Radio Cabinet Repair & Refinishing Made Short, Simple & With Minimal Tools – Part IV

Step 7: Stripping


(NEED: liquid furniture stripper, green Scotch Brite pads, metal trays, painter’s respirator, blue painter’s tape, chemical resistant gloves, splash-proof safety goggles, 3 mil plastic sheeting, 180, 220, 400 and 600 grit sandpaper, rubber sanding block, mineral spirits, tack cloths, disposable gloves, clean painters rags, spray cans tinted lacquer (toner), clear gloss or semi-gloss lacquer)


(OPTIONAL: water-slide radio logo/label decals, gel stain, Earlex HV6003PUS HVLP SprayPort sprayer, or Earlex Spray Station 5500 sprayer)


  1. Stripping
    1. Must do three things before applying finish:
      1. Strip off any of the original finish that needs redoing
      2. Sand any repairs, bare wood or stripped parts
      3. Match the original stain/lacquer/toner colors
    2. Stripping old finish
      1. This also the best time to match (and buy) your replacement stain/toner, to the original finish, before you remove it
        1. You can strip a small section of the cabinet, test your stain/toner/lacquer combo on it to see how the various layers affect your color and adjust
        2. Keep in mind that if the original finish was nitrocellulose lacquer, it had yellowed
          1. This means that the color of the original finish is more yellow now than it was then
          2. This also means that any stain or toner under it is also less yellow
          3. If you look at an artists color wheel, this will help you know what color you need to add to your stain or stain/lacquer/toner combo to match it
        3. Keep in mind that even in the original factory the color of the stain/toner would vary from day to day and batch to batch
          1. This was something Arthur Kent said bothered him and that he was unable to solve
          2. This is still a problem in modern production
        4. Don’t be afraid to play with your stain/toner combos until you get it right
          1. A custom mixed stain is also a possibility
          2. Or doing your own with different colors of stains from the same manufacturer
          3. See also Section C, item j below…
      2. You can, and should, leave any original finish that still looks good and is not excessively damaged
      3. Any new or repaired portions could be matched and the new finish blended into the original, but it requires a more advanced skill to do it successfully
        1. But is worthwhile to try to save an original finish
        2. That beautiful old radio patina will take another 80 years to develop again
        3. So, try to save it, or leave it, if you can!
      4. Don’t strip and refinish a whole radio if the rest of the finish is good except for the top
        1. A top usually can be stripped without stripping the entire cabinet. Successfully matching the top to the rest of the radio is not as hard as you might think. It will require careful use of stripper and finish to not get it on the rest of the cabinet or damage the original finish you are trying to save
        2. But it will give you skills in matching stains and finishes with the existing
      5. Think long and hard before stripping the finish off of a high-value radio—doing so might decrease its value considerably!
        1. Even a bad original finish might be worth more than a poorly applied new one
        2. Some collectors are fussy about these types of things, like me…
        3. Some pieces should be refinished by a pro, especially if your own skills are not up to the job
        4. Skill means knowing when it is beyond your ability, and are willing to admit it!
      6. There are various types of chemical strippers on the market
        1. Two kinds:
          1. Finish strippers for lacquer, shellac and varnish
          2. A stronger type for paint and polyurethane finishes
            1. Unless you are stripping paint and poly, use the milder type
            2. Stronger strippers can weaker glue and cause veneer and glue joints to come loose
        2. Whichever type you chose, FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS FOR USE
        3. Also, ALWAYS wear a painter’s respirator, wear chemical resistant gloves and splash proof safety goggles or a face shield
        4. Most strippers are HIGHLY FLAMMABLE, TOXIC and CAUSTIC and should be used AWAY from a source of ignition like a pilot light, preferably outside
        5. Use green Scotch Brite scrub pads instead of steel wool
            1. Steel wool can has oil on it and can contaminate your new finish
            2. Steel wool also leaves little metal fibers all over your work area
            3. Steel wool also can catch on loose corners of veneer and crack or damage it
        6. Use 3 mil plastic on your work surface or ground/floor to contain the gooey old finish
          1. Keep in mind old paint or finishes may contain lead or other heavy metals. So, the old finish is potential hazardous. Therefore, work safely and neatly
        7. Remove any non-wood parts like grill cloth, bezels, dial glass before starting
        8. Start as the top and work your way down the cabinet
        9. When done, use a new piece of scrub pad and a container of clean stripper to go over the entire cabinet to remove any residual finish. You must remove all finish down to the bare wood
        10. Logo or label water-slide decals on the cabinet:
          1. Will be removed by the stripper
          2. Do not drip stripper on any you wish to keep
          3. Strip around these and blend the new finish into them
          4. Reproductions are available for more popular types, but not all
          5. Take a photo with a ruler next to the label/logo to get an idea of position if you will replace it with new one(s)
            1. This way you can position the replacement exactly
        11. Take lots of photos—you have only one chance to record their locationLeave the dirty plastic and pads out until all stripper has evaporated from them, then roll them up in the 3 mil plastic and toss in the garbage


