Sunday, February 23, 2014

Philco 87 Restoration Blog Thread

Philco 87 Restoration Blog Thread

I mentioned in an Auds'n'Ends entry a while back that I'd backburnered the Goldentone cathedral project. I didn't want to start a new project and wind up going back to the Goldentone...or not have time to really get going on. The couple of Malaysian spammers who check out the blog would start to wonder if I ever finish anything. (Often no, but that's another story)

On January 11, I went to a local antique mall and found a complete 1929 Philco 87 lowboy radio for $35. After the discount, it was $28. This model has an attractive, well-constructed cabinet and the price was awesome, so I couldn't resist. I paid for it and drove back the next day to haul it home.

I discovered when I slid it into the van that the chassis screws or bolts that hold it to the cabinet were missing and it started to slide out, popping the knobs off the front. The guy from the antique mall about had a coronary and was yelling "It's sliding out! It's sliding out!" I was saying, "It's OK, I know," but it didn't seem to calm him down. I guess he didn't realize that this radio was in for a lot of demolition.

The Philco 87 lowboy was sold in 1929 for $129.50, which, according to the Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator, has the buying power of $1771.47 in 2014 dollars. That seems really impressive until I consider that the IBM PCjr with a floppy disk drive cost $1269 new in 1984.

Philco models 40, 76, 87, and 95 all used the same lowboy cabinet and, according to, 249,327 of these radios were manufactured. This is a 7-tube set and, although radio technology improved significantly in the next decade, modern-day hobbyists seem to agree that it performs well for equipment of the era. I've read one post that said this radio was the first that had the frequencies printed on the dial, rather than a generic 0-100 scale. The speaker cutout in the cabinet had a wood shell-shaped grille in the 1929 models. In 1930, the wood grille was removed and the hole was filled with a more decorative tapestry-like cloth. As you can see from the pics, this is one of the 1929 models, which I think looks much nicer anyway.

Here are some photos of what the Philco 87 looked like when I brought it home.

I didn't put the chassis back in the cabinet

Birdseye maple front panel

Shell-shaped wood grille with shredded grille cloth behind

Leg is solid, but the finish is flaking
A closer look at how toasted the finish really is
I started stripping the cabinet with Citristrip and a putty knife. This job has been a bear and I've been occasionally spending an hour on it when the weather's hit the 40s or 50s. More than a month later and I've still got many more hours to go. Here are some photos from early in the process:

Stripping the front panel

Some of the gunk scraped off the front panel

The Chassis: 1/12/14
The chassis of the 87 looks about as filthy as you might expect for an 84-year-old radio:

I pulled the tubes, cleaned them, and packed them away in a box. Then, I vacuumed the chassis as much as possible, flipped it over and unscrewed the sheet metal cover under the chassis. Inside, I found what looked like mattress padding and cherry pits. Mice? Squirrels?

This stuff all got vacuumed out, too
I cleaned the inductor cans with metal polish and a 3M kitchen scouring pad ("greeny pad"). At some point (I didn't write down when), I took the radio out to the porch with a bucket of tap water and an old toothbrush and started scrubbing and rinsing it:

I've had the radio chassis sitting around for more than a month, so I decided that the first weekend above 50 degrees, I'd start taping and painting it. I'm not sure what this chassis is made from, but it's dark, unlike the steel chassis that I've worked on before. I've seen that someone else who restored a model 87 painted the chassis, so I thought I'd go that route, too. I have some primer here, so flat gray sounded like a good, neutral color--even if it's not original. It would be nice to easily remove everything from the chassis, repaint it, and re-assemble it. But, I didn't feel that it'd be worth the time to go to that much trouble, so I taped and painted everything where the were: first the chassis in gray, then the transformers in gloss black. (BTW, the big square can contains a bunch of capacitors. I need to remove it, melt the wax out of it, replace the capacitors, and reassemble everything. It's not being repainted now because I'll repaint it when I reassemble the can.)

Newspaper and painter's tape

Then it was time to spray on the gray:

Today, I added more newspaper & painter's tape and I painted the transformers black:

And the look after the tape's been removed? Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it looks a lot better than it did at the beginning of the process:

The 2nd inductor from the left has a Philco label with the model information. As you can see, it's fragile and much of it has flaked off.
I've spent hours on this radio today + writing and posting photos about it, so I think I'll take a bit of a break now :o)

I haven't done any more work with the radio chassis itself in about a month. Most of my free time has been going into writing more the next Pirate Radio Annual and logging a few pirates.

