This is a place for the amateur woodworker. No snobbery about fancy tools, complicated joints, or exotic finishes, just good honest woodworking for the pure enjoyment of it. My shop has a brand new home in 2003/2004 and we feel blessed to have such a great place to spend time in the hobby of woodworking

Atwater Kent 185

As I begin this restoration project I am trying to remember just how long it has been since I made a commitment to rebuild this Atwater Kent - 185 radio. It was long before I moved to the new shop and although this radio cabinet has always been stored safely out of harms way it took until December of 2005 for me to tackle this major project.

The radio does not belong to us but is a project started by my father at Brey’s Radio, Estherville, IA. A friend of his wanted this family heirloom restored to its original condition. As you can see from the first picture it has had plenty of water damage and at first glance hardly looks worthy of restoration. Dad reports that the radio chassis was in good enough shape to restore to its original working condition and now it will be my job to make it look as good as it did the day it was purchased.

As part of my initial evaluation I noted that the entire front of the radio, which was made of 1/4" plywood, was delaminated and beyond repair. I noted that 3 of the 4 horizontal brass strips was missing with one remaining as a sample that I will use to duplicate with brass stock. I also noticed that 1 of the 2 vertical strips of brass was missing. There is one decal above the center knob hole that is marked POLICE and TONE, I will need to find a source for this as I do not have a way to duplicate it locally. The brass frequency dial bezel and the nameplate are in good shape and with a little cleaning will look great. The grill cloth is faded, water stained, and has a few holes, it will need to be replaced as well.

Those Atwater Kent fans will be horrified as they read on and see what I need to do to restore this radio. The front will be replaced with modern materials, all the veneer will be replaced and I will need to make major repairs to the top and side panels that have huge splits in the solid wood. One of the primary goals in any restoration is to maintain as much of the original as possible, but when a wood item such as this has seen so much water damage it is impossible to maintain the original wood. I began by removing the top from the piece. I found that it was nailed with 4 - #4 finish nails, which must have been installed by the previous owner in an attempt to hold the radio together.

Once the top was removed I could see that it also had several brads driven into it to hold the veneer on, which of course did not work as the previous owner planned. Most of the original glue blocks fell off as I tugged on them to see if they were sound enough to remain. At this point I decided that the only way to attack this project was to reduce the radio to the smallest components I could and start over.

The sides pulled away from the base without any resistance as you can see in the picture above. The base of this radio is a lumber core piece of plywood that has severe water damage as well. About 75% of the base is delaminated and will need extensive repair. I removed both sides, which reduced the radio cabinet to 5 pieces of wood.

With the cabinet reduced to pieces I removed the remaining pieces of veneer from the top and then gently pulled the two pieces apart. The glue joint revealed that the top was held together by a spot of glue about an inch long, the remainder of the joint was filled with dust showing that it had split apart years ago. I jointed the two pieces so they would fit tightly together and then departing from the 1934 construction technique, I used my biscuit cutter to mill slots for two size 0 biscuits. These will align the top and also provided added strength in the joint.

The basswood biscuits are glued in place and swell slightly when in contact with the glue, adding more strength to the joint.

As you can see in this picture I used pipe clamps to hold the joint securely and then used two lard C-Clamps to pull the piece flat. This top cracked apart because of the extreme moisture it had seen and warped. This warp showed up during the clamping process and I did the best I could to minimize the cupping that was now part of the piece. I will need to belt sand some of this imperfection out of the top to make it look right. The square scraps of hardboard are to prevent damage to the top as I tightened the C-Clamps.

With the top set aside to dry I went to work on the sides, the veneer popped off with little problem and both sides had large cracks at each end. Unlike the top, these were solid pieces of wood with no seams. The splits, as serious as they look, do not represent any weakness to the pieces and I feared if I split them apart that the resulting split would not be repairable. So I cleaned them up and used epoxy to fill the voids. I realize that this may crack open again in time, but there is little to do with it without constructing entirely new sides, which I don’t want to do.

I set the sides aside to dry once they were filled and then went to work on fabricating a new front. The design of this piece makes it possible to cut the openings with the table saw instead of needing to cut them with a jigsaw. I laid out the openings using the old front as a template and then squared the lines and extended them to the sides so I could use them as reverence for the plunge cuts needed to cut them.

With the openings cut I drilled the holes for the radio controls and made sure the frequency dial bezel fit properly. Then I went to work on gluing the base piece back together. This, as mentioned above, is what is called lumber core plywood. The center piece of wood is a full quarter inch thick with two layers of 1/16” veneer on both sides. The thin veneer had come loose along the edges and curled up from the moisture. I used a putty knife to separate the layers and clean them out. Then I used stick matches to hold them apart so I could work wood glue between the layers. I was careful to work the glue all the way between the layers to ensure a good glue joint. I had to work quickly and could only glue one side at a time so that I could get it clamped and the veneer flattened out properly.

