Introduction: Bring Ruined Records Back to Life

About: Old inventor, reverted back to my 10 year-old self. A shop full of tools, a boat, race car, 3D printer and a beautiful wife who wants me to invent things for around the house... Now how cool is that?
If you're an audiofile purist, don't read any further. What follows is not for the faint of heart and beyond anything you've seen before. If you decide to continue, please don't comment about how you think it will ruin records until after you try it. Then, if you still feel my method is flawed, I'd love to read your critique.

If you follow my instructions, you'll have to work hard to screw things up. It's really not that scary once you get into it.

I've spent an entire career designing, developing and patenting metal, engineered plastic and vinyl products. I know plastics, their strengths and weaknesses. I also know how to fix things. This is one of those fixes.

I'm also not responsible for any disasters that might befall you.  If you try this and somehow manage to screw it up, don't blame me. Use caution and common sense. It works for me and that's all I can attest to.

That being said... Let's begin:

Hopefully, most records you pick up at yard sales, Goodwill and flea markets can be brought back to new using standard cleaning methods. This is only for those discs that still have elevated levels of pops and clicks due to physical damage due to accident, neglect or abuse.

The record in the first photo is one such case. When I pulled it from the jacket, I could see immediately it had gone through a rough life. Under the microscope, the grooves were embedded with crud and the lands (the space between the grooves) showed signs of extreme wear with hundreds of vinyl "deflections" along the edges of the grooves.

Step 1: How Records Get Damaged

Dirty records can be cleaned, but damaged records will still sound terrible no matter how much you clean them.  The first image is a microscopic view of a scratch across Skeeter Davis' "End Of The World"... Appropos for 2012, don't you think?.  When a record player gets bumped or someone gets careless, the needle skips crosswise over the grooves, literally carving a path through the soft vinyl.  

The vinyl being cut away has to go somewhere.  Some of it ends up on the needle, some of it ends up as crud at the bottom of the groove and some of it is pushed out of the way, piled up like snow in front of a plow.  It's pushed above the surface of the lands and the side walls of the grooves.  This is what causes the "tick, tick, tick" you hear after a record has been scratched.  The needle is bumping into these deformations and serenades you with it's rhythmic beat a little over 33 times a minute.

The second microscopic image shows a smaller scratch as well, but it also shows many deformations on the edges and sides of the grooves.  Back when this album was popular, tone arms and needles were both heavy and large.  As they ran through the grooves, the needle would build up up heat, softening the plastic, making the vinyl more prone to damage.  A large needle can't fit all the way into the groove, so it rests in part, on the outside edges of the groove.  

The edge is the weakest part of the groove, so when a needle vibrates back and forth, it slams against the warm edge, wearing it away, pushing and deflecting vinyl into small mounds above the record surface.  The vinyl that's pushed up and out, leaves a pocket behind, and the edge eventually becomes lined with pits and piles of vinyl.  The edge begins to take on a new shape as the needle wears away at it, distorting the sound as well as adding pops, clicks and ticks.

Today, needles are smaller, lighter and go deeper into the groove where the vinyl of these old records is still virgin.  With a good cleaning, the sound will be rich and pure... Unless your record is still dirty, has static issues, or something is not right with your equipment.

Step 2: How We're Going to Fix It

We're going to refinish the surface and remove those tiny piles of vinyl that cause the ticking by sanding them. Yes, I said "sanding".  But first, we have to get all that gunk out of the grooves.  I gave Ms. Davis a pressure wash.

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And then smudged the more stubborn stuff out with my favorite material:

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For me, the results were pretty good.  No more gunk in the grooves, but under the microscope, there were still speckles where the vinyl had been deformed.

Once you've done the steps above or have cleared the gunk out by some other method, here's what you'll need to go to the next step... Getting your album back to it's original state.

1. A clean, but bad, bad record with more clicks and pops than music.

2. 1500 grit or finer wet & dry sand paper.

3. A sink, a towel and a flat, smooth space that can get wet.

4. Not absolutely necessary, but a minimum of a 30x microscope to check your work.

5. Nerve... Absolutely necessary.

Step 3: Work, Work, Work

After thoroughly washing, it's time for the scary stuff. We'll be using plenty of water.  Wet the sand paper, wet the record.  Not absolutely necessary, but you can also add a bit of liquid soap to the sandpaper as a lubricant.  Place the record on a hard, flat surface and LIGHTLY sand each side, in the area of the scratches using curving strokes parallel with the grooves.   Some scratches won't be easily visible and the sanding does remove some of the shine from the record. For this reason, I normally sand the entire surface. That not only guarantees I've hit all the scratches, but gives the record a uniform look as well.


I've found that placing the record on the counter with the edge of the disc overhanging slightly allows me to grasp the record and rotate it with one hand while holding the sand paper steady on the other side with the other.  This insures the sanding stays parallel with the grooves.

