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Ten Commonly Asked Questions About Phonographs

By R.J. Wakeman

Blue Amberol

Owners of phonographs contact me on a daily basis and ask good questions. Ten questions are asked so often that I decided to give my standard answers in one article on the internet.

Some questions are sent by those who have rescued the old family Victrola. They are anxious to restore the phonograph and once again consider it a family treasure. In the early days, the purchase of a phonograph was a major family event, the new machine being considered more a musical instrument than a mere appliance or piece of furniture. So it is not surprising that many phonographs have stayed in families, passed from one generation to the next.

But many questions are from individuals with a phonograph purchased at a flea market or garage sale, and the new owner is anxious to know all about his or her new treasure. Despite the passing decades, it is still possible to hear the original records as played on the original phonographs, which is somewhat amazing in this age of nearly perfect CDs. The happy sounds of a snappy 1920's fox trot can still brighten the day, and there is real pleasure from listening to a beautiful operatic or concert record on a magnificent cabinet phonograph. We don’t usually think in such terms, but a phonograph record is similar to a photograph in that it allows us to relive a moment from the past.

Judging by the number of internet contacts I have had, the most commonly found Victrola models are the Models X and XI. This is not surprising since the Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey, made over 500,000 of the former model and 800,000 of the latter during the 1910 to 1921 years of their production.

Next in popularity would come the Queen Anne Victrola models—the 210 and 215—made between 1922 and 1925.  Perhaps next would be the more popular models made by the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, such as the Models 117, 200, and 210.

Here is the listing of the ten most commonly asked questions by internet contacts.


1. What is the date and background information for this phonograph model?

Victrola

Fortunately, reference books for the Victor, Edison, and Columbia disc and cylinder phonograph models are available. For a handful of important brands and models it is possible to provide some background information—production years, rarity, motor used, type of sound box, cabinet finish, and so on. Also, issues of the early phonograph trade journal Talking Machine World contain advertisements and sometimes short articles on the various models made by the major and minor phonograph companies. There are also original catalogues and owner’s manuals for the different brands. In other words, information is available for the best-selling machines.

However, most of the short-lived off-brand internal horn phonographs from the late 1910’s and early 1920’s are difficult to research as they were limited in production and distribution. For most phonographs it is not possible to give a production date from the serial number stamped onto the identification tag. More research is needed but the interest and demand are limited.

Thanks to the efforts of Paul C. Edie and his “A Computer Model of Victor Production Output,” we may date the year of production for a Victor Talking Machine and the later Victrola models if one has the serial number. Victor introduced the Victrola – the internal horn phonograph – in late 1906. It was an overnight sensation and Victor was hard pressed for years to fulfill the demand for its popular Victrola models.

In general, the external horn disc and cylinder phonograph models date from 1898 to around 1910. During the 1910s, the tall, upright internal horn floor models were standard, and in the early 1920s low, wide console floor models became popular. Most companies also sold small internal horn table models (“internal horn” means that the horn is inside, not exposed—“external horn” models, from earlier years, are more valuable). These models usually lacked record storage space. During the 1920’s the small “suitcase” portable phonographs were popular and sold in large numbers. Suitcase models with traditional mechanical sound boxes were made through the 1930’s and 1940’s, well into the all-electric era.


2. How often should steel phonograph needles be changed?

It is important to continually change the needle when playing the old 78 rpm lateral-cut shellac records. As it travels through the record grooves, the tip of the needle gradually forms a flat area. As the flat area grows larger it can begin to act as a cutting edge and carve away the sides of the record grooves.

A steel phonograph needle should be used to play only one or two record sides. Then it must be discarded.

In the old days, two types were commonly available—loud volume and soft volume. Loud volume steel needles are thick with an abrupt taper at the tip. Soft volume steel needles are thin with a more gradual taper at the tip. Most internal horn phonographs came with two or three small metal or wood cups near the turntable to hold the different types of needles. Another cup had a lid with a hole in the center; used needles were meant to be dropped through the hole so that the needle would not be accidentally used again. In the early days cactus thorn needles and the triangular-shaped bamboo needles were also popular as these could be re-sharpened and used again and again. Various types of needle cutters were available for cutting a new point on the bamboo needles.

Packets of old but unused needles are still good to use. To determine if a steel needle has been used, go to a strong light and rotate the needle between your thumb and index finger so you may observe the tip at various angles. If the tip has been used, the flat area will flash light back into your eyes. If no light is reflected, it is a good needle.