The next step was to sand the top down and then cut the double chevron veneer that will cover the center section of the top. I am using black walnut veneer and cut strips at 45 degrees to the long grain so that the pattern would match the original design. I used painters tape to hold the pieces together and then glued them to the top using contact cement.

With the veneer glued down I removed the tape to reveal the completed pattern. To be sure that the veneer was properly set I clamped the top between two pieces of plywood.

The chevron patterned veneer for the sides was made in the same manner as the top. I cut the veneer at a 45 degree angle to the grain and then taped the pieces together before applying the contact cement. After applying the veneer and cleaning up the glue joints on all the repaired pieces I assembled the cabinet using clamps to hold it while the glue sets.

One of the bigger challenges on this project is to fabricate the two brass strips that accent the front of the cabinet. The originals were made of a soft non ferrous metal, zinc I think, and were sprayed to imitate brass. I contacted a sheet metal shop to see if they would cut the two 1/4" wide strips. They wanted nothing to do with the delicate task of cutting the strips and trying to keep them flat and straight. So I decided to do the work myself. I screwed a piece of brass between two pieces of 3/4 plywood and cut a 1/4" strip off the edge. This produced a nice straight piece but the edges were a little too rough to call it finished.

I used a fine grit file and smoothed the edges and then used the file to smooth the surface, removing the burrs created by the saw blade. I finished the strips using several fine grit wet/dry sandpaper. The strip on the right is the original, the one on the left is finished and the center piece is as it came from the saw. These strips will be glued to the face of the radio when I begin the veneer.

This radio, unlike any I have worked on before, has a very unique and complicated veneer pattern. I suspect that the manufacture, building in the Art Deco design selected the grain pattern to accent the overall design. The front of the radio has a vertical grain from top to bottom in the center, which is the first piece I applied on the front. This section is framed with the brass strips so I included them in this gluing. I am using a spray contact adhesive, which makes it easier to apply on the small pieces. This requires masking the areas not to be glued, and it also means I can use the tape as a guide for placing the pieces. As with any contact adhesive application there is only one opportunity to get the piece aligned properly.

With the middle section applied I cut the two side pieces. These have the grain at a 45 degree angle and will be framed top and bottom with brass, but these pieces of brass are about 1/8" wide with a round top instead of the flat pieces I just applied. I had to carefully cut out the openings for the speaker being careful not to splinter the grain. I will need to smooth the edges once the adhesive fully sets. The round holes were cut using a large countersink bit as cutting a round hole in the delicate veneer can be a bit tricky.

Perhaps the toughest part of this project so far is the thin rounded horizontal brass strips that separate the top and bottom pieces of veneer from the center side sections. The original piece like the long vertical pieces was not originally brass, but rather a non-ferrous metal that was tinted to look like brass. I found a 1/8" diameter brass tube that looked very much like the original piece except that it was hollow and this would not look appropriate. So I used a 1/16" brass rod to fill the center of the tubing, which you can see in the picture below.

Before cutting the tubing to length I filed one side of the tub to provide a flat base. I then cut the two pieces and then filed to the exact length required. I glued them in place with epoxy cement being careful not to allow the epoxy to squeeze out on the new veneer. The red arrow marks the original trim piece that I laid here as a comparison.

With all four pieces glued in place I am ready to install the last of the veneer pieces, which will complete the veneering project.

The final pieces of veneer had a vertical grain pattern and needed to be precisely cut to fit between the brass strips and the other edges. Since these were small pieces I cut and fit all four, then masked off the entire face of the radio and applied adhesive to the entire surface at the same time.

In the interest of keeping this page from getting to long I will spare the reader from watching as I sand all the veneer surfaces, cleaning up glue squeeze-out, and preparing it for the first coat of stain and oil. I will use a Minwax product that is a stain and oil finish in one application. Since the original radio was very dark I will apply two coats of this product and then begin the polyurethane finish of the veneered surfaces. I like this product as a stain and sealer but do not like to use it as a stand-alone finish. The picture below shows the veneer following the first coat of stain.

With the first coat of polyurethane applied and dry I wanted to finish filling the cracks and old nail holes with epoxy putty. I mentioned this earlier and wanted to show this remarkable product that I found for this purpose. It is a two part epoxy that is cut from the stick and then kneaded until the white center and blue outer layer are blended to a gray color. This epoxy has a 5-minute set time so I cut small pieces, kneaded them, and filled the cracks quickly.

