Cleaning Records

Your records should play with pretty much no ticks and pops. Ok, if your cat scratched your record all up, it's going to sound crummy and you can't fix that, but just normal ticks and pops are junk in the record grooves, and most of them can be gotten out. Some of this junk is in the record when it's brand new, it's not necessarily because your teenager was playing Frisbee with it.

Why do we clean records? Dirty records sound bad. Playing dirty records wears them out faster. Playing dirty records get your stylus dirty, and a dirty stylus wears your records out faster. At 20,000 hz, the bumps in a record groove are about .0001" to .00025" (a tenth to a quarter of a thousandth of an inch) (2.5 to 6 microns), depending on if you're in the outside or inside groove. These are seriously small features and a remarkably tiny piece of dust or junk can cause your diamond stylus to dig and chip them off. If we had the money, we'd like our records stored and played in Intel's latest clean room. If you clean your records properly, everything sounds better - vocals, drums, strings, everything.

There are a lot of ways to clean records, including cleaning machines which cost thousands of dollars. We're not going to spend that kind of money. If your daddy was a Carnegie or a DuPont, or if you're a Wall Street hedge fund criminal, then go ahead and buy the $4,000 Audio Desk cleaner and hire a certified British butler, preferably named Alfred, to wear a tuxedo and white gloves whilst he uses it on your incomparable collection of rare disks.

Perhaps you're at an estate sale and you see a 1930s Duke Ellington record - you simply must buy it. Unfortunately, when you open it up it looks like the previous owner loved it so much he took it into the WWII foxholes with him. How do you get this clean?

Here's the basic ways people clean records, in order of cost:

