Up­grad­ing valve ra­dios

We visit a small busi­ness bring­ing old valve ra­dios into the 21st cen­tury

The Shed - - Contents - By Jude Wood­side Pho­tographs: Jude Wood­side

The fam­ily gath­er­ing around the wire­less to lis­ten to the Fri­dayevening pro­gramme may be a thing of the dis­tant past, but the beauty of those old valve-driven ra­dios lives on in the ded­i­cated work of Retro Ra­dios.

Based in Dan­nevirke, Alis­ter Ram­say works from an as­sort­ment of sheds, a garage, and a con­tainer, lov­ingly restor­ing old valve ra­dios and radiograms. In a work­shop redo­lent of the glory days of the 1940s to the 1960s, with nos­tal­gic posters for Life magazine and a smat­ter­ing of old cam­eras — an­other hobby is col­lect­ing those — Alis­ter works to a back­ground of smooth jazz is­su­ing from one of a va­ri­ety of beau­ti­fully re­stored valve ra­dios pro­duc­ing warm-toned mu­sic to set the mood.

It’s not hard to imag­ine that you are back in a 1950s hi-fi shop when you are sur­rounded by dozens of fully re­stored ra­dios look­ing as they must have done when they were new. Alis­ter has a small AM ra­dio trans­mit­ter to give his ra­dios some­thing to tune to, al­though they can be used to play from any source via Blue­tooth. He sources the ra­dios by word of mouth and from sec­ond-hand deal­ers, as well as at auc­tions up and down the coun­try, and has quite a few that he is restor­ing on com­mis­sion.

Restor­ing and mod­i­fy­ing

The process starts with strip­ping the elec­tri­cal com­po­nents from the case. The old wax ca­pac­i­tors are re­placed with mod­ern elec­trolytic and ce­ramic ca­pac­i­tors. The ca­pac­i­tors are usu­ally the first thing to break down as they are made from wax and pa­per and will have de­te­ri­o­rated long ago. The set is then con­nected to power and turned on to de­ter­mine if any of the valves need re­plac­ing.

Alis­ter is helped by a friend, now re­tired af­ter a life­time of re­pair­ing ra­dio and TVs, who pos­sesses a hoard of old valves still un­used and the knowl­edge of their op­er­a­tion. He also has a very handy valve tester to trace faults.

To bring them up to date he adds an aux­il­iary con­nec­tion to the ra­dio am­pli­fier stage that can in­ject a sig­nal via Blue­tooth sourced from any other de­vice, iPad, phone or com­puter tuned to FM, Spo­tify, or any other source. This way you can take

ad­van­tage of the valve am­pli­fier and the sub­stan­tial old speak­ers that these early ra­dios pos­sessed.

The beauty of valve am­pli­fiers as any hi-fi afi­cionado can tell you is the warmth and rich­ness of the sound. The older speak­ers were very sub­stan­tially made too and, mostly, still op­er­a­tional.

“One trick I have learnt is that mi­cro­p­ore tape is very good for re­pair­ing any small holes or tears in the pa­per cones. It’s a pa­per tape and it sticks so well be­cause it’s pa­per to pa­per. It’s avail­able in ev­ery first-aid kit and is the tape that nurses use most of­ten,” says Alis­ter. As luck would have it, his wife hap­pens to be a nurse.

Once the chas­sis is re­paired and work­ing, it is tested and given an Elec­tri­cal Safety Cer­tifi­cate. Alis­ter can also sup­ply a Blue­tooth don­gle that runs off the ra­dio power sup­ply.

AM was the go

Old ra­dios were pri­mar­ily used for the AM net­work and short­wave for long dis­tance.

FM was vir­tu­ally un­heard of, al­though Alis­ter has a Ger­man set from the 1950s with FM ca­pa­bil­ity.

Garage sale

Alis­ter started restor­ing old ra­dios when he picked up a Colum­bus (one of the very pop­u­lar New Zealand–made brands from the ’40s) at a garage sale for $5.

“I fixed up a cou­ple of ca­pac­i­tors and got it go­ing. The sound qual­ity wasn’t that good — old valve ra­dios sound scratchy and hor­ri­ble be­cause the AM ra­dio trans­mit­ters aren’t as pow­er­ful as they were when AM was pop­u­lar. Nowa­days they are pump­ing out a few hun­dred watts whereas be­fore it was up to 60,000W,” he ex­plains.

“You also get all sorts of in­ter­fer­ence from all the other de­vices you have in the home. When these ra­dios were made the only thing plugged into the power was the ra­dio — there were no other sources of in­ter­fer­ence, like

It’s not hard to imag­ine that you are back in a 1950s hi-fi shop when you are sur­rounded by dozens of fully re­stored ra­dios look­ing as they must have done when they were new

mi­crowave ovens, TV, and Wi-Fi that all cause AC in­ter­fer­ence.

“So I thought maybe I could feed a sig­nal into it. I did some re­search and found [that] I could con­nect an aux­il­iary de­vice into the cir­cuit, and then I found I could hook-up a Blue­tooth de­vice. Then friends start­ing ask­ing me to do one for them and it started to grow.”

