Buying Radio Sets

Twenty years ago, valve radios could be obtained from jumble sales for a few pence. Today, however, they are not regarded as junk, and some owners have an inflated idea of their value. This attitude is bought about partly by television programmes like Antiques Roadshow, which seem to give the impression that anything old and tatty is valuable.

In general, I have found that the earlier sets are more difficult to acquire than later post-war equipment. However, do not let this put you off - some gems are still emerging from lofts and garden sheds! In fact, the situation seems to be changing, with the smaller post-war sets becoming more desirable than the larger earlier sets due to space limitations in modern homes.

Car Boot Sales

There are several ways of finding sets. The obvious thought nowadays is probably car boot sales, but I have had little success with these. Car boot sales and local auctions are sometimes used to pass off suspect or even stolen equipment anonymously, and should be viewed with caution.

If you are going to look at car boot sales, do not bother with the regular large events held in fields or supermarket car parks. The small one-off sales run by local schools or scout groups are a much better bet, as these are often attended by family and friends, who clear out the loft especially. The dealers, who visit the bigger sales early to snap up all the bargains, often do not bother with the small sales - leaving the good stuff for you!

Dealers and Fairs

There are a few specialised valve radio dealers, who may have a stock of sets available. Some dealers only sell fully restored sets at an appropriate price - but most also offer sets for restoration. Most dealers will sell by mail order, although the carriage charges can add significantly to the cost.

There are a number of dealers around the country. For starters try Past Times Radio. More are listed on the suppliers page.

When dealing with dealers, remember that they are trying to make a living. They have bills and mortgages to pay, and families to feed. Buying and selling vintage radios is often their only income, so they have to make a profit on everything they sell. So the prices will be more expensive than auctions etc. On the other hand, you are dealing with a professional with a reputation to uphold, so you are much more likely to find that the condition of the set is as described, it is properly and professionally packed (if being sent by carrier), and it is backed by an honourable guarantee (if sold as working). So of course it will be more expensive than a set in an auction, where the buyer takes all the risk.

Many dealers and private sellers attend the twice-yearly National Vintage Communications Fair at the NEC in Birmingham. The prices at these events (and other similar events around the country) is often fairly high, but tatty unrestored sets can still be obtained for a fair price. It is sometimes worth waiting until near the end of the day - at this time some traders will be keen to sell the leftovers at almost any price rather than have to take them home.

Swapmeets and Auctions

Specialist groups sometimes organise swapmeets and auctions of sets and related items. The publishers of Radiophile magazine organise two or three such events each year, as do the British Vintage Wireless Society. The prices paid at these auctions are generally fair, and it is possible to pick up some bargains, particularly later sets that need restoration. The vast majority of the sets in my collection were obtained from these swapmeets and auctions.

It is sometimes worth looking round local second-hand shops, antique shops and house clearance dealers. They do not usually have much and the prices are often high, but you could be lucky.

Internet Auctions

This is a relatively recent way of buying vintage radios. The most well-known online auction is eBay. A few others have appeared, but eBay is so well established that none of the others seem to be able to compete now.

The real problem with Internet auctions is that you are relying on the vendors description of the goods and are effectively bidding blind. How closely what you receive compares to the description and the photos is purely down to the honesty of the vendor. If the picture is unclear and the description is vauge, maybe the seller is trying to hide something? If in doubt, ask the seller for more information or better pictures.

There are systems whereby buyers rate vendors based on previous dealings. Recently eBay have started to show the percentage of positive feedback received, and I normally avoid anyone with less than 98%. Read some of the recent feedback comments, positive and negative, to get a feel of other peoples dealings and satisfaction.

A while ago lot of items seemed to sell for excessively high prices compared to swapmeets etc. I had seen sets sold at Radiophile and BVWS auctions appear on eBay within a few days and sell for a lot more. Recently however, prices on eBay have reduced and there are some bargains to be had. Maybe it's seasonal (I am writing this in early September) and will pick up again.

I have purchased a few items this way - mainly transistor sets that stand a better chance of surviving the postal system. Packing is a real problem - many sellers have no idea how to pack a radio so that it will arrive undamaged. I have bought three valve sets on eBay so far - one was well packed, one was very badly packed but fortunately survived, and the third one I collected in person. I have also bought several small transistor sets which, being light, don't need so much packing. Only one arrived damaged due to inadequate packing, and the seller willingly refunded my money.

There is a section in the Discussion Forums for eBay and other online auctions. There are quite a few messages where people point out rediculous lots, but there are also some useful discussions.

Websites and Email Lists

Look for sales and wanted adverts on vintage radio websites. Malcolm Bennetts Vintage Radios has a separate section containing dozens of adverts. I have bought a couple of items through this route successfully. I also bought a Perdio transistor set I wanted, after placing a wanted advert on my site and Malcolm's site.

There are Wanted and Offered sections in the Discussion Forums on this website too (for private collectors only).

Also subscribe to the relevant email lists (details on the Links page). List members sometimes post messages about items they wish to sell (or even give away free) to these first. Because a lot of the list members post messages regularly you get to know them, which gives more confidence when entering into a transaction. I have bought four sets from one list member for £10 each - the whole process went smoothly and the sets were exactly as described.

Other Methods

I have found that a good way to obtain sets locally is to place a Wanted advert in the local paper. This sometimes encourages people to offer a set they had not considered selling before, and it is often up to you to suggest a price. Expect to collect the sets from the seller's address - most people will not sell suspect goods from their own homes. This approach does involve more work however, and probably quite a lot of wasted time travelling to look at sets that are nothing like the description given over the phone. Sellers seem to assume that if you have made the effort to visit them you will buy their set no matter what state it is in.

