How to Build a VHS Movie Tape Cleaner

This process was needed to effectively clean a very old movie tape so that the quality of the picture was improved and it could be encoded and saved to digital DVD media.

Aside from classic movies it may also be helpful to those of you trying to transfer your old family VHS movies to DVD. You can noticeably improve the quality before you record it onto a computer.

Providing you are gentle.(Not much pressure is needed at all) There are no worries of damaging your original VHS tape. Though you cannot SEE allot of dirt on the final cleaning swap, it is there. This process made a huge difference in picture quality.

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Step 1:

TAKE NOTE: VHS Tapes are magnetic. You should not have anything magnetic in your work area.

Items needed;

Movie tape to be cleaned
an old VCR machine
Scotch tape
Isopropyl alcohol
A hair elastic
2 inch square piece of soft non lint material
2 Q tips / cotton swabs
Screwdrivers to work with

Step 2:

1) Open the old VCR removing necessary screws and pop the top off

2) Hold two Q-tips together and secure them in the middle with two pieces of scotch tape approximately an inch and half long each.
The Q-tips should fit together in such a way as to press the top part and bottom part of the VHS tape at the same time.
They should be together but one slightly lower than the other as shown.

Step 3:

3) Fold swatch of lint free soft material (a handkerchief is ideal) in half and then wrap it around the two ends of the Q tip you just taped together.

Step 4:

4) Secure material with an elastic band as shown.

Step 5:

5) Load the tape to be cleaned and rewind it to the very beginning.

6) Find the spot indicated in the picture where you will be applying gentle pressure with your Cleaning SWAB. If you are looking at the front of the VCR it should be on your LEFT between where it leaves the cassette case, and the VCR HEAD
(the large silver round thing)

Step 6:

7) Apply 2 sprays or about 6 drops of isopropyl alcohol to the end of the swab.

8) Put the VCR in FAST FORWARD MODE and apply gentle pressure to the outside of the tape in that spot, as shown.(This is the side of the tape that is 'read' by the heads. The heads are on the round silver cylinder) You must do this in fast forward or rewind because if you apply pressure to the tape in another mode, the VCR senses the pressure and stops the tape from playing.
Hold the swab there gently, until the tape stops going FAST FORWARD.

Step 7:

9) Stop the machine and select REWIND and do the same procedure on the OTHER /inside of the tape as it rewinds.

You will notice dirt build up on the end of the Q tip swab. It does not look like much but to a tape it is allot.

Play your tape and you will notice a definite difference in quality. If you get a bad static screen or tracking bars let the tape sit for a good 30 minutes as alcohol that hasnt evaporated yet is fouling the picture. Try it again. You can also fast forward the tape through and then rewind and try again. This airs out the tape so the alcohol evaporates faster.
This was done to improve tape quality on a very old VHS tape so it could be recorded on digitalized DVD media.

Step 8:

You will see a definite difference in picture quality just like this example.

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    16 Discussions


    Question 7 months ago on Introduction

    Great tip, thanks. I ruined a tape and maybe VCR today. I put cotton around a pin next to a capstan roller. It was to the right of the head, next to the audio sensor. It worked fine in FF, but RW caused the tape to unravel. A lot. I saw the drive and capstan pushing the tape into the pin containing the cotton. I cut the tape, but now the VCR wouldn't eject, Play, FF or RW. For all tapes. It eats them all. I think I found the white gear to raise the carriage, but it was locked and couldn't move it.

    Question: Where would you suggest I place the alcohol? Different places for FF and RW? I'd guess for RW the pin should be to the left of the head.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I've built a contraption using some big old DC motors from a V2000 machine, which runs the tape past a sapphire block salvaged from a scrap professional Betacam deck. This burnishes the tape and can make a huge difference to a tape which keeps sticking or clogging a player's heads. It also works with other 1.2" tape formats including Beta.

    Another useful piece of kit is a scientific incubator oven with some fans mounted in it. Tapes which are sticking can be put in there for about 6 hours (or more) at exactly 50C. The improvement in playability can be nothing short of miraculous, though the tapes may degenerate again after a day so I run them promptly. This can be achieved with a decent quality electric fan assisted domestic oven, use a digital thermocouple to monitor the temperature. The temperature control won't be as good as a scientific unit but it can get the job done.


