Restoring Your Victrola's Appearance

By David Spanovich

Should one refinish a Victrola cabinet? Many collectors say, "Don't!" I agree if the overall appearance of the cabinet is good. Unfortunately, most museum quality machines are already in the hands of collectors. Like many collectors on a tight budget, I am forced to look only at fixer-uppers.

Years of frustration and dissatisfaction with my own abilities as a cabinet refinisher have taught me that I cannot recreate the flawless finish applied at a multi-million dollar factory 80 odd years ago. No one can except a professional cabinet re-finisher.

Typically, the pre-1925 Victrola cabinet was coated with multiple layers of shellac and varnish, each layer hand rubbed to glassy smoothness. To recreate that type of finish, one needs to have precise knowledge of the application methods used. One also needs a dust free facility in which to do the work, special drying kilns, high quality tools, and more.

Turning the work over to a shop specializing in antique restoration is one expensive option. There is no guarantee that an authentic looking finish will be applied. Every professionally refinished Victrola I've seen has looked like a reproduction.

However, the average person can bring back the luster to a Victrola without refinishing the cabinet. You need the following:

A common problem is that Victrolas sat untouched in an attic or cellar for decades. Had a machine's cabinet been cleaned and waxed regularly, it would look as good today as it did when it came from the factory. But, over time, dust and temperature changes have caused the once smooth finish to take on the appearance and texture of dark red or black leather, obscuring most of the wood grain.

If it has suffered years of neglect, the first step is to clean the cabinet. This is a messy job, so I recommend working outside or in a garage. Wear old clothes and rubber gloves.

Using a cotton cloth, apply a liberal coat of lemon oil to the cabinet and let it soak in. Then, after about an hour, wipe off the oil. Bathe the cabinet again with oil, allowing it to soak over night.

The following day, pour lemon oil into a small container, saturate a wad of #0000 steel wool and gently begin to rub a small area of the finish with the steel wool in the direction of the wood grain. Use a very light touch; there is no need to press hard. Be careful to avoid the edges and corners of the cabinet because it is very easy to rub through to bare wood in these areas.

After a few moments of rubbing, wipe off the oil to see if the wood grain is more apparent. If it is, move on to another area. After rubbing down the cabinet in this manner, which may take hours, wipe the surface dry and let it be until the next day.

The next step, after cleaning the finish, involves fine sanding the top coat of varnish that has crazed. The Victrola had multiple layers of shellac and varnish. Normally, only the top one or two coats are damaged.

Sprinkle drops of lemon oil onto the surface of the cabinet. Take a piece of #600 wet-or-dry sandpaper--about 2 inches square--and dip it into the oil and begin to rub gently in the direction of the wood grain. After about ten seconds of rubbing, feel the surface, and if it feels smooth, go on to an adjacent area. Be sure to apply more lemon oil before sanding any area.

Do not fear scratching the cabinet since #600 sandpaper is extremely fine and can be used for buffing out an oil-based cabinet finish to a mirror-like smoothness. Nonetheless, care should again be taken around corner areas of the cabinet. Never apply the sandpaper perpendicular to the corner. Instead, gently work the sand paper toward the direction of the corner in a swiping motion, lifting off at the corner's edge. It is better to leave a little crazing around the corners than risk rubbing through to bare wood, which would mandate a strip and re-finish job.

After the entire surface has been sanded, the cabinet should again be bathed in lemon oil and wiped dry. A liberal coat of satin or high-gloss paste wax may be applied to the surface and buffed out, according to the directions on the can. Other top-coat polishes, such as liquid wax, will work.

While this may seem to be a "quick fix," it will vastly improve your Victrola's appearance. It also preserves the ambered beauty of the original finish.