Do you have a box of old cassette tapes sitting around in less-than-ideal storage conditions? Have they been covered in dust, subjected to moisture, or just left to slowly decay? That’s OK (maybe)! Just because your tapes have been neglected and mostly forgotten, they might still be repairable. I have to warn you: cleaning your old tapes isn’t difficult, but it is tedious.
All you’ll need to begin cleaning your cassettes are a few household items, some moxy, patience, and a decent amount of time.
- Rubbing Alcohol (90% or higher)
- Q-tips or cotton balls
- Lukewarm water
- Latex gloves (or some alternative if you’re allergic)
Once you have all of your supplies, the real fun begins! Find a spot in your home where you can spread out and won’t bump into stuff. You’ll especially want some room to wiggle your elbows around. Now we’re ready to party.
Step 1: Wipe down the casing with some warm water.
You’ll want to make sure that the casing itself isn’t covered in a bunch of muck. Really get into the crevices and the spokes that turn the tape.
Step 2: Clean the tape that’s been showing for however many years.
If your tape is in the middle of its play cycle, you’ll want to go ahead and clean that area first. You don’t want that dust and grime to make it into the casing and ruin the rest of the tape. Grab your rubbing alcohol** and dip your cotton swab in it. Start gently cleaning the film with small circular motions. Don’t press too hard, but make sure you put enough pressure to remove any foreign particles. Also make sure to get both sides of the film.
Step 3: Rewind the tape.
Once your tape is in good enough condition to put it into a tape player, you’ll want to rewind the tape. Once it’s all the way rewound, you’ll repeat step 2 for the length of the cassette tape. Yes, this is going to take a long time. Yes, it’s tedious. No there are no shortcuts.
To make step 3 go faster, you might be able to rig up some sort of motor that turns the tape for you. We don’t necessarily recommend doing this, but you can try if you want. For example, you might be able to attach the tape to a clamp and use a power drill (on a very low setting!!) to turn the tape for you. Crafting something like that will allow you to spend most of your time cleaning instead of manually turning the tape. Either way, you’re in it for the long haul on this project.
Cleaning tapes isn’t difficult--you just need household items and time--but you do need a bunch of patience. I recommend getting yourself a nice yoga-style playlist, put on some headphones, and turn the process into a little meditation.
**Special note about the rubbing alcohol: you want to use a higher percentage than normal. The reason is because it evaporates faster than lower percentages, leaving less residue behind after cleaning. A lower percentage might leave water and particles behind. Go 90% or higher if possible.