Friday, November 25, 2011

The Farm House Effect: Restoring A Phone

The patching of the belt course continues apace. Sadly, that activity isn't any more interesting now than it was in the last post, and we all know how that went. So, in order to slake the unquenchable thirst of my Brobdingnagian audience for new posts on this Thanksgiving weekend, I thought I'd take a little side trip in our tales of restoration.

You will recall my discussing the Farm House Effect: the extension of one's historical purview to encompass the lifetime of the old home he is restoring. This has made itself most apparent to Lydia and me in our fascination with the history of everyday things one takes for granted, such as phones.

During the excruciatingly long gestation period of the Farm House restoration plan, I was becoming increasingly antsy to be doing something, anything, to get ready for our coming life in our new old home. During this time, our friends Nik and Jo moved into their own fine old vernacular Craftsman home, "Tara", a scant half-mile away from the Farm House. In the experiencing of their own "Tara Effect", they purchased a restored old Western Electric Imperial 202 phone. This was a model Western Electric produced in the early Fifties to commemorate its 75th anniversary, a  revamped Model 202 with a gold-plated body and an ivory-painted handset. 

Not Nik and Jo's phone, but one much like it.

Nik and Jo chose it because they wanted to have a phone that contributed to the period feel they were working to achieve for their home.

It's a lovely phone, and Nik and Jo's idea struck Lydia and me as a brilliant one. The phone especially fired my imagination because my grandparents had a black 202 in their home when I was a boy. I was always fascinated by that phone, with its graceful lines, pretty porcelain number plate, huge handset, and the dial that purred like a mechanical cat when someone spun it. I loved the big resonant click that came out when one operated the switchhook, and the loud, clear ring of the bellbox on the wall.

My grandparents' 202 looked like this, but it was in better shape and had a coiled rubber cord.

Compared to this magnificent machine, our plain old WE 500 at home was ugly and boring, the Organization Man of telephones.

A WE 500 in the Farm House study just like the one we had at home when I was a little boy.

It was from this comparison between the prehistoric (which in my early years meant "more than ten years old") 202 and the contemporary 500 that I first got the idea that old things were more grand, more beautiful, just plain better than new things.

So we adopted Nik and Jo's idea, and kinda went hog-wild with it. We decided to get a bunch of old phones from different eras and deploy them throughout the Farm House. We would hardly be able to find any phone that wasn't appropriate, because the phone had been invented a scant nine years before the Farm House's inception. We thought it would be fun to watch our guests delight at the discovery of a vintage phone, in working condition and looking fabulous, in each room they visited.

We soon learned that this idea was cost-prohibitive using already-restored phones, but was easily affordable if we restored the phones ourselves. This tapped even deeper into the Farm House Effect, which now that I think of it must have some relation to the nesting instinct. In any event, we soon had quite an inventory of old phones and phone parts, and I was in business.

I read up on how phones work and how they are wired, and how to re-wire them if needed to work with modern equipment. I puttered around with various phones, restoring them functionally and cleaning up their exteriors, until I felt reasonably confident in my knowledge.

Then, I undertook my first thorough restoration. I wanted to start with a black 202 like the one my grandparents had, but that would have required spray-painting the phone body, and I didn't feel I was quite ready for that. So I picked a phone that wouldn't need painting, a 1947 302.

In service from 1937 to 1958, the Western Electric Model 302 is often referred to nowadays as the "I Love Lucy phone", because it's the phone Lucy and Ricky had in their New York apartment (they updated to a WE 500 when they moved to Connecticut). The 302 was Western Electric's first model that contained all needed circuitry within the body of the telephone itself. It began its life with a body made of pot metal, but in 1941, with all metals becoming valuable because of the escalating war in Europe, Western Electric switched to a molded thermoplastic body.

We found our restoration candidate on eBay. It worked, more or less, but it wasn't very pretty.

It was missing its number card holder, and the body was heavily scuffed and in places deeply scratched.

These photos don't accurately depict the depth of the scratches; clearly someone had a serious grievance with the phone company.

Did you know that thermoplastic like this can be refinished in much the same way as is metal? At the time, I had just learned that this was possible, and I was eager to try my hand at it. 

First, I removed the body shell, and then I sanded out all the deep scratches, scuffs and dents.