Some people wonder where they may buy needles for the Edison and Columbia cylinder phonographs. Cylinder phonographs have a sound box that uses a precision ground sapphire or diamond stylus. These semi-permanent styli need not be changed continually. Similarly, thick Edison diamond disc phonographs use a precision ground diamond stylus. A steel needle would ruin the Edison disc records. Antique phonograph dealers can sell and install new jewel styli and make any needed sound box adjustments at the same time.


3. Where can phonograph repairs be made?

Restoring the mechanical parts of Victor, Edison, and Brunswick phonographs is usually no problem. The technology is essentially 19th century and not difficult to determine. The antique phonograph dealers listed below can make needed repairs. Information here is current as of early 2002. Be aware that phone numbers and addresses may change!

Antique Phonograph Supply Company
Post Office Box 123
Route 23
Davenport Center, New York 13751
(607) 278-6218

Mr. Tom Hawthorn
77 Columbia Avenue
Roseville, California 95678
(916) 773-4727
hawthorn@garlic.com

Wyatt's Musical Americana
Post Office Box 601
Lakeport, California 95453
(707) 263-5013

Jeff Lutton
(559) 307-2333
jlutton@accessbee.com

Ron Haring
17024 Frazier Road
Plano IL 60545
(630) 552-1558
victrolman@aol.com

Great Lakes Antique Phonograph
Georga A. Vollema
5092 Muskego Drive
Newaygo, MI 49337
(231) 652-5753
victrola@triton.com

Victrola Repair Service
19 Cliff Street
St. Johnsbury, VT 05819
(800) 239-4188

Vintage Talking Machines
Post Office Box 558
San Luis Rey, CA 92068
(760) 726-7402
hexaphone@aol.com


4. Where can replacement phonograph parts be purchased?

If you prefer to make your own repairs, contact dealers who sell phonograph parts. Some of them also sell photocopies of original instruction manuals for several of the more popular phonograph brands. They usually have a good supply of original and reproduction phonograph parts. They also have a lot of off-brand parts. Many of the off-brand phonograph companies used the same metal parts sold by independent manufacturing firms. Thus many off-brands used the same or similar tone arms, sound boxes, turntables, spring motors, crank, and so on.

Keep all moving parts well lubricated. Use only high quality grease and oil. Keep the felt pads on the spinning balls speed control governor on the spring motor well oiled. If the spring motor has “thunder” noises as it unwinds, this indicates the springs are dry and need new grease. Working with the large phonograph springs is tricky and even a little dangerous. Suddenly released from its casing a phonograph spring can sling black grease, occupy half a room, and possibly cause some bad cuts. It is best left to the dealers; they have special large “C” clamps for this work. They can clean and lubricate the springs and even replace broken springs.

The best general reference for making mechanical repairs is “The Compleat Talking Machine” by Eric Reiss. The most critical part of any acoustic phonograph is the sound box. This is where the mechanical vibrations from the needle and stylus bar are converted into actual sound.

Most sound box diaphragms were made of a thin sheet of clear mica, although Celluloid, glass, guttapercha, and thin metal were also used. Mechanical phonographs from the early days of electrically recorded records (1925 to 1931) usually have an improved design sound box with a thin metal diaphragm. If you hear rattling noises or distorted sounds coming from the sound box, new soft rubber gaskets may need to be installed on both sides of the diaphragm.

With time the old original gaskets tend to harden and even crack. The diaphragm is meant to “float” and vibrate between two rings of soft rubber. New gaskets permit the diaphragm to have better compliance and thus better sound reproduction with less record wear. Again, the dealers sell soft rubber gaskets and gasket tubing; they are also best equipped to install the new gaskets and to make essential adjustments to the sound box when new gaskets are installed.


5. What is the value of my phonograph?

Determining a value for a phonograph sight unseen is too difficult for me. The value depends on the rarity of the model, the condition of the cabinet and hardware, and the manner in which you advertise or sell your phonograph.

An early Victor talking machine with a large oak or mahogany horn (in other words, an external horn—the horn was meant to be seen) is worth thousands of dollars, assuming it is complete and original and in at least very good condition. The value can be reduced by a broken spring, rattling sound box, badly damaged cabinet, or missing parts.

The value of most small upright or console floor model phonographs from the 1920s is usually only a few hundred dollars. These “internal horn” machines are far more common than the earlier “external horn” machines.

The larger and more expensive phonograph models usually had cabinets with carvings, wood inlay patterns, curved legs or other ornamentation. They also had gold plated exposed metal parts; the less expensive models were usually without ornamentation, smaller and had nickel plated hardware. In general, cabinets made during the early or mid-1910s are of higher quality than those made during the late 1910s and 1920s.

