Chuck's Antique Telephone Blog


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Replacing the covering on a candlestick phone.

February : It is wintertime with thoughts of staying indoors and working on some telephone projects. Collectors often come upon a candlestick desk telephone where the covering on the base is missing, torn or just needs to be replaced. Black phones can be found with a felt-like dark brown cloth while some of the older phones can be found with a suede leather covering. Nickel plated phones can be found with the brown covered bases and early phones with a green covering. Collectors like to use the felt coverings from old pool tables or suede leather. For purposes of this blog, I have found an old leather jacket at a Goodwill Store as noted in the September blog below.

Today I recovered the base of a Western Electric 20AL manual candlestick telephone with a piece of leather from the jacket. The base plate was removed from the phone and the retaining ring taken off so the old material could be pulled off. To make placing the material on the base, I cut a template out on a piece of scrap wood using a dremel and a router as seen in the below image:

Place the material over the template and push the base down causing the material up. Place the retaining ring over the outside of the material, gathering it to the center and pulling the edges in as tight as possible. Press the ring into the base and use the hammer to press it to the bottom thus securing the material as seen in the next image.

I used an expensive punch that I bought at a tool store to cut out the holes for the screws in the bottom of the leather base. While some cut the holes prior to mounting the cloth on the base, I find it easier to punch and line up the holes once on as seen below.

The last process is to cut off the excess material on the inside using a razor. Original bases did not have excess material showing.


Christmas with telephones.

December 12. It has been awhile since I wrote a blog due to my travel schedule this fall. As we move into this Holiday Season, I was thinking about the past and how the telephone became an important tool during this season for connecting with people. This idea showed up early in the form of post cards and Christmas cards through the ages. Below are just some of the cards that I have seen since I have been collecting telephones and memorbilia.



Replacing the covering on WE 302 feet.

September 12: There are many occasions when one or more "feet" on a Western Electric 302 ("Lucy phone"), or a WE 5302 as seen in my April 28th blog below, are worn or torn. Often, collectors will recover these feet when they want a good looking telephone to look better. Re coving these is not very difficult and only cost pennies for each foot for materials. The hardest part is to find an appropriate covering. Earlier sets were covered in a suede letter. A good place to find inexpensive covering is a Goodwill or other thrift shop. Take a couple of feet in with you and search through clothing to find an appropriate material. I recently found a nice dark brown suede jacket that will give me plenty of leather to cover feet and the bottom plates of candlestick telephones.

The first step in recovering is to remove the old cover with a razor blade or knife. Once off the bottom section, you will notice a small hole on one side of the triangular base. Use a punch or nail where you have removed the point to punch out the upper portion that is holding the old covering. In the photo above, the left hand image is of a damaged foot taken from a phone. The two images on the right are the resultant pieces once the covering is removed. Note the hole on the right in the middle image. This is where a punch or nail can be inserted to separate the two pieces.

Cut a thick piece of felt (or a double piece) to be used as a cushion on the bottom between the leather and the metal in a triangular fashion as seen below and an appropriate size of the leather. To make it easier to assemble, I have used a piece of scrap wood and cut out a template of the foot using a dremel tool as seen below. Note the pencil marks around the template. This is so I can line up the piece of leather when re-assembling the foot.

 I first place the leather over the template then the felt followed by the bottom of the foot pushing the entire assembly down as seen in the next photograph:

Fold the leather over the bottom plate. Using a small blade to make sure that all of the leather is in the foot, place the top over and tamp with a hammer until all of the leather and top is seated. I recommend replacing the covers of all four feet on the phone for uniformity.


Making new oak look old

August 28. Once in awhile an oak phone may need a part fabricated. Most often we find wall phones that are missing a shelf or part of one. For those that are not handy in the wood shop, sells new shelves and brackets made out of new oak. To make the new wood look old to better match the finish on the rest of the phone, my friend Walt Aydelotte sent me his method.

