Anyone who has used VHS for any considerable length of time would have encountered the dreaded “damaged cassette”. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but most commonly, it seems that the culprit is often a bad VCR. Considering how mechanically sophisticated VCRs were, it would be forgivable that the timings might sometimes “slip” and that might lead to anything from a stuck cassette right through to a chewed tape.
Salvaging a VHS cassette became a very common operation for this reason. Often it’s out of a desire to salvage the recording enough so that it can be dubbed (copied) from one tape to another, or not to waste the tape itself.
Not being a stranger to actually fixing things, from a young age, I had already familiarized myself with the process of taking apart most VHS cassettes:
- Remove the spine label, or alternatively, use a sharp hobby knife and cut along the seam.
- Flip the cassette over and undo all five (or sometimes, four) screws, but hold the cassette shells together.
- Flip the cassette right side up and lift the top lid straight off. With any luck, you would not have disturbed the reel lock mechanism (which has a tendency to spring out, because it is held in tension by two springs), although rebuilding it isn’t much of a drama.
This should bring you to the point where you are faced with two reels.
In our case, the majority of the cassette was played through, and some tape chew happened towards the end. If you wanted to salvage this, it would be good to have a second shell to hold the end bit as we will cut out the chewed part. Some people seem content with winding chewed tape back into the machine, but that’s ill advised as it causes additional stress on the head and can lead to further jams and complications.
For this demonstration, I might as well just cut off the chewed bit and dispose of it. So out come the scissors, the tape is cut, and the small amount left on the reel is unspooled and disposed of.
The end clear leader is kept – this clear leader allows the VHS deck to detect the end of the tape. Without it, on a fast-forward operation, the cassette will slam to the end and (occasionally) snap or slip out of the hub retention clip necessitating another repair. It’s also necessarily hard on the VCR’s belts as well.
What you can do is just cut off the slicing tape where the leader is – a slight shortening doesn’t hurt. If you don’t have splicing tape handy (as I never do), I’ve found that an acceptable substitute is sticky tape. Have the splice lined up as good as you can, and ensure none of the adhesive is visible from the outside. Also check to avoid leaving any finger oil deposits on the tape itself just to keep the machine clean.
Now that the cut end is re-attached to the reel, you can commence re-threading the tape back into the shell, through the guides, and give the first few wraps on the reel.
Then reassemble the cassette as the reverse of the above procedure, checking that the reel lock mechanism hasn’t shifted (i.e. no rattling). Once you’ve reassembled it and verified the tape’s path, then you’ve all good!
Some variations on this repair include some users splicing tape to tape, which is another ill advised method. Splices mid tape necessarily will make contact with a high-speed spinning drum, and a failure to make a good clean splice can cause permanent head damage. Other desperate users may have no leader and just clip the tape to the hub reel – this is possible provided you fold the tape and double back on it, because the tape’s thinness compared to the leader will likely cause it to slip out of the clip mechanism. The other thing to remember is never to fast forward right to the end on one of those cassettes.
Common Damage to Tapes
VHS tapes seem to receive a lot of abuse sometimes – especially rental ones. Common damage to VHS cassettes include fungus growth on the cassettes where they’ve been stored in excess humidity. There’s not much one can do about it, and it’s only obvious if the reel has been sitting idle for a while, by seeing white deposits on the tape reels.
Looking at the surface of the tape, you can only see a faint sign of white at the edges. Running fungused tape through your VCR will lead to contamination of all the other tape that passes through that deck, so it’s good to nominate a “sacrificial” deck for recovering fungus tapes. The heads may clog quickly, and generally, fast-forwarding and rewinding will throw fungus spores everywhere which can make you sick. It’s not a mess you really want to deal with.
Another common damage is “ripples/flagging” on the edges of the tape caused by poorly aligned VCRs running the tapes into rollers, or low quality video rewinders that fail to properly lift the reels sufficiently to make them clear the edges of rollers. This can disrupt the audio and control tracks and may playback very unstable.
Bad tape guides in rewinders and VCRs, or even in the cassette itself can cause scoring of the tape along its length. This causes a noise bar across the image on screen at the same height, if it’s very severe. Towards the end and beginning of the tape, where the reel hub clips are, the unevenness in some of the hub clip assemblies cause creases across the tape which cause “rising” bars of noise or instability/jumpiness towards the beginning and end of the tape itself.
Unfortunately, there’s not much that can be done about these kinds of damage to tapes, but it’s good to be aware of them.