9 Steps to Preserve Your VHS Tape Quality


Whether you have irreplaceable memories or valuable archives stored on videotapes, preserving them requires careful care and storage. Regular inspections should be performed to detect any physical damage, which can greatly impact their longevity and quality.

Keep your tapes in a cool and dry place away from heat sources and extreme temperatures. Moisture and humidity can lead to mold growth, which can severely affect your tapes.

1. Test the Tape

VHS is perhaps the most popular home video format in history, and for good reason. It launched in 1977 and took the world by storm, bringing big name movies into homes at an affordable price.

During playback, listen for strange sounds or signs that the tape is struggling to work (e.g. the sound may get fuzzier or the tape may stop working altogether). If possible, visually inspect the tape and cassette for any signs of physical damage as well.

For example, contaminants like smoke particles or finger smears may cause permanent impressions on the surface of the tape. In addition, white powder or crystalline residue on the tape edges from lubricant breakdown could result in signal loss during playback. A poor quality splice can also cause damage to the VCR heads. Splicing should be limited whenever possible.

2. Clean the VCR

Over time, dust can build up on the VCR’s read/write heads. This can cause a fuzzy image or even lines across the picture. To help prevent this, it is important to clean your VCR before storing it.

To do this, you can use an electronic tape cleaner or manually clean the tape heads. The electronic cleaners are much quicker and safer. However, they may not be as effective as manual cleaning.

If you’re using an electronic head cleaner, follow the instructions carefully. Some tape cleaners can actually damage the VCR’s heads if used improperly. It’s best to try to manualy clean the VCR before trying any head cleaners. To do this, you’ll need a cotton swab and some isopropyl alcohol. First, remove the cover from your VCR. Then, gently pull out about 12 inches of tape. Next, dip a cotton swab in the alcohol and swab the erase head. After swabbing the erase head, you can also swab the audio and control heads.

3. Remove the Write Protect Tab

VHS cassettes often contain a write protect tab that can be broken off. This prevents the recording from overwriting existing content and is important for ensuring that the original tape is accurately digitized.

Generally speaking, it is a good idea to remove this tab from all cassettes before digitizing them. However, this is a relatively difficult task to perform for those without specialized equipment or experience and it may not be feasible for all collections.

The write protection tab is usually located on the back, right side of the cassette and can be popped off. This can be done using a standard screwdriver or other small tool, but care should be taken not to accidentally damage the tape inside. A more effective method is to cover the entire tab with clear tape (such as scotch) before removing it. This will prevent the write protection switch from accidentally being flipped on or off during digitization.

4. Clean the Cassette

Video tapes contain delicate magnetic tape film. This tape is vulnerable to breakage if handled incorrectly. Therefore, it is very important to handle the tapes as little as possible.

The best way to clean VHS tapes is with an electronic tape cleaner. These devices are designed to clean the tapes quickly and efficiently without damaging the magnetic tape film.

A more intensive manual cleaning method can also be used for particularly dirty or damaged tapes. This method involves the use of isopropyl alcohol and a Q tip swab. The swab should be dipped in alcohol and then pressed onto the spot on the tape that is read by the heads of the VCR.

Be sure to follow the precise directions for your specific tape cleaner. Once the tape has been cleaned, be sure to store it in a dust-free environment and minimize handling to keep it looking nice for years to come.

5. Clean the Tape Heads

VHS tape is a thin medium that is very vulnerable to physical damage. It may become sluggish or stick to itself, resulting in signal loss and skewed playback. Often, such damage is visible as a dark or rust colored stain on the head or tape path.

It is critical to thoroughly clean the cassette tape deck head with 100% isopropyl alcohol, using a cotton bud, until it is clean. Do not use a screwdriver or other tool, as this can scratch the heads or the tape path.

Similarly, the tape guides must be cleaned to ensure their accuracy. They are the first parts of the tape to contact the capstan shaft and heads, and their condition can have a significant impact on playback quality. If the guides are dirty, it can cause wow and flutter, as well as the famous dropouts that occur during playback. The easiest way to clean the guides is by placing a lint-free cloth over them, as shown in figure 7. It is best to use a fabric that does not shed fibres, such as Pellon tissue.

6. Rewind the Tape

Despite the best care, VHS tapes are prone to deterioration over time. Even well-stored tapes can experience a 20 percent loss of quality within 10 to 25 years.

Within each tape, minuscule magnetic particles store audio and video signals. When these deteriorate, the picture loses clarity and can be unwatchable. Eventually, the lubricant in the binder layer can wear out, causing the tape to stretch and create tracking problems that reduce quality even further.

Temperature changes, humidity, and general wear and tear can also wreak havoc on your tapes. Humidity can cause mold or warping, while temperature shifts can stress the substrate and tape head, resulting in tracking problems or a broken housing mechanism.

7. Clean the Cassette Housing

VHS videotapes are a major component of many heritage institutions’ collections. However, this format has a finite lifetime and its playback equipment is rapidly approaching obsolescence. If the information recorded on these tapes is to be retrieved, it must be migrated to new technology.

The best option is to convert them to a data file, which will allow them to be played using a variety of software media players, rather than by specialized equipment. This will also enable them to be edited and accessed by future researchers.

Several steps should be taken to ensure the accuracy of the digitization process. First, the tapes should be screened. Duplicate content should be identified and eliminated, as well as material that cannot be digitized due to its length or other limitations (e.g. a physical condition that would require too much storage space to be captured on a DVD disc). Additionally, a visual inspection should be performed for any signs of deterioration or damage. This may be evident by a musty odor or the presence of debris on the cassette shell, tape layers and in the storage container.

8. Clean the Reel

A VHS tape that has been stored in a humid environment may have developed mold or fungus. This can cause picture quality issues and tangling when being rewound. If this is the case, the tape must be cleaned manually before it can be played again.

The most effective way to clean a moldy tape is by using an electronic tape cleaner. These machines usually begin with a burnishing blade to remove tightly adhered contaminants. They then perform a Pellon tissue wiping stage to loosen any remaining debris. However, this process is not suitable for all types of tapes and requires a great deal of care to avoid damage.

To manually clean a tape, put on a pair of cotton gloves and lift the side flap where you can see the tape running from one reel to another. Gently pull out about a foot of tape and carefully wipe the exposed portion with a cotton cloth or tissue.

9. Convert the Tape

If you want to preserve your old VHS home movies for the future, it’s important to convert them to digital. Unlike digitizing to another physical format (such as DVD), converting to a digital data file will allow the files to be played on any software media player and can easily be backed up to multiple hard drives or USBs. Following on from preserving your old VHS, here are tips on how to convert vhs to digital.

Depending on how valuable the tapes are and the time you’re willing to devote, it may be worth hiring a professional service that offers VHS to digital conversion. However, you can also try the DIY approach of purchasing a home video converter, an external hard drive, and some video editing software. Or you can take the easy route by dropping off your tapes at a store like Costco or Walmart that offers in-store video transfer services. Be sure to include any specific instructions for what you want digitized (such as each daughter’s birthday tapes on separate discs). Once the tapes are digitized, be sure to save them on your computer in the desired location and file format.