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 auction....as 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.
First, you must remove the years of dirt and grease build-up. Use a good quality lemon or orange oil-based wood cleaner (such as Howards Lemon (or Orange) Oil or New Life Orange Oil) and apply liberally. Let it soak in for several hours, reapply and rub gently with a soft cloth. Use only light pressure, as too much force can harm the finish. Dry with a soft cloth. Repeat this process several times. Alternatively, some people use a cream-type cleaner with Lanolin such as OZ Crème Polish or (not LAVA or other pumice-based cleaners) to clean the cabinet. This method also works well. The more times you repeat the cleaning process, the more dirt you can remove.
Do NOT use water-based cleaners, or add water to any product when applying to the cabinet surface. It will raise the grain and cause future problems. Avoid any product intended to clean wood floors or cabinets. They may be too harsh for an antique!
Use a soft toothbrush to get into the cracks and crevices. In some instances, it is best to use a very soft brush to apply the lemon oil or cleaner on the entire cabinet, to assure that the crannies in the wood veneer are being cleaned-out.
When the cloth no longer shows dirt on it, then the cabinet is clean. Let it dry for at least a week.
Once thoroughly dry, use a good polish like New Life Crème Polish or OZ Crème Polish to provide some sheen to the finish. We avoid using furniture waxes and other surface coatings, as they tend to dull the appearance over time.
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 re-plated by a professional.
Gold plated hardware is VERY thin on Victors or 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 sheen. Gold finishes were not glossy when new. 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 re-plated.
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.
Remove all knobs and other exterior hardware.
Find a good working area, with lots of space, and cover the floor or bench with paper or plastic.
Use a good quality lemon or orange oil-based wood cleaner such as Howards Lemon Oil or New Life Orange Oil and apply liberally. Let it soak in for 5 minutes. Start on a small section of the cabinet (e.g. about 8-12" square). Using a small sheet of 400 "wet and dry" sandpaper (for heavy varnish) or 600 grit (for less severe varnish crazing or for shellac surfaces), dip the sand paper into a container of the oil and rub the finish very gently with the n a circular motion. Keep the surface very wet with oil (add as needed). Use only light pressure, as too much force will remove the finish, especially around carvings, sharp corners and raised details. Change the sandpaper frequently to maximize its "cutting" performance. Maintain a careful watch that you are not cutting completely through the finish coats; you only want to smooth the rough surface (e.g. the top-layer of the finish). Use your fingertips to determine when the surface finish becomes smooth. Then wipe-down the area you have completed with a clean cloth, and tons of dirt and old finish materials are likely to appear on the cloth. Work your way around the machine, doing small areas at a time. It usually takes 5-6 hours of rubbing to complete the process for a standard upright machine.
Once you have completed the job, check again for any rough spots on the finish surface that you may have missed. Reapply the oil to those areas, and smooth them using the procedure noted above. You may not be able to smooth surfaces where the veneer is damaged or where the finish has worn off.
Let the cabinet fully dry (usually several days) such that no damp oil remains on any finish surface.
Once complete, use a finish softener/deep cleaner such as New Life Furniture Masque (available online) and apply with your fingertips and moderate pressure, rubbing the masque thoroughly into the surface, leaving it slightly wet (working one small section at a time). Then wipe off with a clean rag. This is where the REAL dirt, old surface finish and years of wax will come off in big globs. Change the rags frequently, and you will probably go through more than a dozen of them. Once the cabinet is complete, allow the surfaces to thoroughly dry (usually requires 4-5 days).
Then re-apply a very light coat of masque using the technique noted above. Rub it in well with your fingertips until it starts to thin-out; you want to apply just enough to make the surface appear "wet" when you are done. Leave it alone (don't wipe it down). Again, allow to dry thoroughly. This may take a full week or more.
Once dry, use a finish rubbing compound on small areas (e.g. pumice powder with lemon oil or Behlen Finish-Rub, etc.) to polish the cabinet, again using small circular motions. Keep at it. This will bring-back the gloss of the original finish. It takes loads of time and patience, but it will make the old finish shine.
Allow to dry thoroughly, and then one more wipe-down with clean cloths, followed by an application of a good furniture polish. We avoid using furniture waxes and other surface coatings, as they tend to dull the appearance over time.
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. 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.
Take apart your phonograph 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.
