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How to Clean Your Own VCR

(and save about $25!)

Note: This is not really how the repair shops do it, (because virtually no one would have the proper supplies at home), but it's the easiest way to do a reasonable job with what most people would have on hand. Your results won't be quite as good as a professional job, but if you do it properly, you'll do a much better job than a "cleaner tape" and much less damage to your VCR in the process.
Yes - many head cleaner tapes can - and do - damage VCRs!

Q: How do I know when to clean my VCR?
A: Have you ever tried to play a blank tape? That's just what dirty heads look like. As a general rule, dirty heads will give the following symptoms:
When playing a known good tape, generally sound will be OK with big, white flecks of "snow" over the picture. In severe cases, you could get just snow and no picture. It will always be impossible to set the tracking and some units will show a blue screen instead of snow.

Important: If your VCR eats tapes, stops by itself, won't rewind, or has other different symptoms, stop now because you'll just be wasting your time. Take it to a reputable repair shop for an estimate.

You will need:
  1. Common Sense (very important) - stop now if you don't have it! :)
  2. Some clean cotton swabs
  3. Isopropyl alcohol - preferably not rubbing alcohol
  4. Some plain white, INK FREE good quality paper (copier or
    printer paper is fine, but no "treated", photo, or thermal fax paper)
  5. Appropriate screwdrivers - usually just a #2 Phillips
  6. An egg tray or ice cube tray for screws.
  7. Your grubby VCR

Remember, if you don't feel that you know what you're doing back out before you damage something. Many of the components inside your VCR are very delicate! Carelessness can easily cost you over $100. Now that I've scared you enough, let's get underway! :)

1. Eject any tape from the VCR and unplug the VCR! Get the unit into a well-lighted area where you can work without paws, claws, feathers, or fingers intervening!

2. Remove the top cover from the VCR. Usually it's held with 2 to 4 screws in the sides, back, or occasionally two from the bottom near the left and right edges. If your machine is an old top loader, you'll have to remove the plastic top-loader cover before taking the top housing off the VCR. Use your egg tray for screws and take careful note of what ones came from where. You shouldn't interchange screws, especially ones of different threads, length, or colour.

3. You should now be able to see the heads and mechanism section of the VCR, but you may have to remove a small metal shield or a circuit board to get access, but avoid disconnecting wires. Do not remove parts of the front loader mechanism! They are "gear tooth timed" and you don't want to mess with them!
The picture below identifies all of the components in the VCR that should be cleaned. The front loader mechanism has been removed in the picture below just to make the parts easier to see. Do not remove your front loader!

One of my VCRs with cover

4. Dip a cotton swab in alcohol, and clean the guide pins, the capstan shaft, and the rubber pinch roller. Do not clean the video head with cotton swabs! (We'll get to it later) Some pins might have really "baked-on" dirt, but take your time, and use fresh swabs if you need to. The black rubber roller seldom can become perfectly clean once the VCR has left the showroom, but the rest of them should be.

5. Dip a fresh cotton swab in alcohol and clean the audio head, paying particular attention to the top and bottom of the face of the head (where the tape would touch). A gentle scrubbing won't hurt this head, as long as you don't push or bend it out of position. Then clean the erase head using the same method. Erase heads seldom get too dirty for some reason, and don't really seem to mind that much if they do, but take the time to clean it anyway. Now you're ready for the next step.

6. Cut a 4 or 5 inch square piece from the copier paper, and fold the square in half. Turn it 90 degrees and fold it again.

Home-made paper head cleaner

You should now have a little paper "cup". Pour in a few drops of alcohol, flatten it along the folds again and the paper should be saturated. Hold the flat pad against the side of the video head, which is a rotary drum.

How to clean the head

Do not rub up and down! This drum is very delicate! Hold the pad stationary against the side of the drum and rotate the drum back and forth with a finger on the top side, where those two little green circuit boards are in my picture. You might have to re-fold your paper and add a bit more alcohol if the head is moderately to very dirty. Don't feel disappointed if you don't see much dirt on the paper. All it takes is a tiny speck to throw the playback picture into oblivion!
And by the way, don't touch the side of the drum with your fingers.

7. Now you should just let the VCR dry for about 10-15 minutes. If you try to play a tape on a VCR with wet heads, you just kiss good-bye to one video tape, and maybe a video head, so better safe than sorry.

8. After it dries, most repair shops will connect the VCR up to a TV and test it, but I'm not telling you to do that. I don't want to get sued by someone who "dropped their screwdriver into a running VCR, then sliced their hand open on moving parts while trying to retrieve it just before they got fried on a live 120V terminal!" So if you feel brave, you do it at your own risk!

9. Double check everything you touched, and make sure everything seems OK and in the same position as when you started. Reinstall any metal shields and/or circuit boards that you removed, making sure to get the right screws in the right places.

10. Reinstall the top cover (and the top-loader cover if your machine has one) making sure to get any metal tangs back in the correct place.

11. Reconnect the VCR to the TV, plug in the VCR, and try a tape in it. If it works, congratulations, you just saved yourself $25, but if not, you can try cleaning the rotary drum head again, but if the second attempt still fails, it's time to find a reputable repair shop.

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This page was written with a 1984? 8088 XT, 640Kb RAM, DR-DOS, and Arachne!
Greg's Electronics
Phone: (519) 844-2442
This page updated December 3rd 2007