Dust. It’s an unavoidable battle without end—until, perhaps, the heat death of the universe, but we’ll worry about that later. For now, dust, grime, lipids, and assorted gunk are extremely bad for your records and stylus. In fact, playing a dirty record can permanently damage your vinyl. That nasty stuff can become essentially welded to the inside of the groove—and if that happens, you’ll be hearing that same tic in the same spot for the rest of eternity. Such buildup can also ruin a record's overall sound quality, as well as the stylus' tracking. We’ve already put together a handy guide on stylus care, and below we’re looking at the most common ways to clean those records.
Brush it: The humble carbon fiber brush is the first line defense of many a vinyl enthusiast. Easy-to-use, cheap, and long-lived, these brushes are a must-have. To use: Put your record on your turntable’s platter, turn the turntable on, and allow the platter to reach full speed. Gently rest the fibers onto the surface of the record as the record makes a few full rotations. Then, draw the brush perpendicularly away from the center label until clear of the record. Do this to each side before and after playing and your records will thank you.
Additionally, there are wet brush options as well, such as the Discwasher system. Most of these wood brushes have a velvet or corduroy material that covers a padding and comes with a solution such as D4. To use: Place a few drops along one edge of the brush and gently place the wet edge on the spinning record as you would a dry brush. After the record has been dampened, simply rock the brush back so that the record is spinning under the dry side of the material. This will soak up the dirty cleaning fluid. Give the record a minute to air dry and you’re good to go. Some models of this style of brush are directional, so pay attention for that.
With both of these brush styles, you need to remember to clean the brushes themselves after each use. Try to not touch the bristles of the dry brush directly with your fingers, as you don't want the oil from your hands to get stuck there and wind up on your vinyl. The handle on most fiber brushes can be used to flick the bristles clear of dust.
Roll it: There are a number of record cleaning rollers on the market. These lint brush-like gadgets work by using an adhesive wheel to lift up the debris that’s hiding on your records. To use: Place your record on a clean, firm surface. Many use the record’s sleeve on a table or even the platter of the turntable. Roll the adhesive wheel along the record in the direction of the grooves. After a few passes, your record will be clean. The roller itself can be rinsed with warm water to remove built-up gunk.
Spin it: The Spin-Clean is probably the most common choice for wet cleaning records. The device itself is a plastic trough with adjustable rollers and two removable cleaning brushes that the record sits between. It is a highly effective (if low-tech) option for deep cleaning. To use: Fill the Spin-Clean with distilled water to the fill line marked on the trough. Add cleaning solution per the instructions, making sure the solution is poured over the brushes. Place the roller wheels to their appropriate notch depending on record size. Place the record into the trough, taking care that the center label stays dry. Spin the record a few times clockwise and then counter clockwise. Remove the record from the trough and use the provided microfiber cloths to gently dry the record. Allow record to completely air dry. After about 20 records, the water in the Spin-Clean should be changed. Take a look at the bottom of that trough. It will be amazingly filthy. You might be shocked to see what all was hiding in your records.
The solution provided with wet cleaning systems is just fine, but many people like to try a few out (or even homebrew their own) before they settle on the one that works for them. There’s always another avenue to explore. Don’t be afraid to branch out and find the cleaning solution that you feel does the best job.
Vacuum it: Somewhat similar to the Spin-Clean, the vacuum record cleaning machine is a wet clean system for vinyl that means business. The Nitty Gritty and Okki Nokki brands are among the most popular for this type of system. To use: While there is some variation across styles and brands, generally you start with some dry and/or wet brushing of the record to remove any of the larger bits of garbage. A cleaning solution is then applied to the record. The record is rotated (some models are automated, some are manual) as a vacuum attachment (often built into the housing of the cleaning unit) sucks all of the offending material from the grooves and into a reservoir in the system that can be emptied later. The cleaning power of these kinds of units has to be seen/heard to be believed. If you have the money for one, they are definitely the way to go.
Science it: Ultrasonic cleaning has grown more popular over the years. Essentially, an ultrasonic cleaner uses high-frequency waves to create what are known as cavitation bubbles. These bubbles (usually in a cleaning solution) scrub the surface of the record clean. We’re talking about seriously deep cleaning here. If it can be removed, it will be with this style of cleaner. To use: Fill the record bath of the system with cleaning solution. Load records onto the spindle and lower the records into the bath while keeping the labels dry. Turn on the machine and wait. The spindle will rotate the records as the waves do their thing. As an added bonus, it is possible to clean multiple records simultaneously with this method. These units are not cheap, but ultrasonic cleaning is the ultimate way to revitalize your vinyl.
Bonus. I’m sure you’ve seen the videos and life hacks. Well, I tried it and it works. Wood glue totally cleans your records. I wouldn’t risk anything you’re not willing to lose, but if you really have run out of other options, grab yourself a bottle of glue and give this a go. To use: Get a bottle of Titebond II. Other brands may work, but this is the one recommended to me, so I’m sticking with it. Place the record on a soft, dry surface that will be free of disturbance for at least 24 hours. Keeping the center label safe, lay a thin bead of glue in a zig-zag pattern across one side of your dirty records. Use a piece of card stock to spread the glue evenly. You want the whole side (minus label) covered. It’s a dance. Too thin and the glue will tear when you remove it. Too thick and it won’t dry all the way. Leave a tab of paper on the outer edge of the record pressed into the glue. Let the glue dry for at least 24 hours. You want to make sure it’s totally dry before you peel. When ready, pull the tab of paper toward the center label to start peeling the glue off. You’ll see some shiny vinyl underneath. This isn’t a recommended method, but it sure is fun—and costs about five dollars.