Obtain a box of Oxalic Acid from a hardware store. This is a wood bleach that will ultimately leave the wood looking a battleship gray color. The first step is to sand the entire piece of wood to open the grain and then paint on the oxalic acid liberally, letting it soak in. Dry overnight and then repeat this process a second and possibly a third time. Once dried, sand the piece again making it as smooth as desired prior to staining, using whatever stains you need in order to match the color you are trying to duplicate Let the stain dry overnight and apply a second coat, wiping off lightly so as to not leave any puddles or globs of stain. Again, let it dry overnight and repeat the process until the new color matches the old continuing to "tweak" this coloration until you are satisfied. Put on a good sanding sealer and after allowing an overnight drying, sand lightly with 0000 steel wool. Clean the surface with a tac ray and brush on a clear satin polyurethane. After allowing to dry thoroughly, sand with a fine grit sandpaper and tac rag off any sanding dust. Apply a second coat and sand with 0000 steel wool after it has dried overnight. Walt uses a final coat of Spray Minwax Fast Drying Polyurethane Clear Semi-gloss. This can easily "run" so you might want to do a section at a time, keeping the sprayed surface flat, parallel to the floor. This stuff sets up in 5-7 minutes, so not waiting time is required.

Do not rush this process or cut corner to the the project done quickly If done properly, the phone will look great and you will not be able to tell the old from the new

Updated information on Aug 30: My fellow collector, Tom, sent me the following information on the above process:

"I've used Walt's method numerous times with excellent results. However, there is an alternative process in the finishing steps that the old oak furniture (and phone makers) used to avoid problems and speed up finishing. My grandfater went to work in an oak furniture factory at 12 years old - he was the first of the old timers to tell me the "tricks".

The key is to alternate solvents in the finishing process. One of the potential problems of Walt's process is that the stain, the sanding sealer and the poly may have the same or similar solvents. That is the reason he advocates allowing adequate drying time between steps. If you are too hasty (or in damp weather) the solvent of the next coat can dissolve part of the previous coat - it has happened to me - I assure you it is no fun to go back and start over.

To avoid that I use one or more very light coats of shellac instead of the sanding sealer - the shellac solvent is alcohol and it does not affect the solvent of the stain and it is not affected by the solvent of the finish coat. In fact, I've switched from regular poly to water based poly with better results - and the final spray coat can be eliminated completely by using multiple thin coats of poly which dry faster than solvent based poly.

The shellac coat dries very quickly and allows applicaton of the final coats earlier than the sanding sealer permits. No matter which method you use, you need to allow time for drying thoroughly. Both methods produce excellent results. This is nothing new - my grandad and his cronies were doing it this way (or something similar) a hundred years ago."

Removing paint from a thermoplastic telephone

July 2 . I was rummaging through a box of old telephones and decided to restore a dirty Western Electric 354 that had a lot of paint splatters on it. Quite often these old wall phones were not taken down when walls were painted and paint splatter is quite common and difficult to remove. One method that I found to work is to use automobile brake fluid, an old tooth brush and a rag. Simply dip the brush in a small container of brake fluid and gently brush over the affected area several times. The paint (and the thermoplastic) will soften and the area is than wiped with the rag. This process will take quite some time because as the thermoplastic becomes soft, the project has to be left for awhile to harden. I've had one phone take all week to clean but it is worth it. On your first try, perhaps you can practice on a cracked or non-essential phone. After all of the paint is removed and the plastic on the phone has been left to harden for several days, normal restoration as described in my April 28 blog was used to obtain the desired results as seen below on the right.

Here are the results of my restoration:

Restoring a Western Electric model 5302

April 28. I just located a 5302 and decided to document it's restoration. The picture on the left is the as found BEFORE restoration telephone and the one on the right is the same telephone finished AFTER restoration, complete with modular cord and working.



A 5302 looks almost like the standard rotary phones of the 50's-80's but upon closer look you see marked differences. Note that it is shorter than the model 500. In addition, notice that the dial is a metal 3 inch dial surrounded by a plastic number shroud. The switch hook area was molded to accommodate either an F or a G handset. When the phone is opened you will notice that the base, bells, network and condenser are from a Western Electric 302. Some have called the 5302 a "transition" phone between a 302 and a 500 since the housing is a 500-like over a 302 base. In actuality, this phone was made for the Bell System to help with the demand for the newer 500 model and a way for the phone company to save money and use many of the parts they were collecting when replacing 302's. Was the Bell System "going green" or saving money?

To begin the restoration, remove all of the parts. I would highly recommend taking notes and diagram all of the wiring.

