For Simple Clean-Up (refreshing) of old Finishes without Stripping:
Note: This process provides some improvement to the appearance of an old finish without stripping and refinishing; however, it will not eliminate an "alligatored" finish or renew a severely worn surface.
First, you must clean the years of dirt and grease build-up. Use a good quality lemon or orange oil-based wood cleaner (or just plain lemon oil) and apply liberally. Let it soak in for several hours, and rub gently with 0000 steel wool. Use only light pressure, as too much force will remove the finish. Dry with a soft cloth. Repeat this process several times. Alternatively, some people use a cream-type hand cleaner with Lanolin (not LAVA or other pumice-based cleaners) and the 0000 steel wool to clean the cabinet. This method also works well. The more times you repeat the cleaning process, the more dirt you can remove.
Once cleaned, you can liberally apply additional lemon oil to some 600 grit sandpaper and GENTLY rub to smooth out the surface of the finish. Gentle is the key word. The sandpaper will plug quickly, so keep moving to new, unused portions of the paper, and keep it wet with the lemon oil. Maintain a careful watch that you are not cutting through the varnish...you only want to smooth the rough surface of the varnish.
To remove scratches and provide some depth to the finish, use some New Life Furniture Masque (available online) and apply according to directions on the container. If the finish is really bad, you can start off using a solvent-based refurbisher, such as Kramer's Best Antique Improver. This should only be applied after the surface is clean and dry. Use great care with solvent-based materials; if you get carried away, you can cut right through the original finish.
You may wish to French Polish the cabinet at this point, using a small amount of rubbing powder (rottenstone) mixed with mineral oil or other lubricant. Rub with the grain, covering small areas at a time. This will provide a good gloss to the finish.
Once dry, use a good polish to provide some sheen to the finish.
Nickel plated hardware (silver in color) can be cleaned up using a premium quality metal polish such as Flitz. Rub briskly with a clean cloth, keeping the rubbing surface clean as the dirt and corrosion is removed. Heavily rusted hardware, where the nickel plating has deteriorated, must be replated by a professional.
Gold plated hardware is VERY thin on Victrolas, and is very easily rubbed off. If you choose to polish gold plating, use Flitz metal polish with a clean cloth, and use VERY minimal pressure (almost no pressure) to bring out a gloss. If you rub with any force, the gold will disappear, and you will have a very shiny raw brass piece. If the gold has been worn off, or there is corrosion on the metal, the part will have to be replated.
There is no topic more controversial in the phonograph-collecting hobby than the subject of refinishing. This topic is the cause of more arguments and damaged friendships than any other single issue. Many collectors passionately believe that very little or no work should be done on an original finish, no matter what its condition. Originality means everything. On the other side of the fence are those collectors who immediately refinish even the smallest blemish in the attempt to make every machine perfect.
It is a fact that the resale value of a Victor phonograph...or any antique for that matter...is almost always higher when it remains original. So, if your focus is primarily on the financial and investment aspects of the hobby, you are probably better off doing nothing to your phonographs except for some deep cleaning of the cabinet and making mechanical repairs. However, many people like to show their phonographs in the living room, and appearance becomes highly important. Each collector should decide what approach to take on this sensitive subject.
Two things are always true: 1) An original, unrestored antique, in mint, excellent or good condition, will always show nicer and be worth more than one that has been well restored, and 2) a poor restoration can make the most valuable antique next to worthless.
Since this is a rather personal subject, let me take a personal perspective. I'd rather have my machines looking nice than to have badly alligatored finishes and scratched, peeling veneer surrounding me. I would never consider refinishing a phonograph that has a decent original finish, even if it has some scratches or wear. Those machines always stay original. However, if the finish is really shot, or if the veneer is bad, I do what is necessary to get the machine back to a "close-to-new" condition. I don't pretend that I can restore them to look exactly as they did when they were new...but I can come darn close with some careful work. That is solely my opinion, and I certainly respect the position of others who may feel differently.