  • Dish soap and water. Time tested, marginally effective. Soap is a surfactant and also dissolves oils, so this sounds like a good system, but the soap leaves a residue in the grooves. Plain old water has a lot of surface tension - bugs can walk on it. A surfactant is a chemical that gets rid of the surface tension and lets the water flow into tiny nooks and crannies more easily. Tap water is filled with minerals, bacteria, fungus, bleach, birth control steroids, metals, and pieces of dead cockroaches - that's why we use distilled water. Not recommended.
  • Isopropyl Alcohol + water + dish soap. A common recipe is three parts distilled water, one part alcohol, a teaspoon of dish soap. Used by many. Over time alcohol will leach some of the chemicals out of your records - plasticizers - and your records will get brittle. Your stylus will chip away at the sharpest corners, and eventually the entire record will just snap. Plus the soap leaves a residue which will build up with repeated uses. Not recommended.
  • Carbon Fiber brush. Records are plastic and plastic holds a static charge. Charged stuff picks up dust, cat hair, dead cockroach pieces, whatever's around. Carbon fiber is a conductor which will take the charge and dust mites away with it. Just get one. Recommended.
  • Distilled water with surfactants, wiped off with a microfiber towel. The most famous surfactant for record cleaning is Tergitol, used by the library of congress. New microfiber towels must be washed a couple of times to get rid of lint. If you just use this you won't damage your records and they'll get reasonably clean. Recommended for already reasonably clean records. But we can do better.
  • Wood glue. Place your record on a turntable and put some wood glue on it. Run a bead of glue from the inner track in a spiral out to the outer track. You'll need to use a spiral spacing of about 1/4", so about 10-12 turns for the entire record. Then use a plastic straight edge to spread the glue evenly over the entire record surface. Let the glue dry - about an hour if sitting around, perhaps 15 minutes if it's in front of a fan. Then peel the wood glue off, bringing a bunch of stuff from inside the grooves with it. To peel the glue off, flex the record gently - you'll see the glue pop off in a small area. Gently flex around the record in a circle, then the whole glue piece should come off in one or two large pieces. You'll have some little stragglers at the outside and inside edges, you'll have to get these carefully. Then you'll have to clean the record carefully - running water followed by a careful G2 cleaning. Some swear by this technique. I found it worked ok, not great. Steam cleaning the record after the glue treatment resulting in further improvements. Hard work for so-so results. Not recommended.
  • A record cleaning solution + brush. Originally this was made by a Missouri company, DiscWasher. DiscWasher sold out to RCA, but the stuff still works. The current Discwasher liquid is D4. Some of their old employees have a new company, GrooveWasher, making an updated version which is slightly better. And there's about a dozen other companies making knock-offs, available at Amazon, EBay, Walmart, record stores. A notable alternative is Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab ONE Cleaning Solution. Any of these are recommended for maintenance cleaning. Not sufficient for a seriously dirty record. Helpful hint: the oak handle doesn't actually do anything useful. You can just use GrooveWasher G2 fluid and microfiber rags, like the ones you buy at Walmart, Harbor Freight, Costco. If you buy microfiber rags, wash them twice before using: when new they have a lot of lint on them. Highly recommended.
  • Enzymes. Some of the stuff on your records is organic crud from your hands, or, God forbid, chocolate and unidentifiable goo from your grandson's hands. And there's bacteria and funguses growing in the grooves - these little critters are everywhere on the planet that we've ever looked, seven miles down in the ocean, on top of Mount Everest, even several miles deep in the crust when we drill into the Earth. We've even found them clinging to the space station in complete vacuum. Life finds a way. Enzymatic cleaners will get this stuff off better than other fluids. Put the enzyme cleaner on your record and let it sit for ten to 15 minutes. Enzymes are biological molecules used to digest food - proteins - and are cooked up in vats of bacteria. We can't make these on our own with chemistry kits, only living cells know how to make them. So there's no magic proprietary enzymes, and the guys who make record cleaning supplies don't have the best bio labs in the country. Solvents like alcohol get in the grooves and work more or less instantly, but enzymes are complicated protein molecules, shaped more or less like little soccer balls, and only one spot on the protein is active. So you have to give the molecules time to spin and turn and latch onto the organic crud and break it up. You can cook up your own batch of enzymes with yeast and sugar and pineapple and a couple months, or you can buy an enzyme cleaner at any store - Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, your local grocer. Cleaners that remove pet stains and odors are enzymes, and some cleaners just say enzymes on the label. Or you can spend two or three times as much for a bunch of audio marketing guys to buy a vat of enzyme cleaner from some big company and bottle it up as their own proprietary magic ultra-cleaner, carefully tested by their brother-in-law's ex-girlfriend who has a degree from the University Down The Street in biochemistry. You know, the same marketing guys who think you need $14,000 speaker wires, $6,500 RCA cables and $3,500 power cords. Highly recommended. The enzymes that is, not the $$$$ wires and cables.
  • Steam cleaning. A somewhat obscure but slightly popular method. Place the record on edge in your sink. I use a bit of bubble wrap so the record isn't actually touching the sink. Fill your steam cleaner with distilled water. Go over the record moving along at about an inch or two per second (a couple cm per second). After steaming do a good cleaning with G2 or D4. I recommend the PurSteam or Bissell hand held steamers, about $35 at Amazon or Ebay. This works well on seriously dirty records. If you're going to do a lot of this, get a label protector - a pair of acrylic disks with o-rings that screw onto your record and keep the label warm and dry. Highly recommended.
  • Wet playing. Put your record on a turntable. Spray D4 or G2 cleaner and some enzymes on your record. Wait for 15 minutes. Play the record wet. This is very hard on your stylus, and it's possible you will get liquids all over the turntable, so I don't recommend this for your real turntable. Buy a used turntable at Goodwill or get an ABS turntable from Hong Kong on Ebay, about $25. Use the $2 cartridges you can get from China on Ebay. Change cartridges every twenty filthy records or so, throw the old one away. This works well on seriously dirty records. I have concerns about the stylus driving some of the particles into the plastic. I'm not a fan of playing dirty records. Recommended.
  • Spin cleaners. There are several of these available on Ebay and Amazon for $35 - $200 with names like Studebaker, Spin-Clean, Album Washer, etc. I think they're all about the same. They do a noticeably better job than just using a spray cleaner and a brush - like a GrooveWasher - but are more trouble to use. They work by having a couple of microfiber brushes on each side of the record, then you spin the record through the brushes and cleaning fluid. Since the record is verticle the stuff tends to fall down instead of staying in the groove like when the record is horizontal. Recommended for deeper cleaning. They come with solutions which are more or less like Discwasher D4 or Groovewasher G2 fluid. I'd use the real thing - G2 - when you run out of cleaner, and add some enzymes too. Recommended.
  • Ultrasonic cleaners. There are several of these available on Ebay and Amazon for $200 - $4000. I haven't used them. They have a good reputation, so they must work reasonably well. Expensive, tentatively recommended.