But I have spent more time stripping and sanding the cabinet. Basically, I've been using Citristrip and scraping off the residue about two times, then I sand off the remaining lacquer residue. Here is a pre-sanding photo of the residue on the side of the cabinet:

The darker areas are the lacquer and the white is the dried Citristrip

I've read a lot of people's opinions on restoring old radios. Personally, I try to make the radios look as close as I can to how it originally looked, to the best of my abilities. I also try to use the same techniques, if possible. Of course, what I just said here is up to can mean almost anything. I have a feeling that as I continue to write restoration projects here, this point will come up on a regular basis.

In terms of finish, I've seen a lot of purists say lacquer only and colored lacquer to supply any necessary color. That means no stain. These hobbyists say that's how the cabinet was originally finished and anything else would be historically inaccurate. I'm not knocking these people because they know a lot more than I do and my work winds up being half as good as theirs is, then I'll be happy.

However, as I've been stripping this particular Philco 87, I've noticed that the finishes vary a bit. More importantly, some of the areas seem to be bleeding stain as I strip it. Where I notice most of the stain seeping out are in the poplar decorative edges. Once I strip off the lacquer, the stain seeps out of the grain. The more I scrape the wood, the more the stain seeps out. A good example of this is in this picture:

On the poplar edge to the left, I kept scraping it, thinking that I was getting more lacquer off. But I wasn't; it was stain.

The feet of the radio are a completely different story. The lacquer was chipping and revealing "white" (unstained) wood underneath. 

Overall, the feet were done with colored lacquer only, the poplar wood was stained and I think both the walnut and the birdseye maple front panel were at least lightly stained. The decorative trim in the top corners and bottom center were stained and sprayed with toner lacquer.

I have some of the panels looking pretty good, but I have more sanding to go and I need to order some toner lacquer. I guess I'll buy Mohawk brand because that seems to be most popular with the radio restorers.

Finally working on the radio again after a whopping three and a half months of it sitting in the corner of our living room. Yesterday, I ordered some Mohawk Dark Walnut lacquer toner on so that I can get moving on the project again.

During a garden weeding and mowing break from the sun, I pulled the the cabinet back onto the porch and started sanding and cleaning up the Citristrip residue. Most of the sanding went into the legs, but I also cleaned up the top edge trim a bit:

Removing the Citristrip residue with a brad

Both because of my impatience and also because we've occasionally put stuff on top of the cabinet and I'm afraid that someone might place glass on top or maybe spill something on it that could stain the wood.

I considered the different stains on hand. I think that the walnut stains might be too dark, so I tested golden pecan on the side that already has some damage:

Not sure how long this has been on the shelf, but the can is sun faded. Notice all of the blotches in the finish of the top
A test spot with the stain

I cleaned the top and then stained it with the golden pecan. I think it looks nice--all of those blotches magically disappeared. One problem is the differences in color on the trim around the top edge. Some is end grain and is very dark; some is edge grain and is light and blotchy. It looks pretty nice for a piece of furniture, like an ice box, but it's not how a radio should look. So, I decided to coat the very top surface with clear lacquer. When my dark walnut lacquer toner arrives later in the week, I'll tone the edge trim to make it more uniformly dark.

Here's the top, stained and taped off

Here's the top with a coat of lacquer applied; no more worries about blackberry pie stains seeping into the wood!
Sixteen months of sitting around by the closet, I finally pulled the Philco 87 back out onto the porch and got back to work. I did finish writing one entry for the next PRA today, so I feel entitled to work on it a little.

One concern of mine was that the adhesive would leave residue on the wood after being stuck there for so long. My fears were not unjustified and plenty of residue was left behind.

Adhesive residue left behind from the painter's tape
I was able to sand off the residue without any trouble. I sanded the posts and top edge primarily with new 400- and used 220-grit sandpaper. I did find that I forgot to finish sanding one of the post edges (the front one, no less), so I hit it with 100-grit paper, then 400.

Last year at some point, I tried dark walnut lacquer on one of the legs. It didn't look right; it was mostly dark, but had places that were glossy and others that had a matte finish. Because of this, I thought the best idea would be to stain the legs and then touch them up with the dark walnut lacquer. When I finished the sanding, I taped off all of the center panels with newspaper and stained the edges with dark walnut stain.

I think the edges are still too light. I'll probably try another coat of stain, but I think the key will be a light coat of dark walnut lacquer.