This is a sandable product so instead of depending on the joint to hide the crack as they did when the factory manufactured the radio, I will have a smooth seamless finish. I scraped as much of the epoxy off the surface as possible to avoid a lot of extra sanding.

The final pieces of the cabinet to be installed are the three base pieces. These were painted black so I stripped the brittle finish off them, cleaned up the mating surfaces, and glued them before tacking them down with a brad nailer. The light colored strip of wood on the back side of the floor of the cabinet is a new piece of wood installed to replace the rotted edge removed when I re-glued the veneer. I will darken it to match the aged wood of the base.

Although not a showy part of this project, the small knobs needed as much attention as the rest of the radio. They did not have water damage but the finish on the knobs was worn and the face of the knobs were crusted with dirt. I cleaned them up with sandpaper and then stained them. I built a simple jig to hold the knobs while the stain is drying.

Since the metal pieces of this radio need to be mounted prior to completing the clear coat finish it was also time to clean it up. These metal pieces are not brass as the back sides are silver color but the face of them has some sort of plating to give them a brass look. I used a toothpick and soft brush to clean them. I could not use any brass cleaner or abrasive material for fear of removing the plating and the 70 years of patina. They show their age, but are still nice looking and will help age the look of the radio.

After a great deal of research and thought, I decided that the paint color for the non-walnut surfaces should be black. Many of the web sites I visited discussed this color choice but I could not find anything conclusive on the original color. My eyes told me the color was black so I picked up a can of satin black paint. Before painting I masked all the walnut surfaces, being very careful to press the tape down firmly to try to seal the wood grain so the paint would not bleed under the tape. I also worked carefully around the brass accent pieces to make sure they were sealed tightly.

I applied two coats of satin black paint about 30 minutes apart. The paint filled in the areas nicely and hid all the imperfections in the wood. I pulled the tape off as soon as possible to make sure it did not adhere to the veneered surface. I did have several small areas where the paint bled through so I cleaned them with a rag soaked in mineral spirits. The key to this finish will be to allow this paint to dry completely then sand and recoat with satin varnish over the entire surface.

The grill cloth for this radio all but fell apart in my hands when I started trying to work with it. So I ordered a replacement cloth and although this does not match the original exactly it was billed as a 1930’s Art Deco style, which fits the description of this radio. I used rubber cement to glue the cloth to the original pasteboard cloth frame. This frame is held in place by the speaker screws and the speaker itself. This picture shows the backside of the cloth.

It is time to begin the final finish of the entire cabinet. I began by wet sanding the entire cabinet, including the black paint, with 400-grit sandpaper. This smoothed out any imperfections from the sealer coats of varnish and paint. I installed the dial indicator bezel in the hold previously drilled in the new front. I used a square to make sure that the bezel was straight and drilled pilot holes for the brass brads to prevent damage to the 70 year old hardware.

Installing the nameplate for the radio required a longer square to make sure that it was located at the exact height as the dial bezel. It is located centered above the hole for the volume control. I added a spot of epoxy cement to the back of this plate to make sure that it remained in the proper placement.

The speaker is held in place by three decorative head bolts that pierce the face of the cabinet. I wanted to make sure that these bolts were in the exact location as before since after looking at the chassis and speaker I can see there is no room for error. I laid the old front over the face of the radio and used a scratch awl to locate the holes. Using a backer block under the front I drilled the holes and installed the screws so they will get a coat of finish as well.

I cleaned the cabinet with a tack rag and then began the long slow process of spraying the final finish. I used a jig on a sawhorse to support the cabinet and sprayed one surface at a time. Using this method I avoid runs and drips with the thin finish as I spray the horizontal surface and then let it set for about a half hour. Then I carefully turn the case and apply finish to another side. I applied 5 coats of finish in very thin layers to build-up a very smooth and satin sheen finish.

As mentioned before, my dad restored the chassis and speaker at his radio shop in Estherville, IA and to complete this project we drove over to deliver the cabinet. The installation was pretty straightforward, with the speaker installed first, and followed by the chassis and then the knobs.

The picture below shows the speaker being installed.

The chassis mounts through holes in the bottom and before we screwed it in too tightly it was time to check out the radio to make sure everything worked properly. The chassis needs to be properly aligned to prevent the dial from contacting the bezel, which would scratch it.

With everything installed and plenty of time to look things over I left this project behind for the owner to pick up. This is perhaps the most interesting looking cabinet I have worked on and hope that the owner will enjoy the look and sound of this old radio for many years.

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