Many of the articles below have been taken from the Australasian Telephone Collectors Society  Inc. (ATCS), The Telecom Heritage Group and some from other sources.  Items and information has been appended to some of the articles.  The author takes no responsibility for any of the advice given.  Remember - always test on an unseen part first.

Bakelite quick clean
Bell Receivers
Curly cord cleaning
Curly cord un-kinking
French Polishing

Painted Finishes
Paper diagrams
Surface finishing
Textile (cloth) Cord cleaning
Wood revival


Remember - don't go too mad about it - take it easy and only do what is needed.

If the item is in bad condition, be it Bakelite, metal or wood then a complete strip down is called for.  Lay the component parts on a board and store away.  Note broken parts and make a decision on whether they can be restored or replaced.  Note all those parts that have to be replaced.

Bakelite can also deteriorate and the handset rests and plungers on the 100 and 200 type pyramid telephones can rot.  They will eventually turn into a power but before this they can seize the plungers and also cause them to rot.  To check for this just sniff the rests - if they smell acrid and or vinegary then remove and discard them straight away.

If Bakelite, then inspect for cracks - unless it is a coloured part, discard and replace the faulty item.  Coloured parts are difficult and expensive to come by and are generally easier to repair than the black Bakelite parts. If you need replacement coloured parts then obtain them only when you have an old part with you.  Coloured items are difficult to match - do not try to match in artificial light.

Normally it will be the outer casings that need cleaning.  Clean off grease and glue with White Spirit and biro marks with Mentholated Spirit.  Clean off the residue with a dry cloth.

Wood must now be repaired and then, if necessary,  rubbed down until the surface is flat.  At this point the wood will have to be varnished (see below).

Bakelite once cleaned can be restored by various means.  Cutting compound such as "T Cut" (sometimes too harsh) or Paste Polishing No. 5 should bring the case to a good shine.  If it turns mottley brown with what looks like wood chippings showing through - then stop because the you have broken the surface.  Black boot polish sometimes hides this, but generally replacement is the only course of action.

Surface Finishes on Telephones

The following is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the ATCS Newsletter of January 1991.

The surface finish of wood telephones varies from one manufacturer to another and it is essential, as far as possible when doing restoration work to replicate the original finish and so retain authenticity. Some phones, particularly of European make, had a mirror-like finish whereas others had one or two brushed coats of a clear finish which allows the grain to show.

DON'T overdo the finish of phones which should be 'rough'.
DO endeavour to get a good polished surface on those phones which should be polished.

When the surface is badly deteriorated it is often possible to get an idea of the original finish and material used from the protected areas such as under the transmitter mount or under the writing slope.

Shellac was the early standard, used as French polish on high gloss surfaces and brushed on for rough surfaces. Clear vanish has been used on US oak phones but is slow drying. 1920's saw clear cellulose lacquer introduced which was ideal for production lines. This was suitable for rough and polished finishes. There is a temptation to use polyester vanishes but these tend not to look right.

The aim of this article is to indicate how mirror finishes can be obtained on open grain timber for those phones which should have a smooth finish. The following describes finishing using mainly shellac.

After stripping the original finish down to bare wood and sanding, the next step is apply a clear sanding undercoat by brush or spray. When dry, the undercoat is fine sanded to obtain a smooth surface free of wood grain pores.

Follow this with the relevant finishing coats and finishing procedures to give the required gloss surface. It takes an expert to achieve the beautiful appearance of say a wall Ericsson but with care and patience, quite reasonable results can be obtained.

The final rubbing of shellac will leave a bright, glossy finish. If the finish is too glossy, the surface can be rubbed back with pumace powder, wet the surface with a mixture of 3 parts turps and 1 part linseed oil, dust with pumace powder and rub with a clean cloth to the desired degree of satin is achieved.

Some times the existing surface is too good to strip down but not good enough to leave "as is". Gently cut the surface back with the above turps/oil mixture, clean thoroughly with turps and a clean rag and apply a rubbing coat of shellac. This will usually restore the finish adequately.