5302 parts

My first process was to wash all of the plastic parts. Many collectors place the parts in their dish washer. My wife objects so I used dish washer detergent and a five gallon bucket of warm water. The housing is "soft plastic" and most likely has many dings and scratches. I use fine grit sandpaper and fine steel wool to sand out scratches followed by Novus 3 and Novus 2 gritted polish (see February 2 for sanding and the March 25 blog below for polishing).

My next step was to remove the parts attached to the base to clean. There are some who like to polish each screw. I don't tend to be that fastidious but in this case I did use a mild cleaner and fine steel wool pad on the metal parts. The bells are brass and were polished. I like to use a common cleaner such as 409 on the coiled handset cord, recoil it on a dowel and put a finish polish such as Novus 2 on the exterior. You can tell the difference between the before and after photos below:

Remove the finger wheel, the porcelain number plate and dust barrier. If the dial was sluggish, clean the pivot points with kerosene and then re-oil with a small drop using a fine clock oil. Do not use a WD-40 type lubricant. In short order dust will collect and the dial will gum up even more. Polish the number plate and finger wheel. Novus 2 will do a good job on these.

Reassemble all of the parts and add a modular cord if you plan to use the phone on today's telephone system.

The finished telephone will not look as it came out of the factory, but pretty close. Questions? Email me from the link just to the right of the moving dial above.

Restoring the "shine" on plastic telephones

March 25. Perhaps you have been to a flea market, thrift shop or garage sale and found a nice old rotary or touch tone telephone that is dirty and has a number of scuff marks on it. What methods do you use to get the phone back to a presentable shape?

While there is no one perfect approach, my method is to first remove the telephone's housing from the base, remove the handset capsules and handset cord as well as the line cord. I now have four pieces of plastic and two cords to clean. If very dirty, I will take them to the sink and use a detergent on the parts. Some collectors will place them in the dishwasher and allow them to go through a cleaning cycle. My wife isn't as understanding about my collection as much as some collector's wives are so I can only rely on this "sink method." Often the cords are quite grimy so I need to spend a lot of time with a cleaner and an old terry cloth on them.

Once all of the dirt and grime have been removed, I now use a gritted polish. Many years ago I became a believer and fan of Novus plastic polish and scratch remover. This product comes in a three part system for various types of scratches.

I start with Novus #3 on a clean soft cloth, usually a piece of an old terry towel, applying the paste liberally and rubbing back and forth at right angles to scratches on the surface of the phone. Keep the cloth saturated with the polish. Continue polishing until only small scratches are visible. Clean off any white film left by the polish with a clean cloth.

Using another clean cloth, apply Novus #2 in a more circular motion uniformly over the entire surface. Continue until the tan polish becomes a dry light haze. Using another clean cotton cloth, buff the entire area. If you can still see scratching, you should repeat the process. After you are satisfied with your results, apply Novus #1 liberally using broad strokes. This is no need to apply a lot of pressure on the cloth.

Your plastic phone shell, handset, and finger wheel should now look close to the way it appeared when the telephone man delivered it many decades ago and worthy of placing in your collection.

You can also use this process on the telephone cords to clean and polish them. Once you have finished cleaning the coiled handset cord, you and reform it on a piece of doweling.

I do not sell Novus but a quick google search will result in numerous retail sources.

If your phone is discolored, Novus will not remove stains. Collectors use a different process which will be described in a future blog.

Removing the finger wheel from a 500 type phone

February 26. There is another snowstorm occurring here in the Northeast with about 20 inches now on the ground and it is still snowing. It is too cold to work in the shop (my garage) so thought I'd bring a project inside to work on. I decided to replace the old used number cards on some of my Western Electric rotary 500 sets with new ones that I scanned and printed. I have used the number card found below. Just copy this image and print it out for your own use. This is what the number card looks like on my moss green desk set that I just completed.

I receive an occasional email from someone asking how to replace the number card on the telephones with the clear plastic finger wheel.

The process is an easy one and the only tool needed would be a standard paper clip. No, the telephone installer didn't carry paper clips with him for this task rather he had a pencil-like tool with a metal tip the size of a paper clip.