If you are undertaking a complete restoration, the motor and soundbox must be rebuilt (see REPAIRS) and most-likely you will want to have the hardware professionally re-plated in nickel or gold to match the original. The old turntable felt can be removed with a putty knife, and replacement green or yellow felt, already cut-to-size, is available on EBay and elsewhere.
Find a good working area, with lots of space, and cover the floor or bench with paper or plastic. Wear your worst clothing or a protective plastic suit, as you are sure to have stripper and old finish spashes all over. Stripping always makes a huge mess.
Make sure you have good ventilation; away from gas heaters, furnaces, etc. Put a fan in an outside window to exhaust fumes. Always use an OSHA approved vapor mask.
Use a good commercial stripper, and let IT do the work. We 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 they tend to be very slow working, requiring many applications to remove an old finish. Just use an old brush to simply apply the stripped 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! If you avoid rubbing hard, much of the original stain can be preserved. This is an advantage, since the resulting color will better match the original, and if you opt to not refinish under the lid (which is usually left original to preserve the decal), you will have a good 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. It may require up to four passes of stripping/scraping to assure that all the old finish is removed from every nook and cranny. When the stripping is complete, take a stripping pad or 000 steel wool, 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 3-5 long evenings to strip an average Victrola cabinet. It takes time to do it right, but the job is not difficult! If you want to strip the top of the lid, but leave the original under-lid Victrola decal panel intact, simply use "painters tape" and carefully apply it around the edges of the lid (where you don't want it stripped. Be very precise in the placement of the tape, right around the edges. When completed, press it down firmly. Then cut a sheet of heavy plastic to roughly the size of the panel, and tape it down against the tape you have already applied. This will protect the rest of the inner lid area. This method 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 occasionally get onto the panel through capillary action under the tape, so as soon as you've completed stripping the top, remove all the tape and plastic and use a waterlogged paper towel to thoroughly clean the lid and remove any residual stripping solvent or alcohol that has leeched under the tape. Then repeat the cleaning with a new damp towel. Then dry it thoroughly. 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 (since they were not exposed to a lot of stripper for a long time) will smooth right out.
Around 1915, Victor began spraying the finish coats onto their cabinets, rather than the usual hand brushing. This resulted in a thinner layer of varnish. Consequently, it usually takes more time (and sometimes more repeats of stripper) to remove the thick old varnish finish from pre-1915 phonographs.
Once complete, clean the surfaces one final time with a soft cloth soaked with an "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 residue that is stuck in cracks and crevices. The smallest piece of "crud" stuck in a crack will show up like a sore thumb when the finish coat is applied.
The time for any repairs to damaged wood or veneer is afthe stripping job is complete. Gluing any broken parts, fixing chipped veneer or mending holes can easily be done at this time. Be careful not to get any glue on the veneer surfaces, as the stain will not adhere to dry glue. If the veneer is lifting, you can use glue on an exacto knife to slide it underneath, and then put pressure on the repaired section overnight via a clamp or heavy weight.
If the veneer is shot (e.g. torn, missing, water-damaged, etc.), you will have to re-veneer the damaged portion(s). Many home woodworkers have had great 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. You can also use an electric 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. Bring your checkbook, quality veneer is not cheap.
Make necessary repairs to major gouges or holes in the finish. You may wish 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. We avoid using these kinds of putty filler products for any large gouges or dents unless absolutely necessary...they are almost always visible as a "patch", 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 gouges aren't TOO horrible, it's best to leave them alone, since the subsequent 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. We've heard plenty of comments that the fully stripped finish is smooth enough and sanding isn't needed...but ignore that advice and do a little sanding. The sanding process 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. We typically use a small palm power sander with 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. Remember that you are only attempting to smooth the surface, NOT remove the residual (old) stain on the veneer...if the wood starts turning very light, you are applying too much pressure (or sanding too long). If your panels or cabinet are starting to appear "patchy" (light and dark sections of veneer) then you have removed too much of the original stain in certain areas. Then you must keep sanding everything to obtain the same shade on all surfaces Do not proceed to the next step until all of your work surfaces appear to be approximately the same color and shading. Otherwise, you will have a splotchy result.
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.
An essential step. 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 after the finish coats are applied, and the end-result is not very satisfactory. 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).
We recommend a wood grain filler such as "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 (right), 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 gently remove any 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 squeegee 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 other 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 veneer's 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 path 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. Apply just enough pressure to result in a smooth surface. If you start removing a lot of material...you have gone too far.