Many people decide to refinish machines themselves, or have them commercially refinished by a local shop. Refinishing takes some skill, a lot of patience, and plenty of free time. Overall, I've been disappointed with results I've seen from many commercial restoration services. The cost is high, and the attention to detail has been less than satisfactory. The local "Joe's Furniture Doctor" shop is not going to be a good choice, as these types of businesses tend to focus on making repairs to damaged dining room tables and office desks using Polyurethane finishes and wash-down stripping booths. Not a good idea for antiques. Regardless, there are a number of good restoration services around if you are fortunate enough to find one who knows how to work on valued antiques.
There are almost as many techniques to refurbish an old cabinet as there are collectors. I've heard just about everything over the years, and I think I've tried most of them. In the final analysis, in my opinion, if you have a machine that you want to refurbish, just bite the bullet, strip it down, and refinish it correctly. The short cuts are risky and can waste a lot of time.
A number of collectors promote the process of reamalgamation, which is a method of reviving the old finish without stripping it off. A solvent is used to soften the old finish, and then brushed-out to smooth it. I own several Victrolas that have undergone this process by experienced refinishers, and for the most part, they look quite acceptable. However, they never quite come out with the same deep luster and clarity that a good refinishing can provide. I know of some collectors who have had expert reamalgamation done on rare machines, with spectacular results, but the cost was quite significant. I've tried several different methods of reamalgamation, and it isn't as simple as most people claim. Getting the final result to look right can be a challenge to say the least.
One well-known phonograph expert constantly makes the claim against stripping and refinishing based on the argument that, no matter what you do, you'll NEVER refinish a machine and have it look exactly like it did when it came out of the factory. I agree with that statement completely. But he then goes on to recommend a reamalgamation approach that, in my opinion, usually ends up looking like what it really is.... a smoothed-over old finish. It still doesn't look original! From my perspective, I'd rather have the deep luster and crystal clear sheen after the machine has been stripped and correctly redone. I admit that I've seen some outstanding reamalgamation jobs over the years...but for every good one, there are a dozen bad ones, and I think that it's more work than it's usually worth unless you an absolute master of the craft. Regardless of the approach you take, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to truly make the phonograph look exactly like it did when it was new. But, in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with a quality restoration, given the alternative of looking at a frazzled old finish or falling-apart veneer every day.
One of the most common problems I run into in appraising machines or in buying machines at flea markets is the REALLY BAD amateur (or professional) restoration. I've seen some amazingly horrible attempts at restoration over the years, often by people who claim to be "experts". The most common problems are that the original finish was not fully removed, the use of only one thin finish coat of cheap varnish or polyurethane, mismatching wood shades, or a lot of drips and runs in the finish coat. I've even seen a few machines where the restorer simply covered the alligatored finish with Varethane (a floor varnish), and claimed to have a like-new machine. This is a sure-fire way to ruin both the appearance and value of a phonograph.
Here are my main "pointers" for complete refinishing, based on the way I redo most machines:
To completely refinish a phonograph:
Note: This process is time-consuming and requires some degree of expertise to get a quality finish; however, it is not difficult to master if you take your time. I recommend some satisfactory brand-name products in the description below; this is based on my experiences for the best possible finish. I am not compensated in any way by the makers of these products. I have experimented with a lot of different methods, and have settled on the following procedure:
Take your phonograph apart to the extent possible. Remove the lid, the doors, and remove all hardware. Remove the motor and all controls from the motorboard. You can't strip an assembled cabinet very well, so don't try.
Find a good working area, with lots of space, and cover the floor or bench with paper or plastic. Stripping always makes a mess.
Make sure you have good ventilation; away from gas heaters, furnaces, etc. Put a fan in an outside window to exhaust fumes. I always use an OSHA approved vapor mask.