The key was not a light coat of dark walnut lacquer. I sprayed on a few coats of walnut lacquer and it didn't cover the scars and blemishes. In fact, it kind of emphasized them. The end result was that finish looked like that of a '70s Zenith TV. I've seen these kinds distressed finishes derisively called "antique mall furniture finish." Although I like this look, that's not what the radio companies were shooting for in the '30s & '40s.

So, I kept adding coats of guitar toner lacquer until the color evened out. It wound up getting pret-ty dark. I have seen some original Philco 87s with very dark accents, so I'm hoping this doesn't go too far out of the realm of these cabinets, but I'm giving it a shot.

Tonight, I pulled off the tape and newspaper from the sides of the cabinet, sanded off the tape residue, and stained those panels with golden pecan stain. I think it's looking pretty good, but I probably have much lower standards than a lot of radio restorers.

Adding stain to the side panels

Today, I lacquered the side panels and pulled the tape and newspaper off the front. I had tape residue on the top, so I searched around the Internet for good cleaning products. The winner was mayonnaise. I wiped a bit on and it cleaned everything right off. Great stuff!

I sanded the birdseye maple front panel while listening to the Steelers win vs. the Cardinals . . . that is, until my Baygen wind-up radio's winder broke. Not sure what the panel was finished with, but it was stained pretty badly with hand oil. I hope that I sanded it well enough that panel looks even and nice.

I wiped the sawdust from the front panel with a rag, then taped it of. With all of the scalloped edges on the front, the taping was more time consuming than it normally would be. Then, I hit the front panel with a few coats of clear lacquer. I didn't sand out or putty-match the scratch across the front panel. Character, I say! (at least that's my rationalization)

Today, I finished sanding the raised panel on the left side of the radio. It was easy to sand with the grain on the diagonal veneer, but much more difficult to sand the outer edges. I used the golden pecan stain on the panel, too. I'm not sure that I should've because it's looking awfully dark, but at least it's not as dark as the edges that I hit with the toner. I've refinished a cathedral & a tombstone thus far, but this radio cabinet is taking so much more time than those did!

Spent some time sanding the raised panel on the right side. I managed to get it done, then used the golden pecan stain, and then hit it with a few coats of clear lacquer. Not sure if I'll have time to start sanding/cleaning a bit of the decorative woodwork or not tonight, but it's warm outside and I'd like to. Then again, I'm listening to the Rave on Radio Halloween show . . . and that's a positive distraction.

Yesterday, I sanded some of the decorative areas on the radio for a while (maybe the day before as well, I forget). I don't think I mentioned it on here, but I don't have a good heated workshop area to be working on radio cabinets in the winter, so I've been working hard over the past month to finish this cabinet before winter strikes. I don't plan to do any lacquering in the house! I can always work on the electronics side of things when we have a few feet of snow on the ground.

Today's a big day with the cabinet because I'm disassembling a few parts of the cabinet and I'm hoping to do some more lacquering. Here's the front of the cabinet so far:

I'm hoping that I can use the Citristrip wash on the unfinished parts of the front panel to clean up those messes, and then the toner will cover a lot of the other issues with the finish.

Before I can move on too far, I need to remove the speaker and the remains of the grille cloth. The speaker is an absolute beast. I think the photo is deceptive because it's probably about 12" in diameter and weighs maybe 20 lbs. I'm psyched because it's made with a cone of what seems like coated canvas, so it's very solid, unlike the paper cones that are often fragile & flaking apart 80 years later.

I was able to remove the bottom screws from the speaker mounting base & pop the whole unit out. The cardboard with the grille cloth seemed to be attached with rubber cement, so I gently popped it out. Considering the power of the sun and UV light, I shouldn't be surprised at (but still am) how badly the grille cloth in so many old radios has deteriorated. Here's a good view of the extent of the damage--and also what the cloth looked like many, many years ago:

I finished the cabinet and installed new grille cloth in either December 2015 or January 2016, but I hadn't posted any photos on here. About a month ago, I found a comment asking if I'd finished the radio. As I mentioned there, I still need to replace the capacitors in the block and probably test the resistors. Regardless, here's what the cabinet looks like tonight.


  1. Did you get to finish restoring your radio?

  2. Thanks for the Q. I've been swearing off work on the radios until I get the next Pirate Radio Annual published. Cabinet is done, but I still need to redo the block of caps & see if it works