Once dry, apply a coat of closely matching oil-based stain, 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 stain, and allow each coat to soak in for 10 minutes or so. Then wait overnight between coats. When the shade of the wood (once the stain has dried) closely matches the original color 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 Victrola finishes. Many local paint stores carry this product. 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.
Once dried, you should now reassemble the wood components (doors, lid, etc.) of your machine. Then mask-off any exposed hardware (e.g. hinges) to prevent them from being covered with the finishing materials (right). You will also have to recover the inside of the lid with painting tape and plastic (as was done during stripping), to keep finishing materials from over-coating that original area.
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. We 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. You can also use a good quality shellac product.
Now comes the hard part. Do you want to use varnish or lacquer for the top coat? For pre-1925 Victrolas, varnish is the authentic and most durable choice. For post-1925 models, lacquer is the authentic choice. But there are several factors to consider:
Varnish is miserable to work with. It is difficult to spray, tends to run, 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 was the original choice for most Victors and Victrolas, but good luck finding an authentic varnish product these days! New "poly" varnishes (about 99% of what is available at hardware stores and online retailers) will always look like the cabinet was coated with plastic, plus they do not allow the wood to "breathe". Nobody we know manufactures "true" varnish today. The closest we've found thus far can be found here, but be aware that the "semi-authentic stuff" is quite expensive! There are likely many other sources for a product which comes close to old-style varnish as well. But unless you are set-up for a true dust-free workplace, and have skill in applying these products, we do not recommend that you start-off your restoration project using varnish.
Lacquer is not as durable 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 authentic for pre-1925 Victrolas, it is commonly used by restoration services, as it can give a very similar appearance to varnish, and is much easier to work with. We recommend that the beginner use lacquer, and then progress to varnish once the techniques are mastered. But if you don't have good spraying equipment, do not try and "brush" lacquer on a Victor or Victrola cabinet. This almost always leaves lines and marks from the bristles, and will rarely appear to be evenly applied.
Polyurethane is super-durable, but it is based on plastic compounds, and will not result in an authentic look. Any experienced collector 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. It is best used for kitchen cabinets, not antiques.
Finish coats take at least a week to complete. For lacquer, we recommend five (or more) coats, 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. We 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 a common 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. Use a "gloss" lacquer for Victors and Victrolas.
Behlen recommends thinning Qualac nearly 50% prior to application (see HVLP note below).
Some people tint the lacquer to achieve darker colors, but this not necessary in most cases 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 these products, 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.
We've had great results with the newer HVLP (High Volume-Low Pressure) sprayers, and would recommend buying one if you plan on restoring more than one machine. They are easy to master, and the finish results are excellent with practice. These systems can run from $500.00 upwards, but will pay for themselves with results. Most are supplied with complete user instructions. Bear in mind that, with HVLP, you will likely 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. We typically use about 10% thinner, and about 5% (combined) Lacquer Retarder and Lacquer Flow-Out.
Do not use an aerosol spray can to apply finish coats. HVLP is best. Regular high-pressure spraying (via compressor) is the next choice. Brushing is also acceptable, but can be tricky to master. 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.
If you are brushing the lacquer, simply follow the directions on the can. Practice on a few junk pieces of wood before you begin on a phonograph.
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.
Let the phonograph sit in a dark spot for at least 4 weeks before applying any cleaners 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 later using any good polish. Eventually, the residue will cease appearing for good.
Once fully dried, we recommend a good rubdown with Doozy furniture polish to bring out the gloss. You can use it applied to a soft toothbrush to clear-off any white residue that is stuck in nooks and crannies.
We rarely use wax after the lacquer finish coats. A good polish is all that is needed.
We have run into two 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 were virtually undetectable until we started stripping off the old finish. In those cases, entire corners of the veneer literally melted into a pile of goo. We 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 the remaining components, using great care not to scratch or abrade your freshly-finished surfaces
With time and patience, the end-result can be spectacular (right).
How long does it take, and what does it cost? When we were doing this work with an experienced crew (on a volume basis), our average cost breakdown in 2015 (not including profit, transportation or overhead) for a typical upright Victrola was as follows:
Stripping and sanding materials $35.00
Grinding, plating and buffing of hardware (sourced outside): $350.00 to $400.00
Finishing materials $55.00
Motor and Soundbox Overhaul: $350.00
Labor Hours: 55-60 (more for highly ornate models)