Cabinet Restoration

Level of Restoration

Before embarking on the restoration of the cabinet and chassis, you should consider carefully what you are trying to achieve. This will vary with different sets, and everybody has their own preferences.

Many restorers do not try to make the set look like new, as this can appear artificial. The normal aim is to restore the set to the condition it would be in if it had been kept on a sideboard since it was new, and lovingly dusted occasionally. Small scratches and chips are signs of general wear and tear, and should generally be accepted as such.

A sets potential value can be decreased dramatically by over-restoring the appearance of the cabinet. Many collectors look for originality and evidence that the set has been used and enjoyed. Removing all "user marks" such as finger wear marks under the knobs, surface knocks, scratches and dents will make the set look new and not vintage. These marks are part of the sets history and should be retained whenever possible. However more serious damage may reduce the value of the set, and should be repaired sympathetically.

These comments apply more to wooden cabinets, which tend to show their age. Bakelite sets sometimes lend themselves to being restored to a newer appearance. Carefully examine the condition of the various sections, and consider how they will clean up. For consistency everything must be restored to the same level, otherwise it will look awful.

For example, I had a small plastic Philips Philetta set with a clear plastic illuminated grill over the speaker. The painted cabinet was in a terrible state, and I had no choice but to strip and repaint it. I used the same light grey colour paint, as the original would have been. When I came to the clear plastic grill, I found it had become yellowed, and could not be cleaned. When the set was put back together, the "new" cabinet contrasted badly with the yellowed grill. The only option was to repaint the cabinet with a more appropriate (dirty looking) colour.

Someone once said that a good restoration is invisible from six feet, but visible from six inches. I think the reference was to paintings, which are generally viewed from a distance, but if the distances are halved this seems like good advice, as one is then clearly not trying to hide the fact that the work has been done, but is still doing a high quality job.

Consider the value of the set, and the likely impact to this caused by any work you decide to do. If the set is worth next-to-nothing before you start, you really have nothing to lose, and could gain a nice-looking set! But if the set is rare or valuable - say over �100 - you should take expert advice before doing anything that could affect the appearance and value.

Dismantling the Cabinet

Before attempting to clean and restore the cabinet, it should be dismantled as far as possible. Normally the speaker baffle board is a separate assembly and is held in place with screws or clips. Items of trim and manufacturers logos are often held in place with nuts, clips or bent-over pins on the inside, or possibly glued in place. The tuning scale glass is normally held with a few metal fixing plates, fitted with rubber pieces to protect the glass.

These items can usually be readily removed, and then cleaned and restored individually. Also, remove the speaker from the baffle board. Do not try to separate glued items unless it is absolutely necessary.

On many Bakelite sets the baffle board and other components are held in place with spring clips pressed over pillars. Sometimes there is a flat side on the pillar, in which case the clip can be removed by turning it so that one of the gripping sections is next to the flat. Otherwise, you will need to lift one of the grips slightly with a small screwdriver while lifting it off. Alternatively grip the sides of the clip with long nosed pliers and rotate it back and forth as you pull it off - taking care not to break the pillar.

Knobs and Cabinet Trim

Plastic, Bakelite and metallic parts can initially be cleaned with warm water and washing-up liquid. A strong washing-up liquid such as Fairy Excel is recommended. The water should not be so hot that you cannot put your hand in it, as very hot water can cause plastic parts to soften and distort, and clear plastic items to cloud. Leave the parts to soak for a few minutes, to soften the dirt. An old toothbrush is ideal for cleaning the parts and removing the grime from the finger-grips of the knobs. Once the parts are clean, rinse them in clean running water to remove the detergent, and leave them to dry.

Brass items can them be polished using Brasso or a similar product. You will often find that they have been coated with a lacquer, which has become chipped and stained. Once you have a good polished brass surface, it should be protected with lacquer to prevent it becoming tarnished and dull. The aerosol lacquer mentioned earlier is ideal for this. Brass trim on knobs is difficult to spray without coating the rest of the knob; you could either mask it carefully or leave it without lacquer.

