Vintage radio collector
A love of radios results in a huge collection of vintage radios
The back doorstep at Graham and Val Hawtree’s place in Whanganui is the drop off spot for any and every kind of vintage radio. That’s because Graham is a veteran collector and restorer of radios, and well known for being unable to say “no”.
“Quite often I come home at night and find radios sitting on the back patio,” he says. “Sometimes we know who has left them but quite often we never find out. Or people ring up and say, ‘We’re cleaning out the house and have a couple of old radios.’ We always follow them up because you never know when there might be a really nice set or a rare one. We can always use damaged radios for parts, too.”
Graham has 750 fully restored vintage radios in mint working order and intends to expand his current storage and 'museum' space when he winds up his building business later this year.
But the 750 are nothing compared to the 2000 they have acquired over time from many different sources, including large radio collections from estates. Graham is a licensed auctioneer and travels all over the country to auction estate lots. His knowledge of radios is a distinct advantage.
He often comes home with much more than he started the day with. But they have had no trouble passing on 1300 radios to the community of dedicated radio collectors.
Graham’s interest in radios goes back a long way. In 1965, while a teenager, he became involved with the Whanganui Amateur Radio Society, and 20 years ago extended his interest to vintage broadcast radios. The museum idea grew from that.
His double garage and a large room out the back are chock-a-block with radios
and catalogued parts. Spare speakers hang from the rafters, and boxes of valves — which he can access easily through the internet — line the shelves. A filing cabinet holds knobs, wires, and replacement transformers.
The latest radio to arrive at Graham’s is a 1936 Majestic model 85, which sits waiting to be restored. The veneer has bubbled but he won’t take it off unless he has to. He bought it for $100 but if it costs another $200 to restore he says that won’t be such a good buy.
“I can slit the veneer and squeeze some glue under it and clamp it back down. If it’s successful that’ll be near enough because I don’t want to over-restore the cabinet. If it’s not successful I can strip the veneer off and re-veneer it.”
Another Majestic console is in restoration mode. The cabinet is finished
“They have had no trouble passing on 1300 radios to the community of dedicated radio collectors”
and only the speaker cloth needs to be changed. A former owner gave it an orange cloth which is out of character, so he will find something that looks like the original.
A clock radio depicting rural scenes, which he suspects isn’t factory made, has cracks in the casing, but Graham says this is all part of the patina of age and will not be repaired. When the radio is on, the dial scale showing all the stations is visible through the tapestry dial cloth.
“Criteria to consider are: is it slightly rare or a common everyday radio? If it is common, you may think twice about restoring it”
Restoring a vintage radio
Graham restores the radios as close to the original as possible. He can get them back into running order but prefers to focus on the cabinets, which can be a long and arduous task. Friends of his museum — half a dozen chaps — do most of the electronic work.
“Finding people today who have still got the knowledge of how to service the old valve radios is getting very difficult,” he says. “A lot have died. Some knowledge has been passed down, some has been lost.”
He says a lot of information is on the internet, including circuit diagrams for all but a few radios. The 'lads' of the New Zealand Vintage Radio Society, of which he is a member, are also extremely
helpful. And he has a lot of parts, including about 12,500 spare valves.
The walls of Graham’s tiny radio repair shed, called 'The Shack', are lined with labeled component drawers that hold valves, resistors, transistors, transformers, capacitors, tuning condensers, diodes, wire connectors, nuts, bolts, and screws — all the bits and pieces needed to service the radios. Testing gear sits on the service bench.
“When we start to restore a radio the first thing we do is remove the chassis and speaker and knobs and things, and place them on the bench away from the cabinet. The steel chassis sits in the base of the radio and holds all the components and the front-mounted dial.”
He takes out all the valves and inspects the lead to make sure it’s safe, then plugs
it in and lets the transformer sit with the power on. It heats up quickly and, if there is a short in the windings, will start to smoke.
“Then you have to make a decision because the transformer usually has a short in it and needs to be rewound. Fortunately I have a very good colleague who specializes in rewinding transformers. It is an expense to have it done so you have to look at what the radio is worth, what it’s going to cost to restore, and if it’s going to be worth while.”
Criteria to consider are: is it slightly rare or a common everyday radio? If it is common, you may think twice about restoring it.
