We’ve all got those records in our collection that, for one reason or another, have suffered the dreaded fate of a gouge or deep scratch on the surface resulting in the record skipping or looping.
In many cases, these records are often perfectly listenable apparent from the affected area, making it all the more frustrating that an otherwise perfect piece of vinyl is now essentially unplayable.
…But what if it isn’t unplayable?
What if you could fix deep scratches and save your album from landfill?
Today, I’m going to show you how to fix a scratched record using just a simple household toothpick.
How to Fix Scratches on Records: Can You Really!?
The simple answer is, yes you can…but there are a few caveats:
- Not ALL records can be saved. I’ve come across my fair share of unplayable records that would better serve as a coffee coaster than a musical format, but if we could save a few, it’s worth a shot. Better still, it’s actually quite simple.
- By “fix” I don’t mean eliminate the scratch and make the record like new. While the method I’m about to show you can help prevent the dreaded skipping or looping issues, it will not eliminate the scratch entirely.
- There is always some risk of further damage. Any time we touch the record surface, there is always some risk of causing further damage. Proceed at your own risk. But then again, if your record won’t play without skipping anyway, there’s a good chance you’re prepared to give this a shot.
The Toothpick Method for Fixing Vinyl Record Scratches
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 for 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.
What Causes A Record To Skip?
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.
Step By Step: Attempt Fixing a Record Scratch with a Toothpick:
Time needed: 25 minutes.
A step-by-step guide to attempted deep vinyl record scratch repair.
- Clean the record first
You never know, a good record clean could remove what’s blocking the stylus, and if this works, great! You’re good to go.
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-E 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 fails, identify the scratch!
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.
- Consider Trying a Jewelers Loupe
A jewelry loupe 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.
If this is the case, you may find it easier to scrape gently while viewing through the magnifying glass.
- Apply the Toothpick
Place the magnifying glass or microscope over the damaged area and gently move the toothpick back and forth over the scratched groove.
- Clean before playback
Once you’ve finished, be sure to clean the record one more time.
The Bottom Line: How to Fix Scratches on Vinyl Records
I can already hear the screams of blasphemy from some record collectors for using this technique. But hear me out:
I get it, applying a 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 some audible 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?