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Safely Cleaning Your Old Tapes

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By Katy Sommerfeld

Imagine: you’ve been cleaning out your basement or attic, and you found some old videotapes that you haven’t seen in a while. Excited, you’re looking on all sides of each tape, trying to find a title or something describing what mysteries are recorded on them. You don’t find any information; instead, you find a bunch of dust, mold, dirt, and debris. Gross!


What can you do when you have dirty videotapes? Well, the good news is that there are a couple of ways to get those tapes looking fresh and new so that you can safely watch them in a tape player or send them in for digitization. We have two methods for safely cleaning your videotapes that won’t hurt your tapes or your health with harsh chemicals. Let’s dive in!


Method 1: Electronic tape cleaner

Using an electronic tape cleaner is the best and easiest way to clean old videotapes. Electronic tape cleaners are gentle and don’t use harsh chemicals, so you know your tapes will be safely cleaned.


For this method, you’ll need:

  • Electric tape cleaner
  • Tape player
  • Phillip’s head screwdriver
  • Alcohol
  • Q-tip

Steps

  1. Fast forward your tape all the way to the end in a tape player.
  2. Insert your tape into the electronic tape player and press the “clean” button.
  3. Remove the tape from the machine and use a screwdriver to open the tape’s casing.
  4. Dip a Q-tip in a small amount of alcohol and swab the casing and the inside of the empty reel gently to remove mold, dirt, and dust. Do not clean the reel with the tape. 
  5. Screw the casing back onto the tape using the screwdriver.
  6. Use the electric tape cleaner to fast forward your tape by running another “clean” cycle.
  7. Once the clean cycle is complete, remove the tape from the machine. Use the screwdriver to remove the casing from the tape again. 
  8. Dip another Q-tip in alcohol and gently swab the inside of the other empty reel now. Do not clean the reel with the tape - you already cleaned that side the first time around.
  9. Screw the casing back onto the tape, and rewind the tape all the way.

Method 2: Manual videotape cleaning

Manually cleaning videotapes can be helpful when an electronic tape cleaner isn’t getting all the dirt and dust off your tapes. However, this method should be a last resort. Handling tape in this way is risky, and it can be easily damaged in the manual cleaning process. Try the electronic tape cleaner first, and then if there is remaining dirt, carefully try these steps below.


For this cleaning method, you’ll need:

  • Cotton gloves
  • Tissue or cotton cloth

Steps

  1. Make sure your tapes are completely dry if they have been submerged or stored in a humid environment.
  2. Put on a pair of clean, cotton gloves.
  3. Lift the side flap of the tape casing where you can see the tape running from one reel to the next. Gently pull out about one foot of tape.
  4. Gently wipe the exposed tape using a cotton cloth or tissue. You do not need to use any cleaners or water, as these can damage the tapes. 
  5. Once clean, twist the reels to pull the tape back in place. Then pull out another foot of tape from the reels. Wipe this section with a cotton cloth or tissue.

These are the two best ways to get your old videotapes cleaner than ever before. The magnetic tape stored inside the videotape’s casing is sensitive and can easily be broken if mishandled. Make sure that any time you are handling your tapes, you are very careful. 

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