Make that old, dusty Atari 2600 look like new again with this handy tutorial. I found my old Atari after over 15 years of storage and brought it back to a lustrous life. Now you can, too! Read on…

My Atari 2600: Before

My Atari 2600 had been boxed up for at least 15 years. When I tried plugging it in, it didn't work.

My Atari 2600: After

After some thorough cleaning with alcohol and a toothbrush, and finished with a protective coat of Armor All®, I took another chance…could I bring it back to life?

Update: June 10, 2011: I’ve been receiving a lot of traffic lately from searches on “how to clean an Atari 2600 console” (and similar verbiage). If you’ve found me by that method, welcome! I do hope this article helps, and your comments are appreciated. Thanks for reading.

So I found my old Atari 2600 buried in my closet, along with all the original (third party) controllers and a box of cartridges which I’d bought from another hardcore Atari fan over a decade ago. You may remember me mentioning this in a previous post. No, this isn’t the one that I bought from Craigslist; this is the one I begged my dad to buy me back in 1981 for $139 from Fedco. Yup, I thought this baby was a goner, but it’s found its way back into my arms somehow or another. Maybe it knew I bought another Atari and it got jealous.

My Atari had been in a box all along.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work when I plugged it in. But after about 15 years of being buried behind all my clutter, it had gathered some serious dust. So I made it a mission to clean it and bring it back to life. The adventure was pretty darn enlightening, and I took a lot of pictures of the process. If you got here by Googling “how to clean an Atari 2600″ or “how to clean my atari 2600,” then you may find this inspirational…

Before I begin, I’d like to thank AtariGuide for their helpful hints on cleaning an Atari 2600, especially their section on how to clean the paddle controllers, which are definitely prone to “the jitters” after years of usage. I actually used their information to clean my own paddle controllers, and afterwards they were totally jitter-free. I documented that process as well, and will post it soon.

DISCLAIMER: The following stunt was performed by a non-professional. Although the author makes every effort to provide inspirational and useful information in cleaning an Atari 2600 VCS, no warranty, expressed or implied, is made regarding accuracy, completeness, reliability, or usefulness of any information. You use this information at your own risk, and you agree the author shall not be held liable for any use of this information.

The following tools were used:

  • An old toothbrush (super soft bristles)
  • 70% Isopropyl Alcohol (for case cleaning)
  • 91% Isopropyl Alcohol (for electronic cleaning)
  • Clean, soft, lint-free rags
  • Q-Tips
  • Phillips screwdriver
  • Radio Shack® Dust Remover Spray #64-4351
  • Armor All® 10 oz. Protectant for car interior surfaces (not tires) – optional
  • Patience
  • TLC

You know, as a 10-yr.-old kid in 1981, I would’ve been horrified at the thought of opening up my Atari for any reason at all. I mean, it was like some kind of mystical magic box to me from which all happiness emanated, and for me to even pry it open would’ve been like slicing open the belly of my beloved pet cat.

Nevertheless, 30 years later, upon seeing that this same magic box was dead, I simply could not accept the fact that I would never be able to relive the fun if I just tossed it in the trash. So I did some research, gathered up the appropriate tools, and went to work on a mission to raise my Atari from the murky depths of neglect. Did it work? Let’s see.

Part 1: Opening the case.

Following the brief instructions on Atari Guide, I turned the console over, and loosened and removed the four Phillips screws which held the case together, keeping them in a small plastic cup. I noticed that two of the screws were just a tiny bit longer than the others. I figured these were for the “thicker” part of the case. I had to lift the top half slowly and at an angle in order to clear the joystick and difficulty switches on the rear of the console. This took some patience.

You'll love the Atari's spacious interior.

This was the first time that I’d ever seen the inside of an Atari 2600 VCS. The clouds of mysticism cleared away, and…well, I must say that I was really surprised. All my life I had pictured the guts of the VCS to be totally complex, like a solder-city of wires, diodes and resistors and whatever else that micro-madness had in store. I thought that when I opened it, a spaghetti storm of wires and cables would spill out. But no, it was completely minimal and hardly taking up half of the console interior space at the very most. In fact, it was kinda anti-climactic. But heck, if this is where all the magic was, that’s fine with me.

Who put this paper in here...and what is this number?

