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Data Recovery 101: Cleaning Hard Drive Platters

Recovering the data stored on a failed hard disk drive (HDD) has always been hard…really hard. The nano-scale tolerances and cutting-edge technology that make the ultra-high capacity drives being sold today possible are not making the recovery task any easier.

However, as much as hard drive technology has changed over the last half a century, the data is still stored in a magnetic format on circular disks commonly referred to as platters. From a recovery standpoint, as long as the platters are healthy, the data can likely be recovered.

A hard drive making any kind of “clicking” sound could have platter damage.

But what happens when the hard drive fails and the platters are damaged? Can the data still be recovered?

The short answer is maybe. I know, not exactly a definitive answer. In all honesty, it really depends on the amount and location of the damage, and the capabilities of the lab performing the recovery work. In some instances, the damage to the platters is so severe or located in very critical areas that data recovery is impossible.

However, with the right expertise and cleaning equipment, many data recovery cases involving platter damage still result in a significant amount of the user’s data being recovered.

What factors determine whether or not Gillware can recover data from an HDD with platter damage?

Whether or not data can be recovered from a failed HDD is largely dependent on the health of the storage media, or platters. The platters, after all, are the components inside the HDD that store the binary data that comprises the user’s documents, photos, spreadsheets and more.

Unfortunately, with the ever-increasing capacity and decreasing tolerances of modern HDDs, incidences of platter damage (the delicate magnetic coating is scratched or scored) are on the rise. This is a troubling trend and one that represents huge challenges for the data recovery industry.

Damage to the HDD platters presents two distinct challenges to data recovery labs.

One of these challenges is the destruction of the data that lives in the regions of the disk that are physically scratched or damaged. Unfortunately, nothing can be done to remedy this. The data in those areas has been scratched from the platter surface and is not recoverable.

But what about all the areas of the platter(s) that are not physically damaged? Surely something can be done to recover the data in the areas of the platter that have not been relegated to a life as a pesky dust particle.

The short answer is yes, but doing so means we need to overcome the second challenge that data recovery labs face when attempting to recover data from an HDD with platter damage: dust. Not dust like you find on those annoying blinds you keep forgetting to wipe down during your spring cleaning kick, but rather the ultra-hard microscopic particulates generated inside the HDD when the read/write heads contact the platter surface. These particulates embed themselves in the platter surface and can damage otherwise healthy read/write heads.

Removing or smoothing these particulates and cleaning the platters is an essential first step when attempting to recover data from an HDD with damaged platters.

How does Gillware prepare damaged HDD platters for cleaning and data recovery?

Contrary to what a couple of popular threads on the all-knowing Internet claim, cleaning HDD platters is not as simple as picking up a rag soaked in some isopropyl alcohol and giving the platter a good ol’ spit shine. In fact, this “cleaning” technique leaves an undesirable residue behind that will further damage the platter during the recovery process.

HDDs are highly precise electromechanical devices. Manual caveman techniques for cleaning not only don’t help the recovery effort, they actually cause additional damage that can make recovery by professional labs difficult or even impossible.

Instead, Gillware’s data recovery lab uses a sophisticated cleaning and burnishing process to remove unwanted particulates from the platter surface. Gillware engineers modeled our burnishing setup after a similar process used during the HDD assembly process at the factories of hard disk drive manufacturers like Western Digital and Seagate.

You might be thinking to yourself, “Why do the HDD manufacturers need to clean the platter surfaces during production?” The answer is that although HDD platters are manufactured using state-of-the-art techniques and are assembled in dust-free environments, imperfections are always possible. As a result, HDD platters are cleaned and burnished prior to being placed into the HDD chassis.

Gillware uses the same cleaning equipment employed by HDD manufacturers, specially retrofitted for life as a data recovery tool, to burnish the platter surface(s) and prepare it for recovery operations.

How We Burnish Hard Drive Platters

In the world of mechanics, burnishing is a natural process that occurs when two surfaces slide against one another, effectively polishing or smoothing each surface. In most circumstance, this is called “component wear” and is generally an undesirable phenomenon. However, in the world of data recovery, when dealing with platters with very hard embedded particulates that are in need of a good cleaning, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.

A Closer Look at the Hard Drive Platter Cleaning and Burnishing Process

The first step in the burnishing process is to remove the platters from the HDD chassis for cleaning. The platters are then mounted, one at a time, on a custom fixture that spins the platter at 10,000-15,000 RPM. That’s around twice the normal speed consumer-grade hard disk platters spin at.

As the platter is spinning, a robotic arm with a special burnishing head attached is swiped over the platter surface. Think of the burnishing head as a very precise and expensive razor blade. As the burnishing head traverses the surface of the platter, it picks up or shears off the microscopic embedded debris left behind when the head stack crashed and the platter surface was damaged, cleaning the platters. Left after the burnishing and cleaning process is an ultra-smooth polished platter surface.