Use a good commercial stripper, and let IT do the work. I prefer ZAR or DAD's (brand) stripper, since they works very quickly and is easy to use. Some of the "totally non-dangerous" or "no fume" strippers may work okay for some people, but I find them very slow working, requiring many applications to remove an old finish. Just use an old brush to simply apply it gently in the direction of the grain on a selected area of the cabinet (don't strip too much of the cabinet at once, otherwise the stripper may dry and become difficult to remove). Work the stripper into corners and grooves. Wait 5 minutes for it to soak in, and repeat the application. After it has all soaked in, use a putty knife to gently scrape the mess off flat surfaces. The old finish will come off in globs. Be careful not to gouge the veneer while you are scraping. Get ALL the old finish out of crevices using a stiff bristle (not wire) brush dipped in stripper. When the first pass of stripping is done, take some medium steel wool, or a stripping pad, and dip it in alcohol or an after-wash solvent. Rub down the entire section you have stripped to make sure you are down to bare wood. The magic word here is GENTLE! I have found that if you avoid rubbing hard, much of the original stain can be preserved. This is an advantage, since the color will match the original, and if you opt to not refinish under the lid (which I usually leave original), you will have a near-perfect match between the refinished and original sections! If you press too hard with the steel wool, you will start removing lots of stain, and end up having to do a complete multi-coat re-staining job. Use a soft toothbrush dipped in alcohol to remove stripper and old finish from cracks and crevices. If you find spots where the old finish is not completely removed, re-apply stripper as noted above, and repeat the process. Sometimes I make up to 4 passes with the stripper to assure that all the old finish is removed from every nook and cranny. When the stripping is complete, take a stripping pad, saturate it in alcohol, and gently wipe down the entire cabinet, followed by a rub-down with a soft rag.
Be patient. Stripping is the most important part of the whole process, because a lousy stripping job will always show through no matter how well you apply the finish. It typically takes me 3-5 nights to strip an average Victrola cabinet. It takes time to do it right, but the job is not difficult!! If I want to strip the lid, but leave the original underlid Victrola decal panel intact, simply cut a sheet of heavy plastic to the size of the panel, and use masking tape around the edges to seal it down tightly. Use care in positioning the tape to be flush with the inside corners. Use an Exacto Knife to trim the tape as needed to fit perfectly. This takes time, but will work well if you are careful not to "glop" excessive stripper or alcohol on the tape while you are removing the finish from around the edges. Some tiny amount of stripper will usually get onto the panel through capillary action under the tape, so as soon as you've completed stripping the top, remove the tape and use a waterlogged paper towel to thoroughly clean the panel and remove the stripping solvent or alcohol that has gotten on the underlid panel. Then repeat with more water and a new towel. Any small areas under the tape that have a slightly damaged finish due to the capillary effect can easily be repaired by gently rubbing a finish restorer such as Howard's "Restor-A-Finish on the slightly damaged sections. The damaged areas will usually smooth right out.
Around 1915, Victor began spraying the finish coats, rather than hand brushing. Consequently, it usually takes more time (and sometimes more repeats of stripper) to remove the old finish from pre-1915 phonographs.
Once complete, clean the surfaces one final time with a soft cloth soaked with after-wash solvent, which is available at any hardware store. You can also use Naptha.
Take a Dremel Tool or good hand drill and use a soft "bristle brush" attachment (a soft fiber-type brush, NOT a wire brush, which will remove the old stain completely and may damage the veneer) to clean out any stuck residue in cracks and crevices. The smallest piece of stuck "crud" in a crack will show up like a sore thumb when the finish coat is put on.
The time for any repairs to damaged wood or veneer is after stripping is complete. Gluing any broken parts, fixing chipped veneer or mending holes can easily be done after the old finish is removed. Be careful not to get any glue on the veneer surfaces, as the stain will not adhere to dry glue.
If the veneer is shot (e.g. torn, missing, water-damaged, etc.), you will have to re-veneer the damaged portion(s). I've had a lot of success in cutting and applying new veneer, and there are a number of good supply houses that can match virtually any type of wood or grain pattern. It is an "art" that is not difficult to master, as long as you practice on some junk panels before you tackle your Phonograph. All you need is a sharp Exacto Knife, a good metal straightedge, some Elmer's Carpenter Glue, and a large flat weight to press it down until the glue dries. Don't use too much glue, or the surface may become uneven. Some people use an iron to flatten the surface after the glue is applied. If you use this technique, use medium to high heat, and place a thin cloth between the iron and the veneer. This technique works well on curves and other difficult surfaces.