You need to experiment a little to achieve the finish you require, just remember the more you fiddle with the surface finish the smoother it will become and this may not be the finish you require.

Bell Receivers

These were covered with ebonite, a mixture of black powdered rubber and sulphur - a hard to obtain material now days.

Google turns up this:-

Quality Ebonite is produced by only a few companies in the world today.  In fact only 2 manufacturers that I know of with good enough results to use for high grade pipes exist.

Making ebonite at this quality level is not easy and production is costly plus the market for it is small... only pipe makers, fountain pen makers and some crafters of musical instruments use it.  GEC had a factory in Coventry (UK) producing most of the telephone and pipe industries Ebonite.

The last couple of years we have been using Ebonite from the rather new German Ebonite manufacturer called Sch'nberger Ebonite.  Search the web and look for eboDust and blackMelt, which would appear to be exactly what you need. It is presumed that these are baked on.

So repair is very difficult and original finishing seems to be impossible now-days.

A Quick Finish for Wood

A quick and easy way to restore wood back to a good condition is use the following instructions:

  1. Clean all glue, dirt, grease and other detritus off the wood.
  2. Do not use abrasive.
  3. Mix up the following and wash over surface to be revived with a clean paper towel.
    2 parts raw linseed oil, 1 part pure turpentine, 1 part methylated spirit and 1 part malt vinegar.
  4. Once dry, polish with Button Polish (a bit expensive but does a good job).

The author has used this on water stained furniture and it comes up a treat.  It saved him striping down a wooden cabinet and has not been touched it for 5 years since.

This method also retains that "old" look which is generally lost with a totally striped item.

Click here for more restoration information of wood finishes

French Polishing

The following is taken from notes made by Victor Bilokin for his talk on French Polishing at the ATCS September 98 meeting in Sydney and published in the ATCS newsletter 11/98.

Please note: All brand names refer to Australian brands. Similar products are probably available in most other countries.

Do not leave stripper on for too long. Clean up with methylated spirits, NOT water as this raises the grain.
Do not strip in sunlight as a poisonous gas is given off.
Use lacquer thinners when removing lacquer.
Do gluing and other repairs before stripping. Always strip the hardest part first. 

Sand paper comes in two basic types. The cheaper variety is called “fre-cut” or similar whilst the better quality, more expensive type is “Garnet Paper”. It comes in a number of grades from 80 (course), 100, 150, 180, 220, 240 (fine).
When sanding a job it is advisable to skip no more than one grade when working from rough work (course) through to fine work otherwise sanding marks will show after shellac has been applied. 

Orange Shellac. Refined animal resin secreted by insects called Lac bugs which live on twigs and branches of certain trees in South East Asia. 

White Shellac. Made from bleached orange shellac. Is creamy-white in colour. Not as durable or as water resistant as orange shellac. 

De-waxed Shellac. Relatively clear liquid taken from the top of a vessel after normal shellac has been allowed to stand. The natural undissolved waxes settle. More transparent than normal shellac. 
Shellac can be obtained in several forms:

Ready mixed, such as that made by Feast Watson, available from most hardware stores. This is the most expensive form. 

Flake shellac is available bagged from certain antique restoration shops and hardware stores. Dissolves quickly in methylated spirit.

Button shellac is also available bagged from certain antique restoration shops and hardware stores. Takes longer to dissolve in metho due to the button size. 

Both flake and button shellac can be purchased in bulk from specialist polishing suppliers. This is the cheapest method of obtaining requirements. 

Mix shellac 1 part to 4 parts methylated spirits. When dissolved, strain using a funnel into which is placed a rolled up “Chux” wipe (kitchen wipe). Strain into a new container with an airtight seal to keep the shellac for later use. Shellac for French Polishing should be slightly thicker than metho (thick water). If it is too thick it will be hard to work. 

