To paraphrase an old commercial, you can’t keep your vintage computer from getting old. But you can keep it from looking old. Clean vintage computers in good condition are more enjoyable, or at least easier to admire for the era they represent. And usually, no matter how neglected the computer is, you can clean it up and make it look nearly new as long as there’s little to no physical damage.
There are many inexpensive household cleaners that work well on vintage computers. That means without spending a lot of money, you can get your vintage computers looking much better.
Start with the least aggressive cleaners first
The first rule of cleaning vintage computers is to do no harm. Vintage computers are getting expensive, and based on the arc other nostalgia-driven collectibles have followed, I expect that to continue at least until the majority of Generation X reaches retirement age. Don’t do financial harm to yourself by causing irreversible damage to the machine.
Even alcohol can damage plastics or paint under some circumstances, so it’s best to be smart about it. You also don’t want to soak the item with cleaner. Surface clean the item, don’t soak it. In the mid 1980s I read a story about how someone damaged a very expensive computer that was only a couple of years old by spritzing the whole thing down with 409.
So proceed with caution. If you get impatient, you can do more harm than good.
To disassemble or not disassemble?
You can do a more thorough job by taking the unit apart, but every unit is different. And CRT monitors contain high voltages. If you’ve never discharged a CRT before, this isn’t the time to learn. Just surface clean it and leave the internals to someone who knows about CRTs.
Disassembly and reassembly can be tricky and every machine is different. If you’ve never taken that type of machine apart before, stick with a surface clean. If you’re comfortable taking computers apart and fine with watching Youtube videos showing you how to disassemble an unfamiliar one, then go to town.
Soap and water
It’s surprising how much dirt soap or dish detergent on a damp cloth, especially a microfiber cloth, will remove. Unless the system has really tough marks on it, or pen or marker on it, frequently this is all I have to do to get a system cleaned up and looking close to new.
If you actually disassemble the unit, you can wash the case in the kitchen sink, or outside with a hose. I wouldn’t soak a metal case for very long but you can soak plastics as long as you wish.
With metal cases, you may wish to use an automotive shampoo rather than soap or dish detergent, as automotive shampoos don’t have any salts in them.
Some plastics, especially the soft plastics used on cables, and rubbery plastics used on mouse scrollwheels, can develop an odd, almost slimy feel as they age. For that, I recommend Murphy’s Oil Soap specifically. Here’s why. But it works well on other plastic surfaces too.
For tougher dirt, glass cleaner is a good step up from soap and water. Again, use a microfiber cloth if possible. Glass cleaner will sometimes remove more stubborn marks as well. Spray on your cloth, not the computer. Windex is a common brand name in the United States, but glass cleaner is glass cleaner. It comes in a spray bottle and it’s usually blue.
Cleaning permanent marker from vintage computers
To clean permanent marker, you have a couple of options. I like to wipe it off with Super Clean or Purple Power, both cleaners available at auto parts stores. It’s tough on ink and even paint, and doesn’t hurt the plastic. Just be sure to wear gloves while using it, because it’s murder on your hands. Almost anything you can’t remove with glass cleaner will come off with either of these two purple cleaners. Just be careful on painted surfaces because it will eventually attack that paint too.
I do have a few other tricks for permanent marker and plastic if you’re interested.
Removing tape residue
Tape residue can be hard to clean off, but lighter fluid usually makes quick work of it. I like Ronsonol, but any lighter fluid will probably do. Squirt a bit of lighter fluid onto a cotton swab, then rub it onto the tape. It will dissolve the adhesive and the tape will peel right off.
The same trick works with stickers. I would be careful with stickers, though. If you have any stickers from a computer dealer who sold the machine or repaired it, leave those intact if at all possible. The history of the machine is worth something to a collector. Usually when we get our hands on machines we know next to nothing about them. My favorite Commodore disk drive has a price tag from Kmart on its underside, priced at a jaw-dropping $289. It was a pretty good deal at the time, though. A sticker from Computerland or a defunct computer dealer would be an even bigger prize though.
Cleaning stubborn marks from vintage computers
When cleaners won’t remove the marks, you can use a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser on them. Just wet the Magic Eraser slightly, then wipe it over the surface. These sponges are made of Melamine, which becomes slightly abrasive when wet. It will readily remove ground-in dirt and other stubborn, clingy marks. It will polish the plastic if you use it too much, so exercise caution if you don’t want shiny marks on your plastic case. With practice, you’ll get the hang of it.
Dealing with deep scratches and scuffs
There usually isn’t much you can do for deep scratches and scuffs, but if you clean them out with a Magic Eraser, you at least make them less noticeable. They’re harder to notice when they’re as clean as the rest of the case. If there’s a raised surface on the edge of the scratch, the Magic Eraser will even that out a bit. It won’t be perfect, but you can at least make it better.
Cleaning rust off vintage computers
If your computer is rusty, you can easily treat rust with a product called Evaporust, available at many auto parts stores and some hardware stores. Evaporust is generally safe for paint, so it will eat the rust without doing major damage to the remaining paint. You can just drizzle it onto light rust and let it sit and generally get good results. Stronger rust needs to be soaked in it. But generally you can use Evaporust to get rid of any unsightly rust you’ll find on a vintage computer.
Matching paint can be tricky. Black is easy; just figure out whether it’s a flat, satin, or gloss finish and get a black paint to match. Other colors tend to be trickier. You can probably find a gray, cream, or tan color that’s close, but not exact. If you live near a good paint store, they can mix up some paint to match the case and you can use that for a touch-up. That’s going to give you a better result, generally, than trying to use an off-the-shelf color. Off-the-shelf colors will probably look better than bare metal, but they probably won’t look quite right.
To prevent yellowing, the scourge of vintage computers, you can spray the plastic surfaces down with 303 Protectant. 303 is one of those unsung products that actually does what a much more famous competing product claims to do. Unlike competing products, 303 doesn’t make the plastic brittle, does a much better job of protecting the surface from UV light, and you can remove it easily with warm water if you ever want to. You probably won’t want to, but that’s the sign of a great product. Just apply a bit of the 303 to a soft cloth and wipe it on. You don’t want too much, as applying too much of it can result in streakiness.
If the system has already yellowed, you can actually de-yellow it without chemicals. I recommend that method, as it’s gentler.
Yellowing is generally caused by oxidation, but some of the discoloring is probably dirt. Always clean the system before attempting to retrobright it. You’ll get better results from the retrobright and in some cases you will find retrobright isn’t needed.