Do-it-yourself veneering works very well on small surfaces, but may not be satisfactory if you are trying to re-veneer a very large panel (bubbles or uneven flatness may appear). In that case, it is wise to have the veneer professionally done using a "vacuum" veneer gluing system.
One excellent resource for purchasing veneer in the Midwest is Oakwood Veneer Company in Berkley, Michigan (http://www.oakwoodveneer.com). They can match almost anything.
Make necessary repairs to major gouges or holes in the finish now. You will have to use a putty-type wood filler (like Elmer's Wood Filler), Actually, I've found that most brands are about the same. Some come "pre-colored" in different shades to better match the original wood color. My tendency is to avoid using these kinds of putty filler products in any quantity unless absolutely necessary...they are almost always visible as a "patch" in the end, no matter how hard you try to blend them in. They simply don't absorb the stain like the wood does and they have no grain pattern to blend-in with the veneer. The call is yours...either you re-veneer, you live with a gouge, or you live with a patch. If the overall veneer in a panel is good, and the gouge isn't TOO horrible, I normally just let it be, since the grain fillers and finish coats will provide some degree of filling to the damage, and in the end, it looks better than a patch-point. Some "character marks" are not objectionable for most well-restored antiques. However, paste fillers work very well in thin cracks or "corner crevices", since not a lot of the patching material will show for those kinds of repairs.
Now it's time to do some sanding. I know that nobody likes to sand, and I've heard plenty of comments that the fully stripped finish is smooth enough and sanding isn't needed...but I advise that you ignore that advice and do a little sanding. The sanding does a lot of things, it helps remove any small residual old finish or stripper that remains on the veneer, it opens up the wood pores, and it evens out the surface. The trick here is not to overdo it....so sand very lightly with minimal pressure. I typically use a small "palm" power sander with some 220 grit sandpaper. It goes fast. Also, the new "mouse" style sanders are effective when working in corners and tight places. Always sand in the direction of the grain. Wipe down the sanded areas with an after-wash solvent to clean them thoroughly.
Carvings and corners require that sanding be done by hand. I really love the new 3M "SandBlaster" pads, which are thin sponge-based sanding pads. They are partially self-cleaning, and can be reused over and over with washing.
Now it's time to apply a wood grain filler. This filler is NOT the "Plastic Wood" kind of paste, but rather is a pigmented semi-liquid material that will fill in the tiny crevices of the wood grain, resulting in a glass-smooth finish. Without grain filler, you will have a rather rough "craggy" surface, even after the lacquer is applied. My advice: always use grain filler on Walnut and Mahogany Phonographs as recommended below; never use it on Oak Phonographs (with oak, just skip to the staining section below).
In recent years, I've been using a wood grain filler called "Behlen Por-O-Pac", which provides an excellent color and texture match to the recommended stain (below) and also has the advantage of being very user friendly. In addition, it does not overwhelm the wood texture, and allows the original grain contours to show. This is a semi-liquid type filler, which is applied as soon as sanding is complete. Por-O-Pac is available in mahogany, walnut, and other shades. It is normally thinned down 4 parts filler to 1 part Naphtha prior to using. Working one panel at a time, simply "glop" the thinned filler onto the wood using a brush, and work it in against the wood grain. This fills the nooks and crannies in the veneer. Let the filler sit for a minute or two until it begins to haze slightly. Then use a rough rag (e.g. burlap) to rub the filler off the surface using a circular motion. Once complete, use a second cloth to finish removing the excess filler. Alternatively, a small rubber "squeegee" can be used in place of the burlap to wipe the excess filler off the surface. Pull the squigee at a 45-degree angle from the grain when removing the filler. Be sure to use a putty knife or other sharp tool to remove the filler from carving crevices and detail work that you DON'T want filled. When you are done, you should see a darker wood shade than you started with; this means that the filler is remaining in the tiny pores and cracks.
If you rub TOO hard and TOO much against the filler, you will pull it right out the cracks, and end-up with the same grainy wood surface you originally had. Take it easy and slow, and keep the pressure moderate.
