How to Clean Vinyl Records by Hand

AvatarMarc Henshall
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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.

Dry Cleaning

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. Most of the dust will gather at the front fibers. Allow the record to spin a few times before gently scooping up the front fibers allowing the rear set of fibers to catch anything missed by the front. Now lift the brush. Aim to repeat this process for each side before and after playing to minimize the build-up of dust over time.

Wet Cleaning

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, you’ll need to source a record cleaning solution. There are currently two record cleaning kits we recommend:

The first is GrooveWasher. By far our current favorite, GrooveWasher is a single-step cleaning method that leaves no residue behind. Their G2 Fluid is the result of years of research and testing, guided by the popular 1970s Discwasher. We’ve tested countless cleaning solutions on the market, and on balance, GrooveWasher is the fastest and most convenient manual hand-cleaning solutions available. (GrooveWasher is available worldwide. Shipping is free inside the United States.) Check out our full review (complete with before and after audio samples) here.

(Sound Matters readers receive 10% off direct orders from GrooveWasher when using the discount code: SOUNDMATTERS10)

If you’re based in the UK (or Europe for that matter), and you don’t want to foot the bill for international shipping, we can also recommend the Vinyl Revival record cleaning kit. It’s 100% alcohol-free and does a good job of cleaning. It does, however, require you to perform a two-step cleaning process (clean and rinse).

Now on to the cleaning process:

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.

Based on using the GrooveWasher kit, here is the step-by-step process.

Step 1: Carefully place the record on the microfiber cloth or record cleaning mat. Place the record label protector disk on the record label. Spray 5 or 6 mist sprays to completely cover the record surface. Wait 10 seconds or more.

Step 2: Set the cleaning pad base into the wood handle.

Step 3: Lightly apply the leading edge of the pad to the record and wipe the record in concentric arcs (with the grooves, not across). Wipe the entire record at least 3 times with moderate pressure.

Step 4: Rotate the pad to gently dry and groom the surface. If visual inspection shows a problem area, spray it again with the cleaning fluid, wait a few seconds, and use the pad to gently scrub the area, but only in the direction of the grooves. Very dirty records may require two or three cleanings.

Step 5: Allow the record to air dry before playing.

Vinyl Revival Two Step Kit

If you’re using the Vinyl Revival cleaning kit, you’ll need to keep in mind the separate cleaning and rinsing step. I’ve personally found this two-step cleaning process very effective, albeit more time-consuming. This system also includes two seperate cloths, one for cleaning, and the other for drying.

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.