Step 8: Sanding


  1. Sanding
    1. Once you have stripped ALL original finish, lightly sand the cabinet and any replaced or repaired parts from earlier
      1. If the cabinet is not scratched, dented or otherwise damaged, you might not need to sand much, or at all
      2. Use 180 grit sandpaper on dented or severely damaged areas, proceed to 220 grit for final sanding
      3. Start with 220 grit for less damaged surfaces
      4. For areas you are leaving original finish and blending new into old, use 400 grit on any old finish that you are going to apply any new finish to
      5. Vacuum the area after sanding, careful not to scratch your newly sanded cabinet
      6. Remember to sand with the grain
    2. Flexible sanding pads can be used to sand curved pieces
    3. Replace your sandpaper as it becomes clogged
    4. Do not use an electric sander, hand sanding is best
      1. Electric sanders leave small circular marks that will show up once you apply stain
      2. They can sand through veneer very quickly
    5. Don’t try to sand out every dent and ding from the cabinet and moldings
      1. You may not be able to
      2. Doings so can sand through veneers and change the contours of pieces too much
      3. Sanding it too perfectly misses the point of it being an antique radio
      4. You are removing a small part of it that you can never replace by sanding it
      5. You will make molding profiles less sharp with sanding
    6. Some dents and dings can be popped out with a household iron and damp cloth
      1. Place a damp, not wet, cloth on the dent/ding and carefully heat it with the iron to steam the crushed wood fibers
      2. Careful not to apply too much heat, you will loosen the hide glue or burn the surface!
      3. Sand with 220 grit sandpaper afterwards to smooth out the rough wood surface


Step 9: Staining


  1. Staining
    1. Applying a separate stain is optional if you are using a tinted lacquer (toner)
    2. But, a stain followed by a tinted lacquer/toner can provide extra depth to your final finish and is a worthwhile extra step for higher-end radios or those looking for a really nice finish
    3. Depending on the radio, it might have been how they did it originally
    4. If you are using a toner on top of stain, you will need to apply both to a test piece or corner to judge what the combined color and darkness of the two will be
    5. If it is a water-based stain, you might have additional steps required before applying lacquer over it—read the can to find out
    6. I like to use a wipe-on stains or gel stains for this step:
      1. They are easy to apply
      2. You may apply multiple coats to make it darker
      3. You don’t need spray equipment
      4. A rag or a cloth applicator pad may be used to apply
    7. To start:
      1. Clean the surface to be stained with a tack cloth to remove all dust
      2. Then clean it with mineral spirits on a clean rag
      3. Do not touch the cabinet with your ungloved hands from this point on—you will contaminate your finish
    8. One CAUTION:
    9. Stain-soaked rags can combust spontaneously
        1. Soak used rags with water prior to disposal
        2. Or lay them out flat to dry
        3. Once dry, they may be disposed of safely in the garbage


    10. Do not crumple up wet rags with stain on them, the heat generated during drying will start a fire
    11. Application:
      1. Stir and apply the stain as directed with a brush or rag, I prefer a rag
      2. Try to apply stain as evenly as possible
      3. Most stains allow you to apply multiple times to achieve a darker color
      4. Allow to dry as directed before applying toner/lacquer
    12. Color Effects
      1. As mentioned in part 1, you should have taken photos before you started
        1. Now you can use those photos to try to match color or the spray pattern of the original finish
        2. If the finish was too degraded to start with, do a Google search for your model of radio
        3. Use any photos of unrefinished models to roughly match color and how it was applied to the cabinet
        4. Getting your stain to look as much like the original is important for a professional looking job
        5. As mention above: the original lacquer had yellowed over time, so the original stain/toner was probably less yellow in color
          1. If you use nitrocellulose lacquer, it will yellow like the original, over time
          2. An acrylic lacquer will not yellow and will be “water clear” with no color cast
          3. Choose your stain/toner colors accordingly
      2. Usually radio models from the early 20’s on used multiple colors on cabinets to make them more interesting
      3. Staining/spraying your radio one color will look pretty flat and boring
      4. A dark/medium color contrast was a favorite design element of the cabinet designers
        1. A common technique was:
          1. Very dark brown lower band or trim
          2. And/or dark brown vertical corners
          3. With the main cabinet sides being a medium red-brown color
          4. The dark color was many times feathered over the lighter color very subtlety
        2. You should always stain or toner/tinted lacquer with the lighter color as the base and the darker color sprayed over it
        3. The use of dye and pigment stains and/or lacquers is the easiest way to achieve this
        4. Feathering the darker color into the lighter one should be practiced on cardboard before you try it on your nearly completed radio
      5. Remember to get the correct color when a toner or stain is not exactly correct, can be achieved by:
        1. Spraying one color stain/toner over another
        2. Using dye stains or toners with pigment stains and toners over each other in layers
        3. Buying tints and adding them to clear liquid lacquer and spraying that on top of everything