Chrome plated items can be carefully polished with Brasso, taking care not to remove the plating. If the plating is already badly chipped and damaged, you may have to paint over it. Chrome paint is available, but generally does not look as good as the real chrome.

Plastic and Bakelite knobs can be wax polished in the same manner as for Bakelite cabinets (described later). If the knobs have printing that is lightly recessed, and some of this is missing, it can be replaced with suitable colour model paint. Any paint on the surface can be removed with Brasso once the paint is completely dry (24 hours).

George Smith adds this suggestion:

Coca Cola 2 litre bottle caps, filled with resin, sprayed satin black, drilled and screwed will substitute for unobtainable knobs (changed as a set!), as will 4 pint milk lids (larger).

Cleaning Bakelite Cabinets

The Bakelite or plastic cabinet can be washed with warm water and washing-up liquid. A washing-up brush and a toothbrush are useful for getting the muck out of the corners and recesses. When the cabinet is clean, rinse it in clean water and leave it to dry naturally.

The best finish can be obtained by using a specialist Bakelite polish. Bake-o-Bryte is available from the publishers of Radiophile magazine for �2 plus 50p postage, and gives excellent results. Alternatively, a good quality wax polish such as Colron Finishing Wax (available from DIY stores) can be used. If the surface is dull and cloudy, it can be improved with the gentle application of a slightly abrasive polish such as Brasso.

Repairing Bakelite Cabinets

Clean cracks and breaks can be successfully repaired with a little superglue. Do not apply the glue directly from the bottle, as you will get far too much. Place a few drops on a piece of scrap card, and use a pin or piece of wire to apply it to the crack or break. In the case of a crack, apply the glue to the inside of the cabinet and let it work its way into the crack by capillary action. Once the glue is thoroughly dry (allow several hours), any excess can be gently removed with a razor blade or modelling knife.

Superglue is only suitable for repairing clean breaks, and is unable to fill even small gaps. If the broken parts do not fit cleanly together, you will need to use an adhesive that fills the void. An epoxy resin such as Araldite (the standard type, not the fast drying) is suitable. Any excess can be removed with a modelling knife once the glue has dried completely (at least 24 hours).

More major rebuilding work can be carried out with a two-part car body repair filler such as Davids Isopon P38. Cardboard coated with adhesive tape can be fixed to the inside of the cabinet to act as a mould to hold the filler in place while it dries. The filler should be built up over three or four layers, allowing an hour or so for each layer to set before applying the next. When the filled section has sufficient strength to be self-supporting, the cardboard can be removed.

Continue to apply layers of filler until the outside is slightly oversize. Additional filler can be applied on the inside if necessary to give extra strength. Leave the cabinet for 24 hours for the filler to set fully, then sand it carefully to shape. When you are close to the right shape, use finer sandpaper, and finish off with fine wire wool. Any voids can be filled with additional filler.

The only problem with these repair techniques is that the epoxy or filler is not the same colour as the cabinet. With care and practice, you may be able to mix an appropriate coloured powder paint with the filler to disguise the repair. This will only work if the cabinet is a single colour, and even then, it will be very difficult to get an exact match.

George Smith adds these comments:

I have had a few plastic sets cracked from main dropper heat, normally this entails the plastic stretching and cracking inwards. This compounds the problem of not having enough room for it to go back into place. I use Davids resin and fibreglass mat from car shops. The secret is not to use the cross-sectioned thick mat, but the thin tissue mat that is sold also. This does not fall apart and leave strands like the repair mat. I have tried the expanded aluminium David�s make, but it was no good at all. Obviously the plastic has to be scratched up a little for the resin to bond, use about five layers of tissue, and this is done on the inside!! Cutting a pencil to size will allow a little �prop� to push out the crack from inside while it sets, if needed. (It pulls out of the resin easily when it sets).
There is nothing for it but to fill the outside with car body filler, prime and spray. Hopefully the radio will be a colour, but if it is plain Bakelite, make a decision!
Incidentally Plastic Padding make a rigid and a flexible filler in tubes. A little more expensive than a big tin, but probably with wastage in tins, nothing to worry over. Use flexible filler. I have done an orange Philco, white(ish) Philips and a couple of red/maroon something's, I am only too pleased that they at least look nice again, I am not concerned with their value - they were not worth anything cracked anyway!

