Vin­tage ra­dio col­lec­tor

A love of ra­dios re­sults in a huge col­lec­tion of vin­tage ra­dios

The Shed - - Contents - By He­len Frances Pho­tog­ra­phy by Tracey Grant

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.

Huge col­lec­tion

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.

Ex­pen­sive hobby

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 elec­tron­ics

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.

The cab­i­nets

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.”

Don’t over-re­store

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

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

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