A phonograph for sale in an antiques shop can demand a higher value than one sold through a newspaper advertisement. Phonographs and parts are often available for bid on eBay. It is important to know the phonograph brand and model. Often the owner does not know or state the model. For most phonographs there is a small metal tag with the model name, number or letter stamped onto it along with the serial number for that actual phonograph.Tags are usually located near the turntable or at the back of the cabinet. Most Brunswick phonographs have a small round medallion near the turntable with the model and serial number stamped onto it.Patent dates are also stamped or printed onto many tags. The latest patent date does not indicate the date when the phonograph was made. A patent had a life span of 18 years and important patent dates, such as the 1906 Victor patent, were often listed on the Victrola cabinet tags for many years.

Internal horn phonographs are sometimes found with an electric motor to spin the turntable even though the sound reproduction was still acoustic (mechanical). An electric motor was an option available for an extra cost, although today these electric motor models are not worth more than the same model with a standard spring motor. Often these early electric motors are found to be somewhat noisy.

Most external and internal horn acoustic phonographs were designed to play acoustically recorded 78 rpm shellac records made between 1898 (it is difficult to find discs made as early as this!) and 1925. They may also play early electrically recorded records made between 1925 and 1931. The later electrically recorded records from the 1930’s and 1940’s have more fidelity and volume than can adequately be reproduced by a mechanically vibrating sound box. Also, these later records are made of softer shellac and are meant to be played with a light weight crystal pickup and the electronic impulses passed through a radio amplifier and speaker. If you do play these later 78 rpm records on your mechanical phonograph, it is best to use the thin soft volume steel needles as they are easier on the records.



6. How do I restore my phonograph cabinet?

For cabinet restoration, try first the cleaning and polishing methods described by David Spanovich in his article which is posted on Tim Gracyk’s homepage. It is amazing how much of the original finish can be brought out by a thorough cleaning and polishing. Until around 1925 most cabinets were finished with either several layers of hand rubbed shellac or with one or two coats of shellac followed by several coats of true varnish. After 1925 fine satin lacquer finishes became the standard.The “rule of thumb” still seems to be if you can live with a cabinet as it is, it is best left unrestored.

If a cabinet needs major refinishing, some collectors follow the methods described in the book, “The Furniture Doctor” by George Grotz. It is possible to briefly re-dissolve the original shellac and lacquer finishes, but it is best to have experience with this reamalgamation method.When restoring a cabinet it is tempting to use one of the modern synthetic varnishes, which have a fine long-lasting finish, but lack the aged patina of the original shellac and varnish or the deep shine of the original lacquer. If cabinet work is not possible, it may be best to remove the metal parts and have a professional refinishing firm restore the cabinet. An experienced woodworker can even replace missing veneer sections and stain the wood to match the original. Most often a phonograph with a refinished cabinet is obvious to experienced collectors and worth less than the same model with the original finish intact.

If the gold or nickel plating is badly worn away on the exposed metal parts—the tone arm, sound box, turntable, crank, and so on—it is possible to have the parts re-plated. However, the newly re-plated parts will not have the same appearance as the original aged gold or nickel finish.

Credenza


7. Where can I sell my phonograph?

Selling a phonograph may be done locally, especially for large cabinet models that would require crating for shipping. Phonographs can be sold through a local auction house or in an antiques store. Some dealers will sell an item on commission. Or try advertising in your local newspaper or in the advertisements section of “ In The Groove”, an phonograph hobby journal published monthly by the Michigan Antique Phonograph Society. Specialized phonograph auctions are also advertised in “In The Groove.” There is also eBay, which has an international audience.


8. How do I tell if my phonograph is a reproduction?

We need to make a distinction between external horn machine (they have exposed horns) and internal horn machines (these are cabinet models--the horn that amplifies sound is inside, hidden from view). It is true that there are reproduction—that is, newly made--external horn machines out there, and you should avoid them. But nobody has gone to the trouble of doing the same for internal horn phonographs.Making such large cabinets would be difficult and expensive and hardly worth the considerable effort needed. Many original phonographs can be found for just a few hundred dollars.

In recent years, however, “fake” external horn disc phonographs have flooded the market, most being imported from India. An experienced collector can easily identify these fake models, which are a mix of original parts from various phonograph brands along with some reproduction parts. Most have an English Gramophone Company cabinet with the usual “His Master’s Voice” decal at the front. The tone arm and sound box can be almost any brand and the spring motor may have come from a small suitcase model. The external horn is usually a brass bell or a large pressed pattern metal horn. Often the horn connection is crudely welded and set at a high angle.Overall appearance may be appealing, but such machines horrify serious collectors.

If you are uncertain about a phonograph, have it first examined by an experienced collector.

