The Fragility of Vinyl Records: Sunlight Damage and Repair

We live in an era of music abundance. The amount of recorded music we can access today is unprecedented. From listening to full albums on streaming platforms to playing vinyl records on a turntable, we can choose among multiple media channels and formats. I grew up collecting CDs and recording mix tapes on cassettes in the 90s. Later, I transitioned to the compressed MP3 format in the early 2000s, filling computer and mobile devices hard drives with thousand of light weight audio files. By the first decade of the 21st century I became fascinated with the possibility and comfort of streaming and discovering any kind of music on digital platforms like YouTube, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Meanwhile, as I became engaged in electronic music and radio production, I started to collect old vinyl records from cumbia, porro, champeta, classic salsa, jazz and other 20th century genres.

Although I had access to digital channels, I rediscovered the unique possibilities that playing and listening to vinyl afford. And I say “rediscover” because I remember that during my childhood I listened and played to my family vinyl collection, scratched some of them, and even broke a couple of stylus of the home stereo. I have loved experiencing, again, the physicality and materiality of vinyl. The manipulation of the physical object, the flipping of its sides, and the analogue sound of a lossless format fascinates me. Vinyl has let me develop media practices that disconnect me from algorithms and screens, and from the massive surveillance operating on digital platforms. Moreover, it has allowed me listen to recorded music with more attention, considering not only the sound but also the narratives, art, and technical information printed in the album covers. However, vinyl demands lots of care and maintenance. And that is perhaps one of the big disadvantages of this format. Not only vinyl records need to be stored in particular ways, but they also require careful handling and cleaning to keep a good condition. Vinyl records can easily be damaged: scratched, bent, warped, and degraded. In this post I would like to share my experience with a warped record I accidentally damaged by directly exposing it to sunlight, and that I was able to fix (unwarp).

Some months ago, while spending time at a rural house at the Bogota Savanah and surviving the pandemic quarantine, I played vinyl records on an old turntable next to a big window. Sunlight hit the window during the morning when the sky was clear. From 8am to 12pm any vinyl I played was at risk of getting direct sunlight exposure. Although the window had a veil that helped to reduce sunlight exposure, the light entered the room and illuminated the vinyls that I played. One day, the accident happened. I played a vinyl record while the veil was open, and direct sunlight hit it for several minutes. Perhaps more than 40 minutes. When I went to the turntable to flip it, I realized the record was warped. I looked through the window and saw the clear blue sky and the sun shining. It was around 11:30 am, and the sunlight was hitting with all its strength, augmented by the altitude of the location, over 2400 meters over the ocean. Even humans at this altitude will get a sun burn if we don’t take precautions when exposing to the light of our closest star.

Vinyl record warped after direct sunlight exposure

The vinyl looked pretty warped. Although it was not a taco, it was bent and when I played the stylus went up and down as if it was grooving over little hills. I searched online for solutions and found several methods as the ones described here and there. From placing the vinyl in between heavy objects during an extending period of time at normal temperatures, to using the oven and place the vinyl in between glass panes at 79 °C degrees (175 °F), to using a flattening record device, there are several documented techniques one can use to unwarp the vinyl. After careful consideration I tried the heavy object sandwich method since it appears to be the safer and easiest to do. I cleaned the vinyl, placed it in between a solid surface and a heavy stack of books for an extended period of time. I checked after one month and the record continued warped. I left it for three more months, and added more heavy objects to the stack, including an old CPU, and big books. However, nothing happened to the record. After almost a year, I decided it was time to give up. The technique did not work as expected. I am not sure if it was due to the amount of weight I placed it or because of the kind of damage.

Earlier this year I returned to the rural house and found two panes of glass on the garage, that were left there after being removed from an old library shelve. Immediately I remembered that one of the vinyl unwarping techniques involved glass panes and an oven. I was not sure about using the oven given the size of the glass panes, but I thought that perhaps I could just use the heat of the sun and doing a sort of variation of the oven method. I prepared the materials for the next day and decided to deploy the glass pane method at the outdoors, using the energy of our closest star, at 2400 meters over the ocean. At 11am I placed the materials on an outdoor table, and then left the record in between the glass panes for about 40 min, directly exposing it to sunlight.

Sandwich glass panes method with outdoors direct sunlight exposure

After that, I placed some heavy weight on the top of the glass. Basically, several heavy books.

Application of heavy weight sandwich method at outdoors

I waited for other 40 minutes, and then removed the books, the glass panes, and took the vinyl record on my hands. It seemed unwrapped. However, I decided to continue applying the heavy weight method for another 30 minutes, this time, inside the house.

Indoors heavy weight sandwich method

After completing this process they vinyl record had returned to its original shape. It was fixed! The result of combining the heavy weight and glass pane methods with direct sunlight exposure at a garden worked for unwarping the vinyl. I played the record on the turntable and the trumpet and voice of Luis Armstrong sounded great, with all warmness and depth.

Fixed vinyl record (unwarp) after applying the combination of methods

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