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New trick to clean LPs...ssSSTEAM!


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So... I'm flipping through the records at a local Salvation Army and a fella walks up and starts at the other end. Naturally, we struck up a conversation, exchange a few "nice find" stories and talk about audio gear. The conversation moved to record cleaning and Charlie said that he's been using a steam cleaner over the last few years to augment his cleaning regimen with great success. I spent the next 2 hours getting his technique and stopped by a Walgreens to pick up the Perfection (hand-held) Steam Cleaner that he had suggested ($20 after a $10 mail-in-rebate). I have to say that I was a bit skeptical about this idea but his explanation and the results he claimed were quite intriguing. I cleaned then filled the cleaner with sterilized water that my wife brings home from work (its used for irrigation in surgery - very pure stuff) but he suggested Peak battery water ($4 at Pep Boys). Regular tap and even distilled water contain contaminants that may cling to the record and cause some surface noise. I plugged in the steamer and let it warm up for a few minutes while I looked for a good test LP (read: one that wouldn't bother me if things went badly). I picked out Peter Gabriel's 'So' LP that I had recently cleaned but still had some 'tics'.

His technique is fairly simple - first I cleaned the record as I normally would (using a vacuum RCM) but after the scrub and before the rinse, I let the record spin while I held the steamer about 6" away at an angle and slowly followed the grooves to the center making sure the coverage was even. It took about 10 seconds and left quite a bit of water on the record but it vacuumed up quickly. I may try vacuuming while I steam and see how that works. I followed that with the rinse and vacuum and then another quick steam and vacuum. One note of concern is that the record will distort slightly (warp) at first but it returned to its normal shape before I got to the run-out groove (Charlie had mentioned this so I didn't freak). I repeated the process with the other side but left out the final rinse/steam just to see if it made a difference - it did and put the record aside to dry.

When the record was dry, I put it on the TT. First, I must say that it looked pristine. I had found the LP in a thrift store bin and although fairly clean, it did look played and dusty. It cleaned up well originally but as I said, there were still a few 'tics' and some surface noise so I had put it aside for another cleaning. The results of the steam cleaning were outstanding! I couldn't hear any pops, tics or surface noise. I proceeded to steam clean several other records and even pulled out one that I had thought was too dirty to bother with. Each record cleaned up remarkably well and even though the dirtiest record still had some pops, I think another cleaning when I'm more skilled will do the trick.

I am very impressed with Charlie's steam cleaner idea and would go as far as saying that it does a better job than the RCM I use (VPI 16.5). When used in concert, the result is beyond my expectations - an obvious improvement and for $34 ($24 w/rebate), its a no-brainer recommendation. Even if the steam cleaner didn't perform as Charlie claimed, its still an excellent way to clean the VPI's vacuum wand and DiscDoctor's brushes (just don't hold the steamer too close as it will loosen the glue).

For more details and a better explanation of the technique, I found a few threads discuss Charlie's steam cleaning on A'gon - start here... http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl?eanlg&1192142257&openflup&37&4#37 and Mapleshade Audio offers a similar set up for $150... http://www.mapleshaderecords.com/audioproducts/deepcleaningsystem.php (though Charlie claims Pierre "borrowed" his idea). During our 2 hour conversation, Charlie also mentioned that he was experimenting with microbes to clean records. This isn't new and there are several products out there that can be used and the gist is that you spread the cleaner on the record and one bunch of microbes eat any and all organic matter and turn it into enzymes which is then digested by another group of microbes which turn those into water and carbon dioxide. The benefit is that the microbes (I think that's what he called them) can get into every nook and cranny in the grooves which looks a bit like a forested mountain range under a microscope where dirt and oils can hide from normal record cleaners and brushes. He's working with a few chemists to come up with a cleaner specifically designed for vinyl records. More on that later. Sorry for the long post... have fun

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For me personally, I guess its ok for good will or salvation army vinyl but there is no way I'm going to steam any of my stuff. The risk is just to high for an "oops". You are heating the vinyl. You don't even have to heat it enough to warp it, just enough that you start to melt over the high points of the ridges in the grooves. I'll just stick to my SOTA LP cleaning machine.

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Steam will be 212 degrees F when produced the normal atmospheric pressure and cool down some before hitting the record. It will have a greater heat capacity than the boiling water that produced it. Record vinyl melts at about 800 degrees F.

I think the record will begin to warp long before any actual melting would occur, but some "destructive" experiments might be in order to confirm this.

It sounds like the stream does clean the records, but does it impair the sound in any way? No loss of high frequencies?

I wonder how much being warm helps the cleaning - most chemical reactions go better/faster with increasded temperature.

The idea of using microbes is a good one. Similar to the use of maggots to clean infected wounds; they only eat the dead tissue, leave the live tissue alone.

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Now this is an interesting idea.

I wonder - somewhere deep in a cupboard I have a steam cleaning device for clothing - if I can find it I might give this a try.

FWIW I would suspect this would be great for records you have cleaned already but didn't come up too well. I'd guess I have a hundred or so records that are a bit too noisy all in all and it would be well worth a crack with steam.

Thanks for the heads up....

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Good post J. I saw Mapleshade's steamer about a week ago in their latest catalog and apparently they have tested the steamer with no ill effects. Pierre raves about everything so it was good to get your thoughts on steaming even on a different product. Keep us posted.

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Good post J.  I saw Mapleshade's steamer about a week ago in their latest catalog and apparently they have tested the steamer with no ill effects. Pierre raves about everything so it was good to get your thoughts on steaming even on a different product.  Keep us posted.

I read through the discussions at MS as well. Aside from the actual device, the only difference I noted was that Pierre suggests using a cleaner in the steamer - I imagine to save time. Charlie doesn't prescribe to using anything other than pure water because the alcohol in the cleaner may not be safe. The instructions for the Perfection Steamer definitely warns against anything other than water so unless Pierre's steamer is designed otherwise, proceed with extreme caution (the MS unit can be found at walmart for $35).

I cleaned a dozen records so far without damage and I'm still quite impressed with the results. Even if I were wary of cleaning records, I can also wholeheartedly recommend the steamer for cleaning brushes, wands and the platter after cleaning sessions - well worth the cost. 
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