Paul Gordon said:

In relation to bad cracks in Bakelite cabinets, I have found that I can closely match the colour of the Bakelite by filing down either the back of a knob from the same set or from a back section that's not noticeable. I use the resulting powder mixed with either a clear epoxy resin or, if you're quick, superglue for little gaps!
For polishing the Bakelite cabinets, I use a good quality car polish to obtain the initial shine, then I keep it in durable condition by rubbing in Linseed oil. As the Bakelite is porous, it soaks in and keeps the finish looking like new and more "durable". Of course, you must leave a thin film to soak in for a few days and then rub it over with a clean dry cloth - works for me!
If a cabinet is pretty scratched, often a fine steel wool will do the trick, or some fine emery paper, then polish.

Painting Cabinets

The easier solution is to paint either the whole cabinet or just the repaired area with suitable colour car spray paint. If you want a deep brown Bakelite colour, Vauxhall Brazil Brown is a good match. Car aerosol paint is also ideal for repainting the painted sections of cabinets. For off-white sections, Ford Sierra Beige or Lada Cream are often suitable. For small repairs, you may prefer to paint just the repaired section using car touch-up paint, which is supplied in a small container with a brush.

If you are trying to find a close colour match, you should take the cabinet to the car accessory shop with you. It is difficult to match the colour accurately under the pink or yellow glow of the shop lighting; so ask an assistant if you can take three or four likely colours outside and compare them in daylight (they are more likely to agree if the shop is not too busy).

While you are there, get a Can-Gun. This pistol shaped device chips to the top of the can and has a trigger to operate the button. It makes the job easier, prevents strain on your finger and is well worth the �1.20. Also, get a face-mask to filter some of the fumes and dust.

Anything that should not be painted must be protected with newspaper and masking tape. Tape over any gaps and overlaps in the newspaper as the paint will get into the smallest gaps.

Spraying should be done outdoors on a dry still day. If you are working in a covered area such as a garage, leave the door fully open to let the fumes out. Do not try spraying indoors because the fine spray will settle as dust on everything in the room. The fumes will build up, even of you open the windows.

Shake the can thoroughly before use. Spray painting needs practice to obtain good results. Each coat should be just thick enough that it has an even wet look. If it looks powdery, you need to spray it a little thicker, and if you are getting runs it is too thick. With practice, and a bit of luck, you can sometimes do the job in one coat. If you need additional coats, they should be applied at about half-hour intervals. Do not let the can run empty, as it will spit and splatter the last bit of paint. Store the cans of paint somewhere warm for several hours before use, as some types of paint (in particular the Halfords Beige and Cream colours) tend to leave tiny gritty lumps on your painted surface if the can is cold.

Remove the masking tape and newspaper about half-an-hour after the final coat, then leave the cabinet to dry thoroughly for at least 24 hours. The paint finish will probably be fine as it is, but it can be polished with Colron Finishing Wax if necessary. Do not use car polish as it gives an artificially glossy finish. If the painted finish is too glossy, it can be dulled by gentle rubbing with fine steel wool.

George Smith adds these hints:

Ford Vermillion (Commercial) is the correct Philco orange. Vauxhall Brazil Brown will substitute for Bakelite and wooden pillars on 30�s sets. Oyster Beige probably by Rover, is a good mushroom colour for inset fronts on some plastic sets. Lada also do a nice off white colour suitable for Murphy louvered fronts.

Restoring Wooden Cabinets

In this section, I will discuss some of the more straightforward methods of repairing and restoring wooden cabinets. If you are feeling more ambitious it would be worth finding a good book, magazine or web page about furniture restoration.