Ian D Edwards adds this suggestion:

When I first started collecting sets in the late seventies/early eighties these were just about given away - many were still in daily use in kitchens and back rooms. However even now people still sling these things out and it is well worth talking nicely to the bloke who runs your local household waste (civic amenity) site. I've rescued more sets from rubbish tips than anywhere else in the last ten-fifteen years. Examples include a 1955 Ferranti 045 - a huge bow-fronted table model which was one of the first VHF sets (a VHF front-end is literally bolted onto the end of a standard AM chassis, the tuning mechanically linked), also a Roberts battery portable (octal-base LV valves - before the 'D9' series miniatures) and a 1920's 'baseboard' TRF, sadly minus the bright emitters but complete with Bakelite knobs and swinging coil mechanism intact. Most recently an HMV 1117 identical to your picture which was sitting on top of somebody's dustbin! This set is totally original and thick with dust inside - still awaiting restoration.

Wherever you buy from, keep an accurate record of the address of the seller and the price paid for the set.

What Price Should You Pay?

The price you will pay obviously depends on a wide range of factors. If you are buying from a dealer the asking price will be reasonable for the type of set, its condition, and there is normally little or no room for negotiation.

The same tends to apply in vintage radio auctions where you will be bidding against other collectors and dealers who, generally, won't want to pay too much for anything. If you go to these regularly you will occasionally spot the newbie buying nearly everything in the auction and invariably paying too much for many items. When he/she is bidding you might as well leave the item because you will never get it for a reasonable price. Very often these people turn up for one auction and are never seen again.

On eBay and other online auctions, there seems to be little logic to the prices. One example of a set may sell for a fairly high price, then another one a few weeks later may only make a fraction of that. It depends who is looking at the time, and how desperately they want the set.

If you are buying through a newspaper advert or at a car boot sale, it is often up to you to offer a fair price. I would normally offer around 15 or 25UK Pounds for a complete post-war set in fair condition, and perhaps 30 or even 40 Pounds for something in very good condition. If the set is tatty, damaged or incomplete, your offering price would be lower - maybe five or 10 Pounds depending on the problems.

This applies to the more run-of-the-mill sets. Some sets are much more sought after than others are, and it is impossible to make any definitive comments. There are a few pointers however. Look out for round Ekco sets - if you can get a complete one for less than one hundred pounds you are doing very well. Bakelite cased Ekco sets are always popular and some can fetch a fair price. Bush DAC10 and DAC90 sets are always popular too, as is the Philco Peoples Set and the Ultra Coronation Twin.

The same applies to many smaller sets from the 50's, because these are easier to accommodate in modern homes. Larger wooden cased pre-war and post-war sets are more difficult to house and consequently may attract a lower price. Some later models also seem to be somewhat unloved however, and have trouble getting bids of more than a couple of pounds in auctions (Bush VHF80 being one that turns up a lot, and is actually a very good set).

Sets from the 20s and early 30s can fetch a good price if they are complete and manufactured professionally. Home-made sets are not so popular. These comments are made for guidance only and are not intended to be all-inclusive, as there are so many factors involved. If anyone would care to contribute his or her comments and experiences to this section, I would be most interested.

A good way to get the feel of prices is to look at the websites and catalogues of some of the dealers. As a rough guide for a private or auction price you would be looking at around half or two-thirds of the dealer price for a set of the same type in the same condition.

Assessing the Overall Condition

Wherever you buy from, it is worth taking a couple of minutes to examine the set, to avoid nasty surprises later. It is always worth exaggerating the impact of any defect you find in an attempt to reduce the price - just as you would when buying a used car.

Begin by looking at the general condition of the set, in particular the tuning scale, speaker fabric, knobs and cabinet trim. If some of these are damaged or missing, you may have problems finding replacements or satisfactory alternatives.

If the back is missing or hanging off, you can be sure someone has been inside a few times. The same applies if some of the screws are missing or do not look original, or if the back is tatty around the screw holes. Look through the ventilation slots at the innards (a torch is useful for this). Look out for missing valves, lack of dust, and any signs of previous repair work. If the set is in original condition, it is a better restoration prospect, partly because you do not have to worry about the validity of someone else's work.

Some people like to take a screwdriver with them, and remove the back of sets to look inside. Although this may seem a good idea, I question the legality of dismantling something that is not your property - particularly at an auction viewing or similar where you cannot ask permission from the owner first.

It is NOT a good idea to test the set. If it has been out of use for a few years, applying mains power can cause major damage (such as exploding HT smoothing capacitors and smoking mains transformers).

Scrap Chassis

It is worth keeping any sets that are not worth repairing, as a source of spare parts. These can often be picked up for a pound or two in auctions (perhaps with badly damaged cabinets) which is less than you would pay for one of the valves or a couple of control knobs from a dealer. Parts from scrap chassis have saved me a considerable amount of money. If you have the space (perhaps in the loft or garage), hang on to what remains of the cabinet and trim too, you never know what you might need!

In early 2000 I bought a large box of scrap chassis in various stages of disassembly from a seller at a Radiophile event for just one pound for the lot! After spending the best part of a weekend stripping them all down, I now had a good selection of useful spares, including output and mains transformers, switches, pots, valve holders, IF cans, smoothing capacitors, dropper resistors, loads of small resistors, a handful of valves, and a good selection of screws and nuts etc. - all for just £1 and some effort! Of course the components will need testing before use, but I would do that anyway.

This website, including all text and images not otherwise credited, is copyright © 1997 - 2006 Paul Stenning.
No part of this website may be reproduced in any form without prior written permission from Paul Stenning.
All details are believed to be accurate, but no liability can be accepted for any errors.
The types of equipment discussed on this website may contain high voltages and/or operate at high temperatures.
Appropriate precautions must always be taken to minimise the risk of accidents.

Last updated 14th April 2006.