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Electronic Equipment Restoration Part 7: Add a Dash of Bling!

Restoring a piece of vintage electronic gear to operational status brings a sense of pride and accomplishment that makes the most cynical engineer’s or technician’s heart go aflutter.  It’s not everyone who has courage to tackle such complex projects, bring them to completion, and pass the dreaded ‘Smoke Test’.  Yet, no matter how wonderful the electronic result is, if the end product is cosmetically a bit rough around the edges – or as some might say “whupped with da ugly stick”  – then your work isn’t over.  Nope…Not by a long shot. 

What’s needed is a sprinkling of creative bling!   So, let’s get started.

Many pieces of vintage electronic gear are housed in metal cases, painted with either black or gray wrinkle paint and knobs/switches whose legends are either silkscreened or engraved onto a steel or aluminum front panel.  Decades of air-borne grease and cigarette smoke combined with dust, dirt and fingerprints from operational use result in a rather drab appearance.  So, here’s how to proceed:

First, remove all front panel control knobs.  Normally these are made of Bakelite -- a hard, black-colored plastic that is formed and cured under high pressure and heat. To clean, prepare a mixture consisting of a 20% mix of Mr. Clean, 20% mix of household ammonia and 60% hot tap water.  Drop the knobs into this solution and standby.  Almost immediately the years of old crud will loosen up..  A small toothbrush proves helpful in cleaning each knob’s finger-grip crevices.

Next, carefully polish each knob using jeweler’s rouge.  Doing so will require a small polishing wheel (available from places like your neighborhood Harbor Freight or mail order companies such as Eastwood) and a light touch.  Too much pressure when polishing can cause the part to  get away from you…usually followed by a hard crash and a few tears.  When completed, your Bakelite knobs should be gleaming bright. 

Some control knobs may have had a scribed indicator pointer that was once filled with a white material.  Yes, I know…it’s long gone but fear not!  Your local art supply or hobby stores carry fine tipped paint pens that are ideal for restoring control indicator marking.  Simply fill the engraved mark with at least two coats of paint and let dry for no more than 12 hours. Next find a piece of soft, thin cotton cloth (an old thread-bare T-shirt works here).  Lightly moisten a small part of the cloth with alcohol and lightly pass it over the engraved line.  It will take several passes but any paint that is outside of the engraved area will soften and become absorbed by the cloth, leaving behind a nice, sharp indicator stripe.  Let dry and buff the control knobs one last time using a soft cloth.  Set them aside for the moment.

Now the tricky part: dressing up the cabinet.  The first order of business is to thoroughly clean the cabinet and its front panel using a mixture of Simple Green and hot water.  Here a soft hand brush comes in handy – particularly if the paint is a wrinkle-finish.  Using the hand brush, gently work the Simple Green onto the cabinet, paying particular attention to the cabinet’s top as this will normally be the most challenging area from a grunge standpoint.  Rinse with cool water, let dry and inspect.  Don’t be disappointed if it takes more than one attempt to yield the best result.

Should your project’s front panel contain silkscreened text or graphic legends, try not to scrub too vigorously as those could be washed away along with the grim.  If your front panel is engraved, then worry far less as the same process used to renew indicator legends on control knobs works for panel engravings, too.

For some rusty and dented cabinets, the cleaning operation might not make the grade. In those cases, a complete paint job is in order.  The best wrinkle finishes I’ve been able to achieve on cabinets or small parts at home is via the VHT-series of paints available through Amazon or some auto supply houses.  VHT supplies rattle-can wrinkle paint in gray, black and red.  Of course, if your project’s cabinet is black wrinkle, then the color choice is obvious.  If some other color is needed, all is not lost.  You can first refinish the cabinet in gray wrinkle, let it dry thoroughly, and then lightly overspray with the desired final color needed. 

Some complain that they cannot get their wrinkle paint results to be consistent – meaning an even wrinkle that is rich in appearance. 

The key to good paint finishing is strict attention to detail.  You must strip the work down to bare metal—using either chemical strippers or my all-time favorite: a glass-bead blaster.  Next, prime the bare metal with sandable paint primer.  When dry, lightly sand with 400-grit paper to smooth remove imperfections.  Next, apply the wrinkle paint via four coats spaced about 10  minutes apart.  The order of applied coats is left-to- right; top-to-bottom; bottom-left corner to top-right corner; bottom-right corner to top-left corner. 

Now, the Secret to a perfect wrinkle finish:  Place the painted object into a pre-heated electric oven set for 150-degrees F and let bake for at least 45 minutes.  Needless to say, DO NOT use your home’s kitchen oven…especially if you’re married (or intend to stay that way)!  My workshop has a used kitchen oven for painting purposes that cost a mere $75…it has been going strong for ten years, so it was well worth the ‘investment’.

Not every cabinet needs such an exhaustive paint treatment.  If your project’s black wrinkle finish is intact but merely dull and lifeless, one simple trick is to lightly overspray the cabinet with black lacquer.  Dupli-Color’s black lacquer spray paint is widely available at auto supply stores and works great here.  The reason I suggest lacquer versus enamel here is that lacquer dries very quickly and covers in very thin coats…so there is little chance of overloading the underlying wrinkle foundation and diminishing its ‘look’.

The King of Bling here is chrome plating and spotless hardware. Chrome parts, if any, should be polished to a mirror finish (another trip to the auto store!)  Rusted nuts/screws/washers must be replaced with either stainless steel or nickel-plated hardware.  An excellent source for hardware of all types and sizes is McMaster-Carr.  Rubber parts can be cleaned using, oddly enough, WD-40.  By the way, WD-40 is an excellent solution to that nasty adhesive residue that remains from paper or vinyl labels. 

Now with all of your chrome polished to a high sheen, junky hardware replaced, and a sparkling-clean cabinet and shiny controls at the ready, your completed restoration project will gain the admiration of all…Bling is the Thing!



Let’s Work Together

75757 Highway 1082

Covington, LA 70435

Tel: 504-400-8873

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