Step 10: Finishing


  1. Finishing
    1. A couple of things about applying the final finish:
      1. Probably the most important step of this whole series because it can make your earlier efforts shine, or make them look really bad
      2. One area that is more often done poorly than well
      3. The one step that tries more people’s patience than any other
      4. A well done effort will make all the difference in your finished cabinet
    2. What you apply as a final finish will depend on the age of your radio
      1. The most popular finishes from 1900-1940 were usually:
        1. Shellac
        2. Fumed
        3. Lacquer
        4. Paint
      2. You might also encounter on really old radio equipment:
        1. Varnish
        2. Oil finishes
        3. Wax finishes
      3. Try to avoid refinishing if possible, but if you do, try to replace the finish with what was used originally
      4. Modern finishes like polyurethane are not appropriate to use on antique radio equipment and will not look correct
      5. The age of the radio will narrow down what finish might have been used
      6. You then have to test the finish with different solvents to see what it might be
    3. Applying Finishes
      1. Spraying:
        1. Spraying is the best choice because it looks smoother and more professional when completed
        2. More than likely the original was sprayed
        3. A number of sprayers at various price-points are available to spray finishes
        4. If applying lacquer and shellac, you can buy both in spray cans
      2. Brushing:
        1. Brushing is harder to apply successfully to avoid brush marks, drips and other issues
        2. The skill level for professional-looking brushed on finishes is more advanced
      3. Fumed:
        1. A technique using a strong Ammonia solution to darken tannin-rich woods like oak and mahogany
        2. Used only on certain types of wood
        3. Not something I will cover here because of its more limited use
    4. Lacquer Finishes:
      1. 1925 and later radios were usually finished with nitrocellulose lacquer
      2. The ideal finish for production cabinets
        1. Relatively durable
        2. Easy to spray
        3. Dries quickly
        4. Can be tinted to spray and stain in one step
        5. Successive coats will melt together to form one film layer
        6. Can use a high-build lacquer to even fill in open-grained woods like walnut and oak in one or two coats
      3. For woods like oak, walnut and mahogany with their open-grain you can fill the grain with:
        1. Sanding sealer or
        2. A grain filler or
        3. Shellac or
        4. High-build lacquer like piano lacquer or
        5. Spray and sand multiple coats to fill it in slowly or
        6. Leave the unfilled low spots in the open-grain
      4. A smooth finish without the low spots of open-grain woods separates a professional looking finish from an obvious refinish job
      5. Lacquer in spray cans is an ideal way to start finishing radios:
        1. Easy to learn to master spray technique with some practice
        2. Cans have the right amount of product for small radios
        3. No messing with liquid lacquer
        4. No messing with spray equipment
        5. The most inexpensive way to start spraying finishes
      6. An HVLP sprayer is the ideal tool and give far better results than spray cans:
        1. Much better control over spray pattern
        2. You can use the less costly quart and gallon cans of toner, stain and lacquer products
        3. The resulting finish looks much better
        4. Color effects look more realistic and are easier to do with a sprayer
        5. But, the sprayer will set you back $500 or more…
        6. There is a much bigger learning curve to using it
      7. Lacquer in cans or liquid form has some cautions:
        1. It is extremely flammable
            1. Do not spray around pilot lights or sources of ignition


