How to Clean Your VCR Heads

Keep your VCR running as long as you can

What to Know

  • Disconnect the VCR from the power outlet and all cables. Remove the cover and clean any visual dirt.
  • Lightly hold an isopropyl alcohol-dipped cotton swab to the head drum. Rotate the drum manually.
  • Clean the erase head, stationary audio head, capstans, rollers, and gears. Clean the belts with fresh swabs.

This article explains how to manually clean your VCR heads if you notice streaks, audio dropouts, or tracking errors. These instructions apply to VHS VCRs. If you have a BETA or other format VCR, the process will be similar, but some of the internal components may be in slightly different locations.

How to Clean a VCR Head

After 41 years of production, the VCR format was officially discontinued in July of 2016. Since new replacements aren't available, it's important to know how to clean your VCR heads.

Before you begin, make sure you have the proper screwdrivers, a can of compressed air, cotton swabs, and isopropyl alcohol. Then:

  1. Eject any tape from the VCR and unplug the VCR from the wall outlet.

  2. Unplug all cables from the VCR.

  3. Place the VCR on a flat surface that is covered with newspaper or cloth to protect the surface.

  4. Remove the VCR cover. The type of screwdriver you need depends on the VCR model.

  5. Check for dust or dirt in the chassis that you can clean manually with an isopropyl alcohol-dipped cotton swab.

    VHS VCR Head Assembly - Two Views
  6. Look for the head drum. It's the large shiny round cylinder-shaped object set slightly off-center inside the chassis. Take an isopropyl alcohol-dipped cotton swab and place it on the head drum with light pressure.

    VCR Record/Play Head Close-up
  7. Manually rotate the head drum (it spins freely), keeping the cotton swab stationary, allowing the fluid to clean the drum.

    Never move the cotton swab in the vertical direction. You may snap off head protrusions on the drum.

  8. Clean the erase head, usually located just to the left of the head drum.

    VHS VCR Erase Head Assembly Example
  9. Clean the stationary audio head, capstans, rollers, and gears. Remove dust while being careful not to get excessive fluid in any part.

    VCR Audio Head and Capstans
  10. Clean the belts and pulleys using fresh cotton swabs and alcohol.

    VCR Loading Mechanism
  11. Clean dust off the circuit boards using compressed air.

  12. Let the VCR sit for a few minutes to let any moisture evaporate.

  13. With the VCR still open, plug it into the wall and TV, turn on VCR, and insert a recorded tape. Don't touch any of the interior workings of the VCR or interior metal cabinet.

  14. Press Play on the VCR to confirm that everything functions correctly and that the picture and sound are restored.

    If the video and audio playback results aren't satisfactory, check to make sure all the parts are clean and intact.

  15. Eject the tape, unplug the VCR from the wall, and unplug all cables.

  16. Screw the VCR cover back on and place it in its original location with proper hookups.

When to Clean Your VCR Head

If you notice streaks, audio dropouts, or tracking errors, clean the tape heads, head drum, and other parts inside your VCR. The best way to do this is to open up the VCR and clean it manually. Don't use a VCR head cleaner tape.

Consider transferring your VHS tapes to DVDs so that you can preserve those videos in a modern format.

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