It is generally accepted that shellac is best applied using a polishing rubber. Use washed sheeting cotton or a handkerchief (don’t tell mother) and fill with clean cotton wool. Form into the shape of half an avocado with all the cotton material ends upward to be held in the hand. Somewhat like wrapping a Christmas pudding. Cotton wool material can be obtained from some specialist restoration shops. Do not use nylon material. 

Apply shellac by dipping rubber into container, removing excess by pressing firmly onto a clean piece of paper. 

Glide the rubber onto the surface using light pressure while the rubber is wet. Commence with straight strokes. Increase pressure as rubber dries out and do circles and figure-eight movements. When the rubber becomes tacky on the job it is time to straighten up and run along the grain to avoid circular marks and to avoid ripping the finish. 

Repeat application leaving time between coats to dry. The more coats on the work, the longer time needed between coats. It is vital that each coat is left to dry thoroughly before application of subsequent coats. 

Work in a warm dust free room with light reflected from the surfaces of the job. 

Do not polish when it is raining or damp. Moisture in the air mixes with the metho causing blooming, where the finish has milky white streaks. Blooming can be corrected by allowing work to dry out thoroughly and re-applying shellac. 

Remove all traces of glue from work before polishing as this will leave an unsightly mark after shellac has dried. 

Rubber can be kept for further use in an air tight container.

First clean surface of old polish with clean rag and turps to remove any grime accumulated over the years. 

Using 0000 steel wool and linseed oil, go over the surface to remove any fine scratches and marks. 

Apply wax to remove scratches using 000 steel wool and only a small amount of wax. If too much wax has been applied, the polishing cloth will stick to the surface when polishing off after 15-20 minutes. 

Always go with the grain when applying wax with steel wool. Finish off polishing using a clean soft cloth polishing in any pattern. 

Two types of wax are used. Clear for light finishes. Black for old timber finishes. 

Do not use “Mr Sheen” (spray can household cleaner/polish) as a polish as it contains silicone. 

Painted Finishes

The metal parts on most UK telephones were generally coated with a gloss black painted finish.  These coating were known as a Japanned finish.

Wikipedia describes Japanning as:-
Most often a heavy black lacquer, almost like enamel paint.  The European technique uses varnishes that have a resin base, similar to shellac, applied in heat-dried layers which are then polished, to give a smooth glossy finish. It can also come in reds, greens and blues.

In restoring a telephone any gloss (or semi-gloss) black paint would do, but remember that a high gloss finish could look too 'new'.


From the ATCS Newsletter  May 1999 by Tony Campbell

Most phone collectors who also do restoration work will, where possible, endeavour to keep the original finish. After all, if an item is, perhaps, coming up to 100 years old, it should in my opinion look aged, not shining as just from the factory. I know this opinion has had much heated debate and agree there is nothing worse than a shabby old piece.

When faced with a restoration job where cleaning, etc. is just not enough, wood usually presents not an insurmountable problem to produce a reasonable finish.  Cords likewise, but if the metalwork will not appear presentable with cleaning, etc. there is little the amateur can do by a simple process. After all if you restore woodwork and it shows the effort in a good finish, the poor nickel on the handset, cradle, etc. will do nothing to make the phone presentable and decent.

Like most collectors I had accumulated numerous items such as handsets, cradles, gongs, not to mention the countless nuts and washers, some so small they require special care to keep them safe, all needing re-plating.

So what to do? It makes the task more simple to have these components refinished if one lives in a city, where it is still possible to find platers who will take on small jobs containing small pieces.  But living as I do in a rural part there are no platers who will do this small work, and the thought of sending these precious parts through the post to a distant plater is frightening. I had one experience and never again. Imagine my nightmare, a dismantled Ericsson handset with receiver nuts, washers and face plate screws, etc. was sent off only to receive back just the larger parts.  After many loud words over the phone the remaining small pieces were received. It turned out a concerned person at the platers had put to one side the nuts, etc. fearing they'd get lost. So no more episodes of having the blood pressure excited for me.