Plan A:
My preferred way to clean "clean" records - place the record on a microfiber towel (which has been washed more than once), spray G2 on the record, wipe off with another microfiber towel. If there's still pops and crackles then it isn't really clean. Watch the record label - if the pop happens every time the label comes around, that's a scratch and you're screwed. But if they're random, most of them can be fixed.

Plan B:
My preferred way to clean "dirty" records:
  1. Clean with G2 or D4.
  2. Spray on enzyme cleaner. Let sit for 15 minutes.
  3. Steam clean. Dry with microfiber towel.
  4. Clean with G2 or D4. Dry with microfiber towel.
  5. Set the record on the turntable, use the carbon fiber brush to get rid of static electricity.

Sources:
web page, "thing to search for".
  • Carbon Fiber brush
    • Ebay.com, "carbon fiber record". About $4.50 from China, about $7.50 from the US.
    • Walmart.com, "carbon fiber record brush". About $9.
    • Amazon.com, "carbon fiber record brush". About $15.
  • Surfactant
    • Ebay.com, "tergitol". About $15 / quart. A quart is a seventeen lifetime supply.
  • Washing Solutions
    • Walmart.com, "groovewasher". Commando kit. About $15.
    • Ebay.com, "groovewasher". Commando kit. About $15.
    • Ebay.com, "groovewasher G2". 8oz, $20.
    • Ebay.com, "Mobile Fidelity ONE". 16oz, $20.
    • Ebay.com, "Phoenix Record Cleaning". 32oz, $25.
    • Ebay.com, "RCA D4+". 1.25oz, $15.
    • Ebay.com, "Revolv Supreme Clean". 32oz, $32.
  • Enzyme Solutions
  • Label Protector
    • Ebay.com, "Record Label Protector". About $20.
  • Cheap Turntable
    • Ebay.com, "ABS Turntable". $22.
    • Ebay.com, "phono cartridge". set sort price low to high. $2.
  • Ultrasonic Cleaner
    • Ebay.com, "Record Ultrasonic". About $200.
  • Spin Cleaner
    • Ebay.com, "Record spin clean". About $40.
    • Amazon.com, "Record cleaner". About $35.

Acknowledgements:
I got history, information and insights from the friendly guys at Groovewasher, whose business is just a few miles from me in Kansas City. I also got a lot of information from Dave Spriggs at Sofi's at the Stagecoach in Salado, Texas. Dave has been selling records for several decades, and has cleaned more records than I have seen.
 

Galu

Member
2018-04-17 6:50 pm

Attachments

  • Parastat.jpg
    Parastat.jpg
    598.2 KB · Views: 426
I use method 1 running water & a drop of Palmolive original (no lye). Most of stuff on records is dust, not oils. Run the faucet fast enough, it all swirls down the drain, whatever was in the water. Tip the LP where the stream bounces off, to not get the label wet. Really cuts the pop & crackle. Stand the LP against a plaster wall about 10 deg, makes the water run off. Shake drops down twice at 20 minute intervals to prevent salt spots. BTW I drink tap water, no cancer yet & I bought my first record in 1957.
I've got about 3000 LP's average price $1.
LP's I've used since the 60's when they were new, don't need cleaning, I didn't leave them out in the open or touch the surface. The Capitol Beach Boys & Beatles, the dirt was on the stamper, they came new with pops & crackle.
 
Last edited:
I meant to ask...is clorox safe on records?

Nice list marklawrence, btw.

An interesting question.

I don't believe bleach will harm the plastic, particularly if used in a weak solution - 5% or so. The purpose of the bleach would be to kill any little critters - bacteria, funguses, or those scary little tardigrades that tried to eat Ant-Man. I don't use it, but I don't see any obvious reason not to use a cap full in a half pint of cleaning solution. I don't imagine bleach plays well with enzymes, and I'm quite partial to enzymes.
 

adason

Member
Paid Member
2004-11-10 8:31 pm
Maryland
since the bleach/clorox works so well on bathroom organic related dirt, it should work well on records
i would not expose it for too long to oxidize the plastic, just a minute
once i find a spare dirty record, i try it and report back
just need to manufacture something to protect label
 

Chad1376

Member
2013-11-02 5:22 am
Wild and crazy thought - compressed air?

Not from a can of chemical air, but from a big compressor with clean/dry air - 120 psi through a nozzle. Shoot it into the grooves at a low angle and hang on to the record tight. Maybe try with a wet record so the liquid carries out the junk...