Keep your hand holding the paper open and flat, insuring plenty of surface area is in contact with the record.  Make frequent trips to the faucet to rinse and re-wet both the record and paper.  1500 is an extremely fine grit, so you may see extremely small scratches on the surface of the vinyl as it's being being sanded, if any. If you notice the smooth, runout surfaces of the record getting dull, you're probably pushing too hard.  Use very light pressure.   Don't worry too much about ruining the record if you used too much pressure.  No  sanding is taking place inside the grooves.  If areas start getting dull, just go over them very lightly and they'll begin to brighten up again.  Don't sand too long either.  4 to 6 times around is probably enough.  If it turns out you didn't sand enough, it's easy to do it again.

The record will be rejuvenated as the lands are smoothed down and the edge of the groove becomes crisp and sharp, just as it was the day it was pressed.  Technically, the grooves will be a minuscule bit shallower, but the upper reaches of the grooves had been ruined anyway and new needles snuggle deeper into them, making the upper portion redundant.

Oh, and don't forget to thoroughly wash your new record before trying to play it... All that vinyl dust you just created can't be good for your record or your needle.:)

I've sanded several of my "destroyed" records with an excellent success rate and can again play them on my "floating turntable" without worrying about ruining the needle. Deep, deep gouges that destroy the entire groove and grit inside the groove that's been melted into the vinyl are beyond this method, so if that's the case, you may have to live with a "pop" or two.  Everything else should sound spectacularly clear and noise-free, just as it should.  The only failure for me so far was a Partridge Family album that I found in a consignment shop. The vinyl was so bad (not even a cover or sleeve), I had to have it just to see if sanding would work for it... Well, grit was so imbedded into the vinyl, nothing in my arsenal was able to pull it out.  I managed to improve the sound by 50% or so after the first powerwashing (no, I wasn't about to see how bad it was right out of the store), but it's still unlistenable using my beater needle

Speaking of turntables, I have a remarkable turntable hack that can be added to all brands of turntables, doesn't modify or harm them in any way and virtually eliminates the chance that an accidental bump will carve a new, perpendicular groove across your records' pristine surfaces.  It works on the science of physics, is pretty cool and can be checked out here:

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So...  Take a deep breath, grab that ruined record, a sheet of sandpaper and say "oooRah"...

You can thank me later.

Does anyone know how many grooves there are on each side of a 12" record?

1/30/12:  Instructable member Suzanne in Orting does:  One!  She was the first person to get the answer to me.  Congratulations Suzanne in Orting.  I'm sending you a patch.

The next one is a little bit more difficult...  Who knows the approximate length of a groove on a 12" 33 1/3 rpm record? (don't cheat by looking it up on the internet:)

Feb 11, 2012...Come-on.. No one knows?  Tell you what... Forget the "no internet" rule, forget the patch... I'll give the first person I see a correct answer from (within 500'... come-on a GUESS could win this), in the comments section (no emails... Not fair, cause I read those more often) a 3 month pro memb.... No.. Make that a 6 month pro membership.

Step 4: Update: an Experiment...

1. I was concerned about loss of fidelity from removing material from the surface. Theoretically, the deeper sounds will be those most susceptible to being sacrificed. In reality, it's the upper portion of the groove that's been trashed by the needles of yesteryear, so no matter what you're doing to it should have no effect whatsoever.

2. To vet my thinking, I built a quick sanding block out of a scrap piece of rubber, superglued to a piece of 1/4" x 3" board in which I drilled a hole.  I won't detail the build here, but instead, add data to the photos of it. Sanding with the grooves is preferable as it eliminates "washboarding" on top of the lands and mechanizing the process made it easier for the work I was about to put into it.

3. A vinyl album normally has a surface that's barely cupped.  Using a sanding block will cause the outside and inside lands to be sanded more than the center lands.  In my experiment, the center lands of my test record remained un-sanded even though I over-sanded the entire disc (one side) to see how much damage over sanding could do.  I set the record on a towel during the sanding process in an attempt to eliminate the cupping, but it wasn't too successful.

4. Since the record I was using was one I was going to trash anyway, I sanded the devil out of it. I wouldn't do this yourself unless you have a need for a pile of vinyl dust.  You can see the brown residue on the sandpaper.  The record turned brown as well...  I really worked on it, pushing as hard as I could...  After cleaning it, I didn't notice any loss of sound quality, but in theory, it most likely effected the volume and possibly the bass of the recording... Of course, my old ears couldn't notice a difference in the bass and the volume knob has plenty of rotation left.  The only difference I noticed, whether placebo or not, was the over-sanded portions of the disk sounded, to me, more like MP3 versions of the same song.

btw, the reason I use 1500 is because it is easy to get.  Wal Mart sells it as well as big box and hardware stores... I would prefer to use something finer, but it's too frustrating trying to find. Finer grits will, by design leave the record's surface shinier.

5. The final microscopic image is a 35x plus 3x (camera zoom) of the surface after hard sanding with 1500 grit.  I should have thought of zooming the camera before taking the photo to get even closer.  Due to the mechanical nature of the sanding, the lands don't have the same coarse look that they've after hand sanding. But remember, the middle portion of the record received much less contact with the paper. Until someone perfects a mechanical "refinisher" that accounts for the non-flat record surface, I'll stick to hand work.

6. The bottom line for me is, I'll be using my hand to sand records from now on, but if I can find a finer grit paper, I might use this as a way to polish it after I'm through.