Since first publishing this page, I have received several e-mails asking me just what I do when I'm refinishing a set. I don't suggest that the means I use should necessarily be used as a model, or that they are all that accurate in terms of original finishes. They are the tricks I have learned over the years to best mimic the original effect of the finishes, given what I have at my disposal. To do the job properly would require a combination of grain fillers, toners and sprayed lacquers. Lacking those, this is how I make do.
Before beginning, I will mention my favourite reference book on the subject. It is The Complete Guide to Restoring and Maintaining Wood Furniture & Cabinets by Brad Hughes. I gained a few tricks from this, most notably the hand-cleaner idea.
|This is the radio as it looked when it came home from the flea market. The finish on the two stripes was OK but dull, and basically everything else was scratched. There was water damage to the top and front and the veneer around the dial had warped and lifted. The coarse tuning knob was missing. The back was grungy but adequate.||
Typically, when a radio comes home, the first thing it will get is the hand-cleaner treatment. The book recommends DL Blue Label hand cleaner. I use generic Canadian Tire brand. The brand is irrelevant so long as it has no grit in it. Look for one with the aloes and lanolins in it, which does a nice job. Apply the hand cleaner with superfine (0000) steel wool and a gentle touch. Work it over the whole surface and see what you get. Wipe off the excess with paper towels or a cloth. Amazingly, small scratches will disappear and 40+ years of crud will come out of the finish. Sometimes, a finish that has gone green will reacquire its original colour. It's really remarkable what can happen. I even do it to sets that I know I'm going to strip, just so I can see what the colours were supposed to look like.
This set was too far gone to be fully rescued by hand cleaner. It needed stripping.
|This is the radio after I stripped it.
You can see that the banding on the base was actually the result of toners
in the lacquer. It was one solid piece of pine, as were the sides.
The band across the top was actually a nice piece of cherry that had been
sprayed to match the sides.
Stripping the radio is perhaps the most time-consuming and distasteful part of the whole process. The only thing I can say for sure is to take your time and be very thorough. Nothing is worse than refinishing a set and discovering all the spots that were missed along the way. It's not easy to see, but I stripped around the labels. For the most part, they can't be replaced. Better to leave them, in my opinion.
I use a stripper called E-Z Way. It's far and away the best I've found and doesn't smell nearly as bad as most of them do.
|Having finished the stripping, I cleaned
it up with turp and then set about matching the colours to what they had
been. Originally, the colours came from colour added to the lacquer.
Having neither the toner nor lacquer, I go about this in two ways: When
the grain is to show through, I'll stain it. On the base, I masked it off,
then made the strips by alternating ebony and mahogany stain. The
sides also received the mahogany. The area around the grille was
done with Varithane Diamond Colours. I use these because they are
water soluble, so I can dilute them to a wash if the wood won't take a
stain. They can also be finished over. If I'm covering a large
surface, I'll paint with a cloth or paper towel to avoid getting brush
strokes or an uneven coat. Never leave out the dark colours.
They act like pinstripes and really bring out the detail.
What has also happened here is that I have glued the veneer back down. Normally, if it is split, do this before the stripping. When you glue, always use a piece of wood between the clamp and the veneer. It gives you even pressure and avoids marking the surface.
|At this point, the first couple of coats of finish have gone on. I like to use a hand-rubbed paste varnish as a base coat. I'll give it up to 3 or 4 coats. Handled carefully, it gives a beautiful satin finish free of streak marks. If I want a really deep finish with a higher gloss, I'll go for a French polish. This is a finicky finish and should be studied a bit before you try it, but does give good results, and a good mixture is usually available at a high-end craft store. I have had some success recently with a brush-on finish that has a bit of stain in it. (See the RCA 17K) This was a MinWax finish. It is nice in that it can go over an existing finish and then be finished over again. Be careful of the temperature ratings, though. I did it on a cold day with disasterous results for a little Stewart Warner. Antique Audio Supply is also advertising a spray lacquer with toner that I may try. It beats mixing stain with a brushing lacquer, which I did once (Never, ever do this).|
|At this point, I usually begin to look at
other details. Hand cleaner usually does quite a nice job on the
chassis (be careful around exposed coils or wires - these can be fragile).
Any brass escutcheons (face plates) will clean up, as well. After
the cleaner gets rid of the nasty stuff, a brass or metal polish will bring
it the rest of the way.
For this set, we also had to cast a knob. We made a latex mold from another knob we found, then added a bit of colour to a resin that we used to make the cast. We have yet to find a casting resin that we are really happy with.
|The final step is reassembly. You
may see a difference here in the grille cloth. It was cleaned up
very gently just using a sponge and the suds made up in a tub of Wisk.
It does fairly well. Don't try this on any cloth with a cardboard
backing unless you can get the cloth off, otherwise the cardboard will
warp. I also clean out the inside of the cabinet with Murphy's Oil
You can also see that the brass has come out quite nicely. Pay attention to the little details, and the whole becomes that much nicer.