Some of the suggestions given here may result in a finish that does not look the same as the original. This could be a problem, particularly if you are restoring the set for someone else or intend to sell the restored set. This would also drastically affect the value of the set. If you are in any doubt, it would be best to call upon the services of an experienced furniture restorer. Most vintage radio restorers will know one or two local furniture restorers who they will use for much of their cabinetwork.


If the cabinet shows any signs of woodworm, this must be treated before continuing. If you do not wish to do this as soon as you obtain the set, wrap it in a plastic rubbish sack (to prevent the woodworm from spreading to other items) and leave it somewhere cool (as warmth tends to encourage woodworm activity).

Any signs of woodworm MUST be taken very seriously. Be vary careful to contain it, and treat it as soon as possible. Otherwise it could spread to your furniture and/or other radios in your collection.

Remove the chassis and any other removable parts if you have not already done so. Cuprinol Woodworm Killer is available in an aerosol can with a pointed nozzle for squirting into the woodworm holes. Treat the cabinet in accordance with the instructions and safety warnings on the can. A hypodermic syringe and fine needle will ensure 100% penetration, avoiding air pockets that may remain at the bottom of the holes using the aerosol alone. It is worth being generous because the last thing you want is a reoccurrence, so expect a can to do just one, or perhaps two, cabinets.

After treatment, wrap the cabinet in a plastic rubbish sack (do not seal the top of the sack) and leave it in a warm place for several days. If there is any further sign of woodworm activity, such as new holes or wood dust, treat it again. Wait at least a week for the Woodworm Killer to thoroughly dry out before carrying out any repair or restoration work on the cabinet.

Cabinet Repairs

Wooden cabinets sometimes come apart at the joints, which are normally held together with glue alone. Apply a little Cascamite or Evostick Woodworking Adhesive to the gap, and use a scrap of cardboard to spread the glue well in. Hold the joint tightly closed with clamps or heavy items while the glue dries. Use scraps of wood to protect the cabinet finish from the clamps. Any glue that oozes out should be wiped off with a damp tissue.

If you need to repair several joints, check the cabinet is square after the clamps have been applied. This can be done by measuring the two diagonals from the back - they will be equal if the cabinet is square.

If the layers of the plywood come apart, they can be repaired in a similar manner. The plywood should be clamped firmly between two solid boards while the glue is drying to ensure the result remains flat.

Cleaning the Cabinet

The build-up of dirt, household polish and nicotine on the surface of the cabinet can often be removed with White Spirit. If this does not work, try Foam Cleaner. Warm water and washing-up liquid is also effective, but you should not submerge the cabinet and do not allow it to become too wet - just use a dampened cloth and dry it off quickly. The aim is to remove the grime without disturbing the original finish.

This should only be done if the dirt is excessive. Some dirt, particularly in corners etc., is a sign of age which should not be disturbed.

Stripping the Original Finish

If the original polish or varnish is in a poor state, you may have no option but to strip it and start again. Do not rush into this, as it can be difficult to get a finish similar to the original. Refer to the section detailing levels of restoration, and consider the options very carefully. It may be worth consulting a professional furniture restorer, particularly is the set in question is fairly valuable.

If the cabinet has a wax polish finish you may be able to remove it with methylated spirits. Normally however you will need to use a varnish-stripping product such as NitroMors Varnish Remover. Use this with medium grade wire wool in accordance with the instructions on the tin. The product burns if it gets on your skin, so wear rubber (washing-up) gloves and an old cotton (not synthetic) shirt with sleeves. Once the varnish is removed, the cabinet should be thoroughly cleaned with methylated spirits or white spirit. The surface should then be rubbed over with fine wire wool to give a smooth finish.

Preparing the Surface

Dents in the surface can often be removed by holding the appropriate section over the steam from a boiling kettle. If you have an automatic kettle and need to hold the button on, take care not to let it boil dry.

