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Cleaning VCR Tape Heads

Updated: Oct 26, 2020


Wet system cleaning tape


If you have an older VCR with an unclear picture during tape playing or just picked up a used machine on eBay, you may want to consider cleaning the VCR's tape heads. We'll look at the different options to remove debris from the heads that results in poor recordings and playback. Keep in mind the gap between the VCR head and the tape is only half a micron, thinner than a human hair, so it doesn't take much to clog this gap and cause "dirty" heads that result in jiggling, picture noise bands or erratic sound on the audio playback.


What causes dirty heads? Contaminants floating in the air such as dust particles, pet dandruff, tobacco smoke and oxide particles that come off video tape bindings during normal playback. Rental tapes, especially ones played on VCRs with dirty heads, can also cause tapes heads to clog. Let's look at some of the head cleaning options available.


Wet System Cleaning Tapes are video tape shells that have a cleaning fabric on the spool that uses a few drops of cleaning fluid that you play in the VCR.


Advantages:

  • Unlike the dry cleaning method, wet cleaning tapes remove dust/dirt from the entire tape path through the VCR including heads, tape guides, capstan and pinch rollers.

  • Cleaning liquid or isopropyl alcohol is used by professionals when cleaning heads.

Disadvantages:

  • Putting too much cleaning liquid can cause "dew" warning on the VCR.

  • VCR should be allowed to dry for 15-20 minutes to allow heads to dry to avoid tape sticking.

  • Concerns about cleaning tape fabric that is much thicker than video tape damaging or leaving fabric pieces on heads, guides or rollers.

Dry System Cleaning Tapes are video tape shells that have an abrasive cleaning tape that cleans the heads as you play the tape for about 30 seconds.


Advantages:

  • Easy to use. Just pop tape in the VCR and hit the Play button.

  • No fluids to add and other tapes can be played immediately after cleaning.

Disadvantages:

  • Dry method uses an abrasive cleaning approach rather than gently cleaning with a fluid.

  • Uses a cleaning tape that looks like extra-coarse sandpaper under a microscope raising concerns about possible damage to delicate tape heads.

Magnetic Tape System from 3M/Scotch is confused with the Dry System Cleaning tapes but uses the same magnetic material as a normal videotape.


Advantages:

  • Non-abrasive tape material and no cleaning fluid to add.

  • Tape formulation merely realigns the oxide particles on the tape and lays on larger amounts of the head cleaning agent than is used in conventional Scotch videotapes.

  • Has both an audio and visual picture indicator during playback to show when tape heads are clean.

  • 3M is only manufacturer that did a scientific study showing no damage to tape heads from use of their product.

Disadvantages:

  • None other than difficulty in finding this out-of-production product.

Manual Cleaning can be done by taking the VCR cover off and cleaning the tape heads using isopropyl alcohol on a lint-free cloth or a camera lens paper with isopropyl. If you go to a VCR repair shop, this is the method they'll use to clean the VCR along with removing any debris from inside the case.


We have used all these methods on our VHS, Super VHS, Hi8, Betamax and Mini DV machines over the years and have not seen any head damage caused. Whichever method you decide on, having clean tape heads is important for getting the best possible VCR recording and playback results. There are a few cleaning tapes still in production. For other brands, eBay has used and "old new stock" cleaning tapes for all videotape formats.

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