If you let the filler dry too long, it will become hard and impossible to remove with the rag or squigee. In this event, use some Naphtha on a rag to soften the filler and remove it. Then you will have to repeat the filling process, since the Naphtha will remove the filler in the wood pores.
Let the filler dry and repeat the process. This is the way to a mirror-smooth finish.
Now get out the sandpaper again. After the grain filler has dried for 24 hours, you must sand down the cabinet using the 400 grit paper until smooth. This is necessary, since the grain filler needs to be removed from the surface of the wood to smooth it out; but it will remain in the grain pores. Don't overdo it. Let the sander do the work... apply just enough pressure to result in a smooth surface. If you start removing a lot of material...you have gone too far.
In most cases I will apply a coat of closely matching oil-based stain after stripping, enough to give the finish some depth, and to compensate for the stain that was removed in the stripping process. The stain is applied with a good brush. I rarely leave the stain on for more than 5 minutes before using rags or paper towels to wipe it off. Then it is allowed to dry overnight. If a lot of the original stain was removed during stripping or sanding, you will probably have to apply several coats of the stain, and allow each coat to soak in for 10 minutes or so. Then wait overnight between coats. When the shade of the wood matches the original color (use the un-stripped section under the lid as guide), you have finished staining. Water-based stains are not recommended, since they will raise the grain of the wood, making additional sanding necessary.
I have had the best success using Old Masters oil stains, which tend to match the patina and tone of the original Phonograph finishes. Many local paint stores carry this product. I avoid using any stains that are dye-based (rather than pigment-based) or other stains with finishing/sealing compounds already in them, as the results aren't nearly as good. Dye-type stains, while very strong in color, will often produce somewhat splotchy results on veneer unless you are an expert in using these products. Many of the "home handyman" stains that you find at the local hardware store will not have sufficient pigment to darken the wood sufficiently to match the original color.
Next comes a coat of Sanding Sealer, to seal in the stain and provide a base coat for the final finish. A number of good products are available from wood finishing stores. I typically use Behlen's Sanding Sealer. Apply it per directions on the can (via brush or spray) and allow to dry, which usually only takes a few hours. Then lightly wet-sand the entire cabinet with 400 grit paper. The sandpaper will "clog" quickly, so change paper frequently.
Now comes the hard part. Do you want to use varnish or lacquer? For pre-1925 Victrolas, varnish is the authentic choice. For post 1925 models, lacquer is the authentic choice. But there are several factors to consider:
Varnish can be a "bear" to work with. It usually can't be sprayed, tends to run easily, readily shows brush marks, and requires many hours to fully dry. This allows dust particles to settle on the surface. Varnish is by far the most durable choice and is authentic for most Victrolas, but unless you are set-up for a true dust-free workplace, and have skill in applying these products, I do not recommend that you start-off your restoration project using varnish.
Lacquer is not as hard as varnish, but it dries almost immediately, is easy to apply, and can be sanded-out within a hour after application. Mistakes like drips and dust are easy to repair, as additional coats of lacquer tend to melt into the previous coats, so that mistakes will disappear. While it is not fully authentic for pre-1925 Victrolas, it is commonly used by restoration services, as it gives a very similar appearance to varnish, and is much easier to work with. I recommend that the beginner use lacquer, and then progress to varnish once the techniques are mastered.
Polyurethane is super-durable, but it is based on plastic materials, and does not give an authentic look. I can spot a Poly restoration a mile away. It will never result in a mirror-like finish, and will often have a clouded appearance when viewed at an angle.
Finish coats take at least a half week to complete. I recommend five (or more) coats of high-quality lacquer, allowed to dry, followed by a light wet sanding between coats. Keep the dirt and dust to a minimum during application of the lacquer, and thoroughly clean the cabinet after wet sanding.
