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For Simple Clean-Up (refreshing) of old Finishes without Stripping:

Note: This process provides some improvement to the appearance of an old finish without stripping and refinishing; however, it will not eliminate an "alligatored" finish or renew a severely worn surface. 


There is no topic more controversial in the phonograph-collecting hobby than the subject of refinishing. This topic is the cause of more arguments and damaged friendships than any other single issue. Many collectors passionately believe that very little or no work should be done on an original finish, no matter what its condition. Originality means everything. On the other side of the fence are those collectors who immediately refinish even the smallest blemish in the attempt to make every machine perfect.

It is a fact that the resale value of a Victor phonograph...or any antique for that almost always higher when it remains original. So, if your focus is primarily on the financial and investment aspects of the hobby, you are probably better off doing nothing to your phonographs except for some deep cleaning of the cabinet and making mechanical repairs. However, many people like to show their phonographs in the living room, and appearance becomes highly important. Each collector should decide what approach to take on this sensitive subject.

Two things are always true: 1)  An original, unrestored antique, in mint, excellent or good condition, will always show nicer and be worth more than one that has been well restored, and 2) a poor restoration can make the most valuable antique next to worthless. 

Since this is a rather personal subject, let me take a personal perspective. I'd rather have my machines looking nice than to have badly alligatored finishes and scratched, peeling veneer surrounding me.  I would never consider refinishing a phonograph that has a decent original finish, even if it has some scratches or wear. Those machines always stay original. However, if the finish is really shot, or if the veneer is bad, I do what is necessary to get the machine back to a "close-to-new" condition. I don't pretend that I can restore them to look exactly as they did when they were new...but I can come darn close with some careful work. That is solely my opinion, and I certainly respect the position of others who may feel differently. 

Many people decide to refinish machines themselves, or have them commercially refinished by a local shop. Refinishing takes some skill, a lot of patience, and plenty of free time. Overall, I've been disappointed with results I've seen from many commercial restoration services. The cost is high, and the attention to detail has been less than satisfactory. The local "Joe's Furniture Doctor" shop is not going to be a good choice, as these types of businesses tend to focus on making repairs to damaged dining room tables and office desks using Polyurethane finishes and wash-down stripping booths. Not a good idea for antiques. Regardless, there are a number of good restoration services around if you are fortunate enough to find one who knows how to work on valued antiques.

There are almost as many techniques to refurbish an old cabinet as there are collectors. I've heard just about everything over the years, and I think I've tried most of them. In the final analysis, in my opinion, if you have a machine that you want to refurbish, just bite the bullet, strip it down, and refinish it correctly. The short cuts are risky and can waste a lot of time.

A number of collectors promote the process of reamalgamation, which is a method of reviving the old finish without stripping it off. A solvent is used to soften the old finish, and then brushed-out to smooth it. I own several Victrolas that have undergone this process by experienced refinishers, and for the most part, they look quite acceptable. However, they never quite come out with the same deep luster and clarity that a good refinishing can provide. I know of some collectors who have had expert reamalgamation done on rare machines, with spectacular results, but the cost was quite significant. I've tried several different methods of reamalgamation, and it isn't as simple as most people claim. Getting the final result to look right can be a challenge to say the least. 

One well-known phonograph expert constantly makes the claim against stripping and refinishing based on the argument that, no matter what you do, you'll NEVER refinish a machine and have it look exactly like it did when it came out of the factory. I agree with that statement completely. But he then goes on to recommend a reamalgamation approach that, in my opinion, usually ends up looking like what it really is.... a smoothed-over old finish. It still doesn't look original! From my perspective, I'd rather have the deep luster and crystal clear sheen after the machine has been stripped and correctly redone. I admit that I've seen some outstanding reamalgamation jobs over the years...but for every good one, there are a dozen bad ones, and I think that it's more work than it's usually worth unless you an absolute master of the craft.  Regardless of the approach you take, it is very unlikely that you are going to be able to truly make the phonograph look exactly like it did when it was new. But, in my opinion, there's nothing wrong with a quality restoration, given the alternative of looking at a frazzled old finish or falling-apart veneer every day.

One of the most common problems I run into in appraising machines or in buying machines at flea markets is the REALLY BAD amateur (or professional) restoration. I've seen some amazingly horrible attempts at restoration over the years, often by people who claim to be "experts". The most common problems are that the original finish was not fully removed, the use of only one thin finish coat of cheap varnish or polyurethane, mismatching wood shades, or a lot of drips and runs in the finish coat.   I've even seen a few machines where the restorer simply covered the alligatored finish with Varethane (a floor varnish), and claimed to have a like-new machine. This is a sure-fire way to ruin both the appearance and value of a phonograph.

Here are my main "pointers" for complete refinishing, based on the way I redo most machines:

To completely refinish a phonograph:

Note: This process is time-consuming and requires some degree of expertise to get a quality finish; however, it is not difficult to master if you take your time. I recommend some satisfactory brand-name products in the description below; this is based on my experiences for the best possible finish. I am not compensated in any way by the makers of these products. I have experimented with a lot of different methods, and have settled on the following procedure:

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