The 3.5 inch 1.44Mb floppy disk drive has been a standard feature on PC’s from the late 1980’s early 286’s through to Pentium 4 PC’s into middle 2000’s. Incredible as it may seem, 1.44Mb floppy drives still have a place a in retro computing mostly as a starting point for installation of the main operating system or for upgrading the system BIOS. Whilst floppy drives are generally quite simple and reliable, I have noted many have simply stopped working, which is rather frustrating when setting up a retro PC. Fortunately, I’ve found 95% of all dead floppy disk drives can be restored back to working order with a few easy repairs that take around 15 minutes.
Cause of failure in 1.44Mb floppy drives.
The main culprits I’ve found are:
- Lack of lubrication, dried up grease
- Dirty heads
- Other: Misaligned heads, circuit board failure, stepper / spindle motor failure.
Dust tends to accumulate inside floppy drives due to the ventilation flow design of PC case fans and power supply.
Grease on spindle has dried up and become sticky.
Guide rail is clogged with dust and lacks lubrication.
Dirty heads will cause read / write errors.
How to clean and lube your floppy disk drive
Opening up the drive: Most 1.44Mb floppy drives have a lid or top cover which is clipped on the side and can be removed with a flat screwdriver. Some drives have 2 tiny phillips screws which need to be removed.
Use a flat screwdriver to the remove cover.
Remove dust: The best way to remove built up dust from the drive is by using compressed air. If you don’t have access to compressed air then you can do a fair job by using a small brush and blowing the rest out by mouth.
Compressed air is a great way to blast the dust from a floppy drive.
Clean up old dried lubricant: If you want, clean up any old dried grease on the spindle and guide rail with paint thinner or turps using a cotton bud.
Apply new lubricant: Choose your lube.
Once the floppy has been cleaned from dust and any dried up grease, it’s time to lubricate the essential parts of the drive. Choices of lube include:
- General purpose grease
- Vaseline or Petroleum Jelly
- Mineral Oil
- Sprays such as CRC 5.56, WD40, RP7, Penetrene, Inox, etc
Lube spindle & rail:
I’ve found using general purpose grease works quite well on the the spindle. Oil tends to be too runny which goes everywhere making a complete mess. Sprays such as WD40, CRC & RP7 similarly tend to make a big mess, although they work well at freeing up stuck loading / ejecting mechanisms.
Petroleum Jelly (Vaseline etc): If you can’t lay your hands on any grease, petroleum jelly such as Vaseline (which is available cheaply at most supermarkets) also works quite well. Actually, I’ve used this a lot and recommend it.
How to apply: I use a small flat screwdriver to apply grease to the spindle. Apply a small blob of grease to the spindle and spread evenly across. Only a small amount is required so don’t over do it.
Guide rail: Also apply some grease to the guide rail. Once again, just a small blob of grease on the rail will do. *Be careful not to get grease on the heads.*
Apply a small blob of grease to the spindle.
Apply grease to the guide rail also. Careful not to get grease on the heads.
Manually work the spindle to make sure things are working smoothly.
Cleaning the heads.
Take the opportunity to clean the heads with a cotton bud and head cleaner. Proper head cleaning solvent is the best, but if you don’t have this, then methylated spirits or acetone will work ok. Clean top and lower heads.
Lift the top head mechanism up and clean the lower head. Then clean the top head. The heads are quite delicate, so be *very gentle* when you do this.
Plug the floppy drive back in to the PC. Making sure:
- The cable is plugged in the correct way
- BIOS: Drive type 1.44Mb
- BIOS: First boot device is floppy drive
- You have a bootable 1.44Mb floppy disk
Floppy drive plugged in and ready go.
Floppy drive successfully booting a Windows 98 Start Up floppy disk
And if it still doesn’t work……
- Substitute the floppy drive for a known working drive to eliminate issues such as bad cable, bad boot disk.
- Try exercising the drive mechanism by hand more.
If it doesn’t work after this, problems with the heads or a bad logic board are most likely the cause. It’s usually not worth spending the time fixing these problems and better to replace the drive entirely.