The quality of the lacquer you use will have a great effect on the end result. If you are going to be spending hours preparing and finishing a Phonograph, it seems pointless to use a cheap brand lacquer. Again, I have found the Behlen Bros. "Qualac" brand to be the best. While Behlen is quiet on the subject of what is in Qualac, it is my opinion that this product is actually a mixture of nitrocellulose lacquer and shellac, which makes it very user friendly and easy to apply. The downside is that it is quite expensive, and usually available only via mail-order.
Behlen recommends thinning Qualac nearly 50% prior to application (see HVLP note below).
Some people "tint" the lacquer to achieve darker colors, but in most cases, I've not found this necessary if the original stain wasn't totally removed during stripping. In some cases, where the wood veneer simply won't accept enough stain to achieve the darker color you desire, tinting may be required. Lacquer color additives are available from a number of sources. Practice using this, because the degree of shading will depend on how thickly you apply the coats. It is very easy to get splotchy results if you aren't careful.
I've used a number of other satisfactory lacquer brands in the past, usually with good results. Avoid the cheap ones, and try applying a coat on a hidden spot before you begin the finish process. This will assure that you are going to get the results you expect.
Avoid the use of Polyurethanes and other modern "furniture" type finishes unless you are doing a restoration simply for cosmetic purposes. You may not be happy with the end result, and the value of the phonograph will be considerably reduced.
I've had great results with the newer HVLP (High Volume-Low Pressure) sprayers, and would recommend buying one if you plan on doing more than one machine. They are easy to master, and the finish results can come very close to the original finish. These systems can run from $800 upwards, but will pay for themselves with results. Most are supplied with complete user instructions. The big thing to remember is that, with HVLP, you will use MUCH LESS thinner, and will need to add a reducer and flow-out additive. This is because the lacquer is sprayed at around 120 degrees F, and if too much thinner is used, the lacquer will partially dry before it hits the cabinet. This will result in a very "dusty" looking finish. With my HVLP, I use about 10% thinner, and about 5% (combined) Lacquer Retarder and Lacquer Flow-Out.
I don't recommend using an aerosol spray can to apply any finish coats. HVLP is best. Regular high-pressure spraying (via compressor) is the next choice. Brushing is also acceptable. Spray aerosol cans simply can't provide an even coat over a large surface.
Apply your coats generously, and overlap as you go. If you are using HVLP or high pressure spray, keep the sprayer at a constant distance from your work. Let dry overnight, and GENTLY wet sand with the 400 grit paper. Repeat the process at least 4 more times. A picture of a Victrola that has been wet-sanded after the 1st coat of lacquer is shown at the top of this section. Obviously, it then needs to be thoroughly cleaned and dried before applying the next coat.
If you are brushing the lacquer, simply follow the directions on the can.
After the final coat, you should wet sand using 1500 grit paper. Take your time...and work out any minor blemishes as you go.
Then use some orange oil and rottenstone mixed on a rag and slowly burnish in the entire cabinet. Do a little at a time, and go slowly. At this point, you should clearly see your reflection in the finish.
Then clean the cabinet. I recommend a good rubdown with Doozy furniture polish to bring out the gloss.
Let the phonograph sit in a dark spot for at least 4 weeks before applying any waxes or exposing it to sun or moisture. During this time, and for the coming months, you may notice some white residue appear on the surface in some places. This is simply the lacquer drying, and the white carrier residue can easily be cleaned off using Doozy or any good polish. Eventually, the residue will cease appearing for good.
I rarely use wax after the lacquer finish coats, but many disagree. I find that it can dull the finish. A good polish is all that is needed.
I have run into 2 Victrolas that have had extensive fillers and patchwork veneer pieces used on the original finish when the machine was manufactured. These were undoubtedly done at the factory, and virtually undetectable until I started stripping off the old finish. In those cases, the veneer literally melted into a pile of goo. I have only seen this occur on some of the early low-cost Phonographs, and I believe this was done as a cost saving measure when they were at the end of a sheet (or run) of veneer. When they ran out of wood, they just patched the remaining pieces and used lots of filler! The fact that the filler was so expertly applied and finished-out is a tribute to Victor's craftsmanship, but in those cases, new veneer must be applied.
Reassemble your machine CAREFULLY and enjoy!