Restoration – Cabinet

This page will discuss a typical restoration of the cabinet of one of these antique radios. The typical steps will be shown for examination of the cabinet as it arrives, decision to refinish, stripping, sanding, grain filling, and application of the lacquer in multiple colors.

At right is a cabinet as I purchased it. This is a 1931 Philco 90 radio, a very nice radio that many collectors wish to own. As you can see, much of the finish is worn off and some areas of the footer shown some wear and damage. At times, the veneer may be peeling in which case every attempt is made to save that and reglue it tight to the underlying wood base. In some cases, a strip of veneer is missing and a new patch must be cut to match the grain and then it can be carefully fitted and glued in place.

Once the decision has been made to totally refinish this cabinet, the existing finish must be removed first. There are 3 ways that I have done this. First is to use steel wool dipped in lacquer thinner and rub this onto the cabinet to dissolve the existing lacquer. The residue is removed with a paper towel dipped in lacquer thinner. The second method is to use a finish stripper. I shy away from this because it is just a mess to handle and clean up and it rarely removes all of the finish thus requiring some amount of the use of the first method. The third method is to use a furniture scraper and to slowly and carefully scrape the old finish off. For the experienced hand, this is quicker and far less of a mess.

When the finish is removed, the cabinet is sanded with a fine 320 or 400 sandpaper and an orbital sander plus hand sanding of areas such as the curved trim. 

Most of the old radio cabinets are built using walnut for the finish parts and poplar for the trim pieces. Some cabinets are mahogany. Since walnut and mahogany are large open grain varieties, the application of finish alone will leave a rough surface. Therefore a product called a grain filler is applied to those surfaces to fill the pores in the wood and make the surface smooth.

Here you can see that the front panel, the top front curved arch, and the top and side large curved area all have had grain filler applied. This is then allowed to dry for at least 24 hours to allow time for the filer to set. A final light sanding is then done to make the surface fully smooth.

Typically, there are 2 color schemes for a radio. The walnut main areas will maintain the natural color of the wood for the most part. There are exceptions to this general rule. For this Philco, the trim parts are a darker accent color with the walnut areas lighter. Therefor, the main areas are covered carefully and taped off precisely along the trim lines.

In order to match colors, the original manufacturers used a tinted spray lacquer to apply over the light colored poplar wood in successive coats to match the tone and shade desired. By applying multiple light coats of the tinted lacquer, the restorer can “sneak up” on the proper color.

Once the trim areas have had a good 24 hours to dry, the masking can be removed and the clear coat applied to all of the radio. Again, this is applied in many thin coats for best results. Here you see the radio after 3 coats of clear have been applied. Now, however, there is a general mismatch of color given that the dark trim is much darker than the natural walnut color. To remedy this, a final very thin coat or multiple coats of the dark tinted lacquer is sprayed over all of the cabinet. This results in a much better color match across the entire radio.

Once the color adjusting is done across the walnut areas and the trim, a series of additional clear lacquer coats is applied. The total number of coats is then 6-8 to get the desired look. I use #0000 steel wool between coats to smooth the finish and remove any spots and fine spray beads. Some restorers use very fine grit sandpaper usually wetted. The radio is then allowed to fully dry for 1 week. At that point, some folks simply buff the radio, but I apply a very thin coat of Johnson’s Paste wax.

At right is the final view of this radio, fully assembled and looking like new again.