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Cleaning vinyl records: What you need to know

From deluxe cleaning kits to a bowl of soapy water, we explore some popular methods to keep your collection in pristine shape.

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Cleaning records is one of the most crucial fields in the whole of record collecting and care. Cleaning records on a budget, for some, is even more so.

In the old days, there were basically two choices. The first was the bundle of odds and ends that was marketed, simply, as a record cleaning kit — an anti-static cloth; a brush for removing dirt from the stylus; and a handheld block with a velvety surface, to which you added a few drops of the cleaning fluid and held to the disc as it rotated. Some turntables also came with a little brush attached just ahead of the stylus itself, to sweep away any debris that might lay in its path. (Of course, they needed cleaning, too.)

And the second was a bowl of soapy water and a soft cloth.

We’ve come a long way since those days. Those first two options are still readily available today. But others range from the basic spa treatment, with the disc half submerged in a tub of treated water, while you manually rotate it against a pair of fixed-position sponges; vacuum cleaning, which literally slurps the grunge from your grooves; and onto a full-body make-over, involving ultrasonics, and possessing the singular advantage of demanding the least amount of contact between the record’s playing surface and any other solid object. That aside, every method has its disciples, all have their glowing testimonials… and all, effectively, do the job. They clean your record.

Determining which of these methods is best for you is largely dependent upon how much time and, naturally, money you want to invest. The basic cleaning kits of old are still on the market, and can be picked up for $20 or so. The record washers begin at below $100; vacuums start around $200; the ultrasonic set-ups can be priced in the $1000s.

There is only one thing we should all remember. Your records do need cleaning.

Used records are a must, of course. It doesn’t matter how careful you are in handling your LPs, not everybody is so cautious. There could be years, even decades, of alien substances lurking in those grooves, far beyond anything that’s immediately visible, and even the most basic cleaning will make a difference. Because the dirt isn’t only unsightly. It is also a major contributor to the crackles, pops and even skips that can bedevil the average listening session.

Just because a record looks OK, that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Every time a record leaves its sleeve (and sometimes when it’s still in there — cat owners will know what we mean), particles of dust, skin, dirt, whatever, will fall onto the record.

And brand new records are not immune. Indeed, they are often filthy before you even slit the shrink wrap — increasingly, Goldmine hears and reads of purchasers receiving a record directly from the label, only to find it covered in fingerprints and dust. There are even (again increasingly) instances of a new record sounding terrible until it is cleaned, a consequence of the very grooves being jammed with muck, a consequence of the very manufacturing process.

All of which is one reason why a growing number of record dealers offer (or have already performed) an ultrasonic cleaning before the customer even takes a purchase home. As the price tag suggests, at this point in time ultrasonics are the gold standard of record cleaners, so if the offer is there, it’s worth accepting.

Not everybody has access to such offers, however, and the price of a sonic cleaner of their own is… well, that’s a helluvalot of records that you could have purchased instead. So again, it comes down to how much money you want to pay, how much time you want to spend and, ultimately, what you hope to get out of the procedure.

Every record, when it first enters your home, should receive one good cleaning. And, if you’re collecting for investment purposes, or regularly purchase higher-priced items, you probably will want to pick up a higher-tech cleaner. If you treat your records as you ought to, and depending upon how often you play it, a disc won’t necessarily need this kind of cleaning more than once or twice, but peace of mind doesn’t always rest upon the practicalities of the situation.

For those of us who do our collecting in used stores and bargain bins, on the other hand, and so long as you’re careful and gentle; either of the other methods will probably work fine. And, so long as you use cool and just a dash of dish soap; and don’t allow moisture to touch the paper label, you really can do it in the sink, as well.

Thereafter, in normal, everyday use, a record collection that is well-cared for… you don’t leave records sitting out on the turntable for days at a time, you keep them sleeved when they’re not in use, and you handle them by the edges, not the playing surface, a wipe down with the faithful old $20 kit before every play should suffice.

One final point, though. Going back to Ye Olden Days, and some of the other cleaning solutions that were going around, popular legend had it that coating a record’s playing surface with either Elmer’s Glue or Robber Cement, then allowing it to harden before gently peeling it away was also a dynamite way of cleaning a record.

The column Vinyl Value has no opinion on this method whatsoever. But, before trying it out on anything you care for, experiment with a few slabs of worthless junk first. And then e-mail us at Goldmine to let us know how it worked.

The column Vinyl Value is published online several times a month. To contact Dave Thompson, email with the subhead "Vinyl Value."


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