How to Clean a VCR

There may come a time when you can find VCRs only in antique stores, so take care of yours. See more tv evolution pictures.

VCRs and videotape may be down, but they aren't out. There are still some old-school holdouts that have yet to replace their treasured tape collection with DVDs or Blu-ray discs. There are also a lot of family memories stored on videotapes that haven't been transferred yet. The motion picture business still uses larger video tape decks in some cases as well. So, while most people have joined the digital revolution, there's still a place for the VCR in this modern world. And because of this, there's also a need to clean those VCRs.

Over time, the enemy of the video tape -- the dreaded dust -- collects on the various heads and rollers inside the VCR. This dust can affect the picture quality, and if it gets dirty enough, it can also encounter playback and performance problems. There's no hard and fast rule about how often your VCR needs some attention. It depends on how dusty your home gets and how often you still use your machine. If you're a regular tape watcher, then one cleaning a month should do it.


You've probably seen the self-cleaning tapes that take a few minutes on the "play" setting to clean your VCR heads. Professionals don't recommend using these tapes because of claims of poor cleaning and sometimes even damaging the tape heads. The only real way to clean your VCR is by cracking it open and doing it yourself. It's not as scary as it seems, though. We'll break it down on the next page.



How to Clean a VCR Head

The first thing you need to do in order to clean your VCR heads is to open it up so you can have access to all the dusty, moving parts. Unplug the VCR and remove the screws that hold the lid of the VCR in place. Once you have access to everything, assess the situation so you know what you're dealing with. You'll need some isopropyl alcohol, a can of air spray, cotton swabs, paper towels and a blank sheet of paper cut into one inch strips. Before you do any cleaning, locate the parts you'll be cleaning, which are the parts that the tape comes into contact with -- the rollers and the heads.

Next, blow out all of the loose clumps of dust with the can of air spray. This will allow you to pick them out by hand. Once the big stuff is gone, you need to clean three of the heads and all of the rollers. The control, audio and erase heads are all pretty simple to clean and the only heads you can use a cotton swab on. Just wet the swab with alcohol and clean the sides of the heads and rollers.


The read and write heads are what actually plays the tape, and they require a special technique. Your VCR may have as many as four heads, and they're all located on the large, round metallic drum. Professionals would use a chamois stick to do the following, but you can do the same thing with cut strips of paper. Soak one side of a paper strip in alcohol and rotate the drum in a counter clockwise rotation. Press the soaked paper onto the drum with your finger for about three rotations, or until you don't see any more dirt coming off. The reason you don't use cotton swabs here is because the fibers can come off and damage the heads. Make sure you don't move the paper up and down, and just apply a consistent and light pressure. Once you've cleaned the drum heads, you're all finished. Then reassemble and press play.

How to Clean VCR FAQ

Can you use rubbing alcohol to clean VCR heads?
To clean a VCR head with alcohol, you will need some cotton swabs, paper towels and of course, alcohol. To clean it properly, dip the swab in alcohol and start cleaning the heads and rollers, then dry them with a paper towel.
What is VCR head cleaner fluid?
VCR head cleaner fluids are usually made specifically to clean record and playback heads of VCR cassettes. You can’t clean these heads with water because the tape drive inside is magnetic. If it loses its magnetic properties, you might end up rendering the cassette useless.
Do VHS head cleaners work?
Yes, they work, but it depends entirely on whether you use them properly or not. We recommend using the cleaner for no more than 25 seconds to ensure there is no damage to the magnetic tape drive.
How do you fix fuzzy VHS tapes?
Fuzzy VHS tapes may be because of dirt on the magnetic tape drive and therefore may require cleaning. You can use a cotton swab dipped in alcohol to carefully wipe away any dust you see on the strip. There might also be moisture on the tape that needs to be cleaned.
How often should you clean VCR heads?
If your VCR tape hasn’t been played for years, it might need to be cleaned. During the normal course of operation, it is best to clean VCR heads after every 20-30 hours of operation. Remember to be careful; you only need to brush away dirt and clean oxide particles off.

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Related Articles

  • Calabria, Ralph. "A DIY Guide to Cleaning Your Video Cassette Recorder.", January 1998.
  • "Cleaning Tools and Supplies.", 2010.
  • Torres, Gabriel. "How to Manually Clean Your VCR Heads.", July 12, 2005.