Then, I sanded the whole body with a finer-grit sandpaper, taking care to remove all the scratches from the first sanding:

The basic procedure is to sand out the damage, then keep sanding with progressively finer grits of sandpaper. One sands until all the scratches of the previous grit are removed, then switches to the next finer grit and does the same thing, sanding perpendicularly to the previous pass so the previous grit's scratches are easy to discern. This continues until the scratches are fine enough to be polished out readily. This is the same procedure one uses with  metal; the only difference is that one starts with a finer grit because plastic is softer. I used wet sandpaper for all but the first two passes.

This was a long process; the above pass was done with 220 grit sandpaper, and I finished off with 2000 grit. Here's what it looked like at that point:

As you can see, all this sanding has brought the surface back to a soft shine, with hardly any suggestion of scratches. This necessarily took a long time; I typically did this work at night, sitting with the family watching Angels games.

At the same time, I was restoring the inner workings. I took everything apart, cleaned off all the dirt and corrosion, and put it all back together with replacement parts as necessary, lubricating all the moving parts and electrical connections to ensure proper mechanical and electrical function. 

Oh, yes. This picture reminds me that I restored the bakelite handset in much the same way as the phone body, but there are some differences. Whereas the body is made of thermoplastic, which is completely solid and unitary in composition, bakelite is a phenolic resin mixed with a filler, usually wood flour. The thermoplastic is molded in a melted state, and it hardens as it cools; bakelite is either molded under heat and pressure or extruded, and it hardens from a chemical reaction brought about by the heat and pressure.

Because the thermoplastic used in the phone body is the same all the way through, sanding down to undamaged material and then polishing it will restore the original appearance; because it is fairly stable chemically, it does not change appreciably with age. Bakelite, on the other hand, is somewhat unstable; while the molding process naturally forces a smooth layer of resin to the surface, exposure to ultraviolet rays breaks it down, causing a fine layer of phenyl alcohol to form on the surface. This yellows and oxidizes the surface, and eventually it begins to reflect the texture of the filler material. For this reason, aged bakelite can never be brought back to its full original shine. Thus, the procedure here is to start with a very fine-grit sandpaper to remove all the oxidized and yellowed material, then sand with progressively finer grits just until the scratches are gone and the sheen is even. This is a much shorter process than with the thermoplastic.

With the sanding all done on the body and handset, the final step is to polish them on a buffing machine with a string buff and some plastic polish, which comes in the form of a waxy white bar. This has to be done with great care with the thermoplastic in order to prevent heating the surface and thus distorting it. With the bakelite, more polish and more pressure are used in order to fill in some of the surface irregularities.

After all this, here was the result:

I was positively stunned by how nice the phone looked: wow, I did that? Aside from the finger wheel, the phone was pristine, as if it were about ten years old and gently treated its whole life. When I replaced the fingerwheel with a restored one a week later, the effect was complete. Moreover, the phone worked perfectly, with the best sound quality I had ever heard from a phone, bar none. It has ever since been my preferred phone for a good long phone conversation.

And so we had our first phone with which to wow visitors to the Farm House. It had come at a significant cost—my hands were severely weakened by the long period of constant sanding, and have even now not fully recovered—but it was worth it to have followed through on a plan with such resounding success. When we moved into the Farm House, I placed it in a fairly prominent place, and waited for the expressions of delighted surprise from visitors.

To this date, six years later, not one person has even noticed the damn phone. Not. One. Person.

The whole affair brings to mind the immortal words of the late, great Rick Nelson:

Well, it's all right now
I've learned my lesson well
You see, you can't please anyone
so you've got to kill yourself.

Or something like that.

* * *

"Get that phone, will ya? I'm not in to anybody."


  1. A true 'Renaissance'MAN. Anything you do is better than the rest!

  2. I was astounded at how nice the phone looked after restoration, but my fingers hurt after reading the description of the restoration process. The difference in appearance was absolutely stunning. I have many memories of our grandparent's home - the freezing bedroom, Grandma's great pan fried steak, the fruit trees in the backyard, and ... the phone. As a kid I remember how heavy it was compared to our modern phone. Anywho, I enjoyed the commentary, and if the truth be told, I like your black version better than the gold and ivory one! :-)


  3. Thanks, Jon. Yes, the problem with the Imperial Princess as pictured is that it has a clear plastic fingerwheel. At the time it was released, that fingerwheel was on WE's premium phones. Nik agrees. Someday, I plan to put on an older dial with a gold-plated metal fingerwheel for him. Actually, I have the necessary parts; I just have to plate the fingerwheel and find the time to put it all together. Then, I think Nik's phone will look exquisite.

  4. Your'e a good friend. Squirrel


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