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                                                              The Victor-Victrola Page


Restoration, Refurbishment and Cleaning are the three different methods to improve the physical appearance of a machine. Repair refers to improving the mechanical operation of the phonograph, which is covered on other pages of this website.

Should I restore, refurbish, clean, or leave my phonograph alone? In almost all instances, if your phonograph is in good original condition, our advice is to simply clean it and leave it alone! Antiques always retain better value if they retain the original finish, even if showing some minor damage or wear. However, if your machine is really frazzled, falling apart, has been stored in a damp basement for years, or if Fluffy the Cat has been using it as a scratching post, then the only way it will ever look good again is to refurbish or restore it.  Some people prefer to leave their phonographs untouched, no matter how bad they look, and others want them looking "like new". Only you can determine what is best for your situation.

Some history:  Victor-Victrola formerly provided an extensive phonograph repair, refurbishment and restoration service, beginning in the late 1990's. We restored over 300 Victors and Victrolas for many customers, including major muesums and international collectors, for over 15 years.  Our recommendations below are based on our experiences in working with these machines. Due to the decreasing interest in the antique phonograph hobby, it eventually became financially impossible to maintain our restoration operations. Retaining a crew with the necessary expertise, as well as the costs associated with running a large shop required a sustained income-stream which was simply not viable given the decline in business, so we permanently closed-down our restoration services in December, 2016. We have no plans to perform this type of work again in the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, we don't know of any dedicated phonograph restoration services that we can recommend to our readers at the present time.  There are many "antique restoration" companies out there, and some of them are probably quite good. But in our experiences, many don't have sufficient expertise in the details and methods for the proper restoration of antique phonographs. If you just want a glossy finish or sparkling-new looking hardware, then any furniture or antique restoration service in the Yellow Pages will be fine. But if you hope to preserve some degree of authenticity and correct appearance, along with proper function of the mechanics, the restoration service really needs to know what they are doing in this specific field. For example, what is the correct type of finish material and process for a Mahogany 1919 Victrola VV-XVI? Brushed Lacquer? Brushed Shellac? Brushed Lacquer over Sprayed Shellac? Polyurethane? Brushed Varnish over Sprayed Shellac? ANSWER: None of the above. Should be "Sprayed Varnish over Sprayed Shellac". So if the restoration service has no clue about this basic fact, then they are not going to provide you with a very authentic job. Plus, purchasing the correct type of varnish is quite another consideration. Most of the hardware-store and online-sale varnishes today have some degree of modern polymer content, which will absolutely not result in the correct "sheen" when completed. The restorer needs to know where to buy the correct materials and how to apply them. Restoring Aunt Betsy's antique kitchen table is one thing. Restoring a valuable antique phonograph is quite a different specialty.

Proper restoration is a very expensive and time-consuming process. The well-known Las Vegas-based restoration service, which had a popular TV show a while back, featured a restored Edison upright phonograph on an episode. Not only were the restoration details and finish materials on the machine totally incorrect, the turntable was obviously not running at the correct speed when they were demonstrating it, and the sound was dubbed-over with some kind of canned "Roaring 20's" music. They had no idea of what they were doing, and when completed, that machine would probably sell for $50.00 at a parts-donor for someone else's project! It looked glossy and "minty", but that certainly wasn't the way it looked when new. And the owner paid well over $1,000.00 for the restoration work. Caveat Emptor!

Here are your choices to improve the appearance of a phonograph:

Cleaning is the process of removing dirt and accumulated grime from the wood surfaces. If done correctly, it will not cause any damage to the original finish, and may improve the overall appearance. However, it will not "smooth-out" rough surfaces nor will it remove crazing or scratches. It is appropriate for all types of finishes. If the wood is currently in poor condition, or if the old finish has worn off, a cleaning will rarely be adequate to improve the appearance.

Refurbishment is the process of gently cleaning, softening and smoothing of the original finish. This is an appropriate course of action if the original finish is still intact (e.g. has good color, is not seriously damaged, and the veneer is not lifting off the cabinet surfaces). It can improve the wood's appearance significantly and can help to reduce the appearance of scratches and dings. But it also entails some minor risks, including the loss of finish materials (gloss), fading of colors and damage to wood carvings and trim.

Refinishing is the process of totally stripping off all the original varnish/shellac and wood stain (or fuming colors), and starting-over from scratch with new finish materials. It is often necessary to bring a highly worn machine back to an "as-new" look, but in most cases, will decrease the value of the machine. Unless a phonograph is extremely rare, most collectors shun the purchase of restored machines. And if a restoration is amateurish or poorly executed, it will essentially turn the phonograph into a parts-donor machine. There are many high-quality original phonographs on the market today, and nobody will choose to buy a poor or marginally restored machine if better (original) options are available. However, in some instances, there is no other choice than to perform a complete restoration, particularly if the appearance is unacceptable to the owner.

IMPORTANT: Every expert who has successfully restored or refurbished phonographs will have their own proven methods and techniques. Some of these individuals will strongly disagree with the approaches stated below. The methods we recommend have worked for us successfully for many years, but we also respectfully acknowledge other opinions. Everyone who has performed this kind of work will have their own horror stories of a failed or unsuccessful restoration process which ruined a machine, or caused serious damage to the finish. Readers are encouraged to review other methods and take into consideration the "risks and rewards" of each approach before tacking these types of projects.






