John Sturgis

The secret to restoring old records

The secret to restoring old records
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It’s a kind of alchemy, transforming worthless clutter into pleasing and valuable collectors’ items, a slow but gratifying process all but forgotten in the modern age.

I first learned it from the woman who ran a second-hand record store in my hometown, Tunbridge Wells, from the late seventies to the early nineties, where I misspent much of my youth and most of my pocket money.

Fiona, a hangover from the hippie era, with her whispered husky voice and the endless extraordinarily-thin hand-rolled cigarettes that perhaps explained it, first imparted this lesson in around 1982.

I speak of the lost art of fixing warped records.

Anyone who has vinyl albums in any number will have them: those discs so wonky that the outer edge sends the phono arm jumping so that if you want to play them at all you have to put the stylus down closer to the centre than the outer edge. And as well as being audibly ruined they are also visually displeasing: one’s eye is drawn to the imperfection as it revolves unevenly, rising and falling drunkenly, and can’t look away.

For me the problem was particularly grave. When we were packing to move to our current house five years ago I made a point of explaining to the removal firm’s advanced guard as he started to box my record collection that albums must always be stored vertically, never horizontally. But I realise now that when he nodded in apparent affirmation he was just being polite and had not understood a thing I’d said.

After he’d packed them, those boxes of records were then stacked in an airless and often very warm garage for storage for 12 months until new shelves were ready. The result, when I finally got to unpack them, was that hundreds were warped. In fairness he had inexplicably packed some the right way up, some flat, in a proportion of about 50/50. So it could have been better, it could have been worse, my glass was half full, he’d ruined half my record collection. Because ruined they were, most in those flat-packed boxes had warped like frisbees, some so badly they were more like fruit bowls.

I was bereft. But then I remembered the early eighties, Talisman Records, Fiona, her roll-up fags - and her vinyl solution.

Her alchemic process is remarkably simple: acquire two sheets of glass cut 12.5 inches square. Sandwich damaged disc between them - still in its paper sleeve to minimise the risk of collateral scratching - and bake at a low temperature. If this was a cook book I’d say: “for eight to 12 hours or overnight”.

They come out of the oven still pleasingly warm to the touch and they are pristine again, beautifully, beautifully flat. It’s like baking perfect cakes, every time. This even works on those pre-1950s 78s that are an eighth of an inch thick and made of Bakelite.

The process also produces a faint warm record aroma that evokes memories of Talisman Records 40 years ago. If I was a prog rock fan I could do a joke about Proustian Rush here - but I never warmed to the nerdy Canadians: there are no Rush albums in my stack.

Anyway it’s a joy. And it’s become a daily joy, as I bake my way back to having a working record collection, doing two at a time, four every 24 hours.

Some among the small cognoscenti out there who know about this repair technique insist you can speed up the process by significantly increasing the temperature and reducing the cooking time. But knowing how easy it is to ruin a steak or a fillet of fish by misjudging the timing even slightly, I’m loath to risk it. Particularly since my only disaster so far: my wife, wishing to bake some actual cakes last weekend removed my half-baked vinyl stack and somehow contrived to place it on a burning hob. Within 30 seconds that pleasant warm record smell had become an acrid smoke, and I needed new glass sheets and a new copy of my now-melted Upsetters’ album Eastwood Rides Again.

This was admittedly a setback but what is one casualty compared to dozens of vinyl lives saved?

So I press on. And every day there are little delights and oddities in those boxes, memories and reminders: oh look, my Sergeant Pepper has all the photo inserts, I’d forgotten. Or Scott Walker Sings Jacques Brel - what proto hipster tracked down this neglected gem? Well it turns out I did.

What’s surprised me as I’ve rhapsodised about the pleasure this new hobby has brought me is how few other people seem to have heard of it, even among my nerdiest muso acquaintances.

My friend Luke has just written a book with the rather clever conceit of comparing the innovations of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Dylan as they unfolded in real timeline. Or there’s Mark who has DJ’d one of London’s most fondly regarded club nights for nearly 30 years and whose record collection dwarfs mine. But did either know how to salvage a buggered old copy of Surf’s Up or a 12” of You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)? They did not.

If I was a younger man I’d do a ‘you won’t believe this incredible life hack’ instructional video on TikTok rather than an article for The Spectator but there you are, horses for courses.

As a footnote, I should mention Fiona’s other trademark trick: if you need to clean a record don’t put water anywhere near it. Instead squirt some of the fluid they sell in tobacco kiosks to fill those old Zippo lighters onto a dust cloth and wipe with care.

Fiona died some years ago. A great number of these records I’m restoring still have a trace of her on them: she would hand-write a price in biro on the grey card inside of the album sleeve to stop chancers swapping the price stickers while she wasn’t looking. She remains in my thoughts almost daily lately because of all this.

I just wish she’d told me what brand of glue to use to refix album sleeves that have come apart. That’s my next project.

Written byJohn Sturgis

John Sturgis is a veteran Fleet Street news journalist

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