Look at the dial and you you will see a small hole drilled between the "9" and the "9" finger holes. Open one end of the paper clip and push it into that hole. Turn the dial all the way clockwise and push down down on the paper clip which presses on a metal tab that holds the finger wheel in place. While holding this "spring" down with the paper clip, force the dial one more space clockwise. The finger wheel will come loose and it can be removed from the phone.

To put the wheel back in place, put the "0" hole over the number "9" on the dial and turn the wheel counter-clockwise. The "spring" will fall back into place in the slot of the wheel and the finger wheel will stay in place.

Looking for a number card to place on your dial? Below is one from the proper era that can copied (right click) and printed. It should print at the proper size.

Nickel Plating Phone Parts

February 4. Do you have a telephone with some nickel parts where the nickel plating is shot? The choices we face are limited. We can leave the nickel as found; strip and buff the part back to it's brass base (old phones were never supplied in bare polished brass); paint it black; have the part professionally plated; plate it yourself.

Self-plating is not difficult. Many collectors use an inexpensive Texas Platters Nickel Kit. This is available from Texas Platters Supply, 2453 W. Five Mile Parkway, SGN., Dallas, Texas 75233. Phone (214) 330-7168. The kit consists of a plating brush, wire, clips and a small jar of copper and nickel plating jell.

About ten years ago, fellow collector, Steve Brink took his old worn nickel plated Stromberg Carlson "oil can" phone and re-plated it using the Texas Platters' kit. The results were quite stunning. Those who saw the phone at the Abilene Telephone Show were amazed at his results. The photos below do not show the actual beauty of Steve's accomplishment:

The most difficult part is the preparation of the metal parts. It is best to dissemble the parts of the phone, taking careful notes as to how to re-assemble. All of the old nickel must be removed. This can be accomplished with 320 grit sand paper (I like to use emery paper). For hard to reach and detailed areas a dremel tool with a brush attachment and polishing compound would be appropriate. For any pitted areas, use a 220 grit sand paper. Keep progressing using higher and higher grit sandpaper, each time moving up 100 or so grit increments until you reach 1000 grit. At the higher levels of grit, I like to use the "wet sandpaper." Once at this level, I use a buffing wheel to polish the brass so that it is mirror-like. If you see any scratches, go back over them with the sandpaper, finding the grit that will remove the scratch and work back up the grit scale. The brass should now be consistently "mirror-like." It would be best to go over all the parts with a commercial cleaner such as Semi-Chrome and buff with a very soft cloth.

Once the metal has been prepared, plating can begin. Just prior to plating, clean off the surface with a non-lotion soap to remove any oil that may be on the parts. Some have used a wash of denatured alcohol very successfully. Using the instructions that come with the plating materials, connect the negative side of a battery (3 volts DC are required. This can be done with two 1.5 dry cells or a three volt DC power supply. I use a universal AD/DC adaptor turned to 3-4.5 volt level. I've cut off the pin on the end of the wire and connected the clips that are supplied with the kit) to the part to be plated. The positive side clip gets attached to the handle of the plating brush. Dip the brush into the supplied solution and "paint" on the plating. I have to clean the brush often as the metal comes out of the jell.

Once plated, clean off any excess with soap and buff with a cloth.

Note: the kit consists of two compounds, copper and nickel. It is best to copper plate and then nickel over the copper. If you don't like the results on a piece, the plating can be removed with sandpaper.

Cleaning Nickel

February 2. Ah, Ground Hog's Day! Now that we will still have a lot of winter ahead of us, according to the little critter that saw it's shadow this morning, it is time to think about cleaning up some of the old telephones we have sitting around the house. For my first blog entry, I thought of that old nickel that we see on the early stick phones and on the plated bells and transmitter faceplates on the old wooden phones that might be blackened by age. Is there a "safe" way to clean the nickel?

If the nickel appears to be in decent shape, probably the best way to clean it is to use common household ammonia. After removing the nickel part from the phone (remove the transmitter parts from the faceplate first), immerse it in a small container with the ammonia. I often leave the part immersed for several hours. You will see the ammonia turning a bluish color as it removes tarnish. Buff the nickel with a soft cotton rag. I've found that my old cotton tee-shirts work really well for this task.

If the nickel is too far gone, ammonia will not help and the best suggestion would be renickeling the part. I'll give a few hints on this process in my next blog.