Good idea, or would it drive dirt and grit deeper into the vinyl?
 

billshurv

Member
Paid Member
2014-03-01 11:53 pm
Despite having a vac cleaning setup I'm finding that very few of my records actually need to be cleaned. Those that came out the 10p bin are dirty, but often already damaged and the records I own from new just need a dust. For the clearly filthy ones my experience has been that a wash, rinse and vac (I use record doctor cleaner as I got a load 20 years ago) does the job. If its still noisy after that then there is damage not dirt.


As an experiment with a lovely mono DG recording that was in a right state when I got it I threw the kitchen sink at the record with standard wash, enzyme, steam and anything else. It didn't get any better after the first round.



I'd love to get a good grove microscope so I could actually see what is down there, but that is just a dream.
 

6L6

Moderator
Paid Member
2010-10-22 6:43 pm
Denver, Colorado
Fantastic list!

Re: Ultrasonic cleaning

It’s so much better than all the other methods it belies description.


I’ve tried most all of the other methods you have listed, and the Ultrasonic is so much better I don't use anything but it anymore. Using the vacuum VPI cleaner (the second best method, IMO) after a good brushing with good cleaner gave me what I though were clean records, but the Ultrasonic will make a notable improvement on those already cleaned that way!

There’s nothing fancy about it, my rig is one of those contraptions that sits over a commercial tank, the only thing special is it has an in-tank micron size water filter, and if you don't have that filter, you’ll need to change your water every few record, it gets very dirty very quickly.

Cleaning solution is distilled water, a couple capfuls of alcohol to help break up skin and oils, and some wetting agent, I use PhotoFlo. 15min with no tank heat, let them dry, put in new sleeves and you’re done.

Three things about uS that are notable -

1) There is a distinct sonic difference between dirt and minor groove damage. You’ll never have it clean enough using any of the other methods to hear that.

2) The amount of dust on your TT that was kicked up by the stylus is reduced by about 10x in my estimation.

3) New records are not really clean, a trip through the uS will make a marked improvement.
 

adason

Member
Paid Member
2004-11-10 8:31 pm
Maryland
I have received label protectors yesterday, so i tested clorox on records today.
After mounting the clamp, i worked with gloves, sprayed one side with clorox spray, and worked gently in the circle on the record surface with brush. Then quickly washed the this side of the record under the sink. Then did the other side. Washed both sides with water, rinsed well under sink.
To get rid if water, i followed with my usuall vacuum cleaning, but applied some 30% ipa with a drop of detergent.
As test I used some old beetles, and simon&garfunkel records from my aunt, good candidates, as she never cleaned her records.
It helped to get groove background much lower, definitely big improvement, highly recommended.
However, aunt managed to scratch them too, no help there.
I believe clorox works well on organic grudge without compromising the record.
 
I have a waterpik "water flosser" that does an amazing job cleaning between my teeth, and have wondered whether it might be effective on dirty records. It produces a small but high pressure stream of water (or whatever you put in the reservoir).

I watched a fascinating video on YouTube by a guy who buys thrift shop records and has good results "restoring" them. First of course he cleans them thoroughly, starting with dish soap and water to remove the worst gunk, but inevitably many disks are scratched, some quite badly. His point is that most scratches are on the surface of the record, not down in the groove. We hear them because the displaced vinyl of the scratch, at the top of the groove, reaches over and contacts the stylus. So he very carefully polishes out the scratches, starting with very fine wet/dry sandpaper and very low pressure , and moving on to rubbing and polishing compounds. By using light pressure and a smooth applicator he doesn't scrub the low part of the groove where the stylus sits, just the top. He demos all of this, playing the same record (Herb Alpert) after each step, and the ticks and pops are noticeably reduced while the sound of the music does not degrade. This all seems like a drastic procedure, and I have not tried it, but I was very impressed.
 
I work with plastic all day every day. I have a lot of polishing compounds here of various grits, and a lot of wet sandpaper. Even after having read that I'm in no hurry to put this stuff on a record. Features on a record are as small as 3-6 microns. It's really easy to polish stuff like that right out. I guess if the record is already more or less wrecked, then there's not much risk, but I have trouble imagining doing a repair without side effects.
 
Yes, agreed, and as I said I have not tried it, though there are a couple of candidate disks in my possession. The point though is to remove the scratch without polishing down in the groove, and yes I understand how shallow those grooves are. Still the fellow who did the video was able to take a record that was almost unplayable and make it listenable, and I think that is remarkable.