        2. Do not spray in an enclosed space and have proper ventilation
        3. The vapors are toxic
          1. Wear a paint respirator when spraying
          2. Wear nitrile or latex gloves
            1. Oily finger prints on your spray surface will cause problems
            2. Getting the lacquer/solvents on your skin should be avoided
      8. Application Tips:
        1. Spray according to the directions on the can
        2. Stain, seal any open grain, then spray on lacquer
        3. If you are using high-build lacquer, skip the seal step
        4. Apply many light coats versus a few heavy ones
        5. Lightly sand between coats with 600 grit paper
        6. When sanding lacquer coats, be careful to not sand too deep and into your stain/color layer
        7. Runs or drips:
          1. Mean you are spraying it on too heavy
          2. And probably too close to the surface
          3. Need to be sanded out before recoating
          4. After sanding, clean the surface(s) with a tack cloth before recoating
        8. If you touch the surface with bare hands or contaminate it in any way, you need to clean it will mineral sprits before spraying the next coat
          1. Make sure to let the mineral spirits dry completely before spraying
          2. Otherwise, you will have incompatibility issues with the coat sprayed over it
        9. Don’t try to achieve an overly glossy surface:
          1. Too much gloss looks too modern
          2. It is not a car—20 hand rubbed coats is excessive and unnecessary
          3. It was usually a high-production finish the first time, your refinish should look similar
        10. If you are using tinted lacquer/toner, spray a few coats of a clear, untinted lacquer over it for your final coats
          1. This will protect the colored lacquer in case of abrasion
          2. It will add a slight bit of depth to the finish
        11. Allow the lacquer to dry 24 hours or so before reattaching any hardware to the cabinet


Step 11: Care


  1. Avoid the use of furniture polish on your new finish
    1. Most furniture polishes have silicone in them
    2. They don’t do much but add artificial shine
    3. They don’t moisturize the wood as they claim to, nor does the wood need it
  2. You can use a furniture wax
    1. Keep in mind that wax has to be stripped and reapplied frequently
    2. That’s a lot of maintenance for a radio collection!
    3. But, it does add some additional protection, especially to the tops of cabinets.



I hope these outlines have been helpful. Keep in mind that are meant for general information and not intended to be all encompassing. Happy Restoring!

–Jason Rogers


© Jason Rogers 2015 May not be sold or reproduced without permission

Sources of Supply:




The Home Depot


  • 3M ScotchBlue Advanced Multi-Surface Painter’s Tape
  • 3M Pro Grade Precision 9 X 11in. 180 grit sandpaper
  • 3M Pro Grade Precision 9 X 11in. 220 grit sandpaper
  • 3M Pro Grade Precision 9 X 11in. 400 grit sandpaper
  • 3M Pro Grade Precision 9 X 11in. 600 grit sandpaper
  • Painter’s rags (assorted types and sizes)
  • Liquid or spray furniture stripper (assorted brands and types)
  • Green Scotch Brite 9 in. x 6 in. General Purpose Scouring Pads (10-pack)
  • 3M Paint Project Respirator (assorted sizes)
  • 3M Chemical Splash Impact Goggle (assorted types also available)
  • Grease Monkey Long Cuff Chemical Resistant Gloves
  • Husky 8 ft. x 100 ft. Clear 3-mil Plastic Sheeting (assorted roll sizes also available)
  • Klean-Strip 1 gal. Odorless Green Mineral Spirits
  • HDX Tack Cloths (3-pack)
  • Warner Rubber Sanding Block


Lynnwood Business Costco


  • Nitrile or latex gloves (assorted brands, types and sizes available)


Woodcrafters (Portland, OR (800) 777-3709)


  • Mohawk Ultra Classic Toner Dye-based Tinted Lacquer (assorted colors)

Some ideal colors for 20’s and 30’s radios:


  • Medium Brown Walnut   M100–0207
  • Extra Dark Walnut       M100-0209
  • Prefect Brown                 M100-0249
  • Dark Walnut Oak        M100-0351
  • Universal Walnut        M100-7021
  • Mohawk Tone Finish Toner Pigment-based Tinted Lacquer (assorted colors)
    • Medium Brown Walnut   M101-0207
    • Extra Dark Walnut       M101-0209
    • Prefect Brown                 M101-0249
    • Dark Oak/Tavern Pine          M101-7020
    • Universal Walnut        M100-7021
  • Mohawk Tone Finish Clear Nitrocellulose Lacquer
    • Gloss                   M102-0420
    • Semi-Gloss              M102-0419
  • Mohawk Heavy Bodied Sanding Sealer M102-0491
  • Mohawk Lacquer for Brass           M103-0500 (sealing polished metal parts)


Rockler Woodworking (Tukwila and Northgate Stores)


  • Earlex HV6003PUS HVLP SprayPort
  • Earlex Spray Station 5500
  • Gel Stains (assorted brands, colors)


Radio Daze ( Electronic Supply (


  • Reproduction Decals (assorted brands, types, sizes)
  • Custom Decals (Radio Daze only)




  • Formby’s Furniture Refinisher (for varnish, lacquer, shellac
  • Formby’s Paint and Poly Remover (for paint, polyurethane and other finishes)



© Jason Rogers 2015 May not be sold or reproduced without permission