A clean, well looked after vinyl record is a joy to behold, and in my opinion, the best way to experience your favorite music as the artist intended. Dirty records, on the other hand, will quickly have you reaching for the mute button. If you’ve just started your vinyl hobby—or you’ve recently rekindled the old record flame—the chances are you’ve come across a few records with excessive pops and clicks. Fortunately, so long as the record grooves are not scuffed, scratched, or worn out, there’s a good chance you can bring them back to their former glory.
How Do Records Get Dirty?
Over time, dust, dirt, grease (or worse), builds on the surface of your record. Eventually, much of this unwanted dirt becomes entrenched in the record grooves, and this manifests as the infamous pops and clicks we all know. Clearly, good practice record care will help you keep the build-up of dirt to a minimum, but if you’re able to keep your records 100% clean without occasionally having to give them a spruce up every once in a while, you’re a better person than me! Also, if you’re buying your records second hand, there’s no telling how well those records were treated. In most cases, a quick clean before its first spin is essential—least of all to help protect your delicate (and likely expensive) record stylus.
Fortunately, record cleaning doesn’t have to be complicated, difficult, or labor-intensive! Here’s a quick crash-course on how to clean vinyl records quickly and most important of all—effectively.
Simple Steps to Clean Vinyl Records
1 – Dry Clean Your Record
First things first, to avoid moving dirt around, you must first dry clean the record using an anti-static record brush. If you don’t already own one, you should change that pretty quickly and start incorporating one into your daily playback routine. So not only do you want to use an anti-static carbon-fiber record brush before proceeding with any of the following steps, but you also want to use this brush daily to keep dust and debris at bay. Like cleaning your home, little and often prevents a much bigger job further down the road.
There are plenty of options available on the market, but we like the new AudioQuest model. Their latest design is said to improve the conductivity of static electricity and facilitate better cleaning of micro-dirt particles thanks to the greater quantity of tiny fibers.
The correct method for using a carbon fiber record brush is a hotly debated topic, but here’s how we do it:
- Gently hold the brush over the record so the carbon fibers just tickle the surface. You want to allow the fiber tips to penetrate the grooves.
- While holding the brush gently in place, allow the record to spin on the platter a few times.
- Most of the dust will gather at the front fibers. Now, gently scoop up the front fibers allowing the rear set to catch anything missed by the front. Now lift the brush and repeat this process if necessary.
- Inbetween each clean, you can use the handle to clear any collected dust by rocking the fibers back and forth through the handle. This way, you don’t have to touch the brush with your greasy fingers.
Older records that were stored poorly—or worse still, left out of their sleeve regularly—may require repetition of the dry cleaning process to catch all of the offending debris.
2 – Select Your Record Cleaning Fluid
Once you’re confident all the dry dust and debris particles are removed from the surface of the record, you can now proceed with wet cleaning. For this, you’re going to need some record cleaning fluid.
Again, there are countless options on the market, but we like GrooveWasher the best. There are plenty of DIY alternatives out there pitched by self-appointed experts, many of which contain high levels of isopropyl alcohol. Opinion varies on the use of alcohol to clean vinyl records, but many believe high amounts of it to be potentially harmful to your records. Please do yourself a favor and purchase a purpose-made vinyl record cleaning solution developed by a company that knows what they’re doing—be it GrooveWasher or otherwise. For this article, we’re using GrooveWasher.
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3 – Apply the Record Cleaning Solution as follows:
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 five or six mist sprays to cover the record surface completely. Wait ten seconds or more (I like to leave the fluid on the record surface much longer for older, very dirty records).
Step 2: Set the cleaning pad base into the wood handle. (You can also use a standard microfiber cloth), but in this case we’re using GrooveWasher’s beautiful walnut-handled record cleaning pad).
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 three times with moderate pressure.
Step 4: Rotate the pad to gently dry and groom the surface. If visual inspection shows a problem area, respray it 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.
Step 5: Allow the record to air dry before playing. Some record cleaning solutions require or recommend a secondary rinse stage using distilled water and a separate microfibre cloth to dry. You can do this if you wish, it certainly won’t hurt, and in some cases, it’s practically required to avoid leaving residue behind. Our example cleaning fluid, however, dries residue-free and does not require a second step.
See, we told you this would be quick and easy!
Note: if the record still sounds dirty after cleaning. Repeat the process and see if you notice incremental improvements. In my experience, very dirty records can be cleaned up a treat with a little diligence and patience.
4 – Place the Record in a Clean Sleeve
After all that hard work, the last thing you want to do is undo all your good efforts by returning the disk to a dirty sleeve! Invest in a pack of good quality, anti-static polyethylene inner sleeves. Just be sure the record is bone dry before you place the record inside as any lingering moisture could introduce mold.
The Bottom Line
Ask ten people how to clean vinyl records and you’ll get ten different answers. The steps we’ve outlined are a quick and easy way to get started by hand. Those wishing to clean large amounts of vinyl may want to consider investing in a record cleaning machine, such as a simple record bath, or a more advanced, dedicated record cleaning machine. For more info on the many different methods and machines available, check out our feature article on how to clean vinyl records.