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Going to the store is treacherous for me. So I prefer doing stuff at home, including cleaning up 5¼" floppy disks with only home supplies. Unfortunately, I do not know how or which materials/chemicals to use. This is a dilemma for me because I might accidentally damage a disk.

How can I safely clean these floppy drives with only supplies usually found at home instead of a NOS cleaning kit?

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  • 1
    Is there a specific model of drive you're interested in here?
    – Mark
    Apr 19 '16 at 21:29
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    Are you asking how to clean a disk or a drive? Your title says drive but you talk about disks
    – Thraka
    Apr 19 '16 at 21:57
  • 2
    For reference, those disk cleaning systems they used to sell used mostly distilled water, with a small amount of dispersant. But as one answer gives, rubbing alcohol works, too.
    – user12
    Apr 20 '16 at 0:28
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    Early in my career I was a bench engineer repairing 8”, 5.25” & 3.5” floppy disk drives. The method used to clean a head was isopropyl alcohol and a cotton bud or foam tip. The lower head is reasonably robust as they are bonded in place, but be careful when trying to clean the upper head. The head is mounted on a foil and it is possible to bend the foil which will put the upper head out of alignment Jan 19 '18 at 8:48
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Ideally you should clean the drive read/write head(s) with a cotton swab dipped in 90+% cleaning alcohol (e.g. isopropyl). The aim is to leave nothing on the head - dirt, cotton, nor cleaner residue.

The Apple II drive head is quite hardy, and there are legends of people in a pinch cleaning it with a T-shirt - which I do not recommend unless your need is dire!

Finding the Apple II drive head is reasonably easy: if the drive is placed in its normal orientation, the head presses up onto the bottom of an inserted disk. Here is an excellent video tutorial.

Other drives might differ, but this PC 1.2MB drive also has the head on the bottom.

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  • 3
    By my understanding, foam swabs are usually safer than cotton swabs (cotton ones can leave strands behind, foam ones won't).
    – JAB
    Jun 6 '16 at 20:03
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You can simply cut open the disk -in side where you hold the disk and insert it into the floppy drive- and let it soak a few min in water and liquid dishwash soap.

To dry them you need to wipe from center and out with a paper towel or a soft cloth, lay the disc on top of a papertowel or soft cloth rather than table while doing so.

you can also do it the slow way, water/ipa and cottonstick. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=01n8RgHgIwg

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I can't stress enough the importance of cleaning heads especially when you are dealing with a quantity of old disks. One degrading disk will deposit material on the heads which can destroy subsequent disks you put in. Floppy disk heads basically make direct contact with the disk surface, so any abrasive material (mold, dust or oxide coating) will scratch or dig a groove in the next disks you use. Of course the problem compounds because the material that it scrapes off only serves to make the heads more abrasive.

I also can't stress enough the importance of making sure the heads are 110% completely dry before trying to read any disks. Even after drying with a dry cloth or swab, I'd say 5 minutes isn't enough, wait at least 30 minutes. In my experience even the smallest little bit of moisture will act like silly putty and pull the disk surface right off - especially with older disks that have started to break down.

I say this from recent experience of trying to archive a large collection of old 360K floppy disks, and before I realized what was actually happening managed to destroy quite a few disks (and possibly a drive too).

In short, inspect every disk before you even put it in the drive. Look for any signs of mold or lines on the surface, and listen closely for any sound high-pitched sounds or scraping and if you hear it pull the disk out immediately! For any questionable disk, I'd highly recommend using a "sacrificial" disk drive, cleaning the heads after each disk and be prepared to destroy the next few disks you put in.

For more reading on the topic, this article expands on some of these points in more detail with photos: http://www.retrotechnology.com/herbs_stuff/clean_disks.html

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Check this out:

http://www.vcfed.org/forum/showthread.php?43547-How-to-make-an-head-cleaning-kit-for-5-25-quot-floppy-drive-(my-way)

This guy tells you exactly how to make your own cleaning floppy disk drive.

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  • Welcome to Retrocomputing! Answers that are mostly links are discouraged. Can you quote or paraphrase the essence of the information on your linked page?
    – DrSheldon
    Sep 19 '20 at 0:35
  • That link is now dead, but the title makes me suspect it's referencing this guide (with explanatory photos) that walks you through converting a sacrificial 5.25" floppy into a cleaning disk and then using the Image Disk software to command the drive heads to wipe themselves clean on it.
    – ssokolow
    Apr 25 at 6:12

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