Depending on the severity of the damage, the burnishing and cleaning process can take anywhere from a couple minutes to many hours to perform. After cleaning all the surfaces, the platters are remounted in the drive chassis and new read/write heads are installed and calibrated. Then, finally, the drive is ready to move forward with the data recovery process.

Does your hard drive have scratched platters? Send it to Gillware!

We offer free shipping and free in-lab evaluations, and our data recovery process features no upfront costs and a “No Data, No Charge” guarantee. If the damage to your platters is too severe for even our burnishing tools to handle, you won’t owe us a dime.

We are one of very few labs with burnishing technology.

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20 Comments

  1. […] on the mechanical aspects of data recovery, like replacing failing read/write head assemblies or restoring damaged platters using our burnishing machine. However, mechanical repairs are only half of the data recovery process. After the drive is […]

  2. […] by slamming into the uneven portions of the platter. Fortunately, our handy-dandy (and expensive) burnishing machine can help mitigate this […]

  3. […] into the uneven portions of the platter. Fortunately, our handy-dandy (and state-of-the-art) burnishing machine can help mitigate this […]

  4. Dears,

    It seams that my external HDD Toshiba made in Filipine (250GB(LBA 488, 397, 168 Sectors), S/N19HDT289T EU8 EC.A, has click of death. I open it and by seeing the plattesr has a line of damage.
    Pls what are the chance to recover data and how is the vay and cost(if is possible)

  5. Hi Naser,

    We’d be happy to help you out with that. Visit our website at http://www.gillware.com and click “Submit a Case” to get started, or give us a call at (877) 624-7206. Our Recovery Client Advisors will be able to give you more specific information about recovery.

    Thanks!
    Ashley at Gillware

  6. […] that holds all those magnetic sign. These scratches — called rotational scoring — usually rule out successful data recovery because they have turned what was once data on a platter into […]

  7. Great! This is the firs time i see someone can try to recover data from scratched platters. I hope this will apply to all drives in future because there are many still waiting for years fot this technology.

  8. […] we found a donor drive of the exact same model to volunteer its chassis. In our cleanroom, Kirk burnished the client’s platters to get the dust off, then carefully set them into the donor chassis. After […]

  9. […] Next, we replaced the read/write heads with a healthy set from one of our donor hard drives and burnished the hard disk platters to wipe off any accumulated debris from the head […]

  10. […] from bad read/write heads, causing some damage to its platters. By running the platters through our burnishing tools and replacing the heads with a fresh set, our engineers could successfully read and image 95% of […]

  11. […] Our engineers examined the client’s beeping Seagate hard drive in our class-100 cleanroom lab. As we usually see in these situations, the read/write heads had become mangled. The platters had also sustained some damage, spreading dust across their surfaces. To get this hard drive up and running and create a disk image of its contents, our engineers replaced the read/write heads with a compatible donor set and polished the platters clean with our special platter burnishing tools. […]

  12. […] the platters went through our hard disk platter burnisher, to clean off the debris. While the burnisher can’t restore disk sectors that have been scratched […]

  13. […] get scratched, our cleanroom data recovery technicians don’t give up. With the help of our platter burnishing technology, our engineers can polish the platter surfaces, cleaning the dust and debris resulting from platter […]

  14. […] If you’re interested in learning more about how the burnishing process works, check out our burnisher blog post. […]

  15. […] platter restoration technology can help increase the chances of a successful data recovery. This advanced technique called burnishing is cutting edge, and though it is not necessary in every case, it can contribute to the cost of […]

  16. […] on the mechanical aspects of data recovery, like replacing failing read/write head assemblies or restoring damaged platters using our burnishing machine. However, mechanical repairs are only half of the data recovery process. After the drive is […]

  17. […] After taking the condition of the hard drive into account and presenting a price quote which the client approved, the drive went back into the cleanroom. Charles, another of our cleanroom engineers, took over the case from there. In order to recover data from this Seagate desktop hard drive, Charles needed to get it spinning again and ensure that the platters were dust-free. If any dust or debris remains on the surfaces of a hard drive’s platters, the read/write heads can collide with it. This would kill the heads and scrape off some of the magnetic coating that contained the hard drive’s data. Cleaning off the platters to prevent any further damage and irretrievable data loss required the use of our burnishing tool. […]

  18. […] recovery cases such as this one where the scoring is not too severe, our engineers can make use of our hard drive platter burnisher. While burnishing the platters cannot restore the sectors that have already been scratched and […]

  19. […] Our engineers examined the client’s beeping Seagate hard drive in our class-100 cleanroom lab. As we usually see in these situations, the read/write heads had become mangled. The platters had also sustained some damage, spreading dust across their surfaces. To get this hard drive up and running and create a disk image of its contents, our engineers replaced the read/write heads with a compatible donor set and polished the platters clean with our special platter burnishing tools. […]

  20. […] the years before we developed our platter burnishing technology, many of these were hopeless cases. And the saddest thing about them was that before the hard […]

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