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Thursday, September 12, 2013

Our Radio Restoration Process

Restoration of 1951 Crosley
Dashboard Radio

Vintage tube type radios have been a big part of our inventory for years.  Early radios reflect cultural and design influences of their era making them more than just an appliance, making them a type of icon of their time. Case design reflected all aspects of American life. Manufacturers like Crosley, for example, took their inspiration from the automobile industry (see Crosley 'Dashboard' radios), and the Jet Age look was reflected not only in the fins of cars, but in the table radios sitting in living rooms and bedrooms. Colors from home decor found their way into radio design.  Often, plaids and other patterns from the fashion industry were integrated into speaker grills or dials.

Sadly, it's as though the excitement of innovation has passed us by and we now too often find these classics sitting around for years, not working and mouldering away in a basement, shed or some other out-of-the-way place. Our mission has been to restore and bring life and relevance back to them. We believe vintage tube radios are an important historical artifact and look as beautiful sitting on a desk or dresser as when they were made; and we want to help get more of them back to that status.

Our objective is to restore each radio to as much of its former look and originality in as safe and reliable a manner as possible.  Cosmetically, we rarely re-paint a case unless it is so far gone that to do otherwise would be wrong.  When we have to apply a new finish, we choose both a period appropriate color and type of enamel paint that most closely resembles the original.  Many bakelite cases were painted with automotive enamels and luckily those type of finish materials can still be purchased through classic car outlets. Each case that has been repainted will also have been hand rubbed and buffed to a satin sheen.  Any of our vintage radio listings will disclose the extent of finish restoration that has been done.

Internally, most of our radios follow the same basic electrical design for super hetrodyne radios from the 1930's through the 1970's (when vacuum tubes were discontinued in favor of the newly invented transistor).  Most radios are known as 'American Five's' or 'American Fivers', which simply means the radio signal is received, translated and amplified through a series of 5 vacuum tubes.  Joining them together in a workable circuit to produce sound in a controlled manner are any number of capacitors, resistors, transformers and other components. In restoring an old radio, the main task is to make sure that the circuit is working correctly and safely. Any components that are 'out of spec' or are considered too obsolete, are replaced.  All tubes are checked and replaced as necessary.

It should be noted that some sellers of old non-working radios often speculate in their descriptions that the radio is not working "probably because of a bad tube".  This is almost never the reason an old radio doesn't work.  As old fashioned as vacuum tubes may seem, they were highly reliable and very efficient in doing their job; namely to grab out of the air and amplify an almost non-existent radio signal.  In most cases, a tube will have gone bad as a result of another component failing and plugging in new tubes generally will not bring a dead radio to life. For this reason, in those cases where a tube has gone bad, we carefully examine the circuit leading to and related to that tube in order to find and correct the underlying problem.  One of the ways we do this is by measuring the voltages to each of the tube pins and comparing them to known specs. We also measure pin resistances for the same reason. The results yield a lot of information as to where the circuit may be faulty.

Over the years we have invested lots of money in our collection of vintage radio electrical schematics and other reference material to which we frequently refer in tracing problems with old circuitry.
A Recently Revived Zenith AM/FM

Many old table radios grounded their circuits through the metal chassis, a dangerous practice not done in electronics today. This was not a problem so long as the radio was plugged in the right way to assure correct polarity.  However, since polarized plugs did not exist in those days, a radio plugged in that reversed polarity would work just fine but a lurking danger of electrocution hovered nearby on the metal chassis.  An unsuspecting person opening up the back to reach in and replace a tube or repair a part was subject to a nasty experience.  Radios that we restore with this issue always have the power cord replaced with a polarized plug (the small and large prongs) to make sure it can be plugged in only one way.

Somewhat Rare Silvertone in Plaskon Case
Finally, after we have corrected any electrical problems and installed new required parts, we let the radio play for several hours to make sure there are no intermittent issues.  We also test the radio again just before shipping it to a buyer.

Our policy regarding radio cosmetics is simple: restore to as close to original as possible and retain as much of the original finish and patina as we can. Because our radios are 40, 50, 60 and more years old, this means that we are willing to tolerate what we term 'character marks'.  It is not our intent to 'refinish' to a new condition.  We absolutely will not repaint a radio to anything other than its original color and we will not use easier to apply finishes that don't look proper for the age of the radio. In most cases, the paint used was high gloss enamel, often baked onto the case. We replicate this in our process. Wood cases were usually done in shellac or lacquer (a few were done with esoteric materials that are no longer available so we have to improvise).

A Beautiful Emerson Moderne
Radios listed in our shop will always disclose the level of restoration that was done.

© David Simons, Sep 2013

Here are links to some of the radios we have restored and are currently available in our Etsy shop:
Philco Clock Radio
Arvin Table Radio
Crosley Dashboard Radio
Westinghouse Clock Radio

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