Minimum tools required
He says very little test equipment is needed to service the old valve radios. A really good multimeter that measures
“If you want to take a bit of sandpaper to it, you put it six feet away from you where you can’t really reach it and then you wave the sandpaper at it”
volts, ohms, and capacitance may be enough, although a good valve tester can be handy as well.
“The good thing about old radios is that once you turn them upside down there is lots of room to get in and do anything.”
And with speakers, if it’s specialized and the cone is torn, then he reckons it’s probably worth having the cone redone by a firm in Auckland.
“It’s quite an expense so the radio has to be special. A lot of guys throw them out but we can get them re-coned. I’ve had several done.”
When we visit, Graham is doing a routine check of a valve set and finds the plug is illegally wired. He removes the valves and applies a low voltage through the Variac. After an hour the transformer, which is the nerve centre of the set, shows no signs of distress. He changes the faulty capacitors and checks the old carbon resistors, which go out of tolerance.
He says the process is the same for every chassis, with variations depending on the voltage.
Borer is the timber cabinet’s number one enemy. During the flying season Graham uses anti-borer Robocans, which spray automatically.
He inspects all radios thoroughly
and treats those infested with borer as the beetle can destroy and devalue a collection.
He removes the inside of the radio and treats the cabinet with a solution of commercially available borer solution mixed with turpentine. It soaks into the timber and acts as a permanent borer deterrent.
Kerosene was also quite penetrating but it leaves a residue that can take some time cleaning off.
Stripping a cabinet right back is a long arduous task, he says.
“They didn’t use varnish in the old days– they used shellac. That needs to be scraped off right back to the bare veneer and then any repairs done — maybe the moldings need a little bit of fixing, maybe there’s been evidence of borer and if you want to save the set you may want to change the veneer. Once it’s down to the bare bones state that’s the hardest part done. You can use a commercial stripper or, if it’s only shellac, I use a scraper and it comes straight off.”
Graham tries to envisage what each radio was like in its original state. He may re-veneer the outside, re-stain it, then polish the cabinet. Cabinets made in the early 1930s and 40s had superb inlay, which can be replicated and repaired.
“You need to be a bit careful because if you over-restore the cabinet it doesn’t look right and it’s no longer original,” he warns. “There is a fine line between original and restoration.”
He uses either a flat or satin polyurethane finish, because sets done with a gloss finish never look authentic. And don’t be tempted to paint them.
“We’ll get a really nice set and someone has painted it pink to match the curtains or something. You can salvage them with paint stripper. Sets that look fit for the dump, a few months later can look a million dollars — right back to the natural veneer finish, up and running. There’s virtually nothing that can’t be restored
“There is a fine line between original and restoration”
back to its original looks and concept.”
Moldings can be a bit of a pain as they are unique to every radio.
“You are tempted to run extra when you’re making moldings, build up a bit of stock, but the chances are you’ll never use that particular molding again.”
If the speaker fretwork needs replacing he cuts it out of thin plywood; then it’s veneered, and carefully trimmed out so that the veneer stays on the fretwork but the holes are opened up in the grill for the speaker. The veneer is a super thin 1mm.
“If you want to take a bit of sandpaper to it, you put it six feet away from you where you can’t really reach it and you wave the sand paper at it, because if you’re not careful you can sand through it.”
Graham says collecting vintage radios means different things to different people but for himself and Val it’s all about preservation and helping other collectors with missing items.
They are very grateful to all the people who have helped in forming the collection and for their ongoing interest and support.
Should you start collecting radios he strongly recommends joining the New Zealand Vintage Radio Society where you will find “help and friendship and lots of knowledge”. Visit www.nzvrs.pl.net.
Graham and Val can be contacted by email: grahamand[email protected]
Finding replacement valves presents no real problems these days
Graham switches on a very early American Brunswick console radio
Circuit diagram for a Brunswick radio Radiola 20 — a battery-operated radio
Zenith radio from the 1930s
Right: Collection of Bell Colt and Clipper radios from the 1950s
There are plenty of spare parts around the workshop
Using the signal generator
Graham often gets asked how difficult it is to get replacement valves. Most valves are still around, held mostly by collectors and radio restorers. Russia and China and a couple of other countries are still producing valves as there is currently a big...
An Ariel clock radio, possibly the only operational one in New Zealand
Graham working on the chassis of an Ultimate radio
Replacing faulty capacitors
Graham and Val's collection has 750 fully restored vintage radios in mint working order
A few handy tools