For quite a long time I mulled over this conundrum, I wanted to do my own nickel plating but was afraid of what was involved.  What was now needed was information, so I bought/read all the text I could find.  At this point I learned that the finish achieved by a small plant, such as I had in mind, would not be to the standard of the commercial platers, but was nonetheless assured it would be acceptable. The plating houses use a sophisticated process producing superior finishes.

The decision was made, I would set up a small plant as professionally as possible.  A list of all requirements was made and this included a proper polishing and buffing set-up. The reason being all books I'd read had emphasised over and over the necessity of a proper finish on parts prior to plating. It's somewhat similar to a computer – garbage in garbage out.

Although it is possible to use a car battery or battery charger as a power source, I decided on a purpose made power unit, I would build one myself.  This involved a hefty mains transformer with a selection of low voltage outputs, and as high a current rating as possible. A transformer with various tappings from 3V-30V at 10A. was used.  These output tappings were arranged on two rotary switches and fed through a rectifier, rheostat, meters, fuses, etc. and I now had my power source. In a plating set up the square area of the surface of the items to be plated dictate the current required, therefore variable current output is important.

It was decided that five litres of electrolyte was adequate for plating purposes and a tank for this quantity and tanks for various preparatory cleaning processes were bought. These tanks were all plastic polypropylene.  They are, of course, all food containers, etc.

One of the preparatory processes is the stripping of old nickel and this facet of the operation caused me some problems for quite a time. I could not find a source for a nickel stripper and the stripper often referred to in past issues of ATCS, N-STRIP 165S could not be located either.  Commercially, chemical stripping is seldom now used, an electrical process being preferred. It is possible in a small set up to also use this electrical process but this can etch and effect the substrate which is important if surface detail such as markings are to be retained.

Thanks to Rick Havyatt I eventually found the name of the manufacturers of N-STRIP 165S and that they had a chemical manufacturing plant outside London.  Contact was made with them to ask if they might give the name of some plating houses they supply with this stripper but was told it is now seldom used and my best hope would be some plater holding stock, so try around.

After many, many phone calls I was back to the manufacturer, could they please help, a very kind gentleman eventually agreed they would make up a small quantity.  One can imagine the 'thorn in the side' someone like me is to a major company like this who are more used to dealing with orders of 50/100kg and upward.  The outcome was my order would be treated as a sample, it would cost me nothing.  I was in London around that time and collected my bargain N-STRIP - but getting it home was another story, they refused to take it on the plane.

All the other chemicals, etc. needed were bought from a Laboratory Supplies' business. This is the only but most expensive source as the 'Platers Supplies' people don't want to know unless you are ordering by the 'ton'.

The product of these purchases was given some trial runs. At first scrap pieces of nickelled brass were stripped, polished, buffed, cleaned and plated with varying results but eventually I became a 'dab-hand' at plating. I have now also done some zinc and copper plating.

I must say it is a laborious process especially the donkey work of polishing.  It is also quite demanding as most stages of the process, especially towards the end, must be completed within a reasonably short time span.  You cannot do all the preparatory stages over a long period and then leave them to one side until the day you get around to plating. If parts are totally prepared and then put to one side they will oxidise after a period in the air, so you must go through the cleaning stages again prior to plating. Therefore all the stages must be carried out as close to each other as possible.

As previously said, I became quite adept at the plating business and being someone who is told is hard to please, am very satisfied with the finish achieved.  This finish is not as bright or cold as the commercial mirror finish but I think is more pleasing being somewhat softer and actually looks better on a restored phone.  The commercial finish looks just too new.

I must add that cost has not been counted, for if it was it would probably be cheaper to personally bring the item to the distant plater, stay for the duration in a hotel, supervise the process and return with the plated parts.  But then there is nothing more satisfying than seeing the results of your own labour.

Home plating is to be recommended.




When restoring and/or repairing Bakelite telephones there is sometimes the need to remove the diagram from inside the case.
This is often necessary when the diagram is damaged and you need to repair the paper.

