, holding hands and romantic 80's power ballads, partial to electronic music and likes to make the odd mix or two.