He de­vel­oped his busi­ness and his mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial with men­tor­ing and help from the lo­cal Tararua Busi­ness Net­work in Dan­nevirke to turn what was a bur­geon­ing hobby into a thriv­ing part-time busi­ness sell­ing sets all over the coun­try.

Ra­dio­gram up­grades

Radiograms were pop­u­lar from the 1940s to the early 1970s, in­cor­po­rat­ing both a ra­dio and a turntable for play­ing vinyl records. Some later mod­els even in­cor­po­rated a TV. Alis­ter strips down the turntable to make them go again and in some in­stances he will re­place the turntable with a more mod­ern one. Vinyl records are mak­ing a come­back and valve am­pli­fiers are also un­der­go­ing a re­nais­sance.

When he first re­ceives them they are not usu­ally in great con­di­tion, with up to 80 years of ac­cu­mu­lated grime and smoke stains mar­ring them.

“It’s amaz­ing what a dif­fer­ence it makes to just clean off the dirt and [then] you can start to see the orig­i­nal colour of the cab­i­nets un­derneath,” says Alis­ter. He of­ten has to strip the old fin­ish from the cab­i­nets for which he uses the lo­cally pro­duced 

Coop­ers Strip Club. The strip­per does no dam­age to the un­der­ly­ing ve­neer. If the cabi­net is un­dam­aged apart from the built-up dirt then the restora­tion is fairly straight­for­ward — clean­ing, strip­ping, and polishing the cabi­net.

Any dam­age to the ve­neers is fixed and the piece given a fine sand­ing down to 400 grit be­fore be­ing oiled and pol­ished with a lo­cally made wax pol­ish. The fab­rics that were typ­i­cally used to cover the speaker are care­fully re­placed and brass and bronze ac­cents pol­ished or re­placed then the cases are buffed to a glow.

The trans­for­ma­tion is as­ton­ish­ing. From a drab piece of fur­ni­ture emerges a glow­ing work of art, com­plete with lights. Some of the old sets had glow­ing screens, oth­ers had a ‘magic-eye tuner’ that glowed in flu­o­res­cent green when a sta­tion was tuned in ac­cu­rately. The use of ve­neers was of­ten in­spired, cre­at­ing ac­cents and high­lights in the con­trast­ing woods.

3D print­ing

With so many sets avail­able, Alis­ter is of­ten given old ra­dios. He used to buy as many as pos­si­ble but has got fussier now that he has plenty of spare parts, al­though now that his son has re­cently ac­quired a 3D printer and CAD skills he his able to re­pro­duce hard-to-find knobs and de­tails.

Alis­ter has a ready sup­ply of one very pop­u­lar set from the ’50s — a kitchen­shelf ra­dio that went by var­i­ous names but most com­monly ‘Courier’. This set has a steel cabi­net that was fin­ished in white. Alis­ter buys them when­ever he can find them and strips them be­fore hav­ing them re­fin­ished by an au­to­mo­tive spray painter. Re­stored, they wouldn’t look out of place in a mod­ern kitchen along­side that retro-look toaster.

Rare pieces

His col­lec­tion con­tains many rare ex­am­ples of early hi-fis — in­clud­ing a very rare bi-am­pli­fied ra­dio­gram built in 1959 by Rogers De­vel­op­ments, a Bri­tish au­dio com­pany.

Started in 1947 by Jim Rogers, Rogers De­vel­op­ments was fa­mous for the de­vel­op­ment of the LS3/5A stu­dio mon­i­tors com­mis­sioned by the BBC in the early 1970s that be­came a leg­end among au­dio­philes. The Rogers set has Wharfedale stereo speak­ers.

He also has a beau­ti­fully re­stored Philips Carnegie Hall also from 1959. In its day it was very much a sta­teof-the-art set, with the then all-new stereo speak­ers.

It’s not all work though. The avail­abil­ity of so many ex­otic valves gave Alis­ter the in­spi­ra­tion for his steam­punk ray gun, a work-in-progress that he hopes even­tu­ally to make flash and glow in a re­al­is­tic man­ner.

Alis­ter reg­u­larly tours with his Retro Ra­dios van to an­tique fairs and events around the coun­try. The van con­tains an in­verter so that he can run the ra­dios he sells. He also ac­cepts com­mis­sions to re­store sets.

For more info about Retro Ra­dios and more pic­tures of his stock, see the web­site retro­ra­dios.nz.

“I did some re­search and found [that] I could con­nect an aux­il­iary de­vice into the cir­cuit, and then I found I could hook-up a Blue­tooth de­vice”

A beau­ti­fully re­stored HMV ra­dio­gram com­mis­sion

An 80 rec­ti­fier valve that was re­moved and found to be in per­fect work­ing or­der

A Philips Carnegie Hall

Nearly ev­ery inch of space in the show­room is filled with a re­stored trea­sure. It's a bit like be­ing in a 1950s hi-fi store

A valve tester comes in handy

A steam­punk ray gun

The 21st-cen­tury-up­date Blue­tooth aux­il­iary don­gle

Some cur­rent stock await­ing its turn for an up­grade

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