Occasionally you will find a phonograph with mixed U.S. phonograph parts, perhaps put together by the local shop owner.Many of the off-brand internal horn phonographs were made with pot metal parts, which is high in lead content and does not age well; it tends to become brittle, swell, and break. It is not unusual to find a phonograph with the sound box and tone arm missing or in pieces. In order to give a “voice” to one of these phonographs it is sometimes necessary to use replacement parts from a different brand.


9. How do I gain access to the spring motor?

Okeh Motor

There is some variation between brands, but the first task is to remove the crank, which is called a winding key in some instruction manuals. It should unwind and can be pulled out of the cabinet.Next, let the spring motor run down; there should be little or no tension left on the springs. Then remove the turntable; most should just lift up and off; a few have screw-down spindles.It may have been decades since the turntable was lifted.Apply steady, even upward pressure with your fingers on opposite sides of the turntable. Next, move the brake mechanism towards the center of the motor board, although not all brands had a shut-off mechanism. Then remove all the screws around the edge of the motor board.Some brands have only two or four; others may have a number of screws.Do not remove the large screws in the center of the motor board; these hold/suspend the spring motor. Many models have a motor board lifting knob; some have a finger hole.Brunswick models most often have a collapsible ring to lift the motor board.Many brands have a lever lock to hold the motor board partially open so the spring motor can be examined.The motor board with the spring motor still attached can be lifted out of the cabinet. You may need to angle the motor to remove it from the cabinet.It will be heavy.Set the motor board upside down on an open strong cardboard box so the motor board is not resting on the spindle.

Should you need to send the motor to a dealer for repairs, leave it attached to the motor board. Pack it very well. It is so heavy that it can destroy casual packaging during transit.There is no need to send the crank or any other part.


10. What type of records do I have and what are they worth?

Most old records are lateral-cut 78 rpm shellac records. These have “V” shaped record grooves with the recording on the sides of the record grooves (Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, Emerson, Perfect, Gennett, etc). They are played with changeable steel, bamboo, or thorn needles. The sound box is held at right angles to the record surface.

This contrasts with the thick Edison diamond disc records which have surfaces made of Condensite, an early type of Bakelite.The Edison grooves are narrowly “U” shaped and the recording is on the bottom of the grooves (vertical-cut method).The Edison discs are played with a precision ground diamond stylus and the sound box is held parallel to the record surface.

Pathe shellac records use a still different vertically-cut method. These discs have broadly “U” shaped record grooves and are played with a ball-shaped sapphire stylus mounted into a metal shank. The Pathe sound box is held more or less parallel to the record surface. Pathe discs were made until 1924. Edison and Pathe discs can be ruined if you use a steel needle when trying to play them (the sound quality will also be horrible).

Most U.S. phonograph companies making regular 78 rpm shellac records had only single-sided records until around 1909 when double sided records became standard. The main exception was the Victor Talking Machine Company. Victor kept its operatic and concert Red Seal records single sided—for prestige value—until 1922. All records were acoustically recorded until mid-1925, when electrically recorded records were introduced by Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick. The new electrically recorded records had not only more volume but much expanded fidelity over the acoustically recorded records. The earliest all-electric phonographs from the late 1920’s and 1930’s used a heavy horse shoe magnet pickup, which still used changeable needles. In the late 1930s the light weight crystal pickups quickly became the standard. They had three advantages; they were light weight, cheap, and easy to install.It was also possible to use a semi-permanent sapphire or diamond stylus; no more need the needle be continually changed.

Blue Amberol

Most shellac 78 rpm records sell for 2 to 4 dollars each. The condition of the record also determines value.Many rare operatic, hot dance, and special jazz records are worth considerably more. An original King Oliver record on the Gennett label is easily worth $100.Most of the Victor operatic records by the great Enrico Caruso may be a great family treasure, but they are commonly found and worth just a few dollars. The production of records during the darkest days of the Great Depression was very low, making some of the records from this era more valuable. In contrast, the records from the big band era bring only a dollar or two.Most of the big band music has been transferred to 33 1/3 rpm records or CD’s. Early rock and roll 78’s from the 1950’s can be very valuable; not many were made during this era of the small 45 rpm records. Most of the early acoustically recorded records are thicker and made of the solid shellac matrix. In the 1930s, “sandwich” records became the standard for many companies. These records have shellac surfaces with a filler material between.

Early wax cylinder records seem to sell for around $5 to $8 each. The later Celluloid cylinders are worth a bit less though there are important exceptions.Records sold one by one on eBay usually bring higher values than a box of records sold at an auction sale or through a newspaper advertisement.