Old Radios: What To Collect?

Firstly, collecting radios is always dictated by personal finance, and availability of the radio of your hearts desire... So, where do you start?

Russian Radio "Ogonyok" 1953

Like most interests, the subject matter is always vast. Our interests are influenced by sets manufactured from the 1930's to the 1950's, and it is there that we will base the answers to this poser. You can be a person who wants to collect all of it, but unless you have a very large house with storage and a very sympathetic partner you will have to narrow the field to either decades, or types.

Raw beginners should really start with sets that are very cheap. These tend to be the large or plain wooden box radios of the 1950's, or earlier sets that require considerable repair work to the cabinet and chassis. Theorectically, these should be cheap and cheerful unless your rather plain and ugly set happens to be uniquely rare, and worth lots of money as a pile of junk. Fortunately, this is seldom the case.

Really cheap sets should only cost a few pounds, but beware of the seller who will probably tells you that it works okay, and that it only needs a light clean up. These individuals are normally found selling from pitches at boot fairs or the outside junk stalls at large antique fairs. Unless it can be proven otherwise, accept that the likelyhood of the set working is probably comparable to winning the lottery. It rarely happens...

So, you've found your set, but before you buy follow these basic tips.

  1. Examine the cabinet for woodworm. Not an insurmountable problem, but worm dictates value, and importantly how much work you'll have to do to put it right. Again, be wary if the seller says that the cabinet has been treated for woodworm. Be realistic, would you bother to spend money on a very cheap set which will sell for virtually the cost of a tin of woodworm killer?
    Active worm can be seen either through small powdery dust on the inside of the set, or indicated by freshly bored holes in the cabinet. These are easily seen clean and whitish in colour. Old worm damage tends to match the rest of the wood color.
    The Dreaded "Worm" Woodworm, (contrary to popular opinion) is not a worm at all, but a small beetle who lays a cluster of eggs on the surface or in cracks. The grub is the real pest, as it bores through wood in it all consuming desire to eat your furniture. It can easily be killed by using a proprietry killer in a can such as sold by Rentokill, or similar. The application can either be by spray or by squirting it onto the affected areas.

    The small holes evident from the surface of the wood are the actual flight holes of the emerging beetle, so remember to treat any other exposed wood in the locality. A tried and trusted method with radio cabinets is to throughly soak the cabinet with the killer, and then seal it inside a plastic bin liner which ensures that no pests can leave, and that all inside is properly destroyed. I would suggest leaving the set inside for at least a month, maybe a while longer.

    The flight holes can be sealed using a wood filler similar to the tone color of your cabinet, and then colored out using acrylic paints toned to match the wood. It's best to do this under natural light to ensure that you have matched the repair.
  2. Check the chassis for corrosion, and for vitrified leads and cables. (Vitrification is the process where through age, that early rubberised plastics have become hard and brittle).
    Also, check out the valves (tubes). Do they appear all in place, and if so, have some turned a milky white colour which denotes that they have gone "soft", that is to say that they are burnt out. Unless you personally intend to electrically restore the chassis, these type of sets are best left alone.
  3. Is the hardboard radio back still there, or is it missing or badly damaged. Without a back, some sets are reduced further in value, but they are replaceable if the set is a particulary common type, or you can make your own using the backboard from another set or apparatus. But again, this will affect value.
  4. What is the finish like to the cabinet? Consider the cost to re-finish the set. Normally with wooden cased sets, the outer layer is veneer, and this sometimes lifts or cracks. Often small pieces are missing, or there is a deep dent in the cabinet. None of these are major problems, but require a degree of effort and a little expertise to get the repairs right. Weigh this against the cost of your purchase price.
  5. If the cabinet is bakelite or a compound plastic such as urea formaldahyde, check for cracks, or pieces missing. Whilst veneered cabinets can be comparatively easily restored, plastic presents many problems, the main one being that a repaired crack often shows quite noticeably, and some less scrupulous sellers might spray the cabinet over to disguise it. In such cases you should always check out the inside. If that's been sprayed as well, then you must accept that it is probably a repair.
    Unless you desperately want the set, either avoid it, or get the seller to reduce the price. Re-sprayed sets are acceptable if the original painted finish was badly chipped, but providing of course that the color matches the original finish. That is somewhat trickier, as you'll have to have sufficient knowledge of the set to tell otherwise.
  6. In the case of both wooden and plastic sets are all the knobs there, or are they a mismatch?
    Again, on the cheaper sets you can often find replacements, but take the case of some of the earlier round Ekco's, and you'll baulk at the cost. These replacements could set you back £50 each!, but you can obtain modern resin copies, and generally speaking these are very acceptable replacements. The best place to find replacement knobs is to join a radio collecting fraternity such as the British Vintage Wireless Society, or Radiophile who both hold regular swap-meets where these items can often be found. (Check out our events listings for details.)
  7. Another important consideration is the condition of the actual radio dial. If the printed area is badly scuffed or scratched away, you'll either have to live with it, or find a suitable replacement. Some radios had the actual dial built to be exposed on top, perhaps a convenient way of looking at the stations, but a sure fire way of being broken. Quite often these sets come up on the market, but unless you have a replacement dial glass you should forget it. For some common types, such as the Bush DAC90a, dial plates can be purchased as reproduction. These are exact copies and fit within the set with no noticeable difference. Details of these, and replacement knobs, dial bulbs etc; are found under Vintage Parts Section.

Okay, we've covered the basics of buying, but what makes a radio desirable? Well, that is a difficult one to answer, but here are a few basic tips...

We have already touched on buying "basic" sets, generally, these items really don't look particulary special or even unusual. Really just a square or rectangular box with no particular attractive inlaid veneer, a square or rectangular dial, and normally three knobs across the bottom. Often they are big and heavy, and quite unappealing. However, really special sets have unusual shapes whether in plastic or wood, interesting inlays or fixtures, with sinuous curves and attractive coloring. Alternatively, they can immitate items from real life or fantasy. These sets tend more so to be American or occasionally from Australia or Canada, but they leave very little to human imagination and ingenuity. They can also be made from unusual materials such as mirrored glass, or from a man-made material known as "repwood", (immitation wood compressed into interesting shapes), or they can be made from unusual plastics such as "catalin" and have really wonderful colours and shape, but they are very special, and you won"t want any other radio when you"ve seen one.

Historical interest also adds the desirable price tag, take for example the nazi propaganda radios, because of their association to Germany in WW2 they command a very high price.

Examples of desirability are shown below. These sets will cost a pretty penny unless you happen to find one lying neglected in a junk shop or antiques centres (often, much bigger junk shops!)

Pye MM Ekco AD65 Crosley D-25 CE
Pye MM 1931 Ekco AD65 1933 Crosley D-25 CE 1953

The above examples are not the pre-determining features you should look for, but items of unusual design and ultimate desirability. These sets, and others of that ilk, command quite high prices, especially the catalins, but you can also find other desirable sets much cheaper. Take for example the Bush DAC90a. This set was mass produced to such an extent that the item is relatively common.

Although square, the set has the plus factors of an attractive two tone brown bakelite cabinet with smooth and rounded corners. The dial glass has a particulary nice colour scheme with the whole set being set off by a beautiful rounded gold colored mess speaker grill. It's also quite small and is easy to carry.

The bakelite takes well to cleaning, and when finished its look is not unlike that of a horse chestnut seed that has been freshly removed from it's skin. Really shiny and deep brown.

Yet a set like this can be purchased unrestored for around £40, and restored at around £125. Quite a good set to start with as a raw beginner!

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