Aside from its surprising minimalism, another truly odd discovery was a small piece of paper literally taped onto the metal shield of the motherboard with a piece of masking tape. Was this a pre-Post-It© note from one of Atari’s assembly line personnel? At closer inspection, the blue dot-matrix printed numerals read “99 01100452.” There’s something trippy about knowing this had been taped in there the whole time.

Part 2: Inspection and removal of the motherboard / Cleaning the bottom half of the console.

According to the Atari Guide, I had to make sure the RF cable was firmly attached to the motherboard. Check. Next, I had to check the silver box on the bottom right of the board (the modulator) for corrosion. Check. No corrosion of conformity (sorry, couldn’t help it).

The motherboard is attached to the RF cable, so to remove the board from the console, I had to pull all the RF cable through the tiny hole on the back of the console. (*Note: I later learned that the RF cable could be unplugged from the motherboard. So do it…but carefully.) Setting the motherboard aside, I took a look at the remaining empty black shell. It had decades worth of dust bunnies.

Taking a clean cloth moistened with water, I wiped it down to collect all the dust in clumps to discard. Then I used the toothbrush with 70% Isopropyl Alcohol to get into the tiny corners and tight spots where even more sticky dust accumulated.

I would’ve just went and scrubbed the whole thing under soap and water in the sink, but I didn’t want to wet nor damage the sticker on the bottom of the console, which advertised “Atari Super Service” with some toll-free numbers (which I tried dialing, btw, thinking I was actually still going to reach an “Atari Super Service representative”…um, yeah right)…

Not just service, but Atari Super Service. Big difference.

So I played it safe and scrubbed it down with the toothbrush and 70% Isopropyl Alcohol. It came out pretty nice.

Bye bye dust bunnies. The bottom half cleaned and ready for boarding.

Part 3: Cleaning the top half of the console.

Now the top half of the console needed some real TLC, after hundreds if not thousands of hours of playtime handled by Laura Scudders potato-chip-greased-and-generic-Coke-drinking adolescent paws. So I went over to the sink and put ‘er through the sponge n’ suds, with an extra helping of the trusty toothbrush to get the in-betweens.

Cleaning the console gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

I even put it in the dish rack afterwards to dry. I felt like leaving it there nonchalantly so I could have a friend, or even any guest come over and notice it—“WTF? You have an Atari case in your dish rack! …Dood, you wanna play? C’mon, Warlords!” It’d be so on.

The new Atari drying rack.

With the top and bottom halves drying, I went to work on cleaning the motherboard.

Part 4: Cleaning the motherboard.

When swabbing, be extra careful with the electronic components and soldered spots. Break 'em and you're screwed.

First I used the Dust Remover Spray to remove as much dust and grime as I could, then afterward, I gently swabbed down the dusty and dirty areas on the motherboard with a Q-Tip moistened with 91% Isopropyl Alcohol. They say that 99% Alcohol is preferred for this process, but I could only find 91% at the local CVS. They say to be really careful not to break any of the solders on the board when doing this. In future clean-up jobs I plan on using the special tightly-wound cotton swab sticks found in electronics supply stores. Much better performance and accuracy. But for now, the Q-Tips worked fine. I also used the old toothbrush with alcohol to gently scrub stubborn spots (NOT on the board).

Forgot to mention those little foam “donuts” that shield the four switch levers. These got a little dusty, but I brushed them off with a dry toothbrush and then found that if I just turned them over, they were as good as new. Use your best discretion, and don’t forget to place them onto their switches before reassembly.

Part 5: Replacing the motherboard / Reassembly of console.

I made extra sure that the bottom half of the console was as dry and clean as possible, knowing that the motherboard was going to rest in it. There are two tiny plastic “pins” molded in the bottom half of the console that retain the motherboard at a certain angle when placed within. And the angle of it aligns (or at least, should align) with the two holes needed to screw the Phillips screws back into and through the console. I set the motherboard in, and routed the RCA cable through its hole, securing it into a molded retaining notch near the bottom right of the motherboard (see picture below).

