Scratch? Meet Scuff!

Every once in a while someone brings a record up to me in the store and asks if a mark on one of my records is going to make a sound when played. Most of the marks in questions are usually just long scuffs from record handling mishaps, but generally nothing too serious. Until fairly recently I didn’t pay too much attention to these kinds of marks, but I’m starting to pay more attention now because I realize the various marks found on a record’s surface remain somewhat mysterious even to long time collectors.

Twenty years ago, Steve Mintz, from Bagatelle Records, took the mystery out of scratch identification for me when he told me to run my fingernail across the area in question. He told me if I could feel it, it was a scratch.  If one runs a fingernail over a scratch, it will “catch” the edge of the nail in the same way it’s going to snag the stylus. A deep scratch will make a loud “thump” because the stylus dips blow the level of the playing surface and the resulting ‘thump” is from the needle hitting the far “wall” of the scratch at a slightly lower level than the playing surface and getting pulled back up.

Scuffs are surface abrasions. A scuff can occur when a record is jammed into the inner sleeve too hard. Others are marks that result from contact with a hard object like the spindle or the edge of a turntable. There are also scuffs caused by a record shifting inside the sleeve and cover while on a shelf or in storage over a period of years, especially when a hard object is pressing against the cover.

A scuff is similar to a scratch in that it may make a loud noise or even create a skip, but the mechanics are different; the vinyl’s surface has been altered, but not to the point of wiping out the encoded music.

A “hard” scuff that doesn’t compress the vinyl straight down can push the vinyl over in a fashion similar to a wave. This creates a “lip” at the top of the groove which either narrows it or even possibly covers the groove. Depending on which direction the vinyl is pushed, the scuff can either create a locked groove that will not let the stylus advance or it might create a “bridge” to the “next” groove over, closer to the label.

Sometimes I use my thumbnail to burnish the affected area to see if I can mash the vinyl down to the point where the groove opens up enough to let the stylus pass. This operation isn’t always successful and may result in some type of noise when the needle passes over the afflicted area, but if it works I’ve salvaged a record that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to sell.