There is undoubtedly more than one way to clean a vinyl record. Collectors will debate until the end of time about the best methods and tools, but in the main, there are two core approaches: either manual cleaning by hand or using a record cleaning machine.
But which method is best? Should you invest in a record cleaning machine? Given that most record cleaning machines require a reasonable cash investment, what are the benefits?
With any record cleaning method, there are pros and cons. In this article, we’ll lay bare the good, the bad, and the ugly, so that you can make an informed decision for your record collection.
Cleaning Vinyl Records by Hand
The good news is, cleaning your records by hand is inexpensive and requires only a few simple tools to get started. Even better, it is entirely possible to achieve very successful results cleaning vinyl by hand, so long as you stick to a few golden rules.
You can check out our complete guide on how to clean vinyl records for the step-by-step process, but in short, cleaning vinyl records by hand involves first cleaning off any loose dust using a carbon fiber record brush before then applying a record cleaning fluid.
Golden Rule One: Always Remove the Loose Stuff From the Record First
The trick is to ensure you remove a lot of the loose stuff first before any wet cleaning, as applying cleaning fluid to a very dusty record will only push dust into the groove, possibly making it even harder to remove.
When cleaning records, the golden rule is only to use the gentlest method possible to get the result. Why use a sledgehammer to kill a fly?
Golden Rule Two: Leaving the fluid on the Surface Allows it Time to Work
As regular readers will know, we recommend GrooveWasher record cleaning fluid. This solution contains surfactants and emulsifiers that work on fingerprints, oils, dust, and particles to either dissolve or hold them in suspension. Allowing the fluid to sit on your record’s surface for a little while will give the ingredients time to work. Folks will often apply the cleaning fluid and immediately begin wiping it off with a microfiber cloth. Next time you’re cleaning a record, try leaving it a little longer and see if you get better results.
Golden Rule Three: Clean and Replace your Record Cleaning Clothes Regularly
One of the complaints about cleaning records by hand is the possibility of re-contamination. If your cloth is dirty, you will certainly risk moving dirt from one record to the next. To combat this, it’s best to clean and replace your pad or cloth regularly. You can clean microfiber pads using distilled water and a little dish detergent before allowing them to dry overnight. I find it pays to own multiple cloths or pads. Whatever you do, avoid putting them in the washing machine, as they will pick up lots of lint, which you’ll then spread all over your records.
Follow the rules above, and you will undoubtedly achieve the best possible cleaning results without breaking the bank. All methods have pros and cons, of course. Cleaning vinyl by hand is affordable, doesn’t take up lots of space, and is relatively gentle on your records (providing you use a safe record cleaning fluid and kit of course). The downside is mostly time. If you’re looking to clean a very large collection, then cleaning 100, 1000, or even multiple 1000s of records could take you a very long time!
Pros: Affordable, space-saving, gentle, and unobtrusive with the right kit
Cons: Time-consuming, higher risk of cross-contamination
Cleaning Vinyl Records with a Record Cleaning Machine
There’s no getting around it; record cleaning machines are expensive. Even the most modest, affordable vacuum-based record cleaners will set you back a reasonable amount. So are they worth the money?
For the purpose of this article, I’m referring to record cleaning machines that require power to operate in some way – so that excludes simple record baths, such as the well-known Spin-Clean Record Washer that act like a halfway-house between cleaning by hand and a cleaning machine.
There are two main types of record cleaning machines: vacuum systems and ultrasonic cleaners.
Vacuum Vinyl Record Cleaners
Vacuum records cleaners have the benefit of physically sucking the record cleaning fluid off the record surface, in theory taking all the dirt and grime away in the process. This is a distinct advantage over hand cleaning.
They also reduce a lot of the manual hard work, with many having motors that rotate the record on a platter while the suction arm does the heavy lifting. If you’re cleaning records in batches or 10s, 1000s, or 1000s, then it’s easy to see how a record cleaning machine would dramatically speed up the process and avoid you having to change or replace cloths regularly.
Just the same as cleaning vinyl by hand, you will get the best results by letting the fluid sit for a while before applying the vacuum. Be careful not to allow the vacuum arm to rotate too much while the record is dry, as this will wear down the felt pads quickly and risk damaging your record. Always check the condition of the felt pads before cleaning your records.
Pros: Sucks dirty cleaning fluid off the record, speeds up the cleaning process, reduces manual labor, and you can use your favorite record cleaning fluid with the machine.
Cons: Relatively expensive, takes up space in your home, and requires some care to avoid record damage.
Ultrasonic Record Cleaning Machines
Ultrasonic cleaning (or cavitation) as a method for cleaning records offers an alternative with many benefits compared with vacuum record cleaners. The process works by creating lots of tiny cavitation bubbles in a cleaning bath. These bubbles form and collapse, releasing energy as heat and a small amount of pressure. The whole process is great for microscopic cleaning deep within the record groove.
The process has many advantages, including reducing the contact you make with the record – meaning it’s a very non-abrasive cleaning method. You can also help the process further by adding cleaning fluid to your tank of distilled water. The main downside is cost and space. Purpose-built ultrasonic record cleaners are often very expensive, and of course, just like your vacuum systems, it requires some additional storage space.
One method for reducing the cost is to invest in a separate ultrasonic tank and purchase a separate motor attachment for record cleaning. This has proven a popular loophole for getting into ultrasonic record cleaning in recent years, with many singing the praises of this cleaning method.
Pros: Highly effective at a microscopic level, low-contact cleaning, and you can clean multiple records at once with the right adaptor.
Cons: Often expensive and takes up a lot of space.
The Bottom Line. Should You get a record cleaning machine?
Record cleaning machines offer many advantages, but your decision to buy one should be based on your own circumstances. If you’re cleaning a lot of records on a regular basis, they’re a great investment and can help speed up the process and improve results. That being said, if you don’t have the budget, or you don’t buy many used records, you can rest easy in the knowledge that cleaning vinyl by hand can be just as effective given the right tools and method. In many regards, it’s also very therapeutic.