If you’re the sort of record buyer who pores over EBay sites of record dealers, carefully comparing condition ratings before making your bid, then this article won’t be for you, but if you get a kick out of crawling around on the floor of junk or charity shops and emerging clutching a fistful of grubby 45s in tatty sleeves in the hope that they can be rendered playable, then read on.
Dust and muck love 45s almost as much as we do. With most of the ones in circulation at budget prices having been stored without much care for years now, those flimsy paper sleeves (if they survive) have provided about as much protection from dirt as a string vest in a sandstorm, and that lovely long endless groove makes a lovely place for the dust to settle in and attach itself, especially if it’s got a soupcon of grease to help it cling on. Stick your junk shop find straight on the turntable and the needle will be ploughing a furrow through a miniature version of the Midwest dustbowl circa 1933. Result: sound that makes your purchase seem like a waste of 50p and a needle that needs cleaning before you can play anything else.
Of course, there’s no way of removing scratches that have damaged the grooves themselves, or undoing the wear that endless plays with a blunt stylus will have done (especially from the era when gramophones were designed to be able to switch between 45 and 78 profile needles but owners didn’t bother). But it is possible to remove the dust and grease from the grooves to give you a single that not only plays better but also looks a lot nicer, too. The art, though, is to achieve that without ruining the label. There are dramatic techniques that others confidently swear by, including the liberal application of lighter fluid or PVA glue, both of which fill me with the dread that I shall either incinerate my new acquisitions or bond them together in a solid vinyl sandwich. This, then, is my more conservative approach, based on tips picked up from record collectors who know their stuff…
Before starting, it’s worth preparing your working area which is inevitably going to be the kitchen sink. Remove any heat sources (you really don’t want to be putting vinyl on top of the cooker that was only turned off 10 minutes ago) and clean up the surrounding areas so you don’t just end up swapping dust for the remains of your dinner! If you’re doing a batch of records, the traditional sink drainer makes an ideal rack, so you can slip the records out of their sleeves and have them standing ready – finishing off the drying up will also earn you the smartie points necessary to take over the kitchen for your stinky record collection for a bit. So here goes:
Step 1. With a sponge wetted with warm (not hot) water, gently wipe both sides of each record to remove surface dust and dirt. Make sure to wipe along the groove, rather than across it as all you’ll succeed in doing is moving dirt from the surface to the groove. The aim is not to let the label get wet as it will stain, so be careful not only to keep the sponge off the label, but also to keep your ‘holding’ hand dry (45s with the centre punched out are much easier to work with in this respect). Put the records back in the rack to wait for the next stage.
Step 2. Take the damp sponge and give one corner a good spray with Cillit Bang until it’s nice and foamy. Go back to the first record and work the foam gently along the groove on each side, again being careful to keep the foam away from the label. You’ll see the dirt starting to build up on the sponge, so remember to rinse it out periodically or switch to a clean bit and reload with Cillit Bang. Again, put the records back in the rack until you’ve done them all.
Step 3. Set the tap to run with a gentle flow of cold or warm water (again, not hot, you don’t want to end up with a nice soft bit of vinyl flopping about in your hand). Holding the record at an angle, turn it under the water flow so that the water rinses the Cillit Bang off from the run-out groove near the centre to the edge and away. This is where real care is needed not to soak the label, but you’ll quickly find the right speed of flow to do a good job without water going everywhere. Remember to do both sides. Return the records to the rack and leave to dry naturally.
Step 4. Fire up record player, open beer and prepare for a spin-up of your new acquisitions!
I’ve been delighted with the difference a good clean makes to a record and it’s turned some junk shop finds and EBay ‘job lot’ purchases into solidly playable discs, and it works with batches of 15 or so (the capacity of my sink drainer) without them drying out between stages. Of course, if you want to be serious, then you can use the drying time to be ironing the original sleeves, or preparing nice new cardboard ones for your finds, or am I getting a bit obsessive there…
So that’s my technique – what’s yours?
PS – a little tip for domestic harmony: don’t leave neat Cillit Bang on your coloured worktop for long – it has a tendency to bleach it and upset whoever’s in charge of your kitchen!!