We’ve all got those records, haven’t we? Whether we accidentally put the scratch there ourselves, or we were unlucky enough to purchase a used VG (very good) copy from a reseller that was less than honest – these records suck! They’re the otherwise perfectly listenable pieces of wax if it wasn’t for that one pesky scratch. They’re the records we’ve tried cleaning multiple times in the hope it’s just a bit of dirt that will eventually shift. You get the point; scratches aren’t fun.
There are always records beyond hope, of course. I’ve come across my fair share of unplayable records that would better serve as a coffee coaster than musical format, but what if we could easily save a few of these records? And better still, what if, sometimes, it was actually quite simple?
I’d heard of the “toothpick” method long before caving in and giving it a try. To be honest, I’d always been somewhat skeptical. It was a great sounding copy of Jethro Tull’s ‘Heavy Horses’ that finally tempted me to give it a try.
My copy of Heavy Horses is pretty much perfect, bar two tiny scratches that make the stylus jump right out of the groove. Infuriating! I tried cleaning this record multiple times, in the hope that I could clear whatever was pushing the stylus out. No such luck.
To understand why the record still skips, it makes sense to first explore what happens when a record is scratched:
In very simple terms, vinyl records are a physical representation of sound waves, stamped into a PVC plastic disc. (There’s a lot more to how they’re made, of course, but that’s not what this article is about. You can read our feature on “how vinyl records are made,” for more detail).
The playback stylus moves horizontally and vertically (at least in the case of stereo records) as the record spins. As the stylus reacts to the subtle nuances of the record groove, the cantilever moves either a magnet or a coil (depending on your cartridge type) to generate an electrical signal. The typical groove length across one side of a vinyl record is around half a mile. Also, the width of said groove is approx. 0.04 – 0.08 mm. That’s tiny! Vinyl record playback is an incredibly sensitive process that takes place on a microscopic level. Needless to say, it only takes a very slight amount of damage to disrupt the stylus and cause a record to skip.
If we look under a microscope of a record that’s significantly scratched, we can often see what causes the problem. Gorges caused by careless needle placement or “skating” across the surface can leave debris from the groove walls scattered or smudged across the record. It doesn’t take a genius to see how that might cause tracking problems!
In some cases, and I do stress some, it can be possible to gently lift the debris from the record groove using the common toothpick.
How to attempt fixing a record scratch using a toothpick:
- Firstly, ensure you’ve tried your best efforts to clean the record. If you’re cleaning records by hand, we recommend GrooveWasher recording cleaning kits – their specially developed formula works wonders and doesn’t leave behind any noticeable residue. If your budget will stretch to a record cleaning machine, there are some great vacuum-based systems on the market, such as ProJect’s VC-S or Okki Nokki’s Record Cleaning Machine. Ultrasonic (cavitation) cleaners are ideal, but typically expensive. (Check out our previous feature for more information on the various record cleaning options).
- If cleaning the record doesn’t fix the offending scratch, then it may be worth attempting a fix to save your record. A USB microscope can help you see what’s causing the record to skip. Clearly the more you spend, the better you’ll be able to see. My microscope has a limited zoom, but still helps when compared to the naked eye. There are some seriously impressive USB microscope options out on the market these days, the more budget you have, the clearer the end result, typically.
- A jewelry loop is a good additional investment for this job, as you may struggle (depending on the sophistication of your microscope) to perform the toothpick fix under the view of your microscope alone. As per below, you may find it easier to scrape gently while viewing through the magnifying glass.
- Place the magnifying glass or microscope over the damaged area and gently move the toothpick back-and-forth over the scratched groove.
- Once you’ve finished, be sure to clean the record one more time.
- Repeat if necessary.
The Bottom Line
I can already hear screams from some record collectors of blasphemy for the use of this technique. But hear me out. I get it, applying toothpick to your record feels wrong, but I’d argue there here are some occasions where it’s worth a go. I’ve purchased my fair share of used records that were perfect, albeit for one tiny imperfection or scratch that renders the record unplayable. In some cases, I’ve at least managed to improve the matter. In the case of my Jethro Tull album, there was still audible some damage, but at least the record would play. There are cases where the record is beyond help. But if you have the time and patience, is this not worth a go as a last resort?