It took a couple of tries to get the top half back on, and unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of the successful one. But if I remember right, I actually had to get the rear part on first, by angling it to slide over the joystick ports and difficulty switches…then the rest just kind of fell into place with slight pressure (make sure to align the woodgrain part in front with the groove in the bottom half). I then turned it over very carefully so it wouldn’t come back apart, and replaced the four Phillips screws, beginning with the two longer ones that secure the motherboard to the console.

*Note: I found that I didn’t have to tighten those two motherboard screws all the way in order for it to be tight. Use your judgment and pay close attention to the resistance while tightening. If it feels like it won’t go any further, it’s probably not a good idea to force it. Remember, these are crucial screws and they’re routing through plastic material, which can break with force.

With everything back together, I stepped back and took some shots. It looked a lot nicer, but I still wasn’t completely happy with the final cosmetic results.

The Atari after an alcohol bath.

Rubbing and scrubbing with alcohol sure took care of the gunk and grime, but it didn’t bring back any of the luster that the shell deserved. I thought of using something that would restore the surface and make it glow like it did in its glory days. Introducing Armor All*.

*CAUTION: Something to consider before applying Armor All©: Purists consider the application of Armor All a big no-no. Also, as I’ve been told by other Atari enthusiasts/collectors, Armor All is a silicone product, and will prevent any future paint touch ups from adhering to the surface (if attempted). If you are the least bit worried about Armor All ruining the finish of your console, do not use it.

I personally chose Armor All because it was the first product I thought of when it came to restoring faded and/or oxidized plastic surfaces. I’m not looking for that Ghetto Gleam wet look, just something to bring back the natural luster of the black plastic. You’ll see below that I applied it very sparingly, which achieved the exact results I was looking for.

After doing some research and perusing Atari fan forums, I’ve found two other products which have been recommended instead of Armor All: Mother’s Back to Black and 303 Aerospace Protectant, both reputable restoration products for plastic surfaces. Once again though, please note my disclaimer in the beginning of this article.

Now, keep in mind I wanted to restore the finish, but not make it glossy wet black like freakin’ show tires at an Exoticar convention. Atari 2600s were never glossy. So for this stage I used a small clean cloth (namely the same small square of softness that I used to use to clean up my kid) with 1-2 short bursts of Armor All (onto the cloth, not the console).

BUT–Before application, I realized that Armor All would bring back luster, but not cover up any stray dirty spots. So I rechecked and scrubbed away any stubborn stains, etc. with the 70% alcohol. For grime caught in the corners and against the bezels and inlays, I used an old ball point pen to push the cloth into it.

Satisfied with the final detailing, I went to work with the rubdown, first starting with the bottom half. Remember, I used very sparse amounts of Armor All onto the cloth to minimize gloss, rubbing with consistent motion to spread the sauce. Why did I say sauce. The bottom looked much, much better afterwards.

Ah, luster. Thank you Armor All.

Applying Armor All was even more critical on the “switch plate,” where I didn’t want any smears nor a greasy finish. I barely used any Armor All on that part. For the grill, I used long, lateral motions from end to end, once again utilizing the ball point pen to push the cloth into the corners if needed.

Last but not least, I cleaned up the RF cable, first by scrubbing the length of it with a cloth plus 70% alcohol , then finishing it with another cloth with Armor All.

Now I was happy. What a huge difference that Armor All makes, if used with TLC. =) It’s too bad that most of the orange paint on that raised lip had worn off. But I guess that gives it character. Here’s the result. Forgive some of the blowout, this was taken underneath the fluorescent work lamp I was using in the middle of the night.

I took more shots the following morning in natural light. By this time, the sheen had reduced to the perfect subtle luster I was looking for.

Finally, I placed my restored 4-switcher next to my recently acquired 6-switch (which I’d actually cleaned with Windex) to compare results. It’s not the best picture in the world, but you can (hopefully) see the difference. Well worth the effort, I thought.

Boy, did I cross my fingers when I hooked my Atari back up to the TV and plugged it in. At this point, I thought, if it didn’t work, at least I cleaned it up. Kind of like putting a suit on the deceased for a burial. Or kind of…not. I dunno. But I closed my eyes and flicked the switch.

And the darn thing worked. Yay. =)

This has by far been the most popular post on my blog, so it’s evident that it has attracted others looking to clean and restore their old Atari. If you’re one of them (I would think so if you’ve read this far), I highly recommend you join, where I’ve shared this story with their community.

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