    6 years ago on Step 2

    Hello, we offer an afforable alternative for VHS, VHS-C and 8mm tape cleaning. We use a machine called TapeChek by RTI Industries. We are more than willing to help you and know our service will save you a lot of time, money and the hassle of trying to build your own machine. The TapeChek machine is used in Broad-Cast Studios before a tape is archived. It's a high quality professional series machine that costs over $3,000. This machine will remove all the dirt and mold that has collected on your tape over the years. It will greatly increase the quality of the VHS image and most importantly, prevent the video-heads on your VCR from getting dirty. You can build your own cleaning device or find a used TapeCheck on eBay but normally they run several hundred to a few thousand dollars. Home-made machines will typically rip the tape because the tension of the cleaning pad on the tape needs to be very precise and accomplshing this with a home-made machine is difficult to do. A good alternative is you can mail your tapes to us and we'll clean them at an affodable rate. We also offer high quality transfer services as well. Check out our website at or email

    MyDVDTransfer Logo with text.bmp

    6 years ago on Introduction

    thanks too, the crackling sound is gone by cleaning the tape.


    9 years ago on Step 8

    Will this work on VHS tapes that have mold on them? We live in Belize and the humidity causes the tapes to mold.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    This all depends on:
    The value of the VCR;
    The value of the Tape;
    The value of the Data.

    In a VHS machine, the only places where "wet" tape should  stick while playing are Erase Head, Flying Heads, Audio Head and Track Counter, in FF or RW mode, the only contact on the data side of the tape is the electronic tape counter (if you even have one).

    When it comes to cleaning the heads--NEVER use a head cleaning cassette. Use a nice clean handkerchief and some propanol (or even metho), and lightly press sideways against the whole drum, including the stationary section underneath. Gently rotate the dum back and forth. This ensures that you apply no additional pressure than a normal tape would, and it is far less abrasive that so-called cleaning tapes.

    Always change to a clean part of the handkerchief, and make sure that you do each head at least three times--on a 6-head VCR, that s18 individual manual head-cleaning cycles


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Nice instructable. I've worked on a few digitization projects for vintage video formats - I guess VHS is in the same category now. A couple of comments: There's a cloth that's used as a sewing interface that's sold under the brand name "Pellon." This is what engineers at Ampex have been recommending since the 70s for cleaning magnetic media. I would use this for your "lint free" material. Second, I wouldn't use a liquid cleaner on the tape while it is threaded and moving. It's easy for tape to stick to metal posts or guides when wet and start winding itself around something it shouldn't. If the tape kinks or creases then it can lead to head clogs when played back. Cleaning the heads when fully clogged can take time and patience. The heads are also easily destroyed if not cleaned properly.

    3 replies

    Hi grantaccess , The only sewing interface I have ever worked with is extremely scratchy compared to a cotton handkerchief. What ever people choose to use, they must use something very soft and delicate and lint less, and that must be made very clear. *s* Second.. I have never had trouble cleaning any heads on VCRs or stereos. Its delicate but simple. People do not have to be afraid to do this as long as they are gentle. Though I did not recommend cleaning heads in this instructable, a person can just pop their head cleaning tape in afterwards if they fear it may have become gummed up. Third- this instructable was meant for laymen and with easy to find tools. Trying to find special liquid cleaners sold where? for how much? and lastly, 6 drops of cleaning alcohol isnt going to soak anything or cause a pile up of tape to be wrapped in a bow around your feeders and cogs. Though I appreciate your input, its comments like these that make people afraid to be hands-on, and then they end up paying a tech 85$ an hour to do a less than great job. If someone can afford that, they wouldnt be coming to Thank you for your participation. :o)


    Hi Postal I don't know what brands/types of sewing interface you've used or what it feels like to you. I'm only passing along the technical specs for the materials that are currently (at least recently), considered best practices in dealing with archival media. Use what you like. Second, when I mentioned cleaning the heads I wasn't talking about popping a cleaning tape into the machine. Head clogs that occur due to a kinked tape impacting the head isn't likely to be cured by a cleaning tape. Third, I'm not sure where I mentioned hard to find tools and cleaners. In fact I purposely didn't mention them because this is an instructable for laymen. If people did want to know about manually cleaning heads on helical scan VTRs the info is easily available online or they can message me. BTW there's a slight difference between cleaning the video heads on a VCR and cleaning the heads of a stereo (I assume you mean audio cassette.) fourth, six drops of cleaning solution on a tape as it moves through the machine absolutely can cause the tape to stick to a guide or the head drum and cause a variety of threading errors. Because it doesn't happen in your VCR, where you apply the solution, doesn't mean everybody will have the same experience. Fifth, I wouldn't discourage people from being hands on and experimenting with fixing, restoring, modding vintage video players. I'm self taught myself. Lastly, I'm not sure that you do appreciate my input.