Cleaning Vinyl LP's
July 2013

If you're into vinyl, you probably have some albums that have been sitting around for a long time.  Maybe you obtained some used LP's that are decades old, or maybe you have some that just got cruddy.  Either way, this can greatly affect the sound quality. 

Disclaimer:  I assume no responsibility if you wreck your vinyl LP's or your expensive stylus. 
These methods have worked well for me, but use them at your own risk.

Alcohol & Water Cleaning

Distilled water is a good cleaner for non-stubborn dirt.  Two to four quarts of distilled water should have one drop of liquid detergent added to break the surface tension.  This tiny amount of detergent will not leave significant residue even if you don't rinse it. 

Or, use a 50% solution of isopropyl alcohol.   A little bit of white vinegar seems to help the cleaning power.  Either way, you can use a spray bottle to blast the dust particles out of the vinyl grooves.   If you need to use a cloth, don't use anything paper-based, because this can leave fibers that get stuck in the grooves and lower the sound quality (badly).  Use a microfiber lint-free cloth.   It has to be lint-free.  Some microfiber cloths shed a lot of lint!

These methods are good when the vinyl has an oily sort of sheen that has to be removed.  I think this may be plasticizer or mold-release compound.  I've seen it on albums that have been sitting ten years or more.  It's not water-soluble, strictly speaking, but it will dissolve in water that contains alcohol or detergent. 

Don't use alcohol to clean 78's.  These should only be cleaned with water, or maybe a little drop of detergent in water.   Never let 78 rpm records sit around with moisture on them.  Store them dry. 

Specialty Pads & Cleaning Kits

Most of the pads they make today are cheesy and really no better than the microfiber cloth you can get at the dollar store.  Your best bet is to do a cleaning with the methods we've already talked about (or wood glue;  see below) and then do a dry-brushing before each listen, using an Audioquest LP brush (about 25 bucks here;  a must-have item).

Wood Glue!

This seemed like a really gonzo idea at first.  I mean, could it really work?   Wouldn't it damage the vinyl?  I decided to try it out on a cheap, old, fairly common LP that I'd already recorded.  If it made this record sound worse, it wouldn't be a big deal.

Did I just wreck this LP with three ounces of wood glue? 
I guess we're going to find out.

When it was all done, I was pleasantly surprised.  The difference was like night and day.  The previously-recorded WAV file from the LP looked "fuzzy" with a lot of noise.  The new WAV file was clean.  It had almost no clicks or pops.  Alright, it still had a few, but it was nowhere near as bad.  I don't know that it's going to be this much of an improvement for every LP, but I think I've found my new favorite cleaning method.  (I don't recommend using wood glue to clean 78's.  Some 78's are made of shellac, which I think might stick to wood glue.  This would ruin the disc.)

Now that I've cleaned a bunch of LP's with wood glue, here are some things I've learned:

1.  You should already have cleaned off the worst of the dust, mold release compound (or whatever that oily stuff is), etc., with 50/50 alcohol or some distilled water that has a drop of detergent. (Use no more than 1 small drop per quart of water).  Let the vinyl dry thoroughly before applying the wood glue.

2.  Don't get any glue on the center label!

3.  Don't leave isolated thin spots or droplets of glue.  These will be harder to remove later.  It should be one, continuous layer that can be peeled off when dry.  If you see any isolated droplets, connect them with glue while it's still wet.

4.  It's possible to leave the record on your turntable and slowly spin it by hand, but you have to be very careful not to spill any glue over the sides & down into the mechanism. Eventually, you will.  It's better to put the vinyl on wax paper or something, on a flat worktable.  The table must be level.

5.  Use an index card or something else flat to spread the glue.  Work any bubbles out of the glue.

6.  Obviously, you can do only one side of an LP at a time.  Once again, keep the LP perfectly flat while the glue dries.

7.  Let the LP sit undisturbed for 24-36 hours so the glue can dry.   Don't leave it in the sun.  Just let it dry indoors where no one can disturb it.  The best time to remove the glue is when it hasn't fully hardened.  It should be somewhat pliable.  Start out with some cheap, semi-throwaway records first, until you get the hang of it.  If the glue has gotten too brittle, put the record in the sun for maybe thirty seconds to soften it.   Don't leave it too long in the sun, or you'll melt the vinyl too.

8.  Some people like to embed strips of tape into the wood glue while it's still partially wet. They let the strips overhang a bit from the edge.  This gives you a "handle" to peel up the glue when it's dry.  If you use cardboard, make sure it's strong enough to keep from ripping.  You could coat it with woodglue first.  Or, use a small scrap of wood.  Glue it to the wood glue layer after the wood glue layer is almost dry, so it doesn't sink down in there.

You might be able to use a toothpick or your fingernail to lift up the glue, but don't use anything made of metal or hard plastic.  You WILL scratch the vinyl.  You'll think you won't.  That's when you will scratch a favorite LP you can't replace.   Just don't do it.

9.  Static electricity causes noise.  After you peel the glue off, let the vinyl sit for at least 24 hours.  If the air is very dry, let it sit two or three days before you try to record it.

10.  A second or even a third cleaning with wood glue can remove more dirt (clicks & pops).

I used regular Carpenter's Wood Glue by Elmer's.  It worked great. 

Here's what I would do:  the 8-ounce container has a perfect applicator tip for vinyl LP's, but you're going to use up those eight ounces pretty quickly.  I'd get an 8-ounce container and a 1-gallon container, and use the gallon to refill the eight-ouncer when you empty it.   I'm not kidding... once you see what wood glue can do for a dusty old thrift-store LP, you're going to want to do this for every one of them before you make a recording

Even LP's that look shiny-clean can have a lot of dust particles down in the grooves.  No other method seems to get them out of there as well.

Just don't get any on the record labels. 

The drawback to the wood glue method is its slowness, and the fact that you use up six to eight ounces of wood glue just to do one LP.  If you spread it very thinly, you might be able to get 1 1/2 to 2 LP's out of an 8-oz container, but I wouldn't guarantee it.  

There are two good reasons for going to all this trouble.  (A.) Someone might have an album that has never been released on CD, or (B.) they just like the "vinyl sound" so much that they wouldn't want the CD even if they could get it.  Oh yeah, and (C.) vinyl is fun, so this is kind of an add-on to the whole process.


Parting Thoughts

Vinyl LP's should be cleaned periodically.  If an LP has already been deep-cleaned, some canned air duster or a special LP-cleaning brush will do the trick between listens (another brush here). 

If the LP is decades old, it's going to need a deep cleaning first.  We've looked at a couple methods.   In my experience the wood glue method works better than anything.  The big advantage is that it doesn't put any noise into the grooves, whereas a microfiber cloth can shed lint particles that you won't notice but you will hear when you play the record.

Once you make the effort to clean up your LP's, you might want to consider putting them in new, clean paper sleeves.  (Some people like those plastic sleeves but I just can't deal with those).  Don't throw away the old sleeve if it has original printing on it, but I wouldn't put a freshly-cleaned LP into a grimy old sleeve.  Not only can there be dust and such, but there can also be crud that outgassed from the old paper and cardboard.  In a 50-year-old LP sleeve, there can be a lot of it.

Finally, store your LP's in a "real" storage case such as the ones pictured above.  That way, you don't need to worry about someone setting a heavy object on top of your carboard box full of vinyl LP's, and you coming back to find them all warped.  The storage case also keeps dust from working its way down into the packaging. 

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