A request for this information was published in the January 1999 ATCS newsletter following a request from a collector in the USA via email.
The following was sent to the ATCS by Ray White who is our expert on Bakelite repair.
Try it and let us know how it works.
Ray writes:-

'With reference to the article regarding the removal of circuit diagrams from Bakelite telephone cases. I always dismantle Bakelite phones completely as I have found that this is the only way to prepare the case for cleaning/buffing.

After removing all parts from the case, I bath (soak) the case in a container of water with PALMOLIVE dishwashing liquid added - just enough to make the water soapy, and leave soaking for about 24 hours. The main purpose for this is to get all the grime off the Bakelite which makes polishing and buffing easy. As a consequence of the soaking, the circuit diagrams are to be found in the bottom of the container.

Not once has this method of cleaning the Bakelite cases failed to remove the diagrams.

(Unfortunately, there is no quick way to remove these diagrams)  Ray White

Handle the wet diagram with care as it will be very fragile  and if you can, photocopy it so you will have copy to work with for another phone. (Editor)

Method 1
By Ken Bushell
Many times when restoring telephones, the circuit label inside the phone will be found to be damaged, discoloured, marked or faded. These can be replaced by photocopying the original and repairing any damage as follows:-

  1. For a dirty and damaged diagram. Copy the label with the photocopier set to light, then copy the copy again but make sure you turn it around in the machine (this is to keep the image square as most machines do not copy square).
  2. Now copy the second copy (still on Light) but set the machine to enlarge (double size is A4 - A3 or 1.41%) Now copy again turning the image around..
  3. Carefully white out any marks etc. from this copy using Liquid Paper or similar. I usually thin the Liquid Paper  so that it doesn't build up too high. If there is large areas between the lines  which are very dirty, these can be carefully cut out close to the lines and then copied again.
  4. Allow to dry thoroughly then using a fine black pen , carefully draw in any damaged line and lettering. Try hard to match the thickness of the lines etc. I use a Unipen 0.3 fine line pen with waterproof, pigmented ink as this ink does not run or soak into the paper.
  5. Now photocopy down to the original size (A3 - A4 or 71%) using the normal setting of the machine. Check the size against the original label. It should now look as clean and neat as an original.
  6. The paper can be given an aged look by dipping the paper in a weak tea solution.

All of the above depends on the photocopy machine used and some experimentation will be found necessary. 

This is the method I have used to restore many diagrams in all sorts of condition.
With a little care, a very neat and tidy label can be made which will finish your restoration job nicely.

Remember to made a couple of extra copies to use on other phones, this will save some work next time.

Method 2
Since the above was written, another way has come to light due to the availability of computers and scanners.
Scan the label into a suitable graphics editor (such as Paintshop Pro) and the editing can be done on screen.  This does take a little practice to get right.  Make sure, when you do the work this way, that you don't use an inkjet printer to print the label as the ink used in these machines is usually water based and not waterproof.  A laser printer is the best option.

 (General  Instructions)

When your restoration is almost complete, the final touch is to fit it's decorative transfers.

TAKE CARE ! ! They are designed to add beauty to your work.


So. . . . .

  1. Immerse your transfer (one at a time) in slightly warm water. Slightly  dampen the item where the transfer is to go.
  2. Hold the transfer flat while in the water or it will curl and possibly crack.
  3. After about 30 seconds, carefully lift the entire transfer, with the paper base and slide the transfer onto the prepared surface.
  4. Make sure the transfer is in the correct place and gently wipe any bubbles from under the transfer.
  5. Gently wipe off any remaining gum and excess water with a damp sponge. Make sure the transfer does not move, one way to do this is to use the backing paper over the top of the transfer and gently wipe.
  6. Allow to dry before touching.
  7. Transfers need a clear coating to make them less fragile when handled.  You will need to experiment to find a suitable coating, try this on a  sample piece of transfer, as the wrong type of coating can interact with the transfer and totally destroy your work.


A quick and easy way to clean up your Bakelite phone is to remove the grime with white spirit and then polish lightly with "T Cut" paint cutting compound.  "T Cut" will separate after a period of time if left on the shelf.  In this case there will be a watered down fluid on top of the paste.  This fluid in itself can do a really good cleaning job without scratching.