If the wood colour is too light it can be darkened at this stage with Colron Wood Dye. The colour obtained is often slightly lighter than the shop display would suggest, so choose a fairly dark colour such as walnut.

Any woodworm holes and other blemishes can be filled with plastic wood. This also dries lighter than expected, and wood dye does not colour it. If the repair is darker than the surrounding wood, it will look less conspicuous than a light coloured repair.

The exposed wood should then be protected and sealed with Colron Wood Reviver. This is rubbed into the surface with a soft cloth and allowed to dry.

If the cabinet had a shiny lacquered finish it may be sprayed with two or three coats of aerosol lacquer. Do not use polyurethane varnish or any other brush-on product, as it is very difficult to get a smooth finish.

Nigel Hughes provided the following useful tip:

For refinishing the late pre-war and post war wooden cabinets which were cellulose lacquered, after stripping, wash off with white spirit and cellulose thinner and rub lightly down with either finest garnet paper or steel wool. Then spray with Halfords clear lacquer, as used for clear over base coat finish on cars. Allow each coat to dry for a day and lightly rub down. About four to six coats will be needed but the end result can be superb. After the final coat, leave for a couple of weeks and polish lightly with cutting paste and then with wax. If necessary, the finish can be dulled slightly with finest steel wool.

Polishing and Finishing

Most older sets had a more subtle polished finish. If the colour of the wood is correct, a couple of coats of Colron Finishing Wax can be applied. If you require a darker finish, Colron Liquid Wax is available in three shades. These products requires a considerable amount of buffing to obtain a good finish but it is worth the effort. Do not use the Liquid Wax and Finishing Wax on the same cabinet, as they do not mix.

These products can also be used if you have not stripped the original finish. Try a small amount in a corner first to make sure it does not affect the original finish. Colron Finishing Wax is generally the better choice. If the cabinet has a high gloss lacquered finish an aerosol household finish such as Pledge or Mr Sheen works well.

For a deeper shine on bare wood, Colron Antique Oil is ideal. Take care to apply very thin coats, and allow the finished cabinet to dry undisturbed for at least a week.

The Colron range of products are specifically designed for furniture restoration, and are therefore ideal for valve radio cabinets. They are available from DIY stores, with the woodcare products. A detailed leaflet covering the complete range is available in the store or direct from the manufacturers. Some DIY stores also stock similar products made by BlackFriers, but from my experience these products are not as good as the Colron ones for our purposes.

Touching up Minor Blemishes

If a polished finish is scratched or chipped, the blemishes can be masked to some extent with Colron Liquid Scratch Remover. This is supplied in a bottle with a small brush, and is applied to the scratch and allowed to dry before buffing.

Scratches in lacquered cabinets can be repaired with aerosol lacquer. This should be sprayed into a suitable container (such as the aerosol lid) and applied to the damaged area with a small paintbrush. Several layers may be needed to build up the depth. Test in a hidden corner first, to ensure that the lacquer does not affect the original finish. Another possibility is Colron Antique Oil.

Ranulph Poole offers this suggestion:

If you have a wooden cabinet which is a bit tatty, my hint, for what it is worth, is to try some boot polish. You select an appropriate colour and apply it with a circular action, much as if you were French polishing. After you have been over one panel in this manner, you can harden the polish with a just-damp cloth, and repeat. (This is just the old-spit-and-polish technique in disguise.) The polish is good at hiding scratches and blemishes. If you don't like the results, no harm is done - you can easily remove the polish with a drop of turps.

Ongoing Cabinet Care

Normally the cabinet will require only occasional dusting. Do not use household polish such as Pledge or Mr. Sheen on wax polished cabinets. If the finish becomes dull, it should be re-polished with the product that you used originally.

If possible, do not display the set in a kitchen or a room where people smoke regularly, otherwise the finish will require regular cleaning and polishing. The set must not be displayed in a kitchen, bathroom or anywhere that steam or water is present, for safety reasons.

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.