The restoration of antique radios can be discussed and debated on many different levels. Here at my facility, I would like to briefly discuss what restoration means to me and the general steps I take during the process. This type of information is NOT provided as a guideline to follow as instructions, rather it is being published here for your enlightenment of just how involved true “restoration” can be on these vintage sets. I will start with the electrical aspect first.
Some sites and individuals seem to think that if the electrolytic capacitors are replaced and the ever so common AC 60 hertz hum is lessened or removed, their set has been restored. I think that this type of approach is very misleading. If one is to fully restore an old radio, several more steps must be taken to ensure proper functioning of the set. While that aforementioned repair does improve the “hum” problem often encountered with old power supplies in the radio’s circuits, there are many other potential, and very likely to occur, problems that should be addressed. I always like to replace ALL the fixed value capacitors with new mylar type where the original wax sealed paper types. If the old original parts are left in place, generally it’s easy to say that not just if, but when these parts fail, they pose a potential of taking out other harder to find ( thus more costly ) components. Once this has been performed, then I like to check critical voltages throughout the set’s different circuits to check for the possibility of original resistors that have had their value change with the passage of time. Then once any of these have been replaced and the set’s working as it should, I will then do the task of alignment. This process can be relatively simple on small single band sets, or somewhat complex on the larger multi-band models. Regardless of the level of sophistication, a radio can not perform properly until this process is done. I’ve known individuals who work very diligently performing all the capacitor and resistor replacement as outlined above, to then consider their work finished. The unfortunate part of this type of work being performed is that although the set may be played for many hours safely, it will never perform as it was intended originally until a proper alignment has been performed. Alignment was once described as a process in which if you have several walls with just one small opening in each one, in order to get the most light through them, they must be aligned in a manner that the openings are “lined up” with each other. The different circuits of a radio can be represented as the walls and each circuit must be “lined up” with each other to obtain maximum performance. Once this concept is understood, then it becomes much clearer as to the importance of a correct alignment.
Cabinet restoration of wooden sets has become our specialty here at Totally Tubular. While it is nice to find, purchase, and collect nothing but original finish wooden radios, the source of finding these types is diminishing at a rapid rate due to the popularity of this fine hobby. I feel that whenever possible, always “save” a set that has MOST of its original finish. If that’s the case, then usually a mild cleaning and a coat of a good paste wax made for wooden furniture is usually sufficient for preserving the original finish. There are many other steps in “touching up” a mostly original finish set for its overall beauty and preservation, but at this time I will describe a refinishing process for those without an original finish that we do that leaves many other refinishers among the ranks of novices. Most of the sets I own and most of the sets offered on this website have had a labor-intensive refinish process that I will now outline.
Depending on the amount of restoration required, let’s first look at repair of the structure of the cabinet. It is always wise to glue and clamp any loose joints, seams, or veneer at this time. Once I know all looseness has been removed from the structure and veneer, I start the stripping process. I usually use a chemical stripper that requires proper ventilation. A good respirator and protective gloves should be worn along with adequate ventilation. Once the stripper has been allowed to dissolve the finish, I carefully clean and remove all evidence of the stripper with a series of steps. First, a putty knife running in the same direction as the grain, then “Scotchbrite” will remove most of the remaining stripper and finish. A quick wash down of lacquer thinner usually leaves the surface for the next step. Once the cabinet has thoroughly dried (usually overnight), I lightly sand the surface in preparation of the finish.
The finishing steps will take a few days to complete so I usually try to have a few radios ready at this time to help each session become more time efficient. A lacquer-based sanding sealer is sprayed on the bare wood at least three times allowing adequate drying time between coats. Then once this has been sanded, all toning is performed including any colored (often black) accents. This whole process is then top coated with several layers of clear finish lacquer. This finish is allowed to dry several days to cure and then will receive a wet sanding and hand buffing to a nice luster. This process is one of the most effective ways I have found to produce truly award-winning original appearing finishes.
As I said early in this discussion, there are many different levels in which to consider what avenue to take when a true restoration begins. It is up to the individual as to how exact or detailed they want to go on a particular set. Rarity, monetary profit, value, or self-satisfaction can all be contributing motivations for the level of sophistication of the restoration.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this as it is a topic I have found very interesting to discuss with fellow collectors and restorers. Although I work another full-time profession, I always try to find the time to completely restore 10 to 15 sets a year. I am always looking forward to the time I have with each project and hope someday I will be able to do this on a full-time basis. I’m sure if I gave up golf and yard work in the summer months, I would be able to accomplish more restorations. However, I love the outdoors as much as I love these old radios and what they represent. I guess I’ll just have to be satisfied with what I can do in the amount of time that I have available.
Always remember, invest in the future by preserving our past!