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From the April 2007 Singing Wires newsletter journal

Resurrecting and restoring old WECo 500 sets

by Russ Cowell

This is a topic which has been addressed in the past, but deserves another look. Not all of the methods and procedures described herein are original with me. Some are, but many are the result of postings by other collectors in recent years. They are numerous and their names are mostly forgotten, but their ideas and suggestions live on.

The core of my collection is soft plastic Western Electric 500 sets from the early 1950s, both black and in color -- especially the early dark colors of Mahogany Brown, Mediterranean Blue, Rose Beige and Oxford (Charcoal) Gray which were discontinued in 1958.

Rarely does one find these sets in pristine condition. Over the past 10 years I have "rescued" several dozen of the filthiest, grimiest, moldiest WECo 500 sets you can imagine. The first step in their restoration is to take them to the garage or outside to disassemble them for cleaning. Remove all metal parts from the plastics (brass inserts excepted.) One never knows what is inside the housings. I have never found live critters, but I have found dead ones and dirt dauber nests.

To begin, I fill a five gallon bucket half full with reasonably hot water and add about a quarter cup (or less) of laundry detergent. I then place the plastic shell (from which the hand grip cover has been removed so that it and the plungers can be dropped in separately), the dial number ring and the disassembled handset handle and caps. I will also add the plastic finger wheel (if so equipped) or the acetate disc from the center of the metal (or open plastic) dial (assuming all parts are present.) and the cords. I may also toss in the metal finger wheel. CAUTION -- if the handset is a bakelite G1, do not leave it in the bucket of water more than just a couple of minutes! Bakelite contains sawdust and, if left too long, will absorb some water and you now have a problem. So remove the G1 handset early, scrub it up and allow to dry.

After about 10-15 minutes of soaking, the scrubbing and washing begins. I use a small stiff denture brush (available at Wal-Mart) to work on the nooks and crannies of the plastics. One of my wife's discarded dish rags is used (an old turkish towel cut into smaller sections or a sponge will be OK) to clean the flat surfaces and the cords. The black soft plastic cases may react to the hot water and look a bit "milky" when removed from the bucket. That's OK, the milkiness disappears when drying. When all the scrubbing and cleaning is complete, rinse the pieces and put aside to dry -- OK to put black items in the open sun, but the colors are subject to fading, so they should be kept inside to dry. In cold weather, I will place the plastics over the heat registers in the floor of my home. [HINT: be sure to retrieve all the small parts from the bucket, before emptying the water. You do not want to let one of those black plungers or acetate discs be thrown out with the dirty water.]

For the cords, I wrap the dish rag around one end, gripping it tightly with one hand and use the other hand to pull the cord through the rag to remove any collected gunk and grime. For coiled cords, it is a challenge to pull the cord through keeping it straight in the hand gripping it tightly. This takes patience, but you will succeed. Once I have done this at least twice (once from each direction) I twist the cord to return it to its original shape and hang it over a sawhorse (or banister rail) to dry. [NOTE: I understand the early, fat, modular Trimline cords should not be immersed in water due to the design of their large modular plugs.]

For the G1 bakelite handsets, I buff them on a buffing wheel with brown "tripoli" polish applied to the wheel. Bakelite is pretty sturdy stuff, so you need not worry about "melting" it. Once I have buffed it, I apply a thin coat of black shoe polish and then hand buff that to a shiny finish. Simichrome® polish or Avon's Skin So Soft cream can also be used with good results on bakelite, but I find black shoe polish does just as well and restores a bit of color to the handset, too. [E1 and F1 handsets can also be rehabbed this way.]

Now back to the plastics. Once they have dried, inspect them closely for scratches, gouges or other imperfections. I use auto body wet/dry sandpaper to remove scratches and gouges. Depending on the depth of scratches or gouges, I use 220 grit or 400 grit to start. USE LOTS OF WATER WITH THIS PROCESS -- I dip the sandpaper in water about every 8-10 stokes -- keeping the plastic and the sandpaper wet at all times. Once all scratches and gouges have been removed, use 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper to finish. [The coarser grit is used to remove the deep scratches and gouges -- the finer grit is used to smoothen the surface for polishing.] Now these ugly, dull plastics are tackled with auto POLISHING compound -- not RUBBING compound. There is a mild abrasive in this product which continues to smoothen the surface. I then follow with Novus #2. Novus #2 restores a nice shine to the plastics. I continue to use it in repeated applications until I can see a clear refection of the fluorescent light fixture over my workbench in the plastic handset or case.

All of this takes time and lots of elbow grease. But the finished product makes it worth the effort. Early soft plastic cases of the 302 series and the other 500 series sets will respond well to this process. The later hard plastic 500, Princess and Trimline sets and G3 and later handsets can also be brought back from near oblivion with this process. I have found that hard plastic is a bit more difficult to work with, but good results can be obtained nonetheless. I do not use a buffing wheel on plastics. Some people do, but I prefer not to risk the melting that could occur.

Now, what about the glaze on the suede leather feet on these 302 and early 500 sets? Little has been published about this condition. Someone mentioned to me last Fall that Avon's Skin So Soft (SSS) cream would be a good product. In early January, I began the task of using that cream and find that it produces good results -- again depending on the condition of the feet when starting. We have all seen how gunk, grease and grime can build up on these feet over the many years these sets have been in use. I use just a dab of the SSS cream to soften the gunk on the feet. After letting the cream sit for about 5 minutes, I use a knife blade held vertically to scrape gently the gunk from the feet. Do this carefully, applying minimal pressure to the blade so that you do not cut the leather. Most feet will require repeated applications and scraping. After removing the glazed gunk, apply a final dab of SSS and buff with a suede leather brush. For feet only minimally soiled you may find that you need fewer scrapings or only the buffing step. [A suede leather brush has brass bristles which are softer than steel bristles on wire wheels and will not tear the leather. They can be purchased at most any shoe repair shop or department or shoe store.] Let the feet dry overnight before replacing the set in your collection.

This is my method of restoring these sets. There are probably several other methods that can be used with equal (or maybe) better results. But this is what works for me.