Only do the Bakelite parts and not the metal.

If the phone is a dull brown colour, with what looks like white flecks under the skin, I doubt whether the above method will work.  Be careful because the flecks is the wood chip filler showing through!

If the forks smell and are flaky, with white deposits then remove as soon as possible.  They will leach into the phone and cause damage.

Click here for in depth cleaning instructions


Plastic cords on phones from the 1960's onwards tend to suffer from grease and grime, which has a nasty stickiness.  The instructions below advise of a safe way to remove such grime.

  1. Find a plastic container, insert cord.
  2. Fill to the rim with cold water.
  3. Add a small quantity of biological washing powder or liquid (as used on clothes).  It must be the biological type that 'eats' dirt.
  4. Stir well and leave over night.
  5. Next morning drain off water, which will look revolting.
  6. Rinse well.

The same method can be used for cleaning the grime off lever key handles from switchboards.

  1. Put them in a jam jar of detergent overnight.
  2. Wash with clean water.
  3. Place in airing cupboard to dry.

More tips from Australia

The easiest cleaning solution I have found for plastic cords, old or new, is spray-on whiteboard cleaner (in the finger pump bottles not the aerosol cans) with a bit of old cotton rag.  This seems to lift most muck off cords, dries quickly and does no damage. (It is also good for cleaning computer monitors, mice and keyboards.)

For paint spots or sticky tape/label residue on cords and bakelite/plastic cases, I use eucalyptus oil on a bit of old cotton rag. Allow the oil to soak into the muck for about 30 seconds and it should then rub off easily.  Once the muck is off, wipe with another rag to remove the eucalyptus oil and allow to dry.  Then use another rag with a drop of warm soapy water to clear off any eucalyptus oil residue.  The cord/case will be clean and the phone will have a pleasant Australian bushland smell.

You can also use eucalyptus oil to clean muck off nickel/chrome plated parts or stainless steel but make sure that you don't get any oil on metal contacts or internal parts as it can be corrosive.

Do NOT use eucalyptus oil on woodwork or paint/varnish finishes as it will damage paint and stain wood.


Coiled cords often develop a kink and will not lie 'straight' (well, evenly coiled).

  1. Find plastic container, insert cord.
  2. Boil a kettle of water and pour over the cord.
  3. Ten minutes later drain off water and carefully retrieve cord.
  4. Rinse under cold water and with luck the kink will have disappeared.

Heat causes the so-called memory effect, temporarily softening the neoprene and allowing the cord to 'remember' its original shape.

Textile Cords

Textile cords as fitted to to 100/200/300 type telephones need to be treated with care and caution.

Dirty Codes
Here are a couple of cleaning suggestions:-

  1. If the cords are in good condition then they can be treated with RGB carpet cleaner or similar.  Test a small piece first. 
  2. Ivory cords (and other braided or cloth covered cords) can be soaked in a bowl of warm water with some biological detergent for a couple of hours.  Afterwards, give them a gentle scrub with an old soft toothbrush to loosen any remaining dirt or paint before rinsing them off with clean water.  Then blot off much of the water with some kitchen roll and hang them up to dry overnight. This has been tried and tested.
  3. Tape over the ends of the cord with insulation tape. Then put the cords inside a pillowcase and knot the pillowcase so they can't come out.  Place the pillowcase in a washing machine on coloured fabric setting - so it is not boiling hot.  Use rinse hold to let them soak.  Most importantly - DO NOT use a spin cycle.   Hang them up with a bowl underneath and let them drip dry.  This has been known to give good results.

Discoloured cords
Discoloured cords can be re-dyed.  Use an old saucepan and follow the dyes instructions.  Because the ends of the cords may be glued where the cord is made off by the terminals, peg the ends of the cords out of the dye solution.

On brown cords, brown "Dylon" dye does a good job. 

BACK Home page BT/GPO Telephones Search the Site Glossary of Telecom Terminology Quick Find All Telephone Systems

Last revised: October 30, 2022