WARNING: This method is recommended ONLY for machines with varnish or shellac finishes. Post-1925 Electrola or Orthophonic Victrola machines used lacquer as a finish coat, which can be damaged if this technique is used. It is not recommended for any special painted or custom cabinets.

This process takes a great deal of patience and time, but can provide excellent results in many cases. Perform these steps only on the crazed or damaged exterior of the machine. Do not refurbish surfaces which are already in good condition (e.g. under-lid areas or inside doors.



There is no topic more controversial in the phonograph-collecting hobby than the subject of refinishing. Most 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 debate are collectors who immediately refinish even the smallest blemish in the attempt to make every machine perfect.

It is a hard fact that the resale value of a Victor phonograph...or any antique for that matter...will almost always remain higher if the machine remains original. So, if your focus is primarily on the financial and investment aspects of the hobby, you are better off doing nothing to your phonographs (except for cleaning the cabinet and making mechanical repairs). However, many people like to show their phonographs in the living room, and aren't really interested in resale value, so appearance becomes highly important. Each collector should decide what approach to take on this sensitive subject. Just be aware that the finish can only be original once. If it is stripped-off, it can never be original again.

Bear in mind that, unless you spend some significant time locating the proper finishing materials and application methods, it is highly unlikely that the end-result will appear "original", especially if you don't have a great deal of experience in antique restoration. To make matters worse, modern finishing materials are almost all "low-VOC" (e.g. less dangerous and polluting solvent evaporants), which basically assures that they will not have the same appearance as did the original finishing materials that Victor used in 1910. Modern varnishes almost all have some degree of '"poly" or "thane" in their names (e.g. polyruethane, urethane, varathane, etc.) which implies a plastic-based substance is present in the material. These products will not provide an identical appearance as did the true, original (and highly toxic) varnishes that were used when the machines were new. So, given the restrictions on finding these materials today, it is possible that you will never be able to achieve an accurate replication of the original appearances (see section below on the choice of varnishes).

In addition, once the veneer has been stripped-down, sanded, and then covered with a new coat stain, it will certainly have different absorption and density properties than it did when it was new. Thus, exact color-matching of old (e.g. under-lid) surfaces and newly refinished surfaces is nearly impossible. Don't forget...that veneer has experienced 100 years of drying out, and it will definitely not react the same to stain or filler as it did when new.

Many people decide to refinish machines themselves; others have them commercially refinished by a local shop. Refinishing takes skill, a lot of patience, and plenty of free time. Overall, we've been disappointed with results from commercial refinishing services. The cost is high, and the attention to detail is less than satisfactory. The local "Joe's Furniture Doctor" shop is not going to be a good choice, as these businesses tend to focus on making repairs to damaged dining room tables and office desks using water-based "wash-down" stripping booths and applying polyurethane finishes. Not a good idea for any antique.

There are almost as many techniques to refinish a phonograph cabinet as there are collectors. We've heard just about everything over the years, and have tried most of them. In the final analysis, if you have a machine that you want to show-off as a beautiful attention-grabber in your living room, just bite the bullet, strip it down, and refinish it correctly.

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 significantly soften the old finish, and then it is brushed-out smooth using a varnish brush. We've seen 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. Some collectors who have had expert reamalgamation done on rare machines, with spectacular results, but the cost was quite significant. We'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. And it is very easy to cause serious damage to the original finish.

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. We agree with that statement completely. But he then goes on to recommend a reamalgamation approach that, in our opinion, usually ends up looking-like what it really is.... a smoothed-over old finish.  We admit to having seen some outstanding reamalgamation jobs over the years...but for every good one, there are a dozen bad ones, and it's more work than it's 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 our 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 we find when appraising machines is the REALLY BAD amateur (or professional) restoration (example at right). We've seen some amazingly horrible attempts at restoration over the years, often by people who claim to be "experts". The most common problems we find are that the original finish was not fully removed from the wood grain, failure to use grain filler, the use of only one thin finish coat of cheap plastic-based varnish,  mismatching wood shades, or drips and runs in the finish coat.   We've even seen a few machines where the restorer simply covered the original crazed finish with Varethane (a floor varnish), and claimed to have a like-new machine. It looked like a glossy alligator. In other cases, the sides of the cabinet looked like the wavy reflecting mirrors in a circus "funhouse". This is a sure-fire way to ruin both the appearance and value of a phonograph.

Before you get started, you will need some experience in applying finish coats on wood. Whether you choose shellac, varnish or lacquer, some degree of experimentation and practice is essential. We cannot possibly provide all the pointers and recommendations of using an HVLP or high-pressure sprayer, or on the techniques required for smooth application of materials with a brush. This information can be found in many books and on websites, but nothing replaces the process of learning through trial-and-error, on junk pieces of wood and veneer. So, before we begin, it is our assumption that the reader has some degree of knowledge and expertise in applying finish coats via whatever application method(s) are chosen.

Here are our main pointers for complete refinishing:

Note: This process is very time-consuming and requires expertise to get a quality finish; however, it is not difficult to master if you take your time. We recommend some brand-name products in the description below; this is based on our experience for the best possible finish. We are not compensated in any way by the makers of these products. 

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